With the election results counted, analysed and digested, it is now possible to deliver a final verdict on the British general election of June 2001.
Labour won the elections with a majority of 167 seats at Westminster - only slightly down on last time when they won a landslide majority of 179. This was an historic victory, the first time Labour has won a second consecutive term, and with a majority greater than that of Attlee in 1945. The election result was a body-blow to the Conservative Party. They did not increase their number of seats, and only won back two safe Tory seats - Romford and Tatton. They did not even manage to win back such a traditionally Tory seat as middle class Torbay (popularly known as Tory-bay in the past) which was won by the Liberals at the last election with a majority of only twelve votes.
The Tories failed to win a single seat in Wales, and won just one in Scotland. But although the Tories won one seat from the Scottish nationalists, this "success" must be taken in context. It is their only seat in Scotland, which is entirely dominated by the Labour Party. Their best placed Scottish candidate, Malcolm Rifkind, failed to win a seat in Edinburgh Pentlands.
However, the nationalist parties in Wales and Scotland did not succeed in taking advantage of the widespread disenchantment with New Labour. It is now clear that the votes in the elections to the Welsh and Scottish assemblies were protest votes at that stage. They showed a mood of disillusionment with Labour, but when the question was posed of who governs at Westminster for the next five years, the workers of Wales and Scotland again voted for Labour. The SNP is the second party in Scotland, but it failed to make much headway, losing 18.2 per cent of its votes. It even lost one seat - Galloway and Upper Nithsdale - to the Tories.
Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party gained no new ground in Wales, which remains solidly Labour. Plaid's vote dropped by 8 per cent, and the Labour Party now has 34 out of 40 MPs in Wales. Labour not only won the Rhondda, Llanelli and Islwyn, but also won Ynys Mon (Anglesey) from Plaid Cymru.
But the defeat suffered by the Tories is even worse than that which Labour suffered in 1983, when it got 28 per cent of the vote. Tory leader William Hague took the hint and immediately announced his resignation, opening up a crisis inside the Conservative Party, which is badly split over Europe and other questions.
On the face of it, an outstanding triumph for Tony Blair. But these results tell only half the story. They do not adequately express the contradictory nature of the mood in British society. The election campaign itself was dead. The general election turnout was low - only 58 per cent bothered to vote. By contrast, in the last general election in 1997, 71.6 per cent voted. This was the lowest figure for 80 years. Some observers have pointed out that it was the lowest figure of any democratic election in Britain, since the "khaki" election of 1918 when the soldiers had not yet been fully demobilised and women still did not have the vote. In those elections only 57.6 per cent voted.
This time, Labour was elected by only one in four of potential voters - the lowest figure on which any government has been elected. In Scotland the turnout was even lower than in the 1999 Scottish Assembly elections when it was only 58 per cent. In Glasgow Shettleston nearly two thirds of the electorate stayed at home as turnout fell to 39 per cent. The same trend can be seen throughout the British Isles. The heaviest abstention was in traditional Labour strongholds in the North. In Liverpool Riverside, only 34.1 per cent turned up to vote - 18 per cent lower than the already low figure of 1997.
"People around here are disenchanted about promises never fulfilled," said one former Labour voter. This is a typical response. The mood of the masses is sceptical. The working class is disappointed and frustrated with New Labour. This has serious implications for the next Blair government. It will not be the same as the last one. The workers have voted, and having voted will now present the bill. Blair has aroused big expectations, especially in connection with the health and education. Yet all he envisages is a massive increase of private sector participation in the public sector. This is a recipe for disaster, since any private investment in the public sector will have to be paid back three times over. That is not what the people voted for on 7 June.
There were massive abstentions among the youth. One third of young voters between the ages of 18-24 said on the eve of the election that they did not intend to vote. The Labour leaders are now trying to claim that the reason for this is that people were convinced that Labour was going to win anyway, so that there was no need to vote. It is true that 53 per cent when questioned by the opinion polls gave this answer. But a far larger number - 71 per cent - said that they would not vote because "it made no difference who they voted for". And the evidence points to the fact that these were concentrated in traditional Labour seats.
This is the real reason for the alleged "voter apathy". After four years of Blairite policies, there is no enthusiasm for New Labour, but even less for the Tories. In Labour's working class heartland, there is a mood of frustration and disenchantment. The Guardian (25/5/2001) commented on the situation in Walton, Liverpool: "From the battered old streets of Walton, where house prices are collapsing and unemployment is rising once again, Tony Blair's vision of a mericrocratic Britain spreading wealth and opportunity from the few to the many seems a world away."
Despite Labour's landslide, the underlying mood is extremely volatile. The Liberal Democrats managed to increase their share of the vote only by pretending to be to the left of Labour. The mood of the electorate is a radical one - not at all in tune with the policies of the Blairites. This was shown by the result in Wyre Forest, where a local doctor, Richard Taylor, won a seat from Labour with a massive turnout. He fought on the issue of the closure of Kidderminster, and got 28,000 votes as against 10,8000 for the Labour candidate. This is a warning of the depth of feeling on the question of the National Health and hospital closures, and indicates the kind of opposition Blair will face if he does not deliver. But the experience of the first Blair government gives little grounds for optimism in this respect.
The first Blair government
In May 1997, Labour won a landslide majority after 18 long years of right wing Tory government. Tony Blair, the new leader of the Labour Party promised a new and "radical" policy to build a "better Britain". But once installed in Number Ten Downing Street he followed a policy tailored exclusively to the interests of Big Business.
