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New Labour… New Government?

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The long night of Tory rule in Britain looks to be coming to an end. The likelihood is that in the spring of 1997 the Labour Party will win its first general election since 1979. The new government will preside over an utterly changed political landscape.

Both of the major British political parties - the Tories and Labour - have changed immeasurably over the last 18 years. In 1979 Thatcher’s Tories were a neo-liberal vanguard party of the ruling class. They had a clear programme of class struggle against all of the gains made by the working class in the post-war period. In particular they targeted the organisations that had led the working class through those years - the trade unions and the Labour Party itself.

Thatcher was dumped by her party in November 1990 in the aftermath of the mass revolt against her poll tax legislation. Since then the Tories have been as much at war with themselves as with the working class. After John Major’s 1992 general election victory, the Tories’ entire economic policy ran aground almost immediately when they were forced to withdraw sterling from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM).

Despite the weak economic recovery that this calamitous event precipitated, the Tories were profoundly damaged. They have been unable to recover the electoral base in the middle class and upper reaches of the working class that brought them four successive election triumphs. Successive tax increases and crises of underfunding in the education and health services have alienated millions of former Tory voters.

Furthermore, the great outburst of popular anger at the programme of pit closures in 1992 - when thousands marched to defend the miners’ jobs - exposed the vulnerability of Major’s small parliamentary majority. Popular pressure forced some his own backbenchers to threaten a parliamentary revolt.

By-election defeats and unprecedented defections from the party have whittled away his original 27 seat majority. At the time of writing he has no overall majority which has left him reliant on the Ulster Unionists. A succession of scandals involving corruption and sexual hypocrisy has left voters disgusted by the sleaze oozing from the government’s pores. There has been a mounting recognition that the government, though vicious, is incapable of inflicting the scale of defeats on the working class that Thatcher achieved in the 1980s. It was, and remains, a divided and weak government.

Internally the Tories’ divisions grew ever sharper, especially on the question of Europe, the single currency and federalism. Parties have formed within the party; chief among them stands the anti-European faction around the Conservative Way Forward group. In turn the Referendum Party of billionaire James Goldsmith is acting as a stalking horse for the anti-federalists, to pressure Major to make concessions to the Euro-sceptics and to pursue an uncompromising stance in negotiations with other European powers.

The Eurosceptics have waged constant warfare against both Major and the pro-European faction on which he has been forced to rely for support. On behalf of the anti-federalists, Cabinet member John Redwood stepped down to mount an unsuccessful leadership challenge to Major in 1995. Since then they have worked to get as many of their supporters as possible selected as Tory candidates for the next parliament, in preparation for a renewed assault on Major should he lose the election.

These divisions cannot be wished away or papered over. They reflect deep divisions within the ruling class. The Tories may be the first-choice party of the capitalists but the bosses are themselves deeply divided over the future of British capitalism in Europe. Those businesses geared principally to the home market resist monetary union because they fear that further political federalism will follow and this in turn would erode their comparative advantage over European competition: low labour costs. In addition many large firms who sell to global markets fear the consequences of sharper conflict between Europe and the rest of the world for their ability to maintain open world trade and investment.

On the other hand, powerful sections of British-based multinational capital are clamouring for more European unity not less. This arises from their drive to compete with their rivals in the US and Japanese imperialist economic blocs. Their markets are in Europe; they would benefit from the lower transaction costs that monetary union would bring. Important parts of the financial sector in the City would lose business in the currency markets to Frankfurt if Britain stands aside from the first wave of countries adopting the single currency in 1999.

The Tories are reflecting these structural and strategic differences within British capital. But they cannot resolve them. Only a large Tory parliamentary majority at the next election which utterly marginalised the Tory Euro-phobes and sceptics could hope to do it; but this is sheer fantasy. They are likely to become the main party of opposition.

If Labour gains an overall majority Major will most likely resign as leader and there could even be an actual split in the Tory Party leading to a regroupment in the centre and far right of British politics. Such a split is far from excluded, but it is by no means a certainty. Its pace and development will depend upon the magnitude of the Tory defeat and the recognition by remaining Tory MPs that a split party may become unelectable.

It will also depend upon developments in Europe itself. A two stage European Monetary Union, leaving Britain outside the central European core along with other non-qualifying nations, may give the Tory party some breathing space before a split over monetary union is required. Nevertheless, the fact that such a potential split can even be considered indicates the extent of the instability that exists at heart of Britain’s longest ruling political party.

