1. End of the Tory government



In 1995 the Tories could not escape electoral nemesis – the legacy of the 1992 European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) disaster – and they were aware of this. The Observer reported from their 1995 conference: “Whenever two or three middle ranking ministers were gathered together the talk was of… what alternative employment they were each going to have in the years ad (after defeat).”1 Yet Blair and the Labour leadership drove even further towards the right, shamelessly stealing the ideas and garb of Tory Prime Minister Major. The latter, in his evidence to the 2011 Leveson inquiry into press ethics, said he was not surprised that the Sun switched its support to Labour in 1997. He said he used to joke: “I went swimming in the Thames, left my clothes on the bank and when I came back Mr Blair was wearing them.”2

As is our custom we began 1995 with a brief analysis of what was likely to face us, the working class and the labour movement in the forthcoming year. We wrote: “The Tories ended 1994 with massive splits and three massive defeats – by the signal workers, over Post Office privatisation and on vat on fuel.”3 The Scott inquiry into the scandal of arms sales to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was likely to force further ministerial resignations. We speculated that, because of the volatile situation, an early general election could not be ruled out. However, due to the ineptitude of the Labour and trade union leaders, the government staggered on till 1997.

The social and industrial situation in Britain in this period contrasted with the sharp clashes affecting most European countries, particularly France and Italy. But we predicted that there were bound to be similar conflicts in Britain at a certain stage – 137 disputes had recently taken place within the Post Office alone. Yet it was precisely at this moment that the Labour leadership began the process of abandoning the party’s historic aim of socialism, making fervent efforts to try and break the trade union link.

The issue of council cuts was a big issue then as now. Hundreds of thousands of local authority employees were battling to defend their jobs and conditions and to protect vital frontline services. Action by Newcastle teachers and council staff took place in February, while 3,000 people marched through Oxford in protest at the Tory-controlled county council’s proposal for cuts. Mass meetings of over 2,000 council workers voted to reject the three-year pay freeze as part of a £20 million cuts package. Emulating what rightwing Labour councillors are doing today, Strathclyde Labour Council leader Robert Gould was challenged by local unions about what his group’s political strategy was to solve the council’s £107 million underfunding crisis. His comments were worthy of New Labour’s response later: “We don’t have a political strategy. We are an administration.”4 New Labour councillors merely act as a transmission mechanism for passing on Tory cuts!

However, the lessons of Liverpool’s victory over Thatcher’s attempts to inflict cuts in 1984 were still fresh in the memories of workers and the labour movement, despite the rapid shift towards the right that was taking place at the summits of the movement. We contrasted the capitulation of the right wing with the idea which formed the basis of the struggle of Liverpool: the adoption of a ‘needs budget’ to be fought for by mass mobilisations. If anything, the overall position facing councils was far worse in 1995 than it was ten years previously in Liverpool and elsewhere – and even worse in 2017. The Tory government’s theft of over £1.5 billion from local council budgets was beginning to provoke rebellion, not seen in many areas since the demonstrations against the poll tax. The threats to teachers alone – it was expected that 10,000 teaching jobs would go – put pressure on even the timid leadership of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) to agree to a day of action the following March. This in turn ratcheted up the pressure on the local government union Unison.

The brewing mass opposition to the Major government widened the split within the Tory party. The economic upswing which British capitalism was experiencing resulted from the unexpected eviction from the ERM and the forced devaluation of sterling on Black Wednesday, 16 September 1992. Even the Tory supporting Daily Telegraph, through its columnist Peregrine Worsthorne, exclaimed: “The feeling of depression that would sink over the country if the Tories won again is inconceivable. I think we’re in a bit of a 1945 position when the country’s made up its mind that it’s time for a change. I think there will be a very, very big swing to Labour next time.”5 The massive groundswell against the Tories had nothing to do with the policies of the Labour leadership. Dissatisfaction with the government stood at 80%, a record high and Major’s approval rating plummeted to 15%. But there was no one else in the Tory leadership capable of doing any better. While there was undoubtedly economic growth, its benefits were spread unevenly as the rich skimmed off the cream from the ‘boom’ while the real wages of the poorest actually fell.

