On 7th June, the people of Britain will go to the polls to elect
the next government. According to all the polls Labour is set to gain
a hefty majority over the Conservatives. The polls show that Labour
is now leading the Tories by a massive 28 points. The personal rating
of Tory leader William Hague is just 13 per cent.
"According to our poll," writes The Economist (19 May), "54 per
cent of people intend to vote Labour. With support for the Tories
down to 26 per cent, they could face a defeat on the scale that
Labour suffered in 1983, when it got 28 per cent of the vote."
Yet the election campaign has been as dead as a Dodo, and the
great majority show little interest and less enthusiasm for either
New Labour or the Tories. The general election turnout is likely to
be low – some have even predicted the lowest for over 100 years. The
reason for this alleged "voter apathy" is not hard to find.
In May 1997, Labour won a landslide majority after 18 long years
of right wing Tory government. Tony Blair, the new leader of the
Labour Party promised a new and "radical" policy to build a "better
Britain". But once installed in Number Ten Downing Street he has
followed a policy tailored exclusively to the interests of Big
One of the first actions he took was to give the Bank of England
control over interest rates, thus handing over effective control of
economic policy to the representatives of the City. Next, he
announced that Labour would restrict its public spending to the cash
limits set by the defeated Tory administration.
The austerity policies of the Blair government led to attacks on
the poorest and most vulnerable groups in British society, such as
single parents. The pensioners were offered an insulting rise of 75
pence. Although they later gave more, the insult is not forgotten.
In stark contrast to this "tough" line with the poor, the
Blairites are openly bragging about their friendship with business.
Chancellor Gordon Brown has boasted that Britain has "the lowest rate
in history of British corporation tax, the lowest of any major
country in Europe and the lowest rate of any major industrialised
country anywhere, including Japan and the United States."
He might have added that Britain also now has some of the longest
hours, lowest pay and worst working conditions of any major
industrialised country. At present, British workers work 25 per cent
longer hours than workers in Europe or the USA. Polly Townsend,
writing in The Guardian (23/3/01) points out: "The OECD –
conservative economists – finds Britain has the least market
regulation, the lowest corporation tax (lower than any time in
history) and the lowest employment costs – not just lower than the
rest of Europe, but when everything is added on (including US
employers’ health insurance) lower than the US too. Social insurance
and labour taxes average 24 per cent in Europe and only 13 per cent
The Blair government has done little to remedy this. The
introduction of the minimum wage was a step forward, but it was set
at such a low rate as to water it down completely. Even a large part
of the notorious Tory anti-trade union legislation – which restricts
trade union rights to a far greater extent than in any other
industrialised nation – have not been rescinded.
While Blair struts around the world stage, parts of Britain are
falling to almost Third-World levels. Public housing, education and
transport are in a lamentable state. The much-vaunted National Health
Service is now in ruins. Once Britain led the world in health. Now,
according to the World Health Organisation, 25000 Britons who died of
cancer every year would have lived if the NHS was at the best
European levels. Expenditure on health in Britain is only one third
of US levels, and one half that of France.
After decades of neglect, the infrastructure is crumbling. The
Observer (27 May) pointed out that investment in the public sector
under New Labour has been even lower than under Thatcher: "Investment
in hospitals, schools and transport infrastructure sunk to the lowest
sustained level since the Second World War during Labour’s four years
in power [….] Overall real investment declined by 4.4 per cent a
year, a larger decline than was registered during Margaret Thatcher’s
Yet the answer of Blair and the Labour Right is to privatise and
invite Big Business to invest in public services. Corporate
executives have been appointed to the cabinet and hundreds of
quangos. Most of the assets of the state are gradually being
privatised by means of the private finance initiative. The better
regulation task force, which was to defend workers and consumers from
the erosion of standards by big business lobbying, has been handed to
the head of Northern Foods. Even where privatisation is not yet a
fact, the public sector is forced to imitate the methods of the
private sector. But people can see that the so-called Private Finance
Initiative is nothing but a fraud. There are fewer hospital beds and
worse terms of employment than before.
