Publikation Soziale Bewegungen / Organisierung New Labour’s Second Term, or: The Long Way to “Social Society” Thinking

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Dezember 2004

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These remarks on the situation of the left in Great Britain will stress many things anew that were mentioned already in the course of this session. They are rather of a kaleidoscopic character: In the following, it shall be tried to give an idea how the social and the political situation in British society under the second Blair government influence one another and what problems follow from there for its approach to the social question for the British left.

1) Blair’s accelerated programme of social demolition in his second term in office

The macroeconomic strategy of the Blair government in many ways continues the restrictive social policy of the conservative governments before him: also in his second term, there are no deductions to the policy of budgetary rigidity and of simultaneous acceptance of the ever larger social divide in the country. Features of the present term are the pushing ahead with the public sector reforms that have implemented a low-wage sector in the public sector (among others for social services), just as the continued targeted exclusion of pension funds for those working in the public sector from state financing. All these measures were already completed in the private economic sector: lasting insecurity among the employed depending on their wages, as far as security in old age is concerned and in case of ill health, are already the reality here, just as, at least in the lower tiers of society, relative loss of purchasing power by continually decreasing real wages. In the framework of the ‘welfare-to-work’ programme, the social systems continue to be financially thinned out, meaning that the compulsion to work, now practised also in Germany with Hartz IV and 1€ jobs, has already long been reality for the long-term unemployed in Great Britain.

That the New Labour government does not react only to globalisation constraints here, as can again and again be heard by New Labour advocates, is shown by its acting on the international scene, especially in the European and in the EU Ministerial Council, precisely in this legislature: While Blair had still landed a popular coup in 1997 when he recognised the social capital of the Maastricht Treaty for GB, the introduction of the new European Social Charta into the new EU Constitution was prevented mainly by the influence of the British government.

The implementation of the EU work-time directive that Blair had always fought was undermined by numerous national opting-outs. The Blair government also refused obstinately to implement the 7 year restrictive clause on the free movement of workers in the wake of the EU enlargement, making it possible for large bus companies to hire Polish workers beginning this year in large quantities and to play these out against the mostly organised workforce in the British bus companies. (These are precisely the problems that left European policies will be faced with, when the ELP will have to develop an all-European strategy in the next months. I would characterise these problems as the ‘contradiction between territoriality and vision’: The acting of the neoliberal elites constantly creates negative precedents of adjustment of European social standards downward, wherever it can be pushed through with reference to the ‘locational advantages’ in the respectively neighbouring regions – by way of this cynical play, the left parties in the EU are constantly forced to accept a strategic dilemma between vision [‘equally human life conditions for all’] and territoriality [interest representation for the voters of the European Left Parties]).

The territory-wide introduction of cheap wage relationships, according to neoliberal orthodoxy, was the price that had to be paid for the arresting of unemployment at a relatively low level. Blair has paid it.

2) What perceptions and attitudes reign in British society face to the “social question”?

Here one has to draw a preliminary negative summary for the Left: Peter Mandelsohn, one of the dark eminences of New Labour, brought it to the point when he said in 2001: “We are all Thatcherites now” – this is how he described the deep anchoring of the neoliberal ideologisms not only in the Labour Party, but in daily life in Great Britain. To a much larger extent than in other West European countries, the Right has managed to naturalise and ‘nationalise’ neoliberal role models – self-realisation, responsibility for one’s self, being able to assert yourself against others, being tough and being able to have success are continuously described in the media as typically British qualities and continuously accented again and again in a positive way. To a large degree, they are accepted today in the families in particular of the middle, but also of the working class and belong to the fix points of the design of one’s own life trajectory.

The neoliberal strategy of the Blair government reproduces political apathy and cynicism, also among those, who would not have been adverse to a newly conceived centre-left project: 1997, under the influence of Blair’s electoral victory, still over 70 percent were ready to also pay more taxes for an improvement of public and social services. In a survey a week ago, 80% were in favour of giving more help to pensioners and single parents, but 60% refused to pay higher individual taxes for that.

