Issue 226 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
At a time of what seemed like unrelieved gloom, the political scene at Xmas was suddenly bathed in bright light. All of a sudden, without warning, a central pillar of New Labour turned into dust and blew away.
Peter Mandelson is New Labour in essence. His book, The Blair Revolution, which he wrote with one of the founders of the late unlamented SDP, Roger Liddle, argued that a New Labour government could provide social justice without interfering with the free flow of capitalism. The book is full of familiar cliches about the irrelevance of public ownership, the importance of reducing the influence of trade unions and the need to get to grips with outdated universal benefits. On page 127, the authors address 'one of the greatest sources of unfairness'-- 'the different prospects of couples setting off in life with a flying financial start from their parents and grandparents and those who have no such backing'. This unfairness inspires Mandelson and Liddle to one of the more radical proposals. Poor couples looking for housing should, they say, get a £5,000 sub from the government to help them with their mortgage. Where will the money come from? Why, from the inheritance taxes the Tories were threatening to abolish.
The authors are quick to reassure conservative critics that the mortgage bonus would only be available to people whose families could not afford it. It would not have been available, for instance, to Peter Mandelson, who was racked by house hunting problems at almost exactly the same time as he was writing his insipid little book. He was living in a perfectly presentable des res in Clerkenwell, with a pleasant three storey retreat in his constituency, Hartlepool. He was not satisfied, however. He was upwardly mobile. His bad years, when John Smith led the Labour Party, were over. John Smith, an old fashioned right wing social democrat, loathed Mandelson. He regarded him as 'all froth and public relations' and banished him from the inner circle to which he had been promoted by Neil Kinnock.
Smith's death in 1994 and his replacement by Tony Blair brought Mandelson scurrying back into Labour's ruling clique. Blair made a beeline for the rich, and recognised Mandelson's supreme quality-- flattery. Mandelson is, above all else, a courtier, who loves the company of the rich and knows how to flatter them. The rich are always inclined to interpret flattery as perspicacity. Before long, with Blair's seal of approval on his forehead, Mandelson was flattering his way into the richest boardrooms in the land. The military top brass loved him. He even made friends with the Prince of Wales and his mistress. But his favourites of all the rich and famous were the media barons.
He personally persuaded Tony Blair that Rupert Murdoch was a profound political thinker whose papers needed to be courted. Murdoch's daughter and most likely successor became a close friend of Mandelson. Clive (Lord) Hollick (Express, Anglia TV etc) worked with Mandelson in Labour's election unit at Millbank. John Birt, director general of the BBC, was Mandelson's old buddy at London Weekend Television. How could this high flying courtier hope to keep up with all these rich and powerful friends from a dowdy flat in run down Clerkenwell? Something much grander was needed.
His greedy eyes turned to Notting Hill where his friend, the millionaire writer Robert Harris, entertained so lavishly, and where the former SDP leader Sir Ian Wrigglesworth showed off all the fruits of political compromise. A lovely house next to Wrigglesworth's was for sale, for a little matter of half a million quid. Poor Peter could not begin to raise that much. His salary as a backbencher was a mere £40,000. His flat, already mortgaged, would be lucky to bring in a hundred grand. The Britannia Building Society would only lend him a maximum of £150,000. True, his mother lived in a handsome house in Hampstead Garden Suburb, but even Peter Mandelson could hardly set light to New Labour's great crusade by evicting his mother and selling her house. Even his own proposal-- for a £5,000 housing 'start'-- would not have helped him.
In desperation Peter turned to the only really rich man he knew on the Labour backbenches, Robert Maxwell's former business colleague and Labour MP for Coventry, Geoffrey Robinson. Robinson happily lent his new young friend £373,000, happily rolled up the interest and happily forgot to insist when, or even if, the loan should be repaid. Hey presto! As soon as Labour won the election, Robinson, an archetypal mediocrity, soared into the government with the grand title, which was not meant to be satirical, of Paymaster General.
When the loan was exposed just before Xmas, the Tory press was bewildered. All hailed Mandelson as an employers' friend, an enemy of trade unions, an opponent of socialism and a moderniser. But few could resist a crack at the old enemy. The result was that Mandelson was assaulted for trivia. Acres of space were given over to phoney indignation about his cheating the mortgage company. But most sensible people cheat their mortgage company. Similarly, the Tory Party in parliament wriggled and jiggled as they tried to spot a 'conflict of interest' between Mandelson as secretary of state at the DTI and a two bit DTI inquiry into some of Robinson's business deals.
