In August 1931, the Labour movement was reeling from the ravages of a
world slump and the collapse of the second Labour government. After an intense campaign in
the capitalist press, the Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, crossed the floor of
the Commons with a handful of supporters to join with the Tories and Liberals in forming a
National Government. This reactionary government unleashed an all-out assault on the
conditions of the working class, and especially the unemployed. This event was considered
one of the greatest betrayals in the history of the Labour Party. "The memory of
Ramsay MacDonald’s betrayal of the 1931 government", correctly noted the Financial
Times, "is etched in blood on the party’s memory." (23/4/96)
However, more than sixty-five years later, voices have once again been raised about the
need for a radical realignment of British politics and the formation of some kind of
coalition. The latest came last month from the main organ of British capitalism, the
Financial Times, in an article speculating on the likelihood of the leader of the Liberal
Democrats Paddy Ashdown becoming foreign secretary in a Blair government. "The idea
is being increasingly discussed in Liberal Democrat circles", states the article,
"and new evidence suggests the prime minister may not be averse to the idea."
The "evidence" is the close working relationship Blair and other ministers
have with Ashdown, especially over international questions. Ashdown, the FT claims, was a
regular visitor to Number Ten during late January and early February, where he advised
Blair over the Gulf Crisis.
These suggestions, coming on top of a stream of information about a future political
realignment, are a serious warning to the Labour movement. "If Blair is the Ramsay
MacDonald of the Nineties," warns the Observer, "he could be getting his
National Government in early as well." (24/9/95). Tony Benn has also recently drawn
parallells between today and the period of 1929-31 and the formation of the National
Government. With the shift towards "coalition" or "consensus" politics
over the past period by the rightwing leadership of the Labour movement, a new world slump
– which is in the offing – could become the catalyst for an all-out campaign to split the
Labour movement and for the establishment of a new coalition or National Government.
Is this simply alarmist or are there serious grounds for such a development? Given the
massive shift to the right in the Labour leadership and their ever closer relations with
the Liberals and even ‘left’ Tories, Socialist Appeal has consistently warned of the
possibility of a future national government. The process now has gone much further than
the Butskellism of the 1950s, where there was very little difference between the policy of
either the Labour or Tory parties. The election of Tony Blair as leader of the Labour
Party – with the full backing of the capitalist press – marked a further shift to the
right. Blair stands on the extreme right of the party, which wants to turn the Labour
Party into a capitalist party along the lines of Clinton’s Democratic Party in America. To
do so would mean not simply the abandonment of socialism but a complete break with the
trade unions. "I want a situation more like the Democrats and the Republicans in the
US", Blair said. "People don’t even question for a single moment that the
Democrats are a pro-business party. They should not be asking the question about New
Labour" (Financial Times 16/1/97). In reality, there is no fundamental difference
politically between Blair, the Liberal Democrats and the Clarke wing of the Tory party.
Around Blair there is a whole layer of ex-SDP advisers – the ‘modernisers’ – who jumped
on the bandwagon to further their own political careers. As one MP correctly said, quoted
in the Independent on Sunday, "Tony is surrounding himself with people who are
clever, able, upper-middle-class and arrogant, and who do not respect the Labour
Party." (17/9/95). In fact they have a deep seated contempt for the Labour party, its
traditions and its trade union base.
Astonishingly, Blair’s true feelings for the Labour Party were revealed at last year’s
Annual Conference when expressing admiration for Keynes, Beveridge and Lloyd George, he
said: "Division among radicals almost 100 years ago resulted in a 20th century
dominated by Conservatives. I want the 21st century to be the century of the
radicals." In other words, the split of the trade unions from the Liberal Party and
the establishment of an independent Party of Labour was a mistake! And he hopes to rectify
this ‘mistake’ by bringing about a realignment of politics and the rebirth of the old
Liberal Party. "His aim is to recreate the broad progressive alliance which sustained
the reforms of the pre-First World War Liberal Government", stated the Times
(22/9/97). Roy Jenkins, Lib Dem leader in the Lords, said of Tony Blair in the Observer:
"One of his strongest desires is to heal the split on the centre-left which has
existed since 1914…"
Before the general election, Blair was having secret discussions with Ashdown about the
possibility of a coalition government. The Financial Times revealed that they met every
two weeks or so before the election to consider the appointment of Lib Dem ministers in
the Blair government. However, "after the landslide it was impossible to sell
coalition to Labour’s rank and file." But the FT revealed that Blair phoned Ashdown
at 4am on May 2nd to tell him: "We are still on to sort something out between us. I
will be in touch."
