“I’m a pretty straight sort of a guy” — Tony Blair
“New Labour”? Old Tory sleaze! Plus an unctuous, creeping-Jesus hypocrisy which would be uniquely Blair’s if his other self Gordon Brown dropped dead.
But it’s more than Tory sleaze. More than its simple equivalent.
Money-grubbing politicians; the buying and selling of political favours and “honours”; lucrative entwinement with the rich and the super-rich; poking political snouts in the slurping trough where the big bourgeois porkers feed – that is the very stuff of Tory politics.
It was the stuff of Liberal politics when there were Liberal governments. It was natural. It went with the territory. It was the way of the tribe of bourgeois politicians.
But it was not the stuff of Labour politics, not the way of the Labour tribe. With minor and rare exceptions, mostly in local government, Labour politicians – the Labour right included, and even when they were politically duplicitous, venal, and thoroughly corrupt – were not personally corrupt. Nor did they run a financially shady party. The Labour Party was financed by the affiliated trade unions and by the dues of party members. Everything was open and above board.
The Labour Party shared in the probity and fiscal morality of the labour movement - a movement of hard-working, self-respecting people governed by the idea of collective self-improvement. “A full, free, happy life for all - or for none!”, as the old socialist militants used to put it. They despised the spiv’s philosophy of “what’s in it for me?” as Toryism. Corrupt individuals in that milieu were felt to be alien, and themselves felt out of place.
Socialists condemned, and condemn, the high wages of trade union bureaucrats - wages which have no necessary relation to their performance for their members, or to those members’ wages. Those high wages are corrupting, because they lift the typical trade union leader out of the working class and into the middle class. But that is more or less open and, indeed, shameless. It belongs to a different order of things.
New Labour put an end to all that. Labour ministers, including the “straight sort of a guy” prime minister Blair, who move in the orbit of a corrupt, billionaire, extreme right-wing Italian politician, prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Ministers and New Labour leaders who use their “connections” with the rich and powerful to make themselves rich, or richer. A minister whose husband — from whom she may and then again may not be separated — used her position and his access to Blair as an asset in his shady business affairs. What looks like the selling even of junior ministerial posts - Lord Sainsbury who, as it turns out, lent the Blair party £2 million, is science minister.
New Labour reform of the House of Lords? Clearing out some of the old aristocracy by blood and lineage to make room for members of the aristocracy of wealth - people who can buy membership with donations and loans to Blair’s party.
David Blunkett was caught out breaking the very tolerant rules, and had to resign. His friend, the vastly rich and very right-wing Rupert Murdoch, then gave him a lucrative semi-sinecure as a Sun columnist. Blunkett was caught out... As George Orwell put it at the end of Animal Farm, his famous satire on Stalin:
“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which”.
And now the relevation that Blair and his creatures at the head of the New Labour political machine secretly borrowed £14 million to finance their last general election campaign. There is a secret “Blair New Labour Party” within the open Blairite-Brownite party!
The cynicism of it is almost heroic in its scale and scope. Blair’s New Labour, politically moving on to the ground of Thatcherite Toryism, wages a very effective campaign against John Major’s Tory government, denouncing it justly for “sleaze” and corruption. It is not the Major government’s politics they object to, and convince voters to object to, but its morality.
New Labour promises to clean up British politics. Blair convinces millions of “natural Tory voters” that he is a “pretty straight kind of guy”. Labour wins the election and legislates to compel political parties to publish the names of those who give them large donations. The new laws, shaped by smart-ass lawyers including barrister Blair, leave a very large loophole: the names of those making large loans can remain a secret — even from the elected treasurer of the Labour Party. The treasurer is the trade union official Jack Dromey.
The same New Labour lawyers — in the first place Blair — use the legal loophole they have left to secure secret funds in the 2005 election campaign from twelve very rich men.
The “pretty straight sort of a guy” is at the centre of this operation.
That this, the latest in a long string of proofs of New Labour’s corruption, dishonesty, and outright cynicism, will damage New Labour with the electorate is certain. New Labour may yet hang it on its own “anti-Tory-sleaze” gibbet. There is a serious possibility that New Labour, whose support fell in the 2005 election from 41% of the turnout to 35%, will be voted out of office next time round.
New Labour? Old Liberal political and financial trickery and corruption! Old Lloyd George Liberals, successors to those who ran a huckster’s shop in “honours” and titles, with the price-lists widely known in upper-class circles!
The result of Jack Dromey’s exposure? That Blairites have rushed to gazump the Tory and Liberal opposition (whose parties also receive large private loans) by promising legislation to outlaw secret loans! “See — the opposition is redundant!”, says the “pretty straight sort of guy”.
The lawyerly cynicism here, the willingness to work both sides of the political street, to embody both corruption and “anti-corruption”, cannot but increase the widespread belief that politics is a dirty game for dirty, principle-free people.
What will its effect be on the labour movement?
Blair is determined to stay in office for years yet, and, in office, to force through a series of right-wing measures, even against his own party. That’s what he did with the recent Education Bill. He got it through the Second Reading in the Commons only with Tory votes. He will probably have to depend on Tory votes again.
Blair’s contempt for the Labour Party — for New Labour as well as Old Labour — has long been open and blatant. Now he lines up with the Tories, with his fellow-Tories, against his own party, in a coalition of policy on a major issue. And yet he survives as Labour leader.
