68. Demise of Blair



“I went over to the conference, and I heard that the resolution to renationalise the railways had passed through quite substantially, with the unions voting in favour and 72% of the constituency delegates voting against, which shows what’s happened to the Party,” wrote Tony Benn.1 It said everything about the ‘rank and file’ of New Labour. Whereas in the past, the constituency party delegates were always to the left of predominantly right-wing led trade unions, the reverse was now the case. The unions had voted in favour of this radical resolution but the ranks of New Labour were filled out with careerists, local councillors who were carrying through cuts and every type of backslider.

Within the trade unions there was an unmistakable shift towards the left. This was reflected in the victory of Matt Wrack in the ballot for the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU). We expected that “Matt’s election should see the FBU take a firmer stand on vital issues like pensions and pay than it has done in the last year, where the majority of the union leadership have preferred to attack and witch-hunt their own members, rather than preparing a fight on these issues.” The Socialist Party welcomed his election while at the same time hoping that this would lead to a rebuilding of the confidence of the membership after the setbacks following their dispute in 2003 and the misrule of the previous general secretary Andy Gilchrist.2  Blair pushed on with his privatisation agenda, trying to extract every ounce of benefit for big business out of his remaining time in office. He promoted ‘free schools’ and ‘academies’, which were freed from local authority control and oversight. Blair had to rely on Tory MPs to pass the Education Bill through its second parliamentary reading. Labour ‘rebels’ who voted against it called him ‘Ramsay McBlair’, after the first Labour Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald who formed the National Government with the Tories in 1931.

This, together with corruption scandals that were breaking out, led to reports of ‘civil war’ in New Labour, fuelled by the fear of what would happen to its vote in the 2006 local elections. In capitalist circles there was concern on how discredited Blair had become, and how this was adding to a level of disgust with capitalist politicians in general. A poll revealed that the Blair government was seen by 70% as more sleazy than John Major’s Tory government. The headline in the Socialist read: “The stench of rotten Labour – time for a new workers’ party”.3 The Guardian echoed the first part of our demand telling Blair to go and adding that “the office degrades all its holders”.4 We pointed out that this may apply to capitalist politicians, with many sinking their snouts into the parliamentary pig trough while carrying out attacks on workers’ living standards. A new workers’ party would be different; all elected officials would be fully accountable to the party and live, as the ‘Militant MPs’ (Dave Nellist, Terry Fields and Pat Wall) had done, on the average wage of the workers they represented.

The Labour Party itself was becoming increasingly empty and, at the same time, intolerant of any dissent or even discussion. Tony Benn once more records that “At Party meetings people are barracked if they say unpopular things… Quite a number of people said to Blair, ‘Look, the problem stems from you and Gordon Brown’… One MP said, ‘The Party has just disappeared. There are no local parties. There’s nothing to campaign with. It’s all top-down and instructed from Party headquarters; all the experienced regional organisers have gone, and there are people on short-term contracts’.” He then added: “The nature of the crisis in the Party must be becoming apparent to people.”5 Unfortunately, Tony Benn himself failed to see the full extent of the decline of the Labour Party, because of the death grip exercised by Blairism on it.

Tony Benn gave an interesting insight into the approach of the media and how it reports on the working class and its organisations, like the trade unions. Channel 4 News anchored by Jon Snow, while in no way consistently left-wing, usually attempted to give a relatively objective analysis of events. Yet even Snow, Tony Benn wrote, could not conceal his hostility to the labour movement and its representatives: “I said [to Jon Snow], ‘Why don’t you invite trade unions? ‘Well, they don’t matter anymore. In the old days trade unions mattered, but they don’t anymore!’ Jon’s the son of a bishop. I asked, ‘Have you ever been convinced by anybody, or persuaded by anybody, you’ve listened to?’ ‘Yes,’ he said, “every time I go to Number 10, I think the Prime Minister is right.’” Tony Benn then asked: “‘To whom are you accountable?’… When I said that people he interviewed wanted to say something: ‘Oh, they’re not there to say something. They are there to answer my questions!’”6

