The Labour Party once stood for providing free education and equal access to state schooling. It once stood for low cost public housing as an escape route from the slums that scarred our towns and cities.
Above all, the creation of the National Health Service (NHS) was held up as Labour’s finest gift to its working class supporters. But today traditional Labour voters are wondering what became of these proud ideals.
This week we saw Tony Blair prepared to rely on Tory votes to push through an education bill that threatens to further undermine comprehensive education by setting up schools in competition with each other.
If Blair wins thanks to Tory votes, it points to the possibility of a “grand coalition” – a pact between centre left and centre right parties, such as the current German govenment.
New Tory leader David Cameron’s election strategy is based on presenting the Tories as the true inheritors of Blair’s mantle. That is why he is pitching the party as a continuation rather than a break with the New Labour project.
All three establishment parties insist that the market is the only possible mechanism for delivering goods and services. If things go wrong, it is never the fault of the market – instead they blame teachers, nurses, trade unions or “feckless” parents.
New Labour boasts it has doubled spending on health. But most of this new money passes straight into the hands of the private sector, which is itself increasingly dominated by huge US health corporations.
We are moving towards the US model of healthcare. The US spends more money per head on healthcare than any other country. But because of the built in irrationality of the private system, the richest country in the world finds itself unable to deliver healthcare for vast swathes of its population.
Blair recently admitted that globalisation is a “creator of insecurity”. But globalisation is not some kind of natural event that Blair passively observes – it is a a project that he actively promotes.
The US and Britain aren’t just united over the Iraq war – over the past 30 years both governments have pioneered and presided over deregulation, privatisation and the hollowing out of our democratic structures.
Here in Britain, Margaret Thatcher picked up on the first steps made in this direction by the Labour government of Jim Callaghan in the late 1970s. New Labour has extended this neo-liberal agenda since coming to power in 1997.
Neo-liberalism has meant the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich on a massive scale, alongside the opening up of public services to the private sector.
Yet the popular mood is drastically out of step with this neo-liberal consensus. Our rulers might have decided free education and public healthcare are things of the past, but those who rely on the NHS and state education do not share those conclusions.
Surveys consistently show that a majority of people believe the gap between rich and poor is too great and that more should be spent on welfare.
That holds true of Labour Party members too. A recent poll showed that grassroots Labour members were overwhelmingly opposed to Blair’s education reforms.
Some 80 percent oppose business sponsors being able to influence what is taught in schools, while 72 percent regard fair access to education as more important than “parental choice”.
The consensus among working people is essentially “Old Labour”. They elected Blair in the hope that he would deliver some change. But those hopes have come crashing up against the reality of the last nine years.
They look on aghast at a world where the husband of a government minister can trouser huge sums of money – slipped his way by Silvio Berlusconi.
They read of peerages being dished out to millionaire New Labour donors and wonder why all of this is acceptable on planet New Labour.
A recent Rowntree Trust inquiry reported that 56 percent of people believe they have no say over government. The numbers turning out to vote at elections are falling.
But the same report blames this, not on apathy, but on disillusion with the three main parties. They contrasts this disillusion to the vibrant popular engagement with the Stop the War Coalition and last year’s Make Poverty History events.
Added to this is the steady decline in Labour membership, which has slipped under 200,000. Last month the Scottish Labour Party conference heard that the party north of the border has lost a fifth of its membership in four years.
Labour councillors were once known in the areas they represented. As a mass membership party, Labour was rooted in communities, trade unions and tenants organisations.
That hasn’t all vanished.There are still many people who cling to the wreckage, hoping that the Blair nightmare will pass, persuading themselves against all rational evidence that a Gordon Brown premiership will somehow be different.
Nevertheless, the intricate links between the Labour Party, local campaigners and trade union activists are now at their weakest for decades.
One event dominates Blair’s time in office – the war in Iraq. More people now oppose the war than at any time previously.
And those who marched and campaigned against war are becoming more radicalised, as they identify the “war on terror” as the military wing of a global neo-liberal offensive.
This radicalisation forms the backdrop to the growing number of votes against selling off council homes, to the local demonstrations against health cuts that are taking place across the country, and to the anger over education “reform”.
But this radicalisation comes into conflict with a cross-party consensus and finds little voice in the parliamentary arena.
This week the anti-war movement is protesting to ensure that neither Blair nor Brown will escape their responsibility for Iraq. But we also need to punish Blair in the May local elections by providing traditional Labour voters with a political home that chimes with their beliefs.
Respect can be their voice, as well as that of new voters who have no other political home. But all of that is connected to stoking a growing rebellion against the neo-liberal madness which piles misery upon misery for millions.
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