Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/946/25337
20 years since 1997 general election
How Blairism sank its claws into the Labour Party
2 May, as well as being in the midst of preparations for the upcoming snap election, marks 20 years since another general election - the one in 1997 which brought Tony Blair and New Labour to power. Fittingly, From Militant to the Socialist Party - a new book by Socialist Party general secretary Peter Taaffe - will be out soon. The book covers the period 1995 to 2007, including the whole of Blair's premiership. Here we publish some edited extracts.
The Tory government under John Major could not escape electoral nemesis and they were aware of this. The response of Tony Blair, elected as Labour leader in 1994, and the Labour leadership was to drive even further towards the right, shamelessly stealing Major's ideas and garb.
The latter, in his evidence to the 2011 Leveson inquiry, said he used to joke: "I went swimming in the Thames, left my clothes on the bank and when I came back Mr Blair was wearing them."
The brewing mass opposition to the Major government widened the split within the Tory party. The economic upswing which British capitalism was experiencing resulted from its unexpected eviction from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism and the forced devaluation of sterling on Black Wednesday, 16 September 1992.
The massive groundswell against the Tories had nothing to do with the policies of the Labour leadership. Dissatisfaction with the government stood at 80%, a record high, and Major's approval rating plummeted to 15% but there was noone else in the Tory leadership capable of doing any better.
The benefits of economic growth were spread unevenly as the rich skimmed off the cream from the 'boom' while the real wages of the poorest actually fell. A gaping chasm opened up within the Tory cabinet with the Thatcherite eurosceptics described by Major as "bastards"!
The right-wing leaders of the Labour Party did everything to shore up the government. Blair and David Blunkett openly supported grant-maintained schools, which led to criticism even from right-wingers such as Roy Hattersley. Harriet Harman, Labour's employment spokesperson, disgracefully accepted the Tories' opt-outs from European legislation, including paying young workers less.
Blair adopted the law and order programme of Major, calling at Labour's 1995 conference for 3,000 extra police on the beat, and making the infamous pledge "to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime."
More importantly, working class living standards had gone back under the Tories because real wages had dropped by at least £50 a week on average compared to 16 years before. However, the majority of the official tops of the labour movement had fully embraced capitalism politically.
Echoing Blair's approach, John Monks, general secretary of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), commented: "The debate on the centre-left is no longer about socialism versus capitalism. It is about different kinds of capitalism."
Just how alienated Blair was from the base, the outlook and loyalty of the ranks of the labour movement was indicated by his revelation: "I voted Labour in 1983. I didn't really think a Labour victory was the best thing for the country, and I was a Labour candidate!" From the beginning, Blair and his like were the real 'entrists' into Labour - in the interests of capitalism!
Big business representative
Blair was unashamed about his origins and his politics: "What sort of leader was I at that point? I had a philosophy that was clearly different from that of the traditional Labour politician. I was middle class, and my politics were in many ways middle class... I didn't want class war."
Nevertheless, class war is a fact and Blair throughout his prime ministership was a better representative - more fitted for the times - than the Tories in carrying out class politics in the interest of big business.
From the outset he hated the Labour left, with special venom reserved for Militant (predecessor of the Socialist Party, whose supporters were then members of the Labour Party). He recounts a journey back from a meeting in the company of Tony Benn:
"We talked about Militant. I wanted to know what he thought about this Trotskyist sect that had infiltrated Labour. I was representing the party in the legal case against them and, having studied them and their methods, I knew there was no dealing with them, other than by expelling them.
"He didn't agree, and I spotted the fundamental weaknesses in this position: he was in love with his role as idealist, as standard-bearer, as the man of principle against the unprincipled careerist MPs."
In some ways this sums up what the Labour Party became under Blair - and in contrast to what it could have become if Benn had won the deputy leadership in 1981. Blair was to preside over 13 disastrous years of right-wing Labour government which resulted in a hollowed out organisational shell and almost five million lost general election votes. Benn enjoyed widespread support within the ranks of the labour movement until his death in 2014.
1995 and 1996 saw the Blair counter-revolution against the Labour Party carried out. This vindicated the analysis of Militant. Blair was compelled, at first, to disguise his intentions about changing the constitution - the elimination of Clause IV Part 4, with its aspiration for a socialist society - as merely a 'rephrasing'.
