From the April 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard
Does anybody really still believe that either Labour or the Conservatives can make any difference? Is there any point in choosing between them?
Well he would say that—or something like that—wouldn’t he. His audience were not to know that what Blair meant was that his government would be so hostile to outdated dogma and ideology that they would simply carry on where the Tories had left off. For example soon after the election John Major buttonholed Jack Straw to ask why New Labour were sticking to the Tory spending plans which Kenneth Clarke, Major’s Chancellor, had described as “eye-wateringly tight”. Had the Tories been re-elected, said Major, they would never have stuck by them.
In fact Labour won that election on a minority vote—44 percent to the Conservatives 31 percent, the Liberal Democrats 17 percent and the others 7 percent. As the next election draws near, the Labour election experts are resisting any tendency to over-confidence. “This time,” said one of them recently, “we cannot afford a quiet campaign or for Hague to be ignored. The size of our majority will depend on a high turn out”. It is almost traditional among party agents and activists to assume that the lower the total vote the worse it is for Labour. So if the weather on polling day is bad, or if there has been a particularly stressful episode of Coronation Street, or if it’s football on the box—the Tories can be expected to do relatively better; they might even win some seats which they would otherwise have lost. It seems as if the very people who are supposed to benefit the most from Labour selflessly building Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land can be put off from voting for it by a shower of rain or Deirdre Rashid’s latest emotional spasm or the spectacle of some millionaires kicking a football at a net.
It does not need a degree in psychology to work out that voters stay away from the poll through apathy but it does seem to need some political awareness to appreciate that a prime cause of apathy is the similarity between contesting parties which suggests that there is no point in choosing between them. This sometimes worries the parties themselves to such an extent that they feel obliged to try to highlight what they hope we will agree are fundamental differences between them. Before the last election Portillo tried to convince us that there is such a thing as a genuine Labour/Tory debate by talking about the “clear blue water” separating them. More recently Blair’s speechwriters thought he should speak out against the “forces of conservatism” (by which he did not mean just the Tory Party).
The Labour Party—or at least the few members who have bothered to find out about their party’s disreputable history—should be haunted by memories of 1931, when their leaders finally conceded that as their policies were so similar to those of Stanley Baldwin’s Conservatives they might as well go the whole hog and form a government together. Apart from anything else this deprived Labour of some charismatic and well-known leaders like Macdonald and Thomas and replaced them with the lachrymose George Lansbury and later the reserved, colourless Clement Attlee—who, when he became Prime Minister in 1945, showed that he was anything but mousy and compliant. One effect of the events of 1931 was to sustain the idea that Labour was actually engaged in a fight with the Tories, who were basically different. That illusion kept a lot of party members going, through the worst defeat of their history. What is the situation now?
Blair came to power at a time when Thatcher had gained a reputation for being a kind of mad woman in the tower. Thatcherism was a new swearword for a supposed policy of deliberately creating unemployment through destroying swathes of a once powerful manufacturing industry, with the effect of grinding down the poorest in society while cracking down on anyone who tried to keep their head above water through offending against the system’s property laws. If all this got too much for the voters to stomach, their doubts could be diverted by a jingoist stimulant like the war in the Falklands. Capitalism is always ugly but that was a a time when it was grotesquely so.
So how did Blair signal that all that was at an end? Well as soon as he could spare time from organising a few necessities like Bernie Ecclestone’s £1 million donation to the party he forgot all he had ever said about Thatcher laying waste to British jobs and industry and popped round to get some advice from her on the best way to run British capitalism. In her turn Thatcher made it clear that she preferred Blair to her successor John Major, who had disappointed a lot of Tories as a flaccid nonentity. This opinion was not just a passing aberration by someone driven out of her mind by all those years of being the most powerful person in Britain, hobnobbing with—and bullying when she could get away with it—other heads of state. Before the election Blair had so impressed Viscount Rothermere, the owner of the Daily Mail, with his intention to “reform” the welfare state that the Tory press baron swung his newspaper into support for New Labour on the grounds that they were the “new Conservatives”. And Alistair McAlpine, who was Thatcher’s Party Treasurer and remains one of her keenest admirers, praised Blair as “…a damn sight more Conservative than John Major…a Thatcherite… a man of principle…quite princely.” (McAlpine was accustomed to speak his mind. He once described Major as “hanging about like a pair of curtains”).
Blair’s government did not come to deserve such praise from such exalted quarters by planning to revolutionise society so that social relationships were adjusted through a re-distribution of wealth. In October 1997 Peter Mandelson, then in charge at the Department of Industry, assured a meeting of executives from computer firms that New Labour was “. . . intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”. What he did not say was that they were equally relaxed about other people getting stinking poor. One of their earliest ventures was to cut the benefit of single parents—a particularly depressed and pressurised group. As most of these are females some of the more odious Labour MPs felt justified in attacking the essential immorality of unmarried women who got pregnant to jump the council housing queue while they claimed benefit to pay for their cigarettes and Bacardis. One of these MPs—Frank Field, who had risen through the poverty lobby to become Member for Birkenhead and Minister for Welfare Reform—said that “There are no single mums in Birkenhead. They all have a boy friend somewhere”. The legislation for reducing the benefits of single parents was first introduced by the Tories, when it was denounced as a typical example of the cruelties of Thatcherism. Peter Lilley was the minister concerned; he was exultant at New Labour’s open support for the cause of punishing the poor and stood in the Commons directing Labour MPs into the correct lobby to vote for the cuts.
