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Monolith cracking

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Issue 1697


Monolith cracking

By Alex Callinicos

THE ELECTIONS a fortnight ago marked a watershed in the life of Tony Blair’s government. The bloom has faded from New Labour. It faces a tough fight in the general election that will almost certainly take place sometime next year. Despite Blair’s boasts of having broken the mould of British politics, his plight fits into a familiar pattern. Both the last two Labour governments found themselves in a similar situation towards the end of their terms of office.

Harold Wilson’s government in the late 1960s and James Callaghan’s in the late 1970s disappointed what we now call Labour’s “core” working class voters and so suffered a series of devastating defeats in local elections and parliamentary by-elections.

At the same time the Tory right sought to seize the initiative by pushing a racist, populist message. In March 1968 Enoch Powell made his notorious “rivers of blood” speech. Powell was sacked from the opposition shadow cabinet for this naked bid for the racist vote.

In January 1978 it was the Tory leader herself, Margaret Thatcher, who made a somewhat more subtle but unmistakable appeal to the same sentiments, saying, “People are really afraid that this country might be swamped by people with a different culture.”

Today, with William Hague mounting an even more blatant campaign against asylum seekers, it looks like history is repeating itself. Does this mean we can expect to see an even more right wing Tory government emerging victorious from the next general election?

I doubt it. The Tories were more successful than Labour in mobilising their core voters a fortnight ago, but lost one of their safest seats at Romsey on a much higher poll. The memory of the hated Tory years is still very much alive. Alan Watkins argued in the Independent on Sunday that the election results indicate that “people were voting not only against the government but against party politics.”

Undoubtedly the British political system is suffering a crisis of representation. Even on 1 May 1997 the turnout was low in inner-city Labour seats. Working class people look at all the main parties and see none which show any real understanding of their problems and aspirations. But what is happening isn’t simply a popular withdrawal from official politics.

In the most intelligent mainstream analysis of Ken Livingstone’s victory in London, the Financial Times pointed out, “One of the contributing factors is a revival of the old left. “Mr Livingstone, arguably more populist-anarchist than socialist, has not changed greatly from when he typified the ‘loony left’ era as leader of the Greater London Council in the 1980s. His campaign drew backing from the London Socialist Alliance, a coalition including the Socialist Workers Party and the Communist Party of Great Britain.”

The Financial Times went on to note “other straws in the wind”, including Tommy Sheridan’s impact as a socialist Member of the Scottish Parliament and the debacle New Labour has suffered in Wales. There are precedents also for this kind of left wing resurgence. Above all, the crisis of the Wilson government in the late 1960s saw the radicalisation-particularly as a result of the Vietnam War-of a generation of young people not just in Britain but throughout the Western world.

But there is an important difference this time. The far left organisations that emerged from this radicalisation-in Britain, chiefly the Socialist Workers Party-were relatively isolated from the great working class struggles of the day. The Labour government of 1974-9 was able to use the continued hold of Labourism on shopfloor militants to rein in these struggles. In doing so it laid the basis for Thatcher’s assault on the workers’ movement in the 1980s.

This time, however, New Labour’s influence on workers is far weaker. The Rover demonstration in Birmingham on 1 April mobilised something like 80,000 manual industrial workers and their families, mainly from the West Midlands. The other big working class mobilisations of the past generation-the “Kill the Bill” demonstration in 1971, the unemployment marches in 1980, the protests over pit closures in 1992-took place under Tory governments.

This time workers were marching under, and against, a Labour administration. This situation means workers are much more open to socialist arguments to the left of Labour. The Rover demonstration was swamped with Socialist Worker placards. The brilliant results that the London Socialist Alliance achieved, particularly in the North East and Lambeth & Southwark constituencies, are part of the same pattern. This gives socialists an unprecedented opportunity. Three years of New Labour rule have accelerated the decay of the Labourist monolith.

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