3. Blair encourages the Tories



Blair lost no time in continuing his ideological counter-revolution following his victory on Clause iv by changing all policies which did not accord with a pro-capitalist agenda, even if he came into conflict with public opinion. Rail privatisation was opposed not just by the rail unions and the trade union and labour movement as a whole, but by voters. The Sunday Times – controlled by Murdoch– found that only 16% of voters supported rail privatisation. Even 48% of Tory voters were in opposition. Yet the New Labour leaders steadfastly refused to give an unequivocal commitment to renationalisation.

This only served to give confidence to the Major government in pressing ahead with privatisation. They calculated that if they could flog off the railways for £6 billion, this would be earmarked for a pre-election tax bribe. Lines and stations would be shut, with only one station in eight selling tickets to other parts of Britain. Will Hutton, then writing for the Guardian, pointed out that if there was a clear pledge to renationalise the railways, the “top investing institutions would then be faced with a no-win investment decision… because the risks of Labour being elected are so high, the risk would be very high indeed. The flotation might even fail.” However, Prescott, a signed up supporter of New Labour, said on BBC Radio: “Our commitment to public ownership will be tempered by the amount the Tories have privatised… Renationalisation, costing £4 billion is not on the agenda.” New Labour repeatedly refused to consider renationalisation of privatised industries.

Militant commented: “It is as if [New Labour is] giving the government the green light to rush through as much as possible.” Tory government ministers taunted Labour spokespeople about where they would get the money to take the railways back into public ownership. Embroiled as they were in rejecting Clause iv, they could not effectively answer this. We did: “It should not be a question of buying back the railways but renationalising them under workers’ control and management without giving the parasites a penny compensation.”1 This represented a certain hardening of our position. Our usual position was to concede compensation, but on the basis of proven need. However, given that the privatisation of the railways had not yet taken place, it was legitimate to warn those who intended to make big gains from the looting of public assets that they would receive no compensation in the event of renationalisation. Small investors would still be compensated, perhaps, particularly those who in ignorance bought shares in privatised industries, but we wished to make clear that the spivs and crooks in the City of London, gambling with public assets, deserved to lose by getting nothing!

Blair, in his autobiography, spelt out in detail how he used his victory on Clause iv to bolster his right-wing agenda: “No return to the old union laws; no renationalisation of privatised utilities; no raising of the top rate of tax; no unilateralism; no abolition of grammar schools… pro-Europe and pro-US… even-handedness between business and labour (employees might have additional individual rights, but not collective ones).”2 And Blair left nothing to chance. He was determined to push his pro-capitalist counter-revolution through to the end: “Between 1995 and 1997, even after Clause iv, I was in a perpetual motion of reassurance. The more the poll lead went up, the more I did it [shifted policy further to the right]. Members of the Shadow Cabinet would frequently say: Come on, enough, we are miles ahead… I would get hyper-anxious, determined not for a single instant to stop the modernising drive… Day in and day out, with the party’s reactionary elements [code for the left and the working class] as my foil, I would prove them wrong with a raft of modernising moves.”3 Blair was making clear to the bourgeoisie that he was no danger to them. In fact, he was the best representative they could possibly have at that stage, leading a nominal ‘Labour’ Party but with an agenda which was more right wing than at any time in its history.

To emphasise the point he decided to visit Murdoch, the owner of the Sun, in his lair in Australia. It would be more accurate to say that Blair went on a belly-crawling mission to this arch enemy of every worker who had gone on strike – miners, printers, local government workers – and those who come up against the system, such as the victims of the Hillsborough tragedy and their families. Even Blair’s advisers were against: “If I had told him I had a friend called Faust and he had cut this really great deal with some bloke called Satan, it couldn’t have gone down worse. I also knew Neil Kinnock would hate it and feel, understandably, betrayed… Not to go [to Murdoch] was to say carry on and do your worst, and we knew their worst was very bad indeed. No, you sat down to sup; or not. So we did.”4 This underlined our contention that if you accept the ‘market’ – capitalism – ultimately you have to accept everything which goes along with it, including the diktats of the likes of Murdoch and his seemingly all-powerful Sun and other media outlets. Blair, followed by Brown and Ed Miliband, could not envisage any course other than bowing the knee to capitalism.

The sense of betrayal felt by workers in particular, as well as the labour movement generally, was summed up in an open letter to Blair which appeared in the Militant. “Ten years ago, Murdoch was planning to smash genuine trade unionism on the four national newspapers he owned. The dispute, which began in January 1986, was more than a struggle for jobs… You may have forgotten the printworkers’ campaigns but have you forgotten the strike? If not, then why did you travel halfway around the world to address Murdoch’s top bosses?… Did you ever experience the brutality of the police as they attacked the sacked printers? Surely, at least, as a trained barrister, you remember the injunctions against strikers or the court’s sequestration of the print unions’ funds? So how dare you even consider Murdoch’s invitation. Is this part of New Labour’s approach?… Are you so naïve to believe, as you say in your speech to Murdoch’s chief henchmen and henchwomen, that Murdoch papers were ‘anti-establishment’? The national newspapers, including Murdoch’s five – he now owns Today – are all an essential part of the propaganda machine of big business. Anyhow, his editors do exactly as they are told. Way back in 1972 Murdoch made it clear how he intervenes in the independence of his editors.”5

