Issue 241 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
With Tony Blair set to lose control of London to Ken Livingstone, Chris Bambery looks at the deepening crisis for New Labour
'If things go on like this we will all be selling hamburgers to each other.' These were the words of one Rover worker who is faced with the destruction of the car group. It was a common reaction across the Midlands. Working class people are well aware of the devastation that was wreaked in areas like Merseyside and Clydeside in the 1980s, and in the coalfields when the Tories closed the pits in 1992.
Trade and industry secretary Stephen Byers moaned that BMW's decision was 'a major disappointment'. Yet for Rover workers and others in the car component industry it is something more than 'a major disappointment'. Once again they are seeing a giant multinational company destroying people's lives. The decision to hand Rover over to the asset strippers Alchemy was taken with no reference to the workforce or, indeed, to the British government. Having let it be known that he was personally furious with BMW, Tony Blair then agreed with German chancellor Schröder that he would cease criticising the company. And so New Labour moved to try and bury the issue.
But the issue of the closure of Rover would not lie down. The trade unions could not stand idly by and see thousands of jobs disappear. Despite their friendship with Blair and Brown, Bill Morris of the transport workers' union and Ken Jackson of the engineering union were forced to call a protest in Birmingham. This turned out to be the biggest march in the city since the times of the Chartists with up to 100,000 people marching. The obvious parallel was with the two massive demonstrations in London in 1992 which followed the Tories' decision to shut the coal industry. But there are important differences. The Birmingham march was overwhelmingly made up of manufacturing workers. It harked back to the great protests of the early 1970s. And the vast bulk of marchers were from the West Midlands as the unions had effectively restricted their mobilisation to the region.
More importantly, the protesters' anger turned on New Labour. This was different from 1980 and 1981 when the Labour Party itself called two huge demonstrations of over 150,000 in Liverpool and Glasgow over unemployment. Then the Labour leader addressed the rally and was lionised by the crowd. In 1992 the anger over the closure of the pits dissipated as the TUC refused to take action and miners' leader Arthur Scargill would not break with them. The conclusion workers drew was to wait till the next general election to vote Labour. Today no such conclusion is possible.
At the rally at the end of the march in Birmingham the three union general secretaries--Morris, Jackson and Roger Lyons of the MSF--got a very muted response and restricted their remarks to a few minutes. Discontent boiled over when a New Labour MP, Richard Burden, mentioned Blair and tried to make a joke about him not being there. The best response was when a local historian called for a blockade of Rover to stop production of the Mini being removed from the plant and for a march on parliament.
For the union leaders the march was about allowing workers to let off steam. They are urging Rover workers to take no further action in case it scares off a possible buyer. Socialists have been campaigning for an occupation of Rover and this has found an echo among a growing minority of the workforce. Yet the argument from Byers, and the union leaders, is that they are powerless in the face of global capital. That begs the question, 'Then why elect a Labour government?' This question is being asked increasingly among more of Labour's traditional support.
In Birmingham the argument that Rover should be nationalised has entered popular consciousness, both among Rover workers and the wider population. After all, a previous Labour government had done this in the 1970s. In 1971 a sit-in at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders did force a Tory government to intervene to save jobs. On the march in Birmingham Socialist Worker placards dominated large sections precisely because they demanded renationalisation, something the union placards did not take up.
Since Seattle there is a growing awareness that multinational capital is destroying people's lives both in the Third World and in the traditional industrial centres like the West Midlands. Seattle was a victory over the World Trade Organisation and big business. In Birmingham the local press campaigned to build the march, but they also promoted a 'save British jobs' line aimed at the German-owned BMW. That found an echo, but only among a minority of marchers. Most remembered that a British multinational, British Aerospace, had done the same when it sold off Rover to BMW.
