Ten years of Labour abuse of power

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‘We cannot suffer any longer the arrogance of power unchecked...Increasingly it [the government] is exhibiting not just a conviction of its own capacity to govern well... but an assumption of some divine right to rule, which is dangerous...’

Tony Blair on the Thatcher government, December 1987, The Times

‘Hand on heart, I did what I thought was right...This country is a blessed nation. The British are special. The world knows it. In our innermost thoughts we know it. This is the greatest nation on earth.’
Tony Blair, resignation speech, 10 May 2007

With a valedictory assertion of British superiority, Tony Blair resigned as Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party after ten years in power. His long awaited departure has created a ripple on the surface of what passes for political debate in 21st century Britain. Labour’s supporters hope that where Blair is judged to have failed, Gordon Brown, his successor, will alter Labour’s course. In particular the Labour Left and the trade union leadership hope that Blair’s departure will allow some fine tuning towards ‘Old Labour’ and some restoration of Labour’s socialist credentials. The concentration on the personalities and peccadilloes of Labour’s leading men is, as usual, wholly misleading. In reality the class forces that brought Labour to government on 2 May 1997 will still be there on 28 June 2007, when the new leader takes over. Those class forces exclude the working class and are implacably opposed to socialism.

The Labour government came to power in 1997 pledging to modernise the welfare state, govern in the interests of ‘all our people’, create a dynamic economy in partnership with business and clean up politics. In every respect it has failed to meet the interests of the working class.

Large sums have indeed been poured into the NHS and education, but for Blair modernisation meant privatisation. The trebling of the NHS budget from £34 billion in 1997 to £94 billion has been concentrated on the creation of rich ‘Foundation Hospitals’, PFI initiatives and higher salaries for GPs and consultants at the expense of community-level provision which meets the needs of working class people, in particular the young and the old.

‘Good’ schools are oversubscribed by the middle classes who move mountains (and their homes) to ensure that their children get the places. Private schools are flourishing. Neighbourhood schools in working class areas provide a sub-standard education. Literacy and numeracy levels are not rising at the predicted rate, and Labour’s solution of more tests and exams for children is failing. Private control of schools under the auspices of religion or business ethics – in the shape of ‘academies’ – is their remaining hope for disciplining working class children. Whatever is offered to working class children, it will be cheap.

In October 1997 FRFI wrote:

‘the politics of New Labour have become a form of populist totalitarianism. As Larry Elliot puts it in The Guardian, having decided that it will not regulate the markets (“the role of governments is not to command but to facilitate” – Blair) New Labour “will regulate the people instead, imposing a panoply of social controls to ensure that the problems caused by uncontrollable unregulated economy – crime, juvenile delinquency, family breakdown – don’t threaten the comfortable lifestyles of its new middle class constituency”. Blair has written that “the breakdown of family and community bonds is intimately linked to the breakdown in law and order. Both family and community rely on notions of mutual respect and duty”. Adding that “the values of a decent society are in many ways the value of the family unit, which is why helping to re-establish good family and community life should be a central object of government policy”.’

Those who thought that this meant a more enlightened government were wrong. In every respect we were right. The focus of Labour’s social policy has been the disciplining and control of the working class. Those who do not conform are subject to a panoply of laws and regulations. Working class children are named and shamed by Anti-Social Behaviour Orders; their parents are subject to ‘Parenting Orders’; everywhere there are cameras to ensure ‘good’ behaviour. The prisons are overflowing and another expansion of police powers is in the pipeline. Historic and vital civil rights have disappeared under Labour: the right to silence, the assumption of innocence until proven guilty. This Labour government is ensuring that ‘justice’ for working class people is rationed. More and more offences are subject to strict liability and instant fines. The Legal Aid budget is being chopped, the availability of affordable legal advice dismantled and, yet again, habeas corpus is under attack.