Those who went along with this, who saw no other alternative for fear of further electoral failure, have to accept their responsibility. They did not have the courage to break out of the straitjacket of a right-wing party, appealing to the working class directly. This includes the trade union leaders and what remained of the left in the Labour Party. Before Blair seized the crown the left was already in disarray and decline. Blair was completely aware that some of the left spokespeople of the past, like Dennis Skinner, supported him, imprisoned as he was within a right-wing, pro-capitalist party. Blair wrote: “Dennis was one of my best (if somewhat closet) supporters. He didn’t agree with any of my policies, but he liked someone who whacked the Tories. Though I’m not sure he would thank me for saying so, he mellowed and became a nicer person.”6

Tony Benn was more outspoken in his opposition to Blair but he also refused to take to the open road, to mobilise the massive constituency that was there for an independent party. Moreover, it was not at all true that accommodating to right-wing forces – because that was what Blair was about – was the only road for electoral success in the 1990s. Benn himself faced defeat within the Labour Party at every stage, as he remarks in his diaries, which are very honest even, at times, unflattering to himself. At the Labour Party conference in 1994, after he was knocked off Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC), he wrote: “At the end of conference they played ‘The Red Flag’ in jazz time and people waved Union Jacks, just like demonstrators for the Queen. Another Mandelson gimmick. Just turns your stomach. There is a semi-fascist element in the Labour Party at the moment, a ‘hand over to international capitalism, wave your little Union Jack tendency’.”7 At his last NEC meeting, he quoted left reformist former MP Ian Mikardo: “He’d never known a bird that could fly only on its right wing. People laughed.”8

He also records a discussion with the 29-year-old David Miliband, already an adviser to Blair, revealing Benn’s opposition to the removal of Clause iv. Miliband replies: “I thought you would agree that we need wider objectives,” to which Benn said: “It is the de-gutting of the Labour Party… Nothing in the world will ever persuade me to accept a dynamic market economy. I just won’t accept it.” This conversation reveals the gulf between Miliband – totally shallow and without any real understanding of the labour movement – and someone like Benn who, despite his limitations, did reflect the socialist aspirations of the rank and file of the Labour Party in the past. Benn’s parting shot was to relate a discussion he had with a ticket collector on a train: “Mr Benn, I am a right-wing Callaghanite Labour man and I don’t identify with the new leadership of the Labour Party.” He gave some advice to Miliband: “I said to David the answer is that you have to keep Clause iv, and add others, as did Gaitskell.”9

The Liverpool Militants had shown how it was possible to counter the lies, distortions and misinformation of the capitalist press and media. Following the victory of 1983 the Liverpool media, particularly the local Liverpool Echo, was unremitting in its hostility to the council, carrying all kinds of false information. This even included a story that “the Pope was unhappy” with what was happening! Despite the press barrage, the local Labour Party – under the decisive influence of the ideas of Militant – won election after election. The highest Labour vote for many years in Liverpool Council elections was achieved in 1984. The poll tax struggle illuminated the same lessons. The press and the media – despite the misgivings about Thatcher’s policies – gave huge coverage to the propaganda in favour of the poll tax and virtually nothing to its opponents, particularly to the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation.10

Why should socialists be surprised by this? Throughout history, the ruling class has never hesitated to use their control of information to lie through their teeth and seek to destroy anyone who represents the slightest threat to their control over society and the means of production. They will always give support to the right within the labour movement in their struggle to shift the centre of gravity away from the left. The only way to push history forward is for the courageous minority to strike out on a different road, confident that the more advanced layers initially, and eventually the mass of the working class, will embrace an idea and organisation that represents progress for the majority.

With each passing month the Blairisation of New Labour continued unabated. An internal, leaked report for the Labour Party, ‘The Unfinished Revolution’, indicated that Blair and his supporters were not content just to change policy. They wanted to reconstruct the party from top to bottom in their own image. Appropriately, this report was written by a former adviser to both Neil Kinnock and US Democrat President Bill Clinton. It called for a “unitary command structure leading directly to the party leader”, and for “an integrated party sharing the same political integrity”. Militant commented: “In plain English, this means Tony Blair and his unelected clique of advisers decide and the rest of the party has no say.” Even Deputy Leader Prescott was not given a copy of the document, which set out essentially to create a dictatorial right-wing regime inside Labour. Ironically, it mirrored those Stalinist parties to which the Blairites professed such hostility. Anybody who did not share Blair’s ideological commitment to the market, it was now made clear, had no place in the ‘modern’ Labour Party. All ideas of the past about the Labour Party being a ‘broad church’ were unceremoniously discarded. One worker remarked: “Our party leader’s nick- name – Tory Blair – is looking less like a joke.”11

However, Militant recognised that many Labour Party members and voters reluctantly acceded to the changes as the ‘price that had to be paid’ for the defeat of the Tories and their replacement by a New Labour government. They were hoping against hope that, once in power, the New Labour leaders would throw off their conservative shell and come forward with policies which would substantially benefit working people. Traditionally, Labour voters have been fed the myth that the Labour leadership is compelled to play down radical policies in order to get elected. They were really ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’. Blair did not remotely accord with this image. He was a sheep in sheep’s clothing! Uniquely in the history of Labour, Blair was promising little other than being a better manager than the Tories of ‘Great Britain Ltd’.