Britain’s “New Labour”

Against the Current, No. 69, July/August 1997

Harry Brighouse

IT’S A LANDSLIDE: The Labour Party has more seats in parliament and the biggest majority than at any time in history.  The Conservatives (aka Tories) are at their lowest ebb since the Great Reform Act of 1832 extended the franchise to most adult males.  The Liberal Democrats are the largest third party in Parliament since the 1920s, and both the Welsh and Scots Nationalists have doubled their representation.

Throughout Britain, on May 1st, voters turned out against the Conservative government, which had ruled for eighteen years.  Under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and John Major in the 1990s the Conservatives privatized more than 20% of the economy.  They passed a series of anti-union laws-some on the U.S. model-outlawing the practice of secondary picketing, banning closed shop arrangements, and making union officials liable for losses due to illegal activity and for infractions of the law.

The Tories introduced an “internal market” within the National Health Service and, despite their protestations to the contrary, starved it of necessary increases of resources.  They introduced the most extensive “school choice” system in the industrial world; virtually eliminated student grants; reintroduced selective “grammar schools”; cut welfare benefits; and introduced criminal justice legislation that gives Britain the worst civil liberties record in Europe.

The size of their defeat is explained by the widespread use of “tactical” anti-Tory voting.  In the winner-take-all voting system, with a third party which has significant support, the Tories consistently won sizable majorities with only 35-43% of the national vote. but this time, in constituency after constituency, non-Tory voters abandoned their own party for the one best place to defeat the Tories.  The vote against them surpassed their worst fears and their opponents’ greatest hopes.

Labour has 418 seats, a majority of 179.  The Liberal Democrats doubled their representation with 46 seats.  The Conservatives have only 165 seats-they lost 178.  The swing to Labour since 1992 was 10.5%; but in many constituencies it was much larger.

The new Parliament looks different in other ways too. There are 129 women members, almost all of them Labour, more than double the previous number.  Five Asian MPs, one of them the first ever Muslim MP and four Black MPs grace the Labor benches, as do eight members under 30-two of them just 23.

Does this result represent a decisive rejection of the neoliberal agenda of privatization and “restructuring” of the welfare state?  In fact, although they voted against the Tories, it is not clear what the voters voted “for”.

For its part the Labour Party no longer opposes the neoliberal agenda.  The neoliberal successes have been ratcheted in; they will not be undone.  Labour leader Tony Blair, and now-Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, have assiduously courted big business.

In an endless round of City lunches, major speeches at business forums and, during the campaign, a separate manifesto for businesspeople, they have promised that Labour will not tolerate high inflation, will not raise taxes, will not raise government spending, and will not reverse Tory anti-union legislation or any privatizations.

The London Stock Exchange rose after the Labour victory became clear, and the first measure the new government took, to the surprise of everyone and the delight of the financial establishment, was ceding control of interest rates to the Governor of the Bank of England (Britain’s Central Bank).  This puts interest rates off the democratic agenda and allows the economy to be controlled not by the government but by the major financial institutions.

Two of the most recent privatizations-the railways and the water utilities-have caused incredible resentment among voters, and certainly played a part in the Tory downfall.  Even those will not be reversed.  (But no new privatizations are likely-in their final year the Tories floated the idea of privatizing the Postal Service largely because they wanted to appear to have a new idea.)

The Politics of Blair’s “Reforms”

Since the mid-eighties the Labour leadership has “reformed” both the party’s structure and platform.  It is now a mass individual membership party (indeed this has more than doubled in the past two years), with a professionalized activist core; more like an American pressure group than an old-style European political party.

Leader Tony Blair has extended the use of “one member-one vote” in both policymaking and leadership and candidate selection, with the result that the activist membership has no more power over the party than the non-activist membership.  The unions, though still affiliated to the Labour Party, have much less weight than before.

