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Labour Movement on its Knees

Volatile Politics in Blair’s Britain

British politics in 1997 is marked by the virtual absence of the working class as a distinct political force. In the aftermath of the election of the Blair government, politics has been characterised by a government-led drive for ‘reforms’ of some of the most blatantly undemocratic aspects of the political system, designed to deflect and dissipate the massive resentment that has built up in British society through the many years of savage Tory attacks, while keeping independent working class politics firmly off the mainstream political agenda.

Thus the Blairites, having won their referenda, are pushing through Scottish and Welsh devolution and are now preparing their referendum for an elected executive Mayor for London, with a relatively toothless assembly with minimal powers to provide a ‘democratic’ fig-leaf for what is in fact meant to be a profoundly undemocratic system of one-man-rule. While engaging in cosmetic reforms to the state machine, and even attempting to give a new coat of paint to the crumbling monarchy, the Blair government is actively continuing Thatcher/Major’s attacks on the working class, for instance by the abolition of free higher education, the introduction of a form of workfare for the unemployed, benefit cuts for lone parents and possibly the disabled, and the mooted introduction of charges for hospital stays and visiting a GP.

There really is not much that can be said about this year’s Labour Party and TUC conferences, except that the Blairites carried the day on every disputed policy issue at both. Indeed, despite the left being consoled by the fools’ gold of Ken Livingstone’s election to the Labour Party NEC, in fact the conference overwhelming passed the ‘Partnership in Power’ document which, among other things, further takes power away from trade unionists and constituency activists in the party by emasculating the policy-making powers of the Party conference itself. This is a big step towards Blair’s aim of making Labour into a ‘normal’ bourgeois party, and erasing its working class character completely.

Blair’s dominance of the party has been underlined by his suspension of four Labour Party MEPs for speaking out about his attempt to seize control of their selection process, in order to dilute the influence of the left – the European parliamentary group being one of the last refuges for significant numbers of ‘Old Labour’ left-wing figures. The changes proposed for the selection of candidates are presented as ‘proportional representation’, which, in general, is a system more democratic (within the bourgeois context) than the current first-past-the-post system. In this case, however, Blair is making cynical use of democratic sentiment to set up a greater level of centralisation in the selection process through means of party lists, chosen, presumably, in Millbank.

The Socialist Labour Party offered real hope of the growth of a genuine working class party when it was launched in 1996, and contained the potential to become the focus for a rebirth of class struggle politics. But that early promise, to speak plainly, is being squandered by the actions of the current leadership. In order to maintain its bureaucratic straitjacket on the party membership this leadership seems quite prepared to follow a course which is depleting the active membership, stifling local initiative and could well make our party the laughing stock of the workers movement. As detailed elsewhere in this issue, what it is likely to retain ‘control’ over, the way things are going, is an increasingly cranky Stalinist rump.

The fact that the formation of a viable mass workers party is being set back does not mean that the objective social need for such an organisation has changed – indeed recent developments have only served to make more clear the potential for mass struggle for a better society, and the need for a genuinely socialist party that can arm the masses with the understanding that such a society can only be achieved by the revolutionary destruction of capitalism.

A contradictory movement

The reaction of large numbers of people to Princess Diana’s death is a startling illustration of what can happen to mass anger in the absence of a genuine working class alternative, and illustrates the volatility of British society at this point.

One might have expected that such a movement of mourning for an aristocrat closely linked to the Royal Family, that (albeit briefly) mobilised millions of people would be universally looked upon by the Royalist establishment as a sign of mass popular enthusiasm for the monarchy. Not so. In fact, the response was as deeply contradictory as the mobilisations themselves.

Some elements of the establishment looked upon it as a dangerous form of mass hysteria, particularly when the Royal Family, and especially the Queen, came under attack from the crowds outside the palaces for their conspicuous lack of grief at Diana’s death. Ironically, despite the reality of her privileged position, Diana was seen by many as a liberal dissident, and in some ways, as an anti-monarchy, anti-establishment figure by many of the most oppressed sections of this society, as reflected in the multi-racial, working class composition of the crowds. In the absence of a political lead being given by the workers movement to express mass discontent through class struggle, the anger found another, rather unusual but extremely significant outlet. Some of the slightly more thoughtful bourgeois press responded with fearful, worrying articles about the dangers of mass hysteria.

