Issue 216 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1998 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature article: War on welfare

Praying he can get away with it

Lindsey German

It seems hard to believe that only nine short months ago the sense of euphoria at a Blair victory was at its height. During that time many of those who thought that things could only get better after 1 May have become disillusioned with Blair and everything he stands for. It appears incredible now that many of these same people believed only a year ago that Blair's pro-business statements and his courtship of the Murdoch press were ploys to get elected - once in power, his real and much more radical agenda would be revealed.

Since May this agenda has been increasingly on display. And the only radical aspect of it is how far a Labour prime minister has been prepared to go in adopting the policies of his hated predecessors. He has done so not with a heavy heart, nor with the excuse of previous Labour administrations that economic circumstances forced him into such retreats from traditional Labour policy. Instead he and his immediate cohorts have fully embraced the free market of Thatcherism.

Businessmen have become the high priests of the Blair era. They are the most dynamic and inventive, the people who have to be most protected from any restriction or inconvenience and the people who alone can be trusted to sort out every aspect of our lives, from opera to education. Their interests have to be safeguarded from the threat of high taxes, or encroachment into their profits through higher wages.

The question many Labour supporters are asking is simply, why? Why should those who were so magnificently rewarded under Thatcher and Major find themselves even further feted and enriched under Labour? Why should the people at the very bottom of society be penalised by a government which was elected overwhelmingly on the votes of working class people?

Yet this is precisely what is happening under New Labour. It has in turn led to a sense of crisis and disorientation around the Labour Party unprecedented in modern times. Not since the crisis of 1931, when then Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald split from his party to form a government with the Tories, has there been such a contrast between what the leader and his coterie are arguing and what the mass of Labour members feel.

Blair began to make himself unpopular with various constituencies in and around Labour very soon after the election. Teachers who voted overwhelmingly for Labour and who had come to expect an end to the attacks on them, and on state education generally, with a Labour victory found that the hated chief of Ofsted, Chris Woodhead, was supported by Blair as much as he had been by the Tories. Workers at British Airways found that their union busting boss, Bob Ayling, was an admirer of Blair and close friend of Jack Straw. The plan to introduce tuition fees for students led to anger from many Labour supporters, but at least some accepted the fallacious argument that this was an attack mainly on the middle classes. Worse was to come when it was revealed that a Labour government would allow tobacco sponsorship of Formula One racing and that its boss, Bernie Ecclestone, had donated 1 million to Labour.

But the key turning point in Blair's fortunes with his erstwhile supporters was the disgrace over benefits. The attempt to force all the Labour MPs through the lobbies to vote for a cut in single parent benefit which will leave some of the already poorest families up to 10 a week worse off, led to a rebellion where 47 MPs voted against the government and around another 60 abstained.

Despite claims by some of the Labour rebels that the outcry over single parents' benefit cuts would prevent further attacks on the benefits of, say, the disabled, Blair's government has instead responded by launching an ideological assault on the whole welfare state. Since Xmas we have been told repeatedly that welfare is too costly, that welfare spending is greater than the combined total spent on health and education (as though these were not part of welfare in a civilised society), and that everyone has to make further payments to ensure a decent living standard in sickness or old age.

The panacea according to Blair is for everyone to get into paid work rather than living on benefits - a prescription which is simply impossible for many of the sick, old or disabled, and in any case rests on the assumption that work takes you out of poverty. It does not. Of those officially deemed to be in poverty (having an income below half the average wage) a total of 4.5 million are either in employment or self employed. The very limited success of 'Welfare to Work' in US states such as Wisconsin has so far rested on an expansion of low wage jobs because of the economic boom there. All predictions suggest that within two years there will be a serious shortfall of jobs compared to those forced off welfare and looking for work.

In Britain the vast majority of people are still committed to the basic principle that everyone who can pay should pay towards healthcare, education, various benefits and pensions, to care for those who become incapable of working for whatever reason. If there was one single reason why Blair won the election last year it was to preserve this principle. Blair's current attacks on it - couched in the language of the zealot which even Margaret Thatcher would have hesitated to employ - have created a huge ideological and political crisis inside Labour.

