Analysis: New Labour’s meltdown?

Issue: 111

The New York Times did not, for some reason, count New Labour in Britain as among its weak European governments. It ought to have done. Blair’s government shows all the symptoms of being on its last legs, even though it won its third general election running just 14 months ago and has a commanding parliamentary majority. The media who loved up to Blair so recently now talk of general decay, even of ‘meltdown’.

The superficial explanation is the unresolved row over the leadership, as Blair still refuses to abide by a promise and give way to chancellor Gordon Brown as his ‘natural’ successor. Ministers lined up on either side, it seems, can hardly talk to one another and even sabotage each other’s policies. The fact that the policy differences between them are marginal—Brown has been pushing through privatisation and marketisation as enthusiastically as any of the Blairites despite the odd bit of Old Labour body language—does not diminish the depths of mutual bitterness.

But New Labour’s malaise goes deeper than such personal antagonisms. The root lies in the very policies to which it is so ideologically committed. It joined George Bush in a bloody imperialist adventure which was not only unpopular but which is in visible shambles. And it is pushing through neo-liberal policies wrapped up in managerial newspeak which are necessarily alienating the great mass of people whose votes swept it to office in 1997.

Only this can explain its local election results in May, coming third with 26 percent, behind the Liberal Democrats with 27 percent and the Tories with 40 percent.

What New Labour has lost over the eight years is astounding. Its 1997 victory was the coming together of two currents of bitterness. There was that of the old, predominantly manual, working class that had raged as Thatcher and Major decimated their industries. And there were big white collar groups like teachers and nurses, objectively working class but who had not before identified themselves politically as such and had in the past in their majority voted Tory, or at most Liberal. Both were turning to Labour in reaction against what was then called Thatcherism or monetarism and is now called neo-liberalism. Those living in the media bubble of celebrity politics could not see this, and ascribed it all to Tony Blair’s supposed public school attractiveness to ‘middle England’ (as if ‘middle England’ never had near nervous breakdowns awaiting school inspections or screamed against managerial bullying).

Labour in office then continued with the core Tory policies revulsion against which had driven people to vote for it. This lost Labour 4 million votes by the 2001 election and then, with the added impact of the war, another million by 2005. It won on both occasions not because of enthusiasm for it—there was none—but because the continued memory of what the Tories stood for caused those who deserted it to stay at home or vote Liberal Democrat.

Now, with the most recent change in the Tory leadership to one which goes out of its way to look almost penitent for what the party did only ten years ago and with policies indistinguishable either in content or presentation from Blair’s, even that protection of New Labour’s electoral fortunes seems to be disappearing.

This is producing panic among the New Labour parliamentarians. There is talk about the party losing touch with its ‘natural base’. The reaction of a few New Labour types is to realise the degree to which policies in the schools and the health service are alienating support and to reach back to bits of Old Labour language in order to try to reconnect. But the general trend is in another direction—to turn to petty authoritarianism, law and order rhetoric and endorsement of whatever is the latest scapegoating campaign of the gutter press. One of the Stalinist student union hatchetmen of 30 years ago, John Reid, is now the supposed embodiment of working class authoritarian values who is going to hammer the Home Office—and immigrants—into shape.

For those of us who are old enough to remember the late 1960s and the late 1970s, the whole situation carries a sense of déjà vu. Once again, it seems, we are going through the old pattern of what the French called ‘alternance’ (alternation). We’ve had Labour elected to office in reaction against the horrors of Toryism. Now disillusionment with Labour is preparing the ground for a possible Tory return to office, which in turn will lead to a revival of faith in Labour, a new spell of Labour government, a new spell of disillusionment and yet another return of the Tories. This was the pattern in much of the 20th century (after 1929-31, after 1945-51, after 1964-70, after 1974-79). Does it have to be the pattern of the 21st century as well?

The short answer is no. The hostility to the effects of neo-liberalism which swept Blair to power remains. That is why the Tories have consciously tried to make a break with their own past so as to avoid seeming to want to go much further than Blair and Brown. This hostility means the objective possibility exists of creating a pole to the left of New Labour as a focus for all the resentments it is breeding. It has been the lack of such a viable left focus that has led to a general drift to the right in the aftermath of popular disillusion with previous Labour governments. This time there is every chance of creating such a force.

Building a left alternative

This was the rationale which led us six years ago to back the electoral interventions of the Socialist Alliance, and then, three years ago, against the background of the biggest movement against imperialist war ever known in Britain, to build Respect as a more broad based left opposition to New Labour. Respect showed its potential as a nationally visible focus with the success of George Galloway in winning a seat from New Labour in last year’s general election and in the high votes obtained by other candidates in the London boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Newham and in Birmingham. That potential was shown again in this year’s local elections. Respect won 12 council seats and 23 percent of the vote in Tower Hamlets, and three seats and 26 percent of the vote in Newham, as well as nearly 50 percent of the vote in the Sparkbrook ward in Birmingham. New Labour has attempted to dismiss these votes as ‘communalist’, since a lot of Respect’s votes came from Muslim groups, alienated from Labour by its support for the war. But Respect campaigned for and won white, Afro-Caribbean, Hindu and Sikh votes as well as Muslims, by taking up as central class issues like the privatisation of council housing as well as opposition to the imperialist occupation of Iraq and the threats to Iran. It also won more than 20 percent votes in various council seats elsewhere, including areas that are far from being mainly Muslim, like Haringey and Brent in north London, while in Bristol its candidate took 25 percent of the vote in a white working class area. Rarely did Respect candidates get less than 10 percent of the vote, regardless of the ethnic make-up of the working class in any particular area. Such results are as good as left candidates could get anywhere in Europe standing against Labour or social democratic parties.

But if Respect shows the potential for creating a national left focus, it cannot be said that potential has been fully achieved yet. The first past the post electoral system is often an impediment to votes having a major political impact, while the national media are doing their best to ignore Respect—giving many times more publicity to the Nazi BNP than to Respect, even though their election results are not qualitatively better. The result is that Respect is not yet in the same position as, say, the Left Party in Germany, with the scores of MPs which proportional representation allowed, and the profile of being a major opposition party. But there is a real possibility of moving in that direction. Those on the left who have stood apart from the Respect project—whether because of their continuing futile attempts to ‘reclaim Labour’ or because of their dislike of one or other element in the Respect coalition—need to understand that they are making more difficult the task of creating a left focus for working class disillusion with Labour.

Politics and the workplace

Working class resentment against the record of previous Labour governments in office usually took the form of a growing willingness to take industrial action, as with the wave of strikes in 1969-70 and the ‘winter of discontent’ of 1978-79. But this was not matched by a corresponding political generalisation to the left. This time round the reluctance of the major unions, including most of those led by the much-vaunted new generation of ‘awkward squad’ union leaders of a few years ago, to break with Labour has so far prevented any serious sustained industrial challenge. When strikes have been called they have tapped the depths of class feeling that exist among distinct sections of workers—this was true during the on-off firefighters’ action of 2002-03, it was true of the one-day strike at the BBC last year, it has been true in the sporadic disputes in the post office, and it was true of the local authority pensions strike in March. It was true of the action among university lecturers—a classic case of new militancy among an increasingly proletarianised section that always thought of itself as middle class. But the political challenge to the union bureaucracies has not yet usually been on a sufficient scale to prevent them doing dirty deals—most notably in turning massive votes 18 months ago in favour of fighting to defend existing pension arrangements right across the public sector into settlements which abandon new workers and leave the employers in a very strong position to return to the offensive against existing workers at a time of their own choosing.

A nationally visible political alternative to New Labour is necessary not only in general, as a focus to the diffuse bitterness that exists in every working class locality. It is also necessary to untap the potential for struggle that still exists in the workplaces. The aim has to be to turn Respect into that alternative.

The far right

A hint of what can happen if we fail to build a national left focus is shown by the case of the outer east London borough of Barking & Dagenham. The Nazi BNP won 11 council seats after minister Margaret Hodge claimed as many as eight out of ten white families in her Barking constituency in east London were tempted to vote BNP in the council elections. Her aim was to scare dissatisfied former Labour voters into returning to the fold. The effect, however, was to give a big boost to previously downhearted BNP leaders, with the media portraying the BNP as a major vehicle for expressing dissatisfaction with New Labour, not only in Barking, but nationally.

Hodge sees the success of the BNP in the area as a result of ‘white working class racism’. This is in line with some other supposedly liberal analyses, like an influential study of white working class attitudes in inner east London. White workers are supposedly resentful at the changes to their old communities and their old culture as people of immigrant descent move into the area. Old left and liberal notions of ‘multiculturalism’ are seen as useless in warding off the far right threat. The only way to do so that is put forward is to combine an authoritarian social agenda with assertions of a British identity—which in practice means hammering whichever unfortunate refugee, recent immigrant or self-assertive Muslim is the latest to attract the venom of the popular press.

Missing from this whole discussion is any account of what in reality has been happening to the working class—white or otherwise—in Barking as in many other places. The successive economic crises and the wholesale restructuring of industry over the last quarter of a century have had a particularly damaging effect on wide sections of the traditional manual working class. This still accounts for about 45 percent of the workforce, despite its virtual absence from the received picture of Britain carried in the media (even soap operas like EastEnders and Coronation Street rarely feature people in their working lives). Manufacturing workers have been hit by the destruction of a million jobs—that is about a quarter of the total—since New Labour was elected. Barking, in this respect, is symbolic of Britain as a whole. It is the location of the Ford Dagenham
plant, once the biggest workplace in London. Five years ago the phased closure of its assembly plant destroyed thousands of jobs—and Ford is only the biggest of the factories in the area to shut. According to an analysis of employment in the area:

The majority of businesses within the borough now are in the wholesale or retail distribution sector, with a high proportion of financial and business services, transport, storage, communications and construction companies… Most jobs in Barking and Dagenham are now provided by small and medium enterprises (SMEs), with an average workforce of 17 employees per company.2

All studies show that manual workers who lose their jobs suffer a cut in their incomes, with those over 50 likely to drop out of the workforce altogether—and those who do get jobs are highly likely to lose them again in further rounds of redundancy. It is in such places that working class people have been under the greatest pressures to work harder and longer over the last two decades: significantly, Barking witnessed one of the first of the long battles waged by women workers against the privatisation of cleaning services in hospitals back in 1984.

It is not only wages, jobs and working conditions that have suffered. One issue which has come through interviews with BNP voters in the borough is the shortage of affordable housing, which is blamed on asylum seekers. In fact there are very few asylum seekers in Barking (a characteristic of all the areas where the BNP have picked up support). The shortage is a result of the general upsurge in house prices across London. The massive rise in prices in even the poorest inner London boroughs like Hackney and Tower Hamlets (where the average price for a flat is now above £225,000) leads to some people from the area moving out to Barking, where prices are still the lowest in the London area (at a ‘mere’ £130,000 for a flat!),3 making it more difficult for the children of established residents to find anywhere to live. Media scares about asylum seekers and Muslims then make it seem that they are to blame.

It is precisely such conditions that produce feelings of atomisation, of being under continual pressure, of being subject to changes beyond your own control. And it is precisely such feelings that the BNP tries to blame on changes in the ethnic composition of the area. On this, the recent Democratic Audit analysis of the BNP’s support is quite right. ‘Immigration and asylum seekers’, it says, ‘have become symbols for the frustrations and fears of everyday life in largely working class areas and it is among people…who feel they and their neighbourhoods are being neglected that the potential for growth for the BNP lies’.4 The frustrations are not to do with ‘British identity’ or ‘values’. They are, rather, to do with the deteriorating conditions and the atomisation associated with the neo-liberal capitalism so assiduously promoted by the three major parties.

This is not the first time we have seen a worrying upsurge of racism and support for Nazi organisations. It was a characteristic by-product of disillusion with the Labour governments of the late 1960s and late 1970s—witness the short-lived wave of strikes and demonstrations in support of Enoch Powell in 1968 and the high votes achieved by the National Front in 1977-78. A very interesting MORI survey shows clearly the correlation between such periods of disillusionment and the rise in racist attitudes.a The point is that during the Tory years Labour could seem to provide an alternative to the frustrations people found in their everyday life. Under those circumstances, the high vote the National Front got in the West Bromwich by-election of 1973 (16 percent) or its winning of a council seat in Tower Hamlets 1993, could be short lived and campaigns like the Anti Nazi League could achieve relatively quick successes. Now, however, there is the danger of the BNP vote growing so long as it seems like the only credible alternative to what is on offer from the main parties. Campaigns like those run by Unite Against Fascism, which, rightly, expose its Nazi character and the way its policies damage working class people, are very important. But there will be limits to their effectiveness if it seems the only alternative to
the BNP is to vote for parties that continue with the existing neo-liberal onslaught on people’s lives. What is needed is a credible left alternative which builds upon the socialist and anti-racist traditions within the working class to offer a completely different way forward. It is here that the Respect project is so important.

Newham stands next door to Barking and parts of it are very similar in terms of social conditions and ethnic makeup. But in Newham it was Respect which became the focus of opposition to New Labour and what neo-liberalism is doing to the manual working class. This enabled it to win votes from white workers not that different to those who were fooled into voting for the BNP in Barking.