Issue 195 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1996 Copyright © Socialist Review
In a very revealing paragraph in the debate with John Rees (February SR) Mark Seddon raises two important related points. Seddon explains he (and other socialists in the Labour Party) are confident. He argues that there is not all that much to 'New' Labour and that when it runs into crisis it will either run to the right or to the left. He proposes that 'if it comes to the left' then 'it has to 'spend more on public services, tax the rich and carry out a programme of renationalisation.
Why is it a 'left' Labour government has to tax the rich? Surely the history of 'left' Labour in government illustrates the point to the contrary. For instance, the Labour government of 1974-79 aimed to 'bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people'. It instead gave working people wage controls followed by public spending cuts. Why? Not out of choice but because the society in which we live is controlled by an unelected class that will do all it deems necessary to defend its position of power.
As for the former point, 'if it goes to the left', this suggests that we are able to sit back and await the outcome of unfolding events. Actually we have a duty and a role to play in each and every struggle, no matter how big or small. A victory for our class will build confidence and help the shift to the left. A defeat can only feed demoralisation.
The key to working class advance can only lie with the strength and activity of the working class itself. That necessitates an organisation quite different to the Labour Party 'Old' and 'New' (and to Scargill's SLP). An organisation rooted in the workplace, unions and each locality, engaged in all manner of grassroots activity. Not an organisation that says 'vote for us and we will solve your problems', but one that says 'we can only solve our problems if we fight for our own interests and those of other working people'--this is what the SWP is about.
Has the time come for the SWP to re-examine its attitude towards the Labour Party? Our analysis has been based on the fact that Labour was a reformist party and, because it was brought into existence by the trade union leaders, that it had some link with the working class movement.
Tony Blair has set about turning Labour into a British version of the American Democrats. He still has a long way to go. But the question remains--how far has Blair succeeded in fundamentally altering the Labour Party?
A number of important changes have to be recognised.
The intellectual climate of the Labour Party has moved far to the right. You only have to compare Blair's ideas of a stakeholders' society with Denis Healey's statement in 1974 that 'we will squeeze the rich until the pips squeak'. Of course there have always been right wing ideas within the Labour Party. However, what is striking is how much the ideas of Blair and Brown dominate. Where is the left's alternative economic strategy? Where is the commitment from Labour to bring back into public ownership even the most unpopular of the Tories' privatisation measures?
The power of the labour Party leadership has traditionally rested with the trade union leaders. Now what you notice is the distance between them. The role of the trade union bureaucracy in Labour affairs has never been more marginal. Many are prepared to go along with this to ensure the election of a Labour government. But Scargill's abandonment of Labour is a reflection of the trade union leaders' lack of real influence.
To some, the furore created over the decision of Harriet Harman to send her son to a selective school is evidence of how little has changed. What was more significant was how easily Blair asserted his authority. Around the same time Tony Blair made a speech signalling the need to forge long term alliances (with the Liberal Democrats). This took place without a murmur of dissent.
There are those on the Labour left who believe that the Blair leadership's move to the right is only a temporary aberration, that once a Labour government is elected the left will rise up and the Labour Party will challenge capital. This is a dangerous illusion. When workers are forced to fight under a Labour government we cannot expect help from the Labour Party. In fact quite the opposite! I also believe that we do no favours to those genuine socialists who remain inside the Labour Party by pretending that nothing has fundamentally changed.
None of this means, however, that we should abandon the call for a vote for Labour at the next election. We have to stand with all those who hate the Tories and who have suffered under them. Nevertheless the time is fast approaching when the question of the Labour Party has to be faced.
Clause Four abandoned, trade union leaders marginalised, a stakeholders' society, one person one vote, reformists who take away reforms--when do quantitative changes become qualitative? When does the Labour Party in actual fact become the new SDP or the British Democratic Party?
Judith Orr's 'Food for Thought' (February SR) got me thinking about some of the rubbish and lies we are fed. Not long ago Roy Hattersley was spouting about Labour's role in society. He said Labour should be seen to be caring for the 10 percent of the population who live in poverty. Now I don't know how they define poverty but my OAP parents needed a social security top-up to bring their pension up to £88 a week. There are 9 million pensioners in this country, of whom only 3 million have private pension provision. This leaves 6 million on the poverty line or very close to it: roughly 10 percent of the population.
Of the young people I know, very few have jobs and those that do seem to be paid between £3 and £4 an hour, while 30 percent of men between 55 and 65 years old are unemployed.
Wages in Britain are apparently amongst the lowest in the EC and yet we are told that the average annual wage in this country is £17,500. Labour politicians want people to think that they are there to represent the middle classes. In their eyes the middle classes are everybody above Roy's notional 10 percent and below the 7 percent who own 84 percent of the wealth. in other words, they expect us to believe that they represent 83 percent of the population! New Labour are trying to write the working class off.
