Issue 282 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 2004 Copyright © Socialist Review


Saved by the 'rebels'

Tony Blair remains prime minister not on the basis of the popular will, but through the support of the chancellor, Gordon Brown, and the reactionary law lord Brian Hutton. With a vote on the hugely unpopular plans for top-up fees and a report into the death of David Kelly, the last week in January should have sealed Blair's fate. That 'rebel' Labour MPs took fright over the first issue and the establishment closed ranks over the second displays all that is rotten about the shallow form of democracy on display in parliament.

The University Funding Bill to introduce annual variable fees of up to £3,000 was crude in its embrace of the market. Belated attempts to dress it in progressive clothes were woefully unconvincing. Charles Clarke's assertion that to reject the bill would be to support upfront fees and no grants (Labour's previous policy betrayal) was particularly risible. Likewise Blair's insistence, despite years of corporate tax cuts and profligate military spending, that general taxation increases necessarily hit the low paid.

The issues should have been clear for the Labour 'rebels'. Here was a vastly unpopular, regressive policy, explicitly ruled out in their 2001 election manifesto, that the government was using every dirty trick available to it to win. But as at the outbreak of war, enough 'rebels' put their loyalty to their careers over their obligations to their constituents to give Blair and his legislation an avoidable reprieve.

The chief betrayer of students and parents was supposed 'rebel ringleader' Nick Brown, apparently convinced by the promise of a toothless review into the inevitable increases in student debt. According to Westminster gossip it was his political master Gordon Brown who persuaded him to defect. So once more the chancellor has proven that only Machiavellian ambition divides him from the prime minister.

The vote was compounded by the next day's whitewash Hutton report. Hutton, who appeared for the British army at the Widgery inquiry into Bloody Sunday, excluded evidence about the lies told to justify war from his remit, and expressed barely concealed horror that 'the integrity of the government' should be questioned. This was in the week that the US-appointed chief of the Iraq Survey Group, David Kay, concluded that no WMDs would be found. It was also the day after the representative of Iyad Allawi, the member of the Iraqi Governing Council who had reported to MI6 the claim by an unnamed source that such weapons could be deployed in 45 minutes, admitted that the information was 'a crock of shit'. Apparently the standards of proof Hutton demanded of the BBC are unnecessary for government war propaganda.

Millions of people will rightly feel fury at New Labour's contemptuous betrayal over fees and its logic-defying exoneration for an illegal, imperialist war. What is clear is the need to turn that anger into effective opposition. The launch of Respect: the Unity Coalition is an opportunity to do just that. Drawing inspiration from the anti-war movement, it aims to unite all those horrified by New Labour's programme of war and neoliberalism into a formidable electoral force. Its founding convention was lively, diverse, radical and full to overflowing. If that momentum can be translated throughout England and Wales--linking trade unionists, pensioners, environmentalists, tenant activists, socialists, Muslims and pacifists into networks of resistance and mobilisation--then not only could the June elections produce an unpleasant surprise for the Blairites, but the entire political landscape could be transformed in the process.

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