The traditional response of Labour governments to the problems thrown up by the market economy is to move further to the right, so seasoned opinion would have it. And there would appear to be some justification for this view: from Ramsay MacDonald's formation of a National Government to supersede the Labour administration in 1931, to the eventual centrist drift of the reforming Attlee government after the war, through to the Wilson and Callaghan administrations which were characterised by radical rhetoric but anti-working class intent.
The Blair government first elected in 1997 always promised to be different. The key difference being, of course, that Blair performed the unique feat in Labour Party history of getting in his 'betrayal' of the so-called socialists in the Party before he was even elected. By the time of the 1997 election, Labour's programme was so right wing it was barely distinguishable from that of the Tories – especially so on economic affairs, social issues and foreign policy. Only in the rather more peripheral field of political reform was there any significant (if that is the right word) difference between the two.
That the Blair government in action proved to be as right wing as its declared intentions before election in 1997 was, in a sense, politically honest, but it was an honesty that infuriated the Party's left wing. The left hoped that all the talk before the election of free markets, the "rigour of competition" and of a "strong national defence" were just vote-garnering platitudes. But no – it turned out that Blair, Straw, Brown and co. really did believe all the hype and weren't socialist 'sleepers' after all, to be elected on a centrist platform while moving to the left when in office. As a result, the 1997-2001 Blair administration had the dubious distinction of being the most right wing Labour government ever.
Since the election earlier this year, however, something has happened to get the Daily Mail excited at last. And that something is that Labour, we are told, appears to have had a minor but noticeable shift to the left. The background to this was the nature of Labour's election win: a massive, but ultimately hollow victory characterised by the largest mass abstention in modern British political history and the public humiliation of the Prime Minister on the election trail by irate electors who told him he was no different to the shysters who had been running things over the previous 18 years.
Two concrete issues have since arisen that have defined this apparent shift in attitudes: higher education and the railways. In the former case, the government has promised to change the system of HE finance so that the element of tuition fees paid by students in England and Wales (though no longer in Scotland) is removed. Tuition fees were becoming a demonstrable impediment to the process of widening access to HE and the 'upskilling' that is necessary across key sectors of the UK workforce at present.
As for the railways, Transport Secretary Stephen Byers (one of the many reconstructed Trotskyists in the Cabinet) has at long last sent the administrators into Railtrack – which had accumulated debts of £3.48 billion – indicating that the services formerly provided by the company will be taken out of the control of the shareholders and existing management.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this is being interpreted by many as some kind of 'left turn'. The reality, of course, is slightly different. This is no more an example of New Labour's radical intent than John Major and Michael Heseltine's desire to dump the Poll Tax a decade ago was an example of Conservative radicalism. In each case what is apparent is that the government has presided over financial and economic arrangements that simply haven't been working and which were grossly inefficient and counter-productive to effective business management – their response each time has simply been to try to find "a better way" regardless of supposedly radical considerations. Indeed, they have merely done what was, in a capitalist business sense, the obvious thing to do.
Most importantly, the fact remains that students will continue to leave higher education with average debts in excess of £10,000 for the foreseeable future and the likelihood is that the levels of these debts are going to rise further still when the new system is in place. And as for Railtrack, even the Sunday Times has claimed that the convoluted new scheme hatched by Byers means that "the taxpayer is essentially being asked to subsidise the banks and bondholders that lent money to the old Railtrack" (21 October). In other words, one section of the propertied class bailing out another section in time honoured fashion.
This leaves the mass of the population – the wage and salary-earning working class – exactly where we were: at the behest of the owning class and their priorities at every turn and left with second best in everything from education to transport and beyond. It was the same under old Labour too, but perhaps they just seemed better at pretending to do something about it.
Whatever, no one should be fooled by any spin imparted to enhance New Labour's current 'radical' intentions. From their systematic defence of propertied interests at home to their ruthless pursuit of war abroad, Labour has already proved one thing beyond dispute – an unwavering support for the profit-takers in society rather than the wealth creators that is rabid and undiminished.