One of the first actions he took was to give the Bank of England control over interest rates, thus handing over effective control of economic policy to the representatives of the City. Next, he announced that Labour would restrict its public spending to the cash limits set by the defeated Tory administration.
The austerity policies of the Blair government led to attacks on the poorest and most vulnerable groups in British society, such as single parents. The pensioners were offered an insulting rise of 75 pence. Although they later gave more, the insult is not forgotten.
In stark contrast to this "tough" line with the poor, the Blairites are openly bragging about their friendship with business. Chancellor Gordon Brown has boasted that Britain has "the lowest rate in history of British corporation tax, the lowest of any major country in Europe and the lowest rate of any major industrialised country anywhere, including Japan and the United States."
He might have added that Britain also now has some of the longest hours, lowest pay and worst working conditions of any major industrialised country. At present, British workers work 25 per cent longer hours than workers in Europe or the USA. The EU's 48-hour directive is habitually ignored in British workplaces, where the bosses force workers to opt out on pain of losing their job. Polly Toynbee, writing in The Guardian (23/3/2001) points out: "The OECD - conservative economists - finds Britain has the least market regulation, the lowest corporation tax (lower than any time in history) and the lowest employment costs - not just lower than the rest of Europe, but when everything is added on (including US employers' health insurance) lower than the US too. Social insurance and labour taxes average 24 per cent in Europe and only 13 per cent in Britain."
The picture of working conditions in Britain in the 21st century is a grim one. In the past, working conditions were reasonable for most people, but now work has become a nightmare. The pressure is piled on mercilessly, not just in industry, but in offices, schools, hospitals and doctors' surgeries. The Public Policy Research Poll revealed the horrific situation on the shop floor: "The survey," states the Financial Times (23/3/2001), "uncovered more serious violations of rights on entitlement to sick pay and paid holidays. One worker described having to pay a five pound contribution a week towards sick pay. A number of part-time workers were unaware of their entitlement to paid holidays and felt unable to negotiate with their employers."
While the Blarites show tender care for the employers' interests, they show very little for those of the workers. Tessa Jowell, a New Labour minister, stated: "We have taken very careful steps to ensure new legislation is practical [practical, that is, from the bosses' point of view, not the workers' - AW] and minimises unnecessary [!] regulatory burdens on businesses..." This kind of statement could equally be made by any Tory. It is typical of the pro-capitalist mentality of the Blairites. Meanwhile,
Britain has become a paradise for sweat shops. The working conditions in call-centres have been compared to the "dark satanic mills" of Victorian times. Millions of workers in Britain are unorganised, and the union leaders have done little to organise them. And these bad conditions are not unique to the private sector.
In the public sector, there is ever more bureaucracy, remorseless pressure to meet targets and the introduction of working practices from the private sector, all of which has undermined morale. It has caused an increase in stress-related disorders and even actual mental illness. On the eve of the elections, doctors were threatening to resign en masse from the National Health Service if something was not done to lighten the burden. For similar reasons, teachers are threatening strike action.
The Blair government has done little to remedy all this. The introduction of the minimum wage was a step forward, but it was set at such a low rate as to water it down completely. Even a large part of the notorious Tory anti-trade union legislation - which restricts trade union rights to a far greater extent than in any other industrialised nation - has not been rescinded.
While Blair struts around the world stage, parts of Britain are falling to almost Third-World levels. Public housing, education and transport are in a lamentable state. A recent article in the German Stern magazine presented life in Britain as something like a Third World country. It said that Britain under Tony Blair is in "deep crisis", blighted by ill health, poor education, and an incompetent government: "One in five adults in the land of William Shakespeare and Harry Potter is practically illiterate and barely able to add up the small change in his pocket."
This is fair comment. Schools in Britain suffer from gross over-crowding and an acute shortage of teachers. Labour has now promised 10,000 extra teachers. But head teachers have warned that 40,000 new teachers are needed to solve the schools staffing problems and threatened to "take unilateral action to cut the workload in any way that they think fit". (Morning Star, 29/5/2001.)
After the War higher education used to be free in Britain and students from working class families could get grants. Not any more. Instead of grants, there are loans. Students who wish to go to university face the prospect of leaving university with debts of 14,000 pounds.
After decades of neglect, the infrastructure is crumbling. The much-vaunted National Health Service is now in ruins. Once Britain led the world in health. Now, according to the World Health Organisation, 25,000 Britons who died of cancer every year would have lived if the NHS was at the best European levels. Expenditure on health in Britain is only one third of US levels, and one half that of France.
The Observer (27 May) pointed out that investment in the public sector under New Labour has been even lower than under Thatcher: "Investment in hospitals, schools and transport infrastructure sunk to the lowest sustained level since the Second World War during Labour's four years in power [....] Overall real investment declined by 4.4 per cent a year, a larger decline than was registered during Margaret Thatcher's premiership."
Yet the answer of Blair and the Labour Right is to privatise and invite Big Business to invest in public services. Corporate executives have been appointed to the cabinet and hundreds of quangos. Most of the assets of the state are gradually being privatised by means of the private finance initiative. The better regulation task force, which was to defend workers and consumers from the erosion of standards by big business lobbying, has been handed to the head of Northern Foods. Even where privatisation is not yet a fact, the public sector is forced to imitate the methods of the private sector. But people can see that the so-called Private Finance Initiative is nothing but a fraud. There are fewer hospital beds and worse terms of employment than before.