The economic counterpart to the social disciplining of the working class is a flexible labour market: freedom for the market is matched by social control for the working class. Opposing any improvement in trade union rights in 1997, Blair announced: ‘Flexible labour markets are an important and permanent feature in raising efficiency and ultimately living standards.’ Within days of coming to power the Bank of England was granted control of interest rates. Ten years later and British workers have the lowest wages, the longest hours and the least union membership in Europe. British capital has greedily consumed cheap labour from the new eastern European members of the EU and the minimum wage is set at a level which ensures that low-waged families have to rely on tax credits – a subsidy for the capitalists. Welfare benefits have been pared down to the minimum and 27% of children in Britain still live in poverty; Britain has fallen from 15th place to 18th in the human development index. At the other end of the scale, the rich have become immeasurably richer.

Even the promise to clean up British politics has ended in an inevitable black hole of corruption. Constitutional reform of the House of Lords ended up with the Labour Party mired in a cash and loans for peerages scandal as it attempted to supplement its lavish spending.

Whatever repression Labour has designed for the British working class has been multiplied again and again in its treatment of immigrants and the working class internationally. The racism which underpins British imperialism means that asylum seekers who come to Britain are subject to the harshest treatment. They are now denied the right to work, medical treatment or shelter. At the end of the road, destitution, dawn raids and the taking of their children into care are intended to force them to leave the country ‘voluntarily’. In response to the desperate gangster culture that kills young black people in Britain’s cities, Blair blames their parents and their communities. Muslim communities are similarly called on to put a stop to ‘terrorism’. In the ratcheting up of police powers, Labour is now threatening to repeal parts of the Human Rights Act that enshrine the right to a fair trial. This Labour Party has no socialist principles.

In his resignation speech Blair opined that ‘decision-making is hard’. With a great deal of soulful angst he tried to disguise the advance planning, manoeuvring, cold calculation and immense conniving, lying and false propaganda that lay behind Britain’s armed interventions and wars: 1999 Serbia and Kosovo; 2000 Sierra Leone; 2001 Afghanistan; 2003 Iraq. Even the ‘presidential’ first ladies, Laura Bush and Cherie Blair, cynically called on the US/British war machines to ‘liberate’ Afghani and Iraqi women from oppression. Thousands of civilians have died and are still dying as a result. These wars were the hallmarks of Labour’s ‘ethical’ foreign policy, alongside the renewal of Trident and a burgeoning arms industry which has exported deadly weapons to every tyrannical regime in the world.

This reactionary legacy is the backdrop to Blair’s resignation and Brown’s assumption of power. The Parliamentary Labour Party has ensured that there will not even be an election by party members and trade unions – thereby ruling out the candidacy of John McDonnell, the left’s main hope, who couldn’t even get enough nominations to stand. Assorted Labour ministers, who have served Blair loyally as the government turned the screw on the working class, are now scrabbling to gather a few shreds of credibility for the deputy leadership election.

Throughout the last ten years the opportunist left in Britain has collaborated with Labour. As Labour has moved inexorably to the right, and the trade union movement has collaborated in its own marginalisation, the petit bourgeois left has moved with them. All of these parties twist and turn to maintain a foothold in bourgeois politics – at various elections they have argued for a Vote for Labour; Vote for the Labour Left; Vote Socialist or Labour; Vote Socialist if you can, Labour if you must; and ultimately Vote Respect – George Galloway’s party which promises to restore ‘Old Labour’. To ensure the umbilical cord to the Labour Party is unbroken, left Labour MPs adorn the platforms of every radical left campaign, especially ‘Stop the War’, even though they are completely without influence in the Labour Party and simply maintain the fiction that it is possible to be a socialist and a Labour Party member. These forces are now pinning their hopes on the election of a left-leaning deputy leader.

There are movements across the world that oppose imperialism and stand up for the interests of working class people: in Venezuela and Cuba, in the growing movements across Latin America. There are oppressed people who are struggling for self-determination and social progress despite the barbaric opposition of imperialism and its puppets: in Palestine, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Africa. There are working class people in Britain who will fight against racism and oppression here. There is an urgent task for socialists in Britain to build support for this resistance and these movements. The Labour Party will oppose this, and the opportunist left will tailor its solidarity to suit Labour. That is why the precondition for a socialist movement in Britain is a complete break not just with Blair and Brown, but with the entire Labour Party.

Carol Brickley

FRFI 197 June / July 2007