These policies have been disastrous for Labour. They have led to a
series of devastating defeats in Wales and Scotland and in the
European elections. Above all, they led to an unprecedented routing
of the official Labour candidate in the election for the mayor of
London. For lack of an alternative, and to keep the Tories out, the
working class will vote for Labour in the general election. But they
will do so with neither enthusiasm nor conviction.
When Labour wins on 7 June it will not be because of, but in
spite of, Tony Blair.
Why Labour will win
Despite everything, Labour will win this election by a sizeable
margin. This is a decisive answer to those on the fringes of the
labour movement who have left the Labour Party and are desperately
striving to build phantom "revolutionary" armies in the clouds.
Although many working class people are disappointed with Blair and
his policies, they see no alternative to the Labour Party at the
present time. They do not want a return to Tory rule and therefore
have rallied once more to Labour. Blair and the Labour right wing
will try to present this as a victory for the pro-capitalist policies
of the leadership. It is nothing of the kind. Beneath the surface,
there is a simmering discontent, anger and frustration which will
inevitably surface in the next period and will have far-reaching
effects inside the Labour Party.
The prospect of a Labour victory is based primarily on the world
boom which has kept the British economy afloat over the past four
years. Despite the increased polarisation of wealth and the increase
in stress at work, real wages have continued to rise while inflation
remains low. The effects of the economic slowdown have not yet been
felt by most people. As the Financial Times put it: "With
unemployment and mortgage rates at historical lows and house prices
continuing to rise after last year’s boom, the feelgood factor
However, this ‘boom’ has not improved the lot of many workers in
the industrial areas, where there is a considerable degree of
dissatisfaction, and all the indicators are now pointing in the
direction of a recession in the forthcoming period. Thus, the second
Blair administration will not be like the first one. There is no
enthusiasm for Labour, as there was in 1951 or even 1966, when Labour
was forced to go to the polls for a second time. This is especially
the case in the traditional working class areas of Britain. They will
vote to give the Labour government a second chance. But If the
Blairite leadership thinks it can just resume where it left off, it
is in for a rude awakening. They will not wait indefinitely for the
big changes they have been promised.
The discontent with Blair is particularly strong among the
activists in the Party and especially in the unions, which are still
organically linked to the Labour Party. Once the election is out of
the way, the decks will be cleared for action. Already before the
election, it is possible to see the beginnings of a change of mood on
the industrial front, with a spate of unofficial strikes in the post
office, and strikes on the London Underground, the railways etc. This
is a sign of things to come.
The gathering storm
There are already storm clouds gathering on the horizon. The
outlook is looking very bleak as the world economy begins to slow
down. In the United States manufacturing is already in recession. Its
economy is running a current account deficit of 4 per cent a year.
Investment is falling rapidly and stocks are being run down in an
attempt to boost flagging profitability. In a desperate attempt to
prevent a slump, the Fed cut interest rates for the fifth time in as
The tame economists try to argue that Britain will not be affected
by the slowdown in the United States. This argument is completely
phoney. In Britain manufacturing output fell in the first quarter of
the year – the sharpest fall since early 1999, in the aftermath of
the last global slowdown. Output fell sharply in new economy sectors
such as electronics and in old economy industries. Again, according
to the CBI manufacturing has undergone the biggest drop in business
confidence since January 1999. This will increase a hundred-fold as
the world economy slides into global recession.
The inherent weakness of British capitalism is shown by the
persistently high figures of unemployment. It is true that
unemployment has fallen, but it still remains in the region of one
million. And the official figures understate the true position, since
they exclude up to three million people who are looking for work but
excluded from receiving benefits.
In the past two decades a large part of Britain’s manufacturing
base has been destroyed. The level of investment in industry has
lagged behind that of Germany, France and other countries. Even
formally backward Italy has overtaken Britain, and Spain is not far
behind. The former workshop of the world has been largely turned into
a parasitic rentier economy based on banking and services, like
France before the Second World War. This has had serious social
Workers who were made redundant in mining, steel and car
manufacturing have been made unemployed or been pushed into low paid
jobs in the service sector. The situation in many of the older
industrial areas in the North resembles Dickensian England. And this
is the situation in a boom. What will happen in a slump?
