9. Fragmentation of the Tories



1996 was the year attention turned to the upcoming general election. The Tories, the governing party, were not in great shape. The British ruling class, historically faced with the rise of a powerful working class and its organisations, the trade unions and Labour Party, had carefully built and nurtured the Tory party as its main political instrument (unlike many of its European counterparts). It was a party which, within living memory, possessed a mass base. Its membership stood nominally at over a million in the 1960s, embracing significant sections of the middle class and even some upper, skilled layers of the working class. But 17 years of Tory government had rotted these foundations. Moreover, the collapse of the Berlin Wall had decisively altered the political terrain in which the Tory party operated. The scarecrow of ‘communism’ abroad and the threat posed by the working class and its organisations were the glue that held together the major capitalist parties in Europe, such as the Christian Democrats in Italy. By 1996, most of these had either disintegrated or were in the process of doing so because of the removal of the ‘communist’ bloc and the increased bourgeoisification of former workers’ parties which no longer posed a threat to capitalism.

With electoral catastrophe beckoning there was much speculation that a great schism in the most successful bourgeois party in Europe would finally take place. The rise of the eurosceptic right finally pushed the Tory ‘left’ to organise themselves, even threatening to form an open alliance with Labour. The pro-Europe Tory Reform Group began to organise separate offices. Some MPs even confided that they had voted Labour at the last local elections! Former Tory minister Edwina Currie openly speculated that after the general election she expected Tony Blair to be the next inhabitant of Ten Downing Street! One Tory MP was offered a knighthood to remain within the fold. His disaffection was even more noteworthy when it was revealed that he had actually delivered flowers to Number Ten on the morning after John Major’s re-election in 1992. Adding to Major’s woes was the electoral threat posed by the billionaire James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party. It had a war chest of £20 million and, he said, in relation to Major’s premiership, “I vomit on the government.”1

This fragmentation of the Tory party was reinforced by the further ‘Americanisation’ of British politics, with the contest between the parties not just personalised but almost presidential. With Labour’s shift towards the right Major attempted to dress himself in the garb of a champion of the poor. This was as nothing to the way in which Blair engaged in political ‘cross-dressing’, at one stage shamelessly seeking to imitate Major himself. Major attacked Blair as “New Labour – old school tie” in opposition to his own selfportrayal as an alleged “poor working class boy from Brixton”. The transformation of the Labour Party into a bourgeois party had truly puzzling repercussions in trying to establish the dividing line between the main parties. However, the image of ‘honest John’ sat rather uneasily against the background of the unprecedented sleaze afflicting his government, as evidenced by the corruption of disgraced Tories Neil and Christine Hamilton. Major was increasingly reconciled to defeat but wished to limit its scale.

There was much speculation that the Tory right was pursuing a policy of ‘revolutionary defeatism’ – in reality, counter-revolutionary defeatism. The managers of capitalist industry also expressed their reservations about the Tory government, with 45% no longer thinking that the Tories were the natural party of business, while 56% thought it was time for the government to go. They were ready to contemplate a ‘Labour’ administration because they had been convinced by Blair’s political evolution that he posed no danger to them or their system.

The incipient splits within the Tory party have not yet led to an open split or the formation of successful new parties of the right. Nonetheless, the growth of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) – itself a reflection of the tensions in the Tory party which it has not been able to contain – shows up the splits in Tory ranks. Ultimately this fragmentation of British politics reflects the tense underlying economic and social situation in Britain which existed even in the mid-1990s. The onset of the capitalist world crisis from 2008 accentuated this, with the economy in a much worse situation today, trapped in a death spiral.

An uneasy industrial and social peace continued throughout the 1990s. That is now likely to explode in the tense economic and social conditions existing at the time of publication. We wrote at the time that the doubling of the national debt and the constant campaign against the poorest in society would lead to a further cut in spending on welfare, along with future savage attacks on the living standards of the working class. Huge class battles loomed: “Working people will have no alternative but to take to the road of resistance to the onslaught of diseased British capitalism. Massive reaction from public sector workers is inevitable.”2 That predicted drama unfolded later.

