Britain - After the Tories' collapse, Labour's austerity drive

Jul/Aug 1997

Eighteen years of Tory rule were brought to an abrupt end on May 1st. Dozens of Tory grandees were forced into an unexpected and humiliating career move. On election night, millions of voters watched with glee as their faces turned from blue to grey on TV. Soon most of them will be forgotten and certainly none will be missed.

A page has been turned, opening the way to a new political situation. Labour is now back in government with its largest majority ever in the Commons, and the smallest Tory opposition this century.

The situation in the Commons, however, is far from reflecting the real balance of political forces in the country. Had the voting system been based on proportional representation, Labour would be unable to rule without the support of the Liberal-Democrats - and even then, the coalition would still have only 359 seats compared with Labour's present 419. Without the constitutional fiddle of the first-past-the-post system, no-one would probably even have thought of calling this election a "Labour landslide".

A Tory collapse rather than a Labour tide

Representing this election as a dramatic tide of enthusiasm for Labour was pure deception. The most that can be said is that out of a dramatic collapse of the Tory vote, the electoral system produced a grossly inflated Labour representation in the Commons.

The Tories' 30.7% is their lowest score since the Labour party came into being - a drop of 11.2% compared with 1992. This remains true even when one adds to the Tory party's score that of its twin offshoots, the Referendum party and the UK Independence party, which were both really seeking the votes of Euro-sceptic Tories, and that of the anti- abortionist "ProLife" list.

The collapse of the Tories' vote is graphically illustrated by the fact that they now have only 17 MPs north of the Midlands, and none at all in either Scotland or Wales. It was a national collapse, but the Tories' losses were much higher in traditional middle-class Tory strongholds, particularly in the South-East and Greater London, reaching as much as 16 to 20% of the vote in constituencies which the Tories nevertheless managed to retain - Croydon South, Billericay or Woking, for instance.

Labour's score, on the other hand, is far from outstanding, by any measure, and certainly does not indicate a tidal wave of enthusiasm. With 43.2% of the vote, Labour gained 8.8% of the vote compared with 1992. But this still does not even equal the 43.9% won by Thatcher in the 1979 general election.

In fact, Labour did not even manage to regain the share of the vote it had in the eight general elections between 1945 and 1970 - half of which were won by the Tories. The only thing Labour did manage to achieve is a sort of improved mirror image of the 1987 general election, in which the Tories got 42.3% and Labour 30.8%. However, the fact that the gap is just 1% larger is enough to give Labour 80 seats more than the 339 the Tories won at the time!

But then all these figures do not take into account the record low 71.3% turnout, which was an important feature of this election. Not only was it 6.4% lower than in the previous election in 1992, but it was the lowest turnout in a general election since 1935, an election which took place against the background of the deep deprivation and austerity left by the Depression.

To avoid some of the distortions due to the low turnout and get a more accurate picture of the situation, one must look at the party results as a proportion of the total electorate, rather than just the votes and also exclude Northern Ireland, since Labour had no candidates there. Comparing 1997 to 1992 in this way, the Tories' vote goes down from 33.3% to 22.5% of the electorate - a large 10.8% drop - while Labour's vote increases from 27.4% to 31.6% - a modest 4.2% increase. Seen in this light, Labour turns out to owe more than two-thirds of its victory to the Tories' collapse and under one third to its own progress!

As to the Tory voters who voted Labour this time, some may have switched their allegiance to Labour, for the time being in any case, but certainly not all of them. Many Tory voters seem to have chosen to cast a protest vote against Major and his leadership, believing that a spell in opposition has become necessary for the Tory party to get its act together - an argument often discussed in the Tory press before the election was announced, when the factional in-fighting within the Tory party was at its highest point. Some of these Tory protesters voted for dissident Tories - the Referendum party and the UK Independence party. Others voted either for the Liberal-Democrats or Labour, depending on what was the most effective way to weaken the local Tory candidate.

This Tory protest vote probably goes a long way towards explaining how Labour won some of its most unlikely seats, like for instance posh Wimbledon where there was a 17.9% swing to Labour. It also explains an apparent paradox - the fact that in the local election, which took place on the same day as the general election, the Tories regained a significant number of the seats that they had lost in 1993.

Abstention and Labour's working class support

There was an almost total media blackout on the record abstention. No doubt the political establishment, whether Tory or Labour, is not too keen to explain how an almost two-thirds majority in the Commons has been elected by just over 30% of the electorate! But in the very few cases where the media commented on the low turnout, it was squarely blamed on disgruntled Tory voters only.