A world economic crisis will rapidly reveal the underlying
weakness of British capitalism. It will strip away the budget surplus
as unemployment rises and tax revenues fall. The bankers, the City of
London and big business will demand austerity measures in their
interests. At the same time there will be growing resistance to such
policies from the working class, reflecting itself in growing
opposition particularly within the trade unions.
Crisis in the Tory Party
For the last 20 years, there has been an offensive of capitalism
under the banner of the Market. This international counter-offensive
of Capital was launched by Margaret Thatcher and then taken up by
Reagan in the USA. The British working class, which led the way in
the strike wave of the 1970s, bore the brunt of the employers’
offensive and paid the heaviest price in terms of the destruction of
workers’ rights, wages and conditions.
But this process has its limits. This was shown by the fall of
Thatcher – caused, let us not forget, by the mass rebellion against
the Poll Tax – and the resounding defeat of the Tories in the 1997
general election. This already indicated the beginnings of a turn in
the tide in Britain.
The Tory Party is now deeply divided and in crisis. Unable to
present a credible alternative to the policies of the Blairites, they
have tried to play first the race card ("asylum seekers"), then the
question of the Euro. But all these manoeuvres have failed. The
problem of the Tories is simply stated: Blair has stolen their
clothes. Since he was elected he has consistently done everything Big
Business has asked of him. They therefore have no need of the Tories
at the present time.
The cosy relation between Blair and Big Business has led some to
conclude that Labour is now a bourgeois party. That is a complete
misreading of the actual state of affairs. The ruling class does not
trust the Labour Party because of its links to the trade unions and
the working class. Of course, they will back Blair because he is
their man. But they understand very well that the Labour Party is not
As long as Blair is able to control the working class and carry
out a capitalist policy, they will continue to support him. But there
are limits to this. At a certain point, it will not be possible for
Blair and the right wing to keep the rank and file in check. At this
point they will unceremoniously turn against Labour and go back to
supporting the Tories, probably under new leadership. The Tory
humiliation at the polls will open up a period of crisis in the Tory
Party. Probably William Hague will be replaced by a more "credible"
leader like Michael Portillo.
As in mechanics so in society, every action has an equal and
opposite reaction. The unpopularity of Thatcherite policies was shown
in 1997 when the working class, and a big part of the middle class
voted overwhelmingly for a change. But no change has been forthcoming
from Blair’s New Labour. With the exception of a hypocritical
"social" rhetoric, it has been a question of "more of the same".
However, the situation in Britain is changing. After two decades
of mild reaction, the mood is shifting. This is shown by the polls
already referred to which show clearly that the mass of people now
reject privatisation. It is now generally understood that
privatisation is just a licence to plunder the public sector. Only
six per cent of voters (13 per cent of Tory voters) support the
running of public services by private companies.
All the polls show that privatisation is now unpopular in Britain,
with even Tory voters demanding the renationalisation of the railways
by huge majorities. 76 per cent of all voters want renationalisation,
including an incredible 71 per cent of Tory voters. 60 per cent are
against private pensions. Half of labour voters (48 per cent of all
voters) say that British Telecom should be renationalised. Fifty per
cent say that workers in the public sector are underpaid. This shows
that there is a sea-change in public opinion in Britain. The red
light is flashing for the Blairites.
Yet the self-styled realists of the Labour leadership, who claim
to be listening to the views of the electorate, remain deaf to all
this. They are determined to maintain their right-wing pro-business
line to the bitter end. The Blair government insists in pushing
through creeping privatisation of the schools and hospitals, as well
as the London Underground and Air Traffic Control.
Buoyed up by the prospect of an unexpectedly easy victory, Tony
Blair will be even more arrogant than heretofore. In the past he has
talked of his war against "the forces of conservatism", by which he
means the trade unions. The ruling class will be egging him on to
confront the unions in the public sector and press on with his
"radical" (capitalist) agenda. But the mass of working people will no
longer be so patient and tolerant as they were under the first Blair
administration. They will insist that Labour acts in their interests.
The Blairites will find themselves ground between two mill stones.