These policies have been disastrous for Labour. They have led to a series of devastating defeats in Wales and Scotland and in the European elections. Above all, they led to an unprecedented routing of the official Labour candidate in the election for the mayor of London. For lack of an alternative, and to keep the Tories out, the working class voted for Labour in the general election. But they did so with neither enthusiasm nor conviction.
Labour won on 7 June not be because of, but in spite of, Tony Blair.
Why Labour won
Although many working class people are disappointed with Blair and his policies, they see no alternative to the Labour Party at the present time. They did not want a return to Tory rule and therefore have rallied once more to Labour. Blair and the Labour right wing will try to present this as a victory for the pro-capitalist policies of the leadership. It is nothing of the kind. Beneath the surface, there is a simmering discontent, anger and frustration which will inevitably surface in the next period and will have far-reaching effects inside the Labour Party.
The Labour victory was based to a great extent on the world boom which has kept the British economy afloat over the past four years. Despite the increased polarisation of wealth and the increase in stress at work, real wages have continued to rise while inflation remains low. The effects of the economic slowdown have not yet been felt by most people, at least in the South of England. As the Financial Times put it: "With unemployment and mortgage rates at historical lows and house prices continuing to rise after last year's boom, the feelgood factor remains high."
The economic boom (for which the government has - wrongly - claimed credit) has meant that most workers have a job. Real wages have increased - though so has inequality between rich and poor. Above all, the workers do not want to go back to Tory rule. This explains why, despite everything, they rallied to Labour on 7 June. However, this 'boom' has not improved the lot of many workers in the industrial areas, where there is a considerable degree of dissatisfaction, and all the indicators are now pointing in the direction of a recession in the forthcoming period. Thus, the second Blair administration will not be like the first one. The mood of the class is not wholehearted: it is one of grudging support, for lack of any alternative. There is no enthusiasm for Labour, as there was in 1951 or even 1966, when Labour was forced to go to the polls for a second time. This is especially the case in the traditional working class areas of Britain.
The Leader of New Labour told the people: "I haven't had enough time to deliver what I promised. I need another four years to solve all the problems of 18 years of Conservatism." They voted to give the Labour government a second chance. But If the Blairite leadership thinks it can just resume where it left off, it is in for a rude awakening. They will not wait indefinitely for the big changes they have been promised.
The discontent with Blair is particularly strong among the activists in the Party and especially in the unions, which are still organically linked to the Labour Party. Once the election is out of the way, the decks will be cleared for action. Already, it is possible to see the beginnings of a change of mood on the industrial front, with a spate of unofficial strikes in the post office, and strikes on the London Underground, the railways etc. This is a sign of things to come.
The gathering storm
In the past two decades a large part of Britain's manufacturing base has been destroyed. The level of investment in industry has lagged behind that of Germany, France and other countries. Even formerly backward Italy has overtaken Britain, and Spain is not far behind. The former workshop of the world has been largely turned into a parasitic rentier economy based on banking and services, like France before the Second World War. This has had serious social consequences.
Already before the election we had seen 6,000 redundancies at Corus Steel (while the "patriotic" management invested 1.05 billion pounds on a new steel mill in Australia). The reason they gave was "we have too much capacity in the UK". This is a blow to South Wales, an area already castigated by years of closures and unemployment. And there will be a knock-on effect in Ebbw Vale, Shotton, Bryngwyn and Teeside. The callous attitude of management threw petrol on the flames. Corus "made it clear that it would not put up a penny of the money needed for the retraining." (FT 28/3/2001.) Yet the union leaders once again played the role of a fire-hose, insisting on the need for sweetness and light: "Mr. Leakey said the unions were encouraged by Corus' response to their proposals. [...] They are listening for the first time and we welcome that. We have started a genuine debate." (!)
There will be more cases like this in the next period, giving the lie to the sugary optimism of Blair and Brown on the prospects for the British economy. The inherent weakness of British capitalism is shown by the persistently high figures of unemployment. It is true that unemployment has fallen, but it still remains in the region of one million. And the official figures understate the true position, since they exclude up to three million people who are looking for work but excluded from receiving benefits. Workers who were made redundant in mining, steel and car manufacturing have either remained unemployed or been pushed into low paid jobs in the service sector. The situation in many of the older industrial areas in the North resembles Dickensian England. And this is the situation in a boom. What will happen in a slump?
The dialectic of history has taken its revenge on the British ruling class. For all its absurd delusions of grandeur (faithfully reflected by Tony Blair), Britain has lost its position in world affairs. It has been outstripped by Germany, France and even Italy, and from an industrial point of view, is not far ahead of Spain. The results of this will be cruelly exposed by a recession, which will mean a ferocious struggle for every market.
The British capitalists will pay for their failure to invest in the productive base for decades. The destruction of Britain's manufacturing base means that Britain will be hard hit by a world slump, when there will be intense competition for dwindling markets. As a low-productivity, low-wage economy on the fringes of Europe, it will not be able to compete with its key rivals. All history shows that an economy based on cheap labour cannot compete against an economy based on modern machinery, high wages and high productivity. The day of reckoning is not far off. There are already storm clouds gathering on the horizon. The outlook is looking very bleak as the world economy begins to slow down. The tame economists try to argue that Britain will not be affected by the slowdown in the United States. This argument is completely phoney. Mark Atkinson, writing in The Guardian (16/3/2001), explained the real position:
"If America goes into recession, Britain is likely to be one of the main casualties. Apart from the direct trade links, the two countries invest very heavily in each other and Britain happens to be home to one of the major global financial sectors. The economy's dependence on the City for wealth creation means that Britain will suffer disproportionately from a bear market in financial assets."