Of course, the rank and file were kept in the dark about these coalition discussions
between Blair and Ashdown, but it shows how far the Labour leadership is prepared to go.
For them, the "affairs of state" are above the narrow confines of party
politics. With socialism off the agenda, "politics" comes down to how best to
run the capitalist system. Class collaboration at the tops of the movement has been in
full swing, and cross-party co-operation is its natural extension. Consequently, Blair has
sent his two lieutenants, Frank Field and Alistair Darling, to the Lib Dem conference to
address fringe meetings on the need for closer collaboration.
Blair has also made it clear how far right this so-called "centre-left"
embraces. Margaret Thatcher, who presided over enormous suffering for working class people
in Britain, for which she will never be forgiven, is openly admired by Blair. "She
was a thoroughly determined person and that is an admirable quality. It is important in
politics to have a clear sense of purpose and direction, to know what you want", he
said. "I believe Mrs Thatcher’s emphasis on enterprise was right" (Sunday Times
23/4/95). The problem for millions of Labour supporters was that Thatcher represented the
cold calculated interests of big business, and carried these through with "a clear
sense of purpose." Within days of Labour winning the general election, she was
invited into Downing Street to offer Blair advice on Europe. At the same time, the trade
unions were told to keep their distance.
Despite Labour winning a 179 seat majority, Blair has continued to court the Liberal
Democrats. Soon after the election he set up a Cabinet Committee on constitutional reform
involving the Liberal leaders, and there was discussion over how to broaden this cross
party co-operation, to embrace Northern Ireland and Europe. PR was then proposed for the
European elections and the elections for the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies. Lord Jenkins
has said the two parties needed to work together in a coalition in Edinburgh to ensure a
coherent majority. With the rise of the SNP, the Labour leaders will be looking eagerly at
such a deal, which will be disastrous for Labour within a relatively short space of time.
Blair is constantly raising the distinction between ‘new’ and ‘old’ Labour as a means
of shifting the party further to the right. Tuition fees, abolition of student grants,
PFI, privatisation, cuts in welfare benefits, workfare, and the maintenance of Tory
economic policy means a continuation of those policies overwhelmingly rejected by the
electorate 12 months ago. The rigid spending limits still imposed on local authorities
have resulted in swingeing cuts in front-line services – home helps, social welfare,
libraries and leisure facilities.
The low turnout in the local elections is a reflection of the lack of enthusiasm for
the Labour government. There is growing disillusionment amongst Labour supporters. In
Scotland an opinion poll for the "Daily Record" in April showed that 28% feel
things are a little, or a lot, better under Labour compared with the Tories, and 47% see
no change. Their mood can be summed up as follows: "Why are we still waiting for the
things we voted for?" In another opinion poll of voting intentions for the Scottish
Parliament, which again reflects the same process, the SNP is ahead of the Labour Party.
They feel let down on the big promise, not contained on the small pledge card, to undo the
damage caused by 18 years of Thatcherism and Majorism.
Instead of that, Blair has chased after big business. "New Labour is pro-business,
pro-enterprise… Our aim all the way through is to win another term. And the only way
that will be done is by running for office as New Labour and governing as New Labour. That
is the key to their business relationship" (FT, 16/1/97). That is why a whole range
of business people have been drawn into the government.
Blair has announced that he wants to break down the ideological divide between Labour
and the Tories. This approach has been echoed by Peter Mandelson, the great ‘pragmatist,’
"You don’t have grand ideologies of either of the left or right in politics any
longer. What you have is different approaches to managing issues.. Let me make the point
on the record. There is nothing wrong with capitalism with a social conscience or a human
face." Blair later summed this up with his phrase "the Third Way", neither
socialism nor hard-faced Thatcherism, but something totally different.
But all this talk of a "third way" is mere camouflage for a policy that
serves the aims and interests of big business. It is a justification of capitalism
"with a social conscience." The Labour leadership attempts to straddle the
classes through a policy of "social partnership", but this breaks down as soon
as class interests come to the fore. Thus the need for Gordon Brown to be the ‘Iron
Chancellor’, to stick within Tory spending limits and policies of sound finance. This is
the language of all past Tory chancellors that imposed austerity policies on the working
class. Such policies can never solve the crisis of British capitalism nor satisfy the
aspirations of the working class.
