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Things can only get (a little bit) better

NICK WRIGHT continues his discussion of Labour’s prospects with a look at New Labour’s preparation for government

THE early morning train journey on Friday May 2 1997 was a happy experience. With barely three hours’ sleep and a serious hangover from the previous night’s post-election party, I was on my way to catch the Eurostar to Brussels to speak at an International Workers’ Day rally.

The  train was packed with people happily abandoning the normal reserve of the London commuter to beam at each other in delighted celebration of the most significant Tory defeat in decades.

The Tories went from 343 Commons seats to 165.

Labour ended two decades of opposition to form an administration buttressed by an unprecedented 418 seats in Parliament. The Tories were shattered.

Tony Blair entered No 10 on a wave of euphoria propelled by a tide of expectations that things could only get better.

I had my doubts that this enthusiasm would be rewarded with very substantial changes and when — under intense cross-examination —  I conveyed these doubts to my largely left-wing audience in Brussels they were surprised at my pessimism.

These doubts had grown in the weeks and month prior to the election and were in contrast to the great optimism with which many working people viewed Labour’s victory.

Having spent the previous decade editing the various newspapers of the National Union of Civil and Public Servants (NUCPS) — soon to merge with other public-sector unions to form today’s PCS — policy issues arising from the work of each government department was my daily business.

During the years of Thatcherism and John Major’s premiership the trade unions were in the forefront of campaigning. NUCPS was particularly active in the campaigns against the privatisation of public services, outsourcing and against changes in the social security system that reduced benefits and made work harder for benefit staff.

Starting from the early position where shadow Labour ministers were, as we expected, critical of bedrock Tory economic policies, we began to chart a trend where every expectation by the host of campaigning groups and trade unions that Labour’s manifesto would chart a new course was met with hesitation, delay and denial.

In area after area — child poverty, low pay, benefit changes, anti-union laws, public ownership, tenancy rights, public transport and housing — the word came back.

Labour policy was to leave the huge heritage of the Tory years but slightly modified.

Spending was to be tightly controlled, the priority was to reassure the markets.

These issues had a particular significance for Civil Service union members because the implementation of every government policy profoundly affected their working life, but the sense of disappointment was much wider in the labour movement.

Even in the midst of electoral euphoria it began a shift to a more sceptical attitude to Labour’s leadership among union members and activists.

Tony Blair laid down New Labour’s five pledges: “In government, this will be what we deliver.” The less than subliminal message was that things would get only a little bit better.

The five pledges were: cut infant class sizes to 30; halve the time from arrest to sentencing for young offenders; cut NHS waiting lists; get 250,000 under-25s off benefits and into work; and to set “tough” rules for public spending and borrowing.

The last pledge was recalibrated to emphasise the sanctity of Tory spending plans.

New Labour’s fidelity to free market philosophy had been given constitutional expression at the 1994 party conference with the abandonment of the socialist Clause Four of the party rules.

This was no piece of empty resolution-mongering but celebrated a surrender to City orthodoxy that had earlier been laid down in a 1992 Fabian Society pamphlet where Ed Balls  argued that the Bank of England should be independent of government.

New Labour in government swiftly deployed a lightly used Tory scheme for public-private partnership — a devious device to shift spending off the public expenditure sheet and thus meet the spending limits imposed by Britain’s Maastricht Treaty obligations.

This was despite a 1992 assault on the policy by shadow chief secretary of the Treasury Harriet Harman that it was “back-door privatisation.” 

A future Labour chancellor of the exchequer, Alistair Darling, even warned that “apparent savings now could be countered by the formidable commitment on revenue expenditure in years to come.”

New Labour enthusiastically embraced the policy and, by 2007, the total capital value of PFI infrastructure, rail, hospital and school contracts was £68 billion, committing the taxpayer to fork out £215bn over the life of the contracts.

The full extent of New Labour’s departure from traditional social democratic thinking is illustrated by Gordon Brown’s defence of the policy on the grounds that “the public sector is bad at management, and that only the private sector is efficient and can manage services well.”

