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Heresy in the house of Blair

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Issue 1763

Heresy in the house of Blair

“NEW LABOUR refuses to tax wealth effectively. It rarely even expresses concerns about the new rich. Every day we see the actual conduct of politics giving the lie to our progressive aspirations.”

Who wrote this last weekend?

Some supporter of Socialist Worker? Liz Davies, the former Labour national executive member who now supports the Socialist Alliance? Roy Hattersley, who sounds off every week about how New Labour has betrayed Old Labour?

In fact the writer was one of the luminaries of New Labour, Matthew Taylor. Two years ago he was made head of its think tank, the Institute of Public Policy Research, on the personal recommendation of Tony Blair.

During Blair’s first term it became habitual to speak of a split between “Old Labour” and “New Labour”.

Hattersley in particular made much of the contrast.

There was certainly a huge gap between what hundreds of thousands of longtime Labour activists wanted and the direction Blair was going in. But to talk in crude terms of a split between the “Old” and the “New” was overly simplistic.

First, it conveniently forgot that Old Labour’s record in office was not so different to Blair’s. It was Old Labour’s Clem Attlee who secretly agreed to US bases in Britain and a nuclear weapons programme.

It was Old Labour’s Harold Wilson who backed the US in Vietnam and tried to push through anti-union laws.

It was Old Labour’s James Callaghan who introduced monetarism into Britain and imposed 8 billion (equivalent to over 30 billion today) of IMF cuts. And it was Hattersley himself who called for “exemplary sentences” for those arrested during the Trafalgar Square poll tax protest in London.

They may sometimes (although the evidence suggests not all that often) have been less keen on such measures than the Third Way clones around Blair and Brown. But they took them because they were committed to trying to make British capitalism work, and that meant keeping British and foreign capitalists happy.

It is precisely this logic which has led people like Robin Cook and David Blunkett, who used to be standard bearers of the Labour left, to embrace Blairism so easily.

There was a second reason that talk of the split was simplistic. It often implied that all those who enthused for Labour for the first time in 1997 were a quite different breed of people from those who supported it in the past.

I remember the paper of the Socialist Labour Party telling us that Labour’s victory was down to the votes of millions of unreconstructed Tories. Socialist Worker pointed out that millions of people were moving to the left in anger at the effects of Tory policies.

Voting for Blair was a first stopping place that could be followed by further moves to the left-but only if socialists knew how to relate to such people. A few millionaires like Alan Sugar and Lord Sainsbury may have turned to New Labour out of opportunist business calculations.

But this was not what motivated millions of first time Labour voters or more than 100,000 recruits to the Labour Party.

These people accepted what Blair said because they believed he would make things better for people like themselves.

So during the last parliament disillusion was as strong among those who joined Labour in 1997 as among longtime members. By this year’s election 180,000 people altogether had abandoned their party membership.

Now some of those close to the higher ranks of the party are wondering what is happening. A large number of MPs have no ministerial career prospects and fear they are condemned to a tedious four years as voting fodder.

Question time in the House of Commons has, for the first time in living memory, seen large numbers of Labour MPs ask hostile questions of Labour ministers. More than 200 MPs have signed a motion in opposition to the Blair-Straw line over Star Wars.

This is despite the fact that the old left Campaign Group is weaker than ever. None of this means that the government is going to suddenly turn leftwards. The pressures of running capitalism at a time of global crisis will drive it further to the right, as happened with all its Old Labour predecessors.

But it does mean that the splits between the government and its supporters, new as well as old, will grow deeper.

The protests against government policy will grow bigger. And the ideological arguments about the sort of alternatives there should be to New Labour will grow more intense.

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