In his autobiography his aims are spelt out: "After the 1992 defeat, and without discussing it with anyone, not even Gordon [Brown], I had formed a clear view that if ever I was leader, the constitution should be rewritten and the old commitments to nationalisation and state control should be dumped."
Blair, a relatively new member, helped expel the alleged 'entrists' of Militant - who had decades of membership of Labour behind them. The dirty work by him and former 'left' ex-leader Neil Kinnock succeeded in ridding Labour of Militant. But this was just one of his and the right wing's aims.
The rest of the left was subsequently attacked, as we had warned at the time of our expulsion. Indeed, the expulsion of Militant supporters and the heroic Liverpool city councillors represented a key moment in the shift towards the right within the Labour Party. In time this would lead to its demise as a specifically workers' party at its base.
Some of the left - particularly those gathered around the Tribune newspaper - allowed themselves to be persuaded that the attack on Militant was a one-off, that by our 'intemperate tone' and militancy we were partly responsible for the attacks on us. They consistently and completely underestimated Blair and what he represented.
Whether Blair was conscious of his role or not is beside the point. The British ruling class, particularly Thatcher, had a long cherished ambition to destroy the basic class character of the Labour Party, determined by its link to the trade unions and its socialist aspirations as envisaged by Clause IV Part 4.
However, whenever the Labour right wing had attempted this in the past, they were defeated. They attacked the left but were thwarted by the mass opposition of the rank and file of the party, particularly manifested within the Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs).
The Labour Party leadership of Hugh Gaitskell tried to remove Clause IV in 1959. This met a brick wall of opposition, particularly from the trade unions, some who formally stood politically on the right. Faced with huge opposition the leadership retreated.
Blair succeeded where other right-wing attempts at destroying the Labour Party as a voice of working people had failed. He would never have been able to achieve this without the fundamental change in the political situation following the collapse of Stalinism [the regimes in the USSR and Eastern Europe].
This changed the overall class balance of forces in Britain and internationally, particularly from an ideological point of view. Blair, as a precondition for his success, wanted to distance New Labour from any semblance of the class struggle or socialism.
He wished to destroy the trade unions' integration with Labour, in the manner of the Democratic Party in the US. There, the unions give money, claim to have 'influence' over the Democrats but are not affiliated to it.
Blair was determined to brook no opposition to plans to abandon Clause IV and weaken union influence: "From the very beginning I was determined to be the architect of something revolutionary, transformative and undeniable. I had kept the plan on Clause IV very tight. On the opening weekend of party conference, just before the beginning, I started consultations with other key people."
Shadow Home Secretary Jack Straw "was delighted". He had played a pernicious role in attacks on Militant supporters. He later buttressed Blair during the Iraq war, swallowing the fairy tale about 'weapons of mass destruction'.
This was a complete rupture with the ideas upon which the Labour Party was based of breaking from capitalism and initiating a new socialist society. Moreover, it was taking place when capitalism worldwide was incapable of significantly improving the conditions of working class people.
This was one of the reasons why Labour was ahead in the opinion polls in 1995 - and not the alleged superstar image of Blair. We pointed out: "Blair's successful campaign against Clause IV is on the coat-tails of the capitalists' offensive. He was enormously assisted by the purge against Militant and others on the left."
We also pointed out that revolts of the working class were inevitable given the incapacity of capitalism to satisfy human needs.
The more farsighted representatives of capitalism understand this. Writing in the Financial Times, Ben Pimlott, professor of politics, indicated why Clause IV historically occupied such a key position: "In the 1970s, the left began to present common ownership, once again, as the essence of socialism.
"In an age of grassroots industrial militancy, it became harder to argue that the inscription on every comrade's membership card was there just for sentimental reasons. Those were remarkable times. It is extraordinary to recall that in 1973 the Labour Party National Executive Committee advanced the plan for the state takeover of 25 leading companies; that the figure of 25 was reached because... if it was not quantified someone might try to duck out of the obligation."
He went on to say: "Even this figure of 25 did not satisfy the hard left, which wanted to add a further 250 major monopolies together with the land, banks, finance houses, insurance companies and building societies with minimum compensation... all under democratic workers' control and management."
This learned professor failed to point out what we stressed: "That this later resolution was moved, with considerable support, by Militant delegates at the Labour Party conference in 1973."
Blair's right-wing leadership was therefore quite conscious that Clause IV was not just some outdated totem. In conditions of crisis it could become a beacon, a point of reference for radical policies.
