AFTER THE war on Iraq, Tony Blair has declared war on the welfare state and the trade unions. Blair believes his position has been strengthened by the war. But he faces huge opposition and sharp battles in the near future.
Blair announced a wholesale attack on the welfare state this week. In an interview in the Financial Times this week he declared he wanted to 'redraw the 1945 welfare state settlement'. He wants to ditch the commitment that society should provide decent healthcare and education for those who cannot afford to pay. Blair will push ahead even further with private firms taking over in hospitals and schools.
He even raised the idea of charges for health care, alongside fees for higher education and road use. He also fired a warning shot to union leaders, saying, 'We will not give in, in any shape or form, to any resurgent union militancy.' He singled out the revolt against government policy at the teachers' union conference, saying it was 'NUT nonsense'.
Even the Financial Times commented, 'There are moments when Mr Blair almost sounds like Washington's neo-conservatives.'
But Blair faces unprecedented opposition to his right wing domestic agenda. The key political interviewer in the Guardian, Jackie Ashley, gave a stark picture last week of the crisis inside the government.
'Blair's power is not quite as all-encompassing as it might seem,' she wrote. 'Of the key issues confronting him now - foundation hospitals, tuition fees, and the euro-none seems assured.' Even loyal ministers, she writes, 'are grumbling that a big expansion of foundation hospitals would be a step too far'. She writes that it is only the support of the Tories that will enable Blair to push foundation hospitals through parliament. But Blair could be beaten on tuition fees.
'The government is in serious danger of losing this one, as indeed ministers are privately acknowledging,' Ashley writes. Similarly no one should underestimate the depth of the opposition to Blair inside his own party. Ashley writes, 'Some who have supported the war through gritted teeth are seriously questioning what New Labour is all about now. They are at last starting to talk, and to organise. They don't want the first Labour government of the 21st century to go down in history as one that allied this country to a neo-conservative US.'
There is also growing resistance to Blair among the core of activists who have held the trade union and labour movement together for years. This opposition is not just from the 'awkward squad' of left wing union leaders. It is also from those who have won elections against them.
Kevin Curran, who recently beat a more left wing candidate to become leader of the GMB union, said this week that the government faced 'a huge fight' over the Private Finance Initiative, foundation hospitals and pensions. The weight of anti-war feeling across Britain sent panic through New Labour. Blair and his closest ministers admitted in the Guardian last week they feared the government could fall during the vote in the Commons on Iraq.
Home secretary David Blunkett said, 'Everyone believed that Tony had put his premiership on the line and those who are very close to him would go down with him.' Just 11 weeks ago two million people joined the biggest ever demonstration in Britain.
And three weeks ago, at the end of the war, some 200,000 marched in London. The latest attacks on the domestic front will alienate millions more people who didn't join those marches. They will want to defend the NHS, will be sympathetic to teachers boycotting tests and furious at what is happening to pensions.
If the force of all of those angry over the war and domestic issues is linked to action from the unions then it can create a resistance that can turn the tables on Blair.