The rebellion by 61 Labour MPs on 10 December against the government’s cuts in lone parent benefit marks a decisive change in the political situation. The overwhelming majority of Labour’s core working-class supporters see the cuts as unjustifiable. “We didn’t vote for this!” sums up their mood. Even amongst those sections of the middle class who were supposed to be uniquely attracted to Blair, the cuts have produced a level of opposition that can only be explained by recognising the enduring strength of those collectivist values the spin-doctors told us had been abolished by Thatcherism.
This widespread social opposition found expression in the Parliamentary Labour Party.
Given that the dismantling of the welfare state is the cornerstone of the Blair government’s programme, the rebellion against it in parliament will not go away and should continue to grow and crystallise politically. Though the issues are still posed tentatively and conditionally by most dissidents, we could begin to see, over the next few months, a de facto split in the Parliamentary Labour Party over the very core policies of the entire Blairite project.
If this split is big enough — and the mutterings of “thus far and no further” over lone parent benefit cuts suggest it may be — then Blair could well find himself having to rely on Tory parliamentary support to ram through policies that are deeply unpopular with the great majority of Labour voters and the ranks of the broad labour movement. In other words, we could be about to witness the creation of a very special form of undeclared national government of the right. The question is, will this development be matched by a hardening of the parliamentary rebellion into an alternative Labour group of MPs and an all-out fight to win the political allegiance of the labour movement and Labour voters away from Blair and his New Labour apparatus, or will there be no more than a few howls of protest followed by the death rattle of Labourism?
The answer to that question will, of course, be provided by the struggle. It will in no small part depend on the character, mettle, political will and strategic orientation of those people who are now central to the growing parliamentary rebellion against Blair. If the Parliamentary Labour Party dissidents link up to a broad movement of trade-union based opposition to the dismantling of the welfare state, then there is the possibility of fusing mass direct action resistance to the government with a political struggle inside the labour movement for working class politics and a workers’ government. Everything depends on understanding exactly the balance of class forces and defining the key next steps forward. If the left misses this chance to reconstruct mass working class politics on a socialist basis, then the die will be cast and we may not get another opportunity for a very long time to come.
The rebirth of hope
Polls show unprecedented levels of support for Labour in opinion polls (still running at 55%, with a 29% lead over the Tories), combined with extremely high levels of opposition to key government policies like cutting single parent benefit (58% to 22%, or roughly 3 to 1).
This contradictory mood is further highlighted by the fact that though the number of people satisfied by the government’s performance fell by 19% after the lone parent benefit cuts — with a 16% fall in Blair’s own personal rating — the fall in support for Labour was just 2%. The same polls continue to register clear majority support for precisely those measures of elementary collectivist re-distribution — like taxing the rich — that the new regime declares impossible. Without trying to read too much into a few polls, it would not be outrageous to suggest that the voters want a Labour government but are no longer so sure they want this one.
The polls are certainly confirmation of the fact that on May Day 1997 the people thought they were throwing out not just the Tories, but Tory policies. And now the big majority of Labour voters are having to come to terms with the fact that the great wave of hope unleashed by the election landslide faces betrayal by none other than the government that the landslide swept into office. They may well conclude that they have to do things for themselves. Anticipating, preparing and fighting for that sort of development of consciousness inside the class is the rational basis of our perspectives for action. As this magazine argued immediately after the election: “Hope will stimulate and liberate desire. Desire and hope will stimulate action.”
Blair’s purpose in cutting lone parent benefit was to try to stop that kind of development happening by radically reducing expectations amongst broad sections of the working class. He wants to crush hope while maintaining majority support to ensure re-election. The cut in lone parent benefit was in no way an immediate necessity for the government, given the vast amounts of money in state coffers and the £1.6 billion undershoot on the Tories’ spending projections. It was rather a demonstrative blow against all those who expected Labour to be different. It makes sense only as a deliberate slap in the face not just for lone parents but for the millions of people who share the labour movement’s basic egalitarian values. The Supreme Leader set out to force through parliament — and a reluctant Parliamentary Labour Party — an unpalatable policy that had not even been discussed by cabinet committee, never mind a full cabinet, in a classic Stalinist style loyalty test. Order was to reign over the corpse of the Parliamentary Labour Party.
