Inside the system
Going the Major way
By Alex Callinicos
I DON'T think I ever expected to have warm feelings about the Women's Institute. It was worth a lot just to watch Tony Blair's face freeze into that idiotic fixed grin as he realised just how badly he had bombed. But perhaps these feelings are wrong. One minister told the Independent on Sunday, "The WI are the sort of blue-rinse brigade the Tories are trying to stop going to their conference."
To judge by the Millbank-orchestrated response by pro-Labour papers like the Mirror, what happened at Wembley last week was a reactionary rebellion against a progressive government mounted by women from the shires harbouring proto-fascist beliefs. This is also the interpretation pressed by William Hague. He is mounting an ugly racist and nationalist campaign calculated to appeal to people who fit precisely this description.
Hague portrayed Blair's Women's Institute disaster as the moment when Middle England turned against New Labour. The words "Middle England" are intended to evoke a layer of society that is middle class, affluent, and middle of the road in the sense of floating between the three main parties.
Supposedly, New Labour won the 1997 general election because of Tony Blair's successful courtship of such people. But if Middle England is supposed to refer to all those between the seriously rich on the one hand and the organised working class on the other, then the expression covers an extremely mixed group of people. Some of these are genuinely middle class-affluent professionals, company executives, small business people. Others are much less well off-working in white collar jobs of some kind in the private or public sector.
The latter group may often be quite distant from the traditional labour movement. They probably do not belong to a trade union, and are owner-occupiers living in a suburb or one of the smaller towns or cities. But they aren't prosperous enough to afford private health and education, and so continue to depend on public services. Moreover, as wage earners they are as vulnerable to the ups and downs of the economy as car workers or miners.
Thus the recession of the early 1990s drove millions of these people away from the Tories and into the arms of the Labour Party. They voted Labour in 1997 in the genuine belief that, in the words of the song, "Things Can Only Get Better". There will have been many women from this kind of background attending the Women's Institute conference last week. Tony Blair's policies haven't been directed towards these people.
It's not Middle England in this sense that he's been courting, but exactly the same group of fat cats who prospered under the Tories. The NHS and public transport have continued to deteriorate. The decline in rural areas has been particularly acute, since the government has not simply shut down post offices and schools, but has sat back while the big banks closed their branches as well.
No wonder many of the women at Wembley last week were angered by Blair's arrogant homilies about the inevitability of change and the value of "community".
The vocal protesters seem to have been a mixed bunch. The Mirror sniffed out the fact that one of them had a mother who voted National Front. Others were Labour supporters. One described herself as a socialist. But the most significant thing about the protest was that it happened. Blair walked on water for a couple of years after the 1997 election. His most banal remark was seized on as divine wisdom.
He saw off the scandal caused by Formula One's million pound contribution to the Labour Party by saying on television, "Y'know, I'm a straight kind of a guy." Now, this soft soap doesn't work any more. Leo's birth has cut no ice. This is despite the kind of blanket media coverage traditionally reserved for the appearance of another royal parasite (not that the Blairs would ever exploit any of their children for political purposes).
From being a prime minister who could do no wrong, Blair is in danger of becoming one who can do nothing right. Monday's papers announced that he has ordered a government "relaunch". Where have we heard that before? John Major's government constantly relaunched itself as it staggered from one crisis to another, only for each of these pathetic efforts rapidly to fall apart.