On 8 February Peter Lilley announced 25 percent welfare spending cuts, part of which will come from 'self assessment', the rest through sackings. Well, just before she died in the new year my mum decided she would apply for a Disability Living Allowance. Various friends of hers tried and failed but she thought that the fact that she could hardly walk 15 feet without severe pain would mean she stood a chance.
The form arrived. There it was--a self assessment form. Now this is a wonder to behold! My mum was not left wing, I hasten to add, but even she was moved to ask how on earth anybody ever fiddles benefit when they have such incomprehensible forms.
This form includes multiple choice questions like, 'Roughly how many days a week do you need help: getting into or out of bed, using the toilet, eating or being fed?' And then it demands to know, 'Roughly how many minutes do you need help for each time?'
Perhaps Peter Lilley believes disabled, elderly or seriously ill people might only need to eat, go to the toilet or go to bed once or twice a week!
Just a footnote to Judith Orr's article on the arguments about screen violence and censorship (January SR). The class nature of screen censorship is brought out very clearly when the comparison is made with books. While videos that are alleged to inspire real violence are vilified, books which actually inspire violence receive no such attention.
While the media tried to connect the killers of Jamie Bulger to Child's Play 3, the required reading for budding serial killers goes largely unreported--the Bible's 'Book of Revelations'. This is a particular favourite with sex killers, so I'm told.
My own personal favourite, if that's the right word, was a court case from a couple of years ago where two public schoolboys killed a man at random in what they somehow believed was an SAS initiation ritual. Their inspiration? Bravo Two Zero, the best selling story of the SAS in the Gulf War. Far from being media speculation, as it was in the Bulger case, this was actually introduced into the trial as some bizarre form of mitigation. Not a peep out of the Daily Mail about banning this 'evil book'. Still, with Bravo Two Zero now about to pop up on our small screens, maybe there's still time for a campaign!
Chris Harman (February SR) acknowledges the 'grain of truth' within theories of globalisation but is rightly suspicious of an ideology that has germinated this grain to produce a crop of arguments about why market forces cannot be resisted.
It is argued that because these forces operate across national boundaries they have become uncontrollable. But in reality they are aided and abetted by states. Across the world, states have promoted privatisation at knockdown prices. States conclude aid deals which usually have an element benefiting the richer countries' producers. A recent Radio 4 enquiry showed how taxation is used to support, via export credit guarantees, British arms exports.
At the same time, Britain's oil tax regime is the most lax in the world. It can hardly be argued that oil companies would leave the oil rich North Sea if taxes were increased, despite what supporters of global markets suggest.
Nevertheless, the grain of truth is important. Indeed, the grain may be bigger than Chris Harman suggests. It is true that the majority of capitals are tied to their domestic states. But the relative importance of domestically based capitals is diminishing compared to that of the transnational companies which increasingly shape the global capitalist system. Their productive investments are relatively immobile in the short term, as Harman points out, but when reinvestment decisions come to be made they may move on. South Korean capital, closely tied to its state over decades, is today moving into the east Asian region in search of lower wages and higher profits.
These points do not invalidate Harman's basic argument. As reformists ape the Tories and throw up their hands in the face of global capital, the choice between reform and revolution has never been starker. It's not that no reforms are possible: the South Korean state has begun to develop a limited welfare system designed to improve productivity and ensure social peace. But these reforms, and the more entrenched welfare systems that exist in the richer countries, will always be fragile while they are subject to the interests of capital.
Ten years on from Wapping (February SR), what lessons have been learnt? The Liverpool dockers' strike stands comparison. There is the tremendous resilience of the strikers, who, after six months, overwhelmingly rejected an offer to sell their jobs. Despite poor media coverage, the dockers have gained solidarity locally and nationally.
Yet the same weaknesses as at Wapping emerge. The leadership of the dockers' union, the TGWU, has shown a similar commitment not to fight. Though an unofficial dispute, Bill Morris is the controller behind the scenes, offering handouts to the strike fund and the use of Transport House in return for a strategy that looks to solidarity action abroad and public opinion at home. The New Realism pervading Wapping gives way to New Labour; Morris and his like don't want to tarnish Blair's image with strikes that step outside the law to picket out TGWU lorry drivers, tugboatmen or black goods around Britain.
The left, those with Communist Party leanings and independent trade union militants, feel a legacy of the 1980s and have no confidence to appeal over the heads of the trade union leaders to the rank and file to mobilise them in support of the dockers. In that way, though they hate Blair, they end up tailing him because no independent strategy to win is fought for.
The dockers' tenacity remains. It is born of years of Tory arguments for belt tightening while the Tories' own stomachs got fatter and it is combined with a suspicion of Blair and his ditching of principles.
Socialist politics have been shown to deliver throughout the strike in much needed donations and workplace meetings. Solidarity is a common word these days. Wapping stands as an example of where that potential was wasted.
Did a gremlin in the Socialist Review computer system (controlled by Mossad?) deliberately weaken the slogan on the placard held by the Palestinian demonstrators in Ramallah on the West Bank (February SR)? It should have read: 'Palestinian leaders, don't jail your opponents', not 'don't fail your opponents'.
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