The scale of the rebellion, 61 in total with 47 voting against, was truly unexpected only for those who have allowed the apparent dominance of the New Labour apparatus to define their political horizons. It was no more than an entirely predictable assertion of core working-class values against Blairite provocation by, in the main, honourable labour movement people. Both the Millbank apparatchiks and some of the best of the parliamentary left nevertheless did not expect such a big revolt. For the left MPs it was probably a question of not quite believing that they could pull it off, a fear that at the end of the day they would be able to muster only a few of the “ usual suspects” to vote against the first Labour Government in 18 years. The response is understandable, given the Blairites’ strength in the Palace of Westminster, but it betrays a certain isolation from struggles outside — a case of what us “crude Marxists” would call “social being determining social consciousness.”
Flying without radar
Why did Blair miscalculate so badly? Martin Jacques — of all people — put it rather well when he told a late night political chat show that “Blair seems to be piloting this aircraft without the radar system normally used by Labour Governments.” What the former Eurocommunist guru and ex-Blairite has put his finger on is something we have often pointed to in this journal: the lack of a solid material base for the Blairite project outside of the narrow parameters of the political class and a few media moguls. The government, argued Jacques, was clearly not responding to the normal channels of representation via the labour movement that keep even right wing Labour governments within certain bounds. There is, he said “an unpredictability about the government, a volatility even, that could lead to it simply imploding. A sense in which the government is no longer shaping events but being blown about by them.”
So even those, like the former editor of Marxism Today , who played such a role in sponsoring and providing ideological cover for the Labour Party “modernisers”, are now deeply alienated and disorientated by the true blue reality of Blairism in office. Facts, as someone once said, are stubborn things. Not even post-Marxists can escape them. Jacques went on to tell the late night TV audience that it was now “quite obvious that Labour would still have won the election comfortably without any of the extremism of Blair.” When Jacques was backed up by the Democratic Left’s Nina Temple, who said that the government should listen to the trade union movement and not launch any more attacks on its natural supporters, it added to the sound of pennies dropping.
Recent months have given a crash course in political reality not just to ex-Eurocommunists but also to some of Blair’s formerly most slavish supporters in the “left of centre” mainstream media. Take Observer editor Will Hutton. The Labour leadership have managed to take a natural ally — he invented “stakeholding”, after all — and turn him into something close to an enemy. Two years ago Hutton was speaking at Labour Coordinating Committee conferences on the need to get rid of Clause Four; now he is leading the hunt to track down Geoffrey Robinson’s offshore millions. The root of this is Brown and Blair’s straitjacketed refusal to countenance even the limited experiments in Keynesian reflation advocated by Hutton, who unlike Gordon Brown no longer has to take private tutorials on economics. This liberal disillusionment reached a peak recently with the call by the Guardian for the “Old Labour” cabinet ministers, particularly Blunkett, Dobson and Prescott, to rein in Blair before he does irreparable damage to the Labour Party’s reputation as a party of the left.
We should register just how brittle the Blair government is, and how bereft of convincing champions. It is a very narrow and randomly assembled clique of political lightweights, who because of a series of political accidents (the death of John Smith, the self-destruction of the Tory Party) and the utter desperation and political collapse of the trade union leaders, find themselves in a position of enormous power and leverage that doesn’t remotely reflect the real level of support for their reactionary programme. For instance, the Blairites can no longer even rely on Neil Kinnock for support. Glenys Kinnock has written to the Guardian opposing the cut in lone-parent benefit; Neil Kinnock, speaking to the New Statesman, has implicitly endorsed her stance; and Kinnock’s longtime leading hatchet-man, Charles Clarke, has “leaked” a letter of protest in an attempt to warn Blair off from more cuts.