However, a significant turning point occurred when the Blair government intervened to politically protect the Royal Family, particularly the Queen and Charles, from the anger of the masses. Blair effectively claimed Diana as his own, as part of his ‘modernisation’ process – as indeed did Blair’s considerable and growing base of ruling class support. Confused republican sentiments, that animated a component of these crowds, were frustrated by Blair’s overt stage-managing of royal expressions of grief, or at worse channelled into calls for a ‘new monarchy’ fit for ‘new Britain’. In fact Blair has continued to seek to repair the British monarchy since, being the moving force behind a concerted propaganda campaign in favour of the Windsors, as most blatantly expressed by his fawning speech for the TV cameras praising royal ‘modernisation’ at the monarch’s golden wedding banquet.

The need for a revolutionary alternative

With the election of Tony Blair’s Labour government in May and the mobilisation around the death of Diana there is much talk of a liberalisation of the political atmosphere in Britain. Even the Conservative opposition, licking their wounds after their electoral defeat, felt compelled to adapt to a change in mood. With all the talk of ‘New Britain’ complementing ‘New Labour’, now we have ‘New’ Portillo, proclaiming the virtues of tolerance of single mothers and gays! The Tories are in fact attempting to consolidate themselves as a hard anti-European party in order to play on fear of the loss of British sovereignty to the EU. But in order to play this role more effectively, they have attempted to hide, at least for public consumption, some of the nastier forms of overtly vile bigotry that have backfired against them so spectacularly in the last period.

Such a bizarre turnaround has been prompted by fear – fear of the hatred that has been accumulating in British society as the rich have got richer while the poor got poorer over the last two decades. The slow ‘death by a thousand cuts’ of the healthcare system, the destruction of manufacturing industry, the advent of permanent mass unemployment, the attacks on welfare benefits, the increase in state racism – all that has stored up an enormous amount of social tinder that can explode if something sparks it off.

The election of Tony Blair was merely the replacement of one government of anti-working class austerity with another, with slightly more liberal rhetoric, but fundamentally the same. Blair’s victory was not so much a massive endorsement of the Labour Party ‘modernisers’ as a massive defection away from the Conservatives. The traditional working class sectors who historically provided Labour’s base were far less enthusiastic about Blair than the newly converted middle class. But, thanks largely to the mediation of ‘new realist’ trade union leaders, this government feels empowered to carry through its austerity measures with scant regard for these working class voters, many of whom, despite all misgivings, still regard Labour as somehow theirs.

Lessons for the left

The mobilisations in the week after Diana’s death were something of a shock for those who aim to rule with the majority of the population as passive players. Yet this event has negative lessons for the left, too.

There is a huge vacuum of political leadership on the left in this country. If a political force is not built that can direct mass discontent into a genuine movement of the working class, and towards working class methods of struggle against capitalism, enormous amounts of energy can be wasted by the masses in pursuit of illusory goals. Eventually, such illusory struggles in the wrong direction, which contain within them a contradictory range of sentiments, could lead to a further demoralisation of the working class, and the potential growth of an overtly reactionary movement.

The Labour Party’s desertion of its role as the party of the British working class means that the working class, as a class, are without real political representation in this country. But the possibilities of such developments were always contained with the deeply contradictory Labour Party – a party with a working class base which has nevertheless always been committed to the existing state and the monarchy that symbolises the system of privilege and corruption on which it is based.

Only a truly mass, revolutionary party can destroy this system – beginning with all elements of hereditary privilege. Those who behave in a manner as to shipwreck the potential for such a party are playing a reactionary role and retarding the possibility for the emergence of clear class consciousness among the British masses. The process of slow death which is threatening the SLP must be reversed by the membership, in the interest of building the revolutionary working-class alternative this country needs.