24. A new millennium



The New Year marked both a new century and a new millennium. Millions were out on the streets throughout the world. For a short moment the world experienced genuine human solidarity as TV carried the joyous global celebrations. Of course, the powers that be, the capitalists, used this occasion to extol the benefits of the system. The so-called free market was the best means of delivering humankind’s future:

“The world, in short, is becoming a better place… Capitalism is broadly accepted worldwide as the least bad way of organising economic activity.”

But the Observer also noted: “The gap between the incomes of the rich and the poor in the advanced democracies is widening and the disparity in wealth is extraordinary… Nor is that all.

The disparity of income and wealth between countries is also becoming insupportable. More than a billion people live in abject poverty, their collective income no more than 600 of the richest men and women on earth.”

This did not prevent the Observer from contemptuously speaking of the “implosion of socialism as an idea”.

We posed the question: why then did they draw parallels with the uncontrolled, untrammelled capitalism prior to 1914 and fearfully write: “It was the profound anger at the economic and social inequality that underpinned the growth of socialism and communism in the first 40 years of the century.”1 We also pointed to the massive share bubble which indicated that the boom was “built on a house of cards… One US firm in 1999 [has reached] a market capitalisation higher than the annual gross domestic product (GDP) of New Zealand.” We also anticipated that “capitalism is heading for a fall, the timing of which and the scale upon which it will develop is unknowable precisely because it works in a blind fashion. Marxism, scientific socialism, properly understood and applied, can work out in a broad sense how events are likely to develop… This doesn’t mean it’s possible to work out the winner of the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day! Marxism is the science of perspectives through understanding the broad processes which are developing economically, how they will be reflected socially and, ultimately, politically as well.”2

In Britain a massive disparity in wealth between the rich and poor had taken shape under both Tory and ‘Labour’ administrations. Blair, just before the beginning of the new millennium, also extolled the virtues of capitalism’s ‘free market’. But the appetite for quick profits, with little care for the health and safety of the mass of consumers and transport users, was accompanied by wholesale deregulation and little accountability, as the disasters like Paddington or health scares such as the BSE (Bovine spongiform encephalopathy) or GM (Genetically modified) food scandals had shown. Labour had tried and failed to convince us that we were all middle class now. This flew in the face of the experience of working people. In 1999, 20,000 had demonstrated in Newcastle, protesting against low pay. Anti-capitalist demonstrations had taken place in Cologne and in Seattle. A BBC Online poll had installed Karl Marx as ‘thinker of the millennium’.

Within days of the new millennium beginning Blair, in an interview with the TUC-sponsored magazine, Trade Unions Today, launched a bitter attack on the unions. He accused them of representing ‘sectional interests’, warning them to keep out of politics, especially when it came to interfering in the Labour Party. To justify his rant he said that the unions had attempted in the 1970s “to take on the government and set the agenda”. He even repeated Tory myths that the reason why Labour lost in 1979 was due to the unions. Fortunately for Blair, most of the trade union leaders at this  stage agreed with his analysis and were desperately trying to contain a new explosion from below. The so-called dirty strikes of 1979 happened because of the anger of working class people at the record of the 1974-79 Labour government, which had introduced wage restraint and made massive public spending cuts of £8 billion – equivalent to nearly £50 billion in 1999. This still remains the single biggest cut in public expenditure which any government has made up to now. The truth was that the union leaders in 1979 were unable to contain the working class, despite their best efforts, because of the anger of low paid workers in the health service, education and local authorities. To Blair and some of the union leaders, the strikes were ‘an embarrassment’. In reality, they empowered in a real way hundreds of thousands of previously unorganised workers to act collectively and do something about the problem of wages and lousy conditions.3