Civil society organisations and initiatives are traditionally very numerous in Great Britain, but command only limited weight politically: the readiness of many of these organisations to engage politically beyond their ‘single issue’ is still more weakly developed than in Germany and bears account of a certain abstract political individualism that is characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon middle-classes. To the extent that these organisations even address the social question (as for instance shelter), they are also needed as buffer to cover for the retreat of the state, for instance from the care for the homeless. Moreover, it is necessary to note, especially for the case of Great Britain, that civil society commitment by no means always has to pursue emancipative goals: The Countryside Alliance, which has written the ‘Conservation of the traditional English landscape’ on its flags, was able to mobilise, a couple of weeks ago, 300,000 people to demonstrate in London against a prohibition of fox hunting.

In summary, you could say that the mass of the wage dependent and socially needy at the moment finds itself in a phase of political disillusionment. Thinking about solidarity, social society and conceptions of social justice are at the moment not considered as personally practicable or, respectively, really to be hoped for. What will come at the other end of the disillusionment is not clear yet.

An important exception is formed here, however, by the ethnic minorities of the country – by its experiencing of equal problems (daily racism, independent cultural milieus, but also the wish to rise in society), the third generation of post-war migrants, which is in the meantime growing up in the country, disposes of a common agenda for political and cultural changes that has a complete emancipation of these minorities as its content. Here, there have also formed autonomous interest associations with a very good infrastructure, such as for example the Muslim Association of Britain. These organisations, by way of their high capacity to mobilise their members and by a relatively strict organisation, are also in a position to effectively enter the stage publicly and in the media. Their strength, the ethnic or also confessional bracket, however, is at the same time the limit of their political radiance.

3) What potentialities and possibilities for action open themselves to the Left and to movements of social emancipation?

You may wonder why the Iraq war and the anti-war movement have played so small a role in these observations up to now. I shall now catch up on this, when turning to the strategic debates and discussions within the left and among the social movements:

On February 15, 2003, with one and a half million people, London saw the up to now largest demonstration in the history of the country, followed by many further demonstrations with hundred thousands of participants. This movement was able to act in a determining way on society (at least as far as the agenda setting was concerned) because it was possible to set successfully into motion a milieu-overarching dynamics here: the closing of ranks between the stop-the-war coalition founded by left-wing activists and the Muslim Association of Britain produced a significant social mobilisation. A mobilisation that would be extendable in the long run, so one thought. Thereupon, there based themselves back then the hopes of not so few left people for an impulse also for the social movements. What is the situation one-and-a-half year later?

Four basic camps can be recognised at present in the British left which each go their own way in the question of a strategy face to the neoliberal policy of the Blair government:

First, there is a tendency that continues to be large and that has not abandoned the struggle for the Labour Party. There belong to it personalities around Tony Benn, Mark Seddon, the journal Tribune and the Socialist Campaign Group in the Labour Fraction of the Lower House. The Socialist Campaign Group participated in a leading way in the organisation of the protests against the war course of the Blair government. Given the relationship of forces within the Party, these forces have no chance, however, to bring about a change of direction of the government. They are stigmatised by the sectarian excesses of the Labour Party in the 70s not only in their own party but also in the population at large.

The second force in this field of tension are clearly the trade unions: These are certainly hard hit by dwindling membership and anti-trade union legislation that Blair did not take back despite his electoral campaign promises. However, certain parts of the trade unions have distinguished themselves as clear critics of New Labour. The leadership of the trade unions certainly up to now sees no alternative yet to a continued close cooperation with the Blair government. However, there now rises publicly voiced resistance: The transport worker trade union RMT was excluded in the beginning of the year from the Labour Party, because it had allowed its local bodies to determine freely which candidate they supported at the elections. The firemen trade union FBU quit the party – a unique event in the history of the British labour movement. A proof for the newly stirred lust for battle is also the announcement by the trade union of the public service, Unison (that up to now was seen as rather moderate), to strike against plans for job reductions and the privatisation of the pension funds for employees in the public service. This uncertainty was grounds enough for the government to call at least for a summit meeting with the trade union roof organisation TUC, at which the trade unions were able to obtain a number of concessions, such as, for instance, the retraction of the two-tier-workforce regulation in the public sector, following which two employees, in accordance to their respective hiring modalities, can receive different wages for equal work.