Multinational capital can be hit hard because it still depends on production
The LSA has become a pole off attraction for dissatisfied Labour members
Added to this is the sheer scale of the job losses mounting up across British industry. The PTA plant at Ford Dagenham seems set for closure. Also under threat are the steel works at Llanwern in South Wales, along with Goodyear in Wolverhampton and the Govan shipyard in Glasgow. There are mounting redundancies in the textile industry, Rolls Royce and elsewhere. Multinational capital can be hit and hit hard because the bottom line is that it still depends on production. So at Ford Dagenham the engine plant is the single producer of diesel engines in Europe. Stop that and the workers have Ford by the throat.
There is also another change in the situation. We are witnessing the beginning of the meltdown of Labour's traditional support. Concern about this has even percolated up into the cabinet. The result is that Blair, Brown and Byers suddenly look vulnerable.
In his March budget the chancellor, Gordon Brown, produced extra cash for the National Health Service. This is an indication of the degree of panic in the top echelons of New Labour. Yet the £20 billion extra spending on health that Brown announced in his budget does not go near to meeting Tony Blair's pledge. The UK has the lowest share of gross domestic product (GDP) devoted to healthcare of any major EU state--6.8 percent of GDP compared to the EU average of 8.7 percent. Germany spends 10.6 percent and France 10.7 percent of GDP. Brown's decision during New Labour's first two years in office to stick to spending limits set by the previous Tory government has meant that government spending as a share of GDP actually fell by 2.8 percent.
Along with the NHS, other problems remain for New Labour. The same poll showed that 68 percent of voters believed New Labour had failed to improve public transport. And on a whole range of issues the popular mood is to the left of the cabinet. A British Social Attitudes Survey, Who Shares New Labour Values? showed high levels of public support for higher public spending. Some 78 percent of those asked believed that the state should pay for residential care for the elderly while 70 percent believed everyone should get the same pension regardless of their previous earnings. And a Gallup poll in February also showed that for the first time a majority of those asked, 52.3 percent, thought the government was not 'honest' or was 'untrustworthy'. A further poll in March found that 35 percent of those asked believed the government was less keen on wealth redistribution than themselves. That poll also showed that it was precisely these voters who were less prepared to go out and vote New Labour.
When we move beyond the world of opinion polls matters become more dramatic. The Ayr Scottish parliamentary by-election saw Labour not just lose the seat but slump into third place behind the Tories and the SNP. Labour's vote fell from 38 percent to 22 percent. The biggest swing was from Labour to the Scottish Nationalists, but the far left Scottish Socialist Party came in fourth ahead of the Liberals. This follows the losses of Islwyn and Rhondda in the Welsh Assembly elections, and Labour's fall from second to fourth place in the Ceredigion by-election.
All of this will pale in terms of impact if Ken Livingstone wins the London mayor election on 4 May and there is a strong vote for the London Socialist Alliance. Blair will have been seen to lose control of his capital city and that can only increase the vulnerability of his government. That will fuel discontent with Blair and give confidence to workers looking for a fightback.
Livingstone broke with Labour to run in the election with very great reluctance--but he broke. He has indicated that he wishes to return to Labour's ranks and there are signs from the Blairite camp that New Labour would be prepared to work with him in the London Assembly. Livingstone would then be tied to a Blairite agenda, especially so given the way Millbank has cherry picked the Labour candidates for the London Assembly, ensuring their loyalty. But by breaking, Livingstone has cut through an argument which has dogged socialists outside Labour for years--that if you break with Labour you are going into a wilderness where what you say and do matters for nothing.
The success of the London Socialist Alliance has been its ability to move from being just an amalgam of the far left to becoming a real pole of attraction for dissatisfied Labour members and supporters. These people exist beyond the capital. In Shirebrook in Derbyshire, for instance, 20 former and existing Labour Party members met recently to discuss standing against New Labour--they included a number of councillors who have left the party. A similar thing has happened in Slough.
