Loans for peerages is the latest in a series of scandals to hit the Blair government. Having focused on particular ministers such as Blunkett and Jowell (the Berlusconi Connection), or on Blair’s wife Cherie and her speaking tours, it has finally settled on the issue of loans for peerages. This is an issue of Labour government hypocrisy, certainly, since it had changed the rules to make political parties announce all large donations, but left itself a loophole for loans. The Labour government is described as having the same stench of sleaze as the Major government shortly before it was ousted by a landslide.
But there is something very odd about this campaign about Labour sleaze. Peerages have been for sale to the great, the good and the extremely rich for at least 150 years. Former PM Lloyd George was particularly famous for it, and the bourgeoisie think none the worse of him for that. The campaign has not hit the Labour government specifically. The media has allowed much of the Labour Party, including the treasurer, Jack Dromey, to maintain some sort of plausible deniability. And in addition the Tories are also well known to receive large loans, and their peers are equally likely to have put in large sums of money prior to being elevated.
The main point of this whole sorry saga is resolved into one key question – is it time for Blair to go? The media have been full of it. Even the Australian media took it up in an interview with the PM when he was over there. And it is followed up by discussion of what sort of prime minister Gordon Brown will make, and whether David Cameron would do any better. The issue of the reform of the House of Lords only comes up as an afterthought.
The dictatorship of the bourgeoisie
The British bourgeoisie is unusual among the great powers in having an unelected and largely appointed second chamber that provides the opportunity for politicians to sell honours that include a seat in parliament. But neither the corruption of politicians, nor the role of sections of the bourgeoisie in formulating policy, are in any way unusual. On the contrary, they are both a natural part of bourgeois democracy.
From top to bottom politicians use their ‘public service’ to enrich themselves. Senior ministers take seats on boards of directors, local councillors are hand in glove with local businesses for the purposes of getting planning permission and offering contracts. In Italy twenty years ago there was the huge scandal around the P2 Masonic lodge. This should not surprise us in any way as it expresses normal capitalist behaviour – the search to make as much profit as possible.
The fact that elections are held every 4 or 5 years or so does not call in question the nature of the state, and certainly doesn’t make the Commons less capitalist than the Lords: “even the most democratic bourgeois republic is nothing by the instrument by which the bourgeoisie oppress the working class, by which a handful of capitalists keeps the working masses under” (‘Theses on Bourgeois Democracy and Proletarian Dictatorship’, First Congress of the Communist International, 1919).
From time to time and for various reasons corruption becomes a media campaign because it suits the ruling class. In the 1990s the British bourgeoisie knowingly used a campaign about sleaze to signal the need for a change of governing team. A change in the governing team, but not in the basic policy direction of the state. Fundamentally New Labour was elected to impose austerity measures on the working class, in continuity with the previous government, which in turn only continued the attacks begun by the Callaghan government of the late 1970s. As we said in 1997 “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” (WR 204). A new government was needed because after 18 years of the Tories in power people were beginning to get disillusioned with democracy; and so it would be easier for New Labour to impose attacks on the working class. These attacks are now being called Blair’s “reform agenda”. In addition the Labour government was better able to defend Britain’s imperialist interests at a time when the Tory divisions on Europe masked a fundamental difficulty in adjusting to the new situation after the collapse of the USSR, in particular to the need to take a more independent line in relation to the USA.
The nine years of New Labour government have certainly not disappointed the capitalist class. Right from the off benefits were attacked: job seekers allowance no longer payable to those under 18, single parents having to attend interviews and look for jobs or lose benefit. And this is continuing with attacks on pensions, with the announcement of 2,000 jobs in the NHS in the week before the budget, and attacks on incapacity benefit claimants. Repression has been increased with Terrorism legislation – before as well as after 7/7 – for instance increasing the time suspects can be held without trial first to 14 days and then to 28 days. Immigrants and refugees have been treated to both more repressive legislation and campaigns of vilification about “bogus” asylum seekers. And British imperialist interests have been defended, militarily, as in Afghanistan and Iraq. No wonder the Labour government was the chosen team for British capitalism at last year’s election.
Blair or Brown, the attacks will continue
In this sleaze campaign the bourgeoisie’s main concern is the ‘reform agenda’ of attacks against the working class. Tony Blair has of course been totally identified with this agenda, to the point where it is seen as his personal contribution to history. Unfortunately Blair’s other historic contributions, in particular his growing loss of credibility resulting from the failure of the Iraq adventure, are now getting in the way: “It seems to me that Tony Blair has lost the capacity to carry out the reforms to which he is committed. There clearly need to be significant reforms in education, health and pensions… He now has far less authority than he had [in 1997] and faces far more opposition to reform. There is therefore nothing effective that he can do… He should go now” (William Rees-Mogg in The Times 25.3.06); “he is no longer the best vehicle for his own project” (David Aaronovitch).
Whatever the bourgeoisie decide about the occupant of no. 10, the policy of attacks on the working class, and the underlying strategy for the defence of British imperialist interests, will continue. “Gordon Brown would be an ideal replacement for Blair as he represents continuity in economic policy, his ‘Old Labour’ image would help in the imposition of attacks on the working class,” (WR 285). He has also been kept very carefully out of the scandals. Every budget since 1997 has been an occasion to introduce more attacks on benefits behind rhetoric such as ‘a hand up, not a hand out’ or a ‘new deal’ for the unemployed. The latest was a chance for Brown to set out his stall as a future PM. While he made vague ‘Old Labour’ noises about raising spending on state school pupils, the reality is there will be no change, just more attacks. Alex 1.4.06