As Tony Blair reached his tenth anniversary as Prime Minister and prepared to announce his resignation, attention turned to his legacy. Blair himself is quite clear: “I am convinced that the initial insight that brought us to power has stood the test of time…The idea was that there was no need to choose between social justice on the one hand and economic prosperity on the other ... Ten years on, this is the governing idea of British politics.” (Guardian, 27/04/07). Many commentators agree that politics in Britain has changed: “Britain is better off after a decade with Tony Blair in charge. Wealth has been created, and wealth has been redistributed. That is what Labour governments have always hoped to do. It has happened without a brake on global competitiveness. That is what New Labour hoped to do: build a vibrant market economy with a generous welfare state; economic freedom and social protection. That is Blairism.” (Observer 29/04/07). This is contrasted with the failures of foreign policy as a result of his over-close relationship with the US: “…Mr Blair’s room for pragmatic manoeuvre in foreign affairs was limited by his partnership with George Bush…his insistence on seeing problems of the Middle East in purely Manichean terms - as a global struggle between Good and Evil, between Western Civilisation and apocalyptic terrorism does not lend itself to good policy-making. Stabilisation in Iraq, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Israel’s war with Hizbollah and its occupation of Palestine - these are problems that require separate treatment.” (ibid). While other commentators are more or less harsh about particular aspects of Blair’s performance this is probably the general view of the ruling class.
For ourselves, we were clear when Blair and New Labour were elected what they had been brought in to do: “The difference between New Labour and Old Labour is that the former is telling us in advance that it is going to ruthlessly attack our living standards. On virtually every aspect of the economy, Blair’s policies are identical to those of the Tories. Everything must be costed. Industry must pay its way (which means the sack if you aren’t in a ‘paying’ industry).” (WR 204, May 1997). The other reason for electing New Labour was its ability to defend Britain’s imperialist, interests after the chaos of the final years of the Tory government: “Labour’s huge victory, and the humiliation of many of the Eurosceptics, confirms that the most influential fractions of British capitalism have no intention of going back to the old alliance with the USA” (ibid).
Managing the economy, defending Britain’s imperialist interests and controlling the working class: this is what the ruling class asks of every government it puts into power. So if we are to be clear about Blair’s legacy we have to distinguish between what he has achieved for the ruling class and his impact on the working class.
Blair and the ruling class
Overall, Labour has managed the economy well for the ruling class. Britain has remained the fourth biggest economy in world; it has achieved growth rates above those of its competitors in Europe: the average rate of growth between 1990 and 1999 was about 2%; between 2000 and 2006 it has been about 2.5%. There has not been a recession, in the sense of an absolute decline in production, since the early 1990s. This has meant that more money has come into the government, allowing it to increase spending in some areas. Overall government spending has increased from 38% of GDP in 2000 to 44% in 2004 (although this only returns it to the level of the mid 1990s). Many of Britain’s companies, such as Tescos, BP and Barclays, have made record profits and the stock exchange, despite some recent fluctuations, has been stable in its functioning.
The difficulties for the British economy are at the structural level and in particular at the level of productivity, which remains below that of its rivals. The balance of trade would look even more unhealthy if it wasn’t the contribution of ‘invisibles’, while total government debt stood at £571.8 billion at the end of last year, equivalent to 43.5% of GDP. Gordon Brown has struggled to meet his golden rule of balancing the books over a financial cycle and has only done so by changing some of the rules.
Faced with the working class, Labour has been able to maintain a significant level of social calm. In 1997 it benefited from the mere fact that it was not the Tory party. The loudly proclaimed growth of the economy and increases in state spending prolonged this illusion. Few strikes of any significance have disturbed this calm. The unions have worked closely with Labour. On the one hand they have distanced themselves from Labour to make a pretence of opposing the government and, on the other, struck deals with the bosses. Workers have generally accepted low wage settlements and increasing demands from the bosses as the price of keeping their jobs.
The great failure of the Blair government has been its defence of the ruling class’ imperialist interests and Blair is being forced from office sooner than he intended because of this. Today British imperialism is bogged down with the US in the carnage that has engulfed Iraq and is threatening Afghanistan. The abject failure of Blair’s attempt to bestride the world stage during the conflict in the Lebanon last year confirmed the further decline of British power. This lack of a global standing was further born out in British impotence in the face of the recent Iranian detention of one of its ships. It has roused the fury of considerable parts of the ruling class across the political spectrum. The ‘loans for peerages’ scandal, with the arrest of several people close to Blair and the questioning of the Prime Minister himself, was used to apply pressure and force him from office.