From Lab to Lib?

By contrast, the Labour Party under Tony Blair appears to be a model of unity and stability. It presents itself to the electorate as certain of its ability to win a decisive victory in the election. As Robin Cook, supposedly one of the more left-wing figures in Blair’s team, put it, “we are united and disciplined and biting our tongues… ”1 Any MP who steps out of line is rebuked or demoted. Dissidents in New Labour are about as welcome as they were in Stalin’s Communist Party.

Appearances, however, can be deceptive. Cook’s reference to people “biting their tongues” is testimony to the repressed conflicts in the ranks of the Labour Party. These will grow sharper if Labour wins the election.

For Labour is going through profound changes. They open up two important prospects. The first is of major struggles in the labour movement over the future character and structure of the party. The second is of sharp conflict between the working class and a Blair government.

A common feature of the British labour movement in pre-election periods has been a declaration of peace. The unions do their utmost to keep their members placid, the party factions shut up shop and MPs swear an oath never to criticise their leaders. Even during Labour’s years of internecine warfare in opposition (1979 to 1982), the then powerful left-wing led by Tony Benn dutifully surrendered to the right in 1982 in the name of unity as the general election date approached.

Given the widespread support that Blair received in 1994 when he was elected as Labour leader, one would have expected absolute peace in the labour movement. There is nothing of the sort.

This is not a result of the Labour left cutting up rough. They are too weak and demoralised to do anything of the sort. They have refused point blank to campaign in the election for the “socialist” policies cast aside by Blair, claiming that these will be seen as “anti-Labour”.2 Instead they will fight exclusively on Blair’s Manifesto, which itself rides roughshod over existing official party policies.

In fact it is the right-wing that is “rocking the boat”. The unease in the party is a result of the continuing offensive by Tony Blair and his faction of “modernisers” against any remaining policies and organisational structures connected with what he has disparagingly called “Old Labour”. This offensive has provoked unrest in the ranks of the trade union bureaucracy and the parliamentary party. Blair will be not be seriously challenged prior to the election because the union leaders and left-wing MPs believe that he is essential to win the election. Nevertheless they are determined to issue guarded warnings now.

The reason for this is that sections of the labour movement are beginning to realise that Blair‘s war on “Old Labour” is not simply a campaign against the left. It is an attack on the entire tradition of Labourism - left and right. His triumph in abolishing the old commitment to public ownership - Clause Four - was a clear signal of his plans for the party. While Clause Four was largely symbolic, what it embodied was Labour’s past as a creation of the working class movement. Its abolition was a break from this past and summed up Blair’s onslaught on almost all pre-existing programmatic tenets of Labourite reformism.

Blair explained how through the abolition of Clause Four he was replacing socialism with “social-ism” :

“Social-ism… is not about class, trade unions or capitalism versus socialism. It is about a belief in working together to get things done.”3

That this concept is indistinguishable from Liberalism has been acknowledged by Blair himself. In this way the attack on the political and programmatic premises of Labourism has led directly to an attack on the very premise that led to the party’s foundation: the need for the independent representation of the workers in parliament. Blair has been candid about this:

“…the ideology was out of date; and yet the structures of the party had no means of bringing that home… The task today is to reconstruct our ideology around the strength of our values and the way they are expressed. And then to create an organisation to match and reflect the ideology.”4

Blair is not simply talking about reforming an existing party, but of creating a new organisation. That organisation should be sufficiently free from class identification to win back Liberals to a “political consensus”:

“To reach that consensus we must value the contribution of Lloyd George, Beveridge and Keynes and not just Atlee, Bevan or Crosland. We should start to explore our own history with fresh understanding and an absence of preconceptions.”5

Thus on the eve of the 1996 TUC Congress, Blair signalled to the Observer newspaper that he is the first Labour leader to lament the very formation of his own party. He wrote that he regrets the “division of radical politics at the end of the last century and beginning of this, between Liberals And the Labour Party.”6

The fact that this was followed by the well-publicised leak by Blair’s frontbench spokesman Stephen Byers during the TUC Congress of plans to sever the party’s links with the unions altogether indicates that these are not mere rhetorical flourishes from Blair. They are expressions of his ultimate aim: to uproot the party from the soil of the trade union movement, to transform it into a party that has no organisational relation to the working class .