Blair, with the support of the media, pushed relentlessly for the elimination of Clause IV. It met some resistance from below, with a survey revealing that 60 out of the 62 CLPs that had debated the issue passed resolutions demanding it be unchanged.
The leaders of some unions demanded commitments from the Labour leaders that they would renationalise the water industry in exchange for their support.
Militant criticised them: "An attempt to stitch up a fudged compromise on such a vital question is a glaring example of 'undemocratic manoeuvres in smoke-filled rooms'. The union leaders should be fighting for the nationalisation of all privatised industries as well as the retention of Clause IV."
Blair talked of replacing the 'anachronism' of the clause with a modern expression of 'broad values', like justice, equality and opportunity. Nobody would disagree with such aims but they remained a pipedream in a crisis-ridden capitalist system.
The press and the ideologues of capitalism never stopped repeating that 'socialism is dead'. Why then were they and their right-wing allies in the labour movement so ferociously determined to see the removal of Clause IV?
They correctly feared that future big social upheavals in Britain - following on the heels of economic crisis - would crystallise mass support around the ideas of socialism if Clause IV remained in Labour's constitution.
As Blair assaulted Clause IV, he also publicly expressed his admiration for the most hated Tory politician of the 20th century, Margaret Thatcher. In an interview with the Sunday Times, when asked whether Thatcher's eleven years in power did some good, he replied: "Yes. Britain needed change at the end of the 1970s." He added: "She was a thoroughly determined person and that is an admirable quality."
Thatcher, as the conflicts over the miners, Liverpool and the poll tax demonstrated, was a determined class warrior whose stated aim was "the destruction of socialism". Thus, there was a certain symmetry between her and Blair.
New Labour would not touch the anti-union legislation. This alone should have been sufficient for the unions to dump it and prepare the basis for a new mass party.
Blair's belly-crawling to Thatcher contrasted sharply with his arrogant attacks on the unions, still the paymasters of Labour. He warned that the unions would never again have an "arm lock on a Labour government; they would have no more influence over that government than the employers".
And he was true to his word from day one in office as he bent the knee to big business and spurned the demands of the working class and poor. More than any previous Labour leader he was seeking to mollify big business by 'putting the unions in their place', even before coming to power. He was conducting a war, calling for the continual revision of the trade union block vote until it was reduced to only individual union members holding a party card.
None went quite as far as Blair in consciously setting out to destroy Labour as a workers' party, making sure that he lined his pockets in the process. In 1994, without consultation with any section of the party apart from his press officer, Alistair Campbell, he renamed the party 'New Labour'.
Moreover, he would not tolerate any compromise which would involve downplaying 'New' in the title. He wrote: "New Labour with a capital N was indeed like renaming the party."
However, there was some resistance: "As if to underscore how difficult it was all going to be, the next day the party, at the insistence of the unions, passed a resolution reaffirming Clause IV... For me, I was absolutely clear: if the change was rejected, I was off."
At Labour's special national conference the atmosphere was muted because the decision to scrap Clause IV was decided well in advance - even the speakers were predetermined. Delegates were forced to fill in speakers' cards, a well-known right-wing device for stitching up debates.
Benn, Labour's longest serving MP, tried to speak throughout the debate on this vital issue but shamefully was not called.
The right-wing evolution which had even corroded its base was reflected most glaringly in the CLP delegates. Incredibly, 90% of the constituency delegates voted for Blair's abandonment of socialist principles, something that would have been absolutely unheard of in the 1950s and 1960s boom when the rank and file were consistently on the left.
But the new breed of 'delegates' - smart suited careerists seeking a shortcut to power and influence - were far removed from worker delegates of the past. Only two out of eleven CLP speakers opposed the dropping of Clause IV.
The mood was captured by Garfield Davies of the shop-workers' union Usdaw. He concluded that one of the three landmarks in the recent history of the party had been Kinnock's attack on Militant, claiming it saved the party and ensured that the abolition of Clause IV could happen.
In opposition, a few constituency delegates reminded the conference that when the Gang of Four split to form the Social Democratic Party in 1981, they had demanded that Labour should abolish Clause IV, introduce 'one member one vote' and break with the unions. "Doesn't this sound familiar?" asked one.
Another "recalled that Labour had won its largest ever parliamentary majority in 1945 by promising and carrying through a programme of public ownership of the railways, pits, and creating the National Health Service".
