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Blunkett: a study in opportunism
TONY MULHEARN, member of the group of Liverpool 47 councillors who fought the Thatcher government between 1983 and 1987, reviews David Blunkett by Stephen Pollard.
If the axiom 'by your friends shall you be known' was ever in question, Steven Pollard's autobiography of Blunkett dispels such doubts. 'A big beast'...an 'Extraordinary man'... 'Like no other in British history'... 'Awe-inspiring force of nature', are some of the epithets Blunkett's fall has provoked.
Pollard, an ex-Fabian who effortlessly made the transition to Thatcherism, describes Blunkett's "drive and determination", "his contempt for the Islington set", a "working class lad born into poverty". His experiences, Pollard argues, make him "incapable of betrayal".
Blunkett counts among his friends Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre; CEO of Murdoch's News International Les Hinton; his regular holiday companion is Paul Potts, CEO of the Press Association and deputy editor of the Daily Express in its most conservative phase.
Blunkett undoubtedly displayed personal qualities of tenacity by overcoming the obstacles inherent in blindness; but was that tenacity deployed in the interests of the working class?
On becoming active in the Labour movement, he soon recognised the value of left rhetoric in climbing the political ladder. Sheffield, with its steel and mining traditions and the struggles to defend them from Thatcherism, fuelled Blunkett's radicalism in the early years.
But, as Pollard says, while he was prepared to confront the Thatcher government,
"Blunkett's behaviour was always calculated...he was careful to provide himself with the means of backing down without losing face - and still gaining credibility on the Left as a national figure".
Blunkett himself is quoted as saying:
"Sheffield was unusual in that I believe we managed to be radical without the lunacy that affected some Labour councils. We were certainly distinct from Militant Tendency, which advocated old-style dictatorial policies, where voluntary organisations were persona non grata and decisions were made centrally and applied no matter what the local people wanted."
That Liverpool council had secured the highest Labour vote ever recorded for doing precisely what local people wanted is ignored.
His rank and file base, his prominent position in the rate-capping campaign, Neil Kinnock's elevation as leader of the Labour Party, and the resignation of Frank Allaun which created a vacancy on Labour's National Executive Committee, allowed Blunkett to be catapulted onto that body by Labour Party conference in 1983.
He became a national figure of the Left who would subsequently be a willing collaborator of the Right. Acting on Blunkett's recommendation, Sheffield Council abandoned the rate-capping campaign that left Liverpool and Lambeth, as Pollard concedes, "as the only two councils who refused to knuckle under".
A key section of the book regurgitates the distortion and outright lies about Liverpool. Blunkett claims he became convinced Kinnock was right to attack Liverpool council after they rejected the Stonefrost Report's (a commission set up after the 1985 Labour Party conference to investigate Liverpool's finances) 'solution' to Liverpool's crisis.
Stonefrost proposed a fifteen percent rate increase (in addition to the nine per cent already agreed), abandoning the housebuilding programme and a 'small number' of job losses.
This was Blunkett's excuse to throw in his lot with Kinnock. He describes a rally he attended in Liverpool on 4 November 1985 when he was going to 'tell them straight' to accept Stonefrost. Pollard quotes Blunkett:
"I'm not susceptible to visual intimidation. It has to be verbal not visual to work on me and, since the cameras were there, they could not do that. But I could feel John Hamilton (then leader of the council) physically shaking next to me.
It was one of those moments you never want to go through but it was seminal. It was when the left outside Militant decided that it was prepared to take them on."
I chaired that rally of 800 in the Philharmonic Hall. I can't recall any intimidation or John Hamilton shaking - in fact he received an ovation when he reiterated his determination to resist any cuts. Thus Blunkett relies on Salem's spectral evidence: intimidation didn't happen but, without the cameras, he knew it would have.
Another working-class lad and leading witch-hunter, ex-NUPE (public sector trade union which merged into UNISON) official Tom Sawyer, is also resurrected to utter the same baseless charges.
In a priceless quote he describes a Liverpool District Labour Party meeting: "In an atmosphere of intimidation fuelled by parading security guards and hundreds of non-delegates, NUPE reps were threatened and intimidated because they would not toe the Militant line. Some of the things I saw as a member of the Liverpool inquiry (the witch-hunt committee) have more in common with the extreme right in European politics than with the left."
The only thing he got right was that it was a very large gathering of delegates and visitors. From the chair, I saw a number of static security staff who had came to the meeting straight from work and so were still in their working gear.
He produces no evidence of intimidation, nor names any names. Sawyer went on to move the suspension of the Liverpool party, with Blunkett seconding the motion. He was duly rewarded by being interred in the House of Lords.
At the NEC, Blunkett confirms Kinnock had already decided to go for expulsions. Tony Mulhearn was the first. Harry Smith survived because, in Blunkett's words:
"After agonising I decided that the real factor that counted in his (Harry's) favour was that he was the only 'accusee' with a sense of humour."
Kinnock concurred. Harry's reprieve was the token symbol of the 'fairness' of the kangaroo court. He continues to this day to be a vigorous supporter of the Socialist Party.
Blunkett was metamorphosing into the finished article. Brian Gould, the man who 'masterminded' Labour's catastrophic defeat in 1987, praised Blunkett for his 'suppleness of mind'.
He opposed selection in education, later to become a supporter; he opposed the plan to ditch Clause Four (the clause in the constitution of the Labour Party that committed it to fight for a socialist transformation of society), only to embrace its abolition immediately prior to joining Blair's inner circle.
The press praised him for his tough stance with the teachers' unions.
After resigning Blunkett complained that he was a working-class lad who had been brought down by the millionaires whose company he so eagerly sought.
Not for the first time in history has the Labour movement spawned a 'working-class lad' who becomes seduced by the trappings of capitalist power, accepts their praise and eventually deludes themselves that they are in their exalted positions by dint of their own inborn ability and not because the Labour movement propelled them there.
Socialists will not regret Blunkett's departure, but it would have been a real victory had he and his cronies been removed by the mass votes of the working class and replaced by a leadership committed to socialism, rather than the consequences of a liaison with one of the glitterati.
This biography reveals a man who believed himself untouchable, either from the Labour movement or from the press that, he believed, he could manipulate by relying on his network of 'friends' and contacts.
Unusually it was not the tabloids which unleashed the pack, but the so-called quality press. However, the media did not universally welcome his demise. Already a press campaign is under way for him to return to the cabinet after the next general election.
It is a matter of pride that similar sentiments were never afforded to the Liverpool 47 when they were surcharged and removed from office in 1987.
In The Socialist 15 January 2005: