Britain after Blair

Issue: 115

Is Gordon Brown going to run into an unexpected obstacle in his first weeks in office—a sudden revival of class struggle after the low ebb since the firefighters’ strike of four years ago? It seems very possible as we go to press.

Certainly anyone who imagines that disillusion with New Labour is leading to a massive swing to the right should carefully examine the results of May’s elections for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and most local authorities outside London. Labour’s share of the vote was only 27 percent across Britain, and in Wales it was lowest in any election since 1918. As in 1931, the late 1960s and the late 1970s, the experience of Labour in office has led to mass disillusion. But there is one great change from these previous periods. Disillusionment has not automatically benefited the Tory right. In Scotland and Wales the nationalists gained seats. What enabled them to do so was not their nationalism but their identification with what the Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond calls a “social democratic” agenda, some way to the left of New Labour—complete with outright opposition to the Iraq War.

It is true that in southern England the Tories gained at the expense of Labour (and the Liberal Democrats). But their leader David Cameron feels he can only get votes by ditching much of the old Tory agenda of tax cuts for the rich, promotion of private health care, near-overt racism and even support for grammar schools. There is, of course, no real conversion involved here (every so often the Tories let slip their ruling class instincts), but there is recognition that there is no electoral advantage to be gained from a rabid neoliberal message. After all, the sections of the petty bourgeoisie (in its old and new versions) who have traditionally formed the mass base of the party are as dependent on the NHS and state schools as are the mass of manual workers. Even more so are those sections of white collar workers (teachers, nurses) who traditionally voted Tory but voted Labour for the first time ten years ago. The popular 1990s backlash against unadulterated Thatcherism is still having its impact on Thatcher’s own party.

Gordon Brown takes over against a background of massive disillusion with New Labour among people who once enthused over Tony Blair. Yet, as John Newsinger shows in his article later in this journal, he was even more important in laying down New Labour’s agenda than was Blair.

This does not rule out the possibility of him enjoying some sort of honeymoon of increased electroral popularity. In 1990-2 John Major was able to restore the Tories’ fortunes sufficiently from their low point at Thatcher’s overthrow to win the 1992 election—although to do so he had to ditch the poll tax, while Brown shows no signs of immediately ditching Blair’s equivalent unpopular policy, the war. The word “Iraq” may not be inscribed on Brown’s heart as it is on Blair’s, but he has financed the bombing and the killing, and we should not let anyone forget it.

He also faces problems on the home front in a way that New Labour has usually been able to avoid over the past decade. Despite all his boasts about his performance as Chancellor, luck rather than judgement explains the relative stability of the economy over recent years, as we show in our briefing piece on Brown’s economic record. Now, as the Bank of England suddenly fears inflation and raises interest rates, Brown’s response is to announce a wage limit for the public sector of 2 percent—at a time when the retail price index is around 4.5 percent and average household income already declining slightly. This amounts to an attempt by the government to cut the living standards of millions of employed workers—something threatened in the Thatcher-Major years but never actually implemented.

The main public sector union leaders fear getting caught in a vice. Most have in the past tried to distance themselves from the unpopularity of Brown by claiming he would be different to Blair when it comes to listening to their members’ complaints. But now it is Brown is who is leading the attack on wages. There are loud protests even from those who will do their utmost to stop the protests turning into action.

There has already been action by the civil servants’ PCS union, whose leader Mark Serwotka is one of the few to have faith in neither Blair nor Brown. The PCS has held two national one-day strikes and is now calling on other unions to unite to form a joint challenge to government policy. The postal workers’ CWU has overwhelmingly voted for industrial action. Meanwhile, some other union leaders, like those of the teachers’ NUT and the public sector workers’ Unison, are talking about united action even if they are doing little to prepare for it as yet. The non-TUC affiliated Royal College of Nurses and the Royal College of Midwives are considering action for the first time in their histories.

The test for the left over the summer will hinge upon the ability of its activists to intervene in this situation. There needs to be a response that combines politics and traditional forms of trade union action. Most public sector workers lack the confidence to go beyond one‑day strikes or selective action if it is a question of fighting alone. Such stoppages can be inspiring the first time they occur, but the failure to hurt the employer often leads to cynicism when they are repeated as the only tactic without escalation. Typically they are solid but uninspiring, with little sense of them leading anywhere. This is where fighting for unity across the public sector in political opposition to the government’s schemes becomes important. Unity in action between different sections can provide a cutting edge to the strikes and create the sort of forward momentum that can win.

Finally, on the political front the efforts of the left inside the Labour Party and the unions to “reclaim Labour” have come to a dead end. The left in the Labour Party was not able even to test its strength in the leadership election—blocked by the refusal of sufficient MPs to support a candidate to oppose Brown. In the deputy leadership election, some of the five pro-occupation, pro-Brown candidates have made nice noises. But they could hardly do otherwise, given the general anti-Blair mood and their need to pick up union votes which might otherwise go to Jon Cruddas. He is the only candidate sufficiently “left of centre” to call for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq (Harriet Harman’s admission that she was mistaken in voting for the war is combined with continued insistence that the troops must stay).

Yet the May elections showed there are substantial numbers of people ready to vote for candidates to the left of labour. Here the three successes of Respect, in councils seats in Preston, Bolsover and Birmingham, are significant. Not because they put Respect in anything like same league yet as the major parties, or even the nationalists in Scotland and Wales, but because they show that where the effort is put in it is possible to win people to a serious left alternative. And those who claimed Respect’s previous successes in Newham and Tower Hamlets were simply the result of a “Muslim vote” (as if the major parties did not also angle for Muslim votes in such areas) should understand that in Preston and especially in the former mining area of Bolsover its victories depended on workers who are not Muslim turning out in considerable numbers to back it.

The importance of Respect’s successes is that many people with inclinations to the left are still voting Liberal or Labour for fear of casting a vote that is “wasted” in a “first past the post” election. Respect is beginning, however modestly, to show that it is possible to break with Labour and win.

Next year sees one of the few elections in England to contain an element of proportional representation—the London mayoral and assembly elections. Respect has an above evens chance of making a big impact and winning seats. Those who have so far put their faith in reclaiming Labour should now consider the alternative. And established activists in industry should see that posing a political alternative to New Labour—especially in relation to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—is the easiest way to attract younger people not worn down by the long years of often demoralising defensive struggles.