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The Blair Government Reconsidered. Jon Davis, John Rentoul. Review: Blairism Rehabilitated?

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The Blair Government Reconsidered. Heroes or Villains? Jon Davis, John Rentoul  Oxford 2019.

“Will New Labour in retrospect be judged to have failed for the same reasons that Very Old Labour failed in 1929 – 31, namely a refusal to break with current economic orthodoxy?”

Eric Hobsbawm. Marxism Today. November/December 1998. (‘The Death of Neoliberalism’).

In a special one-off, titled Wrong, the Editor of Marxism Today, whose End had been announced in 1991, wrote, “New Labour did not usher in a new era but more properly belongs to the previous one.” Martin Jacques was followed by other heavyweights. Stuart Hall stated that, “Labour has been quietly seduced by the neo-liberal view that, as far as possible, the economy must be treated as a machine; obeying economic ‘laws’ without human intervention”. In words that resonate today about those now asserting the need to attract pro-Brexit voters, and the “Somewhere” people he asserted that Blair’s “key constituency in the run up to the election was ‘Middle England’ – a profoundly traditionalist and backward looking cultural investment.”

In reply Geoff Mulgan defended the “open” debate about the Third Way, synthesising centre-left traditions, and Labour commitment to practical radical reform. Citing Walter Benjamin, the Demos director complained about intellectual “peaceful negativity” – endless carping from the outside. History had moved on, and Blair’s “permanent revisionism” was the future.

Accusations of resurrecting New Labour, of “Blairism” have been anything but part of a serene critique in Labour’s present day leadership contest. Voices outside Labour, relayed within, predict a defeat for the left in the wake of a Keir Starmer Armageddon. Party democracy, in the view of the Socialist Party and the SWP and some claiming to be on the Labour left, has been thwarted; the ‘Blairites’ have not been purged. A historic defeat looms. The time has come again to mobilise outside the Party….

New Labour in Power.

In these conditions is there space for an in-depth account of New Labour in power? Discussion of what ‘Blairism’ actually was, and what remains of it could hardly avoid this. Davis and Rentoul, who teach on “the Blair Years” at King’s College, begin The Blair Government stating, that Tony Blair was “the political colossus in Britain for thirteen years after he became leader of the Labour Party in 1994. He was prime minister for ten years, second only in length of service to Margaret Thatcher (11 and a half).” Yet, as they note in the conclusion, “Much of the difference between Blair and Thatcher is explained by how much they are regarded by supporters of their own party, Where Blair is reviled by many Labour voters, Thatcher is revered by Conservatives.” (Page 300) By contrast, “The purpose of this book is to assess criticisms of him and his government in a dispassionate way…”(Page 2)

The first thing that strikes the considered reader is that The Blair Government is, far too much for the politically committed reader, focused on “government works” and “how Blair run his administration”. The charge that the Prime Minister accepted the ‘Thatcher consensus’ that privatised nationalised industries, utilities and transport, introduced anti-trade union laws, and the modelling of public services after private business practice. There is little on the role of the Labour Party itself. There is nothing on the international difficulties and evolution of social democracy, which some began to compare with New Labour at tis zenith The book focuses on the “conduct of government”, issues such as Prime Ministerial versus Cabinet government, “sofa government”, the Civil Service faced with an increased role of Special Advisers (‘Spads’), that occupy this account of the nuts and bolts of Blair’s time in office. (1)

The relationship between Blair and Gordon Brown is of interest to any biographer. The independence of the Bank of England and its relationship with the Treasury gets in-depth treatment, as does Brown’s partnership with Ed Balls. . The critics’ charge of economic orthodoxy rang and rings true. In this field, PPS, Public private Partnerships, rightly attacked for critics on cost grounds and as a “hallway house to privatisation” is considered in terms of “mobilising private funds for public purposes”. (Page 224). Brown’s project, Davis and Rentoul note, was in line “redistributive market liberalism. A significant role of government is to remedy market failure in areas such as healthcare, not to intervene in the foundations of the economy (Page 227).

 

The Third Way.