Blair’s “modernisation” means turning the clock back 100 years and bringing a century of limited working class political independence in Britain to an end.

In organisational terms Blair’s vision requires a party machine that is no longer dependent on the trade unions for its mass base, its electioneering apparatus and, above all, its money. Again, he is candid about the problem:

“Quite naturally, as a party born out of the trade unions and formed largely to represent people at work, the trade unions had a major say in party structures. As the class contours of society changed, however, this has meant that the party has struggled against a perception that it had too narrow a base in its membership, finance and decision making.”7

To deal with this Blair has campaigned to enlarge the membership base by recruiting thousands of new party members from all social classes. He is nowhere near achieving the sort of numbers he needs but his whole stress is on individual rather than affiliated union members. On finance he has worked assiduously to reduce dependence on the unions. Union financing of Labour is in decline. It has fallen from 77.1% of total funds in 1986 to 54.2% in 1995. It is likely to fall below 50% for the first time ever this year.

“Fund raising” (including donations from millionaires) has risen from 2.2% of the total income to 18.6% over the same period. While the unions’ contribution remains vital for Labour to fight and win the coming election, the decline of its share of total income is something Blair will seek to continue.

One widely mooted alternative is the provision of state funding for political parties. In the context of widespread corruption by Tory MPs and an undemocratic system which enables the Tories to receive millions from big business without disclosure, there is every possibility of Blair attracting substantial support for this measure, which could then be used to curb and ultimately remove the influence of the unions on the Labour Party.

As for reducing the unions’ role in decision making, Blair has his predecessors Kinnock and Smith to thank for reducing their share of the vote at party conference to 70% (falling to 50% as individual membership rises) and for accepting the introduction of “one member, one vote” in constituencies - which wiped out union influence on the selection of candidates at a stroke.

Burt Blair has gone far beyond these formal rule changes. He has bypassed the traditional methods of decision making - the conference, the National Executive Committee and the various liaison committees that exist between Labour and the unions. Instead he has introduced plebiscites of the members. The decision to put the draft election programme, Road to the Manifesto, to the membership by means of a postal ballot of all members and affiliated members (those in unions who pay the political levy) was a means of avoiding debate, avoiding an organised discussion between the party and the unions and thereby getting a passive membership to give “yes” or “no” answers to policies decided for them by Blair’s office. It is a de facto structural change, despite the fact that Blair promised the union leaders after the Clause Four debate that no further such changes would take place until the year 2000. It was a test of how far he could go in driving home the transformation of the party. As he explained on television:


“There is an element within the Labour Party, though much smaller than people think, that disagrees with the modernisation drive of the Labour Party. But in my view that drive is right. This process will put it to the test, just as Clause Four put it to the test.”8

In the event the turn out was low. But the end result was an overwhelming endorsement of his manifesto, without any divisive debates at conference, without any block votes and without any alternatives being able to be put to the membership. The plebiscite served its purpose in providing Blair with a new, profoundly undemocratic, mechanism for running the party.

Soon the official organs through which the unions exercise decisive influence - notably the annual conference and NEC - will be up for substantial change by Blair. Tom Sawyer, a former union official and key Blair man running the party machine, is busy drafting plans for a new organisation. Of the annual conference he says:

“I think there will be a move to change the party conference. It’s already more of a showcase for Labour… The policy forums are showing new ways of discussing policy in small groups, study circles.”9

The policy forums are not elected bodies and are only accountable to the leader. Party democracy, or what is left of it, resides in the right to challenge the leadership over policy at conference. The Blair faction prefer the model of party conventions in the USA, or a “long party political broadcast”, as another Blair supporter, Margaret Hodge MP, has put it.

The early date - October 1997 - that Blair intends to introduce such sweeping reforms is instructive. Coinciding with the real opening of the first parliament of a new Labour government Tom Sawyer has explicitly said that such reforms are aimed at removing the problem that has faced Labour governments in the past - a split between the party and government.

