The most important political event in the labour movement since the General Election is the revolt of 61 Labour MPs on 10 December against the government decision to cut benefits for single parents and their children, followed by the open denunciation of the Blair leadership by Labour MEPs Ken Coates and Hugh Kerr. Given the neo-Stalinist structure and atmosphere in New Labour’s parliamentary party, this revolt is bigger, and has come earlier in the life of this government, than we had dared hope.
Around opposition to welfare cuts and the defence of the welfare state, a long overdue recomposition of the political labour movement can now begin. The Blair faction’s flaunting of their deeply Tory ethos and their smug middle-class disdain for the concerns and traditions of the labour movement will force the pace.
Not only Blair’s arrogance, but also the very core of his policy, is driving him to provoke further rebellions. The “reform” of welfare is, it seems, to be the chief concern of New Labour in its “first five years”. What the Tories did all too well, Blair intends to do better. Welfare? Let them sink or swim in the whirlpools of the capitalist market! Let them live off low-paid odd jobs! Let them buy their own pensions and insurance! Tony Blair will press for more cuts — in benefits for the disabled, and in Health Service budgets — as an ostentatious assertion of his government’s “pro-business” orientation. If welfare “reform” — that is, the slashing-back of what remains after 18 years of Tory destruction, in the name of sound finance and sound profits — is central to the “New Labour” strategy, the fight for social protection and social solidarity will be central to the working-class resistance.
When the Health Service and the welfare state were created in their modern form by a Labour government which had won an overwhelming victory at the polls in 1945, they were a tremendous extension of “the political economy of the working class” at the expense of the political economy of the ruling class. So overwhelming was the support for the reforms of the 1945 Labour government that even the Tory party, as it was then and for three decades after, was forced to accept them. But even the most impressive part-measures leave the commanding heights of the economy and the state power in the hands of the ruling class. Over time the ruling class recovers and fights back. For almost twenty years now they have been taking their revenge.
To turn the tide you need conviction. Only a bold proclamation of the principle that life comes before property can rally, organise and focus the existing mass resentment and disgust at the Tory and Blairite destruction of welfare. For 18 years the Labour leaders failed to fight the Tory assault. Why? Their reformist nerve had failed. Morally, they buckled and bowed down to the dog-eat-dog philosophy of the Tories. The years of submission shaped a new Labour leadership which now, in office, prosecutes that philosophy as its own.
The labour movement that created the Health Service had its roots in a powerful governing idea, expressed in the early years of the movement by people such as Henry Hyndman, James Connolly and Keir Hardie in the words, “A full, free, happy life, for all — or for none”. We must recall, proclaim and fight now for that principle.
Clearly or diffidently, confidently or timidly, outspokenly or despondently, one way or another, a vast majority of people oppose the Tory-Blairite philosophy. Blair can be stopped. A bold campaign for all-out acceptance of the principles of social solidarity, for full-scale restoration and extension of health care and welfare, could rally millions. It could bring those who, from anti-Toryism, have gone along with Kinnock, Smith and Blair, to a realisation that right now the main enemies of the labour movement are the Tories within its own institutions!
Things have got to this stage because of the failure to fight of the trade union leaders and of the old left of the Labour Party. The revolt of the 61 MPs could signal a new start here. We will see. They have not, any of them, tried to rouse a mass campaign against Blair. How, given the state of labour movement leadership, can we launch a crusade to save and to renovate the Health Service and the welfare system? Who can now proclaim, establish, and fight for a working-class philosophy against that of the Tories and their “New Labour” pupils and understudies? Who can organise the fight — with every means necessary, propaganda, demonstrations, direct action — to save and rebuild the welfare state?
In the past, powerful movements have been created by ad hoc committees. The most relevant model is the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Committee of 100 of the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was started by prominent writers like J B Priestley and Bertrand Russell, and left-wing politicians like Michael Foot. At a time when the foremost figure of the Labour left, Aneurin Bevan, had made his peace with nuclear armaments; when most of the trade union leaders were stonewall supporters of the right-wing, pro-nuclear, Labour leaders; and when what was then by far the biggest and most influential group of the non-Labour left, the Communist Party, was equivocal on the issue — at such a time, it tapped and mobilised the vast previously-headless support for the principles of human life as against those of great-power military competition and threatening nuclear annihilation. It became a great force, able to shape the affairs of the labour movement. It was the seedbed of the big revival of the socialist left which would develop in the later 1960s and early 1970s.
We can use that model now. Many local and partial campaigns are already active on health and welfare issues. The Welfare State Network has built up a track-record and a profile, over the last three years, as a force for coordination and mutual support. The job now is to assemble such groups in an effective ad hoc alliance, together with Labour MPs willing to take their defiance beyond votes in Parliament and with trade unionists ready to challenge the subservience and passivity of the top union leaders.
To thousands of workers and activists who hate what Blair is doing — but who feel trapped in a labour movement which is dominated by the right wing and often enfeebled and emptied-out at grass-roots level — such an alliance could offer immediate perspectives for effective action and mobilisation. And they, in turn, by taking the message and the initiatives of the campaign into the trade unions and Labour Parties, can help the grass roots revive and challenge the servile leaders. The basic welfare-state demands — like state-of-the-art health care freely accessible to all — point to a logic of solidarity and working-class self-assertion which can guide a far-reaching development of struggle against the rule of profit. They can unite, mobilise, and encapsulate a whole philosophy. They can provide a bridge over which to go from workers’ concerns today to the movement we need.
The time is now! That is the message the 61 MP “rebels”, and Ken Coates and Hugh Kerr, whether they understand it or not, have sent to the labour movement.