The third year of Tory Blair

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The third year of Tory Blair

By David Osler

LONDON — Two years into their term of office, most British governments are buffeted by mid-term blues of an intensity only equalled by those proverbial blind sharecroppers, deftly finger-picking slide guitar on the back porch of a one-room shack somewhere in the Mississippi delta. Not so New Labour.

You can almost hear Tony Blair singing to himself as he belts out a quick 12-bar on his fabled Fender Stratocaster: Woke up this morning. Lord, opinion polls the best I ever had.

This administration is currently even more popular than it was the day it was elected. At the time of writing, it had consistently topped the 50% approval rating every month for the last 12 months.

New Labour now outstrips the Tories among every category of voter analysed by pollsters. In every region, every social class, every age group. In families with three cars as in families with none. In earth as it is in heaven.

Not one of Blair's reactionary policies — from tuition fees to the crackdown on asylum seekers or the blitz on Belgrade — has resulted in anything remotely resembling a widespread movement of popular opposition.

The closest call came in the disagreeable shape of those green welly goose-steppers on the countryside march, mobilised by the right rather than the left. Even that proved unable to sustain itself.

Tobacco kickbacks, Frankenstein foods, offshore trusts and a trail of sundry scandals from lobbygate to Notting Hill Gate have conspicuously failed to dent the electorate's love-in with the party. Blairism rules — if not OK, then at least unchallenged.

Socialism has been sidelined. Concerted activity on the Labour left has been restricted exclusively to internal affairs, chiefly the successful Grassroots Alliance campaign for the National Executive Committee, a body now but an emasculated shadow of its former self.

Meanwhile, Ken Livingstone pointedly stresses he has no intention of using his campaign for the right to stand for the mayor of London to mobilise socialist opposition to Blair, and how he agrees with most of what the government is doing anyway.

The picture is no brighter on the far left. Many groups have seen membership figures plummet faster than a Richard Branson round the world balloon expedition.

The major reason for that has been a further decline in working-class combativity. Strike action — probably the best barometer of class-consciousness available — fell to 235,000 person-days in 1997, the lowest level since records began in 1891. Last year's tally was 277,000. That's the second lowest level since records began, in case you hadn't guessed.

Thirteen times fewer strike days now take place than in the depth of what the Socialist Workers Party extensively theorised as "the downturn" of the early '80s. If that was the downturn, what the hell is this?

A downward trend is also evident in the statistics for trade union membership, which dropped last year for the 18th year in succession, to 7.8 million. This compares with the high point of 13.2 million 20 years ago.

The right to recognition, once New Labour grudgingly admits the severely watered-down commitment onto the statute books, may soon see limited growth, although even that is not certain.

The left's own incompetence only exacerbates the picture. Neither the SWP nor the Socialist Labour Party, for all their pretensions to the crown, has the politics that would enable them to fill the coordination role once undertaken by the Communist Party industrial network.

Things are gloomy for socialists, all right. Yet this is certainly not where the bulk of the far left were two years ago predicting we would be now. There seems little point in dredging up optimistic quotes from the period, not least because I penned some of them myself, most notably during the "crisis of expectations" debate in 1997.

Instead, we need to start looking for some explanations as to why things haven't panned out the way our theory expected that they would. It is increasing obvious that a major factor here is the permanent structural shift in the composition of the British working class and the resultant effects on class consciousness.

In far left circles, even to allude to such changes usually results in accusations of defeatism and acceptance of the New Times arguments put forward by Marxism Today in the '80s. In effect, this is simply to ignore some demonstrable facts.

Today, there are more journalists in Britain than there are miners, dockers and shipyard workers put together. More people are employed in computer services than went down the pits in the heyday of the coal industry, and it is likely that the same will soon be true of call centre staff.

Yes, of course the new white collar working class is objectively proletarian. Their class position remains defined by their relationship to the means of production. Motorbike couriers, arts administrators and, for that matter, freelance feng shui consultants sell their labour power as surely as Ravenscraig steelworkers did when Scotland had a steel industry. But in none of these cases is there a tradition of struggle.

Moreover, many sections of this transformed working class lack the "holding the country to ransom" economic muscle enjoyed by the key sections of working class in the past. If a programmers' wildcat hit every software house in Britain tomorrow, how many would even notice?

These trends are reinforced by the decline of national agreements and the fragmentation of entire industries into legally separate small companies, most plainly visible in what was once British Rail. What Liverpool dockers wouldn't handle, dockers in every other major UK port almost certainly did. It is difficult to think of one single industry-wide national dispute throughout the entire '90s.

Militating against militancy have also been the anti-union laws, the effects of which have often been idiotically underestimated by many on the left, often on the spurious grounds that once the workers move into struggle, such minor irrelevancies will simply be brushed aside.

The state now has the power financially to destroy unions that step out of line.

Here is one Labour government that would not shirk from using it. It is not only bureaucrats mindful of their privileges that are aware of that. Activists are — quite rightly — not light-minded about such a threat.

Even the demise of council housing and the rise of mortgages has had a debilitating effect. The possibility of eviction weighs heavily on the minds of many filling out a ballot paper.

At this point, the "France 1968" argument is frequently trotted out. Revolutionary struggles, we are reminded, can break out as if from nowhere. But it is historically very much the exception, and keeping your fingers crossed is not enough to base a perspective on.

It's pretty much on a par with pointing out that 100-1 outsiders do sometimes win horse races. The problem is, it never happens when the likes of us put a tenner on them.

The better standard argument is the comparison with the New Unionism of the late 19th century.

Socialists must throw themselves into what will probably prove the slow process of reconstructing a socialist culture in our new working class.

Building a new socialist party — a task which at this stage is largely restricted to agitating for the idea — is one of the keys to this process, making it even more of a political necessity.

[Reprinted from Socialist Democracy.]