The Tories have finally been driven from office! Humiliated, they have scuttled from power. It was an earth-shattering defeat that will open a new round of bitter civil war over who will succeed John Major. Every worker who has lost their job, every young person who has been denied a future, all those who have been driven into the ground for the past 18 years will be over the moon. The demise of the Tory government is being celebrated from one end of the country to the other.
For millions of working class people the change of government creates enormous hope. As 18-year old Louise Mead from London, born in the year Thatcher first came to power, explained: "I am from a working class background and Labour are for the working class. I have been brought up under a Conservative government and I am very disillusioned. We do need a change." Throughout the election campaign Tony Blair repeatedly talked about the need for change. In contrast to the Tories, he promised a new Britain and a new future of hope and prosperity. The question now is how to deliver such important promises?
A Labour government will be judged not on sweet words and promises but in delivering real change for the mass of the population. After nearly two decades of Toryism there is a tremendous mood of expectation: ending mass unemployment, poverty wages, homelessness, the crisis in education and the health service, and so on. The pressures are mounting for Labour to act decisively to tackle these burning problems. A Labour government cannot drag its feet. Working people have waited long enough. Action is needed and needed fast!
The aspirations of workers cannot be fulfilled on the basis on the capitalist market economy. Gordon Brown's announced intentions of carrying on with the Tory policy of public sector wage restraint and holding down public expenditure is where an attempt to patch up capitalism leads. If such a policy is pursued it will inevitably lead to direct conflict with workers struggling to improve their position. All the talk from the rightwing of dampening down expectations, "restraint" and "jam tomorrow" must be rejected by Labour's rank and file.
Brown deliberately twisted Nye Bevan's words that "socialism was the language of priorities" to justify monetarist policies. Bevan never talked of sharing out the crumbs left over from the capitalist's table, but the need for a Labour government to take over 'the commanding heights of the economy'. What workers need is not an "Iron Chancellor" carrying out Tory policies, but a real socialist Chancellor in a socialist government that will act decisively in the interests of the working class. As the past has shown, a Labour government cannot square the circle of satisfying the demands of working people and patching up British capitalism. Both are incompatible. If a Labour government is going to tackle the crisis, it would need to take into its hands the economic levers of power by introducing a bold socialist programme.
The attacks of the Tories on the welfare state and on the working class generally did not arise from malice on their part, but stem from the crisis of British capitalism itself. For decades the British ruling class has failed to reinvest the surplus extracted from the labour of the workers. Instead, in its search to maximise profits, it has invested abroad and short-term speculation. In contrast to its competitors profits have then been doled out in massive dividend payments to shareholders. Consequently, British capitalism has fallen further and further behind its rivals. The Tories attempted to put British capitalism on its feet, not through modernisation or reinvestment, but through the creation of a low wage economy. As a result, the British workers are the lowest paid, work the longest hours and have the least holidays in Europe. British industry has, under the Tories, become the sweatshop of Europe. That is one of the main reasons why international corporations from Japan, Korea and elsewhere have set up here.
This however has not solved the problem. Far from it. Bosses overseas are also taking up the British example and have begun to drive down conditions and wages. They are using the Maastricht criteria to push through austerity measures. But how far can you drive down conditions without drastically cutting the market itself? Every capitalist power is cutting back. Such actions will simply serve to make the next recession even deeper. And these attacks and cutbacks are in a boom period. But even this 'boom' is reaching its limits, with signs of a new recession ready to break.
The idea that a Labour government should continue Tory economic policy will be opposed all the way by the ranks of the Labour movement. How can Labour solve the problems of unemployment, poverty, education, the health service, etc., while keeping to the Tory spending plans? Even the Economist explained: "This implies little or no increase in spending in real terms, and will be incredibly hard to achieve, not least because it comes after four of the toughest years for public spending in decades. The pressure for higher spending, on health care, education, infrastructure and public sector pay, is likely to be intense." The idea of using Lottery money to fill the spending gap is pathetic when you look at the real scale of the problems.
The Economist continues: "Mr. Brown may soon rue the severity of his pledges. The public spending plans for the next two years are extremely tight, and would be hard to meet even for a Tory government with a reputation for stinginess. For a Labour government which will face huge pressures from voters and the unions to treat the public sector more kindly, they may be virtually impossible." It adds: "Few independent economists think that the Tory spending plans are achievable."
