Issue: 106

Chris Harman

Britain after eight years of Blair

Chris Harman

Britain was on the eve of an election as we prepared this issue of the journal. The articles in this section deal with changes that have occurred under New Labour. Most readers will see them a few weeks before voting. Some will not do so until afterwards.

This election is different to the usual pattern in Britain. Over the past 80 years the performance of Labour governments in office has caused greater (1929-31, 1964-70 and 1974-79) or lesser (1945-51) degrees of disillusion among working class voters, allowing the Tories to return to office after six years at the most. This time all forecasters were expecting a third term of Labour when it began its campaign in February, even though the Guardian’s Jackie Ashley writes, ‘The early weeks of the pre-election campaign appear to have brilliantly cut a Labour lead of seven points to three’ (3 March).

Blair’s supporters boast he has been prime minister longer than any previous Labour leader. His top collaborator and rival, Gordon Brown, boasts that Britain is leading Europe in the adoption of US-style workforce flexibility and has enjoyed a period of economic and employment growth unparalleled for decades. Certainly the registered jobless figures are far below those of a dozen years ago (although still two or three times the figures of the 1950s and 1960s) and there has been growth in total employment, especially in London and the south east. And until recently take-home pay for most employed workers was just about keeping ahead of price increases.

Yet disillusion with Labour is massive. Everyone expects turnout in the election to be even less than the record low of 59 percent four years ago. The Labour Party’s membership has slumped more than at any time in the past, as Charlie Kimber shows in his piece, and for the first time since the First World War some unions have voluntarily disaffiliated from the party. The war against Iraq has played a big part in this. But it is worth remembering that disenchantment with New Labour began in its first term, with Blair and Brown’s continuation of the Thatcher-Major path towards what we now call ‘neo-liberalism’. It was in the first term that they cut benefits for single parents and disabled people, allowed the head of schools inspection, Chris Woodhead, to launch a vicious ideological onslaught on teachers, pushed ahead with the privatisation of air traffic control and council estates, and joined with Clinton in bombing Belgrade. The disillusionment was already sufficient for the Scottish Socialist Party to do well enough in the only election in Britain then involving proportional representation to win a seat in the Scottish Parliament in 1999, and socialists in England to pick up respectable, if modest, votes in the Greater London election of 2000 and the general election of 2001. The disillusionment fed the forces of the far right, with the Nazi British National Party beginning to win council seats after racist riots they provoked in the decaying former textile towns of the north west and West Yorkshire, so emerging from the extreme margin of political life.

It is against this background that the rise of the anti-war movement after 11 September 2001 is so important. The 50,000 and 100,000 strong demonstrations against the Afghan war in October and November 2001 were the first real expression in Britain of the anti-capitalist feeling that burst onto the world scene at Seattle two years before. They laid the ground for the biggest anti-war movement Britain has ever seen, with four demonstrations in the 300,000 to 500,000 range (September 2002, March, April and November 2003) and one, on 15 February 2003, of up to 2 million. The demonstrations since against the occupation of Iraq have varied in size, and so far have come nowhere near matching 15 February. But the movement against the war has by no means gone away, as has been shown by big rallies in London suburbs and in provincial towns, and by two demonstrations in 2004 in the 60,000 to 100,000 range (big by the standards of any protest in Britain in the last century, except for those of 2002-03). Another demonstration is due as this journal is being printed.

But it has not only been the demonstrations that have expressed hostility to the war. The anti-war movement has been the spearhead of a radicalisation over other issues. There is now a level of politics among students in some universities, like LSE, SOAS and UCL, which has not been matched since the mid-1970s. There are also signs of that mood spreading to other places as the school students who took part in the walkouts the day the war started move into higher education. And in the unions, the war has provided the issue above all which has focused hostility of activists against New Labour. There too the hostility was already growing during Labour’s first term, with the unexpected victory of anti-Blair candidates in a number of small unions, especially the train drivers’ union ASLEF. But it has been during the last four years that the left has won victories in major unions like the civil servants’ PCS, the rail workers’ RMT, the postal and telecom workers’ CWU and the newly created Amicus, leading to a lot of media talk of an ‘awkward squad’ of union leaders with influence on the Trades Union Congress. The biggest sign of the change of mood in the unions was when the 2002 TUC conference voted against the war—although vacillation by key union leaders allowed the Labour leadership to avoid defeat (or even a proper debate) over the issue at the party’s conferences in 2002, 2003 and 2004.