Blair intends to push through policies on behalf of British capital against the will of his party, especially its mass base in the trade unions. Further rule changes in the Labour Party aim to deny the unions the very opportunity to challenge the leadership from within party structures. The party will be reduced to a support mechanism for whatever the Blair government is doing. As Sawyer puts it, by October 1997:

“We should be in a nice position to say: ‘We’ve done this work. This is what we need to change in the party to support the government’.”10

The centrality of eliminating potential opposition to the government by the labour movement is tied to Blair’s real programme for a Labour Government. One widely reported quip by an anonymous Labour MP is accurate: “Blair is getting all his betrayals in before the election”. Blair’s manifesto has been shorn of virtually any firm promises to the party’s working class base.11 Instead, the working class is being warned that Britain will be led by a Labour Party committed to regenerating an ailing British capitalism through a series of attacks on the working class. Blair warned:

“A Labour government will have an explicit target for low inflation, strict rules on public spending… and will reform the Bank of England to ensure that decision making on monetary policy is free from short term political manipulation.”12

He has also added low taxation as another of his firm targets. Labour is no longer a “tax and spend” party. It is a party of prudent financial management and will be more willing than the Tories to meet the strict monetary and spending targets necessary for Britain to join the single European currency .

All of this gives a clear picture of Blair’s anticipated line of attack in office. An immediate target will be the public sector. Workers will face both real pay cuts and reduced service provision from an incoming Labour government coming on top of 18 years of Tory attacks. The last Tory budget of November 1995 left public borrowing at a minimum of £19 billion for the first year of a Blair government, under the 3% of GDP ceiling required by the Maastricht Treaty if Britain is to opt in to the Euro.

But the assumptions behind the Tory budget postulate economic growth (and hence tax receipts) well above most projections and £7 billion worth of revenue from “closing loopholes”. It is highly likely that a Labour government committed to Maastricht and one refusing to consider tax increases will be forced to savage public spending in 1997-98 at least by £10 billion. An early return to recession could easily double that figure.

Great expectations

Public sector workers, who have had their pay frozen for three years by the Tories, will face further pay cuts under Labour . The Economist predicted:

“The unions’ power is not enough to enable them to dictate to a future Labour government. But neither are they so weak that it will be able to ignore them. And in one area in particular, public sector pay, conflict seems inevitable.”13

This is absolutely correct. Workers will expect an end to low pay under Labour. Labour will attack pay as part of its cuts package, and as a cornerstone of its anti-inflationary measures. Furthermore, Labour’s promise to introduce a minimum wage will be diluted by a prolonged consultation process with the employers and, at the end of that process, fixed at a figure that the bosses deem acceptable.

Everybody now knows, after the last TUC Congress, that the overwhelming majority of the labour movement want a minimum wage of £4.26 an hour, even if they are prepared to allow the question to be settled by a “low pay commission”. Equally, everybody knows that Blair is not going to grant £4.26. He is quite open about it and has let it be known to the unions that he favours between £3 and £3.50. The labour movement wants the figure fixed within a year of Blair taking office. Blair has declared that this will not happen.

In the event of a public sector pay revolt Blair let it be known, through Stephen Byers’ infamous leak at a private dinner with journalists at the TUC congress, that he might use this as a pretext to ballot the party on cutting Labour’s links with the unions. Even if he does not decide to adopt so drastic a measure he will utilise and extend the anti-union laws to combat such a threat.

At the 1995 TUC he stated:

“We are not going back to the old battles. I will say now that there is going to be no repeal of all the Tory union laws. That is not what the country or your members want. Ballots before strikes are here to stay. No mass or flying pickets. All the ghosts of time past, they are exorcised. Leave them where they lie.”14

At the 1996 Congress, his Employment spokesperson, David Blunkett, went further, suggesting binding arbitration in the public sector (banning strikes, in other words) and enforced re-ballots of the membership when the government judges that the bosses have made a “significant” new offer. The aim of such new anti-union measures was clearly explained by Blunkett:

“… an incoming Labour government is not going to tolerate the activities of armchair revolutionaries whose only interest is disruption and who see disputes as an opportunity for mischief making.”15

This arrogant authoritarianism is not directed just against revolutionaries, armchair or otherwise. It is directed against every public sector worker - every nurse, teacher, local government worker, postal worker or rail worker - who decides that the only way they can get better pay is by going on strike. Every one of them will be attacked by Labour and their unions will be legally punished by the new anti-union laws of a Labour government. The modernisers actually view Thatcher’s anti-union laws as one of her greatest achievements. Blair’s key adviser, the odious Peter Mandelson, wrote:

“British industrial relations has been changed for the better, and its basic legal framework which the Conservatives established will remain in place.”16

These laws will be used to combat any action to defend the public services that Labour will be obliged to decimate. Strike action against cuts will be deemed political and banned. Health workers will be corralled by binding arbitration. Alongside this Labour’s drive for “excellence” in education will see them continue to hound teachers for the failings of an underfunded system grotesquely judged by league tables which Labour will keep in place. There will be more exclusions of pupils under Labour as it introduces new methods of selection in education - leading to the biggest exclusion of all, the exclusion of the majority of working class children from the opportunity to get a decent education.