The announcement by Blair and Brown during the election campaign that a Labour government would continue the Tories' privatisation plans was met by disbelief and derision from ordinary Labour supporters. "We will look at everything on a practical basis, not from an ideological point of view", stated Brown. At a time when privatisation has never been so unpopular, and with the rank and file of the party actively campaigning on the doorstep against such a policy, the rightwing Labour leaders change policy with breath-taking speed. A new Labour government was not put into power to carry out the same old Tory policies, or simply to tinker with the system, but to bring about fundamental change. The economic crisis must not be the excuse to introduce Tory policies, but should be the reason for introducing real socialist change.
It is impossible to plan capitalism. Everything is decided by the profit motive and the market. The rightwing now worship at the alter of the free market. All they add is that it needs to have a "social conscience". For Labour's campaign manager and head spin-doctor Peter Mandelson, "There is nothing wrong with capitalism with a social conscience or a human face. The idea that you must choose between efficient capitalism or social justice is one we reject." "Efficient" capitalism means mass unemployment and poverty for millions. To ask capitalism to act with a social conscience is like asking a lion to become vegetarian. The giant monopolies and banks decide what happens in the economy and presides over the fate of millions of working people. Only by taking over these 'commanding heights of the economy', under democratic workers' control and management, can a Labour government effectively plan and develop the enormous wealth in society. A democratic socialist plan of production would transform the lives of the mass of the population, by introducing full employment, a national minimum wage, increased spending on schools, hospitals and the welfare state generally.
Already pressure is mounting within the movement for the Labour government to introduce policies in the interests of workers and their families. At the recent Scottish TUC, UNISON was pressing Labour for a minimum wage figure of 50% of male median earnings. The Congress also urged a Labour government not to backslide on its commitments to workers. John Monks, also under pressure from trade unionists, made it clear that the TUC would push for key union claims, including rights for part-time workers. Blair had assured part-time workers the same rights as full-time workers, but abandoned this commitment under pressure from big business. These calls by the Scottish TUC led the then President of the Board of Trade, Ian Lang, to state that it was "clear beyond doubt that the trade unions today are dangerous as they ever were." And he added that "The Labour Party and the unions are joined at the hip." For Lang the trade unions were "dangerous" because they called for measures in workers' interests! As for the Labour-union link, Lang was attempting to frighten the Labour leaders. The fact however remains that the unions created the Labour Party as a means of representing the interests of working people in Parliament.
The rightwing of the party have been trying to break the link with the trade unions for more than 30 years. The present rightwing around Tony Blair are desperate to change the Labour Party into a new version of the American Democratic Party. That's why they ditched Clause Four and wanted to end union links. But to carry this through to a conclusion they would have to destroy all the past traditions, structures of the party, and links with the working class. If they try and go down this road, it will inevitably provoke civil war within the movement. Even the AEEU, which in the past unconditionally supported "modernising" the party, are now opposed to ending the union link. Even the rightwing trade union leaders will not want to end their input into the party.
However, the contempt for organised labour was revealed by David Blunkett, the Employment and Education Secretary, who scandalously said that the Scottish Trade Union Congress should abandon any hopes of influencing a Labour government unless its policies "totally matched" those of Labour. "Try they might, the Tories will persuade no-one that this conference will affect decisions taken by the next Labour Government", said Blunkett. This correctly earned the rebuke of Campbell Christie, the STUC general secretary, who said he "obviously regrets any potential government minister indicating that they are not prepared to listen to various points of view before forming policy decisions."
It is elementary that where workers are engaged in struggle they should have the full backing of the Labour and trade union leadership. However, when firefighters in Essex were forced to stage strikes against deep budget cuts being carried through by the Labour-controlled council, Jack Straw and the Labour leaders opposed the union's action. "We support the employers," he declared. The employers in turn have docked firefighters pay and threatened them with suspension. The proposed cuts in Essex amounted to £1.5 million, which would lead to 52 job losses and reductions in training, recruitment and equipment. This attitude of Labour's rightwing shows how divorced it is from ordinary workers.
Generations of workers built, financed and supported the Labour Party through thick and thin. To think that ordinary trade unionists are going to just sit back and accept Tory policies after 18 years of Thatcher and Major is living in cloud cuckoo-land. The Labour leaders owe their present positions to the work of ordinary party members and trade unionists. Without the Labour Party they would be nothing. Unfortunately too many see the party not as a vehicle for changing society, but as a vehicle for advancing their own political careers. It is time working people took back their Party and transformed it into a weapon for socialist change.
