Labour disarray: A capitalist party arranges its succession

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At the end of the summer, after Prime Minister Blair had returned from his holiday, an attempt was made to force him from office. A chorus of criticism built up, with calls for him to give an exact date for his departure or even to leave immediately. This was followed by letters from various groups of MPs and came to a crescendo with the orchestrated resignations from the government of several junior figures. Blair refused to go and his allies effectively exposed Brown as being behind the coup attempt. However, he was forced to say he would be gone before the next party conference. Blair has certainly been damaged by this and has little political authority left, despite the hype around his farewell conference speech. But Brown has also been damaged and in recent weeks the Tory leader Cameron has been talked up. The Tories now lead by several points in the polls and Cameron is seen as the more trustworthy politician.

The campaigns against Blair

Corruption, party funding, personal rivalry, hostility over his closeness to the US and the race for the leadership have been the subject of reports in the press and the TV that are presented as the causes of Blair’s difficulties. To varying degrees they are all part of the situation but none of them fully explain what is going on. There are, in fact, two intertwined aspects to the campaigns.

The first of these concerns the direction of foreign policy and dates back to the bombing of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon in 2001 when Britain shifted towards the US with the unleashing of the ‘war on terror’. This made sense at the time because it kept Britain in the game, but as the US campaign became mired in Iraq and Afghanistan parts of the British ruling class saw that they were suffering the consequences without any gains: a point brutally rammed home by the bombings in London last year. The conflict in the Lebanon brought this to a head and resulted in the concerted attacks on Blair, including calls for his immediate resignation that we reported in the last issue of World Revolution.

The second concerns the way the ruling class conducts itself. The list of Labour’s misdemeanours, from affairs and sexual indiscretions to questionable financial deals and dodgy ways of funding the party are nothing new. For example, the sale of honours goes back beyond the administration of Lloyd George and in one case the income to be derived from the practice was included in the party’s budget. For the bourgeoisie such affairs are an accepted part of life, although corruption in public affairs has certainly escalated with capitalism’s growing decomposition. If today Labour is being tarred with sleaze, especially if it can be linked in some way to Blair, it is because it suits the needs of parts of the ruling class, not because their consciences have stirred in any way. The morality of the ruling class rises no higher than the preservation of their own interests and, at most, the stability of the society on which their position depends.

Weakening the stability of the ruling class

Of more significance is the change in the way the Labour government works. This is marked by a tendency to replace the established mechanisms through which the civil service maintains the stability of the state with informal processes based on factions within the ruling class. Some early signs of this could be seen during the Thatcher years with the growth in the number of political advisors and appointees. It has accelerated under the Blair government. On arrival in government both Blair and Brown surrounded themselves with their own people: “There is no parallel in the modern era in Britain for the rival gangs of supporters who follow Blair and Brown…Each depends on a group of close supporters, connected to a wider army, and they have survived as distinct armies in government” (The Rivals, James Naughtie, p.233-4). Cabinet meetings were marginalised, rarely lasting more than an hour: “The real deals are done elsewhere, usually in the Prime Minister’s study with only three or four people sitting around: and, as often as not, with only two” (ibid, p.104). Blair and Brown frequently met in private which “broke a cardinal rule. Except in exceptional circumstances…Prime Ministers and their senior ministers don’t usually meet alone. Notes are always taken…office phone calls are monitored by a private secretary listening on a line next door and notes are kept…” (ibid, p.96).

This disturbs the conscience of parts of the ruling class because they can see in it a threat to the stability of their dictatorship. The Butler report that was produced in the wake of the invasion of Iraq strongly criticised the informal style of the Blair government. It described a number of organisational changes in the way security information was handled and commented: “We believe that the effect of the changes has been to weight their responsibility to the Prime Minister more heavily than their responsibility through the Cabinet Secretary to the Cabinet as a whole”. Overall it concluded: “One inescapable consequence of this was to limit wider collective discussion and consideration by the Cabinet to the frequent but unscripted occasions when the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary briefed the Cabinet orally. Excellent quality papers were written by officials, but these were not discussed in Cabinet or in Cabinet Committee… The absence of papers on the Cabinet agenda so that Ministers could obtain briefings in advance from the Cabinet Office, their own departments or from the intelligence agencies plainly reduced their ability to prepare properly for such discussions, while the changes to key posts at the head of the Cabinet Secretariat lessened the support of the machinery of government for the collective responsibility of the Cabinet in the vital matter of war and peace.” (ibid p.147-8).