All of this missed the point, which was hit at once and in a single sentence by a constituent of Mandelson's who muttered, 'I wish I could find someone to lend me £370,000.' The point was the sheer scale of the money lent, and the ludicrous lifestyle of people who lend and borrow that kind of sum. The man who proclaims the 'fairness' and 'social justice' of New Labour, who suggests a £5,000 sub for young couples looking for a new home, is at the same time borrowing a sum equivalent to 15 years of the average worker's total earnings just to buy a house.
The huge hoax which is New Labour was suddenly and brilliantly exposed. Nothing works on the public mind more than such a blatant example of personal greed. The whole strategy of 'softening' Labour's image in order to win elections was exposed as a means to propel its soft image makers into the salons of the rich.
Like so many marvellous moments, however, the exquisite delight in the fall of Mandelson may be short lived. Many people who put some faith and trust in New Labour may be plunged into despair. 'They all do it'-- 'They are all as bad as one another'-- 'All politicians and politics are rotten to the core'-- these are all common reactions which have in the past turned Labour voters back to the Tories, or pushed them even further to the right. On its own, triumphalist rejoicing at Mandelson's fall may irritate many Labour voters into rejecting politics altogether.
On the other hand, the sudden vulnerability of New Labour, as its great white hope lies bleeding on the wayside, opens out all sorts of opportunities for setting out a socialist alternative. The New Labour road is plainly blocked. The past failures of Old Labour are partly responsible for the blocking. A new road to socialism, from the bottom up, through the skills, energies and solidarity of the people who produce the wealth, is wide open.
The history of Labour government relations with the unions is one of squalid compromise and betrayal. It could be said of the Blair government that there was no room for betrayal, as it hardly promised anything to begin with. But now we know that the one piece of legislation that was promised-- the Fairness at Work Bill-- has been significantly weakened to please the employers.
The bill was always a relatively modest affair. From the outset Blair insisted there would be no changes to the Tory anti-union laws. Blair himself described these laws as 'the most restrictive in the western world'.
Fairness at Work is described as creating a fair balance between employers and unions. In fact the bill still leaves unions faced with an obstacle race in organising workers and conducting strikes. The concessions made to the employers in December are a kick in the teeth for the unions in general and the TUC in particular. Individual rights in the new law are still limited. For example, it will still be open to an employer to dismiss a worker unfairly for the first 12 months (currently it's legal for the first two years).
Labour's white paper last year contained two important proposals. One was that unions should have the right to represent individual workers in presenting grievances to the employers (as well as in disciplinary cases). The other was that unions would be entitled to automatic recognition for collective bargaining, without the need for a ballot, when they could show that more than 50 percent of the relevant workforce were union members.
Both these proposals were vociferously opposed by the employers. They realised that the right to individual representation provided an opportunity for unions to get a foot in the door in unorganised workplaces. They also saw that automatic recognition meant that unions would be able to build up membership gradually and then claim recognition as a right without the employer being able to organise a campaign against it.
Taken together these two new rights provided a real opportunity for unions to rebuild their strength. The 'compromise' imposed by Blair and Mandelson, however, means that the right of individual representation over grievances will be limited to 'serious' grievances where a breach of the law is involved. This may not be as restrictive as it sounds, because the definition of law in this case includes employment contracts. However, it does mean that, for example, a union operating in an unorganised workplace will not be able to represent someone asking for a pay rise.
The right to automatic recognition has also been qualified. The Central Arbitration Committee-- the independent body charged with overseeing recognition cases-- will have the right to order a ballot where there is concern about 'good industrial relations'. This allows anti-union firms to delay and harass attempts to win recognition. It is a straightforward concession to Rupert Murdoch.
Finally, Labour's new law will still allow firms the legal right to sack people on strike-- even though the strike has been called legally, supported by a secret ballot, and with all the requirements for notice to the employer. Strikers will be protected for eight weeks. After that time, the employer will have the right to sack them all, 'provided he has taken all steps to settle the dispute'. It's an obvious incentive for employers to prolong disputes and will put enormous pressure on strikers as the eight week deadline approaches.
The bombing of Iraq by US and British forces at the end of last year has been described in all manner of high flown terms-- these powers are keeping the world safe from dictators, they are stamping out chemical weapons, and they have no quarrel with the Iraqi people. The claims are at best meaningless and at worst mendacious. The existence of chemical weapons in Iraq is grossly exaggerated. According to Mark Urban reporting on BBC's Newsnight (17 December 1998) there are very few such weapons. Certainly there are far fewer than exist in, for example, the US. In the Middle East itself by far the most armed and dangerous state is Israel, which possesses nuclear weapons but which is protected, rather than attacked.