Not content with changing Clause iv, Blair and his acolytes were determined to destroy the very notion of socialism itself. Labour MP Kim Howells hit the headlines by saying that his party should “humanely phase out” its use of the term socialism because it was allegedly outdated.3 Howells was one of the many odious types who now infested the ranks of New Labour. He participated as a ‘left’ NUM official, a researcher during the miners’ strike. Thereafter he hitched his wagon to Neil Kinnock and evolved rapidly to the right, in the process jettisoning his membership of the CP just before the end of the strike and becoming Labour MP for Pontypridd. A miner who was also a member of the Labour Party warned: “Watch out for him, he has more faces than Big Ben.”4

Militant forcibly argued that socialism was as relevant as ever and 76% of people polled in 1996 believed there was a class struggle in Britain, with 43% backing ‘more socialist planning’. Under the Tory government the richest 10% of the population had raised their incomes by 62% while the poorest 10% were 17% worse off. Socialism Today pointed out: “Thatcher herself reportedly told guests at a recent private dinner that Blair is ‘A man who won’t let Britain down’. Rupert Murdoch is convinced too.” This underlined that a Blair-led government was entirely safe for capitalism. Our journal also opined: “So what difference will a New Labour government make? It will make no fundamental difference at all to the decline in living standards for the majority of working people and the continuing polarisation of income and wealth. In the short term, however, there will be some new expenditure, which will give the honeymoon government some room for manoeuvre. Although Brown will not increase tax rates, he may be able to raise some additional tax revenue. There will be a one-off windfall tax on the excessive profits of the privatised industries.”5 This was a bold claim but one which has been borne out in fundamentals. The 13 years of New Labour government did not fundamentally differ from that of the Major government, as we will see.

New Labour’s own documents stated: “Fifteen million men, women and children have seen no increase in their living standards over the entire 16 years of Conservative government… One child in three is growing up in poverty.” Notwithstanding this, Blair was preparing the ground for a new ‘welfare to work programme’, which led the Financial Times to comment that “the word is still taboo, but Labour is already tiptoeing towards workfare”. On public sector pay, which was being held down, provoking a furious backlash by the workers, Blair declared at the 1995 Labour Party conference: “A Labour government… will have to say no [to public sector pay increases]… even to people in this hall.”6 Shades of Ed Balls at the 2012 TUC when he stated that public workers’ pay would be held down under a Labour government and the cuts inflicted by the ConDem coalition would not be repealed. As the French say: ‘The more things change the more they remain the same’!

Tentative at first in his anti-union criticism, Blair became more and more emboldened as the election approached. Speaking to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) he declared: “We have revolutionised our relations with the trade unions… to make clear that we offer fairness, not favours, in government.” This meant, he said, that “the key elements in the trade union reforms of the 1980s will stay”. Marching to the same drumbeat was the pro-capitalist New Labour leadership of the TUC through its General Secretary John Monks. He stated that “unions must shed the old ‘them and us’ approach in favour of partnership with employers and a new government, if they are to be part of the solution to Britain’s economic problems”. We asked “Partnership on whose terms?”7 Clearly Blair would be on the side of the bosses.

Even cherished Labour history was derided by Blair and his cronies. He regretted “the division that occurred between Liberals and Labour at the end of the last [19th] century”, arguing that “[Liberal politicians] Lloyd George, Keynes and Beveridge… had the same basic ideas as [Labour Cabinet ministers] Bevin and Bevan”.8 This demonstrated his complete ignorance of the history of the trade unions and Labour Party. He even claimed that the TUC had been formed by some unions which disapproved of setting up the Labour Party, yet the TUC had been formed over 30 years earlier. Blair never let a good story get in the way of the truth! In reality he wanted to blot out – particularly from the consciousness of the new generation – just how the Labour Party had been formed, manifesting as it did a working class revolt against the capitalist Liberal Party.