Even in this 'Blairised' conference some opposition was evident even from right-wing unions. Nevertheless, they went along with Blair largely because working people, and particularly the unions, were desperate for a change of government.
They therefore swallowed the argument that 'modernisation' was necessary to get rid of the Tories, even if this meant ditching principles.
The vote on the amendment to abandon Clause IV was 65% in favour with 34% against. The unions were split with 38% in favour and almost 32% against, while the CLPs voted in favour with a meagre 3% against!
Many delegates were disgusted and walked out of the conference, some of them greeting Militant Labour members outside, including Dave Nellist, the Labour MP for Coventry South East from 1983-92, who had been expelled in 1991 for his socialist beliefs.
An innocuous new clause was adopted where all mention of socialism, the idea of a planned economy and nationalisation, were expunged. It should not be forgotten that it was not only Blair but also Gordon Brown who was one of the architects of New Labour.
Brown bears joint responsibility for the party's swing towards the right. His conflict with Blair was within the New Labour apparatus, a personal struggle for power.
Blair himself said that the elimination of Clause IV was a "defining moment" for the Labour Party, quite clearly indicating that he had been successful in changing its class character. However, much as he would bask in this unique "personal achievement", the reality was that a similar process had developed worldwide.
The shift towards the right of 'socialist', 'labour' and even 'communist' parties indicated a wide, deep-going ideological shift. The political wind was in the sails of all those organisations that positioned themselves within the framework of capitalism.
Alternatively, those who defended the 'socialist project' were forced to swim against the stream, not for the first time in history.
The outcome of the general election two years later was summed up by the front page headline of the Socialist: "Tories Wiped Out". The anti-Tory tide was devastating as 180 seats changed hands.
Yet Labour's vote share was lower than its 1945 landslide victory; lower even than the victory of 1966 - and 1951 and 1955 when Labour lost. The overall turnout of 71% was 7% down on 1992 - and meant that the numbers who abstained had increased by a third on the previous election. The lowest turnouts were in traditional Labour-held seats.
As we had warned, Labour's shift to the right had alienated many of its traditional voters. Only the burning desire to get the Tories out led people to vote for Blair's party.
More than anything, Labour was the fortunate beneficiary of a massive and decisive rejection of the Thatcherite brutalities and inequalities of the 1980s and 1990s. The irony was that New Labour believed it had to adopt pro-Thatcherite policies to get elected when the majority of the population was overwhelmingly prepared to reject those 'values'.
We pointed out that New Labour's biggest advantage for now was that they were not the Tory government. However, the size of the Labour victory promoted expectations and illusions that Labour was incapable of fulfilling.
Ominously, on the steps of Ten Downing Street, Blair warned: "We were elected as New Labour and will govern as New Labour." This meant that, despite one or two minor changes, Thatcher's counter-revolution would not be overturned. Nonetheless, a new period had opened up in British politics.
The sequel to The Rise of Militant by Peter Taaffe - pre-order today!
From Militant to the Socialist Party
This general election campaign will see a choice for those opposed to Tory austerity. The battle within Labour rages over Tony Blair's legacy and those seeking to continue it, and supporters of Corbyn who want to see working-class political representation. In this battle, the example of Militant has been a touchstone, showing how it is possible for working-class people to organise and win.
From Militant to the Socialist Party covers developments from the New Labour takeover to the first rumblings of the world economic crisis of 2007-08, and is the sequel to The Rise of Militant. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Stalinist regimes, capitalism's representatives proclaimed 'the end of history'.
But the struggles of workers and young people continued. From the Liverpool Dockers' strike to the mass movements against the invasion of Iraq, From Militant to the Socialist Party charts the fightback, and highlights the lessons of these movements for today.
From Militant to the Socialist Party offers unique insight into how Marxists organised, the programme and strategy put forward at key stages of the struggle.
Peter Taaffe is the former editor of Militant newspaper, and the general secretary of the Socialist Party. He was a founding member of the Committee for a Workers' International, which now organises in over 45 countries.
- RRP £15, but pre-order for only £12. Send your name, address and contact details to [email protected] or leftbooks.co.uk - Expected publication date mid-May 2017.
- Rise of Militant, also £12
In The Socialist 26 April 2017:
What we think
Socialist Party news and analysis
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party workplace news
20 years since Blair's election
Socialist Party reports and campaigns
Socialist Party comments and reviews
May Day greetings
Solidarity greetings in the Socialist for International Workers' Day 2017