Archive article from The Socialist Issue 457
Labour conference cheers can't hide...
Blair more hated than Thatcher
NEVER BEFORE has the gap between reality and the spinmasters' world of the party conference season been so big, writes Socialist Party deputy general secretary Hannah Sell.
This was summed up by the reaction to Tony Blair's saccharine farewell speech at Labour Party conference. Inside the hall he was greeted with a rapturous standing ovation. Yet the content of the speech was a justification for profoundly unpopular government policies - the very policies that have made Blair more hated than Thatcher in her final days.
Blair lies on health...
WHILE CUTS and closures are taking place across the country, including the threatened closure of 60 accident and emergency units, Blair claimed that the NHS is getting better. Why then are tens of thousands having to demonstrate against hospital cuts up and down the country? This is the biggest protest movement on a domestic issue since the mass campaign against the poll tax, which finished both the poll tax and Thatcher.
In reality, New Labour is setting out to destroy the NHS. Only 11% of people support further privatisation of public services, yet Blair used his speech to justify the position of health minister, Patricia Hewitt, that there should be 'no limit' to the privatisation of the health service.
New Labour's record on the NHS is reflected in the opinion polls. For the first time since the NHS was founded by the 1945 Labour government, the Tories are now 'more trusted' to run the NHS than Labour. In a bizarre twist of history, in rural and semi-rural areas, Tory MPs are taking part in, and even initiating, protest movements against health cuts.
In fact the Tory Party, which began the current dismantling of the NHS when they were in office, would be carrying out virtually identical policies to New Labour if they were elected. In the last general election they stood for a more rapid and complete privatisation of health and education even than that being carried out by New Labour.
Now, belatedly realising that 'defending the NHS' is a vote winner, they are opportunistically pretending to be the arch-defenders of the health service. However, Cameron's chief policy strategist, Oliver Letwin, blurted out the truth to the Sunday Times, when he explained that the Tories, like New Labour, oppose any limits on private companies running parts of the NHS.
Blair lies on Iraq...
BLAIR WENT on to argue against the 72% of the population that think that the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have made the world a more dangerous and unstable place. He asserted:
"This terrorism isn't our fault. We didn't cause it. It's not the consequence of foreign policy. It's an attack on our way of life. It's global. It has an ideology. It killed nearly 3,000 people including over 60 British on the streets of New York before war in Afghanistan or Iraq was even thought of."
This is a facile argument which virtually no-one swallows. Imperialist oppression of the Arab peoples did not begin with the invasion of Iraq or even the brutal subjugation of the Palestinian people over decades, but goes back at least as far as the imperialist carve-up of the Middle East and its natural resources almost a century ago.
The oppression of the Palestinians over the last decades has undoubtedly angered the world's 1.3 billion Muslims, as did the first Iraq war and the sanctions against Iraq after the 1990-91 Gulf War. These sanctions resulted in the death of half a million children, described as "a price worth paying" by Madeline Albright, then US Secretary of State.
Since then, that anger has been enormously fuelled by events since 9/11. And unlike the oppression of the Palestinians, the British government has been directly and unequivocally involved in the bloody occupation of Iraq.
More than 5,000 people were killed in Baghdad during July and August alone. It is incontrovertible that, while the vast majority of Muslims in Britain and worldwide, are opposed to terrorist attacks, the number has increased who are so angry and alienated by what is taking place in the Middle East that they are prepared to take this utterly mistaken road.
This conclusion has even been drawn by both the US and British intelligence agencies. A new and damning US National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Iraq had hugely increased Bin Laden's "status as the ideological leader of a global movement".
Meanwhile at home an MI6 officer has written a report declaring: "The war on Iraq has acted as a recruiting sergeant for extremists across the Muslim world...Iraq has served to radicalise an already disillusioned youth and al-Qaeda has given them the will, intent purpose and ideology to act."
Blair lies on Israel/Palestine...
BLAIR WENT on to defend nuclear power, attacks on civil liberties, and privatisation of education. However, it was the final moments of his speech that demonstrated how utterly he has lost touch with reality. He declared that he would spend his final time in office working towards bringing peace to Israel and Palestine!