McAlpine does not admire all of Labour’s luminaries and one who escapes his embrace is Jack Straw, an exception to the tradition of Labour Home Secretaries such as Roy Jenkins, who liked to see themselves as “radical” and “liberal”. In the intensity of hatred he has aroused in the lobbies of penal reform and civil liberties Straw has exceded his immediate Tory predecessor, Michael Howard. “I couldn’t stand Michael Howard,” said McAlpine, “so imagine what I feel about Straw”. He was referring to the Home Secretary’s intention to abolish the law of double jeopardy, to allow people to be tried again for an offence for which they have already been tried and acquitted. As we go to press Straw has not revealed how many more times he wants a person to be tried or if it will go on and on until they are convicted but when he does decide it will no doubt be with an eye to the fact that while he has been at the Home Office the prison population has reached over 65,000. This trend will probably be accentuated by another of Straw’s plans, to erode the right to opt for trial by a jury at a Crown Court, where there is a better chance of acquittal than before magistrates.
Straw is a former President of the National Union of Students, who may have learned at university that he should get his hair cut and smooth his image if he was to climb the greasy pole into Parliament and a top government job. On the way up he said a few things which might now embarrass a less sensitive and ambitious man. For example his denunciation of private prisons as immoral. In fact there was always more than an element of the bogus about the opposition to private prisons, which ignored the dreadful conditions existing in state prisons. The Chief Inspector of Prisons recently condemned Brixton and Wandsworth as appalling and inhumane, he said that Winson Green in Birmingham is even worse than Brixton and that Young Offender Institutions like Feltham in Middlesex and Brinsford in Wolverhampton are “corrosive”. Could private institutions, it is fair to ask, be any worse? But in those heady days in opposition Straw’s ambition was urgent enough to override facts.
Another New Labour front bencher stubbornly trying to put his past behind him is Minister of Education David Blunkett, who was once thought to be the teachers’ friend but turned out to be their scourge. There was a time when Blunkett could denounce Tory education plans for callously undermining the future of the children. Now he spends his days thinking up new ways of weeding out and punishing any teacher who fails to come up to standard in defiance of the kind of deprivation and alienation to be found in the slums of the inner city or rural deserts. His demands that teaching conforms to centrally conceived and imposed standards of achievement has damaging effects on teachers and sometimes disastrous results for the pupils. This kind of pressure was supposed to have been wiped out by the advent of the comprehensive school—once a cherished principle of the Labour Party but now due to be abolished, sneered at as “bog standard” by self-appointed education expert Alistair Campbell, who also happens to be Blair’s public relations man. Campbell is extremely adept at handling a few stroppy hacks but he might be a bit bog standard himself if he were faced with teaching a classroom of young toughies from the local estate. Blunkett plans to introduce an openly selective system—the same system that was eventually rejected as responsible for blighting so many young lives.
Another Minister whose performance in opposition persuaded a lot of people that he would make a difference is Robin Cook, who reluctantly accepted the job of Foreign Secretary and quickly began to rave about an “ethical” foreign policy without telling us that the ethics would involve him cheerily shaking hands with the murderous dictator of Indonesia, President Suharto, or Blair hailing as a “fellow moderniser” a butcher like the Chinese premier Zhu Rongji and the ex-KGB operative who is now Russian President Vladimir Putin, carrying on the blood bath in Chechnya. These were examples of how capitalism fashions the “ethics” of foreign policy. The arms industry in Britain sells about £5 billion worth of its products each year to Indonesia. China and Russia are important trading partners. Beside that, of what concern are thousands of people imprisoned or murdered for their opinions or slaughtered in a war? In any case it took Cook only a few months to modify his ambitions over an “ethical” foreign policy. “Compromise, “ he announced on a BBC radio programme in January 1998, “is inevitable to foreign policy. That is real life”. That declaration can be understood properly only by someone who is alive to what “compromise” and “real life” mean in the context of capitalist society and the lowly place it gives to human lives and welfare compared to the profit-demanding priorities of the ruling class.
It is little wonder if the voting working class have difficulty in separating Labour from the Tories. The solution is to understand that the parties are united in their principles to maintain capitalism and all that that entails. In March 1972 Roy Jenkins, who had been Labour’s Chancellor of the Exchequer so should have known what he was talking about, observed life in this country:
In spite of half a century of effort, our society—and still more our world—is still disfigured by gross unfairness . . . The poor are still poor. Property speculators—and others—are as relatively rich as were those with an accepted position at the top of the social structure.
Almost thirty years later, Jenkins’s successors in the Labour Party tell us that about a third of the children in this country live in what Blair has called “frightening” deprivation. And New Labour, with their big majority and their clutch of government ministers trying to forget the indiscretions of their left wing youth while they grow daily more and more like the Tories they once professed to despise, promise that in twenty years’ time they will have got around to abolishing child poverty. Does anyone really believe them? Does anyone really believe that it is worth choosing between Labour and the Tories? Does anyone really believe that to cast a vote for either of these parties will make a difference?