But Labour ministers lined up to defend PFI. Alan Johnson said it was Plan A for the NHS with no Plan B, while Yvette Cooper, as chief secretary of the Treasury, urged no delay in its implementation.

Opposition to this increasingly discredited  policy reached its bizarre limits when, in 2009, even future coalition chancellor George Osborne could claim that “Labour’s PFI model is flawed and must be replaced.”

In practice Labour’s economic policy under Brown and his successor Darling was to use tax revenues arising from the runaway financialisation of the economy to fund a range of social measures including increased childcare, education and health spending. Good things in themselves, but built on a shaky foundation.

Just how shaky was revealed when in 2007 the New Labour finance fetish shifted into top gear with Brown’s Mansion House speech of that year.

He proclaimed to the assembled City grandees: “An era that history will record as the beginning of a new golden age for the City of London.

“I believe it will be said of this age, the first decades of the 21st century, that out of the greatest restructuring of the global economy, perhaps even greater than the Industrial Revolution, a new world order was created.”

The following March the financial world suffered a near fatal seizure and the intellectual credibility of the New Labour project began to melt away.

Brown tried to defend his government’s  bank rescue plan. But his subliminal slip — during Prime Ministers Question Time in December that year — when he began to say: “We saved the world…” he unleashed a storm of derision.

But Brown’s rescue plan, mirroring what happened in almost all developed capitalist economies, did indeed stabilise the capitalist banking system. And in socialising bank losses by rescuing banks with public funds — essentially our taxes — the foundations for the subsequent years of public spending cuts and austerity were laid.

And after decades in which conventional thinking in Labour circles dismissed the idea of state intervention as the foundation of a social democratic economic model, the most thoroughly neoliberal chancellor ever to sit in a Labour Cabinet used the full force of the state and the full extent of its public finances to stabilise the capitalist system at the expense of working people. Socialism for the rich.

Much of this will be ancient history to many of Labour’s newer supporters. Enthusiasm for a radical break from the discredited policies of the past rests on the secure foundation of their experience in the precarious world of zero-hours contracts, student debt, impossible rents, unaffordable house prices and endless imperial war.

Labour’s pitch — “For the Many, Not the Few” distils the class essence of Britain’s deeply divided society with a language that reaches across the many subjective barriers that stand in the way of a full political and class consciousness.

The manifesto produced for the last election was able to address popular concerns in a particularly direct way. Abolishing tuition fees, raising the minimum wage, protecting pensions through the restoration of the “triple lock” were policies that addressed the concrete concerns of millions.

Taking back public utilities and the railways made real the more abstract ideas of collective interest over private profit that millions of voters, including Conservative, Lib Dem and nationalist voters feel but which are rarely given such clear expression.

In some, mainly working-class areas, it is clear that Labour’s popular policies eroded support for Ukip.

A key element of Labour’s recovery lay in Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to respect the vote to leave the EU while the emphasis on rights at work and pay and labour protection for all workers, including migrant workers, took toxicity out of the migration debate.

In fact, Labour’s inclusive language helped minimise the salience of potentially destabilising and divisive issues to the point where arguments about sovereignty became somewhat detached from migration.

And during the course of the election campaign, Labour’s manifesto, combined with the political style of the Corbyn team, easily bested what the Tories were able to present.

A series of Tory gaffes and Theresa May’s robotic performance, coupled with the less unequal conditions that electoral law imposes on the broadcast media, made it easier for Labour’s message to get across.

The key human element was Labour’s overwhelmingly superior presence on the ground, mobilised and organised by an adroit use of social media.

For the next election, which may come sooner than we expected, the Tories will have upped their game in as far as money enables them. They will spend enormous amounts on social media to compensate for their lack of human resources and depend on the mass media more than ever.

May’s uncontrolled outburst to Jeremy Corbyn: “We will never allow you to govern” betrays both fear and loathing.

The significance of her unguarded utterance lies in her recognition that a radical break in government policy to one which challenges the power and wealth of the top 1 per cent must necessarily call forth a full spectrum of resistance.

Where this comes from and how it is carried through will strip away much of the mystification which hides the reality of class power in  British society.

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