The painful passing of Tony Blair

Issue: 112

The political crisis in the New Labour government was coming to a head as we went to press. Arguments over exactly when Tony Blair would enable Gordon Brown to attempt to succeed him as prime minister were leading to incredible levels of vitriolic abuse between the rival New Labour camps, with shouting matches in Downing Street, ex-ministers and ministers denouncing each other, and MPs circulating rival petitions. Most bewildering for many people was the complete lack of political difference between the two sides. Brown has enthusiastically pushed through Blair’s policies over privatisation, public private partnerships, cuts in pension entitlement and finance for the wars in Iraq and the Middle East. Just in case anyone had any doubts, he has came out over the summer in full support for nuclear power, for upgrading Britain’s nuclear submarine missiles and for being a junior partner in Bush’s wars.

On the face of it, then, there is no politics involved in the war between two egos. Hence the obscenity of various trade unions telling people that a Brown government would somehow how be a victory for their members.

Yet this non-political fight has significant political roots and can have important political consequences. The roots lie in the very character of New Labour politics. For Blair and Brown alike, politics consists of using a mixture of public relations spin and fashionable management techniques to impose, in a top-down way, neo-liberal policies in the name of reform. The hope is to keep the Murdoch, Rothermere and Desmond media corporations happy, and so, supposedly, win over ‘middle England’ voters. ‘Old fashioned’ Labour politics, with its meetings and resolutions and debates, is replaced by ‘modern’ rallies where people have to do no more than stand up and applaud those the media decide are their best leaders.

The result inevitably has been the haemorrhaging of party membership under the impact of the policies pursued. In the first term these were a pursuance of Tory cutbacks in public sector expenditure. In the second term they were the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, and repeated verbal attacks on public sector workers. Now, in the third term, they are the open support for the Israeli onslaught on Lebanon and a new batch of privatisation measures, particularly in the health service. Today the party membership is a good deal less than half what it was when New Labour was elected nine years ago.

The political machines built round Blair and Brown to impose their shared policies now have no way of resolving a clash of personalities between their leaders other than to turn their spin and their bullying against each other. Political debate is replaced by tit for tat character assassination, creating a bitterness that is going to make life difficult for whichever machine finally wins. If Brown wins, he risks facing the animosity of all those who blame him for ruining what was meant to be Blair’s triumphant final year; if the Blairites prevent Brown from winning, his shadow will stalk them at every turn. They will be stalked by something else as well.

It was support for Bush’s war—and the impact of the enormous anti-war movement—that made Blair so weak that he finally had to concede some ground to the Brownites over when he was going to resign. Particularly important was the way opposition to Blair’s support for the Israeli onslaught on Lebanon shook the loyalty even of many MPs who had voted for the Afghan and Iraq wars. But Blair has left two poisoned chalices for his successor—a war in Iraq that cannot be won, and a war in Afghanistan which could well end in an old fashioned defeat. Iraq cannot be controlled with only a quarter of the number of troops the Russians used in their war on Afghanistan, and to attempt to control Afghanistan with a fifth of the number of troops in Iraq is almost to guarantee disaster. Brown has no easier answer to that than Blair.
But the real importance of the leadership crisis is its impact on the rather meagre ranks of New Labour enthusiasts. This has major implications for all the activists who hold the wider labour movement together—the men and women who run union branches, sit on shop stewards committees and act as workplace reps. There are hundreds of thousands of them.

For the best part of a century their politics has been Labour politics in the widest sense of the term, with no more than one in ten of the activists ever accepting the alternative politics once provided by the Communist Party. There has been a clean break with New Labour by some activists in the last few years, as is shown by the disaffiliation of the firefighters’ FBU and the rail workers’ RMT from the Labour Party, but the majority still retain a residual loyalty, however strained, to the party. The big guns of the trade union bureaucracy are trying to divert disaffection with Blair into support for Brown. But he makes it more difficult for them every time he opens his mouth to address the City of London or the Murdoch press.