This weakness of the Blairites was revealed by their pathetic response to the Commons rebellion, an outbreak of dissent precisely where they are supposed to be strongest. Before the vote, they told the press that any dissent would be dealt with “swiftly and decisively”. Come the morning of 11 December there was no talk of disciplinary action. Most rebels got a letter. Four “super-rebels” were given a special telling off by the chief whip, and Alistair Campbell told the press that they had “received a yellow card.” Were the four to be expelled if they voted against the government again, or just suspended for a few weeks if they do it a total of three times? The Supreme Leader then chose the Sun to announce that “I’ll crush welfare rebels!” — a funny way of describing doing precisely nothing to intimidate them and an awful lot to transform them into heroes overnight. Two rebels from the 1997 intake reported walking nervously into their local party meetings after the vote — having been threatened by the whips that their local parties would turn against them — only to be met by standing ovations, not a response which will make them think twice about rebelling in the future.
The Prime Minister didn’t even have the guts to support Harman in parliament but instead, in an act which combined cowardice and contempt, hid away at a JFK style Downing Street reception for showbiz trash. This smart move simply alerted the press to the story that the government has spent more in seven months on receptions for bigwigs than it will save with the lone parent benefit cuts. Meanwhile the Geoffrey Robinson tax haven fiasco just got funnier; Jack Cunningham managed to simultaneously capitulate to and alienate the farmers and butchers; while Blair was faced down and out-“toughed” on live TV by that well-known political heavyweight, the finance minister of Luxemburg.
The Blairites are far from invincible. They can be beaten by any half-serious and determined working-class fightback. The problem is, who will lead it?
Union leaders to Blair’s rescue
The lone parent benefit cuts impoverish people on income support, and also lower the standard of living of lone parents in employment by cutting their £6.05 per week extra child benefit. You would expect even the most narrowly sectional, economistic and “a-political” trade unions (i.e., even those who don’t think the unemployed are part of the working class) to make a great fuss about the standard of living of some of their lowest paid members being reduced by a Labour Government. But while Blair, Brown and Harman were picking the pockets of lone parents and stealing food from the mouths of their children, the trade union leaders said and did absolutely nothing to stop it.
Minor TGWU and GMB full-time officials put in a token appearance at a Westminster rally against the cuts, but the unions did nothing as collective organisations to fight these cuts, and the main union leaders remained completely silent. This was terrible given the fact that the trade unions have the resources and the numbers to put thousands of people onto the streets in protest.
If that wasn’t bad enough, a week after the Commons vote a TUC delegation popped in to Downing Street for a cosy chat and, after all of half an hour, emerged to tell the press that they were “happy” with the Government’s focus on welfare to work. The attack on lone parents coincided with both Brown’s announcement of another public sector pay freeze and a Blair-inspired CBI pincer movement to gut the proposed legislation on trade union recognition, yet it still wasn’t enough to stir the union leaders from the impartial stance that these great men now take on all matters of conflict between the government and their own members. This tells us a lot about the degeneracy of today’s trade union leaders. The key union bosses have clearly decided that, for now, they will take absolutely anything rather than resist Blair.
The main strategic problem facing the developing opposition to Blair is the role of the trade union bureaucracy. In general, trade union officialdom has to work to secure some material advances for the class in order to shore up its own positions of privilege and expand its bureaucratic empires. The problem is that, right now, the union leaders have clearly decided that all other working-class interests mean nothing compared to their key aim, which is to win some law for union recognition which will allow them to recruit members and gain relief from the financial crisis that affects all the main unions. This stance means that in the here and now — as opposed to in some theoretically possible future — the union leaders are an absolute block on developing any kind of mass working-class fightback against Blair. This doesn’t mean that they can’t be pushed into opposition, particularly if they fear they could lose control of the unions to left wing rebels, but as yet they have not been put in that position. Thus, the future of the Labour party — and of mass working class politics — is indissolubly linked with the struggle to build a rank and file movement that can wrest control of the unions away from the bureaucracy and start a fightback to defend jobs, wages and services.
