19. The right revolts and the Countryside Alliance



The revolt against Blair’s government came not only from the left, but by mid-1998 from the right, manifested in the Countryside Alliance, which we described as “a political reaction dressed up in a populist lament about rural decline”.1 The Countryside Alliance was not a spontaneous peasants’ revolt but a coalition of hunting, shooting and country sporting organisations. They had spent £500,000 on a demonstration organised in London on 1 March 1998. The night before a chain of hilltop beacons rallied support and signalled the alleged threat to rural England: to “a way of life and the habit of freedom”, claimed the right wing Daily Telegraph.2 The demonstration was big, with over a quarter of a million according to the organisers, although independent monitors put it at 150,000.

The trigger was an anti-foxhunting bill, which was about to be debated in Parliament. The demonstrators completely ignored a Mori poll which showed that 63% of people who lived in rural or semi-rural areas were opposed to foxhunting. For the Alliance this was an issue of ‘individual freedom’ with the Daily Telegraph also saying “the rights of private property” were at stake. The Socialist Party conceded that there were many who were caught up in the protest who had genuine grievances. Small farmers, smallholders and hill farmers were scraping out a very poor living on the land, many of them barely surviving financially. In addition, farmworkers were notoriously low paid. Rural workers had  much more in common with the workers in the towns and cities than with the wealthy landowners and big business. Farmers supported the protest. There were even workers on the march, who had to be there or risk losing their jobs or tied cottages. The hunting lobby were, in effect, defending the right to exploit the land as they pleased, pursuing wealth, power and pleasure without outside interference.

Farmers were squealing about the recent squeeze on farm incomes but this took no account of the increased concentration of farm ownership, with around 6% of farms with more than 500 acres accounting for around 50% of Britain’s farmland. This wealthy minority of farm businesses produced a massive share of the country’s agricultural output, also collecting most government subsidies. These big business farmers were behind the problems and hardships of small owner-occupiers or tenant farmers. The richest 1% of Britain’s population owned more than half of all personally owned land, while the top 5% owned 74%. Moreover, many large landowners were also linked to the City of London’s financial institutions and owned vast tracts of urban land. The Duke of Westminster, for instance, put £1.3 million into the Countryside Alliance’s activities – collected from lucrative rents on his properties in London’s Belgravia.

Hiding these embarrassing facts, the Daily Telegraph asserted: “The people who are coming to London are the backbone of the nation. They are those who have always been ready to fight for their country when required. For them ‘country’, in the sense of nation, is closely bound up with ‘country’ in the sense of green fields.”3 We concluded: “Land ownership, it seems, gives them the feudal right to lord it over the whole country.” But big social changes had taken place in Britain. Such was the scale of the Tory defeat in 1997 that 15 of the 100 most rural seats fell to Labour.

This, in turn, set alarm bells ringing on the country estates. While bosses in general were at ease with Blair’s victory, the rural barons were incensed by New Labour’s liberal list of demands on hunting, land access and environmental protection. Many of these were even alienated from a Tory party that did not offer them much protection either. The Tory leadership of Hague was more concerned in giving their party a ‘human face’, aimed at winning back urban voters, than appealing to the rural backwoodsmen. Although there was little possibility at that stage of the Blair government conceding an anti-foxhunting bill – that would come later – the Countryside Alliance demonstration was a “warning for the future. It is organised and financed predominantly by one section of the property-owning ruling class. But the minute Blair ceases to serve the needs of financiers and manufacturing capitalists, they too will set the hounds on his government.”4

New Labour’s conference was asked to pay attention to focus groups rather than focus on the growing poverty and increasing unemployment that existed in Britain. The British bosses were lining up to attack the working class. In addition, Labour’s officials were widely believed to have fiddled the NEC elections, “allowing 200,000 lapsed members to vote in an attempt to try and undermine the left vote”.5 What a contrast with their approach to the 2016 Labour leadership elections when they disenfranchised tens of thousands of members on the most spurious grounds, most of them believed to be Jeremy Corbyn supporters! At the same time, Blair was preparing to nullify any left resurgence by opening up his political options for the future through his relationship with Ashdown and the Liberal Democrats. The Jenkins Commission – which was to consider proportional representation (PR) – was evidently preparing for an extremely diluted form of PR, to reinforce New Labour and the Lib Dems in elections. This was a means of preparing the way for a more formal anti-worker coalition in the future.

Meanwhile, in the real world away from the conference, the job slaughter continued. We reported that over 5,000 jobs were disappearing in Britain each week. That was half the level in South Korea, which was suffering from a deep slump. What jobs were on offer? Siemens had just announced that it was to close its Tyneside factory, despite investment of £1.5 billion in semiconductors, with the loss  of 1,000 jobs. This sent shockwaves throughout the region. Rover jobs were also on the line with its owners BMW attempting to bludgeon the Longbridge workforce into accepting wage cuts of 25% by eliminating all overtime and shift payments.