As for the young unemployed, they will face shadow chancellor Gordon Brown’s proposal of a staggering 40% cut in benefits if they refuse to work for their dole money or income support. They will continue to face the indignity and harassment of the Job Seekers’ Allowance. When Michael Meacher - a “left-winger” in the shadow cabinet” - stated that Labour would abolish this modern day poor law, Blair quickly contradicted him and Meacher was forced to apologise publicly. By contrast, Brown’s promise to cut child benefit for over 16 year olds provoked no reprimand. Instead Blair merely pledged that this, along with other benefit cuts, would be considered by a Labour government.

The attacks on benefits that Labour are planning will hit working class youth particularly hard. They will face a cash starved education system while they are at school; they will be deprived of benefits when they leave school or will be forced to work for benefit as they get older; they will not get the protection of a decent minimum wage if they are lucky enough to get jobs; should they get into university they will receive no living grant, because Labour is pledged to abolish it, and instead will be forced to repay the costs of their education through a graduate tax .

This is what Blair’s “vision of a young country” means for young people. He knows that it will mean a country in which youth crime, born of the increasing desperation that his policies will create, will have to be harshly policed. That is why one of his most oft quoted and definite proposals, prominent in the Road to the Manifesto, and included in his five main pledges, is for a “fast track” procedure for prosecuting young offenders and locking them away.

Taken together with Labour’s refusal to repeal the Asylum Act, the Criminal Justice Act and the countless other pieces of authoritarian legislation imposed by the Tories, this promise shows that the incoming Labour government will build its “young country” by repressing the youth, by perpetuating racism and by using a police force and prison system built up to unprecedented levels by the Tories.

Where is Labour going?

Blair is as close to being a Tory as any Labour leader has been. His project is coherent and he has been ruthless in his pursuit of it. This has caused some on the left to conclude that Blair has already fulfilled his project, that he has destroyed Labour as any sort of working class based party. Apart from those incorrigible sectarians who have always said this anyway, Militant Labour has led the way in suggesting that Blair has effected a qualitative transformation of the Labour Party. They write:

“Unfortunately, there are now three capitalist parties in Britain, the Tories, the Liberals, and now Blair’s Labour Party.”17

This view is wrong. It is a one-sided and sectarian over-reaction from a tendency that for decades entertained and retailed gross illusions in the Labour Party, its “socialist past” and its ability to be captured by the “Marxists”.

Labour hasn’t “become” a capitalist party under Blair. Labour has always been a capitalist party, albeit based on the working class movement. Labourite reformism is an ideology for social change within the boundaries set by capitalism: it is a bourgeois ideology. Within the reformist camp there have always been right wingers who want to cut loose from the working class. Certainly Blair is more than just a modern incarnation of such right wingers, because he wants to carry through a divorce between Labour and the organised working class.

But he has not yet carried this project to a conclusion. After the election he will face enormous difficulties in doing so. Blair will be up against powerful forces within the labour movement itself, forces who have held back from a conflict to date precisely because they want Blair to lead Labour out of the wilderness of endless opposition in parliament. But once he has achieved that, these forces will bring pressure to bear on him to curtail his project.

The 1996 TUC Congress demonstrated this clearly. Even Blair supporters, like John Edmonds of the GMB and John Monks, leader of the TUC, were provoked and pressured into criticising him. His closest allies, like Alan Johnson in the CWU, rebuked him for intervening on the side of the employers in the postal dispute. And the left-wing of the union bureaucracy were considerably sharper in their comments than the left MPs dared to be.

Labour’s attacks on the unions prompted the Congress to vote for £4.26 an hour and submit a charter of rights at work that goes well beyond Labour’s measly promises. These were not just empty resolutions. They were real signs of frustration by a very powerful faction within the Labour Party, the trade union bureaucracy. They were a warning to Blair that the unions remain unions and as such are only able to tolerate so much.