Driving out the Tories has been the first task. The next one is to commit a Labour government to socialist policies. If the Labour leaders believe they can patch up British capitalism by setting tough targets for fiscal and monetary prudence, they are very much mistaken. All the lessons of past Labour governments has demonstrated that it is not possible to run capitalism better than the Tories. Every Labour government - from Ramsey MacDonald to Jim Callaghan - that has tried to do so has ended in disaster. All those Socialist governments in France, Spain, Greece and elsewhere that promised reforms on the basis of capitalism ended up carrying through a programme of counter-reforms. That was the logic of the system. Again, these governments came to power in the boom years of 1982-90, but despite this, capitalism still couldn't afford lasting reforms.
According to the organ of finance capital, the Financial Times, which ever party won the election will be forced to base itself on austerity policies: "Both parties face their toughest challenge in selling the consequences of an extremely tight public financing regime.... Labour seems to have understood that it cannot have low taxes and low deficits yet meet all public aspirations for health, education and welfare in traditional ways." (18/3/97).
The Blair government is entering a totally different world situation to the 1980s, where growth in world trade has declined from from 8.5% in 1995 to 2.5% today. The present cycle of 'boom' is in its sixth year in Britain and America. It is reaching exhaustion, and will shortly tip over into recession, and maybe into a deep slump. Under these conditions, big business and the bankers will be demanding savage austerity measures from the Labour government "to put British industry back on its feet". As in 1924 and 1929, when Labour was elected in periods of deep economic crisis, the Labour government will be faced with stark choices: either capitulate to the pressures of big business or carry through a bold socialist programme in the interests of the working class. There is no middle road.
From day one of the Blair government the capitalists and City of London will be piling on the pressure to ensure policies in the interests of big business are pursued with vigour. They regard the Blair government as their second eleven team. With the Tories discredited, they want Labour to do their dirty work. However, as the Economist recognised, there will be massive pressure from the rank and file of the Labour movement for policies in their interests. Given the impasse of British capitalism, demands will be raised in the trade unions and in the Labour Party for the Labour government to abandon its pro-business stance. Rightwing policies, which are in reality no different from Tory policies, will push the rank and file into opposition. None of the problems that workers face can be solved on the basis of capitalism. On the contrary, unemployment, poverty wages, bad conditions and deteriorating welfare services are all a product of capitalism in decline. The system can no longer afford these reforms. Cuts, austerity measures, attacks on living standards are now on the order of the day. Once again, the demands for real socialist policies will become the focal point of resistance within the Labour Party and trade unions.
The Tories and the Liberal Democrats are two capitalist parties which represent the interests of big business. At the turn of the century, the Labour Party was formed by the trade unions to represent workers' interests in Parliament. In 1918, the party adopted the aim of abolishing capitalism and replacing it with a socialist system of society. Unfortunately, the leadership of the Party (and the trade union movement) has always been in the hands of the rightwing and the apologists of capitalism, and despite the wishes of the rank and file, have blocked the road to radical socialist policies. Today, the political pendulum in the movement has swung far to the right. But it is clearly preparing a massive swing back towards the left in the next period.
The victory for Labour in the general election, has meant that the battle for socialist policies assumes far greater importance than ever before. The rightwing leaders have got away with murder over the past period, abandoning all the left policies won in the 1970s and early 1980s. Workers were prepared to swallow this retreat in order to get a Labour government elected. But now in power, pressure will mount to force a Labour government to solve the problems faced by working people.
The defeat of the Tories and the election of a Labour government represents a major turning point. Millions were repelled by the Tories and all they stood for. They voted for real change. The Blair government, despite all the attempts to dampen expectations, has generated many hopes. Which direction Labour takes is decisive.
The major monopolies and the City of London have already given their orders. They want a government of big business, for big business. The ranks of the Labour movement cannot accept these dictates. We want a government that represents the working class. Such a government can only be based on socialist policies. Every trade union branch, every shop stewards committee, Labour Party branch and Constituency Party must exert the maximum pressure for such a programme. Only in this way can the aspirations of people be achieved and the problems of poverty, unemployment and exploitation be solved once and for all. The message for trade unionists and workers generally must be: "Don't contract out! Contract in!" Take up the struggle for real socialist policies now!