This may be one possible cause, but it cannot be the only one. Otherwise, how come was the turnout much larger than the national average in almost every Tory constituency, including in those where everyone considered, before the election, that none of the opposition parties had any chance of winning?

There is indeed another cause for the low turnout - the disaffection of a section of the Labour party electorate itself.

Of the 200 constituencies with the lowest turnout, 173 were Labour seats. In these, mostly urban, working class constituencies, abstention increased more than the national average. Yet the exit polls showed that the proportion of voters switching to Labour was close to the national average - around 10%. So the transfer of votes to Labour, together with the growth of the electorate, should have more than made up for the lower turnout.

Yet, in at least 75 safe working class Labour seats, the Labour candidate lost votes and in some cases, a larger number of votes. The most outstanding example is that of David Blunkett in Sheffield Brightside, who lost 5,000 votes compared to 1992, on a turnout which was down by 9%. But this is not an issue of personality, though this too may have played a role. The list of constituencies in which Labour lost votes in this way reads like a tour of unemployed Britain with, among others: Barnsley (3 constituencies out of 3), Great Grimsby, Hull (3 out of 3, including Prescott's seat), Glasgow (7 out of 10), Leeds (3 out of 4), Liverpool (3 out of 5), Manchester (3 out of 5), Pontefract, Salford, Scunthorpe, etc..

This can only mean that in all these constituencies, a number of voters who cast their votes for Labour in 1992 chose to abstain this time round. The fact that these constituencies happen to be in working class areas and, usually, in areas where unemployment is higher, is not a coincidence, of course. Whether they abstained to make a political gesture or whether they lost interest in Labour and in the election altogether, these disaffected Labour voters expressed their rejection of, or their indifference to, the policies advocated by Blair and the Labour party over the past period, and in particular, no doubt, Blair's pro- business language, his commitment to keep social expenditure "under control" - meaning, to cut it - and his welfare-to-work campaign.

A further indication of the discontent among former Labour voters is also provided by the exit polls. They show that, compared to 1992, support for Labour dropped from 37% to 35% among voters over 65, and from 65% to 63% among voters living in council accommodation - whereas all other social categories and age groups showed some increase in their support for Labour. This would mean that among pensioners and council tenants - two groups whose expectations were most abruptly dampened by Blair before the election - a number of former Labour voters either switched to another party (probably the Liberal-Democrats whose support increased in both groups) or abstained - and therefore could not be counted in the exit polls. Even taking into account the limited accuracy of exit polls, they show a trend that at least points to an expression of discontent towards Labour.

The immediate aftermath of the election underlined the lukewarm attitude of Labour voters. In London, other than at the event stage- managed by Blair for party activists outside the Royal Festival Hall (and inside for his own, mostly well-heeled chums), there was no sign of rejoicing in the streets during the night of the election or over the next few days. In any case there was nothing remotely comparable to what would have happened had Labour voters felt that a real change had been won after 18 years of Tory rule. Indeed, the morning after the election there were lots of jokes about the grim faces of defeated Tory ministers. But few people saw Blair's move into Downing Street as a victory of any kind.

Blair's continuing problem

Today, however, in parliamentary terms at least, the way seems entirely clear for Blair and his government. Nothing, not even a continuous string of by-election defeats, could seriously undermine his almost two- thirds majority. For the five years to come the Commons will be merely a convenient and obedient rubber stamp for Labour's policy - at least as long as Blair is able to discipline the ranks of his parliamentary party.

As a result, however, there is no way for Blair to hide behind the constraints of parliamentary politics or the need to make compromises with other political forces, in order to justify unpopular measures. And Labour can only see this as a serious problem. Not because Blair is under any pressure to deliver anything for the time being, but rather because this situation can only undermine his past painstaking efforts at dampening down the expectations of working people. Indeed, it may reinforce the confused illusion that, after all, Labour may well have had some sort of "hidden agenda" all along.

Hence Blair's improvised speech outside the Royal Festival Hall, stressing that Labour was now the "people's party, the party of all the people". This was clearly meant to tell Labour's working class supporters that whatever its majority, Labour was also the party of the likes of Branson - who was at the same time celebrating Labour's victory inside the Hall. And that in fact, as Blair himself had declared to a City audience, at the launch of Labour's "Business Manifesto" earlier in April, "Labour is now the party of business, the entrepreneurs' champion".

