Following my earlier whistle-stop tour through 1997, let’s move on a year …
1998 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the National Health Service, and of the nationalisation of the railways. Tony Blair’s newly-elected New Labour government celebrated these twin milestones of Labour government achievements by starving the NHS of much-needed funds and announcing its intention to privatise London Underground.
As 1998 began, we were still under the cosh of the new government’s attacks on the welfare state, the latest being a threat to charge for the Pill. As I remember, even Tony and his cronies worked out that the costs of this would outweigh the benefits – which is pretty obvious if you think about it for more than ten seconds or read beyond the latest Daily Mail headline.
New Labour was insisting on sticking to Tory spending limits for two years, conveniently forgetting the fact that had we wanted Tory spending limits, we would have voted for a Tory government. This, of course, goes to show that the more right wing Labour becomes, the less choice there is in elections, and the weaker democracy becomes. Which is a better explanation for low election turnouts than the vague, buck-passing concept of “voter apathy” or the absurd notion of “voter fatigue”.
The Welfare State Network was leading the charge to build a big movement to defend benefits and other state welfare provision. Central to this was its campaign for the government to tax the rich to save the NHS, calling for an immediate cash injection of £2bn.
These government policies that attacked working-class people were driven by the economic policies of Gordon Brown. Those who in 2005/06 reckon that Labour’s woes would be solved by Brown replacing Blair would do well to remember this.
Unfortunately, many in the labour movement and on the left lacked the confidence and the imagination to counter the right wing’s claim that Britain could no longer afford to pay for welfare. Here’s a Workers’ Budget which shows how – and how easily – it could be done.
But what sort of government would implement a workers’ budget? Certainly not Blair’s government – what we needed then is what we need now: a workers’ government.
The Labour government’s betrayals, over issues such as benefits and union rights meant that labour movement activists were starting to consider opposing the Blairites at the ballot box as well as within the Party - and not just your small groups that had always stood under the red banner even if they were totally divorced from the labour movement and got seven votes each. Labour MEP Ken Coates began a ‘consultation’ about standing independently. With hindsight, it was ham-fisted and did not bring about the impact that he had hoped, but it was nonetheless an important development.
We had begun an discussion within the AWL about this issue – here is one of my contributions to it.
Other nuggets from 1998 unearthed by my floppy-disk trawl include Conversations with the SWP, an important battle by Australian workers, and an article by Sean Matgamna on prospects for socialism after the fall of Soviet Union.
I had been promoted to Station Supervisor, and became Branch Secretary of Central Line West (then known as Holborn) RMT. In spring, John ‘Two Jags’ Prescott announced his ‘Public-Private Partnership’ plan for London Underground, opposition to which would delay its implementation – and dominate my political activism – for the next five years.
Oh, and I left 92 Eleanor Road, sprained my ankle, became pregnant, and bought my first home (a flat in Bethnal Green) – in roughly that order.