Issue 238 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review

Labour's crisis

Mind the popularity gap

Tony Blair's thousand days of government are marked by increasing discontent focused around the NHS crisis and Ken Livingstone's campaign for London mayor. Lindsey German asks what's gone wrong for Labour, and two health workers explain the impact of health cuts on patient care

One of the bigger mistakes has been trying to stop Ken Livingstone becoming mayor

It was predictable that when Tony Blair's New Labour government adopted Tory spending plans and policies it would also eventually attain Tory levels of unpopularity. This is now what is happening. A recent poll for the Mirror newspaper showed that Blair's popularity rating was 25 percent down on that of a year ago. Most cabinet ministers show significant falls in support. The most unpopular single minister was health secretary Alan Milburn.

The discontent has suddenly mushroomed since the new year. It may be that, looking back, the fall of support for Blair will be dated from the various fiascos on Millennium Eve which can be seen as monuments to British capitalism--the inadequacy of public transport, the wait for four hours at Stratford station to get passes to the Dome and the London Eye big wheel which didn't move. The Dome has already become a monument to the arrogance of a government that surrounds itself with spin doctors and acolytes and which assumes that big business and the market can deliver everything.

But no one night could on its own have brought about this decline in Blair's fortunes. Its juxtaposition to one of the worst NHS crises in years made it much worse. The pitiful state of the NHS, during a flu outbreak which is by no means the worst of recent years, only pointed up the contrast between the money lavished on the Dome and the starvation of resources for the basic needs of people. Here Labour has a fundamental problem. It has consistently refused to raise levels of public spending to deal with the legacy of two decades of cuts. Instead it has followed the Tory policy of cutting income tax (while still raising the general burden through regressive indirect taxation). This means that there is now a serious crisis of the infrastructure of British society, where, in summary, nothing works properly.

The crisis in health is particularly serious because of the effect of the cuts. There is a shortage of beds which government PFI policies are making worse because the new privately financed hospitals all have lower bed provision. The effect of cuts in areas such as social services also contributes. A very high proportion of NHS care is devoted to old people for obvious reasons, but many of these people have no adequate care once they leave hospital and so have to stay longer than they would if there were adequate back up services for them. The fact that health spending in Britain is one of the lowest as a proportion of GDP in any of the advanced capitalist countries demonstrates how far public spending has to be increased if there is to be tangible improvement.

Blair was forced to promise real spending increases but Labour spokesmen have since backtracked on them, fearing that they will raise expectations in other areas such as education and transport. Labour is therefore a prisoner of its own policy--it fears cutting the NHS any more for political reasons, yet its policies still follow the neo-liberal path of public spending cuts and worship of the market.

This is at the heart of Blair's growing unpopularity. The opinion pollster Nick Sparrow put it like this in the Observer: 'Blair's personal rating is on the slide. It's not a blip. The perception out there is "we voted for a change in the NHS and in education", and the perception out there is that nothing, and I underline the word nothing, has changed' (23 January 2000).

After nearly three years of Labour government, most people who elected Labour in 1997 are wondering where its policies differ from those of the Tories. Two decades after Thatcherism began, public services are still being cut, the conditions in schools are getting worse, public transport is among the most dangerous and expensive in the world, and the health service is only held together because its workers are prepared to put in long hours for very little pay. The government solution is to introduce private finance into health, which will result in fewer beds, and to continue to privatise public assets. It is also refusing to raise taxes for the rich, although these tax rates are some of the lowest in Europe, and is planning to cut taxes in this spring's budget. The already miserly minimum wage is not being uprated by the government even to match inflation.

This sense that nothing has really changed since the Tories is reinforced by the authoritarian attitudes which Labour espouses towards the poor and defenceless. Jack Straw is trying to abolish jury trials for a large number of cases, yet he allows the dictator and murderer Pinochet to go free. Mike Tyson is let into Britain at the behest of the boxing promoters on the express grounds that to do otherwise would be to damage businessmen in Manchester, while refugees and asylum seekers are subject to the most draconian restrictions and detention.