A new world crisis would wreck the British economy, throw millions out of work and
cause living standards to plummet. To continue with pro-capitalist policies would lead to
huge opposition within the trade unions and the Labour Party. This would inevitably
reflect itself in the Parliamentary Labour Party. The revolt in Parliament of 47 Labour
MPs over the cut in lone parent benefits is symptomatic of what is to come. This was
hinted at in the Guardian editorial just after the lone parent benefit revolt: "The
cut to lone parents’ benefit triggered not just Tony Blair’s worst day in the Commons
since taking office, but a hint of a bleak realignment of British politics. On show
yesterday was not the centre-left alliance which so excites Roy Jenkins, but a Coalition
of Conservatives and Labour. Yesterday’s 457-107 vote looked a lot like the first act of a
new National Unity Government of the right…" True, the Liberals opportunistically
opposed the government’s cut this time. But as Trotsky once commented, "scratch a
Liberal and you will find a reactionary underneath." In the future, as the crisis
deepens, they will do the capitalist’s bidding for the sake of the "national
interest" as they historically have always done.
We should recall that in 1966 Harold Wilson had a majority of 97 in Parliament, but was
derailed by the introduction of pro-capitalist policies, which ultimately led to defeat in
1970. The only saving grace today is the malaise within the Tory Party. The resignation of
Major and the election of Hague has not solved the Tories problems, but has tended to
exacerbate their antagonisms, especially over Europe. There has already been a number of
resignations, but the fight between the Eurosceptic majority and the Heseltine-Clarke wing
threatens to split the Tory party apart. This has been further reinforced by the decision
to ‘grant’ the rank and file of the Tory Party a greater say over policy and the
leadership. The grass roots are far more reactionary than the leadership and can push the
Tories even more to the right. As Julian Critchley pointed out: "Any observer who has
attended a Conservative Party conference in whatever capacity can only have been alarmed
by the prejudices shown by the bulk of the party activists who attend such jamborees. With
a few exceptions, the ‘floor’ consists of rightwing Tories of the most unattractive kind:
racists, floggers and hangers and passionate ‘Eurosceptics’." (Times, 19/12/97). But
these delegates are a true reflection of the grass roots of the Tory Party and would serve
to increasingly alienate the likes of Heseltine and Clarke. They could easily split away
and fit very comfortably in a National Government under Blair.
In Britain, after the defeat of the general strike in 1926, the bulk of workers looked
to the political front to solve their problems. This resulted in the victory of the Labour
Party in 1929. The Labour Party came to power with Ramsey MacDonald as prime minister, and
a commitment to reduce the level of unemployment, which stood at over one million. It was
a minority government, 38 seats short of a majority, and therefore reliant on the Liberals
to get its legislation through.
With the Wall Street Crash in October and the world slump that followed, mass
unemployment rose to record levels. In early 1931 the capitalist press, led by The Times,
orchestrated a campaign for a National Government. The crisis, they said, was a time to
drop party differences and for the best brains of all parties to come together for the
national interest. By June 1931, unemployment has reached 2,700,000. To balance the
budget, the Labour chancellor demanded orthodox deflationary policies encompassing deep
cuts ("economies" ) in public expenditure. In February the ‘May Committee’ was
established to look at economies and recommend a cuts package to the government. Under the
pressure of big business, MacDonald and a majority of the Cabinet capitulated to the
bankers and the City.
"Consultations" took place both with the TUC and the bankers. The TUC opposed
the ‘economies’, but put forward no alternative. The bankers demanded more. The proposed
cuts resulted in large-scale opposition within the trade unions and the ranks of the
Labour Party. This opposition led the Fabian Sidney Webb, also a government minister, to
complain that "the trade union leaders are pigs." In August the Cabinet
reluctantly agreed to a package of cuts worth £56 million to balance the books. However,
an additional £25-30 million were demanded by the bankers. This included measures to
reduce unemployment benefit by 10%, and the wage bill of teachers, the services and the
police. Under intense pressure from the Labour movement, a minority in the Cabinet came
out against the extra cuts.
According to the historian Colin Bell, "for much of the year all three parties
seemed to be breaking up…. These splits and disagreements reinforced the opinion that
some new political arrangement was needed; there was a crisis, all three parties were
divided among themselves, and all authoritative observers held that it was essential that
the country rallied round and accepted a swingeing bout of public parsimony."
