Looking back at the 18 years of Conservative rule between 1979 and 1997, rather than Â‘conserveÂ’ anything, Margaret Thatcher and her successor John Major did much to destroy, well at least hasten the demise of, whole swathes of our manufacturing base, as well our coal mining industry; also they went too far in privatising industries/facilities where any form of competition was impracticable: our railways and water supply; most other advanced Western countries (save for the rampantly capitalist U.S.A.) regard these as too important to be left to the private sector. Consider the name Liberal Democrats and how they have behaved in recent years – not liberal enough to speak out loudly in defence of free speech, defending the right of such persons as militant Islamic cleric Abu Hamza and BNP leader Nick Griffin to have a platform, or the play Bezhti when it was forced to close through Sikh violence at the Birmingham theatre where it was being staged. We may hate what they say but we should be stout defenders of their right to free expression. And I would say that the unceremonious dumping of Charles Kennedy for being too Â‘merryÂ’ (a fresh euphemism to replace that well-worn one Â“tired and emotionalÂ”) and then Menzies Campbell for being simply old didnÂ’t seem very democratic to me.
LetÂ’s now consider in more detail the so-called Labour Party. It grew out of the Trades Union movement of the late 19th century. It was first elected to government in 1924 under Ramsay MacDonald. Apart from building more council houses, this administration did not achieve much for the Â‘labouringÂ’ classes, well certainly less than the pre-World War One Liberal government of Asquith who introduced across-the-board old age pensions and national insurance for the first time. Most shamefully MacDonald, admittedly no longer in government, when called upon to voice support for the workers during the 1926 General Strike refused. The first genuine socialist government arrived with Clement AttleeÂ’s defeat of Winston Churchill in 1945. It was during his administration that the foundation stones of the modern welfare state were laid, its corner stone being the National Health Service. Next time Labour came to power was in 1964 under Harold Wilson, whose administration was not as radical as the Atlee government but nevertheless was not ashamed to believe in and indeed implement the doctrine of redistribution of wealth, as a result of which the top tier of tax for the super-rich was raised to over 90%. (A whimsical rather than angry reaction to this can be found in the Beatles song Taxman or the Kinks Sunny Afternoon, the opening line of which goes Â“taxmanÂ’s taken all my doe, IÂ’m left here sitting in my stately home.Â”)
Scroll forward to the mid-1990s when Tony Blair was elected leader of the Labour Party, or New Labour as it now flashily called itself, upon the sudden death of John Smith. One of his first moves was to get the Labour Party to revoke the famous Clause 4 of its original Constitution. This was an entirely vacuous move on the part of Blair, since Clause 4 Â“collective ownership of the land, and all means of production, distribution and exchangeÂ” was just of bit of flamboyant verbiage and had never been taken seriously by the Party. Blair only did this to signal to Middle England and the Murdoch press that he was not to be categorised with the Â‘loony leftÂ’ or indeed with the Â‘leftÂ’ at all. When shadow cabinet member Harriet Harmon managed to Â‘wangleÂ’ a place for one of her offspring in a better school further away rather than settle for the local comprehensive, instead of condemning this, Blair followed suit, sending his son to a classier school some distance from his local catchment area.
Did Tony Blair have any original ideas or a radical agenda? No, the evidence would suggest. His main platform was to Â‘moderniseÂ’ Britain; yes well, heÂ’d hardly proclaim that he was aiming to make this country more old-fashioned. Fortunately for Blair, the Conservative Party under Major was in such a state of meltdown that any alternative Â– even a stuffed pig Â– would have been elected rather than the sleaze-encrusted Tories. (The stuffed pig probably would have been more Â‘principledÂ’ than Blair though I concede not nearly so good-looking, well to female voters at any rate, perhaps not to a starving tramp).
So now we are approaching eleven continuous years of Labour party Â– sorry New Labour Â– rule. What has it done in this period for the Â‘labouringÂ’ classes? Apart from some minor tinkering with the tax system whereby a tax credit scheme has marginally benefited lower paid workers, IÂ’d say not much at all. Every survey in the last decade report that the rich of this country have been getting richer at a much faster rate than those lower down the income scale. Indeed, taking effect this April is the abolition of the 10p tax rate which means that single workers, i.e. those with no dependent children, earning between Â£5,000 and Â£18,000 are now worse off, whereas the lowering of the next tax band to 20p will make those earning over Â£18,000 better off. Not only has New Labour not reversed any of the privatisations of Thatcher/Major, they have continued to introduce private sector money and control into spheres the Tories wouldnÂ’t have dared even to mention: air-traffic control, the London Underground, part of the NHS in the form of Â‘poly-clinicsÂ’, and, as I write, teachers are threatening to go on strike over government plans to allow private enterprise, hoping to garner long-term profit, a big say in the way our children are educated in the latest government gimmick Â– the so-called Academies. Though this iniquitous private/public partnership ethos is unravelling before our eyes. The reason why repairs to major railway lines at Christmas overrun by several days, to the great chagrin of the travelling public, was because a lot of that essential repair work was outsourced to private companies who hadnÂ’t factored into their calculations that many key staff necessary for this work had booked extra long leave over the Christmas period. Again the debacle of the missing CD containing personal details of millions of social security claimants went missing because a private firm of couriers was employed to shift it from A to B. All of which means that under New Labour a whole raft of entrepreneurs, fund managers, consultants, accountants and share-holders have Â‘gottenÂ’ richer, leaving the Â‘labouring classesÂ’ pretty much in the same position that they were under the Tories.