The general dissatisfaction was reflected in the local elections in England and Wales on 4 May 1995. They were a catastrophe for the Tories. This followed the humiliation in the Scottish local elections with the Tories failing to win control of a single council, becoming the fourth party after Labour, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Liberal Democrats. In the elections in England and Wales the Tories received only 25% of the vote, their lowest ever in a national election. In their previous worst local council performance in 1981, the Tories polled 38% in the middle of a recession. In 1990, at the height of the poll tax struggle, they registered just 32%. There was speculation that they were going the way of the Tories in Canada where they had been reduced to just two MPs in the 1993 general election.

Consequently Tory candidates found novel ways to differentiate themselves from the national party. One greeted people with the opening line: “Hello I’m the sad bastard standing as your local Conservative candidate”! This was the only way he could stop the door being immediately slammed in his face. In the Manchester area, one hapless Tory argued on his campaign leaflets that, if a voter was depressed and lonely, they should start thinking what it was like to be a Tory candidate! Yet the elections were not an endorsement of Labour, attracting a very low turnout of only 30%. Disillusioned Tories did not vote but neither did huge numbers of the working class in Labour’s traditional heartlands who had suffered cuts at the hands of local Labour councils carrying out the Tory government’s programme. At least 20 Labour groups were ‘power sharing’ with the Liberal Democrats, even though this was prohibited under the party’s constitution at that stage. Many Lib Dems ruled out sharing power on a national scale – something which the right wing of Labour was raising even then – because Blair’s Labour Party was too right wing for them! On the other hand, psephologist Antony King commented: “The Tories aren’t in a hole. They are in an enormous bomb crater. Devastation is all around.”6

The growing anti-Tory mood was not restricted to elections. In June 1995 riots erupted in the Manningham area of Bradford. They were prompted by racism, police harassment and the searing social issues scarring inner-city areas, in particular unemployment and desperate housing conditions. At the same time local people were adamant these were not ‘race riots’. It was certainly not ‘anti-white’. The authorities were taken aback because, up to this time, Asian youth were seen as far more placid than young whites or African- Caribbeans. Yet people in Manningham were angry and determined to find a solution to the growing social problems in their area.

Reflecting the pressures from below, a gaping chasm opened up within the Tory Cabinet. Major’s description of the Thatcherites –  Michael Portillo, Peter Lilley, Michael Howard and John Redwood – as ‘bastards’ and their heroine, Thatcher, as “the grandmother of all bastards” was widely disseminated. They reciprocated by dismissing Major as a “wimp”. Sixty backbench eurosceptics ridiculed him to his face at a meeting in the House of Commons just a few days before he resigned as party leader and stood for re-election. ‘Nice guy, but a loser,’ was the only ‘praise’ Major received from the Tory right. Major’s gamble that his resignation would force his opponents to shut up rather than put up failed as the right-winger Redwood challenged him. We commented: “British capitalism still ruled over one-quarter of humanity 40 years ago. Its loss of ‘Empire’, together with its rapid economic decline, has left it as a minor player on the world and European stage. The evident weakness of the Major government… shows the decline of British capitalism.”

Even then, almost 30% of the population no longer had an income from a job. Part-time working was taking root. The introduction of new technology should theoretically open up the opportunity, on the basis of the same economic and political system, to cut down the working week. However, more and more workers were becoming industrial helots as the bosses attempted to squeeze more from their labour, thereby increasing profits. Thirty-four million were unemployed in the advanced industrial countries, but more than 800 million were unemployed or underemployed in the capitalist world as a whole. In a prophetic warning we stated: “At the same time the piling up of debt, particularly of government debt, as a consequence of the profligacy of the 1980s, means that the capitalists will have to rein back on public expenditure or risk another inflationary spiral.”

The general decay of world capitalism was aggravated in Britain with the frightening collapse of manufacturing industry – then down to less than 20% of GDP and employing just four million workers. We pointed out: “Capitalism will never be able to unify Europe, but the divisions over this issue [would] continue to divide the Tory party whether Major wins or loses… a general election.” Heseltine was touted as a successor to Major, and we commented: “Heseltine… with that mixture of ruthless right-wing demagogy and brutal class hatred shown against the miners in October 1992, would do everything, including ‘mortgaging the future’ in an attempt to at least limit the scale of a Tory defeat.”7