Bill Mullins reported that, in the previous year: “The Longbridge works committee were flown to Munich and were battered into signing a deal drastically affecting the working patterns of the workforce. This was done without Longbridge workers having any say in it.” One commentator said the employers were acting in this way because “a crisis is a good time to win concessions from your workforce and force aid from the government”. The right-wing unions swallowed the bosses’ case hook, line and sinker. No union leader called for real opposition and the ability of workers to fight back was sapped.6

Alec Thraves pointed out that bosses were paying rock-bottom rates: “In the JobCentre in Swansea, you can see the poverty pay wage rates all over the vacancy boards. £2.50 an hour for a static security guard, £80 a week for a clerical assistant, £2.50 an hour for a care assistant, £2.90 an hour for a domestic. The list goes on and on. And it’s the same in JobCentres across Britain.” Unions demanded a national demonstration in support of a £4.61 an hour minimum wage. Sir Ross Buckland, chief executive of Unigate, had received a 43% pay rise the previous year. He took home £766,000 plus £39,000 in other payments. This was about £387 an hour!7 Reflecting this, one of our headlines in October 1998 was, ‘Jobs Gloom Deepens: No Return to the 1930s’. The article pointed out: “Every day more bosses announce closures and redundancies. They don’t only threaten our livelihoods, they attack pay and conditions too.”8

In the midst of all of this Brown claimed that Britain was going to avoid capitalism’s addiction to boom and bust. This was just bluster with New Labour leaders convincing themselves that all they needed to do was talk their way out of the ‘boom and bust’ cycle. Britain would be an exception in the teeth of the severe economic turbulence that was ravaging the world economy. This was accompanied by Brown serving up a diet of Thatcherite austerity policies which would only aggravate the continuing international economic crisis. The world recession indicated that the global economy was not bottoming out. Manufacturing industry in particular, already in recession, was so reliant on inward investment and the provision of financial services that there was no way it could remain immune from what was happening internationally.

At the Labour Party conference Blair laid heavy emphasis on New Labour’s ‘third way’. Trotsky once wrote that the British Labour leaders’ thoughts were “far more backward than the methods of production” of backward British industry.9 What would he have said about Blair who demonstrated in his speech a wish to return the labour movement to the ideas of the 19th century via the third way? Blair’s central idea was to re-establish the Liberal-Labour coalition which preceded the formation of the Labour Party. He stated that he wished to unite “the two great streams of left of centre for democratic socialism and liberalism – whose divorce this century did so much to weaken progressive policies across the West”. We later commented: “Even before this bird (the ‘third way’) has been able to take flight one of its wings has been severely clipped.” Sweden’s Prime Minister Göran Persson was forced to cancel his attendance at the New York love-in on the third way involving Clinton, Blair and Prodi. “Persson’s ‘third way’ in Sweden resulted in savage cuts in living standards and, in the [September 1998] election, the worst performance of the Social Democrats in modern times.”

During its honeymoon period the Blair government was sustained by two factors: Britain’s economic bubble had not burst and the main opposition party, the Tories, was in a state of disarray bordering on complete demoralisation. The government could blow up politically at some stage but this was not at all recognised by those running it. Moreover, Blair’s third way was a desperate attempt to straddle the growing chasm between the classes, reflected in the extreme polarisation of wealth and poverty, which we predicted would be accompanied by the re-emergence of class struggle at a certain stage. Even ‘communists’ like Eric Hobsbawm  rushed to support Blair in his assertion that “ideology is gone”. He wrote: “This is unquestionably true… The battle between 100% state planning and 100% free market societies is over because neither proved true.” We pointed out that in fact there was never 100% state ownership in the Soviet Union, but the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy allowed the planning of the economy and society, albeit in a bureaucratic fashion.10

Fearing the re-emergence of class struggle, Blair was forced to reassess his previous support for PR. This is not an issue of principle, it must be said, either for the capitalists and their parties or for Marxists. The bourgeoisie internationally had switched electoral systems, from first past the post to pR and vice versa depending on what best strengthened their rule. Conversely, socialists and Marxists observed a very simple principle in the electoral field: we would support what best furthered the struggle of the working class and socialism at each stage. With the move to the right of the Labour Party, pR was no longer on the agenda. In the 1970s and 80s, the bourgeoisie contemplated switching from first past the post to a form of pR to bar the way to a left Labour government led by somebody like Tony Benn. Now, the Blair government was a reliable prop for capitalism. For all these reasons, we argued that the third way would very quickly be seen as a dead-end – and so it is proved to be. It has gone the way of Blair. Both have been politically nullified within the labour movement.