If this media outlet, usually viewed as ‘fair’ and ‘to the left’ can display such bias, through its main news anchorman, what hope is there for the rest of the media? It shows that only mass campaigns, mobilising the working people from the bottom up, will get the labour movement’s message across. This is the lesson of all great battles of the labour movement: Liverpool 1983-87, the miners’ strike 1984-85, and the poll tax struggle, where a mass campaign was able to overcome a poisonous media barrage seeking to distort, lie and undemocratically mould public opinion to the benefit of the boss class that they represent. Blair was the capitalists’ creature as he effectively destroyed the Labour Party as a workers’ party and carried on Thatcher’s work through a ruthless implementation of neo-liberal policies.

But he came a cropper in the May elections. New Labour lost over 300 council seats with the main beneficiary being the Tories. Parties and independents on the left also gained, but so did the far-right BNP. The BNP won 32 seats, an increase of 27 on its pre-election position. The Greens won 130, an increase of 21. The Socialist Party increased its positions to seven councillors. Yet Blair acolytes skulking in 10 Downing Street displayed the same air of unreality as Margaret Thatcher did in her last days in office. The Observer reported the conclusion of Blair’s fans: “They basically said people were angry with Tony because they love him so much and are angry because they think he might go.”7

The BNP had picked up some ‘Old Labour’ clothes, discarded by Blair, calling demagogically for the railways to be taken back into public ownership as a single company. It also declared in relation to Iraq: “It’s time to take our soldiers home from America’s Iraq war.” It even farcically claimed to stand “for strong trade unions… to protect the workers from exploitation.” Of course, the far-right, fascistic or neo-fascist organisations, beginning with Mussolini and Hitler, had always relied on ‘socialistic’ phraseology, calculated to appeal to the working class and sections of the disillusioned middle-class. This did not alter their character as a largely middle-class mobilised force to attack the working class. They were used to smash and atomise the working class and its organisations.

Now, this election showed that the BNP had established a significant foothold in places like Barking and Dagenham, parts of the West Midlands, Lancashire and Yorkshire. The BNP was far from repeating the success of Hitler and Mussolini in Britain but there was no room for complacency. Labour minister Margaret Hodge was blamed after the disaster of the local elections because she blurted out that eight out of ten voters in her constituency in Barking considered voting BNP. While she had exaggerated, this warning was confirmed when 11 BNP councillors were elected in the borough.8

Respect, led by George Galloway with the SWP in tow, was successful in getting sixteen councillors elected, twelve in Tower Hamlets, three in Newham and one in Birmingham. However, their appeal was mainly to Muslims. It is a necessary task for the labour movement to win significant support amongst ‘immigrant communities’ but the approach of Respect, we pointed out, could lead to a certain polarisation. The white working class BNP voters of Barking and Dagenham could only be won away from the BNP by a left party that puts forward a class-based alternative. We pointed out that “It is not so much a question of what Respect’s election material says, but of what it doesn’t say.” While it put across opposition to NHS  cuts, council house privatisation, the war in Iraq and other welcome positions, it did not consistently include a class-based appeal to all sections of the working class.9 This is one of the reasons why, despite early success, its support subsequently diminished and it was now playing a marginal role.

In the wake of the local election disaster, even the majority of New Labour MPs, who up to then had clung to the coat-tails of Blair as a ‘vote winner’, began to stir. They could be compared to the ‘plain’, the broad mass of ‘neutral’ assemblymen during the French Revolution who supported the dominant force in power at any one time, so long as their interests were defended and enhanced. However, once their position was in danger, they turned on the incumbent! Blair had once brazenly boasted: “’I have taken from my party everything they thought they believed in. I have stripped them of their core beliefs,’ Blair confided. ‘What keeps it together is success and power.’”10 Brown’s intense struggle for the throne was not primarily ideological but personal. He was, as Blair himself admitted, “New Labour to his fingertips.”