The growth of a new anti-capitalist left in the anti-war movement and the unions has not yet been matched by any general upsurge of industrial struggle. At least three factors are important in explaining this.

The first is that the election of the ‘awkward squad’ union leaders has not broken the tendency of the union bureaucracy to vacillate and retreat once major confrontation becomes possible. This was shown in the one long-running national dispute to occur in either of New Labour’s terms, that in the fire service in 2002-03. The union’s newly elected ‘awkward squad’ general secretary, Andy Gilchrist, waged an exemplary campaign through the summer of 2002 to persuade firefighters that they should struggle over pay, creating a momentum for action not known in the union for a quarter of a century. But he then restricted the dispute to a series of short strikes, before calling it off out of fear of seeming to damage the war effort (even though Gilchrist himself was a public opponent of the war). Instead of breaking the long spell of demoralisation prevalent in the trade union movement since the bitter defeats of the miners and print workers in the mid-1980s, the fire dispute served to prolong it—although a very successful unofficial strike of postal workers in November 2003 showed how militancy can achieve quick victories.

The second factor has been the way the restructuring of British capitalism has led to wave after wave of factory closures and a haemorrhaging of jobs in sections of industry where rank and file trade union activism expressed through shop steward organisation was once strongest. Jane Hardy’s article provides a thorough breakdown of what has happened. The overall result is that there are now fewer than half the numbers of workers in manufacturing than during the last great advance of class struggle in the early 1970s, while the number of miners has fallen from 246,000 to 6,000 since then. The industries with traditions of militancy that once countered the backsliding and cowardice of the trade union bureaucracy have been decimated.

Thirdly, New Labour itself has usually been able to avoid measures that would provoke industrial action—or at least industrial action that goes beyond one-day protests. Important here has been its approach to pay. In the 1960s and 1970s both Labour and Conservative governments provoked anger among sections of workers with few or no previous traditions of struggle by incomes policies that held wages down at a time of rising prices. After initial successes, these provoked massive rebellions both from groups of workers with militant traditions and from new groups of workers without any such traditions. So, we saw the wave of unofficial strikes in the car industry, clothing, glassmaking, buses and elsewhere in 1969-70, the successful miners’ strikes in 1972 and 1974 and then the ‘winter of discontent’ in 1979.

Blair’s governments, by contrast, have followed the pattern set by Thatcher and Major of relying on a combination of the ‘market’ (with historically high levels of unemployment) and anti-union laws to keep the unions in check while the wages of most workers just about keep ahead of inflation. At no point have real wages been slashed, as they were at least temporarily during the 1964-70 and 1974-79 Labour governments. The attacks which have taken place have involved job losses through the restructuring of industry, increased pressure for people to work harder and longer, the subjection of public sector employees to ‘market testing’ and cuts in certain welfare benefits. They have created a deep, growing bitterness among very wide sections of workers, which will explode at some point. But they have not yet provoked sustained mass industrial action.

This has led commentators on both the right and the left to see class as declining in importance. Yet the reality is very different. The distribution of income and wealth has continued during New Labour’s years to follow the trend of the Thatcher-Major years of moving in favour of capital. Gordon Brown’s supposed ‘redistributive’ measures in favour of the poor have only touched a small portion of the massive increases in the incomes of the rich, but have, through measures like university fees, the council tax, insurance tax and so on, hit harder the slightly better paid sections of the working class (skilled manual workers, teachers and so on). The realities of class for the 70 to 75 percent of the population still in manual or middle- to-low grade white collar jobs is unchanged, as Jacob Middleton shows in detail. This divide finds vivid expression in the geography of cities, as Alex Law and Gerry Mooney show. And New Labour’s vision of the educational system is based on reproducing the existing class divisions through shaping children to fit into capital’s continuing, if changing, demand for labour power. Terry Wrigley’s article shows how this is happening.

However, there is a widespread pessimism about the capacity of workers to struggle, even among those who accept the reality of class. This is to be found within the anti-capitalist movement, where there is a prevalence of ‘autonomist’ notions that see change as taking place through a spontaneous coming together of different sectionalised and localised movements, with no need to find a strategic axis in workplace struggles. It is also to be found within trade union structures and among their academic advisers, with the claim that there is little likelihood of any return of trade union strength unless somehow a government is persuaded to increase workers’ rights to organise and strike without the threat of the sack. The debate between Martin Smith from the Socialist Workers Party and Gregor Gall in our last issue was essentially over this argument.