Thirdly, finally, a huge part of the British left hoped that as a result of the mass protests against the Iraq war, there would finally result an opportunity to create a stable party crystallisation point left of the Labour Party. This was tried in autumn 2003 by the Respect Coalition, the self-declared successor alliance to the Stop-the-War coalition. It constituted itself around the Labour deputy George Galloway that had been excluded by Blair because of his anti-war position. Already the name shows that this group had set itself the task to integrate elements of the movements and to constitute itself in this way on as broad political basis as possible. Following Chris Bamberry, one of the speakers, it is even the declared goal to attract people, respectively also voters who would not call themselves left. The goal of Respect was to pick up the impetus of the protest against the Iraq war in order to build up, first of all, a left electoral alternative to the Labour war party. Secondly, however, this was to feed over into a popular protest movement against social demolition and privatisation (this at least was the goal of the SWP cadres that dominated the founding of Respect in a major way). This strategy was evaluated sceptically from many sides, because it threatened at times to push into the background the thought of plurality among all anti-war minded. In the end, it turned out crucial that the clientele of the anti-war protest was completely different from the one that might have had its primary interest in the articulation of social protest: While the participants at the demonstrations consisted to an overwhelming part of highly educated people, surveys in traditional workers’ district even yielded a majority for the war course of Tony Blair. The consequence of this wrong assessment was a bitter defeat by Respect at the European elections in June of this year. The coalition obtained only 1.5% of the votes; and in the social focal point London, Respect was, with 3.5%, just able to obtain two city councillors’ seats in the Greater London Assembly. The Iraq war factor was passé, and the anti-neoliberal agenda had (not yet?) found an echo among the concerned.

Nevertheless, criticisms such as that by John Sullivan in the Marxist newspaper: What now? could be overdrawn. He states that ‘Respect had ignored the ultimately monolithic character of the British worker movement’. Sullivan also compared the defeat of the coalition to that of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) and the Socialist Alliance (SA). It ignores the different strategies of these parties: In contrast to the Stalinist touch of the SLP with its leader Arthur Scargill, who from the beginning waged on the traditional workers’ communities in central and North England, Respect rather made the conscious attempt to bear witness to the heterogeneity of potential voter groups. That this attempt failed does not yet mean automatically that such a coalition party left of labour is impossible in the long run. This was proven in summer 2003 by the Scottish Socialist Party that entered the Scottish Regional Parliament with 7 deputies after a campaign with the same two points of emphasis.

As the fourth and newest forces, there finally should be mentioned the initiatives for the founding of a British social forum that exist at the local level in London and in a number of other large cities. They cooperate closely with the activists of Respect, but before the session of the European Social Forum in London they had not yet become a national network.    

I shall note four determining factors that might allow a left party coalition/collection of movements to establish itself:

-  institutionally, the question is whether it is possible to establish a party focus around the dispersed trade unions that would have the possibility to make an integration offer to the very divided British left,

-  from the cultural perspective, the question is, whether thinking in terms of a social society can be re-established.
For one thing, the question is whether it is possible to develop, around such a crystallisation point, a modern, self-conscious self-image both for the workers and for the unemployed, for intellectuals as well as for adherents of ethnic minorities. Such a self-image would have to oppose to the ‘individual solution’ – the Thatcherite guiding image of the successfully-dynamic careerist – an individually and psychologically worthwhile ideal of socially worthwhile collectivity.

Second, the question is whether the middle classes can be convinced that a new social state contract – with a higher tax yield – will also offer them more security against unemployment and precarious existence.

- personally, it is also decisive whether this group will find a representative who personally would be able to unite in his or her person such a large share of cultural markers that the various strata/milieus will be able to recognise themselves in him or her; who might thus be able to exercise an integrating influence among the left-wing currents and at the same time would achieve acceptance among the middle classes. The London mayor Ken Livingston would maybe have been such a figure; he preferred, however, to join back the Labour Party last year, from which he had been excluded in 2000, because he had run as an independent candidate for the mayor elections – and won.

- from the point of view of electoral law, it remains to be seen whether the majority system can be shaken. However, Blair already gave in on that point in Scotland and Wales. It remains clear, however, that this hurdle will only fall when the political constellation of forces makes such a new regulation of electoral law possible in the first place.

Translated by Carla Krüger, March 18, 2006