Tony Blair claims that Saddam Hussein is an evil dictator who must be stopped. But Britain and the US backed this same dictator in his conflict with Iran in the 1980s, and sold him many of the weapons about which they now complain. Even after the Gulf War in 1991, the west preferred to allow him to stay in place rather than to support movements from below which could overthrow him. Today, the west express sympathy for the Kurds in Iraq while backing the Turkish government's repression of the Kurds.
In any case, British and US dislike of dictators is selective to say the least. General Pinochet was feted by the west, not reviled, after his coup which killed thousands. Indonesia's Suharto, overthrown by popular protest last year, came to power in the bloodiest coup in world history when half a million were killed. He invaded East Timor in 1974, again with terrible loss of human life. Neither of these acts provoked western intervention; rather, he became one of Britain's major customers for arms sales.
What, then, is the point of this latest attack, the most bloody since 1991? It is clear that the US and British governments have as their aim the overthrow of Saddam, whatever they say. But it is ludicrous to believe that they can achieve their aim. If the purpose of the bombing is to lead Iraqis to rise up and overthrow him, then it is almost certainly futile. All the experience shows that such bombings are more likely to increase support for a leader against the aggressor powers. Tony Blair's claim that the strikes will keep Saddam in his cage is also incredible. The latest bombing raids have only served to further isolate the US and Britain within the United Nations. And since then Saddam has felt confident to challenge the no-fly zones set up after the 1991 Gulf War.
The real reasons lie elsewhere. Bill Clinton's (mis)calculation that the air strike might save him from impeachment proceedings in Washington was one factor in the exact timing. But there are two other reasons why the western powers keep returning to the attack in Iraq. One is to do with the region's main natural resource-- oil. For the past half century the importance of oil to the world economy has meant increasing US intervention in the politics of the region. The US has poured huge resources into Israel as its 'watchdog' in the Middle East and has treated regimes which did not share its interests as pariahs-- witness its treatment of Iran for most of the past 20 years. The presence of oil ensures that the Middle East will remain a cockpit of war as long as the west wants to control the region.
The other major reason for the intervention is to do with the US asserting its predominance as the world superpower-- with Britain as its faithful lapdog. This is a role Tony Blair is fulfilling with all the enthusiasm of Margaret Thatcher. Clinton is saying the US is still number one, and is going to bomb Iraqi children to prove it. This is a lesson not just to other countries in the Middle East, but to anyone who wants to challenge US imperialism.
No wonder this has incurred the wrath of France, Russia and China, as the United Nations was swept aside by the decision to bomb without warning. No wonder that in the occupied territories of Palestine, in Jordan and Egypt, thousands demonstrated and burnt US and British flags when the bombing began. They clearly do not see Saddam as so great a threat as Blair or Clinton. Far from making the world a safer place, this episode will make it more dangerous, by exacerbating international tensions and making it more likely that war will break out in the future.
So much for the ethical foreign policy proclaimed by Robin Cook less than two years ago. This time, we were treated to the spectacle of Labour MPs heckling the anti-war MP George Galloway in parliament, and of the government refusing to allow a vote on the war to that tiny number of Labour MPs who wanted to oppose the bombing. It is simply a disgrace that so many Labour MPs were prepared to back such an appalling intervention, with all the human cost involved.
Labour's war on Iraq is of a piece with its attacks on us at home. We are told there is no money for new hospitals but we can afford limitless raids by Tornado bombers, all in the name of protecting British and US imperialism. Yet this war was greeted by disquiet and scepticism in many quarters. There were many who saw it as cynical, pointless, or simply wrong. Once many of these same people begin to make the links with other issues-- further concessions to the bosses over trade unions, attacks on welfare, scapegoating of asylum seekers-- then we can begin to build a powerful movement which challenges Blair's priorities.
The pretext for the latest bombing campaign by the US and Britain was the report submitted by the UN weapons inspection team, Unscom, headed by Richard Butler. The Butler Report claimed that weapons inspectors had been hindered in their search for Iraqi weapons sites and documents.
The main problem was that Iraqi officials had refused to hand over 11 of 12 documents requested in the middle of November. In fact, the reason for this was that either the documents did not exist, had been destroyed or were irrelevant to the work of Unscom. As the Financial Times noted on 18 December, 'Many diplomats in Baghdad agree with Iraqi assertions that full cooperation may not have been achievable, even if Iraq wanted it.'