The catastrophe of privatisation and particularly the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) reached volcanic proportions. House of Commons investigations revealed how financial sharks were bleeding the NHS through ‘overpayments’. Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary, got a whiff of this when she addressed the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) conference. There was an outcry when she tried to big up Labour’s recent record on the NHS. This ranked alongside the treatment of Blair himself at the Women’s Institute conference a few years before. Like Blair, Hewitt was also forced to leave the stage to jeers. Mass opposition was growing to the social and economic decline of Britain. Brown was not an alternative to Blair but New Labour’s twin pillar. This meant that there was already suspicion of him from workers, even before he took over from Blair.  An interesting side issue was the discussion which broke out over the performance of Respect in the elections. The SWP had taken up, not publicly but in internal ‘notes’, the Socialist Party’s criticisms of them and Respect in the local elections. We posed the question: “Are the criticisms of Respect and, by definition, the SWP made by the Socialist Party and Bob Crow [who also criticised Respect] inaccurate and unfair?… [If] Respect represented a turning away from Labour, now a capitalist party, by Asian workers towards a more developed class consciousness, this would indeed be a positive step. But, unfortunately, under the leadership of George Galloway and the SWP, Respect has so far not acted as this bridge to a new workers’ party, but reinforced the idea of ‘Muslim interests’ completely separate from those of other sections of the working class.”11

Throughout 2006 and 2007 the Socialist Party analysed the death agony of Blair, although Blairism continued to dominate the Labour Party. We sought to patiently explain the case for a new mass socialist alternative. However, the leadership of the trade unions still harboured illusions that if Brown was to take over from Blair then a new ‘radical’ period would open up. This was despite the fact that even opinion polls in the capitalist press suggested that a Brown-led Labour Party would only gain at most two points in the opinion polls. We commented: “The New Labour machine is making a mistake if it believes that ditching Blair will simply solve their problems. It is not only Blair, but Blairism, which people are fed up with… There will be some workers who are hoping against hope that Brown is only pretending to be a Blairite, and will reveal his ‘true socialist’ colours once elected.” Their illusions were unfounded, as Brown had consistently pursued an anti-working class, pro-big business agenda as Chancellor.

At the Labour Party conference in 2006, Blair emphasised in his speech the continuity between New Labour and the Labour governments of the past – pointing out, for example, that in 1969 Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, tried to introduce antitrade union legislation in the form of the misnamed In Place of Strife White Paper. Blair argued that the difference then was that Wilson did not dare to go ahead. Blair was right. The tops of the Labour Party had always acted in the interests of big business. Nevertheless, Labour governments in the past were forced to respond to the pressure of the working class. In 1969 a series of strikes put the government under such pressure that it threatened to split. Wilson was forced to retreat.

We pointed out in 2006: “Today is a very different situation within the Labour Party where the Blairites have completely insulated themselves from the pressure of the organised working class in the form of the trade unions. While the trade union vote still has power at conference, the conference itself has no decision-making power at all!… According to the Labour Representation Committee [a remnant of the once powerful left] resolutions have been ruled out of order on: Iraq, Trident replacement, the council housing ‘fourth option’, nuclear energy, trade union laws, Venezuela, incapacity benefit, school admissions policy, party political funding, and Thames Water!”

Yet the majority of trade union leaders still mistakenly argued that New Labour could be changed. If they were sincere in this, why didn’t all those affiliated trade unions support John McDonnell MP’s campaign for the leadership, as the only candidate who stood on a programme in the interests of trade union members: opposition to cuts, low pay and privatisation? A survey of the incredibly conservative approach of the union leadership towards New Labour then gives a picture of complete abdication of political leadership towards the interests of their members.12

The 2007 local elections were every bit as disastrous as the previous year’s. Labour lost control of the Scottish parliament with its lowest vote since 1955, had its worst result since 1918 in Wales and lost almost 500 council seats in England. There were now almost 90 councils where Labour had been totally wiped out. The Tories, however, had not enjoyed a groundswell of popular support but were seen in the main as the ‘lesser evil’.