Though the union leaders are the major obstacle to developing a fightback against Blair, the calibre of the parliamentary rebels is also of concern to the broader class movement. We must hope that the thinking elements on the left of the Parliamentary Labour Party — who played an entirely positive role in audaciously building up the opposition on lone parent benefit — will not succumb to the arguments of those who peddle a form of would-be left wing realpolitik that is really nothing more than evasion and inaction. For instance, the bizarrely secretive Stalinoid sect Socialist Action, self-appointed grand strategist for the Labour left, has argued in favour of putting off struggles today in the hope of a better balance of forces in the future. “You fight on issues of your own choosing, not your enemies’.” “You don’t let your opponents dictate the agenda”. It may sound very hard-headed in the abstract, but when your opponent is the government and you are the main parliamentary opposition, it means that they can introduce as many attacks on working-class people as they wish and you are only going to resist if you think you can get away with it without suffering disciplinary consequences. In other words, the government will continue to dictate the agenda and you will do nothing about it.
In reality, wresting the agenda from Blair will require some very tough confrontational tactics indeed, so if the rebels want to make their mark on this parliament then they are going to have to go in for a lot more defiance of the whips, not less. For instance, if both the Liberal Democrats and the Tories oppose cuts in disability benefits, then an extra 40-odd Labour rebels could defeat the government. In such a rebellion — that is, when the rebels can really make a difference to what the government does, and really raise a banner for working-class people — the pressure from the whips will be a thousand times greater. The key is for the left MPs to start to function as an independent Labour group who owe their allegiance to the broad labour movement and not to the Prime Minister.
We don’t, of course, mean that they should demonstratively resign the Labour whip, but that they should refuse to vote for anti-working-class measures and set out to appeal to the broad labour movement — the trade union rank and file, Constituency Labour Party activists and community-based campaigns — for political support and solidarity. That way they can link up with the opposition outside parliament over issues like tuition fees and cuts. If the left MPs dodge difficult issues by hiding behind the silence of the right-wing leaders of the trade unions or the National Union of Students, then they will simply leave the extra-parliamentary opposition without any kind of parliamentary focus, thus making defeat more likely.
The best of the rebels are already prepared to put their loyalty to the class above the dictates of the whips, but others see the rebellion as a way of bolstering their careers — and in the long run their ministerial prospects. If the latter group are allowed to shape the strategic thinking of the rebels, and people start to rest on their laurels about the government’s temporary setbacks, then Blair will inevitably regain all the initiative and plough on with his programme of counter-reforms. Thankfully, the future of socialism does not rest solely in the hands of 61 parliamentary rebels. There are millions of people who are already starting to feel disillusioned with the direction in which Blair is taking the government. The key here is to mobilise people into activity. In the last analysis, it will be the level of defiance in demonstrations, protests, pickets, occupations and strikes that will determine whether or not Blair will succeed in further driving down working-class living standards and culture and in remaking the welfare state on US lines.
However, mass action on its own can only frustrate a government. As the experience of the poll tax demonstrates, if direct action is to do more than block the government, then those engaged in it need their own overall political alternative. It is the job of revolutionary socialists not just to be the very best fighters in the front-line, but also to give a sense of political coherence and purpose to the fightback that will develop in the workplaces, on the estates and in the schools, colleges and hospitals. This is not just a matter of defensive battles and demands on Blair to change course. The core idea that has to be popularised is a workers’ government. We should counterpose to Blair’s bosses’ government, which is in the pockets of big business and committed to carrying out those bits of the Thatcher programme that even the Tories never dared attempt, the idea of a workers’ government based on and accountable to the democratic grass roots of the labour movement and committed to an emergency plan for full employment and rebuilding the welfare state.