It’s not just student grants and tuition fees. Blair is continuing or worsening Tory policies on everything essential — on trade union rights, on the health service, on education, on privatisation, on welfare. New Labour’s only significant promise of anything better than the Tories — the minimum wage — has become a dim, loophole-filled, low-level prospect for some years in the future.
Some Labour and trade union activists are still willing to forgive all this and hope for better from the government. After 18 years of battering from the Tories, they like to feel they are “on the winning side”. Tony Blair is on the winning side, for now: but the working class is not, and will not be until the trade unions stop shelving or trashing their own policies in deference to Blair.
When Blair does what the Tories dared not do, who will stop him? What will it take to turn things round?
Sooner or later — with more or less clarity and urgency, depending on what socialists do now — rank and file workers will push the unions to assert themselves politically, to fight for the policies they already have (on the welfare state, on the minimum wage, on renationalisation), to hammer out new policies in workers’ interests, and to get working-class representatives into Parliament.
Stalin famously asked, during World War 2: “How many divisions has the Pope?” Tony Blair is the “infallible” Pope of the labour movement for now, but the hard core of convinced Blairites is very small. He has few “divisions” of well-drilled troops. As soon as the ranks of the working class move on a large scale, the government will be seen to be much more vulnerable to pressure — from our side as well as from the City and Rupert Murdoch — than it appears now.
That is why Blair wants to insulate New Labour from trade-union pressure. He has turned the row about the £1 million donation from Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone to his advantage, by using it to boost his plans for state finance for political parties and legal limits on party spending — plans which would enable New Labour to distance itself further from union cash and union influence.
Blair, like Thatcher, depends on imposing the idea that There Is No Alternative — no alternative to capitalist market economics, no alternative to cuts, no alternative to an increased squeeze on labour to make profits. Yet there is an alternative. Production can be organised for need, not profit. Social wealth can be owned and controlled democratically, not by a handful of profiteers and speculators. Health care, education, and homes for all can be made the priority, rather than extra luxuries for the rich.
The polls show 93% approval for Blair; but they also show that 76% believe there is a class struggle in Britain, 87% think the gap between rich and poor is too wide, and 72% want better public services even if that means paying more taxes (the poll didn’t allow the option of taxing only the rich). Workers have not become enthusiasts for the Thatcher-Blairite line of Profit Before All Else!
Socialists can help the revival of working-class struggle come more quickly and sharply by arguing the case for a workers’ government. The workers are the majority: we need not and should not limit our aims to petitioning a “pro-business” government for concessions. The trade unions should assert themselves politically and fight for labour representation.
When the unions are roused from their present defeatism, they could launch a Labour Representation movement, an organised power bloc within the Labour Party. If “New Labour” leaders nevertheless stay on a Tory course, that Labour Representation movement could be the core of a new workers’ party based on the trade unions. The first step is a determined struggle inside the existing labour movement.
The fight is starting around issues like the Emergency Plan to Rebuild the Welfare State; for taxing the rich; for free trade unions; for free education; and around broad campaigns like the Welfare State Network, the Campaign for Free Trade Unions, and the Campaign for Free Education. The job of a Marxist organisation like the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty is to make the links between those immediate demands, the general approach of fighting to impose “the political economy of the working class” against the priorities of profit, and the political aim of a workers’ government.