Hence also the series of high-profile appointments to jobs in and around the government since the election. All these appointments are primarily additional gestures of goodwill towards the bosses - in line with the policy adopted by Labour long before the election. But at the same time, they are deliberately packaged by Labour's propaganda machine in such a way as to drive home the very same idea - that the Labour government is there primarily to do business with the bosses, and on their own terms.

The appointment of employers' representatives and top businessmen to key positions in government bodies is certainly nothing new, not even for a Labour government - after all, it is only logical that governments which are meant to look after the interests of the bourgeoisie should seek the endorsement and collaboration of some top bourgeois figures. But, usually at least, such appointments are made behind the scenes, and are confined to discreet, although powerful bodies.

Blair's government, on the contrary, has turned this common practice into a provocation. For a government which boasts of its commitment to fight unemployment, what else is it but provocation to give a cabinet position to someone like Sir David Simon, who, as BP chairman, was responsible for 48,600 job cuts in that company over the past five years. Sheer provocation too, the appointment of Martin Taylor, current chief executive of Barclay's and former chief executive of Courtauld's (another major job-slashing company), as head of a ministerial taskforce whose brief is to modernise the welfare system and introduce "incentives to work" for the low-paid. Not to mention the appointment of the former Tory deputy-prime minister and millionaire Heseltine on a committee which will oversee the building of the £500m "Millenium Dome", a prestige programme which stands to allow a few construction and leisure companies to line their pockets with lottery money and public funds.

Blair's provocations, it must be said, began right from the appointment of his government. Thus Helen Liddell, as economic secretary to the Treasury, was given the task of sorting out the hundreds of thousands of cases of employees who have been lured into switching to private pension schemes and lost a large part of their savings as a result. As a former close collaborator of Robert Maxwell, Liddell should indeed be an "expert" in dealing with pension funds! So should her colleague, the paymaster general Geoffrey Robinson, a Labour multi- millionaire whose company was previously part of Maxwell's empire, and came under investigation as a result of Maxwell's plundering of his employees' pension fund. The insurance companies which are responsible for the private pension schemes scandal have nothing to fear!

Another provocative message was addressed to the unemployed when the Merseyside MP Frank Field and Baroness Hollis were appointed to take care of social security. Why should Blair, who praises himself for "renewing" British politics, choose to unearth an antiquated fossil like Field? If not precisely because Field has been known for decades as a vocal advocate of heavy-handed methods against the unemployed, a supporter of US schemes which replace benefits with tax credits and, more recently, as an admirer, together with Baroness Hollis, of the privately-controlled welfare provisions introduced in Chile by Pinochet.

Like every single step in Blair's public relations-driven strategy, these provocations have been carefully calculated to provoke the desired effect. The bosses are meant to understand that Labour's commitment to "boost business prosperity" holds more than ever. As to working people and the unemployed, they should refrain from building any hopes on Labour's huge majority. On the contrary, they should resign themselves to the fact that the only way to deal with the present social dereliction is to subordinate everything, their labour power and standard of living as well as the resources of the state, to capitalist profit.

Labour's "reforms" in limbo

What is happening with Labour's "major" reforms, which were meant to pave the way for a return to "social justice"?

The minimum wage, which was meant to be a centrepiece of Labour's fight against poverty, will definitely not come into being before 1998 at the earliest. The Low-Pay Commission, which is meant to work out the details of its implementation, will not be convened before the end of the year. But its chair has already been appointed. At the last minute Blair did not dare to appoint another of his business friends, the insurance tycoon Peter Jarvis. Instead he gave the job to "a real expert on low pay", the head of the London Business School! And to put the issue in perspective, the head of the CBI pointed out that £3.50/hr would be the maximum affordable, while the Chamber of Commerce, which represents middle-size companies, said that £3/hr would be too much. There was no reply from Blair. But at the engineering union's conference in Jersey, Ken Jackson, the union's president and a prominent Blairite, warned the government against the risk of rushing in a minimum wage pitched at too high a level. This promises to be a really "minimum" wage!

Plans to fight unemployment are in limbo for the time being. Their future is suspended on Brown's "windfall tax" on the privatised utilities. This is meant to raise a comparatively modest £5bn over five years - modest compared to the total £60bn profits they have made up to 1996 - most of which will go straight back into the pockets of employers as a subsidy for taking on young or long-term unemployed. But for the time being, the only practical "measure" has been a high-profile visit by Blair to the board of the Ford Motor company, in order to win its backing for his training programme for the unemployed. Ford was only too willing to oblige, of course - one never knows what subsidy can be extracted from Blair in exchange!

