British Labour Today

Against the Current, No. 111, July/August 2004

Liam Mac Uaid

THE GLORY DAYS of the British Labour Party are long behind it. Labour won the 1945 General Election and used the next six years in office to nationalize the Bank of England, the railway network, electricity, the steel industry and road transport.

It built large numbers of new homes, which working class families could rent cheaply, and in 1947 introduced the National Health Service (NHS) which provided free medical care for the whole population.

None of these measures were in conflict with the needs of British capitalism. Efficient modern industries were to be an essential part of postwar reconstruction, and a healthy workforce was needed to work in them.

But what obliged the government to introduce these reforms was the fact that the working class in Britain and much of Europe, having endured the 1930s slump, privation and then war, was in combative mood and eager for change.

These reforms have shaped the British working class’ view of the country. The NHS is considered the bedrock of a civilized society. Opinion polls consistently show strong support for the re-nationalization of the railways and a willingness to pay more taxes to pay for health care and education.

The party was formed in 1900 on the initiative of trade union leaders and small organizations such as the Independent Labour Party, and was called the Labour Representation Committee. Originally it did not have individual members and represented only affiliated organizations, mainly unions.

It is from this connection that the party has its links with the working class, predominantly represented by the union bureaucracies. It is they whom Labour leadership can usually trust to deliver block votes of tens or hundreds of thousands at party conferences to make sure the voting goes their way.

The Blair Record

Tony Blair has been in power now since 1997. A comparison with his government’s record and that of other Labour administrations throws up a number of continuities as well as contrasts.

* The 1945 and 1974 Labour governments used troops to break strikes, and the 1974 administration passed legislation making strikers liable to imprisonment. Blair has used troops during a firefighters’ strike, and boasts that British employment law is the most business-friendly in Europe. His government wears as badge of honor its refusal to repeal the anti-union legislation passed by Conservative governments from Thatcher onwards.

* Construction of public sector housing has come to a virtual standstill. In the southeast of England buying a new home costs eight times the average salary. The Conservatives decimated the public housing stock by allowing it to be sold to individuals. Labour is transferring the rest to all sorts of non-state bodies.

* The NHS has been in permanent crisis since Thatcher’s time. Nurses are so poorly paid that the service relies on agencies who import staff from developing countries, so depriving health providers there.

While it is true that patients do not have to pay for their treatment, medical prescription charges rise every year. In many parts of the country it is virtually impossible to register with a
NHS dentist, obliging workers to pay enormous dental bills, and there is a severe shortage of family doctors.

* New hospitals, schools, prisons and leisure facilities are built under a scheme called the Private Finance Initiative. Private companies pay for their construction and keep the revenue for twenty-five or thirty years.

This has been compared to buying a house with a credit card. It is much more expensive but has the advantages of keeping the expenditure off the government’s accounts and earning a lot of money for the companies which make donations to the Labour Party.

Blair has a slightly different approach to Britain’s imperial destiny than other Labour prime ministers. Harold Wilson refused to send British troops to Vietnam. Blair, a former member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, was a keen advocate of Clinton’s policy of the mass murder of Iraqis through sanctions.

His support for Bush has been decisive in permitting the colonization of Iraq on behalf of Halliburton.

From Thatcher to Blair

It was the defeat of the National Union of Mineworkers’ (NUM) strike in 1984 that made Blairism possible.

The government of Margaret Thatcher had come to power following a massive upsurge in trade union struggle that culminated in the Winter of Discontent in 1978/9, when twenty-eight million working days were lost in strike actions.

Labour failed to hold on to office because it was attacking the wages of those whose votes it expected to win. The Thatcher government had a project to destroy the miners’ union, the most class-conscious workers’ organization in the country.
The strike lasted a year. It was the biggest confrontation between the trade union movement and the British state since the general strike of 1926. The miners’ defeat was a huge blow to the whole trade union movement. Twenty years later the movement has been reduced to half its size, and much of Britain’s productive industry closed down.

It is only in the last two or three years that a small new layer of union leaders has emerged who are willing to talk in terms of class struggle. However, the contrast between then and now shows that the British working class still has a long way to go to regain its confidence.

The miners struck in 1984 because one colliery was threatened with closure. Earlier this year, when the government announced plans to shed 40,000 civil service jobs, the union’s response was to threaten that it would ballot for a series of one-day strikes. Its leader, Mark Serwotka, is considered to be one of the most militant of the new “awkward squad” of union leaders.

When levels of industrial struggle are very low this will inevitably have an impact inside the Labour Party, and since the defeat of the miners a series of Labour leaders have been shifting the party to the right.

It is now commonplace to hear people saying that they cannot tell the difference between the Conservatives and Labour. In terms of civil rights legislation, war, economic policy, refugee asylum and immigration and union law, there are no significant divergences between them.

Alienation, Revolt and Iraq

The party has paid a price for this. Its membership is at a record low, having fallen by 50% since 1997; large numbers are saying that they can no longer bring themselves to vote Labour. Many local branches don’t function and the party is sustained by councillors and paid officials.