Thatcher famously described the Trade Union movement, in particular the coal minersÂ’ union under Arthur Scargill, as Â“the enemy withinÂ”. Several Acts of Parliament were passed by the Thatcher government with the avowed intent to emasculate trade unions. She succeeded in that now membership of trade unions is under half that of twenty years ago, and strikes in the major sectors have become a lot rarer. Of course, some regard that as a good sign; I donÂ’t, considering that countries where they are no strikes are invariably totalitarian ones; by contrast countries where strikes are more common such as France and Italy tend to have a more robust democracy. One time say under Harold Wilson, the General Secretary of the TUC was often invited into No. 10 for Â‘beer and sandwichesÂ’ to add his pennyworth to national debate. Tony Blair by contrast rarely mentioned the TUC and was much more likely to invite Rupert Murdoch or the head of the CBI for talks at number ten. Indeed, ex-CBI head Digby Jones is now a Â‘semi-detachedÂ’ member of the current government. More crucially though is the fact that over this past decade Blair has shown a total lack of interest in repealing any of the anti-Trade Union legislation passed by Thatcher. Gordon Brown is apparently following suit, showing much greater friendship towards the haves rather than the have-nots, e.g. inviting billionaire Richard Branson as an honoured guest on his recent trip to India and Pakistan; in his inaugural address as Prime Minister, he made no mention of the working class or the representatives of the working class, just something about entering a new era of honesty and openness or some such trite nonsense.
Traditionally, a Labour government has been keener to distance itself from the American government of whatever hue; during the Vietnam War Prime Minister Wilson turned down PresidentÂ’s JohnsonÂ’s request for British troops to fight in Vietnam alongside the Americans. In contrast, Blair seemed as keen as Bush to instigate Â‘regime changeÂ’ in Iraq, to the extent of being too ready to believe dubious intelligence Â– the capability of Iraq to launch Â‘weapons of mass destructionÂ’ within 45 minutes, and to ride roughshod over the United Nations. Now I donÂ’t castigate Blair for that particular matter Â– I think Saddam Hussein should have been toppled earlier when he gassed thousands of Kurds in northern Iraq in 1988. But this proved just to be one episode of BlairÂ’s total subservience to the United States foreign policy; for instance, he not only gave approval to the USÂ’s ludicrous Strategic Defence Initiative Â– so called Â‘Son of Star WarsÂ’ – but also offered military bases in Filingdale, Yorkshire to facilitate this programme. The USA is still planning to go ahead with this scheme, proposing to establish anti-missile bases in Eastern Europe, on RussiaÂ’s doorstep. As well as being a colossal waste of money, it has naturally antagonised Russia, a country we canÂ’t afford to antagonise since we are now, what with North Sea gas and oil running out, increasingly dependent on Russia for fuel supplies. A more minor matter, though still indicative of this governmentÂ’s blind trust in America, has been the recent episodes of Â‘extraordinary renditionÂ’ Â– transference of terrorist suspects to countries where torture is permitted; until concrete evidence was finally produced about a month ago, Jack Straw and other members of this government were far too easily prepared to accept AmericaÂ’s denial over this.
I contend that since the creation of the National Health Service in the late 1940s, the most Â‘socialistÂ’ act of any government was Margaret Thatcher introduction of the Right-to-Buy scheme whereby long-term council house tenants could buy their properties at considerably discounted prices, a move which promoted wealth owning amongst the lower ranks and indirectly curtailed the opportunity for rich landlords to make an easy profit from renting to those who could not afford to buy a property. Now since the arrival of New Labour in 1997, it has become increasingly more difficult for the working class to become home owners; firstly because of the abolition of MIRAS Â– Mortgage Interest Relief at Source, whereby purchasers of dwellings who actually intended to live in them were financially favoured over those who merely wanted property as a second home, an investment or for letting to others. Currently, as you can see for yourself in TV programmes such as Homes Under the Hammer, those who already own several properties can more readily, under the current tax system and the willingness of banks, building societies to lend money under Â‘Buy to LetÂ’ schemes, acquire more properties to let. More than any other previous government, Labour or Conservative, New Labour has made this country a paradise for speculators and landlords and a hell for the young on moderate incomes trying to gain a foothold on the first rung of the property ladder. (It is perhaps no coincidence that in the recent debacle over illicit contributions to the Labour Party, the man at the centre of this storm – Mr Abraams, who wanted to remain anonymous by channelling large donations through third parties, was a well-known landowner and property developer in the North East.)
