It’s worth reminding ourselves that it is less than a year since Tony Blair won his historic third general election victory—and already he is in real trouble.
Every major newspaper is speculating about when, if and how Blair will go, and when, if and how Gordon Brown will replace him. Nobody knows exactly when he will go—but one thing everyone agrees on is that he is finished.
Brown and Blair have been ripping each other apart. This mattered little when Labour was unchallenged in the polls, but now that David Cameron’s Tory Party looks like more of a threat there is a real panic gripping the party.
The cash for coronets scandal has left many Labour Party members dazed and confused. Relying on Tory votes to get the education bill through parliament was too much even for party grandees like former Labour leader Neil Kinnock. And it looks like Labour is going to suffer serious defeats in the council elections on 4 May.
But these are just symptons of a more fundamental crisis—Iraq. An editorial in last Monday’s Financial Times noted, “The invasion of Iraq and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction have eroded trust in Mr Blair. The process shows no sign of ending as the situation in Iraq continues to deterioate, and makes it harder for the prime minister to rebut other charges made against his government.”
No one should underestimate the impact that the departure of George Bush’s key imperialist ally would have. General Norman Schwarzkopf, who commanded coalition forces during the first Iraq invasion of 1991, recalled on BBC Radio 4 last weekend that while preparing for that war, he and his advisers were shocked to hear that Margaret Thatcher had been unceremoniously booted out after the poll tax riot. It even made them question whether they could go ahead with the invasion.
Blair’s removal would leave a similar gap. It would also bolster those struggling against imperialism and neo-liberalism across the world, from Venezuela to Iraq.
There is an important contradiction in Blair’s legacy. While Blair might be the darling of the neo?liberals, he has failed to win working class people to his ideological viewpoint. Surveys show that the vast majority of people reject his strategy in key areas such as the NHS, education and welfare.
That despair with New Labour’s agenda burst through with last month’s strike and protests over pensions. This was the first time we have seen the working class in Britain mount a serious industrial challenge to the government’s policies. There is now a real possibility that we are witnessing a return to working class politics.
But the prospect of Blair going has not brought about a revival in Labour’s fortunes. A few years ago many championed Brown as the saviour of the party—now not even the most naive MP believes he would make any difference. And there is not one single MP from Labour’s left that could mount a serious challenge for the leadership of the party.
Although Labour still maintains a powerful electoral machine, the rule of Blair and Brown has left it structurally weak. In 1997 Blair could claim he was aiming for the Labour Party to reach a membership of a million members. Today its membership stands at 170,000.
One internal Labour report recently stated that, in London, “morale in the party is at an all time low”. There have been several occasions in recent years when Brown could have finished Blair off, but his politcal cowardice meant that he never did. There is no evidence that this is going to change.
This has meant that although Blair is fatally weakened, he can still boast that he is going to press ahead with his market led assault on the education system and health service. He has also made it clear that he is determined to carry on with his pension “reforms”. This means that he remains a dangerous foe.
The three fronts on which he is weakest are the war in Iraq, the May elections and the industrial struggle over pensions. As socialists we have to fight New Labour on all three. Our job is to make sure that Blair’s epitaph is the war in Iraq.