There are already clear signs of the beginning of a downturn. Manufacturing output in Britain fell in the first quarter of the year in the aftermath of the last global slowdown. In January we saw the steepest fall in industrial output for three years. Simon Robinson, an economist at Garrard, commented: "With demand slowing, things are likely to get worse before they get any better. This will soon translate into further job losses." (Financial Times, 13/3/2001.)
Output fell sharply in new economy sectors such as electronics and in old economy industries. In April it fell by a further 0.2 per cent. Again, according to the CBI, manufacturing has undergone the biggest drop in business confidence since January 1999. This will increase a hundred-fold as the world economy slides into global recession. This explains the haste with which Blair called the election. The Labour leaders know which way things are going. Had they waited another twelve months, the result would have been very different.
According to the Financial Times, half the British economy is already in recession. The decline in manufacturing is accelerating. The onset of a world recession will knock all Brown's calculations off course. Everything can unravel very quickly. And then the knives will be out. A world economic crisis will rapidly reveal the underlying weakness of British capitalism. It will strip away the budget surplus as unemployment rises and tax revenues fall. The bankers, the City of London and big business will demand austerity measures in their interests. At the same time there will be growing resistance to such policies from the working class, reflecting itself in growing opposition particularly within the trade unions.
Crisis in the Tory Party
For the last 20 years, there has been an offensive of capitalism under the banner of the Market. This international counter-offensive of Capital was launched by Margaret Thatcher and then taken up by Reagan in the USA. The British working class, which led the way in the strike wave of the 1970s, bore the brunt of the employers' offensive and paid the heaviest price in terms of the destruction of workers' rights, wages and conditions. But this process has its limits. This was shown by the fall of Thatcher - caused, let us not forget, by the mass rebellion against the Poll Tax - and the resounding defeat of the Tories in the 1997 general election. This already indicated the beginnings of a turn in the tide in Britain.
The Tory Party is now deeply divided and in crisis. "The party, which used to be known as a great election-winning machine, is in tatters. Morale and membership are at a record low. The average age of its members is 62," writes The Economist. Unable to present a credible alternative to the policies of the Blairites, they tried to play first the race card ("bogus asylum seekers"), then the question of the Euro. But all these manoeuvres have failed. But there is a more serious reason for the crisis of the Conservative Party. The problem of the Tories is simply stated: Blair has stolen their clothes. Since he was elected he has consistently done everything Big Business has asked of him. They therefore have no need of the Tories at the present time.
As long as Blair is able to control the working class and carry out a capitalist policy, they will continue to support him. But there are limits to this. At a certain point, it will not be possible for Blair and the right wing to keep the rank and file in check. At this point they will unceremoniously turn against Labour and go back to supporting the Tories. But for the time being, the ruling class has decided to back Blair. The Economist, with its customary cynicism, carried a front page collage of Blair and Thatcher with the slogan "Vote Conservative". It commented in an editorial (2 June): "Its [Labour's] macroeconomic policy, indeed, has been more orthodox than its Tory predecessors', with more fiscal discipline and the welcome granting of independence to the Bank of England. It has stuck to, and in some ways extended, Tory policies on education. It has dithered over the National Health Service (NHS), but again has not diverted far from the path set by John Major's Tories."
On the Tories, the same article comments sarcastically: "It is hard to oppose your own ideas, especially if you are hopelessly divided over Europe."
The conclusion of The Economist is quite blatant in its cynicism: "Tony Blair is the only credible Tory currently available."
At this stage, then, the ruling class is prepared to back Blair. But they do not see Labour as their party. Their policy is "use and discredit". They will press it into doing the dirty work until it is thoroughly discredited and then swing back to the Tories. The ploy was clear from the front page of The Sun: "Now Deliver!" This slogan is double-edged. It is, on the one hand, a peremptory order from the capitalist class, and at the same time a sly preparation of the terrain for a future onslaught by The Sun on the Labour government when it suits the ruling class.
Risk of fascism?
The simmering crisis of the inner city areas, aggravated by race, can lead to explosions as shown by the riots in Oldham and Leeds. The frightful decline of British capitalism has led to the growth of an under class of unemployed and desperate youth. In these elections the BNP got 16 per cent in one Oldham constituency and 11 per cent in another. This is the highest vote for a fascist party in any British election. However, this must be seen in context. Labour won these seats with a big majority. On the other hand, the fascist parties - including the BNP - generally got a derisory vote.
There were special reasons for the result in Oldham. The riots in Oldham - provoked by fascist elements - created an atmosphere of fear. Since the Labour movement gave no lead, there was a fertile ground for racist demagogy. The BNP - a tiny far-right sect - concentrated all its forces on one or two seats nationally, and got a certain echo in Oldham. But this must not be exaggerated. It was not repeated on a national scale. In Tower Hamlets, in the poor East End of London, an area with a big concentration of mainly Bangladeshi immigrants where the BNP had previously been active, its vote went down from 10 per cent to 6 per cent.
There is no prospect in the immediate future of a big fascist movement in Britain. The ruling class does not need the assistance of the racists at the present time, and regards them as a nuisance because they can provoke the working class and youth. They will remain as small but virulent and violent sects. Only in the future, if the working class suffers a series of fundamental defeats, would reaction in Britain begin to mobilise seriously. Even then, it would not take the form of old-style fascism, which is discredited in Britain, but more likely some kind of bonapartist, racist right wing movement inside the Tory Party itself, and especially its youth wing. But long before that threat would be posed, the working class will have many opportunities to carry through the socialist transformation of society.
