Britain - Blair's attacks against the poor - Labour's respectful "rebels"

Jan/Feb 1998

Less than seven months after coming into office, Blair's Labour government switched into full gear in its attacks against the poor. First, in November, Brown's "Green Budget" outlined the framework of these attacks. Then, in December, the first piece of legislation was introduced in the Commons, to be implemented, together with a host of other measures, in the first half of 1998.

This time, there is no more question of "soft-talking" the poor out of benefit and into work by way of "counselling", as had been the case so far. Not that Blair ever believed that this was possible. The millions of jobs which would be necessary just do not exist, not even a few hundred thousand. Otherwise, why would Brown need to go out of his way to create 250,000 jobs at great cost for the under-25s?

No, all this soft talk was only designed to allow Blair to take the moral high ground, while pointing an accusing finger at the poorest and blaming them for their "dependency". How convenient for this government to blame unemployment on the unemployed, poverty on the poor, and the budget deficit on all claimants, thereby preparing public opinion for the cuts which are now coming! But how hypocritical too, on the part of a government who, within its first seven months of existence, has already managed to reduce the taxes paid on company profits and capital gains! "Dependency" on public funds should obviously be a privilege reserved to the capitalists and the rich, according to Blair.

The agenda that the Tories never dared to implement

The first piece of legislation, which was passed by the Commons on 11th December, has now cut single parent benefit. The only justification that the government could find to justify this cut was that it had been planned by the previous Tory government. And since Labour's election manifesto included a commitment to stick to Tory spending targets for the next two years, this cut "had to be implemented". It would have been hard to find a more hypocritical excuse! Ironically, it was the same Harriet Harman, who defended this mean attack against single parents on December 11th, who had led Labour's offensive against the same measure when it was first suggested by Peter Lilley, the then social security secretary in Major's Tory government!

The next steps, which should take place early this year, are known to be targetting benefits for the disabled and long-term sick. This time Blair won't be able to use the shameful and hypocritical excuse of the Tories' spending targets. The Tories did talk time and again about reducing expenditure in this area too and Peter Lilley presided over the phasing in of a more restrictive "incapacity benefit" to replace "invalidity benefit" - another Tory cut which Labour has been quietly implementing since May 1st. But apart from this, the Tories never dared to go beyond making some of these benefits taxable.

For a long time many people thought that Blair would not dare to either. But long before the papers began to leak internal documents showing that the government was getting ready for these cuts, the drive against the disabled and the long-term sick had already started behind the scenes, without resorting to any new legislation. This was done under the cover of a so-called "Benefit Integrity Project", which involved sending benefit cops to snoop on 400,000 claimants or so, including in old people's homes, in order to "assess" their disability. And predictably, this resulted in thousands of people having their benefit cut and threats of criminal procedures against anyone who might dare to file a complaint.

So any idea that Blair will not dare to cut this category of benefit is pie-in-the-sky, even for the four million or so disabled who are over 65 and cannot therefore be accused of being "work- shy". No-one knows what plans the government actually has. But the options which have been discussed publicly so far spell more misery for millions - whether it be means-testing these benefits, taxing those which the Tories did not dare to tax, putting a time limit on some benefits and reducing others, etc..

Other similar measures are in the pipe-line, which will hit the poorest in society and many working class families, for the sole purpose of reducing the amount that the government spends on social expenditure rather than on larger handouts or tax rebates for the capitalists and the rich.

One of these measures - which will shift the responsibility of paying industrial injuries benefit onto employers, another scheme which the Tories never dared to implement - stands to affect workers in a particularly nasty way, as the experience of sickness benefit shows.

When the previous Tory governments implemented the same shift with sickness benefit, the pressure on workers not to go off sick increased drastically, while some employers found ways of not paying any benefit at all. It is not hard to imagine what will happen in the case of industrial injuries benefit: increased pressure on workers not to report industrial injuries, more cases of workers being framed up and sacked for alleged gross misconduct after an injury on the job, refusals to pay long-term benefit which will have to be challenged through lengthy court procedures, etc.. That Labour should impose such risks on workers at a time when industrial injuries are rising fast, due to speedups, ageing machinery and the mushrooming of cow-boy contractors, is particularly outrageous. It is all the more outrageous, and ludicrously mean, as the amounts involved are relatively small anyway - around 0.7% of the social security budget!

A "New Deal" which looks just like the old dealings

Meanwhile, "Welfare to Work" or the "New Deal" as it is also called - in other words the introduction of compulsory low-paid work for the under-25s who have been unemployed for over six months - is meant to take off in January, with 12 regional pilot schemes, before being introduced nationally in April.