Blair's solution to the criticism of his policies is to launch a roadshow which proclaims, 'Trust me', and which he sees as having the same success as the campaign to abolish Clause Four which he led three years ago. He seems incapable of understanding that there is a difference between the two issues - Clause Four was seen even by many on the left as more symbolic than real, something which most Labour members were prepared to abandon if this was the price of winning an election. The welfare state is not only more fundamental to most Labour supporters, coming as it does from the high point of Labour's parliamentary success, the 1945-51 government. It is also much more fundamental to people's lives. The commitment to welfare is not some sentimental quirk held by millions of people but stems from the feeling that to lose the welfare state is to lose the bulwark against real poverty and misery for most of us.

The clash between this perception and Blair's intentions have led to a series of ruptures inside Labour. For the first time in many years, the possibility of breaking from Labour and building a left alternative has been raised. The statement of two left wing MEPs, Ken Coates and Hugh Kerr, that they were thinking of leaving Labour and standing as independent left candidates in the coming European elections provoked the leadership to exclusions and expulsions but also tapped a groundswell of support from ordinary Labour members. Many backed the sentiments behind Coates' and Kerr's stand. In response to a questionnaire that Ken Coates sent to Labour members in North Nottingham and Chesterfield, over half thought that standing a protest candidate 'might do some good'. The questionnaire also showed that 41 percent of those who replied are considering leaving the party or had already resigned over the direction of government policy.

There is all sorts of anecdotal evidence that this is only a tiny expression of the turbulence which exists inside Labour - journalists report ministers whose Xmas parties were half empty as a protest by party activists against benefit cuts; the MP for Hastings reported that his (right wing) constituency party refused to accept a bottle of wine signed by Blair for a raffle, again as a protest at the attacks on single parents; and Labour's activists are voting with their feet and refusing to work for the party in many areas.

Even the row between Blair and his chancellor Gordon Brown can be seen in a distorted way as reflecting these divisions. Blair has been taken aback by the strength of feeling over welfare and one of his responses has been to blame many of the worst proposals on the Treasury and Brown. The chancellor - who in all the essentials backs Blair and who has been behind cuts - has at the same time begun to scent Blair's growing unpopularity and so has moved to position himself more to the left. His biography by Paul Routledge, for example, goes into some detail about his rather more left wing youth, when he wrote The Red Paper on Scotland, which contained a favourable portrayal of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci.

So Blair's ideological onslaught is being met with increasing dissent. As William Keegan wrote in the Observer recently, 'Blair is singlehandedly rebuilding the left.' This is manifestly the case. When the pronouncements of a Labour prime minister sound closer to those of Thatcher than the traditional left wing think tanks, those who have stood up and been identified as being on the left can suddenly find themselves the focus of protests from many Labour supporters - including many who considered themselves Blairites only months ago.

Yet the attitude of many of Labour's left is that the most that can be achieved is to push Blair and his ministers away from their more extreme solutions. Indeed a whole number are ambivalent about Blair, accepting many of his arguments and wrongly conceding that it was Blair who won the election. Those on the left like Ken Livingstone who are becoming symbols of opposition are adamant that there is no future outside Labour. Alex Falconer MEP, in Socialist Campaign Group News, attacked the idea of Coates and Kerr that Labour was no longer a party for socialists. Calling their decision to leave a 'sad and unwise move' he argued instead that now was the time to stay in and change things.

This is exactly the argument put in the 1980s when Tony Benn and his supporters pulled socialists into the Labour Party. There is no alternative and no life outside, they said. Yet in fact being inside Labour meant prioritising electoral success which in turn meant deprioritising left politics. Exactly the same argument will be put in the future. There is a grim logic in trying to change Labour from inside - it means keeping quiet about certain arguments, having to compromise over issues, settling for much less than is wanted or needed because this is the best we can get from a Labour government.

The defeats which the left suffered inside the Labour Party throughout the 1980s and the weakness of the Labour left now are largely a product of accepting these sorts of arguments.

We only have to look at Blair to see the logic of allowing the right to make the running. No one ten or even five years ago would have predicted how far this process would go. Yet even now, the majority feeling inside Labour is against what Blair is trying to do. Indeed that feeling is growing. It can either be channelled into occasional parliamentary rebellions backed up by demonstrations and pickets now and again, or it can be used to build a powerful alternative, not just to Blair but to the businessmen, the top civil servants and all those who benefit at present from the attacks on us. That means building an alternative based not on trying to change society through parliament but harnessing the power of working people who voted for change last May and who are increasingly finding that this was not enough. Only our own actions based on collective organisation can bring the change that we need.


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