It was the lowest turnout in a British general election since 1918. Only 59% of those eligible to vote made the journey to the polling booths. Tony Blair’s ‘mudslide victory’ was built on mass apathy. Labour is in power for a second term with the support of only 25% of the electorate. In 1997 13. 5 million people voted Labour. In 2001 the figure had dropped to less than 11 million and 18 million registered voters declined to vote. Since the advent of adult franchise no British Prime Minister has ever governed with such a tiny mandate.
Stung on election night by comments from TV journalists to the effect that the low turn-out had deprived New Labour of moral authority, Tony Blair’s trusted advisers, Lord Falconer, Jack Straw (now Foreign Secretary) and John Prescott (Deputy Prime Minister), each of them singing from the same Millbank hymn-sheet, offered two basic explanations. First, there was a general trend in Western Europe of voter apathy. Secondly, people were contented, happy, and aware that Labour was going to win a big majority and this made them complacent. The first is simply not true, something which could have been rebutted easily if the BBC journalists had been aware of European voting patterns. Turnout in France, Italy, Germany and Scandinavia is still above 70%. The truth is that Britain is heading in the American direction. Once the economy goes in a neo-liberal direction with the corporations in control, politics is usually not far behind. The second excuse is so ridiculous that I doubt whether even government ministers, cocooned from reality by civil servants and spin-doctors, actually believe this nonsense. All the surveys of public opinion indicate a deep dissatisfaction with mainstream politicians. People believe there is no fundamental difference between the two major parties. It is widely thought that both the major parties are servants of the system. The Liberals, who weakly resist the depredations of neo-liberalism are rewarded with a few extra seats and serve as a useful safety valve, but not much more.
This is not simply the view of the ‘ignorant’ person in the street, who is supposedly incapable of understanding the complex processes of redistribution being masterminded by the New Labour leadership. This is also what is firmly believed by the City of London and helps to explain why so many big business interests voluntarily backed and funded Blair. His record of continued deregulation and low public spending, his promises to go further still, appealed to them. His courage in breaking with social-democratic reformism while castrating the Labour Party band neutering the trades unions fills them with admiration. They know perfectly well that it would have been difficult for a Conservative government to do what Blair will do in his second term.
For this same reason New Labour enjoys the fulsome support of the leading organ of big business, the Financial Times; unpredictable but uniform support from the Murdoch empire, total support from the Express group (currently owned by a New Labour pornography merchant) and a BBC now packed with its own placemen (Greg Dyke, Andrew Marr, etc). No previous Labour government possessed anything like this level of media protection. Indeed, during the elections New Labour obtained the endorsement of every single national newspaper save the Mail and Telegraph at election-time. The election campaign and the result were joyless precisely because, for the first time ever, the entire campaign was conducted inside a media bubble.
No public meetings. No public debates. Everything organised with the efficiency of a slick PR firm marketing a product. The only time the election came to life was when Blair was confronted by an angry working-class woman in Birmingham complaining about conditions in the hospital being graced by the Prime Ministerial presence. Blair’s embarrassment was acute.
The reasons for this favourable treatment by the bulk of the media are two-fold. On the one hand, the Conservative Party is far more deeply crippled by a combination of Europhobia, and class ‘drop’ than it has ever been in the past century. It was simply not a credible alternative. More importantly, why should capital in general or newspaper magnates in particular object to the policies of this government? Apart from individual aversions to the EU, there is no good reason. Once Blair had stolen their soiled shirts, the Conservative Party had to make a choice. It could have moved decisively to the centre-ground and attempted an audacious outflanking of Blair from slightly to the left of New Labour.
Or it could have appealed to hard-core Conservatives on traditional right-wing issues like crime, foreigners, the sanctity of the pound, etc. Their leader, William Hague chose the latter course, suffered a heavy defeat and resigned as Leader, leaving behind a rump Party to choose his successor. Whatever the choice, it is unlikely that the Conservatives will be able to heal their divisions over the next 4-5 years. This means that Britain over the next period will be governed by conservatives, but not the Conservative Party.
In these circumstances, the electoral success of New Labour is unsurprising, though the low turnout is a useful indicator of actual public enthusiasm for New Labour. Those on the Left, who claimed that New Labour was really Old Labour and would soon begin to travel in a similar direction, were wildly wrong from the start. Blair signalled a break with traditional social democracy and if a system of proportional representation existed in Britain the breach would probably be marked by a split between social democrats and Blair Democrats.
