Britain: Lessons of Clare Short's Resignation

The resignation yesterday of Clare Short, the former international development secretary, is a shattering blow to the Blair government. It could spell the beginning of the end for Blair, as things begin to unravel with increasing speed.

We are in a period of sharp and sudden change. The resignation yesterday of Clare Short, the former international development secretary, is a shattering blow to the Blair government. It could spell the beginning of the end for Blair, as things begin to unravel with increasing speed.

The 11-minute speech, in contrast to Robin Cook's resignation speech, was heard in total silence in the House of Commons. The assembled ranks of parliamentarians were shell-shocked. While some stared with blank expressions, others could be seen gleefully smiling as Clare Short steamed into the government. She was openly stating what others were thinking and saying in private. Not surprisingly, Blair chose to stay away on this occasion.

Ostensibly, the cause of Short's resignation was Tony Blair's breaching of assurances he made to her about the need for a "UN mandate to establish a legitimate Iraqi government". But there are far wider implications than this issue, which effectively labelled him a dishonest manoeuvrer.

Clare Short's resignation speech contained several bluntly-worded parting shots at the prime minister, for instance accusing Tony Blair of being "increasingly obsessed with his place in history".

She urged the prime minister to start preparing "an elegant succession" and that "it would be very sad if he hung on and spoiled his reputation." In other words, Blair should be subject to a regime change and he should be forced to resign. This is the most outspoken challenge to Blair's leadership from any former Cabinet minister. It will get an echo from trade unionists and ordinary party members, fed up with the openly rightwing direction of the government.

In an aside which will anger Downing Street but strike a chord with many MPs, Clare Short insinuated that power had gone to Blair's head: "There used to be a saying of the Tory whips when they were in power - this is the Tory whips, not me - 'No one ever comes out of No 10 completely sane'."

Prior to the Iraq war, she had accused Blair of being "reckless", but failed to follow this through with an expected resignation at the time. To keep her within the Cabinet, she was promised a UN role in the reconstruction of Iraq, and naively she accepted these false promises at face value. The situation became clearer to her as time went on. She felt betrayed. Now she states correctly that the US-led coalition is now seen as "occupying powers in occupied territory", like the Israelis in Palestine.

Blair had failed to stand up to President Bush - and was not so much a poodle, she said, ("poodles get off their lead and jump about") as a figleaf. "Fig leaves just stay where they are," she told the Guardian.

However, her outspoken attacks have struck at the very heart of Blairism and New Labour. Blair rules through an unaccountable clique at the top, effectively ignoring the Cabinet, and even the elected representatives in the Commons. Short denounced the unelected Blair coterie's "control freak style" and their policy "diktats in favour of increasingly bad policy initiatives" that "come down from on high". She went on: "I think what's going on in the second term in this government, power is being ever increasingly centralised around the prime minister and just a few advisers, ever increasingly few. The cabinet is now only a 'dignified' part of the constitution. It's gone the way of the privy council…

"So you've got presidential style with a very narrow underpinning, with the built-in majority you get from the parliamentary system. I think we're getting a real deterioration in both scrutiny and the quality of decision making."

It is very much in line with the type of regime Thatcher created in the 1980s, whom Blair admires. It is a government increasingly out of touch with reality.

The fact that Baroness Amos from the unelected House of Lords has replaced Clare Short is symptomatic of the way Blair runs government. It is riddled with favouritism and corruption as a means of reducing accountability. Those whom the prime minister does not trust are simply elbowed aside. The Labour leader now has just eight of the 21 cabinet colleagues he set out with in 1997 still around the coffin-shaped table at No 10.

Blair has – through a policy of bourgeois entrism – attempted to transform the Labour Party into an openly capitalist party. This project has failed, as we said it would. The trade union base of the party remains intact. And the key to the Labour Party, as always, is the trade unions. Under the control of the right wing, the trade union tops, like Sir Ken Jackson, enthusiastically supported Blair. Now, with the growing shift to the left in the unions, that support has crumbled. This places Blair under threat.

The crisis of British capitalism has forced the Blair government to attack the working class. The decision to "reform" (counter-reform) the public services is part of this attack. Together with Foundation hospitals, PFI and tuition fees, and a host of other Tory policies, they are attempting to make the working class pay for the crisis. As the economy declines, these attacks will be stepped up. Under these conditions, the Blair government is on collision course with the trade unions and the working class. With no other alternative, the unions will be forced to conduct a struggle against Blairism within the Labour Party. They have no choice, as shown by the host of trade union general secretaries that have come out publicly for reclaiming the Labour Party for the working class.

The resignation of Clare Short is one important stage in the death agony of Blairism. There will be much deeper crises in the future, entailing splits and divisions at the top, and rebellions in the ranks. The revolt in Parliament over Foundation hospitals, a Tory policy, was the biggest on any domestic issue. Interestingly, Short is against Foundation hospitals and tuition fees, and intends to express her opinions forcefully in the backbenches. She has clearly burned her bridges with the Blairites and will, under increasing pressure from the ranks, become a vocal opponent of the leadership. There is even talk of her standing for Deputy Leader if Prescott decides to stand aside, which could open up a battle royal within the Labour movement over the direction of the government. As an outspoken individual, given the discontent that exists, she could even win such an election.

We have entered unchartered waters. The Blairites thought they had everything sown up, but they are wrong. The pendulum has begun to swing back to the left, as indicated by the elections within the trade unions. Before long, this process will affect the Labour Party. It will take the form of reclaiming the Labour Party and the need to adopt a socialist programme to answer the crisis. Clare Short warned the parliamentary Labour party of "rockier times ahead". On this perspective we are in total agreement. The Marxist tendency around Socialist Appeal will play its full part in strengthening this leftward movement, and transforming the mass organisations into weapons of working class emancipation.

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