Following Blair's complete support for Israel's recent onslaught on Lebanon this will have been greeted with outrage by millions in Britain and the Middle East. When Blair recently visited the occupied territories he got a taste of how he is viewed by the masses of the Middle East. One group of hundreds of Palestinians took out a full page advert in a Palestinian newspaper:
"[Blair] is coming here to wash his hands, hands that are dripping with Lebanese blood, with Palestinian water. We the signatories...notables, intellectuals and politicians declare that Tony Blair is persona non grata."
Persona non grata
TONY BLAIR is also 'persona non grata' - diplomatic language for unacceptable and unwelcome - in Britain. Labour MPS and councillors met his speech with rapturous applause, but they know that Tony has to go if they are to stand a chance of saving their own careers. Blair clearly hopes to stay until next summer on the back of his conference speech.
This is possible, but it is more likely that his MPs will rebel again with the next dip in the opinion polls. However, the New Labour politicians are making a mistake if they imagine that getting rid of Blair will solve their problems. Fundamentally, it is Blairism, rather than Blair himself, which is unpopular.
More people are opposed to the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan at any time since the war on Iraq began - 53% now believe the war was a mistake. Demands for withdrawal of the troops are growing. ITV news declares that conditions for British troops in Afghanistan are comparable to the First World War!
British soldiers in Afghanistan are being killed at six times the rate they are in Iraq. It is now revealed that the tops of the military told John Reid eighteen months ago that the army couldn't cope with Iraq and Afghanistan and that one front would have to be abandoned.
New Labour, in its desperation to do the Bush administration's bidding, ignored this and went ahead. However, such is the unpopularity of the war, and the strain on the British army, it is possible that the government, whether under Blair or his successor, will be forced to withdraw troops from Iraq.
Even if this does take place, however, it will not alter the general direction of the government - of supporting US imperialism's brutal foreign policy abroad, and attacking workers' living conditions at home.
Big business government
THIS GOVERNMENT'S anti-working class, pro-big business attitude is summed up by its desperate attempts to try and keep Britain's position as the only EU country to opt out of the maximum 48 hour average working week. Officially, one-fifth of workers in Britain work more than 48 hours a week.
The government justifies itself by quoting recent surveys showing that a majority of the population believes that there should be no limit on working hours, but this ignores the question of pay. Given the option of earning enough to live comfortably while working a maximum 35-hour week, the vast majority of workers would choose to do so.
But for a growing number of workers in Britain it is necessary to 'work-till-you-drop' to make ends meet. Twelve million Britons live below the poverty line. Meanwhile the pay of Britain's top company directors soared by 28% in the last year, seven times the average rate of increase.
Unlike the rich few at the top, for many working and middle-class Britons, the only way they can survive is by the use of credit or, as it is otherwise known, debt. Britain has by far the highest levels of personal debt in Europe. The level of indebtedness is so high that even the relatively small, by historical standards, increase in interest rates over the last period has led to record levels of bankruptcy.
Young people are the worst affected. There has been a rise in bankruptcy of 18-29 year olds of 288% between 2001 and 2005! No wonder that the majority of people in Britain do not credit Brown with 'good handling' of the economy.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) hails Britain as the world's Goldilocks economy - neither too hot nor too cold - but most working-class people have a very different experience. This experience will become even worse when, at a certain stage, the enormous bubble of debt, largely based on rising house prices (which is keeping the economy afloat) deflates decisively. Already unemployment is creeping up to its highest level in six years.
Brown the Blairite
IT IS likely that Brown, having been a lucky Chancellor, will be a very unlucky prime minister, coming to office just as the underlying economic trends are played out. Even if this is not the case in the short term, Brown, who remains the most likely candidate to succeed Blair, will clearly carry on with the same neo-liberal, anti-working class policies as his predecessor.
The bitterness and divisions at the top of the Labour Party have virtually no ideological content. They are little more than a desperate scramble to save careers as the government runs into the sand.
Tony Blair is accelerating attacks on the NHS in his last period in office - but Brown is pledging to continue the onslaught. Brown has said he will "intensify" privatisation of the health service and it was Brown who intervened in the Labour Party NEC to demand that its members support the 'marketisation' of the NHS and particularly the handing of NHS Logistics to private company DHL.
