18. Second year of government



We did not just criticise New Labour. At the time of Brown’s March 1998 budget we outlined a socialist alternative: “Unlike New Labour, we won’t bow down to the wealthy minority; or worry how many of Britain’s 81,000 millionaires leave the country. A socialist budget will be tough on wealth and tough on the causes of wealth.” We proposed to introduce an emergency programme of job creation and poverty eradication on an unprecedented scale. Homelessness would be ended. We also pointed towards the top 500 people who had increased their wealth in one year, 1996-97, by £16.3 billion. The top 1% in Britain, around 450,000 people, owned almost a fifth of all wealth; the bottom 50% owned just 7%.

Our first measure would be a wealth tax to raise £20 billion but we couldn’t just leave it at that because the capitalists would seek to avoid this tax as in the past. Therefore it would be necessary to bring the big monopolies under democratic public ownership. We proposed the democratic planning of the economy which would enable the unemployed to find work and also a national minimum wage for a 35-hour week. A shorter working week, and reduced overtime would create the need for other jobs and at the same time give working people the time to participate in the organising and running of industry and society. We also proposed a series of reforms on the nHS, housing and other public services.

We linked our day-to-day demands to the ‘big idea’ of changing  society. We did not just deal with economic issues. We highlighted the sense of alienation and lack of control which ‘modern’ capitalist society meant for working people. For instance, a study in the US and Sweden established the connection between heart disease and workers’ lack of participation in the desired outcome of their labour.1 In Britain an article in the Lancet – the magazine of the British Medical Association – also highlighted that those who have little control over their jobs run higher risk of heart attacks.

Capitalism was enormously wasteful – witness the squandering of resources through unemployment, the billions spent on arms, advertising, the monarchy, the House of Lords and other feudal relics. At the same time this system shamefully wasted the talents of the British people and the peoples of the world. No party other than the Socialist Party was putting forward such a programme, either then or subsequently. In general this was still a relatively favourable period for capitalism; the boom had not yet come to an end. Yet capitalism was still failing to utilise all the productive potential. Had this been explained by a mass workers’ party and linked to what was possible through socialist policies, the level of consciousness – the political outlook – of the working class and even other sectors of the population could have been raised significantly.

After all, this is what the workers’ parties did in the 19th century under the banner of the Second International. They produced constant arguments against capitalism linked to the vision of a new society, socialism. The most successful parties of the Second International, like the German social democracy, grew in strength, size and even votes in elections over decades. This, it is true, brought with it some negative features: accommodation to capitalism by the leadership in a period of slow but steady growth of capitalism. This in turn meant that this leadership ultimately betrayed their own class in support of the bloody catastrophe of the First World War. The new generation would, with the help of socialists and Marxists, learn from this and, in a new party that will be created, fight to prevent its leaders degenerating in a similar fashion.

The official left within New Labour was far from drawing this conclusion, preferring to vegetate as a declining force, while Blair moved further and further towards the right. Tony Benn was an honest chronicler of the process. In March 1998 he commented on the mood of those who Blair had attempted to cosy up to, a group of pop stars: “The [New Musical Express]… had a cover with a picture of Blair saying ‘Betrayed’ and inside six young pop stars were denouncing New Labour on the grounds that they had been absolutely betrayed by Blair.” These individuals “hated three things: Welfare to Work, which is really workfare or compulsory conscription; secondly, tuition fees; and thirdly, the failure to have an inquiry into cannabis.”2

The alienation of the vast majority of young people from New Labour underlined the impossibility of organising a real left within the Labour Party at that stage. Tony Benn, in desperation, was reduced to seeking the company of previous enemies of the Labour movement, like Ted Heath, the hammer of the miners and the architect of the three-day week in 1974. He wrote to Heath: “I greatly appreciate the sense of your encouragement, Ted!”3 He also commented favourably about Enoch Powell – infamous for his racism and his speech predicting “rivers of blood” in a British racial civil war – who had recently died. Benn attended his funeral and called him “a friend who made a mistake.”4 This is just one example of how even some of the best left figures can lose their bearings if their activity is centred mainly on the House of Commons. This is reinforced when they do not have an anchor outside which can act as a check and control over their activity.

The pay of MPs, as with trade union leaders, which is much higher than that of an average worker, is also a means whereby they can become out of touch and inoculated against the pressures on ordinary working class people. It is one of the reasons why the Socialist Party insists that its public representatives, both in the political and trade union fields, should be on the average wage of a worker and subject to recall by those who elevated them to Parliament or union leadership. We practice what we preach, as was shown by the example of the MPs, Terry Fields, Pat Wall and  Dave Nellist, and those comrades elected as union officials, who lived on the average wage with any income over and above this coming back to the labour movement, including to Militant.

