Chris Harman


New Labour pains

(Autumn 2008)

From International Socialism, No. 120, Autumn 2008.
Copyright © 2008 International Socialism.
Downloaded with thanks from the International Socialism Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

“The smell of death around this government is so overpowering it seems to have anaesthetised them all … The imaginary Blair/Brown ideological distinction has now been exposed as the sham it always was … The sad truth is that he [Brown] opposed Blair, not Blair policies … Unseating a prime minister is very high risk – but a dying party should be ready to take dangerous medicine if that’s the last chance left”. [1]

It is a sign of the depth of New Labour’s crisis that such things are written by Polly Toynbee, a social democrat so opposed to real radicalism that she joined the SDP split from Labour 25 years ago and then went on to enthuse first for Tony Blair and then, until just a year ago, for Brown.

New Labour’s sickness is not, of course, new. Writing quarterly comment on its condition over the past three years has been like writing sick notes for a patient with a near incurable illness. Fifteen months ago the Brown medicine promised recovery from the Blair disease. Now that medicine is blamed for a greatly worsened condition. The problem is not Brown’s personality. It is that New Labour, faced with the double crisis, has neither the desire nor the capacity to relate to the section of the working class that has constituted its voting base.

Brown’s wing of New Labour claims to be able to relate to its traditional support among the manual working class because of Brown’s ability to share a pint of beer with union leaders. Yet his spell as chancellor saw the destruction of a third of the remaining jobs in manufacturing industry and, in the past three years, a decline in manual workers’ living standards (see box 1: The decline in working class incomes). The Blair wing, with its would-be kingmaker Charles Clarke and its new pretender David Miliband, claims to appeal to “middle England”. But a big section of those on or a little above the median income are white-collared, salaried workers alienated from New Labour by its encouragement of marketisation, job testing, targets, privatisation and managerial bullying, with the added ingredient of a public sector pay norm half the official level of inflation. It is hardly surprising that the four million decline in New Labour’s vote between 1997 and 2005 is now turning into a collapse, as shown in recent by-elections and opinion polls (see box 2: The decline in working class votes).

The immediate beneficiaries in England are the Tories. But that, as we have emphasised before, does not signify a great popular swing to the right. The Tories have had to position themselves to the left of their old policies in order to pick up support and, significantly, in Scotland it has been the SNP that has gained from Labour. It has been able to do so by picking up some of the social democratic policies that New Labour has abandoned. The devolved Scottish government has gained working class popularity with real, although minor, reforms, while leaving it to the New Labour British government to implement the unpopular policies needed to keep capital happy. Nonetheless, the fact that the Tories are gaining support does have important political implications. It further demoralises activists who have looked to Labour in the past, creating a sense of hopelessness.

Such developments will necessarily lead to counter-developments. New Labour’s disastrous performance is increasing a widespread sense among those who regard themselves as on the left that there is even less to be gained from relying on it than in the past. This has been very marked at trade union conferences, including September’s TUC conference. Speeches critical of the government were the norm. Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of Unite, Britain’s biggest union, was derisive about New Labour’s refusal to put a windfall tax on energy companies to deal with fuel poverty: “This can’t be addressed by lagging the loft as some crackpots around the prime minister want us to consider. Without help with fuel bills now, we’ll be lagging the coffins of the elderly if we have a cold winter”. [2] His union voted for a resolution from the rail workers’ and seafarers’ RMT for nationalisation of the utilities.

But bitter criticism of New Labour is not the same as a clear political and ideological alternative to it. The same delegates who voted for left wing resolutions deeply critical of the government listened politely to Alistair Darling when he spoke. The leaders of the biggest unions still take it for granted that they fund New Labour. And when it came to a vote on an amendment that would have committed the TUC to organising united industrial action over pay, the Unite delegation voted for it on a show of hands but then abstained when it came to the decisive card vote, ensuring the resolution was defeated.

It was left to unions not affiliated to Labour, the civil servants’ PCS, the RMT, the firefighters’ FBU, and the journalists’ NUJ, to launch a more radical Trade Union Coordinating Group, convened by left Labour MP John McDonnell. It indicated that its support for MPs would go to those who endorse union demands, which would mean a few of the Labour ones but also some in parties like the SNP and the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru.

Each time in the past century, when there has been a crisis of Labourism, political forces have emerged that have attempted to provide a focus – the Independent Labour Party on the one hand and supporters of Stafford Cripps on the other in the early 1930s, the supporters of Aneurin Bevan in the early 1950s and those of Tony Benn in the early 1980s. Today it is difficult to see such forces emerging as they did in the past from within the confines of Labour.

McDonnell is now virtually alone on the Labour parliamentary left in pushing for a political alternative to New Labour. He failed to get sufficient nominations from other MPs even to stand in last year’s leadership election and indicated at a TUC fringe meeting that he does not see any possibility of an alternative emerging before the general election – which will probably not be for another 18 months. As for what happens after that, his expectations are pessimistic. He says a viable socialist electoral alternative must fulfil three criteria: it must be democratic so that socialists are allowed to organise in it, it must get support from working class people, and it must be broad enough to attract enough votes to gain a substantial parliamentary presence in the British “first past the post” system. Labour, he argues, hardly fulfils the first criterion. But a party with clear socialist policies would not fulfil his third. McDonnell makes the point that even in proportional representation elections the dice is strongly loaded in favour of the existing parties. His implication is that electoral activity outside the Labour Party is not going to get very far in the foreseeable future.