Soon after the Cabinet meeting, MacDonald wrote of those who opposed the extra cuts as
taking "the easy path of irresponsibility". MacDonald immediately set off for
Buckingham Palace to inform the King of the situation. There he urged the King to send for
the leaders of the official opposition parties to discuss measures in the "national
interest". The ruling class wanted a strong government to carry through the necessary
attacks on the working class. The Labour government went so far, but given the pressure
from below, proved unreliable from the point of view of big business.
The following day a National Government was formed with the Tories, a section of the
Liberals, and a few Labour renegades with MacDonald as Prime Minister. In the subsequent
general election, the Labour Party was dealt a severe blow. The number of Labour MPs fell
from 289 in 1929 to a mere 46 in 1931 and its vote fell by two million. Although the
National government was able to secure 70% of the vote in the subsequent election, by
stampeding the middle class and the politically backward workers, the National Government
proved no lasting solution. According to Malcolm Muggeridge, looking back on events:
"Once the National Government had performed the surprising feat of coming into
existence, its initiative was exhausted. The lamp had been rubbed, the jinn had appeared,
but no instructions were forthcoming as to how its formidable powers should be exercised.
The Conservative members of the Cabinet believed in tariffs, the Liberal members of the
Cabinet in free trade, the Labour members of the Cabinet in continuing to be members of
the Cabinet, and the Prime Minister in continuing to be Prime Minister."
Nevertheless, the vicious cuts doled out to the unemployed and other workers served to
propel the Labour Party to the left. This was a real danger for the ruling class.
"There is a third danger ahead", wrote the Times, "but it is a danger to
the nation rather than to the Government. Broadly speaking, the whole of the Socialist
Party will be reconsolidated in Opposition – with this enormous difference, that they will
have lost the guidance of leaders few indeed in numbers but the ripest of all in practical
experience of affairs… The Labour Party … will now be definitely controlled by its
more prejudiced and ignorant elements." (26th August 1931).
Today, the situation has marked differences with 1931. In particular, rather than a
minority government, the present Labour government has a majority of 179. Will this serve
to prevent a future coalition? Such a view is over optimistic. The majority of 179 is not
only a source of strength for Blair, but also a source of great weakness. As The Economist
explained: "Lots of Labour MPs who unexpectedly won their seats in May’s landslide
have little enough chance of winning next time. If little chance seems to be turning to no
chance, they may be tempted to make a splash as parliamentary rebels. If they are going
down, they may decide to take a few hundred of their colleagues with them." The
article raises the idea of a split in the PLP at a certain stage. That is certainly
Blair’s fear, and the reason why he is bringing in rule changes to punish and deselect MPs
who step out of line. That is the reason for cuddling up to the Liberals. But as the
revolt over single parent benefits shows, events can transform the situation and open up a
whole series of parliamentary rebellions. As in 1929-31, splits are inherent in the
A deep slump in the world economy would have devastating consequences nationally and
internationally. It would completely undermine any illusions in "the market",
and serve to discredit the rightwing and their attempt to prop up capitalism. On the one
hand, a crisis would see enormous pressure from the working class to change society, on
the other there would be intense pressure from big business for the Blair government to
launch an all-out assault on living standards. The parallells with 1929-31 are striking.
Big opposition in the trade unions and constituency parties – which is inevitable – may
therefore convince the rightwing that the party is not worth holding together. After all,
Blair’s model is the US Democrats. A revolt of the rank and file will bring into question
the whole "New Labour" project. At a certain stage, unable to satisfy the
aspirations of the party’s rank and file, they may decide to cut their losses and hold out
their arms to the Liberals and "left" Tories as in 1931. But given the strength
of the working class as compared with then, a National Government will not be as long
lasting. A leftward moving Labour Party would quickly recover.
Nevertheless, today we have a responsibility to warn of this danger. Labour and trade
union activists must energetically counter the ideas of coalition and partnership
politics. The Labour government must be forced to break with Tory policies. These policies
of patching up capitalism are a disaster for the Labour movement and working people
generally. They are leading to growing disillusionment. In the future, those voices in
favour of coalition will receive the full backing of the capitalist media. Their aim will
be to split the Labour Party and crush it electorally. We must demand the party clearly
rejects coalition and coalition politics. The only alternative is a bold socialist
programme, based on the old Clause Four. Only by taking over the commanding heights of the
economy and planning industry in the interests of the majority can the ills of mass
unemployment, poverty and homelessness be eradicated. On the basis of capitalism, the
convulsions of the boom/slump cycle and the threat of a world depression can only mean
untold misery for working people. No repeat of 1931! Reject coalition politics! For real
socialist policies to answer the crisis and solve the problems faced by the working class!