On the union link a left wing inspired petition to keep the link secured the signatures of many within the union bureaucracy, including John Edmonds of the general union GMB, who has otherwise been a firm supporter of Blair. Only the hard right in the engineering union argued in favour of giving it up. The TGWU leader, Bill Morris, made the position of his union quite clear:

“. . . the voice at Labour’s table that speaks up for the core of the party’s constituency is that of the trade unions. I cannot believe that any socialist party would want the representatives of those people who need socialism most to be shut out of its counsels.”18

Breaking the union link

The present and proposed national organisational reforms are not enough on their own. The trade unions remain involved at every level of the party, particularly in the constituency parties and on their general management committees. A thoroughgoing removal of the unions from the party would meet with strong resistance at every level.

In effect the unions are saying to Blair that once he is in power they will be more prepared to rock the boat. He will not be able to carry through his project without a very serious fight. And in that fight the bureaucracy will have very powerful allies within the non- “modernising” faction in the Parliamentary Party - Prescott, Beckett, Cook, Meacher, possibly Clare Short. Blair will face much more serious opposition than he has had so far.

Of course, both the union bureaucrats and the Prescott wing of the party are implicated in Blair’s project through their toleration of it to date. They cannot be relied upon to stop Blair breaking the link with the unions or turning Labour into a capitalist party pure and simple like the Democrats in the USA . But they will be the ones in the leadership of the movement who will be feeling the pressure of the working class most, and that pressure will be exercised to keep the link, to meet working class demands and even to fight Blair.

This pressure will be exerted very quickly, more likely in the first, rather than the third year of a Blair government. It will manifest itself in mass strikes over public sector pay, over rights at work, over the defence of the welfare state, over the defence and improvement of benefits. Workers and youth will not sit back and take Blair’s authoritarian and pro-capitalist medicine. They will fight and fight hard.

The unions themselves are in a better position to spearhead such a fight than they have been for a long time. Their ability to beat Blair should not be underestimated. Contrary to the muddled schema of Militant Labour, they haven’t yet been beaten - that is, driven out of the party.

The long depression in industrial action that followed the defeat of the miners in 1985 is over. This has not yet translated into a revolt of 1970s proportions, but it has translated into a greater sense of self-confidence within the unions, including amongst the bureaucracy. Talk of “new unionism” has replaced the 1980s and early 1990s talk of “new realism”.

“New unionism” TUC style still includes the idea of ensuring that unions are efficient service organisations and that strikes are kept to a minimum. But for all their commitment to the ideas that underlay “service unionism” and “new realism”, the union bureaucrats know full well that they recruit and retain members by protecting pay and conditions. A recent survey confirmed this scientifically. 81.5% of new union members questioned in the survey cited as their main reason for joining the union “support if I have a problem at work”. All the years of “new realism” have failed to erase this as the primary purpose of the unions.

The post dispute - led by one of Blair’s closest union allies, Alan Johnson - proved this. The union leadership were forced to act. Their subjective desire for a sell out was curbed by the membership’s pressure on the issue of team-working. The result has been the recruitment of several thousand new members. All of the major unions have established recruitment campaigns and have allocated full time officials to this task.

The TUC is calling for a charter of workers’ rights far more extensive than Labour is offering. This is a sign that they are planning to use the onset of a Labour government to reverse their decline in membership (from around 50% in 1979 to 32.1% in terms of density in 1995, with a total membership of 7,275,000) and push for a greater role in industry. They are already enjoying small increases of membership and a 50% increase in union recognition deals in 1995 as compared to 1994.

The new confidence in the unions is further evidenced by a revival in strike figures. Last June witnessed the highest number of days lost through strike action since March 1990 (228,000 days lost in 40 disputes). The Liverpool dockers, now entering the second year of their dispute, were not counted in these figures because they had been dismissed. Furthermore, despite the wait for Labour mood prevalent at union conferences, disputes continued to break out (in the post, on the rail and in the private sector - for example at Magnet and Southern in Darlington where 400 workers who struck for higher pay were dismissed). While many of the disputes have been hard fought local struggles (the Liverpool dockers, Hillingdon, Derbyshire fire fighters, Magnet and Southern), the post and rail action were national or near national struggles and the Liverpool dockers’ struggle has had a national resonance.

