17. Fighting tuition fees



What remained of the left clung to the wreckage of what was ‘old Labour’, despite the fact that the leaders of New Labour more and more defended inequality, especially when applied to themselves. Following a public outcry in September 1997 Blair was forced to review his pay rise of £41,443 (£797 per week, or £20 per hour). It was outrageous that he could even consider accepting such an increase. Meanwhile, he was asking nurses to accept “an extremely modest” pay rise of less than 3.5%, below the inflation rate. John Monks, then leader of the TUC, ever the statesman, commented: “I’ve always believed in paying the proper rate for the job… As far as I’m concerned, it may be a catching up exercise.”

Blair moved ever closer to the Liberal Democrats and their supporters. In September 1997 we reported on what seemed to be serious considerations for a future coalition or merger. Former Labour Cabinet minister, then Lib Dem peer, Lord Roy Jenkins, who was a close adviser to Blair, stated publicly that Blair wanted to rebuild the centre-left coalition “away from the tyrannies of party politics”. This was a clear attempt, even at this early stage, to ensure that Blair could carry out his pro-capitalist programme, cutting across any likely dissent that would develop within Labour, particularly from the direction of the trade unions.1

Ministers in the New Labour government were overjoyed with the trappings of office. Straw, ever the flunkey, wrote: “[Blair] decided  that I should accompany him to Washington DC on his first official government visit to President Clinton. I’ve been grinding away in my 18th year in opposition. Now this – and my first ride on Concorde as well.”2 But there were no such outpourings of joy from the labour movement as the government expressed its determination to remain within the spending limits set by the previous Tory government, even if this meant limiting and cutting welfare and education. Tony Benn records that Blair justified cuts to single parents’ income on the grounds that “Tory spending limits were actually too slack”.3

He elaborated on Blair’s future plans: “[Blair] listed all the achievements and said, ‘Life will get harder. We are bound to anger some people. There are choices to be made. It is a test of our nerve. The Welfare State has got to be reformed. We said we would save money and modernise the Welfare State. We have got to change benefits in the right way in order to finance our education and welfare reforms. We wouldn’t leave people without help… We have got to create opportunities. There are two types of criticism – constructive criticism and the sort of criticism that mouths the Tory stories that we are dismantling the welfare state. It is up to us. We listen, of course. We must deliver our pledges and remember what unites us.’”4 This is the hymn to austerity which the Tories and Lib Dems would build on in order to carry through their savage cuts later.

Harriet Harman was given the job of implementing and explaining the cuts. The government drew on the experiences of the Clinton administration in the US – which was a model for Blair – in implementing cuts. Harman particularly pointed towards the US state of Wisconsin, which had cut its lone parent claimants from nearly 100,000 to fewer than 30,000 over ten years as benefits were withdrawn. The Wisconsin scheme, however, involved forcing people into overwhelmingly low-paid jobs. Moreover, if you refused a job and were then denied benefits, what then?

Britain already had experience of the effects of the withdrawal of income support and housing benefits from 16 and 17 year-olds. This had resulted in a dramatic rise in homelessness and poverty. Harman also spoke of encouraging lone parents of school age children to attend a JobCentre for interviews. This has a very topical ring to it today. Just remove Harman’s name and replace it with Iain Duncan Smith, her successor in Cameron’s governments, and the theme would be the same! This demonstrates that the attempt to cut back on the living standards of the working class, to cut their share of national income and boost the share of the capitalists, has been a process at work over decades. Moreover, Blair made sure that it was those ‘left’ MPs and ministers from the past, like Harman, who were called upon to do his dirty work. All the right-wing Labour ministers, including Blair, stayed away from the House of Commons while Harman was left to justify attacks on the very poorest section of the population.

Similar proposals to attack the young, cut back on education and increase tuition fees were met with the response of 50,000 students marching in twelve cities across Britain on 1 November 1997 in angry protest at the abolition of free education. These demonstrations took place despite the opposition of the National Union of Students (NUS) – a breeding ground for future New Labour MPs and careerists – because it did not want to embarrass the government. In a front page article with the headline ‘Grants Not Fees’ we wrote: “It will be working class students who will be most affected if the grant goes, watching student debts for fees and maintenance go up to around £20,000.” Is this not what all students face today: massive debts, with the added dose of poison that few well-paid jobs are available when young people come out of university?