As in mechanics so in society, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The unpopularity of Thatcherite policies was shown in 1997 when the working class, and a big part of the middle class voted overwhelmingly for a change. But no change has been forthcoming from Blair's New Labour. With the exception of a hypocritical "social" rhetoric, it has been a question of "more of the same". However, the situation in Britain is changing. After two decades of mild reaction, the mood is shifting. This is shown by the polls already referred to which show clearly that the mass of people now reject privatisation. It is now generally understood that privatisation is just a licence to plunder the public sector. Only six per cent of voters (13 per cent of Tory voters) support the running of public services by private companies.
All the polls show that privatisation is now unpopular in Britain, with even Tory voters demanding the renationalisation of the railways by huge majorities. 76 per cent of all voters want renationalisation, including an incredible 71 per cent of Tory voters. This shows the deep unpopularity of rail privatisation. No wonder! There are already indications that Railtrack - the privatised railway company whose shares have recently plummeted, following a number of costly rail accidents - will demand at least 6 billion pounds of taxpayers' money in the next 12 months - more than double the cost of taking it back into public ownership. Its shares (60 pence) are already lower than at the time of privatisation.
The decrepit state of public transport and especially the railways is just another example of the decline of British capitalism. While privatisation of the railways has led to a further deterioration and a series of spectacular crashes, the French nationalised railways have just opened a fast speed route between Calais and Marseilles in less than four hours - almost twice the speed of any train now operating in Britain. This little detail sharply underlines the degree to which Britain has fallen behind the rest of Europe. The public is scandalised, and demands renationalisation of the railways. How does Tony Blair react? "We have got to put the investment in now". The "we" is the British taxpayer, who will foot the bill for bailing out a company that is universally despised. This is a recipe for growing discontent.
The opposition to privatisation is not limited to the railways. 60 per cent of all voters are against private pensions. Half of Labour voters (48 per cent of all voters) say that British Telecom should be renationalised. Fifty per cent say that workers in the public sector are underpaid. This shows that there is a sea-change in public opinion in Britain. The red light is flashing for the Blairites. Yet the self-styled realists of the Labour leadership, who claim to be listening to the views of the electorate, remain deaf to all this. They are determined to maintain their right-wing pro-business line to the bitter end.
Buoyed up by the prospect of an unexpectedly easy victory, Tony Blair will be even more arrogant than heretofore. He insists on pushing through creeping privatisation of the schools and hospitals, as well as the London Underground and Air Traffic Control. In the past he has talked of his war against "the forces of conservatism", by which he means the trade unions. The ruling class will be egging him on to confront the unions in the public sector and press on with his "radical" (capitalist) agenda. But the mass of working people will no longer be so patient and tolerant as they were under the first Blair administration. They will insist that Labour acts in their interests. The Blairites will find themselves ground between two mill stones.
SSP, SA, SLP...
Despite everything, Labour won this election by a sizeable margin. This is a decisive answer to those on the fringes of the labour movement who have left the Labour Party and are desperately striving to build phantom "revolutionary" armies in the clouds. Lenin advised the British Communists to put up a few candidates to advocate a Communist programme, and in all other seats give critical support to the Labour Party. At least if they had stood on a revolutionary programme, these small groups might argue that their electoral policy had a pedagogical role. But there was nothing revolutionary about it. Where they put up candidates, they all stood on a completely reformist programme. From a Marxist point of view, this has no sense at all. These groups have neither a revolutionary policy nor the support of the masses.
A genuinely Marxist tendency must be able to find a road to the masses. That was always Lenin's position. The working class in general learns from experience. The election of the first Blair government was a necessary part of the learning process whereby the masses put their leaders to the test. The real attitude of the workers to Blair was shown in a whole series of partial elections in Wales, Scotland, London etc., where they registered an unprecedented protest. All this constitutes an absolutely unavoidable stage in the development of consciousness. The know-nothing sects interpreted this as proof that the working class was moving away from Labour. The present election shows just how little they have understood.
In Scotland the SSP said they would get 100,000 votes. In the event - standing on a left reformist programme with nationalist overtones - they got 70,000, which is a respectable result, but not as much as they had anticipated. This result shows the potential that exists for a genuine Left opposition in Scotland. But unless it is oriented towards the Labour and trade union movement, it will be doomed to be an ephemeral protest. The election results show that in Scotland also, the working class is looking to the Labour Party. The supporters of the SSP must draw the necessary conclusions and carry the fight into the Labour movement.
In England and Wales the SA and SLP made a pathetic showing. Only in two constituencies did the Socialist Alliance save their deposit - St. Helens and Coventry NE. In both of these seats, the candidates were well-known former Labour activists. The Labour leaders had imposed the ex-Tory Shaun Woodward on the local Labour Party in St. Helens. The SA was therefore able to collect a certain number of protest votes. But this is a temporary phenomenon and hardly represents support for building an alternative formation outside the Labour Party.
To get things in context, the SA got an average of 1,75 per cent in the seats where they stood candidates - or 0. 2 per cent for the whole country. In an incredible attempt to cover up this flop, they published an article comparing their election result with that of the "Communist" Party of Great Britain - in 1950! Naturally, the comparison was a flattering one, since the CPGB at that time got an even worse result - 1,32 per cent per seat! The title of this article was A Great Start (!). At least it must be admitted that these comrades have a sense of humour.