A little to the right of McDonnell are John Cruddas, who did manage to get enough nominations to stand for Labour deputy leader last year, and the Compass group. They make lots of noises about New Labour having cut itself off from the working class, and they got some publicity with a petition signed by about 100 MPs calling for a windfall tax. But they define themselves as “centre-left” (Cruddas even voted for the Iraq war) and they do not pose anything like a clear public alternative. Their limited impact was shown by the dismal support for their fringe meeting at the TUC.

In all these respects things are very different from the fag end of the last Labour government in the late 1970s when Tony Benn, although a willing prisoner within the government, did provide a limited focus for activists outside. This time there is a clear vacuum on the left with a great deal of discontent looking for a focus that does not yet exist. We were involved in trying to provide such a focus, through Respect and then the Left List in England and Wales, and the Scottish Socialist Party and then Solidarity in Scotland. These attempts were absolutely justified. Nevertheless, we have to be honest and accept that our very poor election results in May show we cannot provide a sufficiently prominent focus for the time being.

The political vacuum will not remain empty indefinitely. The widespread feeling that there is no political representation for the working class will find expression at some point. A smattering of former Labour activists are standing and winning council seats as independents to the left of Labour – for instance in Barrow, where the Barrow Socialist People’s Party has four seats. But such local moves are a very long way from congealing into a national force as has happened, for instance, in Germany (see Alex Callinicos’s article in this issue). Activists who worked with Respect and then the Left List have a role to play in encouraging the networks that can help promote such a focus. But we have to recognise that we are very unlikely to achieve it in the near future.

The electoral path has never been the only one for socialists – and for revolutionary socialists it has never been the most important one. In the current situation it is important to grasp this. Struggles will arise over wages, housing, fuel poverty, the health service, and against racism and war. Inevitably many of these will break out when people least expect them. There cannot be a single plan, drawn up in advance, on how to react. What will matter will be the capacity to respond pragmatically to movements and struggles that suddenly arise locally or nationally – and to try to draw them together into single strand of resistance with an anti-capitalist consciousness.

One central issue in the short and medium term is going to be pay. This has already caused a small but significant increase in the level of industrial struggle. Strike figures have been rising for the past two years, even if they are nowhere near the level of the 1970s, and a survey of 450 firms shows that “a quarter have been hit by strikes over the past 12 months”. [3] The government was finding the second year of its 2 percent public sector pay limit more difficult than the first, even before the recent upsurge in food and energy prices. The civil service workers’ PCS and the teachers’ NUT are balloting for further industrial action this autumn, and the strategy of the left in the two unions is to unite their actions so as to give real force to a successful TUC resolution for a national demonstration and days of action. Meanwhile, the capacity of pay to be a catalyst for action in parts of the private sector has been shown by a succession of strikes – and big picket lines – among bus workers in London.

Box 1: The decline in working class incomes

“Between 2004–5 and 2006–7 incomes fell for the poorest third of households, including skilled manual workers, unskilled workers and the out of work poor,” according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. “Even in the middle of the income distribution spectrum, income growth has been agonisingly weak since 2001. Having grown by 15 percent more than inflation between 1996–7 and 2001–2, the income of the median household grew by only 4 percent in the five years between 2001–2 and 2006–7, the most recent year of data.”

What is left to spend after essential bills have been paid has been even harder hit. According to a uSwitch survey,

“The typical household in Britain has seen disposable income drop by 15 percent … Disposable income now represents 28 percent of average household income, down from 35 percent a year ago.”

Gas prices have risen by 28 percent, electricity 20 percent, petrol 28 percent, and food and drink 25 percent. The average family is also spending 6 percent more on mortgage repayments as a result of higher interest rates. This was equivalent to a fall of about £40 a week for a working couple on the median income. Those living in traditional working class areas have been hardest hit. “People living in Newcastle are spending 77 percent of their net income on bills – far more than the 35 percent spent by those in Surrey or Buckinghamshire.”

Box 2: The decline in working class votes

In 1997 Labour had a 37 points lead over the Tories among semi-skilled and unskilled workers – the opinion pollsters’ “D” and “E” groups. By 2005 the lead had fallen to 12 points; in June this year it was a statistically insignificant one point according to Populus.

The “C2” group voted Labour by two to one in 1997. The Tories now have a seven point lead. This group is usually described as “skilled workers”, although it includes foremen and the manual self employed.

Two other groups were important in the Labour election victories over the past 11 years: routine white collar workers (“C1”) and the salaried workers classified as “professional” in the “A” and “B” groups. Historically most members of these groups thought of themselves as middle class, with more than half voting Tory. For instance, a majority of teachers voted Tory in 1979 and only 35 percent voted Labour. But in 1997 60 percent voted Labour and only 20 percent Tory. Labour has now lost out among these groups as well, without, however, the Tories regaining their traditionally massive lead.


1. Polly Toynbee, Unseating Gordon Brown May Be Labour’s Last Chance, Guardian, 6 September 2008.

2. Quoted in the Financial Times, 10 September 2008.

3. Pay Policy Sees Strikes Increasing, Financial Times, 15 September 2008.

Last updated on 1.12.2011