The working class in general learns from experience. The election
of the first Blair government was a necessary part of the learning
process whereby the masses put their leaders to the test. The real
attitude of the workers to Blair was shown in a whole series of
partial elections in Wales, Scotland, London etc., where they
registered an unprecedented protest. All this constitutes an
absolutely unavoidable stage in the development of consciousness. The
know-nothing sects interpreted this as proof that the working class
was moving away from Labour. The present election will show just how
little they have understood. The workers, having taken stock of the
position, will vote Labour to keep out the open representatives of
Big Business. But after the election, their attitude to the
government will not be the same as before.
For a time after the last general election, the workers were
inclined to give Labour the benefit of the doubt. But that will no
longer be the case under the next Blair government. The impatience
and frustration of the workers has been expressed in a series of
unofficial strikes in the Post Office (also threatened with creeping
privatisation). The depressed mood of the past is slowly beginning to
change to one of anger.
The trade union leaders who have so far largely succeeded in
keeping the lid on will be under pressure to act. In the recent
period there have not been many strikes, but in many cases there have
been big majorities for strike action where ballots have been held.
Not long ago, the RMT rail workers’ union voted eleven to one in
favour of strike action on the London Underground – the biggest
majority ever for strike action on the Underground.
The union leaders have tried to avoid strike action, pointing to
the danger of legal action under the anti trade union laws which,
disgracefully, remain on the statute books. But this will not hold
back the workers indefinitely. The unofficial (and illegal) strikes
in the Post Office is a warning of things to come. If the union
leaders continue to drag their feet, they will face outright
rebellion in one union conference after another. There will be a wave
of unofficial actions which the leaders will have to make official in
At a certain stage, the union leaders will be pushed into
semi-opposition, or even open opposition to Blair. The recent events
in Greece, where the right wing union leaders were forced to organise
two general strikes against the government of Simitis, the Greek Tony
Blair, is an indication of where Britain is heading.
The only reason why the class has not moved before now has been
the absence of a point of reference. The Labour Left has been
generally cowed and inactive. But that will change. Under these
circumstances, opposition will mount in the Labour Party, even within
the Parliamentary Labour Party. The right wing will be rapidly
discredited. Crisis will follow crisis. There will be sudden and
unexpected turns in the situation which sooner or later must find
their reflection inside the Labour Party.
Despite all Blair’s efforts the organic link between the Labour
Party and the unions has not been broken. The unions and the rank and
file will demand policies in the interests of working people. On the
basis of events, at a certain stage, a mass Left will emerge within
the Labour and trade union movement. The ideas of the Marxist
tendency in the unions and the Labour Party will gain a growing echo.
But the prior condition for success is that the Marxists must
participate and connect with the movement, not preach from the
The process that will open up was already anticipated in the
Livingstone affair in London. In protest at the high-handed conduct
of the Labour leadership in refusing to accept the democratic
decision of the London Labour Party, there was a revolt of the rank
and file. The whole Party was in a state of ferment. Overnight, not
just the local branches but also the affiliated unions sprang to
life. True, the movement subsided again when Livingstone left the
Party. But it showed the shape of things to come. In the next period,
there will be many other incidents like that which will shake up
every Party branch and union all over Britain.
Those people who continually ask themselves how it is possible
that the British workers continue to vote for Blair reveal a complete
lack of understanding of how the class moves. It is sufficient to
pose the question concretely to get the right answer. Where is the
alternative to Blair? The Tories? Certainly not. The Labour Left? But
they are invisible! The sects who fiddle and fuss on the fringes of
the Labour movement? That is just a joke. In the elections next week
the working class will once again vote Labour, not because they like
Blair or his policy, but simply because there is no alternative to
the Labour Party. Not to see this is to understand nothing about
the real situation in Britain.
In politics as in life, there are generally no short cuts to
success. Marxism will gain a foothold in the British working class to
the degree that it connects with the real movement of the working
people and establishes itself through patient work. Events, events,
events are needed to educate the class through its own experience and
actions. The victory of the Labour Party on 7 June is not the end of
the story, but only the closing of one chapter and the opening of a
new chapter. It will be particularly stormy one.