The Economist, an astute, but vociferous defender of global capitalism, in its issue before the election on 2 June 2001 published a cover which showed Blair’s face underneath a Margaret Thatcher hairdo and her earrings, headlined its leader comment thus: ‘Vote Conservative, but choose the ambiguous right-winger rather than the feeble one.’ The text explained to readers that Blair had governed on the centre-right and how New Labour’s ‘macroeconomic policy, indeed, has been more orthodox than its Tory predecessor, with more fiscal discipline and the welcome granting of independence to the Bank of England.’ The Economist concluded by calling on its readers to vote for Blair: ‘Tony Blair is the only credible conservative currently available. The Blair we support with our vote is the one who admires Margaret Thatcher and has followed many of her policies; who hints that he favours a real, structural reform in health, education and welfare, including greater use of private provision; who believes a sharp move to the left in the second term would be electoral suicide.’
What will Blair do in his ‘radical second term’? To his credit the New Labour leader made no attempt to conceal his plans from the electorate or members of his own party. The New Labour leaders really do believe in the neo-liberal dogma that only the private sector disciplined by the market can deliver decent public services. This belief is the outcome of a recent ideological shift. Unsurprisingly, it is former Socialists and Marxists in the Blair entourage who defend capitalism with all the ardour of new converts. They are virulent in their opposition to everything they once believed. They are shameless in their justification of the most irrational neo-liberal policies. They are untroubled by conscience. Having obliterated their own pasts and incapable of visualising a future, they live largely in the present. They have escaped from themselves in the world and have expelled the world from within themselves. They have become provincial, boorish, bullying opportunists. Power, patronage (receiving and returning) and money is all that matters to them. These are the corrupted souls that surround Blair’s throne. Born-again capitalists, they abase themselves in the presence of the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO.
For many years now, one of the main priorities of the WTO has been to accelerate the privatisation of education, health, welfare, social housing and transport. With the decline of profit margins in the once prosperous manufacturing sector, Western capitalism is determined to force entry into a once inviolate public sphere. Giant multinationals have been busy preparing competitive tenders to capture the public services share of the gross domestic product. In its notorious 1993 development report titled ‘Investing in Health’, the World Bank described public services as an obstacle to abolishing world poverty.
There have been important conflicts between US/Canada and the EU on some of the policies advocated by the WTO which affect the health and safety of citizens, but the multinationals are winning. A few years ago in the hormone-treated beef dispute, the WTO ruled in favour of USA/Canada, arguing that EU safety standards were higher than those accepted internationally. In a sharply critical review of WTO policies Professor Allyson Pollock (of the Health Services Research Unit at University College, London) argued in Lancet, the leading British medical journal on 9 December, 2000:
“… The WTO’s national treatment rule was used to define a public-health initiative as protectionist and therefore potentially illegalThe new criteria proposed at the WTO threaten some of the key mechanisms that allow governments to guarantee health care for their populations by requiring governments to demonstrate that their pursuit of social policy goals are least restrictive and least costly to trade.”
New Labour, like their Thatcherite predecessors, ever zealous to please the United States and its financial institutions are determined to be the first EU state that fulfils all the WTO conditions. Accordingly, the British public was informed that the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) would be used to create a new structure of in the public sector. In other words New Labour declared that it would go further than Thatcher and Major had dared and attempt to complete the Thatcher counter-revolution. The air-traffic controllers will be sold off to a few wealthy airlines. The railways, whose privatisation has been a disaster financially and has led to the breakdown of safety, will not be taken back into any form of public ownership. New laws are being passed to make it possible for any local authority to sell off any school to private industry. At the moment only those schools considered to be ‘failing’, i.e. not provided with sufficient resources by the government to teach children from poor families, are handed over to companies. Among the firms directly engaged in teaching children of ‘failed’ schools are Shell Oil (special lessons in ecology?), British Aerospace (lectures on the arms trade?), McDonalds (healthy eating) and Tescos.
The transition from the public to the private sector is already in place and by being handed important contracts a new wave of entrepreneurs are being won over to New Labour. They are making vast sums of money for doing what the Government once could do for itself. Naturally they feel obliged to contribute funds to the Party. The following eight businessmen are merely an indication of what will follow. _______________________________________________
NAME COMPANY PAY GOVT. CONTRACTS
Sir Clive Thomson Rentokil ?1m. Cleaning Service Peter Mason Amec ?669,000 Glasgow Schools Brian Staples Amey ?494,885 Modernising Min. of Defence Mike Welton Balfour-Beatty* ?477,335 UCL Hospital Sir Neville Simms Carillion ?452,000 Nottingham Trams Rod Aldridge Capita ?369,000 Criminal Records Paris Moayedi Jarvis ?347,000 Rail Maintenance * This was the firm in charge of rail maintenance and repairs, but after the Watford train crash (an event that created public revulsion against privatisation) it emerged that Balfour-Beatty had been negligent in its duties. This is not something that worries New Labour too much. After all, in the search for profits it is only natural that accidents will happen.
