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Battered Blair Clings On For Now
BLAIR narrowly survived the vote on top-up fees. He saw a massive majority of 161 evaporate to just five, over what he himself called his 'flagship' policy. At the eleventh hour, spineless New Labour MPs bottled it - bullied and bribed into submission by Blair, Brown and their 'muscle', education secretary Charles Clarke.
As over war with Iraq, Blair and Co. have once again stuck two figures up to mass opposition. To win the vote he had to make some concessions, which have angered some university vice-chancellors and Blair's big-business backers, but do not fundamentally alter the principle of variable fees.
Now, with the prospect of crippling debts of thousands of pounds, many working-class and middle-class students will think twice about going to university. Many more will be forced to shop around in the higher education 'market' for 'bargain' courses, while the rich continue to dominate the 'elite' universities and the best jobs.
At the same time, the ground has been laid for a doubling or trebling of fees in the future to meet the 'market value' of university courses.
MANY PEOPLE will feel betrayed by Blair and New Labour over top-up fees. Yet again the interests of big business have been put before those of ordinary people. But, even though he has won the vote, Blair will not emerge from this and the Hutton report unscathed. His credibility and authority have received a battering that could still lead to his standing down before the next election.
Blair has faced significant rebellions over Iraq, foundation hospitals and now, most damagingly over top-up fees. At least 200 New Labour MPs have voted against the government at some stage. Gwyneth Dunwoody, a leading light in the witch-hunt against Militant (forerunner of the Socialist Party) in the 1980s, boasted to her constituency Labour Party that she had rebelled against Blair's government 27 times.
He will be viewed as a Prime Minister who is not just out of touch with ordinary people but who has also lost authority within his own party
Hutton and WMD
THE HUTTON inquiry was established partly as a distraction from the key issue of why Blair backed Bush's imperialist war. But day after day the evidence is piling up to prove that Blair's main justification for going to war - Saddam Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) - was based on a lie. Even the CIA's own man, David Kay, when resigning as chief weapons inspector, said that he didn't believe that there are any stockpiles of WMD in Iraq.
Robin Cook, who complained in his memoirs he had sold his soul to Blair, said last week: "It is becoming undignified for the Prime Minister to continue to insist that he was right all along when everybody can now see he was wrong". Regardless of what Hutton says, Blair - who came to power as a 'clean pair of hands' after the sleaze of the Tories - is perceived by a large section of the population as a liar. Voting for top-up fees, when they had been clearly ruled out in Labour's manifesto, will have reinforced the widespread opinion that he cannot be trusted.
ALTHOUGH BLAIR will probably ride things out in the short-term, and could still stumble on until after the next election, there could also be pressure for him to go sooner so that New Labour can approach the next election with a 'fresh' leader, rather than one who is damaged goods.
But Brown, Blair's heir apparent, will not mean a fresh start for New Labour. He has given his full backing to top-up fees and played a pivotal role in persuading rebel MPs to capitulate over the vote. He also spent the last week hobnobbing with his friends 'Sir' Bill Gates and Jean-Pierre Garnier - two of the fattest fat cats (see below). Like Blair, Brown will listen to the millionaires not the millions.
It's clear that a political opposition to New Labour needs to be built; one that can stand up for working-class people and is rooted in their organisations - the trade unions, community campaigns etc; and one that can mobilise the tens of thousands who are opposed to war, poverty and attacks on education, health and public services.
The Socialist Party is fighting to build such a party and to provide a socialist alternative to the capitalist market system which blights the lives of so many people.
In The Socialist 31 January 2004:
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