There was a time when the traditional Labour left believed it and it alone could provide an alternative to the Labour right. So in 1931, 1951, 1970 and 1979, it grew in strength with the demise of Labour governments, even if its illusory hopes that it could change capitalism through the Labour Party never came to fruition. The pattern was already sufficiently established 40 years ago to be one of the themes of Ralph Miliband’s classic history of labourism, Parliamentary Socialism.

This time round the Labour left is in a very weak position with the collapse of Labour’s membership and the concentration of power in the apparatus. Left MP John McDonnell has declared himself as a candidate whenever the leadership election finally takes place. But it is a challenge that even many of those who support him do not place much hope in. The leaders of the big unions will not back him—the exception, Mark Serwotka of the civil service PCS, leads a non-affiliated union. The centre-left ‘Grass Roots Alliance’ has just won the four local constituency seats on the party’s national executive but its top vote was only 19,000 (out of 36,313 returned ballot papers from a total claimed membership of 178,889). And the parliamentary left organised in the Campaign Group are divided over whether to back McDonnell. This is all a very far cry from when Tony Benn stood for deputy leader in 1981 and took 49.5 percent of the votes.

John McDonnell’s candidacy has the potential to make some activists see through the pretensions of the Blairites and Brownites alike. For this reason, it should have the sympathy of everyone who is hostile to New Labour, its wars and its neo-liberalism. But it is not going break the hold of New Labour, still less turn the Labour Party into an instrument for achieving decisive social change. The Labour left deserve our solidarity in their efforts to confront the right. But with solidarity should go fraternal debate over the incapacity of the means they have chosen to achieve the transformation of society they desire—a lesson which the leadership contest itself can only confirm.

There is unease among hundreds of thousands of activists with Brown, which the established Labour left is unable to capitalise on. This provides the anti-capitalist left outside the Labour Party with both an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity is to seize on the disarray in New Labour ranks to begin to break the century-old hold of labourism on the movement’s activists. The challenge is to find the means to do this.
It is not going to be achieved by mere propaganda about the past as well as present failings of Labour, however useful that it is. Still less will it come about by an ‘I told you so’ approach. What is required is a two-pronged strategy that reaches out to those people who are unclear as to which way to turn.

The first element is what Respect has been trying to do—to build unity for an electoral challenge to New Labour around a set of minimal demands against war and neo-liberalism. Such a challenge is needed to provide a national left political focus for people who might otherwise react to New Labour’s behaviour by dropping into apathy or even looking to the right.

But building the electoral focus by itself is not enough.

There is the potential to draw many people not yet prepared to break electorally with Labour into fightbacks over particular issues—above all over opposition to Bush’s wars, but also against neo-liberal measures like health cuts or in support of important strikes. Such fightbacks cannot be organised on a sufficiently large scale simply by relying on the forces of the established far left. United platforms involving left MPs and left union leaders are needed to draw in those who have traditionally looked to such people.
Fortunately, the cracks in New Labour at the top are creating the conditions which make it easier to establish such united platforms. Even union leaders who are coming out for Brown are voicing some verbal opposition to the wars and to the latest raft of privatisations and cutbacks. And a number of Labour MPs regarded as ‘loyal’ in the past are making at least occasional noises of discontent. The most extreme instance is that of Clare Short, moving in three and a half years from voting for the war so as to keep her cabinet position to a complete, if confused, break with the Labour Party. But there are quite a few others who feel they have little to show for compromising their beliefs in the past. Their motives will often be mixed: it has always been amazing how many Labour MPs remember near-forgotten political principles when their ministerial hopes are thwarted or when party policies seem to pose the risk of electoral defeat. But regardless of their motives, their voicing of discontent can act as a focus to draw very many other people into struggle. And while the experience of successful united struggle is unlikely to convince many of the leaders to look to an alternative politics to those of labourism, it can have that effect on many of the rank and file.

Hopefully, we will have enjoyed one example of a united front mobilisation by the time readers get this journal—the ‘Time To Go’ anti-war demonstration called outside Tony Blair’s final Labour Party conference in Manchester. This should make it possible to build towards making a success of November’s Organising for Fighting Unions conference, which Respect has sponsored but which also includes figures from the Labour and trade union left. In such ways the dynamism of the anti-war movement can fuse with the anger at domestic policies to beak the grip of New Labour on the wider working class movement.