According to Brown's own "Green budget", "the Government has taken steps to ensure employers make the most of the New Deal, and recognise the role it can play in relieving labour shortages". That Labour has ensured that employers, rather than the unemployed youth, got the most out of this scheme, is undeniable! The £60/w subsidy certainly makes the "New Deal" recruits the cheapest workers on offer! So cheap that a few companies seem to have trimmed down their payroll lately in order to make room for this inexpensive workforce.

But this has certainly nothing to do with "labour shortages". As if Brown lived on a different planet! What "labour shortages", when recruitment has been frozen for a long time in many large companies and redundancy plans are still going on in many others? But then, of course, ministers must at least pretend to believe their own lies, namely that those who can't find a job are just being "work-shy" and therefore do not "deserve" state benefit.

Brown lists proudly "a large number of household names - including Sainsburys, Tescos, British Airways, British Telecom, Lloyds TSB, Prudential, WHSmith, Unipart and Allied Domecq" as having responded positively to his "New Deal". But is it just a coincidence if at least four of these companies "happen" to have direct ties with members of Blair's government? In reality, Labour's canvassing of companies for placements doesn't seem to have been all that successful so far, despite the £60/w carrot. As a result, most of the "New Deal" jobs will be in voluntary groups, environmental taskforces or training schemes, and therefore entirely state- funded. So much for Brown's "labour shortages" and so much for his "New Deal" which was meant to bring people into "real" jobs. On the contrary, this is just another scheme like the Tories' old "Workstart" - except that the subsidy attached to "Workstart" was just over one-third that offered by Labour!

There is another way in which Labour's "New Deal" looks just like the old Tory schemes. As Brown points out, "the delivery of the programme will be led by private sector organisations". Like the Tories, Labour insist on giving as much control as possible to private bosses, so that, into the bargain, they have another chance to make a profit out of the scheme.

Under the Tories this resulted in widespread corruption as Training agencies and scheme operating companies secured contracts by inviting local senior Tories to take a seat (and a salary) on their boards. Under Labour, the corruption is there too, but it seems to be coming from the top, almost openly. Thus it was revealed that Reed Personnel Service, part of the Reed group of employment agencies and business services, has been awarded the contract to run one of the pilot schemes for the "New Deal". And it so happens that Alec Reed, the union-busting managing director of Reed Executive, the leading firm in the Reed group, contributed £100,000 to Blair's private office while he was in opposition, and has since become a government consultant, appointed to resolve the crisis in teachers' recruitment. A pure coincidence, of course!

A very tame "rebellion"

That Blair's Labour party should go on the offensive against the working class once in government does not come as a surprise, of course. All the moves mentioned above were, more or less explicitly, part of Labour's programme as it emerged progressively during the run-up to the May 1st general election. And while it may have been difficult for some ordinary Labour supporters to see all the implications of Blair's or Brown's public statements at the time, all of that must have been crystal clear for any Labour politician.

Yet there was hardly any protest at all against Blair's increasingly obvious pro-business stance during that period, particularly from the ranks of Labour's sitting and aspiring MPs. Presumably they either agreed with Blair's line, or they were sitting tight, making sure that they remained in the good books of the leadership for fear of being deselected. Yet, even after the election, there was little change in this respect during the first six months, despite the clear anti-working class line taken by the government. Only the usual isolated voices of long-standing dissenters - like Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone, Dennis Skinner and the members of the Campaign group of MPs - expressed a faint opposition to Blair's line, obviously without much conviction.

The December 11th vote and the issue of the single parents benefit seem to have been a turning point in this respect. Why is this? Because this seemed to be a particularly callous cut? Or because it was going against the political-correctness and social prejudices of the middle-class milieu to which most Labour MPs belong - a milieu in which it is all right to force the unemployed to work for peanuts, but not to distract the attention of single mothers from their children. Or because it was the first in a long series of attacks, and that protesting right from the beginning was a safeguard for the future, allowing the protesters to say later to their disgusted constituents: "remember, I was among the first to oppose benefit cuts", without having to get involved in further protest. Probably all these motives were represented among the protestors.

In any case, prior to the vote, 120 (out of 419!) Labour MPs put their names on a petition against the proposed cut. When the crunch came, however, on the day of the vote, 47 voted against the government and 14 abstained, while a number of the petitioners voted the cuts or made sure they were excused for the day, thereby showing that the pressures of the party machinery had succeeded in giving cold feet to almost half of the original protesters.

This was enough, however, to make the papers' headlines for a few days, with Ken Livingstone and Audrey Wise, two old-timers, and Ann Clwyd, a relative newcomer, emerging as the leading figures of the protest.

