Servants of big business

    ANDREW RAWNSLEY’S book Servants of the People is an account of the inner workings of Blair and his cabal from the first day of the Labour government in May 1997 until the summer of 2000.
    JANE JAMES analyses what the book reveals in the light of Peter Mandelson’s second resignation from the cabinet and the increasing reliance of New Labour on big business financial backers.

    Servants of big business

    A BETTER title for the book could have been “Servants of the Rich and Big Business”. On entering government, the new Labour MPs were like children set loose in Toys R Us. They jostled and bickered over jobs, the size of their offices and staff and the best apartments.

    From the beginning Blair and Brown set up two camps which Rawnsley compares to a “dual monarchy”. Each have their own staff, constantly battling for power and prestige, which has led to leaks and conspired sackings of each others’ advisers and staff.

    Not surprisingly there is much on Peter Mandelson. Forecasting future events, Rawnsley describes how Mandelson, who Blair once described as ‘my alter ego’, “swanked around the salons of the wealthy, the powerful and the right-wing.”

    To his Tory friend Carla Powell, Mandelson was ‘a groupie for greatness’. He even recognised some of what would eventually be his downfall himself, when he said: “I came over a bit grand. I was trophy-like. I was caught up in a bit of a whirl.”

    According to Rawnsley, Blair frequently moaned: “I wish Peter would listen to my advice the way I listen to his.”

    But one of Blair’s first problems was the Ecclestone affair, which surfaced only six months into the government. It showed the beginnings of the problems Labour faced in accepting large donations from big business and the rich. Bernie Ecclestone, the motor racing boss, had secretly given Labour £1 million before the election.

    Trouble brewed in November when Ecclestone demanded favours for his donation, that Labour should not ban tobacco advertising and sponsorship for motor racing. Ecclestone argued that with no income from tobacco money, Formula One would go abroad with the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and £900 million of exports.

    Blair exempted Formula One from the ban, reneging on Labour’s pledge. Rawnsley describes in detail the squirming and plotting of Blair and his team in deciding whether to announce the donation and then whether to return the money.

    From the start New Labour courted big business, bringing unelected businessmen into government and reassuring the City. One cabinet minister compared a reception at Downing Street for business people to the past Tory government, saying: ” The publican may have changed but the same people are jostling at the bar”.

    Big business also had its way when Robin Cook, the foreign secretary, allowed a shipment of arms to be sent to Indonesia, arguing that British defence jobs could be at risk and Britain would be seen by business as an unreliable supplier. It did not matter that when in opposition Cook had condemned Suharto, president of Indonesia for the brutal murder of thousands of East Timorese and Labour had pledged to stop arms sales.

    While avoiding upsetting big business, Labour attacked the poor with casual indifference. Rawnsley describes one decision that Harriet Harman (then Secretary of State for Social Security) was told to make: “Brown told Harman that, to remain within her budget limits, she would have to choose between two Tory cuts, both of which Labour had bitterly attacked when in Opposition… One cut was to the housing allowance paid to under -25-year-olds living alone. The other removed the extra payment to single parents.”

    Movers and shakers

    Harman chose to cut the money from single parents. Some MPs reflected the anger of people over this cut and Harman was given the push.

    Perhaps the most damning aspect of the book is how New Labour runs the government. Rawnsley claims that there are just four people who make the decisions and effectively run the show – Blair himself, Brown the chancellor, Alistair Campbell (Blair’s press secretary) and until last week Peter Mandelson.

    Four days into the government, control of monetary policy and interest rates was passed from the government to the unelected Bank of England. Even Sir Robin Butler, the cabinet secretary working for the civil service, felt he had to advise the new prime minister of the usual procedure.

    He pointed out that such an important decision should be taken at a cabinet meeting. Blair saw no need to involve the cabinet saying: “I’m sure they’ll agree.”

