New Labour: don't vote for class enemies / First published in FRFI 135 Feb/Mar 1997

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First published in Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No. 135, February/March 1997

by Robert Clough

Within three months there will be a general election. The electorate is going to be asked to vote Labour to get rid of the Tories. But can there be any real argument for voting for Tony Blair and what even The Observer describes as Labour's `uncritical support for the free market and social authoritarianism'? Some argue that New Labour's positions are merely an attempt to win extra votes, and that if Labour becomes the next government, it will inevitably adopt more socialist policies. The opposite is true. Labour's policies express Labour's class standpoint middle class privilege and arrogance. New Labour's purpose is to protect capital and the interests of the affluent minority. ROBERT CLOUGH argues a vote for Labour is a vote against the interests of the mass of the working class.

Whilst at certain times capitalism can rule with a facade of consent, at other times, in periods of crisis for instance, it has to resort to brutality to defend its interests. This is what is happening today. Tony Blair and New Labour are gearing up to run the British state. Their support for `social authoritarianism' is both a recognition of what they will have to do when they come to office and an expression of their willingness to do it. Hence Blair's `zero tolerance' for the homeless is not an idle threat, let alone an isolated one. With 13 law and order bills before the current parliament, New Labour is openly collaborating with the Tories in establishing a police state.

Yet there are still those on the left who prevaricate on whether or not they will support the election of a New Labour government. The most notable example is the SWP, whose placards carrying the slogan 'Tony Blair whose side are you on?' earned them a stinging rebuke from Arthur Scargill if you don't know now, you never will. This is also true of Paul Foot when he complained in his Guardian column recently that 'the more New Labour makes concessions to Tory barbarism, the more barbarous the Tories will become'. Jack Straw needs no lessons on the subject from Michael Howard, nor Tony Blair from John Major: their barbarism is entirely homegrown because it arises from their class standpoint. It is impossible to offer any support, however qualified, for New Labour, and remain a socialist at the same time.

NEW LABOUR AND THE POLICE BILL

The provisions of the Police Bill provide an indication of how few rights will remain to us if the Tories and New Labour have their way. It establishes a National Crime Squad, and puts the National Criminal Intelligence Service on a statutory footing. It gives police the right to bug and burgle whomsoever they please. It will allow employers to demand criminal record certificates from prospective employees. The fact that New Labour now seeks to amend some of the bugging and burgling provisions should not blind us to the fact that they were originally in favour of them, and vehemently so.

It is clause 89 of the Police Bill that gives chief constables or their deputies powers to issue warrants to bug and enter private property, homes and offices and remove any material they choose in pursuit of 'serious crime'. The definition of 'serious crime' is extremely broad. It includes offences where an individual may expect a sentence of three years or more on first conviction, or those 'involving a large number of persons involved in pursuit of a common purpose'. This would of course include road protesters or anyone involved in organising a collective protest of any description. The powers allow the police to issue warrants when they think it likely to be of 'serious value in the prevention or detection of serious crime'. Hence they would not be limited just to bugging and burgling property belonging to those they suspect of serious criminal activity they could also bug and burgle their lawyers' property, or any journalist covering say a collective protest.

The Police Bill destroys the liberal idea that 'an Englishman's home is his castle'. With the recent attack on the right to silence by the Criminal Justice Act, two fundamental democratic rights have been destroyed. Yet New Labour, having reneged on the right to silence, initially expressed enthusiastic support for clause 89. Only under pressure from a front which included judges, SDP and Liberal peers, the Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph and The Times, who all attacked these new powers, did Jack Straw back down. Until then, he had argued that the police have been doing all these things illegally since the passage of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. Never mind the fact that the Home Office guidance issued at that time was far more restrictive than those proposed in the current bill. Never mind that Labour never raised the issue of this illegality. Never mind the fact that the powers given to the police are even wider than those given to MI5 under the 1996 Security Services Act these poor unfortunates, theoretically at least, have to get the Home Secretary's permission before they can do their bugging and burgling.