The debate on whether to break with Labour is one that will run and run. Tony Benn has argued in the wake of Livingstone's candidacy that 'it would be unthinkable to allow this situation to lead to the destruction of the Labour Party by default through defections, abstentions and a drift into sectarian left grouplets which could only weaken us further.'
Many Labour members will think that they have heard this argument time and time again. But why should the left in the party retain a slavish loyalty to it? After all, the right have been prepared to split in order to prevent the left advancing in the party. The Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald split in 1931 to form a coalition with the Tories in order to push through dole cuts that were unpalatable to the unions and Labour's membership. In the early 1980s the right wing broke again to form the Social Democratic Party which, by splitting the vote, helped ensure the Tories won the next three general elections. Tony Blair has himself said that the founding of the Labour Party was a mistake and that it would have been better to remain in the Liberal Party. Once again he has raised the prospect of a coalition with the Liberals following the next election. Many Labour supporters sense that Blair could very easily ditch Labour's historic identity to create something akin to the US Democratic Party.
Benn has said he is standing down from parliament to give more time to politics. What is increasingly overcoming traditional loyalty to Labour is a growing realisation that there is no room within New Labour for the left to organise, that if you want to fight over job losses, or over the sell off of council houses or against privatisation it will have to be done outside the Labour Party.
Socialists will have to build on the foundations built by the LSA in London. Next year we will face a general election which cries out for a socialist challenge. There exists too a real desire for unity against Blair and the liberal free market consensus he represents. But in the longer term any break with Labour is not going to happen with one blinding flash, as with Saul on the road to Damascus. It is going to be a process. The Labour Party has existed for 100 years and has a deep reservoir of loyalty in the working class. Even when workers break formally with New Labour it does not mean that they have broken from the idea that social change can be won within the parliamentary system.
Reformist ideas don't just exist because the Labour Party does. Under capitalism workers want change, but outside of a revolutionary situation the majority of workers accept capitalist ideas. Therefore they want change but accept that it can come without breaking with the system. There is no Labour Party in the United States but the dominant ideas among workers are what can be termed reformist.
Nor is it automatic that an increase in class struggle will mean workers will not have reformist ideas. For example, France has seen a growing wave of struggle over the last five years and an accompanying mass radicalisation. Although this has taken a clear anti-capitalist turn, the failure of the French far left to shape this new movement has allowed left wing members and supporters of the Socialist Party to increasingly dominate the new movements and the organisations which have emerged.
Here in Britain, whatever the immediate outcome of the Rover crisis, it will certainly deepen bitterness with New Labour. That is being channelled to the left as workers find that Blair treats 'Old Labour' ideas with contempt. There is one important exception to this and that is the witch hunt against asylum seekers that is being whipped up by Jack Straw, and which is being exploited by the tabloid media, the Tories and the Nazis. This has to be fought. But even here you can connect to wider issues by pointing out that it is not Kosovan refugees who are selling off our council homes, but Labour councils like that in Birmingham.
What we are witnessing is a realignment of the existing left accompanied by the emergence of a new left. The Socialist Workers Party would be happy to be a smaller goldfish in a much bigger bowl. It is in our and everyone's interest that the left grows. For that reason we threw ourselves into building a broad campaign against the Balkan War last year and are central to building the LSA.
But the Rover crisis also demonstrates that we need a party which can move quickly, as one, in building the 1 April demonstration. As with the 1992 pit closures, we said this was a turning point--and then we were proved correct. Similarly last year we could move as one to oppose Nato's war because for 15 years, since the Iran-Iraq war, we had discussed and debated the whole issue of war and imperialism and could cut through the cascade of left-liberal support for Nato.
Recent weeks have set socialists more than one challenge. We have to place ourselves at the heart of a debate going on in the labour movement about whether to break with Labour or not. We need to work alongside these people, over time, and carry on a dialogue with them. But above all, whereas in the past we have talked of the need for a fightback against the New Labour government, the time has now come for the fightback to take place.