The surge in membership of the Labour Party after Corbyn’s election shows that many, particularly young people are attracted to socialist politics going far beyond that of any Labour leader of the past 25 years. Only the most sectarian on the left, at least in England and Wales, reject voting Labour now. This represents a big political shift.
In 1997, Tony Blair led the Labour Party, in the words of the Labour right, to “a historic landslide victory”, a victory that Blair is still trying to cash in on. The huge vote to get rid of the Tories was an immense relief but it came at a large price. Blair would establish a consensus in Labour politics, where accepting Tory dogma and having faith in the market and capitalist competition were sacrosanct.
This editorial from 1997, written two weeks after the Labour victory, appeared in Workers’ Liberty magazine. It takes a critical look at what the landslide represented and the challenges socialists would face. We campaigned for Labour to scrap Thatcher’s anti-trade union laws. It failed to do that.
In fact the New Labour leaders planned to break with the trade unions. They didn’t get that far: formal links with the trade unions were maintained. Without continuing the political and even more so the organisational transformation the Corbyn leadership has begun, the Labour Party can not yet say it is based on the trade unions or consistently represents working-class interests.
From Workers’ Liberty 40, 15 May 1997
It is 2 May 1997, the day after the voters buried the Tories in a landslide of popular revulsion and gave New Labour an enormous and unprecedented majority in Parliament. A large crowd is standing in bright sunshine in and around Downing Street and down a sizeable stretch of Whitehall. Everyone is exuberant, enthusiastic, happy, like people celebrating victory in a long and terrible war. Or people from whom a great weight has been lifted. Some of it is orchestrated by New Labour apparatchiks.
But nobody could generate or artificially concoct this crowd and this mood. Supporters of Workers’ Liberty are there in Whitehall to make a small demonstration in support of the demand that the new government restore free trade unionism in Britain. They unfurl an improvised banner calling for free trade unions.
A sizeable crowd gathers around them and an impromptu meeting is held. We talk to them about the need for free trade unions, and for the restoration of the welfare state. Speakers criticise Tony Blair, on trade union rights and the welfare state. The crowd remains friendly. But not in agreement with the speakers. The dominant reaction is that they expect Blair to be better than his promises.
Many of them don’t seem to have paid too much attention to what Blair has actually been saying. With them, as with vast numbers of people throughout the country, the weight of a hundred years of political tradition, of what “Labour” meant in politics for so long, outweigh the bleak “New Labour” message Blair spent most of the campaign spelling out. They hold still to the image of Labour that Blair and his group have been working so hard to banish from public memory. Good humouredly, a number of them say: “Give him a chance.” Then one adds, to murmurs of assent from others: “And if you are right, then we’ll see.”
People who had long felt it in their bones, that after four general selection victories, the sleazy and vicious Tories simply could not be beaten, feel a correspondingly intense surge of joy and relief now that they have been thoroughly beaten. The death of the Tory government has given birth to hope, and released much pent-up feeling. People want change. They expect change. They have put their own interpretation on Blair’s rhetoric. They have picked up the notes of sincere hostility to the ruling Tories in New Labour speeches and woven them into their own fiercely anti-Tory tune. It is not Blair’s tune.
They blame the Tories for doing to Britain things Blair has said explicitly he will not attempt to reverse. In an unfocused way, millions of people seem to want Blair to do what he spent much of the long election campaign telling them he would not do. Thus, an election which was democracy at rock bottom, where little of substance — except getting the Tories out — was put to the electorate, has produced a wild upsurge of hope and expectation — and attached it to the Tories’ Blairite understudies!
The fall of the Tories has unleashed what is for the ruling class and the new government a dangerous mood of expectation. Nobody has any reason to believe that Blair will prove untrue to his own nature and his own politics, and go on to satisfy the hopes of all those enthusiastic crowds celebrating the fall of the Tories. The release of hope is what is important here. Those of us who have been paying attention to what Blair says and what he wants to do to the political labour movement may be in danger of missing the significance of what has happened. It is important that we do not miss it. Hope is a commodity more precious than government promises, or, for that matter, government deeds.
When those raised up now to unwarranted hope in the new government learn that they can’t rely on Blair, they may carry that hope over into doing things for themselves and develop out of it a belief that it is possible for them to do things. A belief that many things, long thought impossible, really are possible now that the heavy tombstone of Tory rule has been shifted. Hope will stimulate and liberate desire. Desire and hope will stimulate action.