‘REFORM’ USED to mean things would improve for the better. Under Tony Blair ‘reform’ means things will get worse. New Labour fears its plan for the reform of the NHS through foundation hospitals could produce another rebellion inside its own ranks next week in parliament. That prospect saw the government attempt to soften up MPs this week. It scuppered its own bill over foxhunting. This has paved the way for a vote on an outright ban on hunting.
It wants to use the goodwill built up by this to try and push through its plan for foundation hospitals. This will mean two-tier healthcare provision – with ‘super hospitals’ for some, and what’s left over for the rest of us. Changes in people’s working lives have meant British workers have the longest average working week out of all the European Union countries. We also have the least amount of paid holidays – just 23 days compared to 31 days for workers in Germany and Spain.
‘Reform’ of the pensions system has meant workers face losing the chance to get a decent final salary pension in their retirement. We are living longer. But we face working ourselves to exhaustion to get to retirement and then a life of poverty. This is not just happening in Britain.
Workers in France have faced a government determined to force through attacks on their pensions. In Germany the government wants to ram through an attack on the working week and cuts in benefits. These are Thatcherite neo-liberal policies being championed by Tory and Labour-style governments.
The scale of these attacks demand that union leaders match the anger of millions of workers and lead a fight.
MILLIONS OF ordinary people are crying out for an alternative to Blair. The debate over what that alternative should be has sparked some of the most passionate speeches at recent union conferences. Bill Morris, the outgoing leader of the TGWU union, has repeatedly attacked Blair’s policies.
But alongside other union leaders who criticise Blair, he argues to fight to reclaim the Labour Party. They say there is a ‘real’ Labour that can deliver for working people that Blair has usurped.
The 100 years since the Labour Party was created have seen increasing frustration and anger among those who put their faith in the party. The eight Labour governments have not brought us closer to ending war, racism, poverty or inequality. From Ramsay MacDonald through to Jim Callaghan, they have all disappointed their supporters.
Even the 1945 Labour government, which came to power as radicalisation swept Europe, undermined the health service that it had set up. Labour governments faced with recessions have always turned on workers to make them pay for the economic crisis.
So Labour governments have been characterised by the attacks they have launched on working people, not by any changes for the better. There have always been people inside the Labour Party who have spoken out against these attacks. As early as the 1920s critics on the party’s left condemned the ‘decline and fall’ of Labour.
Some of those have been expelled for daring to criticise. Others have remained inside, trying to find opportunities to raise dissent but all too often finding they are lone voices.
Some of these have stuck heroically to their principles. But they have not changed the Labour Party. At different times in Labour’s history the party’s left wing critics have been told they open the door to letting the Tories back in. The truth is that despair at Labour governments and their attacks, and the lack of a fightback, has been the atmosphere that the Tories have historically been able to feed off.
The challenge is to build an alternative to the left of Labour that can be a pole of attraction for those angry at Labour, and can encourage struggles and debate about a vision for a different society.