Here the findings of Jane Hardy’s article are very important. She shows that restructuring has not just included the contraction of employment in much of manufacturing industry and mining. It has also involved the maintenance of absolute production levels in important parts of manufacturing and the growth in size and importance of new sectors of the economy just as important for capitalism as manufacturing and mining ever were. Such developments are ignored in much of the fashionable talk about ‘deindustrialisation’ and ‘post-Fordism’.

Yet these help explain the limited revival of industrial militancy we have seen in certain industries. Postal services and urban transport, for instance, are even more important for capitalism today than they used to be. It has to be able to send and receive business documents (and for that matter to get to people’s homes the things they buy through the internet), and it has to be able to get vast numbers of workers to and from their places of employment each day (something made more difficult by two decades of low investment in public transport). It’s not surprising therefore that these are two sections of workers who have displayed much greater militancy than in the past, and provided an antidote to the 1980s-type demoralisation still afflicting activists in many other sectors.

The path taken by groups like the postal workers and London tube workers today can be that taken by workers in other expanding sectors in the future. Union organisation is weak or non-existent in many of them. But this was once true of what we now think of as the traditionally strong sectors.

There have been recurrent waves of restructuring of British capitalism over the last 150 years. Each has involved the relative decline of some established sectors and the rise of new ones. Along with this went, at each stage, a shift in the centres of organisation and militancy within the working class. So textiles predominated in the first phase of the industrial revolution, and its workers played a predominant role in the greatest industrial struggle of the Chartist period, the general strike in the North West in 1842. After a lull of nearly half a century, the next great wave of struggle was focused on the very different industries that had grown in the interim, like match manufacture, gasworks, chemicals and the docks. Twenty years later it was the turn of the railways and the mines to show unprecedented militancy. Then from the 1930s to the early 1970s the growth industries were motors and light engineering, and it was with militancy and unofficial shopfloor organisation in these sectors that British capitalism was so concerned that the government set up a royal commission under a senior judge, Donovan, into industrial relations in 1968.

Union strength and class consciousness did not simply grow gradually with the development of new sectors of industry in such cases. They lagged behind the expansion of these sectors, sometimes by decades, as the majority of workers showed little inclination to struggle against employers who used intimidation and victimisation against the minority who tried to organise. Established activists were often dismissive of the new groups of workers, whose lifestyles were often different to those of older sections and who lacked their traditions of solidarity—and middle class experts concurred in judging them not to be real workers. So before the great wave of organising that occurred after 1889, the burgeoning unskilled workforce in London was dismissed as ‘feckless’ and ‘undisciplinable’, while in the early 1960s there was a serious academic debate about whether the rapidly growing numbers of workers in the motor industry were ‘bourgeoisified’.

Yet each successive new group did in the end become organised. This rarely happened though the routine methods of normal trade unionism. Instead it depended upon some issue causing some group in one of the new sectors to enter into struggle and suddenly discover its power to shake the employers and win gains. Its example then inspired others to militancy of their own.

So it was with the match workers and dockers in the late 1880s, the railwaymen, dockers and miners in 1910-14, those who built trade unionism in the car and aircraft industries in the 1930s and with the spread of militant trade unionism to white collar workers in the public sector with strikes of teachers, civil servants, hospital and local authority workers in the 1970s.

There was a greater or lesser degree of spontaneity to all these cases. There had to be, since it is not until a group of workers takes action that it sees how strong it is. But something else was always involved—a body of activists both inside and outside the industry prepared to take the effort and initiative and shoulder the risks involved in encouraging such action. So the ‘new unionism’ of the late 1880s depended, in part, on outside activists like Annie Besant, Eleanor Marx, Tom Mann and John Burns. So the socialist revival of three or four years earlier with the foundation of the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League was a key element in the upsurge. In a similar way, networks of militant syndicalists (again including Tom Mann) were very important in laying the ground for the Great Unrest in the years before the First World War, and Communist Party activists were central to the spread of union organisation into motors, the aircraft industry and light engineering from the 1930s onwards.