However, the climbdown is over detail and not of substance. Instead of chief constables authorising warrants, Straw proposes six commissioners who would be High Court judges. Given that there are some 2,000 police bugging operations each year, the attention six people could pay to the purposes of these covert operations when they authorise them will be minimal, even if they were inclined to. At present, a normal warrant to enter and search premises can be obtained from one of 540 circuit judges; there are 96 High Court judges. By restricting the numbers who can authorise undercover activities Straw is ensuring that control will be nominal, and that the totalitarian substance will remain. In any case, Labour's amendments would still allow chief constables to authorise bugging and burgling in 'urgent' cases provided they get consent 'as soon as reasonably practicable' afterwards. The consequences are obvious: every case will be 'urgent', and the police will have carte blanche to do what they have been doing unofficially for many years.

Straw has also been forced to put forward an alternative to the definition of criminal activity that the Bill contains: bugging operations should only be allowed against 'criminal conduct by a large number of people in pursuit of an illegal activity.' Yet what is now not an illegal activity thanks to seven antitrade union laws (supported by New Labour) or the attacks on squatting, raves and direct action contained in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (also supported by New Labour)?

CRIMINAL RECORD CERTIFICATES

Clause 5 of the Police Bill creates a system of criminal record certificates which employers can ask prospective workers to provide before offering them employment. Each certificate lasts three months, and will cost about £10 each and will spell out all unspent convictions. It is expected that some eight million people will have to apply for such certificates each year. Given that 34 per cent of all males under 30 have a criminal record of some kind, the potential for discrimination will be enormous.

Such a system will be particularly effective against socialists or other radical activists, many of whom will have convictions associated with protest activity, and who might be expected to be 'troublesome' trade unionists. Yet there has not been a peep of opposition from New Labour on this measure, despite the fact that the clause will require the unemployed to spend up to £40 each year in their search for work. However, we have returned to a Victorian era where the poor are divided into the deserving and undeserving, and anyone who has a criminal record, whatever its character, is clearly undeserving.

ZERO TOLERANCE FOR THE POOR AND HOMELESS

It is not just the proposals and policies that are oppressive, it is the language that they are dressed up in as well. It requires a thuggish arrogance to attack the homeless in the pages of The Big Issue: Blair did so without turning a strand of his neatly coiffeured hair. 'You wouldn't say it is satisfactory to leave them where they are', he replied when asked if he agreed with clearing beggars off the street. But surely it is not satisfactory to have people arrested for begging he was asked? 'Of course, unless they're doing something problematic for other people. I often drop my kids off at Kings Cross for them to take the tube and it is actually quite a frightening place for people'. Frightening for whom? For the middle class running some imaginary gauntlet as they send their children to their grantmaintained schools? Or frightening for the homeless, the children fleeing abuse at home only to fall into the clutches of pimps and drug pushers, or the mentally ill kicked out of hospital and dependent on the fiction of community care?

In this context, his response to the suggestion that a big problem is homeless people getting attacked by members of the public, not the other way around, is breathtaking in its duplicity: 'Obviously some people will interpret this in a way which is harsh and unpleasant, but I think the basic principle here is to say: yes, it is right to be intolerant of people homeless on the streets.' We would say that those 'some' people are absolutely right. Blair is just continuing down the path mapped out by Jack Straw in his attack on 'aggressive beggars, winos and squeegee merchants'.

MAXIMUM TOLERANCE FOR THE RICH

Blair's intolerance for the poor does not extend to the rich, however. He has now confirmed that a Labour government will not raise the 40 per cent top rate of tax, not even for those earning £100,000 or more as some had suggested. Gordon Brown has gone a step further: there will be no increase in such tax rates during the entire lifetime of the next Labour government, and he has also confirmed he supports the Tories' spending plans for the next two years. Yet the gain from tax handouts that such people have received under the Tories amounts to £43,000 per annum.

The richest one per cent of the population now owns 17 per cent of private wealth, receiving an average £37,960pa in unearned income on top of their salaries. Meanwhile two million children are undernourished, whilst the backlog of repairs on the 3.7 million houses remaining in council ownership amounts to £10.5 billion. The poorest 50 per cent of the population owns just 7 per cent of private wealth; the poorest 10 per cent have seen a fall in weekly income of £13 over the last 20 years.

The social reality that these figures express explains why New Labour is supporting every move to strengthen state power: sooner or later the well of underlying resentment will explode into open rebellion. Do not suppose that a Labour government will hesitate to unleash the forces of oppression whose buildup it has so diligently supported over the past few years.