Blair had made his attack because of the evidence of mounting discontent at the inaction of the Labour government. It had done nothing to arrest the colossal decline of British industry, which is felt sharply today in the diminished opportunities for young people in particular to get reasonable jobs and income to plan for the future. As we entered the new millennium pensioners received a miserly 75p per week rise. ‘Outed’ by ‘their’ government, one pensioner wrote to Brown, saying that the promises of cookies in the future were not much use to him as he was 77 and wanted action now. Teachers, civil servants and other public sector workers were increasingly angry at the way their wages and living standards were held down. A report at this time showed that, if teachers had access to the same kind of housing in London as they had in 1900, on average they would need a salary of £80,000 a year. Even right-wing GMB leader John Edmonds had a glimmer of understanding of the discontent that was growing in the ranks of the working class. He commented that the trade unions’ ‘mistake’ in the winter of discontent was not to wait until after the 1979 election, when Labour would probably have been elected, before pressing demands. We commented that, in reality, they did not make a mistake as the winter of discontent arose from the colossal pressure of ordinary trade unionists from below, which then compelled the trade union leaders to ‘lead’ the movement.

The international mood against capitalism was also developing as the ideologists of the system were praising its achievements. The anti-World Trade Organisation demonstrations in Seattle, in the US and elsewhere indicated this. There was massive opposition to the inequality that was rooted in the system. One American economist and author David Korten commented: “The sales of the world’s ten largest companies exceed the GNP of the world’s 100 smallest countries. The leading 50 industrial corporations control 25% of the world’s economic output. The combined assets of the world’s 50 largest banks and financial companies control 60% of the world’s global capital.”4 The scene was therefore set for a huge conflict which would dominate the 21st century, between the ideas of outmoded capitalism and democratic socialism, purged of the repugnant ideas and methods of Stalinism.

The onset of the New Year did not herald an end to the woes of New Labour as it approached its 1,000th day in office. Even the government’s most loyal supporters were forced to admit that the “magic has started to fade”. It was faced with an avalanche of bad headlines: the NHS  crisis, the inability to deliver on election promises, Straw’s decision on Pinochet came to a head, the government betrayal of its so-called ‘ethical’ foreign policy and the call for heads to roll that accompanied all these fiascos. Then the Mandelson scandal erupted. At the same time Blair faced opposition from the normally mute membership of the Labour Party. We took the opportunity to remind our readers and working people in general of what we had written in May 1997, when the government had been first elected, that “the needs of big business and finance, the drive for profit will dominate over the needs of millions of ordinary people”. On the prospects for the election, we wrote: “Even if Blair were to win a general election, it will be on a massively reduced turnout and with a slashed majority.”5

Opposition developed towards the Blair government from  within its own ranks and from the most unexpected individuals. Peter Kilfoyle was notorious, particularly in Liverpool, as a Labour bureaucratic fixer. He was particularly used by Kinnock against Militant. Before then, he had served a stint as a right-wing union bashing figure linked to the Australian Labor Party. Some writers talked about Kilfoyle rescuing Labour from Militant’s ‘suicide mission’ in Liverpool. He had spoken about Trotskyites – that is, Militant – using ‘democratic centralist’ methods, but compared it to the ‘control freakery’ of Blair’s Millbank operation.

This crude political bruiser did not have the slightest understanding of the concept of democratic centralism and, in Liverpool, had applied Stalinist bureaucratic centralist methods himself. He was playing with words – which he little understood, moreover – in order to cover up his role in Liverpool. Kilfoyle’s ‘success’, through expulsions, led to a comeback for the Liberal Democrats in the city, mass abstention by former Labour supporters, Britain’s highest council tax and massive cuts in jobs and services by successive right-wing Labour and Liberal councils. That somebody like this could come into collision with the Blair machine said everything about New Labour’s right-wing character.6 So bereft was the Parliamentary Labour Party of genuine lefts that Tony Benn seized hold of him as a genuine representative of opposition: “I saw Peter Kilfoyle… [He] is very academic, a formidable man.”7 That was not the way the Liverpool labour movement viewed him. He was a hatchet man for Kinnock and the right wing in destroying all elements of Labour Party democracy.