Behind the diplomatic language this is a protest that the place of the permanent and most stable parts of the ruling class were being usurped by politicians and their cronies; that the central apparatus of the state is being replaced by the factions.

However the way these concerns have been handled and the way Blair has been pressed to change foreign policy has itself reflected the difficulties facing the bourgeoisie. During the Butler inquiry the civil service broke its own rules by releasing hundreds of documents that were published on the internet. The loans for peerages scandal has seen one of Blair’s closet allies arrested while the attempt to force Blair from office a few weeks ago saw the animosity lurking beneath the façade threatening to break out in an uncontrolled way.

In contrast, when Thatcher was removed it was done with steely efficiency and her attempt to hang on was fairly brief and ended quite ruthlessly by senior figures. That said, the Thatcher era again paved the way for today, given that Thatcher had links with the Eurosceptics and was a factor in the turmoil in the Tory party during John Major’s time as Prime Minister. This was a bitter dispute and was marked by quite public manoeuvring and attempts to exert pressure through whispering campaigns and the media. The long running dispute between Blair and Brown, while often treated by the media as a soap opera, has been a symptom of the difficulties the bourgeoisie faces in maintaining its cohesion in the present situation.

The balance of class forces

What this reveals is a loss of control within the British bourgeoisie. The coup attempt against Blair following his holiday seems to have been launched on the back of the attacks on him over Lebanon before he went. It is possible that one was linked to the other since both aimed to get rid of Blair. The second may have been a way of completing the first or just have taken its cue from it. However, the partial loss of control that resulted clearly worried parts of the ruling class which moved to close things down. Blair and Brown have made up with public shows of support while Brown has worked to present a more human face with comments that being a father has changed him more than being chancellor and televised tears when speaking of the loss of his daughter. It may be significant that Cameron has been given more prominence at this time and that he has recently spoken of the need to adopt a foreign policy that is less subservient to the US.

These events are not comparable with those seen in other countries, such as Russia or Italy or even France. Nonetheless it is significant. It is not just this or that part of the ruling class but the ruling class as a whole that is affected by the ideology of ‘look after number one’. This is consistent with what we wrote in the Theses on Decomposition in 1990: “Amongst the major characteristics of capitalist society’s decomposition, we should emphasise the bourgeoisie’s growing difficulty in controlling the evolution of the political situation. Obviously, this is a result of the ruling class’ increasing loss of control over its economic apparatus, the infrastructure of society. The historic dead-end in which the capitalist mode of production finds itself trapped, the successive failures of the bourgeoisie’s different policies, the permanent flight into debt as a condition for the survival of the world economy, cannot but affect the political apparatus which is itself incapable of imposing on society and especially on the working class, the ‘discipline’ and acquiescence necessary to mobilise all its historic strength for a new world war, which is the only historic ‘response’ that the bourgeoisie has to give. The absence of any perspective (other than day-to-day stop-gap measures to prop up the economy) around which it could mobilise as a class, and at the same time the fact that the proletariat does not yet threaten its own survival, creates within the ruling class, and especially within the political apparatus, a growing tendency towards indiscipline and an attitude of ‘every man for himself’” (IR 62).

The British bourgeoisie is the oldest in the world and is noted for its experience, its mastery of the political game, its capacity to maintain order and its discipline. That this has now received such a public blow is an indication of the extent and the depth of the impact of decomposition on the ruling class internationally. However, the situation should not be exaggerated. The British ruling class remains strong and, in particular, is absolutely united against the working class not only in its aim of maintaining its domination but also in the methods it uses to achieve this. In fact even these recent difficulties have been used to reinforce the democratic game through the manufactured campaigns for honesty and decency amongst politicians.

It is not through the weakness of the ruling class that the proletariat will win any victories but only through its own strength. Signs of this already exist. The success of the movement in France this spring was due to the unity and consciousness it achieved. The gradual revival of the class struggle in recent years has shifted the balance of class forces after the years that followed 1989 when the bourgeoisie was able to successfully mount large scale manoeuvres to limit the class struggle. Throughout its history the working class could only ever rely on itself. This remains the case today.

North, 22/9/6.