Protests, like this over cuts in Brent, are growing

All these and the many other grievances that people feel have been generalised by the mood after Seattle. The demonstrations which struck such a chord among the oppressed and exploited throughout the world at the end of last year have helped to focus the discontent on governments which accept the agenda of globalisation and neo-liberalism--and the Blair government is high up on the list in its enthusiasm. There is a growing sense in Britain that there will have to be an organised fightback if we are to impose a different set of priorities on British society.

The fact that Labour's leaders have no perception of this mood and that they are completely out of touch with their supporters leads them to make more and more mistakes. One of their bigger mistakes has been trying to stop Ken Livingstone becoming Labour's candidate for mayor of London. This saga is going to end disastrously for Blair, whatever the actual outcome of the ballot among Labour members which takes place this month.

Firstly there is a very good chance that Livingstone will win the nomination, even on the rigged electoral college system which gives a third of all votes to MPs and MEPs. The Mirror front page headline 'As Dead As A Dobbo' encapsulated the lack of support for Blair's favoured candidate, Frank Dobson, among ordinary Labour members. In a straw poll of 306 Labour members in London carried out by the Independent in late January, Livingstone won the support of 63 percent with Dobson on 25 percent and Glenda Jackson on 12 percent. The same poll showed that two thirds of those who supported Livingstone thought he should run as an independent if not selected. This is a further nightmare for Blair. All acknowledge that Livingstone is ahead in both the union and constituency sections. It is almost certain therefore that, if Dobson does win, he will do so only through the MPs' section, which will reduce his legitimacy. If Livingstone then stands as an independent, he has a good chance of winning against the Labour machine.

The success of Livingstone so far demonstrates how little loyalty there is to Blair and New Labour among many Labour activists, but also how far to the left of government policies they are. The hustings meetings which have taken place across London in the past two months have been very large and militant about what Labour needs to achieve. Blair and Gordon Brown were heckled at the central London meeting when they attacked Livingstone.

Livingstone has become the focus of much of the feeling that exists after Seattle, with many Labour supporters and socialists placing their hopes in his candidacy to present a real challenge to Blair. Unfortunately, Livingstone himself has not really articulated this feeling in his campaign. He has been very cautious, refusing to bring out real differences of principle or to attack Blair. His recent quote, 'If I win, then in 18 months Tony Blair and I will be sitting over at Number 10 beside the fire, sipping a nice brandy, wondering what we all got so fussed about', is not what those looking to him for change expect to hear. At the same time, he personifies the aspirations of many of those who want real change. His nomination as L abour candidate would be a significant defeat for the Blairites and their policies.

Livingstone is the biggest headache facing Blair in the coming weeks, but he is not the only one. There are growing signs of industrial anger, of campaigns and protests, and of discontent over a range of issues. There are also increasing problems for the government about when and if to join the euro. After Seattle, many protesters are prepared to go beyond their immediate issues towards a more general critique of capitalism. They are therefore finding themselves more and more in conflict with government policies. Blair's big argument is that there is no alternative to his government other than the Tories. It is true that his election victory was because of revulsion at the Tories, and Blair has only been able to get away with as much as he has because there is still that revulsion. The mood has swung so much to the left in the past decade that the Tories have no immediate way of capitalising on it--indeed their response has been to become even more of a right wing fringe organisation. But there are signs that this situation beginning to change as Blair is facing increasing opposition to his left. Livingstone is one sign of this--much more important, however, is the wider movement which is beginning to grow.

The process of globalisation and the introduction of the market into every area have produced a level of international generalisation and organisation which has not been seen for a long time. Blair's current unpopularity is a result of this. This generalisation is unlikely to go away, since international capitalism is launched on a collision course with the working people and the poor in every country. That is what the attacks on the public sector are all about. That means the opposition will continue and will manifest itself in a whole range of campaigns, from the environment to industry. Out of them we can build resistance to capitalism and also the seeds of a new socialist alternative, which alone can provide a different way of organising the world and its wealth


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