Despite Brown's role behind the scenes a motion opposing further privatisation of the NHS was passed at the conference. This has been hailed, along with motions passed on council housing and the rights of agency workers, as a victory by the trade union leaders. However, the Labour Party's democratic structures the have been destroyed - and its conference no longer has any power.
This is the third year running that the trade union vote has resulted in opposition to privatisation being passed at Labour Party conference. Outside in the real world privatisation is proceeding at a rate of knots.
Role of union leaders
HOW DID the trade union leaders respond to events at the Labour Party conference? Dave Prentis, general secretary of UNISON, the union which organises the NHS logistics workers, welcomed Brown's speech because of its "emphasis on listening and learning".
Prentis added: "There was enough in his speech to give us hope that he will listen about the direction of reform." This is nothing new. Last year Prentis welcomed Brown's neo-Thatcherite speech as "Labour values at their best".
Undoubtedly, some workers are hoping against hope that Brown is only pretending to be a Blairite, and will reveal his true socialist colours once elected. Unfortunately, there is no possibility of this happening. For Prentis and other trade union leaders, who have sat and listened to Brown argue for the privatisation of their members' jobs, to make such favourable comments about Brown is a dereliction of duty.
The Socialist Party does not believe it is possible for the trade unions to 'reclaim' the Labour Party. Since 1997 the trade unions have given £100 million to the Labour Party but it has not altered the big-business nature of this government one iota.
New Labour today sings to altogether another tune. Yet again at this year's conference, big-business sponsors outnumbered delegates. A fringe meeting on "marketing food and health" was addressed by Kellogg's. A representative of Tesco spoke alongside Alan Johnson. BUPA spoke at a Fabian meeting together with Health Minister Andy Burnham. The Socialist Party argues that the trade unions should stop funding this party of big business and start to build a new party, which actually stands in their members' interests.
However, the majority of trade union leaders argue that Labour can be reclaimed. If they are serious about this they should make it clear that they will not be backing Brown. The only candidate who stands on an anti-privatisation, anti-cuts programme is John McDonnell MP.
We argue that the union leaders should call for their members to vote for him. Unfortunately, none of the leaders of the major affiliated trade union have given any indication they will do so.
Even if Prentis and others were to back McDonnell, this would not be a substitute for organising action to defend public services. The NHS logistics workers have shown their willingness to struggle against privatisation, but the two one-day strikes that the national leadership have sanctioned will not be enough. To win a victory, it will be necessary to build towards all-out action, as part of the development of a mass struggle against NHS cuts.
National NHS demo
THERE IS no doubt that the potential exists for a huge movement to defend the NHS, however, as yet the TUC has no date set for a national demonstration. The lobby of parliament on 1 November is a step forward, but far more will be needed to stop the cuts in their tracks.
The Socialist Party is backing the lobby of parliament, and the feeder march to it initiated by London pensioners. At the same time, we are campaigning for a national demonstration to be called. Such a demonstration could act as a catalyst for the enormous anger that exists not just on the NHS, but on every aspect of public services, and on low pay and working hours.
We are also stepping up our call for the building of a new mass party of the working class. 95% of people believe New Labour could do more for working people! Since 1997 four million 'working people' have stopped voting for New Labour. A few switched to the Liberal Democrats, wrongly believing they are 'left' of Labour.
A thin layer, particularly in the South, has even voted Tory. The Tories' biggest problem, however, is that they still bear the mark of Cain for the crimes they committed during their eighteen years in power. In the major cities of the North they have failed to make any breakthroughs. In Manchester they do not have a single councillor!
It will take more than a new, young 'Blair-style' party leader to dim the memory of the vicious anti-working-class policies of Thatcher. Nonetheless, on the basis of a low turnout, a Tory victory at the next election cannot be excluded.
However, many, probably a majority, of ex-Labour voters cannot bring themselves to vote for any of the big three big-business parties and are therefore not voting at all. The potential for a new mass party - that stands in the interests of the millions not the millionaires - is clear. One of the key tasks for socialists in the coming months and years is to bring such a party into being.