Blair resigned shortly after these elections. The reactions of working people to his departure were predictable: “For Jamie Oliver’s dinner ladies in Greenwich, Blair’s legacy is more work, more hours and if you’re lucky a £2 a week pay increase and gardeners here face a £111 a week pay cut! It’s an absolute disgrace!” said Onay Kasab, then of Greenwich Unison. A Durham socialist student commented. “For me Blair’s legacy is leaving university with about £15,000 worth of debt.”13 The Socialist simply stated: “Curtain falls on disastrous reign.” A fitting political obituary from the Financial Times read: “The New Labour project looks increasingly like Margaret Thatcher’s final triumph.” Kenneth Clarke appeared on BBC Question Time and praised Blair for “finishing off socialism” in the Labour Party. Election ‘guru’ John Curtice wrote in the Independent: “The party that was originally founded to provide working-class representation in Parliament is no longer regarded as a working-class party. In 1987, the British Election Study found that 46% of the electorate thought the Labour Party looked after the interests of the working class ‘very closely’. By the time of the last election, only 11% did.”14

Brown was crowned leader with no contest, a spectacular case of Labour MPs “tobogganing towards disaster with their eyes closed”. He had actually pretended to want a contest but when left-wing challenger John McDonnell struggled to reach the required 45 nominations, Brown refused to ask some of his own supporters to nominate McDonnell. Could he have done a ‘Corbyn’ and been elected Labour leader at this stage if right-wing MPs had lent their votes to get him on the ballot paper? Highly unlikely. A crucial difference between then and Corbyn’s victory lay in giving the right to vote to forces outside the Labour Party – the £3 ‘associate supporters’ – who massively opted for Jeremy Corbyn. This in turn was only made possible by a change of rules, following the Collins Review, that was originally a device by the right wing to nullify the collective organised voice of the trade unions but which backfired on them!

The candidate supported by the major trade unions for deputy leader, John Cruddas, opposed higher tuition fees but he also nominated Gordon Brown for the leadership. Hilary Benn, firmly in the Blairite camp, only managed to get on the ballot paper for the deputy leadership contest through getting some final nominations from members of the parliamentary Campaign Group whose ‘socialist’ conscience amounted to only nominating him out of sympathy for his father, Tony Benn.

Tariq Ali wrote later about the strained political relations between Tony Benn and his son Hilary. He commented on the latter’s shameful support for the bombing of Syria in 2015 and his parliamentary “disingenuous speech – Hitler, with the Spanish Civil War thrown in for good measure – [which] was loudly cheered by Tory and hardcore Blairite MPs. (What a pity that the two-hour row between Hilary Benn and his father over the Iraq War, of which Hilary was an ardent supporter, was never taped and transcribed in Tony Benn’s printed diaries – though he did talk about it to friends.)”15

We concluded that the departure of Tony Blair after 10 years in power did actually represent a turning point in political developments in Britain. Gordon Brown, however, represented a continuation of the ‘ancien regime’, the substitution of ‘New Labour’ by ‘New, New Labour’! We commented: “It also represents a psychological break in a changed British and world situation. Shakespeare’s Malcolm declared of the Thane of Cawdor in Macbeth: ‘Nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it.’”16

Yet Blair’s political death would not lead to an enhancement of his reputation. The manner of his exit, after remaining in the political departure lounge for a seemingly interminable period, summed up his disastrous reign. Certainly for the labour movement, rather than the crowd ‘asking for more’, as suggested by his small coterie, he was met with derision and catcalls from almost all sides. The ‘uber-Blairites’ were undoubtedly correct when they claimed that he was forced out by a Brown-inspired ‘coup’ at the 2006 Labour Party conference. However, we pointed out that his government began to the strains of “Things can only get better” but ended with a mere 22% of the population believing that he had done “a good job”. Five million voters had deserted Labour since 1997. We reminded working people that the so-called Blair landslide of that year was achieved by New Labour polling just 30.8% of the electorate, 13.5 million voters. Since then, the numbers voting for New Labour had progressively declined in subsequent general elections to 24.2% in 2001 and 21.6% in 2005. Labour Party membership in this period officially dropped by 50% but in reality this underestimated those who had deserted its ranks.