When Blair first came to power he boasted that New Labour would and could implement ‘reforms’ that had escaped Thatcher and her successor. In this new term he will begin to do so. The funding of public services will be decisively decoupled from their public provision. The result of this socio-economic engineering will, in effect, end with the privatisation of health and education and bring about the death of universal services for all, the de-facto re-introduction of means-testing and a strengthening of social and class divisions in contemporary Britain. Already, the gap between rich and poor has grown wider after four years of New Labour.
Those who voted for Blair will be in a weak position to resist him since the Government will argue, with some justification, which they are carrying out the policies for which he was elected. Mercifully only one in four people voted for New Labour, which leaves open the possibility that in more volatile conditions the apathetic will begin to stir. Already the trade unions that have, till now, been snoring peacefully in Blair’s big, inclusive bed are now beginning to make dissenting noises against the privatisation plans. Since they have refused to campaign against these measures or educate their members, they might have problems mobilising them except for the most narrowly sectional interests. This would be unfortunate since Blair has long been looking for a trade union to defeat in order to further improve his credentials with big business. Teachers and health-service workers ‘resisting reform’ might provide a useful target. The one bright moment during an otherwise gloomy election night was when a 66-year-old doctor, Richard Taylor in Wyre Forest, who stood as an independent candidate on a single issue–saving the accident and emergency wards in local Kidderminster hospital–defeated a junior New Labour minister, with a majority of 17,630 votes. In sharp contrast both the Greens and the competing far-left groups, the Socialist Alliance and the Socialist Labour Party, performed very badly. This is partially the result of a first-past-the-post electoral system that makes it impossible for small parties to gain seats, but only partially. The fact is that a mood of cynicism and political apathy tends to benefit the far right rather than the left. From within the bubble Blair could address the finely-tuned Labour Party conference on September 26, 2000 and indulge in meaningless boasts:
“Don’t tell me that a country with our history and heritage, that today boasts six of the top ten businesses in the whole of Europe, with London the top business city in Europe, that is a world leader in technology and communication and the businesses of the future, that under us has overtaken France and Italy to become the fourth largest economy in the world, that has the language of the new economy, more brilliant artists, actors and directors than any comparable country in the world, some of the best scientists and inventors in the world, the best armed forces in the world, the best teachers and doctors and nurses, the best people any nation could wish for. Don’t tell me with all that going for us that we do not have the spirit to meet all the challenges before us.”
In the small town of Oldham, near Manchester, they clearly lacked the spirit. This was once a centre of manufacturing industry. Unemployment is currently over 30% and real unemployment, undisguised by slippery statistics, is probably higher. The fascists of the British National Party (BNP) moved in a few years ago to target the town, which has a large Asian population (children and grandchildren of the workers who were encouraged to come and work in the textile factories after the Second World War), as a potential ‘race-hate’ area. The BNP worked hard, built a strong base amongst local unemployed white working-class youths, carefully orchestrated clashes between the two communities. During the election campaign there was a riot in Oldham with burnt cars providing barricades for angry young Asians, who refused to remain passive. No mainstream political leader visited the town. It remained outside the media bubble. Ignore it and will go away was the general view. But the BNP prospered, winning 16,000 votes in a solid Labour town. Throughout the last century capitalism was on the defensive, permitting social democracy to take the offensive and offer social and democratic reforms to keep revolution at bay. That situation has now been reversed. With the disappearance of a global enemy, capital can now concentrate on the ‘enemy within’. Many of the concessions it was forced to concede can be brutally clawed back. Others can be taken by stealth. In other words social, economic and democratic rights will have to be fought for once again (as in the 19th century) against the might of a triumphal capitalism and those who rule in its interests, symbolised today by the three B’s: Bush, Blair and Berloscuni. The executioners of neo-liberalism and their ideologues have created a culture of consumerism in which politics itself has become a game-show, a weaker reflection of what is available on television, which is a faithful reflection of life-politics. In the debased coinage of Blair’s most-favoured sociologist, Anthony Giddens, ‘Life politics concerns life decisions. It is a politics of choice, identity and mutuality.’ Such a politics can accommodate everything and everyone and mean nothing. It is the ‘political’ version of the ‘don’t worry, be happy’ message transmitted daily by MTV.
What is required is a campaigning coalition that unites all sections of society opposed to the privatisation frenzy. What we need, and in a very real sense, in all our cities are Committees of Public Safety to defend the public and its needs against the pirate-politicians who serve the interests of global and local financial institutions. Such alliances, of necessity, need to be concrete rather than abstract, totally inclusive and based on reality rather than fantasy. This is a restricted horizon, but we are living in bad times. CP