IÂ’m always amazed at the people who voted Labour in 1997 a few years later say they have become disillusioned. Blair never ever claimed to be pursuing a socialist agenda, rather the opposite Â– from the outset he was keen to be seen as a Â‘friendÂ’ of big business and of the American government however it behaved. The Blair government was often described both by itself and by its supporters as being Â‘centre leftÂ’. This is a comfortable delusion. I cite here a seasoned commentator looking at Britain from a distance. After two or three years of BlairÂ’s government, Alistair Cooke who had been taking a close interest in politics for more than seventy years, in his weekly Letter from America quoted from a flagship American newspaper (I think it was The New York Times) which described the Blair government as Â‘right of centreÂ’; a view that Cooke did not demur from. They say you can tell know a man from the friends he keeps. Close friend of Blair in the early part of his reign was Peter Mandelson, dubbed by certain members of the press as Â‘The Prince of DarknessÂ’. Mandelson had a fatal attraction towards the rich; first the millionaire and fellow government member Geoffrey Robertson from whom he received a huge loan in order to buy a much plusher home Â– the cause of his first resignation; and after his re-instatement his involvement with the rich businessmen, the Hindugi brothers, caused him to be sacked for the second time. Blair, rather than take stock of MandelsonÂ’s and indeed the whole governmentÂ’s too close, some would say corrupting, association with the rich and powerful, merely made a pathetic lament in the House of Commons over the loss of a Â‘fine human beingÂ’. So BlairÂ’s sole agenda was to Â‘moderniseÂ’ this country, not to make if fairer or to redistribute wealth.
Gordon Brown is a more curious case. Rather than his innate socialism (as opposed to BlairÂ’s wholly contrived and shallow socialism) beginning at home, it seems to stop short of his home country. Whatever we may say about his current troubles, Brown was the major architect of getting rich western countries to forgo claiming repayments of debt owed by Third World countries, principally African ones (the Jubilee 2000 programme), a commendable attempt to start to redress the enormous disparity in wealth between the developed and so-called Â‘developingÂ’ countries. However, this instinct to help the less fortunate seems to be severely curtailed by another instinct: not to alienate even in the slightest way the business class of this country. Apart from his mania for public/private partnerships, another indication of this tendency came during the long running saga of whether this country was going to adopt the Euro. It seems that Blair was on balance in favour of the Euro, though never a fanatic, but Brown was always against it, though would not come out openly and say so but hid behind his oft-repeated mantra that in order to enter the Euro-Zone our economy would first have to pass five specific economic tests, though he alone assumed the role of judge as to whether these tests had been passed. Apart from the electoral consideration that he judged, probably quite correctly, that whatever material benefits could be demonstrated by joining adopting the Euro the British people had a sentimental attachment to the pound and would reject joining the Euro Zone in a referendum, Brown realized that the business class, particularly LondonÂ’s financial sector, would prefer to keep the pound (for starters all those Bureaus de Change and equivalent facilities in the major banks would become redundant if the Euro were adopted), whereas the Euro would only benefit the manufacturing sector, based mainly in the provinces. From this, I surmise that Brown would be more upset if a financial house in London folded than if a manufacturing firm in Newcastle went under because the pound had risen in relation to the Euro and thus made its potential exports less sellable.
So in conclusion, various independent reports, home grown and international, suggest that in the last decade there has been less social mobility than in previous decades, the rich have benefited far more than the poor, there is no indication that there has been a redistribution of wealth from the top earners to the lowest wage earners, and that aspirant home owners on modest wages have been priced out of the market by rich landlords and speculators. The Labour Party as originally conceived and up till the ascension of Blair and Brown to government could justly claim to be a party of the Â‘labouring classesÂ’. But that is palpably no longer the case. In which case why doesnÂ’t the Labour Party concede that it no longer represents the working class. Around fifteen years ago it changed its name to New Labour, typical of the move to market politics like a soap powder. Thus it should either do what it states on the tin (wishful thinking at this late stage I concede) or change the wording on the tin. It should now be honest and change its name again to reflect both its avowed doctrine and practical impact on the people of this country and call itself Â‘Not at All Labour – in fact more conservative than the ConservativesÂ’.