Meanwhile, the continuous flow of redundancies goes on unhindered - since Labour has no plans to "interfere" with business interests. So, in addition to the tens of thousands of jobs cuts already announced before the election by large profitable companies like British Steel, British Telecom, the major banks, etc.. new announcements have been made - Racal, Pilkington, GEC Marconi, London Electricity, Electrolux, etc...

The last leg of Labour's "social programme" is the reform of trade union rights. This does not involve, of course, the repeal of the Tories' anti-strike laws, but only the introduction of a procedure modelled on the USA, whereby union recognition could become compulsory in workplaces above a certain size, provided 50% of the workforce voted in favour of a particular union. Early in June, Blunkett announced that this might be implemented by the summer of 1999. For Labour, it is obviously urgent not to hurry! Although, for the sake of tokenism, the ban on union membership imposed by Thatcher at GCHQ, the government spying centre, has been lifted. Workers will eventually be allowed to join the Public Service, Tax and Commerce Union (but no other union) and not before a "no-disruption" (read: anti- strike) agreement has been signed.

A distinct taste of austerity

The reality is that, less than two months after their return to office, Labour has already began to renege on the very few, modest promises made during their election campaign. Those who voted Labour in the hope that the current school funding crisis would be resolved, are now told that they will have to wait. In the meanwhile, they will have to be content with the punitive stunts staged by Blunkett's "hit squads" against "bad" schools and "bad" teachers.

Day after day, since early June, the media have been reporting new austerity measures which are being considered by Tony Blair's government, in order, as they claim, to plug the £20bn "black hole" allegedly left by the former Tory government in the state budget - a worn-out excuse if ever there was any! But since Labour has already made the commitment to stick to the Tories' expenditure cuts for the two years to come, the consequences of this "black hole" can only be yet more austerity.

Hence came the news that ministers might be dropping any idea of reducing class sizes in schools. On the other hand, plans drafted by the Fabian Society to demand from teachers that they should work shifts in the evening, on Saturdays and holidays, were being "studied". And university students heard that a proposal for them to pay a compulsory £1,000/yr tuition fee was under consideration.

Single mothers living on benefit, who had been promised better treatment than under the Tories, learnt that they were to be systematically "interviewed" to assess possibilities for them to resume employment. No "element of compulsion" was considered "at this stage", they were told - but there was no indication as to what might happen at a later stage. The unemployed, on the other hand, found that contrary to previous announcements, the pilot schemes for the Tories' "Project Work", designed to force them into low-paid employment, or off benefit altogether, were not to be stopped for the time being.

Then Health minister Frank Dobson "discovered" a £2.4bn backlog of underinvestment in the NHS. All of a sudden, all previous promises of stopping the downward slide of the Health Service were forgotten. Instead the most fantastic proposals, that no past Tory government had ever dared to envisage publicly, emerged as "impossible to dismiss" - for instance that patients should pay to see their GP or that pensioners should pay for their prescriptions, among many others. At the same time, the possibility of selling £1.5bn worth of NHS-owned land was announced.

Likewise a rather strange "leak" led to the disclosure on television of a document "left" by Prescott in a BBC studio, showing that various possibilities were under consideration for the privatisation of the London Underground - something that Labour had strongly opposed right until the election. At the same time, the current programme of road projects, aimed at decongesting city centres, was declared a likely candidate for the axe - with the added irony of the pretense that these cuts have something to do with preserving the environment!

Among the austerity measures which are being floated about, which ones will be implemented in the end, is anyone's guess. But the intention behind all these announcements and "leaks" is obvious. Blair's government is preparing public opinion, or rather the working population and the unemployed, who will have to foot the bill of the coming austerity package, for a set of fairly tough measures, some of which at least should be announced in Brown's interim budget on July 2nd.

Labour's large majority in the Commons has reinforced some illusions, for instance that, despite all the warnings issued by Blair, Labour's government might, after all, deliver some limited improvements, at some stage, and in any case a breathing space after the past two decades of austerity. And the "give them time" argument has gained some currency in the weeks following the election. But whether workers were expecting, such a set of austerity measures so early (and how they will react to it), is another question, which will be only answered in the coming months.

What is certain, however, is that the more time workers give to Blair and his government, the more they allow Labour to become confident in its pro-business drive, and the more likely they are to find that they have lost much more ground than they ever anticipated. Today, as yesterday, the only development which can be decisive in reversing the present downward slide in the conditions of working people, is a counte-offensive of the working class. The sooner it takes place, the less ground it will have to regain.