A second concern for the ruling class has been the impact of the Blair faction on the way the British state functions. There has been a tendency to replace permanent officials with the Prime Minister’s personal entourage and formal meetings with informal chats and unrecorded decisions. However, the attempt to control Blair through the ‘loans for peerages’ scandal has only made things worse because it too used methods that undermine the traditional functioning of the state.
Blair and the working class
The price for the successes of British capitalism, as well as its failures, is paid by the working class.
The growth of the British economy without any great improvement in productivity means that it is based on making the proletariat work longer and harder: “The increase has been due principally to an increase in the hours worked and to a lesser extent to an increase in the proportion of the population of working age actually in work. While the official working day has declined there has been a real increase due to the growth of overtime, which is frequently unpaid. The hours worked declined from the start of the last century until 1984 when they began to rise again. Long hours for one part of the working class goes hand in hand with part time work for another part and reflects a general polarisation between overwork and underwork.” (“Resolution on the British situation”, WR 281, February 2005). The attempt to increase the number in work and decrease the cost of maintaining the unemployed lies behind all of the campaigns to get groups such as single mothers and the disabled into work. The same concern lies behind the attacks on pensions. Many workers now face the prospect of working into their old age with lower and more insecure pensions while a significant number have seen their pensions simply disappear. Many younger workers can look forward to no pension at all. Those in work face growing job insecurity: jobs in manufacturing, which have tended to be relatively well-paid, continue to decline to be replaced by low-paid, part-time, temporary contracts in the service sector. Recently, it has become obvious that the government has turned a blind eye to the influx of migrant workers because they are a source of cheap and malleable labour and help to keep wages down overall.
The pressures of work or unemployment, the insecurity that confronts many people and the general atmosphere of ‘look after number one’ undermines the quality of life. The bourgeoisie sense this, but can only offer platitudes about family life and ‘respect’ on the one hand and measures to increase surveillance and control on the other. This is because they are incapable of seeing that it is the very society they defend that is increasingly making life seem meaningless and worthless. These features find expression in the figures of rising mental illness amongst children, in alcohol and drug addiction and in the continuing growth of petty crime.
Even the ruling class has to accept that the growth in the economy has increased divisions: “…riches have not flowed very evenly. At the top of the income scale grotesque sums are earned and splashed around. At the bottom there is still an underclass, unresponsive to state intervention…inequality is more visible than the discreet but more widespread increase in average household wealth.” (Observer, 29/04/07). In fact this ‘discreet increase in average wealth’ is not quite what it seems since it is built on personal debt, which now stands at £1.3 trillion. For British capitalism this is essential if it is to sell the goods and services it produces and make a profit. For the working class it only increases the sense of insecurity and lowers its quality of life.
This explains why the working class is not impressed by all of the reports of improvements in services. Its experience of life is not of better schools and better healthcare but poverty, debt, too much work or too little, isolation, fear and insecurity.
The balance sheet for the ruling class of ten years of Blair is mixed. On the one hand he has loyally and ably defended its immediate economic interests and controlled the threat posed by the working class. On the other hand he has failed to maintain Britain’s position in the world and has weakened the bourgeoisie’s overall cohesion as a class. Blairism exemplifies the ability of the bourgeoisie to continue to manage the immediate aspects of situation and its inability to manage the underlying structural problems. Thus, at the level of the economy it can keep the system going, it can continue to produce surplus value, it can even manage to increase immediate rates of growth, but it cannot stop the growth of tensions within the system whether coming from the reliance on debt or the threat from other capitalists. At the level of its imperialist interests momentary successes can sometimes be won, for example in the Balkans, but the fundamental contradiction of Britain’s position as a declining power caught between the US and Europe cannot be overcome. At the level of the class struggle it can contain and divert the day to day struggle but it cannot stop the worsening of its situation that pushes the proletariat to struggle. The arrival of Gordon Brown at 10 Downing Street will not alter the material situation in which British capitalism is stuck.
For the working class the balance sheet of ten years of Blairism is negative at the level of its individual and day to day experience. However, there is another dimension to the working class’ experience of Blair. The worsening of its conditions of life force it to respond. The recent increase in the number of strikes is a sign of this. The experience of worsening pay and work and living conditions and the exposure of the reality of the bloody and futile wars that Britain has engaged in prompts reflection about this society and what the future holds.
In the 1840s when Engels wrote the Condition of the Working Class in England, he saw more than poverty, despair and exploitation; he saw the stirrings of a mighty force, of the development of a class woven together through its common struggle and becoming capable of overcoming the inhumanity of its conditions. In the 1880s when he considered the decline of British capitalism’s industrial monopoly he saw more than decline; he saw the return of socialism to England (“England in 1845 and in 1885”, Collected Works, Vol. 26). Today the difficulties facing the working class still contain the possibilities of a new society, still contain the hope of socialism, of a world fit for humans to live in. North, 3/5/07