    According to Rawnsley, cabinet meetings rarely extend beyond 45 minutes. Press officers, advisers and unelected business people are more powerful than elected MPs who Blair refers to as just “ambassadors”.

    Out of focus

    BLAIR HAS always been in thrall to the press, describing the Sun’s support for Labour at the election as a victory. The main criteria for a new policy or announcement is how it will appear in the press.

    At one time each government department was told to produce two news stories a week. Three years into the government the number of press officers had increased to 1,100 and the number of special advisers had doubled.

    Rawnsley freely admits that Blair has no thought-out ideology or strategy. Totally out of touch with the real world, he relies on focus groups to report on people’s fears and moods. Then policies are wrapped in spin and presentation. But however muddled and hesitant Blair’s policies often are, they reflect the views of big business.

    Rawnsley believes that old Labour handed the party over to Blair in order to win the election, giving the impression of the Left relinquishing a power they never had.

    In fact the shift to the right of the Labour Party was a process in which Labour was losing electoral support from 1974 as reformism was abandoned. The ruling class, having confidence that the tops of Labour governments would support capitalism, always feared that the unions and workers could put pressure on their leaders for reforms and socialist aims.

    Hence the pressure from the ruling class for Labour to break with the unions and to diminish party democracy. Militant supporters (forerunners of the Socialist Party) were the first to be expelled from the Labour Party as we were seen as an obstacle to transforming it. Clause 4, which outlined socialist aims, was removed from the constitution. Democracy has been whittled away so that there is now no mechanism for workers to exert pressure on the leaders through the party structures.

    After 1989 when Stalinism collapsed, many on the Left internationally were disorientated and weakened as capitalism appeared victorious. As with the Labour Party, workers’ parties in many countries shifted more towards capitalism.

    So the Labour Party has changed from a party whose leadership supported capitalism but with working-class membership and support, to the openly pro-big business party we see today.

    Blair’s aim from the start was to secure two full terms for a Labour government, something never achieved before. But by 2000 he had reason to worry as to whether this would be possible.

    He despaired at the lack of progress in health and education and transport, obviously blind to the reality that if you throw public money at private companies you will not get an improvement in services. The book was written before the fuel crisis which showed how quickly a mood of anger can grow against Labour.

    Rawnsley, while making some criticisms of Labour, undoubtedly has admiration for Blair. He praises his negotiating skills in bringing about the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland and in persuading Clinton to prepare for ground troops in the Serbia conflict. The fact that there is still no lasting solution to either of these areas goes un-noticed.

    Brown is praised for his successful handling of the economy, yet this cannot be attributed to New Labour and their economic policy but the prolonged US boom is now coming to an end.

    Anyone reading the book will rightly conclude that this Labour government are servants of big business where a small clique pushes through policies, with little reference to the cabinet let alone the party itself. No wonder many ordinary members have left the party and that Labour’s so-called core voters are deserting in droves.

    A genuine workers’ party would not be offered large donations from big business and would be run democratically by its members.

    While many of the incidents described in the book have been reported in the national press, the book brings them together and gives vivid examples of the state of the Labour government.

    However for a rounded-out analysis of the life of this government and the campaigns against it, you need to read our material both in the Socialist and Socialism Today.

    The last time Mandelson resigned:

    “THE PRIME Minister effectively decided the day before that Mandelson had to go. Any remaining doubt about that was settled by the ferocity of the media that morning. Blair was now explicit. The longer Mandelson tried to cling on, the more Mandelson and the government would be damaged. Mandelson repeatedly asked Blair if that was really his opinion, in an effort to seek out a chink of weakness. That was his view, Blair flatly confirmed, offering the consolation that the quicker he left the Cabinet, the better chance there would be of reasonably rapid return. By the end of the conversation, tears were trickling down Mandelson’s sepulchral white cheeks. A dark-eyed Campbell*, himself blubbing, gave Mandelson a hug.”

    (*Alastair Campbell, Blair’s press secretary)
    ANDREW RAWNSLEY, Servants of the People