Socialist Worker

Crises combine to bring down Blair’s regime

Tony Blair’s crisis is a result of the neo-liberal and pro-war policies that his government has followed for which Gordon Brown is also culpable, writes Alex Callinicos

Issue No. 2018

Blair and Brown were the architects of New Labour (Pic: Pictures: Jess Hurd/ http://www.reportdigital.co.uk

Blair and Brown were the architects of New Labour (Pic: Pictures: Jess Hurd/ reportdigital.co.uk)


“This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper,” wrote the poet TS Eliot. And that was how Tony Blair’s premiership in effect came to an end - at a north London school amid a press scrimmage and the jeers of anti-war students.

The tumultuous events of last week represented the convergence and fusion of two distinct but related crises - those of New Labour and of the “war on terror” launched by George Bush five years ago after 11 September 2001.

To understand the first of these crises we have to recognise the extent to which Blair is a child of Margaret Thatcher, in two senses.

First of all, without the terrible defeats inflicted on the working class movement by the Tories in the 1980s it is inconceivable that the Labour Party would have chosen as leader a public school barrister travelling as ideologically light as Blair was.

Secondly, the essence of Blairism consisted in accepting the “Thatcher revolution” and in particular what we now call neo-liberalism - the freemarket version of capitalism that has become dominant worldwide since the 1980s.

But the New Labour “project” wasn’t Blair’s personal affair. He benefited from the huge effort to shift Labour to the right made by Neil Kinnock as party leader between 1983 and 1992.

Moreover, the detailed programme implemented after Labour came to office in 1997 was devised not by Blair, but by Gordon Brown, for a long time the senior figure among party “modernisers”.

It was he who coined the slogan that first made Blair famous - “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.”

The famous “Granita pact”, struck by the two men when Blair stood for the party leadership after John Smith died in 1994, gave Brown, as chancellor of the exchequer, effective control over domestic policy once Labour came to government.

The essential promise of New Labour was that, in Blair’s words, “enterprise and justice can live together”.

In other words, Thatcherite economics could be combined with traditional social democratic policies aimed at reducing inequality.

In reality, from the start, Blair and Brown both gave priority to enterprise over justice. They eagerly courted big business.

Both men were implicated in the shady affair at the very beginning of the government.

Backtracked

This occurred when Labour accepted £1 million from Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone - and, coincidentally, backtracked from a promise to ban tobacco advertising in motor racing.

It was Brown who proclaimed Labour the “party of enterprise”.

The New Labour government’s first action was to give the power to fix interest rates to the Bank of England - in effect abandoning economic control to the financial markets.

It is true that Brown has pursued what has been called “redistribution by stealth”, devising a system of complex tax credits aimed at increasing the income of poor households with children.

But this system was based on a vast extension of means testing, which allowed many of those entitled to these credits to fall outside the net.

Because the government left free market capitalism to go its own way, the gap between rich and poor, which hugely increased under Thatcher, has continued to grow under New Labour.

So disillusionment with the Blair government began to develop quite early in its life, especially among party activists and core Labour supporters.

The pattern we saw in last year’s general election, when Labour won by default, because the mass of voters still hated and despised the Tories, was already set in the 2001 election.

Soon after, the incipient crisis of New Labour began to interweave with the global offensive launched by the Bush administration after 9/11.

Blair had already shown a taste for high-minded imperialism during the 1999 war waged by Nato against Yugoslavia.

But the “war on terror” offered him an opportunity to strut the global stage alongside Bush.

“The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux… let us re-order this world around us,” Blair told the Labour Party conference in October 2001.

Labour and Tory governments alike have, since the Second World War, sought to maintain a global role for British capitalism by aligning themselves as closely as possible to the US.

But Blair took this much further than any of his predecessors, even Thatcher.

Invasion

It is, of course, this vainglorious gamble that destroyed his premiership. It has never recovered from the exposure, after the invasion of Iraq, of the lies the government told to get Britain into the war in the first place.

Blair survived in office thanks to the cowardice of the other Labour leaders, Brown above all.

But the spreading catastrophe in Iraq, to which now is added John Reid’s folly - the besieged British military mission to Afghanistan - has steadily eroded the government’s popularity.

Desperate efforts to use last year’s London bombings, and other more doubtful terrorist attempts, to rally support for the war have been quite ineffective.

The emergence of an invigorated Tory opposition under David Cameron means Labour can no longer win elections by default. Its standing in opinion polls has dropped to levels last seen in the 1980s.

But it was Blair’s outspoken support for Israel’s destruction of Lebanon this summer that finally broke him.

As Andrew Rawnsley, a journalist close to 10 Downing Street, put it in last Sunday’s Observer, Lebanon “was the tipping point for many mainstream MPs. [Blair’s] stance reaggravated all the anger about the Iraq war and its searing aftermath.”

Ferocious

It was the resulting broad based revolt against Blair’s attempts to hang on rather than the plotting by the Brown camp that forced last week’s announcement from him.

The ferocious personal assault mounted by Charles Clarke and Blair loyalists is unlikely to prevent Brown from succeeding.

But, despite the deep hatreds that now divide the Blair and Brown camps, there is little of substance that divides them.

Robert Peston revealed last year in Brown’s Britain that a major reason why Brown has held back from bringing Blair down before now was fear that this would make him beholden to the Labour left.

Brown has solidly supported Blair over Iraq. In his BBC interview with Andrew Marr last Sunday he reaffirmed that terrorist suspects should be held without charge for longer than the current 28 days.

Gordon Brown’s Private Finance Initiative opened the door to Blair’s campaign to privatise schools and health provision. Initially Brown resisted the latter, but he seems to have given up, telling Marr that he wants to “intensify” the privatisation of public services.

In the very unlikely event that Brown wanted to move leftwards as prime minister he will be boxed in by the Blairites within the Labour Party, and the Tories under Cameron without, both eager to denounce him as an Old Labour throwback.

So Labour under Brown will continue to be New Labour. It will continue to offer nothing to the millions of working class people who used to look to it. It will continue to participate in the US’s imperial wars.

Those millions will be left without a political voice. A huge space remains to the left of Labour.

And so it is essential that Respect starts filling that space, offering a real alternative to the disintegrating edifice that Blair and Brown built.


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Alex Callinicos
Sat 16 Sep 2006, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 2018
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