Blair was assisted in furthering his ‘project’ by the support of a phalanx of former lefts. Clare Short summed up the role of these apostates as she engaged in McCarthyite language not seen in the Labour Party for decades. She justified the exclusion of Liz Davies as a parliamentary candidate for Leeds North-East, even though she was democratically selected according to the rules of Labour’s NEC. This was because Trotskyism, particularly Militant Labour, was supposedly responsible for Labour losing the last four elections since 1979! Apart from Davies not being a supporter of Militant, Short admitted, it came as a shock to us to realise that the Militant Editorial Board had ‘secretly’ run Labour’s national election campaign and had achieved this remarkable feat while being expelled from the party as early as 1983!

It was absurd and widely recognised as such to link Davies to Trotskyism and Militant. The main charge therefore was that she had voted as a Labour councillor against the Labour whip twice in Islington: once to prevent the closure of a nursery and once against cuts. Part of Liz Davies’s defence was that Neil Kinnock broke the Labour whip in parliament 77 times between 1974 and 1979 before going on to become leader. The whole procedure was straight out of Alice in Wonderland. No matter, Davies was blocked and, unfortunately, she and her supporters did not take opposition to open defiance. This would have created a certain amount of momentum for the moves already afoot for a new party. The effect was to exclude anyone on the left from standing as a Labour candidate at the next election. This would further weaken and nullify any organised left opposition, for instance the Socialist Campaign Group.

In the months running up to the 1997 general election Blair and Brown became more and more explicit over what kind of party they were in the process of creating and the kind of government over which they would preside. Although Militant Labour had argued for a number of years that New Labour was heading in the direction of the US Democrats, up to now Blair had not confirmed this. Then in January 1997 he bluntly stated: “I want a situation more like the Democrats and Republicans in the uS. People don’t even question for a single moment that the Democrats are a pro-business party. They should not be asking the question about New Labour.” The reality was that the Democrats under Bill Clinton had taken over traditional Republican policies, such as prioritising deficit reduction and attacks on welfare.

It was debatable whether New Labour could even have been described as a ‘radical’ bourgeois party at this time. It was bound to come into increasing conflict with working people in the event of it taking office. There were now over 18,000 people with more than £1 million in the bank while there were 13 million officially in poverty. Around 25% of all workers had experienced unemployment under the Tories. Meanwhile, profits were allowed to surge. Peter Mandelson, now widely disparaged as a champion of the rich, infamously commented: “We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.” Socialist journalist John Pilger wrote: “The real divisions between left and right are outside parliament and have never been greater. They reflect the unprecedented disparity between the poverty of the majority of humanity and the power and privilege of a tiny minority who control the world’s resources.”9

Unbelievable as it seems over 20 years later, Brown was proposing even then that child benefit would be stopped for 16 and 17 year-olds still in education. So a couple of decades before the Tory/Liberal coalition meanly withdrew the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) from 16 to 19 year-olds, Brown was suggesting something similar as a policy for the Labour government! At the same time New Labour’s Social Justice Report from 1994 began an ideological assault on the welfare state – carried on by the ConDem coalition and the Tory government of David Cameron, continuing under Theresa May. The fundamental idea of New Labour was that inequality is here to stay and a ‘dynamic’ market economy required low levels of public expenditure, especially on welfare. This, in turn, was linked to the moralising, authoritarian values of Blair setting the scene for the return to the ideas of the past, of a ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. There was a widening gap between those who could afford to take up private insurance against job loss, sickness and poverty in old age, and the majority of low-paid, increasingly casualised workers who were deprived of any such safety net.

Blair had been shopping around for ideas in New Zealand, which had been amongst the first to take to the road of neoliberalism in the advanced industrial countries. But the ex-leader of the New Zealand Labour Party, David Lange, admitted that his government “went too far to the right” in the 1980s. Roger Douglas, Budget Minister in Lange’s governments, went even further than Thatcher. The result was that 400 food banks had been set up handling food costing £9 million, which was handed out to the needy.10 We were able to envisage a similar direction for British capitalism: “With a potential market of 26 million workers, it’s no surprise they are eager to strip the meat from the bones of the benefits system. The Tories are planning to create a market for these fat cats by privatising the benefits system.”11 This is a policy which was tried out by the Cameron governments.