Education Minister David Blunkett tried to sell these proposals by writing to each MP assuring them that everything would be fine, despite the fact that applications for universities were down by 8-10%. Anger grew as students realised that they would not get any help towards paying fees. Within weeks of arriving at college in autumn 1998 students or their families would have to pay £1,000 upfront to college authorities. A student at Teesside University commented to the Socialist: “I’m disgusted. This government is making a habit of saying one thing, then backtracking. My sister hopes to go to university next year but demanding payment of  £1,000 upfront will end her university education.” Another student Owen Hatherley – who subsequently became a journalist and wrote critical articles about the Socialist Party but who was, at this time, sympathetic because of his circumstances – also stated: “My mum is a single parent and this year I got a £150 maintenance grant to buy books, but they take that off her benefits.”5

Fuelling the anger over the government’s attacks on students was the spectacle of Blair sunning himself in the Seychelles over Christmas, while single parents and disabled people faced the bleak prospect of savage attacks on benefits and a further erosion of the welfare state. Benefit cuts totalling £3.2 billion had been outlined by Labour for the following two years. Moreover, like the Cameron governments, Labour conducted a smear campaign to justify these attacks. They gave the impression that the majority of those on incapacity benefit were falsely claiming and were available for work. Yet 75% of disabled people were already over retirement age.

Blair had addressed the 1997 Labour Party conference – dubbed by the Socialist ‘Labour’s Planet Happiness’. We commented: “What was served up, in the most duplicitous language, is a programme for attacking working class living standards.” Some capitalist commentators agreed that Blair’s “speech could be called in large part a Tory speech, putting words round Tory concepts like duty and ambition, except that no Conservative politician could utter them without being laughed off the stage, as they were in May”.6 Blair’s buzzwords were ‘reform’, ‘hard choices’ and ‘radical’. We countered: “For ‘reform’ read ‘counter-reform’. For ‘radical’ read ‘Thatcherism without Thatcher’.” He called for ‘hard choices’ to be made. But it did not take a rocket scientist to work out that his hard choices would be made by working class people and not by the rich and big business. He invoked, as models for modern Labour, John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge, who were not socialists but firm defenders of capitalism.

At Labour’s conference, however, there was a spark of hope for the left, it seemed, in Ken Livingstone’s defeat of the odious Mandelson in the party’s NEC elections. Livingstone’s share of the vote increased from 31% in previous years to 39%. He claimed that a new left coalition was taking place which stretched from the Campaign Group to Roy Hattersley! We pointed out that Hattersley “bears a major responsibility for the state the Labour Party is in today. The beginning of the Labour right’s counter-revolution dates from 1985 from Kinnock’s attack on Militant. Hattersley was intimately involved in the preparation and carrying out of this attack. Of course, he does not fully like the consequences of his past deeds. He has even hinted that it might be necessary for the ‘moderate left’ to split from the Labour Party in the future. He has drawn bolder conclusions than many left MPs who vainly hope for the left’s re-emergence at next year’s Labour Party conference.”

We predicted that real opposition would come not from the NEC or the Parliamentary Labour Party, but from mass resistance outside of Parliament. When the poll tax was introduced, it was Militant that organised the mass resistance which defeated it and toppled Thatcher. Our summing up of the conference and the ratification of the government’s programme showed just how far the Labour Party had degenerated: “In the teeth of such a programme, Labour Party conferences in the past would have been in uproar. This one had less passion than a parent-teachers’ association.”7 It must be added that, since this was written, many PTAs have been in uproar over the introduction of academies and the continuation of the massive privatisation of education!

At the time of the conference and shortly afterwards there were further revelations about the closeness between Blair and the Liberal Democrats’ Paddy Ashdown. Speculation in the capitalist press was rife about plans to introduce proportional representation and even the inclusion of the Lib Dems in government as a step towards coalition at a later stage. The plans included the future dissolution of the present Labour and Lib Dem parties into an Italian-style ‘centre-left’ party. The speculation was fed by a ‘lovefest’ between Blair and Ashdown. The press also revealed, according to Blair’s confidantes: “Tony was a bit disappointed with Labour’s 179 seat majority in the election.” As we pointed out even before the  election, if he had only got a small majority, Blair was prepared to offer the Lib Dems posts in a new government. Such was the size of Labour’s majority, he had no excuse to include the Lib Dems as an ostensible means of maintaining Labour in office.