At the same time Blair has reduced the reliance of the party on trade union funds, and reduced the role of the unions in policymaking-with the reluctant cooperation of most union leaders.  [Following the election, some of the unions are attempting to regain some of their influence after Blair appointed anti-union businessmen to top government economic posts-ed.]

Indeed since Blair’s election as leader in 1994 no senior party leader has referred to the party as “the Labour Party;” the only permissible designation is “New Labour.”

In 1995 Blair did what many had thought impossible: he got the party to drop section 4 of Clause IV of its Constitution-the phrase which committed the Party to the gradual nationalization of the economy-and replace it with a piece of mush emphasizing the value of community and the social need for the “enterprise of the market and the rigors of competition.”

Over 90% of the constituency parties, the strongholds of the left, voted for the change.*

Tony and Slick Willy

Blair is often compared with Bill Clinton.  There are similarities: the campaign slogan “Putting Britain First”; a campaign theme song with the revealing title “Things Can Only Get Better”; American-style campaign techniques, used extensively; the same “training and education” and vague family values rhetoric.  Blair’s main advisor Philip Gould worked on the Clinton campaign; and George Stephanopolous worked with Blair’s campaign.

There are also differences.  Clinton, presiding over a party where the left was already marginalized, uses populist rhetoric, whereas Blair has publicly tried to smash the Labour Left (and largely succeeded).  But both, fundamentally, are right-wing leaders of formerly left- leaning parties.

Blair commands an overwhelming majority in the only Parliamentary chamber which can initiate legislation, in a system with far more party discipline.  He was elected leader of his party by the majority of its members; he has far more authority in his party, and far more power in the country, than Clinton has ever had.

Does Labour have a positive agenda?  There are four key areas in which change is promised:

Foreign Policy: New Labor will be more pro-European than were the Conservatives.  They will sign the “Social Chapter” of the Maastricht Treaty, from which the Tories had exempted Britain, which ratchets in certain social democratic measures (so mild, actually, that only the most idiosyncratic right-wingers oppose them).

Blair claims to be open to an extension of majority voting in the Council of Europe (currently most important Europe- wide decisions are require consensus); and although Labour is officially ambivalent about joining a single European currency, if the leadership decides it wants to it can without provoking rebellion within he party ranks.

Labour will seek a worldwide ban on land mines, and will impose mild sanctions on Nigeria: though their pledge to make “human rights” a cornerstone of foreign policy should not be taken too seriously, it will be an improvement on the Tories.

Constitutional Reform: There will be a referendum on the establishment of a Scottish Parliament and on whether it should have the fiscal power to adjust the national tax rate within Scotland by up to 3%.  This referendum will win, and a Scottish Parliament will be established with powers of taxation.

Devolution, as it is called, is very popular in the Labour Party.  Its benefits are unclear.  It would run the risk of inviting corporations to pit the different taxing and regulating authorities against each other, as states do in the United States.  It is also easy to imagine a scenario in which the Scottish Labour Party, responding to popular pressure, seeks higher taxation, causing trouble for the national party which seeks to assure middle-class English voters of its fiscal conservatism.

Although Blair and Home Secretary Jack Straw personally oppose it, New Labour has promised to “investigate” the introduction of Proportional Representation.  Opinion polls consistently show 60-70% support for PR. Its introduction would have far-reaching long term effects.

No majority government in nearly fifty years has won with a majority of the vote, and the Liberal Democrats, while they routinely get 15- 20% of the national vote, have never before won more than 5% of the seats.  The right wing of the Tory party and the left wing of the Labour party could each split, setting up their own parties, under PR, and be assured of some degree of electoral success.

However, partly because New Labour benefits more than any other party from the current arrangements, and partly because their majority is so large that they will not need the support of the Liberal Democrats, it is unlikely that there will be much movement on this. (They do intend to abolish the voting rights of hereditary peers in the House of Lords, leaving the Lords as an non-elected upper chamber filled by lifetime appointees.)

Education: Blair says that the first priority of his administration is raising educational standards.  They will abolish the small state subsidies to some private schools, reduce the size of elementary school classes to thirty, aim for all classrooms to be wired to the internet .  .  .  .  (is this beginning to sound familiar?)

