Issue 209 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1997 Copyright © Socialist Review

Feature article: A share of Blair

Peter Morgan,

The reverberations of Labour's landslide victory have gone well beyond this country. 'Europe's left wing parties feel overtaken by the phenomenon of New Labour', says the Italian paper La Stampa. 'Labour's victory is good news for Denmark', says Politiken, the Danish daily paper. In France, Le Monde had a cartoon with the two contenders for prime minister in the elections, as well as the conservative president Jacques Chirac, all proclaiming 'I'm Tony Blair'. The German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel had a triumphant Blair waving a union jack from the top of Big Ben towards the German equivalent of Labour, the SPD, with the headline, 'Model for the change of power?'

Everybody, it seems, wants a piece of the action. Politicians from both the left and right have rushed to embrace Blair and New Labour. So Helmut Kohl, the German chancellor who is seeking a fifth term in office next year said in a clear reference to Major and the Tories' '[British] voters did not like the anti-European rhetoric of the past and this should be a lesson for all those who want to win votes with anti-European polemics'. Kohl's political opponents, the SPD, who, like Labour, have spent many years in opposition, had a billboard outside their headquarters in Bonn saying, 'In 73 weeks we'll do exactly the same. Congratulations Mr Blair.'

The SPD is Europe's largest and oldest social democratic party. It has to elect a new leader in April next year to fight the election in October and the debate raging in the SPD has a familiar ring. Oskar Lafontaine, president of the party, comes from the left. When British electors were voting on 1 May he was speaking along with trade union leaders at a workers' May Day rally in Leipzig. His rival, Gerhard Schröder, is more Blairite ­ his May Day was spent in America alongside top businessmen such as Bill Gates of Microsoft and executives from Boeing.

Schröder has enthusiastically embraced the Blair agenda of trying to distance the SPD from the trade unions to woo the so called middle ground. 'The SPD wants to win', he said, 'that is why it will realise we have to change. Otherwise there is too great a danger that we will be written off as old fashioned.' But among the 800,000 members of the SPD there is currently more support for Lafontaine, who has recently endorsed a shorter 32 hour working week.

Germany is currently leading the rush to European integration, but this is being done at a cost to workers. The need to meet the Maastricht criteria has seen some bosses arguing for either a cut in welfare, or a rise in VAT, both of which hit the poor harder. With growing discontent against the government and a workers' movement that has begun to stir again whoever eventually leads the SPD may well be swept to power on a tide of anti-government feeling similar to that which saw Labour win so convincingly in Britain.

In France the Socialist Party leader, Lionel Jospin, claimed that Labour's victory demonstrated a need for a change in government ­ and it seems some of the electorate agreed. In one poll after the British election, asked whether Labour's victory had affected their voting intentions in the French election, 34 percent said it had made them more likely to vote for the left.

The centre left Olive Tree coalition in Italy delighted in Labour's victory. Walter Veltroni, deputy prime minister and member of the PDS, the renamed Italian Communist Party, talks of the virtues of Blairism, what he sees as market economics with a human face. But as La Stampa, the Italian daily paper, said in its editorial after Labour's victory: 'There is almost too much zeal in the way Walter Veltroni has announced the death of international socialism. If, according to Mr Veltroni, everything is explained by "accepting the new globalised economy" or "taking on a liberal, catholic, centrist culture", then the battle of ideas between two opposing formations has no meaning anymore. One political idea predominates, implemented by leaders with one objective: to serve world capitalism.'

Many of Europe's political leaders have drawn the lesson that Blair won because he shifted Labour to the right. However, they all fail to recognise that Labour won precisely because the electorate rejected everything that Thatcherism stood for. And it was the decisive shift to the left in British society, in particular since 1992, which helped Labour sweep to power.

Blair's victory has also been enthusiastically embraced by Europe's leaders because they believe a large Labour majority will help Britain's bosses in the shift towards monetary union. As the Financial Times reported: 'In Brussels, European Commission officials said they were thrilled by the margin of Labour's victory, which offered the prospect of five years of stable government.' It was the desire for political stability that was part of the motive for Chirac calling a general election in France a year earlier than he needed to facilitate attacks on workers' living standards if monetary union is to go ahead.

But the other side of Labour's victory which has not been given much of an airing in the press is the confidence it will give other groups of workers. For years people were told that British workers were inherently conservative and that they accepted the 'Thatcher revolution'. The size of Labour's win gives the lie to all this. Today European workers face similar problems to their counterparts in Britain ­ cuts in welfare and social spending. The traditional mainstream social democratic and workers' parties have accepted much of the right's agenda. The election in Britain represents a shift to the left. Already in Europe there are signs that workers may not wait till the ballot box, but could well take their anger onto the streets.


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