Blair did the next best thing, however, by setting up a Cabinet committee on constitutional reform, involving six ministers and five Lib Dem frontbenchers. This resulted in an unofficial coalition with the Liberals. Blair himself seemed at an all-time high in the polls with 83% supporting him. We remarked: “Only Stalinist dictators in Eastern Europe and North Korea have attained such popularity.” We were undaunted by this because, unlike the careerists, PR men and women who infested Labour at this stage, workers and socialists were absent or drowned out by the cacophony of the Blair worshippers. We reminded the labour movement of some salient facts in relation to the political philosophy of the Liberal Democrats and their stance on key issues: “Today’s Lib Dems supported Thatcher through thick and thin when she shackled the trade unions. They attacked jobs and services in Liverpool in the 1980s. Their past leader Steel has been revealed as receiving £94,000 as a parliamentary spokesman for the fox-hunting lobby.” The fact that the Labour leadership could even contemplate a pact with the Liberals, with barely a murmur of opposition, showed once more that it had ceased to be a working class party.

After this dreadful conference Tony Benn argued that Labour could face a future split: “I see the Labour Party standing against the coalition government as it did during the 1930s when Independent Labour MPs stood against supporters of National governments led by Ramsay MacDonald.” That, we argued, assumed that the Labour Party of the past remained intact: “Tony Benn’s mistake is not to see that a ‘new party’ has already been created – New Labour – with overwhelmingly new, largely middle class recruits, with the unions more and more marginalised. In Guardian columnist Hugo Young’s words, it is a ‘capitalist’ party.” We added that a coalition government at that stage, “rather than leading to a split as in 1931, could be the signal for the creation of a new mass party of the working class, if one has not been created beforehand”.8 This was to become a recurring theme in the arguments we would have with what remained of the ‘left’ within Labour.

On Blair’s honeymoon with the British people we stated that it “will not last. On tuition fees, class sizes, the catastrophic situation in the NHS, the economy and unemployment, this government will not be able to deliver. The government’s present popularity will turn into its opposite particularly if, as is likely, the harsh winds of economic recession or even slump grip Britain.” In view of this verdict it is possible that our critics could say that that our predictions were not borne out. Marxism does not pretend to be able to predict when processes will come to fruition. Timescale is always elastic. Sometimes it takes years, even decades, for prognoses to be borne out.

The longevity of the Blair governments does appear at first sight to have falsified our predictions. Blair won three general elections, despite presiding over real cuts in living standards, particularly of the poorer sections of the population, and accelerating the privatisation of education and the NHS. Moreover, he maintained the vicious anti-union laws fully intact – and justified this in the most brazen fashion. In addition, as with the prison officers mentioned earlier, his ministers were not reluctant to use them brutally when the occasion demanded. His government’s aims and actions were entirely alien to the historic aims of the labour movement. Yet it was tolerated by the trade unions, particularly by their right-wing leaderships. Meanwhile, big sections of the population, including swathes of the working class, preferred this state of affairs if the alternative meant the return of the Tories – although without any enthusiasm.

The main reason for this is to be found in the character of the era described in our opening chapters. The collapse of Stalinism and the huge ideological boost which capitalism gained from this continued to be felt throughout the 1990s and beyond. Those making the case for socialism and class struggle policies were still swimming against the stream, particularly when it came to affecting the broad mass of working class people. At the same time, the economic  recovery and the ‘boom’ that went with this was very one-sided, with the working class pushed back in relative terms because the leadership of the Labour movement accommodated itself to capitalism, while Blair and his counterparts worldwide went over completely to capitalism. This did not mean that the Socialist Party and Marxists could not have an effect, in spite of all the difficulties. In the main, however, this consisted of leading movements on single issues – seeking to extend and politicise them – rather than having a dramatic effect on the political consciousness of the mass of the working class. Ultimately, the consciousness of the working class is determined by the objective situation, which can only be changed by big events. In a situation where the working class is able to rub along, keeping its head above water at least, it would only be the more politically aware workers and youth who could be won to our party, to socialism and Marxism.