The Blair Government does not discuss the Third Way, the social-ism, adapted to the “new capitalism” that Tony Blair, or at least his supporters, spun during his years up to government and in power. There was the emphasis on “community” sometimes drawn from communitarian political philosophy, more often from homely speeches about balancing rights and obligations, “mutual responsibility”. One responsibility dominated. People needed to be equipped with skills to compete on the global market; there should be “equality of opportunity” for the aspirational to succeed. The welfare-to-work New Deal, outsourced to private providers, fell short of offering quality training and opportunities to the majority of its clients. If the minimum wage and tax credits helped the low-paid, this – undeniably important help – went with the idea of improving individuals’ market capacity within an “open economy”. (2)

The difficulty was not only that this strategy was bound to skirt around forces pushing rising inequality, a world wide trend left-wing writers link to finance driven ‘neo-liberal’ globalisation. Public services had been kept going, even expanded in some areas, although its higher reaches became subject to stiff fees. When the “dynamism of the economy” faltered, and “boom and bust” reappeared in the 2008-banking crisis, the period of Gordon Brown’s Premiership that followed this study’s focus, these measures teetered on the brink. Eric Hobsbawm’s warning proved right as orthodoxy, with the aid of a bit of bank saving, prevailed, austerity began. The bulk of policy initiatives, or tinkering, proved not to be structural, lasting, reforms. Whatever trace of equality they had sustained vanished quickly with the return of the Conservatives to power. Schemes for sanction-ruled and pared down welfare amidst the expansion of precarious employment have erased their memory. Brexit has set in train a new form of free-market rule, national neoliberalism, backed by Boris Johnson’s national populism. 

Davis and Rentoul are more forthcoming on the Iraq War. Regardless of the merits of the decision to play a full part in the invasion of Iraq, Blair acted out of “deep conviction”. He gave public support to President Bush. The issue of ‘humanitarian intervention’, one that preoccupied many people on the left at the time, is ignored. What counted is that it could be seen as poor policy, “on planning for the aftermath, he failed to consider how badly it could turn and…If a fraction of the intelligence effort devoted to weapons of mass destruction had been devoted to war-gaming the results of toppling Saddam, a better decision might have been reached.” (Page 280) Or it might not…..

The Blair Government Reconsidered  is a fluent, accessible study. That said, if there’s anything that all the candidates for the Labour leadership have noted is this, the Blair years claim that “What matters is what works”. New Labour’s package of policies, though not without electoral victories that should make us pause, did not, as a whole, work.

 

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(1) The Retreat of Social Democracy. John Callaghan. Manchester University Press.  2001

(2) Alex Callinicos. Against the Third Way. Polity 2001.

The Brexit Left Hails, “the positive potential of a departure from the EU.”

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Daily Express 1 February 2020

Morning Star Sees “Positive Potential” in Brexit.

The Morning Star, wholly independent of the Communist Party of Britain and owned by the Co-Op, this week hailed the “positive potential” of Brexit Day.

Editorial.

The Morning Star claims that Labour ‘handed control’ of the Brexit process ” to enemies of the working class in Westminster and Brussels” by inflicting “defeats on the government”.

In the New Era,

Now Brexit is happening, Labour urgently needs to do what it should have done in 2016, the essence of which was actually outlined by Corbyn in 2018: to recognise the positive potential of a departure from the EU.

These include expanding public ownership without worrying about the strictures of the Lisbon Treaty, or the “rights” of parasitical firms exploiting our public services for profit; to plan economic development sustainably, intervening to clean and green our economy without allowing transnational companies a “fair playing field” on which to ruin our planet; rewriting public procurement rules so contracts are allocated based on public interest and the welfare of workers and users.

For the moment, none of this is on the table. Brexit is an opportunity, because it removes certain treaties and regulations which are barriers to a socialist transformation of society.

But every silver-lined opportunity has a cloud,

But it is no more than an opportunity. It has not liberated anyone. Britain has elected a hard-right government which is already breaking promises to end austerity and will wage ruthless war on our communities and our workforces. It is a pro-imperialist government aligned as slavishly to an aggressive White House as was Tony Blair’s.

Some on the left will blame all this on Brexit. Actually it marks a continuation of the policies of the past four decades rather than a departure from them. Labour can keep mourning the EU, keep pleading for total alignment with all its anti-worker treaties and court rulings, keep reproaching people for failing to understand what we could lose rather than inspiring them with a vision of what we can win.

Or it can move on.

And agree with the pro-Leave Morning Star.

By accepting the Boris consensus on Brexit we can finally, by leaps and bounds, engage in the real struggle. That is,

 it accepts we have left and throws itself into the fight for a better future.

Another editorial blames faith in the EU for a downturn in workers’ struggles,

A misplaced faith in the EU to protect workers’ rights has seen energies misdirected into lobbying on behalf of the supranational organisation rather than building a movement formidable enough to defend and extend rights.

The EU has prevented Britain from defending the national working class.