Blair was far removed from such a concept, as was the army of careerists and place seekers who surrounded him. The machine he created in some respects mirrored that of Stalinism with its aim to control everything down to the last detail. A giant computer named Excalibur was installed at Millbank Tower, New Labour’s headquarters. When Tony Benn visited he asked Tom Sawyer, then General Secretary of the Labour Party: “What have you got on it?” The reply was: “It’s all published material… there is nothing secret on it.” Benn then asked to see the material compiled on him and the machine duly extracted a letter that had been sent to Major: “It was a dossier, however you look at it. If ever they wanted to get me out of the Party, they would just go through the file and dig out everything damaging, highly selectively, some of which would be press reports that might not be accurate.”

This was therefore sensitive territory and another apparatchik stopped Benn’s visit. Then Sawyer, “who is the bloody general secretary after all”, stated with some embarrassment: “I shouldn’t have agreed to this. I’m sorry, you can’t do it.” The political character of this ‘Labour’ headquarters was revealed by the type of people staffing it: “They are all very young [and] didn’t look particularly politically committed. They looked at me curiously, in a strange way… I got the feeling it was an organisation of an entirely managerial character, with lots of young people in shirt sleeves; it might have been a bank, an insurance company, Tory Central Office – it might have been anywhere.”5 A chasm, ideological in character and in lifestyle, separated this party from Labour in the past.

From the beginning Blair gave the impression of a man on the make. A professional New Labour fundraiser Henry Drucker remarked: “Tony has a serious weakness for rich, self-made men.” His reputed wealth today illustrates this. He did not hesitate to court and accept the favours of big business, as he showed so openly in accepting large amounts of money from the likes of Bernie Ecclestone of Formula One fame. When this was revealed, he brazenly insisted that by soliciting donations from big business he had done nothing improper. Drucker set out Blair’s thinking before the general election very clearly: “Basically [Blair] was saying: ‘If we lose this general election. I’m going back to the Bar, I’m going to spend what I need to spend.’ He was not going to lose because of money.”6

There is a long tradition of the corruption of Labour leaders by the establishment. The Socialist pointed out that -, who betrayed Labour and formed a national government in 1931, “was given a Daimler by biscuit makers Huntley and Palmer. Wilson had connections with textile magnate Lord Kagan who was later jailed for fraud.”7 We also highlighted the selling of influence by lobbyists in the House of Commons, which has developed on a bigger scale today. Under the Tories these lobbyists even provided speeches for Tory MPs to read out in the Commons for which they were paid large fees. According to Emma Nicholson a Tory MP who had defected to the Lib Dems, the House of Commons became “a grubby, personal, cash-grabbing degeneration of the body politic, brazen in its cynicism… a procurer’s delight, a den of heaving corruption”. New Labour displayed all of these traits. The government was proposing a minimum wage of £3.60 an hour, yet they failed to act when people paid £50 an hour were revealed to be profiting by selling their ‘insider knowledge’ of Labour.

One such case was Derek Draper, who was close to Mandelson for many years. Draper’s column in the Daily Express, for which he was paid £70,000, was regularly vetted by Mandelson before publication. Just after the 1997 general election a crony of Draper boasted: “Just tell me what you want, who you want to meet and Derek (Draper) and I will make the call for you.” We commented: “It is not a coincidence that Draper and other former Labour Party staff that have turned to the lucrative lobbying business led the battle against Militant… in the Labour Party in the 1980s.”8 The sleaze and corruption that was primarily synonymous with the capitalist parties – the Tories and Liberals – was associated throughout Blair’s period in office with New Labour and was to culminate in the mps’ expenses  scandals later. The roots of this degeneration were organically connected to the time of Blair’s ascendancy and domination of New Labour. The tragedy was that the left were still trapped within the party and therefore their criticisms were muted throughout this period.

As we have seen, Blair had shamelessly cuddled up to Murdoch before the general election and continued afterwards. Leaks appeared in the press that Blair had telephoned the Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi on behalf of Murdoch, with the latter rumoured to be pressing for the takeover of parts of the media owned by Silvio Berlusconi. The symbiotic relationship between Blair and Murdoch was also expressed by the appointment of Tim Allan, who had been Blair’s deputy press secretary since the election, as director of corporate communications for BSkyB, controlled by Murdoch’s News International. As a counterbalance to this sleaze Foreign Secretary Robin ‘ethical’ Cook announced at the previous Labour Party conference that he had suspended export licences for the sale of armaments to the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia. He received a standing ovation, yet the sales ban only affected sniper rifles and some armoured vehicles. Moreover, there was nothing ethical when it came to the bombing and intervention in the Balkans and the bloody consequences of the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq in the aftermath of 9/11.

The Labour Party conference in 1998 was a barometer of the relationship of forces between what remained of the left in the party and the Blairite right. Ten or fifteen years earlier the media always described the robust clashes at conferences between rank and file delegates and the party’s right-wing leadership as ‘dangerous extremism’. Such was the deadening mood of this conference – the result of Blairite dominance – that this very same media remarked almost appreciatively on a possible ‘left-wing resurgence’. But as we pointed out: “At New Labour’s Blackpool conference this week, the fires of past working class opposition will be at best a faintly flickering ember.”9