According to opinion poll ratings, Tony Blair is now an even more unpopular Prime Minister than the much-despised Margaret Thatcher ever managed to be. What a condemnation after ten years of New Labour government – a government now identified with sleaze, corruption and the rehash of the same bankrupt Tory policies as before.
Blair's departure will be welcomed by many, not least by the millions who voted Labour in 1997, only to have their hopes dashed. However, everything is now being set in motion to ensure the smooth "Coronation" of the chancellor Gordon Brown as leader and prevent a challenge by left-winger John McDonnell.
This back-door conspiracy is also supported by some of the trade union leaders. Despite the fact that a Brown premiership will mean a continuation of Blairism, while McDonnell represents left policies democratically approved by trade unions conferences, the leaders of UNISON, TGWU, AMICUS, GMB and others have shamefully failed to come out publicly in support of McDonnell. Only the FBU and RMT (which are not affiliated to the party) as well as ASLEF have done so. By acting in this manner the leaders of the main unions are in effect giving full support to Brown and are completely out of touch with their rank and file.
Leon Trotsky once wrote that the most conservative force in British society is the trade union leadership. In effect, their failure to back McDonnell is a reflection of this. There is no difference between Blair and Brown - indeed there are no principled differences between Brown, John Reid and Charles Clarke or any of the other suggested choices of the Blairites, except for crude personal ambition. They all support privatization, the anti-union laws, the sacking of 100,000 civil servants, wage cuts in the public sector, PFI, the war in Iraq, etc.
The trade unions have the power to transform the Labour Party and clear out the Blairite carpetbaggers. They have a golden opportunity before them to win the Labour Party back for the working class, not in words but in deeds. They should start by putting their full weight behind John McDonnell for leader.
Without a radical change of leadership and the adoption of bold socialist policies, Labour is heading for defeat at the next election. As we go to press, Labour is facing a drubbing in the local elections, as well as in the Welsh assembly and Scottish parliamentary elections. This will be due, not so much to a revival of the Tories or anyone else, but as a result of mass abstentions by tradition Labour voters disillusioned by 10 grim years of New Labour. The latest opinion poll puts Labour on 29%, the lowest support for the Labour Party since Michael Foot was leader, some 25 years ago!
In the past the trade union leaders pleaded with their members not to "rock the boat" and wait for the Labour government. Well we have been waiting 10 years – surely long enough! – and yet things are not getting better, but are getting worse, much worse.
While the rich in Britain have never had it so good, millions of workers, especially in the public sector, are facing wage cuts. The Chancellor is telling public sector workers to pull in their belts by imposing a wage "rise" of 2.5%, when the cost of transport, housing and local services have rocketed. The retail price index has now jumped to 4.8%. As Socialist Appeal has explained many times, the economic "boom" that Brown boasts about has been at the expense of the working class. Millions have tried to make ends meet by going into debt. Now with new interest rate increases immanent, the cost of borrowing will rise, together with mortgage bills, imposing further burdens on the working class, especially the low paid. At the same time the banks have announced record profits. No wonder workers are saying enough is enough!
The health service was supposed to have benefited under the Labour government, but the extra resources have only brought spending up to the European average (which has existed since the 1960s) and is now set to drop dramatically from next year. The reintroduction of the market into the NHS is producing a deep crisis where many health trusts are in deficit and are being forced to cut jobs and services. According to a survey by the RCN, some 22,300 NHS jobs have been lost in the last 18 months. It was discovered that a hospital in the north of England was "recycling" its bed linen to reduce its laundry bills! Brown has now told nurses that they will not get the below-inflation increase of 2.5% as it was "unaffordable"! They would get 1.5% now and a further 1% in November, saving the exchequer £60m. This has provoked a boiling anger amongst nurses, health workers and public sector workers generally. This has been reflected at this year's conference of the Royal College of Nurses, which, for the time in its 91-year history, has taken the decision by 97% to 3% to ballot for industrial action over pay. This represents a social earthquake. This once moderate "Royal College" had a no strike clause in its constitution up until 12 years ago and has never taken national industrial action in its entire history! The GMB, representing ambulance workers, porters and auxiliary staff, vote by 90% for industrial action. This will be followed by UNISON which is also expected to back action by nurses, having voted unanimously at its health conference to ballot for action up to and including strikes. Meanwhile, 200,000 civil servants are also taking national action during May.
This tide of rising discontent has reached an explosive level and is a direct result of the actions of the Blair/Brown government. Instead of attempting to hold back the movement, the trade unions leaders should be generalizing this movement in a one-day general strike of all public sector workers against the government imposed wage cuts. Instead of backing Brown for leader of the Labour Party, they should be putting their full weight behind John McDonnell. They should be using Blair's departure to wage a campaign to drive the Blairites out all together and return the Labour Party to its roots. That can only mean taking up socialist policies as the only alternative to big business, the "market" and all the other dog-eat-dog ills of capitalism.