For the first time a number of important unions are discussing not supporting Labour candidates and giving money to candidates who support union policy. These include the Fire Brigades Union and the Communication Workers’ Union.

The Rail Maritime and Transport Union was expelled from the Labour Party early this year for allowing branches to support the Scottish Socialist Party.

The Iraq war has had an electrifying impact on British politics. Two million people took part in one of the antiwar demonstrations in London after the shooting started. This is unprecedented.

Everything that happens in Iraq tends to make Blair a bit shakier and it is notable that other Cabinet members, while occasionally paying lip service to collective responsibility, are more likely to say nothing on the subject so that they aren’t too tainted by support for Bush.

Revelations that the Ministry of Defence and the government have known about the allegations of torture by British and American troops since the start of the year have had a profound effect on public opinion. Even the most racist of the daily papers which gave full support to the war are coming out strongly against these actions.

Bush and Blair’s pious hand-wringing now look all the more contemptible as we discover that they could have prevented this months ago. Now that it is widely known that the torture was authorized at very senior levels as a matter of policy, they have even lost their “humanitarian” justification for war.

This is very much seen as Blair’s war. Suddenly it starts to look much more likely that Blair might be forced to stand down. Opinion polls suggest that his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, would deliver a much higher vote for Labour in the next general election. Brown has been notably silent on the issue of the war, confining himself to a couple of compulsory pro-war remarks.

Labour for Neoliberalism

Is the Labour Party still a workers’ party? The answer is “yes, but
barely.” It has proselytized for neoliberalism across the globe. Its campaigning slogans are almost identical to those of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. It has provoked disputes with important sectors of workers and it is up to its neck in blood.

The fact is, however, that it still has the affiliations of many of the major unions, its core vote remains the working class, and it is still identified with the Welfare State. And along with other European social democratic parties, it has shown in the past that when the class regains its confidence a new left can grow up inside it.

Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, was a Labour maverick. He was expelled from the party but was elected as an independent candidate. He has been very principled in his opposition to the war, speaking at rallies and describing Bush as the world’s biggest threat to peace.

Livingstone’s administration is very supportive of the European Social Forum, which is coming to London in October. He has always been seen as on the left of the Labour Party. But his administration has not done very much that could even be called “social democratic.” Fares on public transport which he controls are the most expensive in Europe and he has raised them at above inflation levels.

Livingstone has spent a lot of time courting the big financial institutions. His leftism is mainly verbal. But he remains popular. Labour knew that if they ran against him that their candidate would come third again in the mayoral elections.

So four years after expelling Livingstone from the party and describing him as “a menace,” Blair re-admitted him. He will now be Labour’s mayoral candidate. And a striking feature of Livingstone’s publicity and that of other Labour candidates is that there are no photos of or references to Blair. In effect Livingstone is letting himself be used as an electoral asset for new Labour.


The difference this time is that the antiwar movement has led to the creation of an explicitly antiwar socialist proto-party, Respect. Its figurehead is George Galloway MP. He was expelled from  the Labour Party because of his opposition to the war.

Galloway is a bit of a mixed blessing. He has long been prominent in British politics for speaking out on the Middle East, particularly Iraq. He has made a couple of serious misjudgments. There is footage of him meeting Saddam Hussein and saluting him for his “indefatigability”–a statement he now says he regrets, though unlike the British, American, French or German governments he didn’t sell Hussein weapons or the ingredients for nerve gas.

Galloway has successfully sued newspapers which claimed that he took money from the Iraqi regime for his personal benefit. In any case it is better to judge people by what they do. For the last year Galloway has been building the antiwar movement. He speaks at meetings five nights a weeks, sometimes doing two or three meetings a day. When he speaks he is consistently anti-imperialist.

Respect has been successful in getting some union support and is growing rapidly, particularly among the traditionally Labour-voting Muslim community. If there is to be a new party for working people in Britain it has to be born from struggles, self-confidence and big events. That is why you find many more socialists in Respect these days than you do in the Labour Party.

Update: Labour’s Debacle, Respect’s Balance Sheet

LOCAL ELECTIONS IN Britain were a debacle for Labour, with sentiment growing that Tony Blair’s leadership has become a severe impediment. The bourgeois parties, i.e. Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, were big winners. The new left-wing formation Respect had a modest showing, with its mayoral candidate Lindsey German finishing fifth, but did relatively well in north and east London.

In European Parliament elections (marked throughout the continent by voter apathy and alienation), Respect polled only 1.7% (a quarter million votes) across England and Wales but, according to German, “in Leicester we received over 9%, in Birmingham over 7%, in Luton 6%. And George Galloway scored nearly 5% across the whole of London, topping the poll for the European election in (the borough of) Tower Hamlets.”

Labour strategists reportedly were delighted by one lucky break: There were no pictures of Blair and Bush posing together at the G8 summit, which would have damaged Blair’s standing even more.

ATC 111, July-August 2004