This is also allied to British workers’ preparedness to grant time – sometimes too much time – to their leadership to show results. If you add in the fear of the return of a Tory government, it is not difficult to see how Blair could play on this to sneak back to power in two subsequent general elections after 1997. But this was achieved with greater and greater mass disenchantment with Blair himself – and a drop in turnout in elections, which undermines his alleged achievements. In his memoirs, he parades these general election victories as a great success. Nowhere does he or those like Straw ask the question of what election success and forming governments actually mean for the mass of the workers and the population as a whole. The only answer given is that it is in the ‘national interest’, the very same justification used by Cameron. The ‘national interest’ is ultimately the interests of the capitalists.

The task of Marxism in a period like this was to criticise the prevailing ‘order’ – which included the Blair government – to defend the analysis and programme of Marxism and seek to win more politically advanced workers and youth to our banner. We sought to be, in the concept of Marx, the movements of the future in the movements of the present. We had a dual task of seeking to rehabilitate socialism and Marxism through our analysis, while maintaining a rigorous Marxist organisation and party. Additionally, we intervened in all movements of the youth and the working class, popularising the ideas of Marxism and socialism in seeking to win the best layers.

Vital to this task was explaining the necessity for a new mass party of the working class. This in turn meant that it was necessary to seek ceaselessly to expose the real class character of New Labour. This was a precondition, particularly in the trade unions, to try to win over first of all the best workers and youth, and then the mass of the working class to the idea of a new party. In the 1930s Leon Trotsky wrote that the crisis of humankind could be reduced to a crisis of leadership. The Socialist Party concluded that, because the ‘traditional’ organisations of the working class, particularly their leaderships, had completely collapsed and gone over to the enemy class ideologically in the aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism, we now faced a crisis, not just of leadership but of organisation of the parties of the working class. It was therefore necessary to begin the arduous task of laying the groundwork for the emergence of new parties. In boldly taking to this new road we faced many obstacles: history, inertia, the conservatism, reluctance and, in some cases, cowardice of the trade union officialdom as they clung to outdated political concepts.

Blair declared in December 1997 at a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party that tuition fees “will be trouble until it happens, but then it will all be forgotten. One third of students will be exempt. It will be okay on the day. Students take out loans anyway and, if we don’t have them, we will never get the money we want in education.”9 But he was profoundly mistaken if he considered that the opposition to tuition fees was just a ‘little local difficulty’, to paraphrase former Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Young people were furious and preparations were made for mass demonstrations to defeat this attack on basic education, rights that had been taken for granted for decades. Young members of the Socialist Party played a key role in mobilising for a mass demonstration in the first few months of 1998. The NUS leadership, allied as they were to New  Labour, dragged their feet in organising a national demonstration. Therefore Socialist Students and others organised the rank and file students in meetings and demonstrations, which culminated in a mass demonstration and shutdown of education, with almost two million students participating. One student spoke to the Socialist: “I want to go to university in September and I’m going to have to borrow a fortune. These plans are disgraceful!” Another said: “Have you noticed that the politicians who say these things [supporting tuition fees] nearly all benefited from free university education themselves? If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for us!”

With an emphasis on youth and the trade unions as the twin pillars for our party, our members played a key role in this battle. We reported on the effects of the demonstrations and education strikes throughout the country: “Thousands of students stayed away from lectures at Leicester University. Pickets, who leafleted and persuaded people not to go in, were stationed at main entrances to the university and a rally was held outside one of the university buildings… We leafleted for the shutdown, visited nearby sixth form colleges and went round the canteens.”10 Like so many others of Blair’s cuts, which the Tories have subsequently built on and extended, they were never accepted and opposition has remained consistent since they were first introduced. The failure to defeat these attacks at this stage and force the Blair government to step back was entirely due to the mis-leadership of the NUS who put loyalty to the Blair government – and their future parliamentary careers, in most cases – before the real interests of students, both then and later.