In fact EU rules have acted to prevent governments keeping manufacturing and construction contracts in the country to protect jobs.

The same applies to workers’ rights. Trade unions in particular have been systematically stripped of their rights over the past 40 years.

The national working class can only look to national struggles to fight for its rights.

One welcome result of Britain’s departure should therefore be abandoning the myth — laughable given the momentous struggle against attacks on pension rights currently raging in France — that the labour movement can look to the EU for protection. Workers’ rights can only be secured by the working class itself.

Only working-class action can defend workers’ rights

You wonder why the labour movement bothers with any legislation or tries to get MPs elected.

Perhaps the Morning Star will extend the CPB’s call to Boycott Labour and abstain in last year’s European Elections to the next British General Election.

Counterfire, meanwhile has held its conference.

Corbynism, socialists and the resistance – Counterfire’s conference

The revolutionary socialist organisation resolved to back Rebecca Long-Bailey in the Labour leadership contest.

In prose which only they have the secret of the groupuscule declares,

Counterfire is a revolutionary socialist organisation that differs with those in Labour about whether the party can be won to socialism and whether socialism can be attained through Parliament. Nevertheless, we were at the forefront of defending and encouraging the Corbyn project, while being fraternally critical when neccessary (sic).

They instruct,

Socialists in Labour should vote for Rebecca Long-Bailey and Richard Burgon in the current elections, it will be a boost to the entire left if left-wing candidates win the leadership and deputy leadership of the Labour Party. But the loss of the election has strengthened the right and Corbyn’s resignation is likely to lead to retreats, particularly on foreign policy issues. Increasingly the focus for socialists ought to be outside electoral politics.

On Brexit they declare,

That Brexit still represents an opportunity for rupture with Europe’s capitalist institutions and only makes sense from the left. There is no better deal for capital than the one it currently has.

Conference resolves:

In the context of the end of Corbynism and the inevitable moving rightwards of the Labour Party, to continue making the arguments within the left that making a break with the institutions of the EU is a necessary step on the road to socialism.

Agreeing with their national comrades in the Morning Star Martin Hall writes on Brexit Day that  “future is up for grabs”, to catch it the left must,

Understand that a rupture with the current model of capitalism in order to rebalance capital and labour in favour of the latter can only be achieved outside the EU.

Leaving the EU: this is about what sort of society we want – and it isn’t Johnson’s

Try wishing away this:

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“Vendredi Noir” in France, New Day of Protests as Macron’s Formally Unveils Pension “Reform”plans.

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Torch-lit protest on the Eve of ‘Vendredi Noir’.

On the 52nd day of moblisation against Macron’s Pension reforms unions and protesters have united for a Black Friday (Vendredi Noir) of strikes and marches.

France 24 reports.

French hardline unions have called for a day of industrial action and mass demonstrations Friday as President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to reform the country’s unwieldly pension system is presented to his cabinet.

After a brief respite from a seven-week strike that extended over the Christmas period, French unions called for major shutdowns and demonstrations to show their “determination” to halt Macron’s pension reform plan.

The call came as French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe presents the new plan instituting a “universal system” of point-based pensions to the cabinet Friday, before it is sent to the National Assembly, France’s lower house, where debates will begin February 17.

Demonstrators held torch-lit protests in Paris Thursday evening ahead of a “Black Friday” of strikes and shutdowns.

France’s hardline CGT union’s leader, Philippe Martinez, warned that opposition to the pension reform “has not weakened” in an interview with the Public Sénat TV station, with polls showing that 61 percent of French people are calling for the reform to be withdrawn.

 Suivez la journée de mobilisation contre la réforme des retraites avec «Libération»

There are no Buses, Trains and RER (Paris Region rapid network).

While most of the French unions have opposed Macron’s reforms the ‘reformist’ federation, the CFDT, has been willing to negotiate with the government.

This has led strikers from the trains, SNCF, and the Metro, RATP, invaded their offices. to protest last Friday  by occupying its HQ.

Réforme des retraites : le siège de la CFDT envahi par des grévistes

Envahissement de la CFDT par des grévistes : “vous ne négociez pas en notre nom”

Le Monde noted on Tuesday that the French Left , while backing the protests and strikes, has been unable to agree on a united response.

Réforme des retraites : les partis de gauche sont unanimes, mais ne proposent pas de solutions communes.

Opponents of the movement suggest that this may be a last gesture of defiance while others see the strikes continuing.

It looks highly unlikely that the movement has ended.

Written by Andrew Coates

January 24, 2020 at 12:49 pm