Many Labour MPs now fear for their seats in the next election. It is in their keenly felt interest to get rid of Blair. The Tories could do it with Thatcher. Yet the Labour Party remains paralysed.
Most of the MPs fear to make a bad situation worse by openly moving against Blair, and possibly unleashing civil war in the party. They hope for an eventual smooth Brown succession — in time, they hope, to improve Labour’s (and their) chances in the next general election.
The unions, under their leftish-talking new leaders, remain cowed and paralysed. The Blairites remain shameless.
While the smell of the Jowell scandal — allegedly involving £350,00 in gifts to the Cabinet minister’s husband from the Italian billionaire Berlusconi — is still strong in and around Blair’s party; while the revelations about the £14 million loan to Blair and his lieutenants still reverberate, the Government graciously increases the minimum wage, on which over a million people survive, by 30p an hour, to £5.35. For 18 to 21 year olds it will be raised by 20p to £4.45 an hour. According to the Government’s own figures, 330,000 people are still on less than the minimum wage.
The obscene contrast will not be lost on the trade union leaders, yet they remain paralysed. Where they might use Blair’s direct personal responsibility in the affair of the £14 million loans to create a hue and cry against him in the labour movement, they maintain an embarrassed silence.
Did TGWU official Dromey blow the whistle on Blair after consulting TGWU general secretary Tony Woodley, or other union leaders? Perhaps. But that is just sniping from round a corner. We need a full-scale union offensive against Blair.
Where they could use the exposures of Blair’s secret, bourgeois-financed, party at the top of the New Labour Party to organise for a restoration or unblocking of the democratic structures which old Labour used to have, there the union leaders are paralysed.
Like the MPs, they fear that “the Tories" would benefit from an open fight against Blair and Blairism. They too wait for a smooth transition to the reign of good-king-in-waiting Gordon Brown.
But Brown is Blair’s political alter ego! He shares responsibility — a more or less direct responsibility, but, politically, full responsibility — for everything Blair has done.
Once enthroned — and that is the word for it — he may, but then again he may not, be a little better, a little more rooted in the Labour tradition, a little less aggressively contemptuous of his own party, than Blair is. It will be up to King Gordon what he is and what he does if he becomes leader of New Labour and prime minister.
The unions can propose what they like, but the disposition will remain in the hands of the incumbent New Labour monarch. And monarch is the right word.
THE unions can only escape from the ludicrous semi-monarchical regime which Blair has built in the Labour Party by smashing up the structures and conventions that had underpinned King Tory-Tony’s power. Until they do that, the working-class movement will remain without even the very inadequate sort of representation in politics which old Labour once gave it.
Will the trade union leaders and the Parliamentary Labour Party left choose to continue to sit this one out? The signs are that they will do just that.
Labour’s National Executive, meeting on 21 March, agreed to ask its officers to conduct a “review”. None of the union representatives demanded, as they should have done, a full and speedy inquiry, with rank and file involvement, into the loans affair and the Blairite “party-within-a-party” exposed by it.
The impressive political footwork of the Blairites in taking the initiative from the Tories and Liberals by themselves proposing to outlaw the practices by which Blair financed himself in the 2005 general election seem to have silenced Blair’s Labour and trade union critics. Or potential critics — most of them never got to the point of having something to say on the matter.
The police are now investigating the “honours for money” side of the £14 million affair. We may not have heard the last of it.
Yet the Blairites may even be able to turn this scandal to their advantage. How do you stop that sort of thing? Get the taxpayer and the state to fund the political parties.
The Blairites are trying to reach an agreement on that with the two other main parties. If they succeed they will have taken the bureaucratisation of British politics a giant step further. Beyond the need to keep a certain minimum share of the electorate, political parties and their leaders would achieve a new degree of independence from the people.
New Labour has already achieved independence from its members and affiliates by way of destroying or cementing up most of the structures and channels by way of which the unions and constituency activists functioned in politics.
Yet the trade unions still have a great deal of potential weight in the Labour Party. The party is still heavily dependent on them for its regular financing. They have fifty per cent of the vote at Labour conference. Therefore, the unions still have the possibility of reclaiming the Labour Party, or, more likely, splitting it from the control of “Ramsey McBlair”.
A system of state funding could strip the unions of that power. New measures, which the Tories have proposed, to limit the sum which any corporate body or individual can donate to a political party, would legislate out of existence the very possibility of the trade unions collectively funding a political party of their own.
If state funding of political parties is pushed through on the basis of a New Labour/ Tory/ Lib-Dem consensus, legislation may be part of it which in effect would make a trade-union party like the old Labour Party impossible.
There was ground for believing that the Blairites would go for such legislation in the 90s. They didn’t. It will be a savage irony if it is the outcome of the affair of Tory Tony’s £14 million!
The tragedy of working-class politics now is that in the structures of the authoritarian semi-monarchy which the Blair coup made of the old Labour Party, initiative for effective change – for reform no less than for revolution against Blairism — can only come from the top. For any large-scale action to try to repossess the Labour Party, the initiative must come from the top — from the trade-union leaderships. And it may be that it is now or never!
The rank and file of the labour movement needs to understand that — and to demand that the trade union leaders not only understand it too, but also act accordingly.