The position of Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party was no better. In the working class London constituency of East Ham, where in 1997 they saved their deposit and got one of their best results nationally, coming third, they lost heavily, falling into fourth place. In Hartlepool, where right winger Peter Mandelson, discredited by scandal, seemed an easy target, Arthur Scargill stood in person, got less than a thousand votes and lost his deposit. Elsewhere, they got only a few hundred votes in each constituency.
For those honest socialists who backed this option, with the idea of creating a left wing alternative outside the Labour Party, these results should give food for reflection. It is understandable that many activists are indignant with the policies of the Blairites, but it is also necessary to understand how the class as a whole moves, and see that the working class cannot express itself through small groups. The history of the last hundred years show that, when the class moves, it will inevitably turn, in the first place to the traditional mass organisations. The workers will test these organisations time and time again, and will not easily turn to an alternative outside them. The recent election yet again serves to confirm this assertion.
Despite the fact that many Labour Party voters were so disenchanted, the efforts of groups like the Socialist Alliance and the Socialist Labour Party of Arthur Scargill to capitalise on the disillusionment of the workers with New Labour failed to make any impression. These small groups on the fringes of the Labour movement imagined that the discontent with Blair would guarantee an increase in support, But they were mistaken. Disaffected Labour supporters registered their protest by simply staying at home. In the next period, they will find more effective ways to protest, but they will not look to small left groups, but to the mass organisations of the class: the unions and, at a later stage, the Labour Party.
Those people who continually ask themselves how it is possible that the British workers continue to vote for Blair reveal a complete lack of understanding of how the class moves. It is sufficient to pose the question concretely to get the right answer. Where is the alternative to Blair? The Tories? Certainly not. The Labour Left? But they are invisible! The sects who fiddle and fuss on the fringes of the Labour movement? That is just a joke. In the general election the working class once again voted Labour, not because they like Blair or his policy, but simply because there is no alternative to the Labour Party. Not to see this is to understand nothing about the real situation in Britain.
From frustration to anger
The cosy relation between Blair and Big Business has led some to conclude that Labour is now a bourgeois party. That is a complete misreading of the actual state of affairs. The ruling class does not trust the Labour Party because of its links to the trade unions and the working class. Of course, they will back Blair because he is their man. But they understand very well that the Labour Party is not Tony Blair.
True, the Times and Financial Times - two traditionally Tory papers, advocated a vote for Labour. So did The Sun, Murdoch's reactionary right wing gutter press rag. This is a pat on the back for Blair from Big Business, which is evidently well pleased with his performance - up till now. During the campaign, Blair was confronted on television by an angry woman distraught by the NHS's treatment of her husband. Yet, under the pressure of Big Business, Blair is determined to push through backdoor privatisation, as he stated in a BBC interview:
"Anybody who comes to me after the general election from the traditional old left and says 'no, you cannot involve the private sector in these things', I want to say 'no, I made it clear during the election that we wanted a different partnership between the public and private sector'."
Blair seems to be anxious to enter onto a collision course with the trade unions. This is no accident. He is being pushed by Big Business to act. But the working people have other ideas about how a Labour government should behave. The workers, having taken stock of the position, voted Labour to keep out the open representatives of Big Business. But after the election, their attitude to the government will not be the same as before. For a time after the last general election, the workers were inclined to give Labour the benefit of the doubt. But that will no longer be the case under the next Blair government. The impatience and frustration of the workers has been expressed in a series of unofficial strikes in the Post Office (also threatened with creeping privatisation). The depressed mood of the past is slowly beginning to change to one of anger. The cosy relation between New Labour and the trade unions will not be easy to maintain in this environment. The Guardian (24/5/2001) warned:
"Tony Blair was last night facing the first signs of a co-ordinated trade union backlash over his plans to expose the public services, including health and education, to private contractors if Labour wins the general election.
"It emerged last night that the TUC executive met yesterday to express alarm at the extent of the prime minister's commitment to introduce private sector management and disciplines."
The article went on to say that "many of the unions are privately concerned that Mr. Blair's proposals do not differ markedly from measures by the Conservative government to hand the public sector over to the private sector."
The trade union leaders who have so far largely succeeded in keeping the lid on will be under pressure to act. In the recent period there have not been many strikes, but in many cases there have been big majorities for strike action where ballots have been held. Not long ago, the RMT rail workers' union voted eleven to one in favour of strike action on the London Underground - the biggest majority ever for strike action on the Underground. There is a new mood of militancy among railway workers. A senior ASLEF driver was quoted in the Evening Standard (22nd March): "When we took strike action last month we were supported by the RMT, Now it is our turn to show solidarity with our sister union and we will not cross their picket line. There are many ASLEF drivers who feel the same way."
When the RMT was prevented by the High Court from taking action, hundreds of members went on unofficial action. Around 12,000 guards in 24 rail companies are being balloted by the rail union RMT over complaints that guards' vital safety duties are being watered down. This could lead to industrial action. It is not an isolated case. There are pay talks taking place involving 800,000 local government workers. We see here the insolence of the employers: "the lowest pay rise would still be above the new national minimum wage." The teachers are on a collision course with the government. And the ex-Left Blunkett resorted to threats against them! Teachers in a number of areas of England and Wales have already voted for "no cover" action and a ballot is being held.