The new Education and Employment Secretary, David Blunkett, is a former left-wing leader of Sheffield City Council, and retains some cache on the left, lending some credibility to their seriousness.  But, apart from levying a one-time-only windfall tax on some of the privatized utilities, and using some National Lottery money, they have no plans to pay for these improvements.

The Jekyll-and-Hyde co-chairs of the all-important Standards Commission exemplify the ambivalence of the regime.  One, the current Director of Education in the City of Birmingham, was a high-profile critic of the Thatcher and Major education policies, who won credibility in 1994 by successfully suing one Tory Education Minister for libel.  The other is Chris Woodhead, the Thatcherite head of the school inspectorate, universally despised in the education profession, whom the Labour Party promised, during the election, to retain.

Welfare: The one part of the post-war consensus which the Tories were unable to eradicate was the welfare state.  While benefit levels dropped in real terms, the level of spending as a percentage of GDP remained constant, and the basic structure remained intact.

The following comment in Blair’s recent book New Britain is therefore chilling: “We need a new settlement on welfare for a new age, where opportunity and responsibility go together.”

In fact the prospects are mixed.  Blair wants to introduce American-style Workfare programs, and will make universal child-benefit payment taxable for some tax-payers.  (However, Labour-like the Conservatives-is much more serious than any U.S. workfare proponent about providing childcare for working parents.)

A two-tier pension system has been suggested: some of it public, the rest private.

The party is also committed, at least officially, to a statutory minimum wage, though no promise has been made as to its level.  Britain is one of the few countries without a minimum wage, and this will be fiercely opposed by small businesses-the one sector of the business class that stuck with the Tories.

The Opposition

Labour will face a weak parliamentary opposition, at least for the next couple of years.  A central factor in the Conservative defeat was a public perception that the party was riddled with “sleaze” and irreparably divided on Europe.  A Europhobic right wing constituted the largest grouping in parliament, while the pro-European wing was smaller.

John Major resigned as party leader the day after the election, forcing an immediate leadership contest.  Two- thirds of Major’s cabinet had lost their seats and were therefore ineligible to stand.  The result will be known by the time this appears, but no result will reunite the party, because no candidate can straddle the Europhobic and pro- European wings.

Estimates of the political composition of the Tories’ remaining 165 MPs vary. It is generally accepted that about 10% are on the left while over half are on the right.  The left believes that a right-wing leader would condemn the party to decades in the wilderness, and is pulling out all the stops to prevent that eventuality, while the right, confident that “one of theirs” will win the leadership contest, is making no compromises.

The other party on the benches will be the Liberal Democrats.  A merger of the old Liberal Party with the Social- Democrats (a right-wing split from Labour in the eighties) the LibDems, always better on social issues and civil liberties, now stand firmly to the left of New Labour on economic issues too. Their election campaign focussed entirely on a scheme to increase taxes, mainly on the rich, to pay for improved education and health care.

The “left” character of the LibDems shouldn’t be overrated.  They look good mostly by the standard of comparison with New Labour.  Further the seats the Liberal Democrats gained at this election were all won from the Tories, and mostly in the South and South West of Britain.  This creates electoral pressure to stop moving left, and perhaps return to the center (if they can find it), in order to retain these seats and make further gains in these areas.

Hope for the Left?

Only 30-40 Labour MPs are committed left-wingers, organized into the old Campaign Group and the new “1997 Committee.”  (A few additional left-wingers are probably included among the huge number of new Labor MPs, having been allowed to run in districts where they were presumed certain to lose.)

Immediately after the election Ken Livingstone, left-wing former leader of the Greater London Council, called for higher taxation on corporations; and the 1997 Committee will represent a left pole. But it is too small, and the Labour majority too big, for it to exert much influence.