What is striking, however, about this so-called "rebellion" as the papers called it, is not at all that it took place. After all, Labour still has a "left-wing" in the Commons. Besides the party has won a lot more seats than they had expected and its candidates were not all equally carefully vetted by the leadership. Rather, the striking feature of this rebellion is its tameness. Indeed, given Labour's huge majority and the fact that the Tory MPs were going to vote with Blair, those Labour MPs who disagreed with the cuts could express their feelings by voting against the government without taking any risk of damaging its position. And after all, voting against the government on this issue was only in line with what had been Labour official policy just a few months before. Yet, only just over one Labour MP in ten dared to take this step.

Compare this "rebellion" to another past "rebellion" over a similar issue. In March 1976, faced with the threat of a serious monetary crisis, Wilson's Labour government asked the Commons to endorse a £3.6bn cut in public expenditure. On the day of the vote, March 10th, 37 Labour MPs (almost 15% of all Labour MPs) abstained and Wilson lost by 256 votes to 284. For left MPs, in the context of Wilson's small majority, abstaining or voting against the government took some determination since it could only lead to the same result - a government defeat. In fact, not only did these 37 abstentions cause Wilson's defeat, they also led to his resignation the following week. Of course, this, in and of itself, did not and could not change anything, although the austerity package was postponed, but at least the 37 made a stand against a vastly unpopular measure. And yet they were not raving lefties by far - one of them was none other than Neil Kinnock himself!

The least that can be said, therefore, is that the "rebellion" against Blair among Labour MPs, which only showed its extent so far through the 120 signatures on the petition circulated before December 11th, is not very determined. Even its most determined members have chosen so far to keep their protest within the cosy comfort of the Commons. Indeed almost a month after the vote, there has been no attempt yet, by the protesters, to address themselves at least to the Labour electorate, or membership for that matter, in order to explain their gesture of opposition, seek support, let alone propose anything to prevent the recurrence of such attacks in the future.

Blair has nothing to fear from these "rebels"

But stopping Blair in his tracks is not the aim of the "rebels" anyway. This was illustrated in a recent article by Ken Livingstone published in Fabian Review, the journal of the semi-Blairite Fabian society. Summarising what he saw as the priorities of the Labour left for the coming period, Livingstone concluded: "The Labour party membership will become deeply impatient with anything other than hard debate around how we ensure that the economy is in good shape for the next election. The press, politicians and think tanks of the left engaged in that process will grow in relevance".

In short the problem of this Labour Left is, as it has always been, that Labour remains "electable". In theory, they aim to achieve this by taking over the leadership of the party and changing its political orientation. But in practice, due to the bureaucratic nature of the Labour party and to the Labour Left's own weakness, they end up being merely facilitators for the party leadership.

By expressing the resentment, at least in certain respects, of Labour's working class electorate, they maintain the illusion that workers are somehow represented within the party, despite its policy in government, and, more importantly, that there is nothing else to do than wait for the party to sort itself out from inside. And it is this illusion, together, of course, with the fact that workers can see no alternative - and certainly none which stands clearly for their class interests - which sustains their loyalty to Labour, regardless of the party's policy in government. Thus the Labour machinery is kept in business, with ups and downs of course, election after election. It is because of this facilitating role, that the Labour machinery has always tolerated the Labour Left in its ranks, of course within varying limits depending on circumstances. And this applies to Blair's Labour party as much as to Wilson's, even if today probably less will be tolerated from the Labour Left than in the 70s.

In the 1970s, the Labour Left was stronger, at least in the period following the 1974 election. This allowed leading figures of the Labour Left, like Tony Benn and Eric Heffer, to sit happily for a while in ministries, while Wilson was implementing austerity measures against the working class. Later on, their token opposition to Wilson's and then to Callaghan's policies - token because it was never aimed at setting workers in motion - only helped to maintain some credit for the Labour party on its left, despite its attacks on workers.

Such respectful opposition to Blair can at best be sterile and at worst dangerous delusion. There are already other "rebellions" brewing in the Labour party, like that of a group of Labour MEPs, led by Ken Coates and Hugh Kerr, who have defied Blair openly and intend to stand as independents in the next European election, in 1999. And it is likely that there will be many other "rebellions" in future, as Blair's policies become more blatantly tilted in favour of the rich.

But they will never provide an answer to the problems of the working class. In any case, not as long as the working class does not take matters into its hand by replying in the streets and in the workplaces to the attacks of the Labour government, with the weapons of the class struggle. And when this happens, the odds are that the "rebels" will disown the "unruly" behaviour of workers in struggle, who threaten to rock Labour's boat, and that they will promptly return to the fold of the Labour machinery.