The mood for action is there, but the union leaders have been holding it back. However, this cannot last forever. The whole thing is beginning to crack at the edges. This is shown by the results of a number of union conferences. The union leaders have tried to avoid strike action, pointing to the danger of legal action under the anti trade union laws which, disgracefully, remain on the statute books. But this will not hold back the workers indefinitely. The unofficial (and illegal) strikes in the Post Office is a warning of things to come. If the union leaders continue to drag their feet, they will face outright rebellion in one union conference after another. There will be a wave of unofficial actions which the leaders will have to make official in the end.
At a certain stage, the union leaders will be pushed into semi-opposition, or even open opposition to Blair. The recent events in Greece, where the right wing union leaders were forced to organise two general strikes against the government of Simitis, the Greek Tony Blair, is an indication of where Britain is heading.
The only reason why the class has not moved before now has been the absence of a point of reference. The Labour Left has been generally cowed and inactive. But that will change. Under these circumstances, opposition will mount in the Labour Party, even within the Parliamentary Labour Party. The right wing will be rapidly discredited. Crisis will follow crisis. There will be sudden and unexpected turns in the situation which sooner or later must find their reflection inside the Labour Party.
Labour and the unions
It is a mistake only to see the surface of events and not to see the processes that are unfolding underneath. There is a mood of boiling anger and indignation in the class which sooner or later must come to the surface. For years the employers have been piling on the pressure, increasing the workload and whittling away workers' gains in hours, pay and conditions. A recent survey by Warwick university pointed to an increase in depression, strain, stress, loss of sleep and unhappiness in Britain in the 1990s. "Our evidence suggests that the job satisfaction premium has collapsed." Professor Andrew Oswald linked the fall in job satisfaction to stress: "The very heavy increase in workloads in the public sector has made workers much less happy." (The Guardian, 22/3/2001.)
Now the limits of this are being reached. As we have seen, the discontent on the shop floor is shown by the spate of strikes in the Post Office in the run-up to the general election. Last year strikes in the Post Office amounted to 62,000 days. The mood of the workforce has been further hardened by the threats of the postal regulator, Martin Stanley, to introduce "serious" private postal competition by the Autumn. This man is attempting to destroy the Post Office's monopoly in preparation for privatisation. Already, private companies like UPS (which has started to donate money to the Labour Party) is trying to get its nose in the trough. The Post Office has had a monopoly for 350 years. Now it is to be broken - and by a Labour government.
The Communication Workers' Union estimated that up to 50,000 workers had joined the recent stoppages against the imposition of "flexible" working practices that were sparked off by an unofficial strike in Watford. These strikes spread when the Post Office attempted to divert work from Watford to Liverpool - a clear provocation.
The strike caused a backlog of almost 50 million letters. Derek Hodgson, the general secretary said: "The industrial relations record is abysmal, and we cannot go on putting sticking plaster on the problems - we need a proper cure." (FT, 25/5/2001.)
This movement blew up at a time when the government was striving to reach a behind-the scenes deal with the TUC to avoid strikes over privatisation on the London Underground. The union had agreed to flexible working to deal with the rapid expansion of junk mail, but London postal workers stated that they were not prepared to accept the imposition of a move from 5.25 am to 4 am shift patterns which would entrench part time working.
The mood of the workers was shown by the following comments by a London striker: "It should have been done long ago. I am not happy about losing money, but you have to back other people up. We as night workers are losing more than everyone else." This is a new language and shows a new and more militant mood among the workers: "We lose out" and that is a concern, the 43 year old processing worker went on, "but you have to say that you won't be pushed around. The way we work inside there is ridiculous. The changes they have made are no better than how things were before. They said we would go forwards, but actually we have gone backwards. It's a bit like a Dickensian workhouse." (The Guardian, 24/5/2001, my emphasis.)
Similar comments could be made by many workers in Britain. For years they have been pushed around by the bosses. But now the point is being reached where quantity becomes transformed into quality. A postman, 32 years old, who declined to give his name for fear of victimisation, was quoted as saying: "This is the straw that broke the camel's back. It comes down to one question doesn't it? How many times are you going to get kicked by them? It's not the management here that's the problem, it's the people higher up."
The action of the postal workers was illegal, yet no action has been taken under the anti-union laws.
Billy Hayes - the left candidate from Liverpool - won a completely unexpected victory in the election for general secretary in the CWU. The right wing was confident their candidate, the sitting general secretary, John Keggie, would win easily, but Billy Hayes won with a majority of about 4,000 votes. In another surprise victory for the left, Mark Serwotka won in the leadership elections in the civil servants' union, the PCS. This is a clear indication of the beginnings of a change in the unions.
This shows the beginnings of a process of the transformation of the trade unions, which will continue at an even faster pace in the next period. The unions have been restrained during the run-up to the election, but that will change later on.
Even the Royal College of Nurses has come out against privatisation. Christine Hancock of the RCN - till now a New Labour stalwart - told her 330,000 members to use their power to oppose the drift towards privatisation in the NHS. She is standing down after 12 years - probably sensing that there will be rough times ahead. She also criticised "third world" conditions in the NHS accident and emergency departments and proposals to charge elderly people for personal care such as assistance with eating and bathing.
There is a general ferment in the unions even now. At the conference of the Fire Brigades Union, against the advice of the leadership, it was agreed to change the union's rules to allow donations to candidates other than Labour who support "the principles and policies of the union". The FBU resolution was passed by 27,000 votes to 23,000. Andy Gilchrist, FBU general secretary, said that "FBU members are frustrated with the slow process being made by the Labour government", as well as the disputes with the Labour-controlled fire authorities and "the national party stance on imposing candidates such as Shaun Woodward in St. Helens". (The Guardian 24/5/2001.)