Despite the strategy of waiting for Labour, sections of the union bureaucracy are under pressure from their members to act now and are obliged to respond to that pressure. They are prepared to countenance action for the same reason that Blair is conducting so many sallies against the unions - both are preparing the ground for the aftermath of the election, when the waiting will be over. The bureaucracy believe that while Blair is the man to win the election he must be shown that the unions’ demands for the minimum wage and new union rights can be backed up by action.

The bulk of the bureaucracy are not prepared to make that pressure unbearable for Blair. That is why they accepted the setting up of a low pay commission on the minimum wage and rejected miners’ leader Arthur Scargill’s call for the repeal and defiance of the anti-union laws. Nevertheless, they are issuing warnings to a future Labour government.

They are under rank and file pressure and the fact that they are obliged to respond to it is a pointer to future struggles.

Those struggles, though led by the unions, will draw the entire working class into conflict with Blair. Of course, we do not deny that the outcome of such conflicts could be the triumph of Blair and the fulfilment of his project. But such a triumph will not be easy. He will discover very quickly that the “ghosts of time past” - the mass and flying pickets, the working class on the march, divisions in his party that he thought his idol Thatcher had exorcised - will return to haunt him.

The next Labour government could well settle the fate of the Labour Party. Blair could successfully uproot Labour from the unions and turn it into an open bosses’ party, like the Liberals and Tories, expressing the political outlook of a distinct faction of the ruling class. A decisive resolution of the “Europe” question inside the ruling class in favour of federalism could possibly lead this section of the bourgeoisie to take and mould a Blairite Labour Party in its image.

Alternatively Blair could be forced to compromise by pressure from below and indifference from the bosses. He could achieve a massive further reduction in the union bureaucracy’s formal voting powers , increase the proportion of non-union funding and raise further the numbers of individual members. This could be done without destroying the organic connections with the trade unions at local level on whom Labour’s electoral machine presently depends. Blair would then have created a party very different rom the traditional model of Labour, but one that nevertheless remained a bourgeois workers’ party, albeit on the model of the modern European social-democratic parties.

There is of course a third scenario. The Labour party could split. Any attempt by Blair to break the parliamentary and electoral apparatus of the party from its strongest and most consistent base of support in society and to effect a rupture with a hundred years of the party’s history would certainly provoke massive resistance - as the groundswell of opposition after the 1996 TUC shows only too clearly. Should this opposition arise at the same time as a significant working class upsurge against a Blair-led government then there is a possibility that Blair could be defeated. Depending on the size of his majority and the extent of opposition in the parliamentary party, this could leave Blair with no other option than to follow his predecessor Ramsey Macdonald along the path of split and towards the formation of a coalition with the Liberals and possibly even the pro-European wing of the Tories.

Whatever the outcome, the following years will be ones of great upheaval in the British labour movement. The very question of the political independence of the working class will be posed against a background of mass class struggle against a Labour government. This situation is pregnant with opportunity for revolutionary socialists. The possibility of hundreds of thousands of the most advanced workers being separated from Labour, and the rise of a new generation of class fighters forged in struggle against Blair, poses a real chance to build the very thing that has been lacking in Britain throughout the post-war years: a strong revolutionary alternative to every shade of reformism, with deep roots in the labour and trade union movement.n

1p 77, The Blair Agenda, edited by Mark Perryman, London 1996
2 Letter of Alan Simpson (Secretary of the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs) to Socialist Campaign Group Supporters, November 1996.
3 p 419, Tony Blair, by John Rentoul, London 1996
4 p3, New Britain, by Tony Blair, London 1996
5 p4, ibid.
6 Observer, 24.9.96
7p13 ibid.
8 p 453, Rentoul, op cit.
9 quoted in Socialist Campaign Group News, November 1996.
10 ibid.
11 Promises of nursery places for 3 and 4 olds is about all that it unconditionally promised on the “credit card” of five pledges.
12 quoted in Tribune 20 September 1996
13 The Economist, 7 September 1996
14 quoted in International Socialism, Winter 1995
15 David Blunkett writing in the (Tory) London Evening Standard, 10 September 1996
16 pp 12-13, The Blair Revolution by Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle, London 1996
17 p14, Socialism Today, October 1996
18 Bill Morris writing in the New Statesman, 20 September 1996