Labour was now virtually indistinguishable from the other two capitalist parties. It was similar to former social-democratic parties which had gone over to a defence of the system and abandoned the claims of the working class. Some of them did retain an element of ‘social democracy’, which allowed significant sections of the masses to see them for a period as the ‘lesser evil’. This allowed some workers to support New Labour candidates in the vain hope that they would prevent ‘slash and burn’ policies, the destruction of elements of the welfare state, by the Tories. Peter Mandelson stated after Blair’s departure that his control of the Labour Party had resulted in Labour becoming a “‘normal social democratic party’ on the pattern of the rest of Europe.” Nothing could have been further from the truth. In words and deeds, New Labour had broken with the ideas of social democracy: defence of the welfare state, reforms and gradual improvements in living standards, state intervention as a lever to increase the share of the working class at the expense of the rich and powerful. New Labour and the former social-democratic parties had gone over hook, line and sinker to the anti-state ‘greed is good’ philosophy of neo-liberalism.

An indication of this was shown by the Financial Times, approvingly quoting comments made by Jim Murphy, then a government minister for welfare reform. He had declared that “Britain’s welfare state ‘will never’ pay benefits high enough to lift people out of poverty, adding that he didn’t think it should.” He went on further: “Work, he declared, was now ‘the only route out of poverty in the UK’.” The Financial Times commented: “A decade ago, such remarks from a Labour MP would have caused a riot.”17 The pitifully low wages on offer in Britain for unskilled jobs would not provide an escape route out of poverty. Unemployment began to inexorably rise, which completely falsified Murphy’s contentions.

Brown’s election was a ‘Stalinist’ exercise in machine politics and arm-twisting. Taken together with John McDonnell’s failure to even get on the ballot for the leadership contest, it reinforced our arguments that New Labour represented a decisive rupture with the Labour Party of the past. We had also argued though that the mass of the working class, in particular trade unionists, could at a certain stage move to ‘reclaim’ the party from the right-wing. Brown’s coronation irrefutably demonstrated that this was going to be difficult, if not impossible. While not on the scale of Stalin’s triumphs in elections (who once received 101% of the vote) Brown nevertheless received the 313 nominations to ensure a single candidate election. His henchmen achieved this by suggesting to the PLP, behind the scenes of course, that a vote for McDonnell would be construed as a “career ending” step!

Despite opposition to the proposition of John McDonnell and others on the left that new life could be breathed into a moribund Labour Party, we nevertheless supported the idea that if it came to a vote he should have been supported, particularly by the unions. But the trade union leaders were at this stage terrified of such a struggle because even though McDonnell would not have won, in the course of the battle a left could have emerged. But ‘hope springs eternal’. The trade union leaders refused to fight for the ‘crown’ – a leadership of Labour beholden to them – but instead concentrated on the position of the ‘dauphin’, the mostly meaningless position of deputy leader, which had given the hapless John Prescott the semblance of power. The stance of Tony Woodley, general secretary of the TGWU, and other trade union leaders amounted to lining up behind Brown and hoping for concessions via the deputy leader, which, in the main, would never materialise.

In reality, New Labour bent the knee consistently to the CBI, the bosses’ union but it never listened to or retreated before trade union pressure, unless it was confronted with the threat of actual strike action. On the issue of perspectives, we stated: “Brown may even cut and run for an early general election.” But what would be the choice before the British people in such an election? All the three main parties were, in effect, three wings of the same capitalist party.18