This shows the growth of indignation and frustration inside the unions with the policies of New Labour, which is sometimes expressed in ultra left moves to break with the Labour Party. We have been here before. In 1969, under the Labour government of Harold Wilson, there was such anger against the right wing policies, such as the anti-trade union In Place of Strife document, that miners' lodges were threatening to disaffiliate from the Labour Party. At that time, not only was the Labour Party dominated by the right wing, but the unions also. We had Lord Carrron of the AEU, Lord Cooper of the GMBU, Sir Sydney Green of the NUR - to name only a few of the rogues' gallery. To superficial observers the situation seemed hopeless. All the sects left the Labour Party at this time: the Healyites, the Cliff group (later the SWP), etc. Only the Marxist tendency around Militant remained. Yet within a few years everything changed, and both the unions and the Labour Party swung to the Left.
Certain groups are attempting to take advantage of this situation to encourage unions to disaffiliate from the Labour party. This is completely wrong. By refusing to carry the fight into the Labour Party, they are merely doing what Tony Blair wants. After all, his main concern, in line with the demands of his Big Business backers, has been to break Labour's links with the unions. That is not our policy. Socialist Appeal says: unions should not contract out but contract in. They should flood the Labour Party with their members, demanding that Labour carry out policies in the interests of the workers, not the bosses.
Despite all Blair's efforts the organic link between the Labour Party and the unions has not been broken. The unions and the rank and file will demand policies in the interests of working people. On the basis of events, at a certain stage, a mass Left will emerge within the Labour and trade union movement. The ideas of the Marxist tendency in the unions and the Labour Party will gain a growing echo.
Blair is out of touch
The Blairite leaders of the Labour Party are completely out of touch with reality. Dominated by sycophant and "spin doctors", they live on another planet. Removed from the pressures of the rank and file, they are even more open to the pressures of Big Business and the press. The new cabinet will undoubtedly indicate a further slide to the right. But by this procedure, there will be the beginnings of divisions inside the PLP and even inside the Cabinet in the next period between the new generation of middle class parvenus loyal only to Blair and the older layer of right wingers who do not want to see the Labour Party destroyed.
Blair now imagines he can do anything he wants. He thinks he can lord it over the Labour party and the unions. During the election campaign he made it clear that he would regard an election victory as a mandate to press ahead with the "public-private initiative". The attempt to introduce the methods of the private sector into the public sector is a finished recipe for conflict. Big Business is urging Blair to go onto the offensive. His already inflated ego having been further boosted by the election result, he shows every indication of being enthusiastic to "get down to business". But the workers in the public sector are in no mood to accept further impositions. The stage is therefore set for a collision of major proportions. Speaking on BBC television on election night, Andrew Marr predicted that there would be "big battles with the Left and the trade unions". That is undoubtedly correct.
Papers like the Financial Times are already giving Tony Blair his marching orders. The cry has gone up "You are in a strong position. Go onto the offensive. Take on the public sector unions. Clear out all the Old Labour people and go for the grand slam." However, the working class people who voted for Labour have an entirely different mentality: They reasoned approximately thus: "We didn't get what we wanted last time. Now we have given you the benefit of the doubt. You have the majority. Now there is no excuse. We want results! More houses, hospitals, schools, better conditions, a better life."
Thus, from the outset, Blair will find himself ground between two millstones.
These contradictions are bound to be reflected inside the Labour Party. That explains the reforming zeal of the Blairites. The Millbank Mafia, under the pretext of "reforming" Labour would like to neuter the Party as quickly as possible to prevent this from happening. Their intentions were shown in a recent statement by Margaret MacDonald on "reviving the grass roots" (A most amusing misnomer!): "The pilots will examine whether local parties can be reorganised to concentrate on security, a school zebra crossing or extra investment on a community from a company." (The Guardian, 16/3/2001.)
Ian Macartney, the Cabinet officer who is overseeing the reform stated: "Except for a minority that want to live on a general committee, party members are bored to death, and it's taking up too much of their time." What is "taking up too much time" is a little thing called democracy!
But the right wing have miscalculated the mood, not only of the country, but of the unions and the Labour Party. The Labour activists will not be content to sit around discussing local zebra crossings while the government privatises the schools and dismantles the National Health. There will be a wave of opposition, including elements who previously supported the right wing. Thus, immediately after the election, even Michael Jacobs, secretary of the Fabian Society expressed concern about the introduction of the private sector into schools and hospitals. These murmurs will grow into a crescendo in the next period.
The process that will open up was already anticipated in the Livingstone affair in London. In protest at the high-handed conduct of the Labour leadership in refusing to accept the democratic decision of the London Labour Party, there was a revolt of the rank and file. The whole Party was in a state of ferment. Overnight, not just the local branches but also the affiliated unions sprang to life. True, the movement subsided again when Livingstone left the Party. But it showed the shape of things to come. In the next period, there will be many other incidents like that which will shake up every Party branch and union all over Britain.
The Labour victory of 7 June opens a new chapter in the history of Britain. In the battles that impend, the fresh wind of the class struggle will begin to blow again, clearing out all the accumulated cobwebs and rubbish of the last twenty years, and preparing the way for the root and branch transformation of the organisations of Labour. It is necessary to organise the fight back against the policies of Blairism. Labour must break with Big Business! A socialist programme is the only solution! That is our clarion call. Armed with the real ideas of socialism - that is, with the programme of Marxism - we will build a powerful movement and prepare the way for the socialist transformation of society in Britain and internationally.