In the Guardian on 15 January, Alan Milburn, Tony Blair’s chosen general election coordinator, set out New Labour’s prospectus for the general election likely in May.
Through the fog of buzzwords and spin-jargon in Milburn’s article, the message emerged: more privatisation, more marketisation.
One major element, not specified by Milburn, but reported as a New Labour plan by the Guardian and Financial Times on 27 December, is to replace direct care home and meals-on-wheels provision for the elderly by vouchers or cash with which pensioners would then make “consumer choice” between different providers. According to New Labour officials quoted by the Guardian, it would “create profits for providers” while “driving poor providers out of the system”.
Milburn’s big idea is more “opportunities for people to earn and own”. More “choice in public services”. More “diversity in provision and choice for parents and patients”. Breaking “glass ceilings”. “Reward effort and enterprise”. “If people put something in, they get something back”. “If you play by the rules, you get a chance to progress”.
This rhetoric is a full-scale switch from the old social-democratic programme of promoting substantive social equality (gradually and without disturbing capitalism too much!) to outright Thatcherism.
The most Thatcherite Tories also talk about “rewarding effort and enterprise” and breaking “glass ceilings”. Their claim for free-market capitalism is that it is a system where “if you play by the rules, you get a chance to progress”.
Indeed, the Tory governments of 1979-97 did enable lots of middle-class people, and some better-off working-class people, as well as the ultra-rich, to prosper while paying lower taxes. They did enable lots more people to become home-owners and shareholders. They did double the number of students in higher education.
Only that “progress”, like capitalist progress generally, came with a flipside: millions pauperised or deprived of effective trade-union self-protection, tens of thousands homeless, millions of kids caught at the wrong end of a brutally competitive education system.
Milburn and Blair promise more of the same. If the Tories are in deep trouble, driven to resort to stale recycling of the old claim that they will cut taxes by cutting “bureaucratic waste” in the government machinery, it is because New Labour have taken over their policies.
In this story, the dog that did not bark, or at any rate has not barked yet, is the trade unions. Last summer the union leaders told their members that they had won large concessions from the Blair leadership in the “Warwick Agreement”, and on that basis gave Blair an easy ride at September’s Labour Party conference.
What has happened to the Warwick Agreement now? What do the unions have to say about Milburn’s promise that a New Labour third term will be even more Thatcherite than the first two?
All the union leaders seem to be doing is hoping that Gordon Brown will one day succeed Blair, and not be so bad. But whatever secondary differences Brown has with Blair — and the main one, Brown’s cooler attitude to British entry into the euro, is not a left-right one at all — on the big issues Brown is at one with Blair.
• The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty has joined with other left groups to make a challenge to the New Labour consensus in the forthcoming General Elections. More details: