Blair out! How and by whom?

Submitted by Anon on 9 January, 2004 - 5:09

This month the Hutton Report on the Government's dossier for going to war in Iraq will be published. This month or next, Parliament will vote on the Government's plans to have students charged extra "top-up" fees for selected courses, or for posher universities.
The Hutton Report will add fuel to the fire of anger at the Iraq war still burning under Blair's feet. The top-up fees vote could turn overheating into large and open flames around central pillars of the New Labour edifice.

Many of the Labour MPs who oppose top-up fees are weak and may buckle under Government pressure. But a defeat for the Government is likely enough for Education Minister Charles Clarke to discuss it openly and say that he does not think the Government should resign if it happens.

Blair is pushing ahead with the unpopular proposal for top-up fees because his government is mired in chaos in Iraq, on the railways, in Northern Ireland, and elsewhere, and he wants to regain the momentum of what he calls "reform".

"Reform", for Blair, always means market forces. Regulated, managed, spin-doctored market forces, but market forces. University education has to be extended to greater numbers, says Blair, and in today's world market there is no way to do that other than the US model: for the majority, cheap campuses, where they will be trained for routine white-collar and technical jobs; for a minority, campuses able to compete internationally with Harvard or Yale, qualifying their graduates for elite jobs from which they can pay back the entrance fees.

This thinking has the support of the wealthy classes and their ideas-people, including the liberal press, the Guardian and the Independent. (The Tories' decision to vote against top-up fees is entirely opportunist and tactical).

The Blairites think they represent the "modern" approach, attuned to global markets and the "knowledge economy", against oldies clinging on to students having equality of opportunity irrespective of parents' income, and education being a right, not an "investment".

As the old Labour right-winger Roy Hattersley put it in the Guardian (5 January), Blair's "essential requirement [is] the repudiation of social democracy… The Labour Party must prove it is no longer Labour… Top-up fees introduce the market principle into the allocation of university places… Blair knows it. Indeed, to him that is one of their attractions".

Free education for all is entirely affordable given the productive powers of modern technology. So are free, prompt, good-quality health care for all; and accessible, available, cheap social housing for all, and public transport. It's a choice - whether to pursue those priorities, or the global-market priorities which mean that inequality between rich and poor has increased under this New Labour government beyond even what it was under the Tories.

It is not a question of "modern" or "old". It's a question of class. The wealthy classes, in all their factions, are attuned to the market priorities of global capitalism. The working class, whether Tony Blair likes it or not, is still here, and still "Labour".

After 25 years of Thatcher-Blairism - almost 20 years since the Labour Party started its internal counter-revolution which led to Blairism - a whole generation has grown up in Britain which knows no reference-point in mass, high-profile politics outside the pro-market consensus.

The years have had some effect. According to the latest Social Attitudes survey, published on 9 December, people aged 18 to 34 are now 9% less likely to support higher taxes and increased social spending than over-55s, whereas 20 years ago there were 5% more likely. Fewer than a third of 18-34-year-olds support higher taxes to improve benefits and pensions, while 60% of over-55s do. As researcher John Curtice puts it, "Tony Blair seems to have been more successful at persuading voters to accept Mrs Thatcher's policies than she was herself".

But the ideas of social solidarity remain remarkably resilient. According to the same Social Attitudes survey, the total percentage saying that the Government should raise taxes to improve public services has risen to 63%, almost its highest level in twenty years of such surveys. Only 32% agreed in 1983. The survey does not offer people the option of saying that taxes should be raised on the rich rather than generally.

Eighty-two per cent said that the gap between rich and poor is "too large". 83%, according to a survey by the public services union Unison in 2002, oppose further privatisation of public services.

Even if some young people today are more market-minded, many are openly and militantly anti-capitalist.

Since the working class is the majority, and the bedrock of Labour's voting support, how has Blair got away with it? And can he be stopped?

He has got away with it because effectiveness in politics depends on organisation. Blair represents a highly-organised "party within a party" of thousands of spin-doctors, advisers, assistants, and researchers, sitting on top of the Labour Party, and financed from public funds or big business. Since Blair took the leadership in 1994, they have systematically hijacked the old Labour Party.

The organised strongpoints for countering Blair were, or should have been, the trade unions. In the 1990s they were demoralised.

Now the unions are reviving. The latest examples are the left winning 23 of 48 seats on the Executive of Amicus, the merged AEEU-MSF union which was previously a bastion of the right, and the left challenger winning the vote for National Officer of the Fire Brigades Union.

Last year union leaders like Tony Woodley of the TGWU and Billy Hayes of the CWU started talking about launching a Labour Representation Committee, as a vehicle for reasserting a political voice of the organised working class within the Labour Party. They have gone quiet.

But if even the wretched Westminster MPs, very few of whom have any roots in the working class, can defy Blair on top-up fees, then it is high time for the unions to move.

Not just to replace Tony Blair by Gordon Brown, as some union leaders suggest. Gordon Brown seems to have licensed Nick Brown, a long-time friend and close ally of his, to become the senior organiser of the MPs' revolt on top-up fees.

But on fundamentals, Brown is just Blair with a scowl. He has the same class allegiance. In a speech on 28 November he said:

"Our party's modernisation will not be complete until it has become the party of the self-employed, managers and employers and business as well as employees".

Other unions should follow the example of the rail union RMT, by restricting their support to those Labour MPs and candidates who will uphold union policies and basic working-class interests, people like Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. They should choose a candidate for Labour leadership from among those people.

If the MPs are beginning to speak up, the rank and file must not allow the unions to remain silent.

Slogans and sense

"Blair out" is not a good all-purpose slogan for placards. What does it mean?

Replace the New Labour government? As a do-it-now slogan? Which means, given that no-one can build a left-wing alternative strong enough to win government power within the next couple of years, replace Blair by Michael Howard? No.

Replace Blair as Labour leader? That makes sense if we're talking about mobilising unions to propose an alternative leader who will stand by union policies and working-class interests - not a palace coup where Blair would be replaced by Gordon Brown. It does not exclude socialists also running independent socialist candidates in elections.

That version of "Blair out" does, however, exclude blanket opposition to involvement in Labour structures.

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