A larger and looser group called What’s Left?  will focus on influencing policy formation “from within,” attempting to inject more traditional social democratic concerns into legislation; but again, they have little connection to organized forces in the constituency parties.

While large majorities are hard to manage, Blair has shown himself more determined than any previous leader to exert iron discipline on the party at large; the parliamentary party has always been easier to manage than the party itself, and almost all new MPs depend for their seats on continued large national majorities.

The organized left outside the party is largely in decline.  Where left-wing candidates opposed official Labour candidates they received derisory votes.

Even Dave Nellist, former Labour MP expelled for membership of Militant, who almost beat the official candidate in 1992, polled less than 4,000 votes this time. Arthur Scargill’s new Socialist Labour Party, which claims to represent the traditional socialist ideas of the Labour party, nowhere polled more than a few hundred.

The base for the left in the white-collar unions has declined, and those industrial unions which used to press to the left within the Trades Union Congress have been weakened by the swathe of privatizations.

The Labour Party was always a major recruiting ground for the left outside the party: with the decline of its activist base, and the increasing tendency of radicalizing young people to join non- ideological single-issue campaigns, the milieu within which the far left used to operate has declined severely.

More significant is the absence of a clear alternative being posed to Blairism.  Blairism privately acknowledges the success of the neoliberal project and publicly embraces it, then seeks what minimal redistribution can be managed within that framework.  While Blair was “modernizing” New Labour, the left cried “betrayal,” and appealed to the history of the party and traditional principles-but, whether inside or outside the party, “never” offered a serious, political, alternative.

The left is in a bind. To challenge neoliberalism politically is a huge task, requiring much stronger forces than appear to be available.  But if neoliberalism is accepted, how is the left different from Blair?-a bit more taxation here; better structured benefits there; a little less pretence about the benefits of competition; but no qualitative difference.

The largest organized force outside the Labour Party is the Socialist Workers Party.  The SWP advocated, perfectly sensibly, a vote for Labour without illusions or trust in Blair.  But the SWP remains smaller than its high profile would suggest, and without a strong left milieu and with the enormous decline of strikes in British industry, the SWP’s focus is much more on its own party-building activities.

Without some sort of realignment of forces the left faces irrelevance to the political debate during the course of this government.  The 1997 election probably represents, above all, a landmark in the realignment of forces in British politics.

If, as is possible but unlikely, Proportional Representation were introduced, both the Labour and Conservative Parties will eventually split, and a combination of Left-Labour and left-LibDems could re-articulate some sort of politically relevant version of left-wing social-democracy.

But if New Labour decides to keep the electoral system from which it benefits more than any other party, those forces will remain tied to a party which, of perceived electoral necessity, will prevent the articulation of such an agenda.  A right-of-center pro-European party may emerge, but if it does its quarrels with New Labour will be at the margins of a consensus that favors big business and international capital in a European context.

From 1979 Thatcher’s Conservative Party set about smashing the postwar social democratic consensus.  A new consensus is emerging: but it converges on the settlement established by Thatcher.

The reason for hope is that the consensus is not deep. Working-class voters want a more equal distribution of wealth, and even many middle-class voters support higher taxes when those taxes support what they regard as basic human rights like health care and education.  Several of the privatizations which New Labour is committed to retaining are deeply unpopular.

Most of the electorate think that Blairism, though not good, is the best that can be done. The left needs to deploy its imagination to persuade them otherwise and crack the consensus.

* Part of Blair’s advantage was that opposition to his internal reforms not only sounded conservative, but often deployed contorted arguments that were persuasive only to those making them. For example, the nationalizastion section of Clause 4 did mistake a policy for a principle; and nationalizations were never carried out in ways that handed more power to workers in those industries.  Further, the old Union block vote at confer- ence is undemocratic in principle, handing immense power to union leaderships elected by very small proportions of their own memberships.

Harry Brighouse, a native of Manchester, is a member of SOLIDARITY and of the New Progressive Party of Wisconsin.  He teaches at the University of Wisconsin.

ATC 69, July-August 1997