Of the one document that was provided, Unscom claimed that it did not contain the information that it was after. Iraqi officials did, however, agree to allow the inspectors to see the required information, but wanted this to be done in the presence of the UN secretary general's representative in Baghdad, Prakash Shaha-- a condition which Unscom rejected out of hand.
On top of this there was considerable anger at the way the report was released. Butler has been known in the past to have close links with the US military, even going so far as to give briefings to the press from the Pentagon. The Butler Report was released to the US and the British governments three days before the bombing took place. Only some 48 hours later, on Tuesday, did they release it to the rest of the UN security council. By then the authorisation for a military offensive had already been given by Clinton and Blair-- too late for any dissenting opinion to take hold.
Now that the bombing has taken place the whole policy of weapons inspections-- first set up after the 1991 Gulf War as a means of limiting the military power of Iraq-- is in tatters. The inspectors have clearly reached the end of what they can achieve-- why would the Iraqi regime want to comply in future if all that happens is that it ends up in a military campaign? As the Financial Times noted after the bombing commenced, this will probably achieve what Saddam has not been able to do for many years-- the permanent removal of the weapons inspectors. The Unscom team, and the whole policy of weapons inspections, is now thoroughly discredited as a political tool of the US and Britain. Russia, China and France have all complained that Unscom activities are choreographed by Washington to justify sanctions and military strikes. The end result, therefore, is greater isolation of the US and Britain and much greater instability in the whole Middle East region. Not quite what the US and Britain set out to achieve.
Eight years ago the Gulf War began as the US and British led coalition launched a massive bombing raid on Iraq under the pretence of liberating Kuwait and defending 'democracy'. Between 100,000 and 200,000 Iraqis were killed and the destruction left thousands facing cholera, typhoid, dysentery and starvation.
August 1990 Saddam Hussein declared that Kuwait had become a new province of Iraq as a step towards a united Arab world. The US saw the invasion as a threat to its control over the region.
US and British leaders declared that they were right to defend the national integrity and democracy of Kuwait. In fact Kuwait was one of the least democratic states in the world. Just 60,000 out of a population of 2 million had any democratic rights. Two thirds of the population were migrant workers who slaved to keep the oil companies and the ruling families rich. US State Department official Robert Kimmett made quite clear the real cause of the conflict-- to secure 'the free, uninterrupted flow of oil from the Gulf'.
January 1991 On the eve of the bombing it was clear that the consequences were going to be horrific. Over 1 million troops, 8,000 tanks, 2,500 warplanes and at least 1,000 nuclear warheads had been amassed in the area. The bombing of Baghdad, with its population of 5 million people, was clearly part of US policy.
March 1991 'We hit the jackpot' gloated the US pilots after they massacred retreating Iraqi conscripts. We were told that the war had been 'remarkable' for the small number of casualties, and the use of 'smart bombs' meant that military targets could be hit with pinpoint precision. It later emerged that many of the 'smart bombs' missed their targets, killing innocent Iraqi civilians. The Iraqi infrastructure was smashed and the numbers of people dying from epidemics soon exceeded the number of casualties of the bombing. A 'no-fly zone' over Iraq was created as part of the ceasefire.
The UN immediately imposed sanctions which created havoc in Iraq. By January 1997 more than half a million children had died from hunger and disease. Madeline Albright, US secretary of state, claimed that 'this is a very hard choice, but the price is worth it.'
January 1993 The same problems that gave rise to the Gulf War, the control of oil, the oppression of the Arab masses and the fate of the Palestinians were left unsolved and the crisis continued. Missile attacks were launched by the west at the Iraqi no-fly zone.
September 1996 Iraq was bombed again. The US claimed that Saddam Hussein had breached the 'no-fly zone' in northern Iraq in order to support the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) against its long time enemies the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), supported by Iran. Of the former allies who backed the US during the Gulf War, this time only Britain backed Clinton all the way.
February 1998 The US and Britain threatened war in the Gulf over claims that weapons inspectors were unable to carry out their job. They were forced to back down and reach a diplomatic solution which they had claimed was impossible.
November 1998 The US and Britain sent warplanes and aircraft carriers to the Gulf, claiming that Saddam was still obstructing the weapons inspectors. An agreement brokered by UN secretary general Kofi Annan pulled the planes back in mid-flight, but they remained in the area. Richard Butler, head of the weapons inspectors, was commissioned to write a report detailing the Iraqi level of compliance with the inspectors.