Jane Hardy’s article points to the growing sectors today where conditions, payments systems and managerial bullying operate along essentially the same lines as has been normal in manufacturing and mining, suggesting that ‘global Fordism’ is a better name for the present stage of capitalism than ‘post-Fordism’. And it shows that these sectors are of strategic importance for British capitalism. Jacob Middleton’s article shows how poorly paid many of the workers in these sectors are. Finance, for instance, is not mainly stockbrokers and market makers. It is routine office workers, mostly women, and large numbers of cleaners and maintenance workers, many new immigrants or from ethnic minorities. Such workers can get organised and show their class power—and at some point they will do so. But the process will require new networks of activists to take the initiative and the risks. It was not established national union leaders who initiated the struggles of the late 1880s, 1910-14, the 1930s or the 1970s—although some lower ranking officials seized the opportunity to expand their influence by identifying with the struggles. Left to themselves most national union officials are unlikely to spearhead the organisation of the unorganised in the expanding sectors in the years ahead. A new layer of socialist activists is required to relate to the newly expanding sections of the working class and to make older sections aware that they have strength if they care to use it.

This is where the politics of what has been happening becomes so important. The demoralisation caused by Labour in office can go in two directions. Previous Labour governments created a cynicism which ate into traditions of class solidarity and provided an opening for right wing forces to gain an influence in some working class areas. Labourism historically held the organised sectors of the working class together as well as holding them back, and its erosion has always made it easier for reactionary and racist moods to spread—particularly as Labour politicians try to protect their voting base by pandering to these moods. The way in which hysteria over asylum seekers and ‘anti-social behaviour’ has affected wide layers of people in recent months is a sign of how quickly the poison can work. But the disillusion can also open the way the creation of new left networks in workplaces and localities. The impact of the anti-capitalist movement since Seattle, and especially the anti-war movement, has been to provide a national focus to the left, able to inspire and draw together those wanting an alternative.

But the focus needs to be sharper. There are attempts by Britain’s traditional second capitalist party, the Liberal Democrats, to exploit the anti-war feeling for their own ends (which include a sharp move towards neo-liberalism in economic policies), and mere cynicism with New Labour’s lies over the war can even help the Tories, the right wing populists of the UK Independence Party and the Nazis. This is what makes the Respect coalition (along with the SSP in Scotland) so important. It has enabled revolutionary socialists to work together with wide numbers of anti-war activists, disillusioned former Labour stalwarts and Muslim activists to provide a strong focus to the left. We do not dare predict how it will do in the general election, but it did manage to get 10 percent and more votes in several inner city areas in the European and London elections last June, and has done well since in parliamentary by-elections in the Midlands and council by-elections in east London (getting more votes than New Labour in two cases). For these reasons, it hopes to give New Labour at least a couple of shocks.

But Respect’s real importance lies in preparing the ground for what happens after the election. British capitalism has enjoyed a great deal of luck over the last decade. Its enforced departure from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism under the Major government had the by- product of insulating it from the stagnation that has afflicted the biggest European economy, Germany, while it benefited from the American boom (and bubble) of the late 1990s. This has been particularly true of its financial sector in the City of London—hence the upsurge in employment in the south east. But it has not solved important underlying problems. Working hours may be longer than those in continental Europe, as Jacob Middleton shows, but they are still substantially shorter than those of the US. And UK productivity levels per hour are nearly 20 percent behind those of both Europe and the US. This creates a lag in competitiveness, expressed in big trade deficits and the dependence of continued economic growth on increased levels of private indebtedness.

The British economy today accounts for a relatively small part of the world system, with about 5 percent of world trade, as Jane Hardy shows. It is a smallish boat in a big expanse of water. This has enabled it, accidentally, to find havens to shelter in as the two great storms in the world economy over the last eight years hit—the Asian crisis and the US recession. But it may not be nearly so lucky when the next wave of crisis sweeps the globe, for instance if an ending of the Chinese boom bursts the new economic bubble in the US.

It has only one way to prepare for such dangers. That is to press ahead with more neo-liberal measures designed to increase ‘flexibility’ and, especially, to cut its costs by further trimming what it sees as unnecessary expenditure. And that is not possible without confronting large sections of employed workers over key matters at some point. Such is the logic behind New Labour’s decision to push ahead with attacks on the pension entitlements in the public sector in the run-up to the election. In the process it is stirring some of the least militant groups of workers to protest, as has been shown by mass yes votes in the unions over calls for one-day strikes in late March and early April. Again, we do not know at the time of writing whether these strikes will actually take place. What we do know is that underlying pressures pushing to a revival of class struggle in Britain will break through in an unexpected way at some point, and that we have to build networks of activists to face up to them. The anti-war movement has helped to create such networks. Respect’s electoral campaign can help further.

Further reading