Britain - Blair's reactionary demagogy and pro-business agenda - a threat to all working people

May/June 2002

As this issue of Class Struggle goes to press, it seems likely that the coming local election, due on 2nd May, will result in another setback for this Labour government, both in terms of turnout and in terms of the number of councils it controls.

Despite the resources put in by ministers and local councils to encourage voters to turn up, including a number of pilot schemes involving postal, electronic and telephone voting, opinion polls predict a further increase in abstention. In London boroughs, for instance, the turnout could reach a record low, with 25%, down from 34% in the last comparable election, in 1998, when it was already at its lowest level for 35 years.

And even if Labour only loses a relatively small number of seats, it is expected to lose control of a significant number of councils where it had only a thin majority, particularly in London and Metropolitan boroughs.

If so, Blair would only be reaping another harvest from his anti- working class policies in government and his servility to the City. However, many local Labour councillors, who stuck to the Labour party out of commitment to their constituents, despite being unhappy with Blair's policies - in which they never had a say - may well end up footing the bill for them.

It seems that after all these months of posing as Bush's adviser and main partner in crime in the "war against terrorism", Blair has suddenly realised that all his posturing and war-mongering was doing little to improve Labour's position in the polls. So the last few weeks have seen a flurry of rushed "initiatives" dressed up to rally the support of the electorate. But beyond their electoral packaging, all these initiatives retain the same combination of reactionary demagogy and anti-working class content which has been the preserve of this government since it came to power.

The public services investment con

Brown's April budget which, according to Blair, is supposed to be the showcase for Labour in this election, is a case in point. For months, ministers and the media had been busy getting public opinion used to the idea that everyone would have to pay for the improvement of public services. So this budget did include tax increases, but of course, the main emphasis was put on the "large" investment that these would allow in health, transport and education.

However, the budget showed what the government meant exactly by "everyone". Predictably, it meant working people and the jobless.

Indeed, one part of the tax increase included in Brown's budget is to be achieved by freezing personal allowances. On the face of it, this means everyone will indeed pay the same additional amount. But this extra tax does not represent the same thing for all. For high earners it may not be more than the cost of a quick lunch in the West End. But not so at the bottom end of the social ladder. In fact, this means that a lot more people on very low income will now have to pay income tax!

Likewise for the other part of the tax increase - National Insurance Contributions. Brown claims this is a "balanced" measure since the extra 1% will be paid by both employees and employers. But who does he think he can fool? As far as the bosses are concerned, NIC contributions are part of labour costs. Their first move will be simply to try to recoup their additional 1% by cutting real wages in the next pay round. So in the end, workers will be paying the entire NIC increase themselves, while it will not cost anything to the bosses, nor, of course, to all the wealthy parasites who do not pay NIC contributions because they are not wage earners.

How will the increased tax revenue be used to boost investment in public services? The flood of figures provided by the Treasury are obviously designed to look impressive, and they do. But already several billion pounds allocated in this budget to rail transport have been squandered to compensate Railtrack's shareholders and boost the profits of the private train companies through the relaunching of Railtrack.

As to the NHS, a look at Blair's "modernising bible", the Wanless Report, says it all. For instance, it recommends that free prescriptions should be restricted drastically and "out-of-pocket payment for non-clinical services" should be extended. It also recommends a systematic programme of private sector involvement in GP surgeries and the new primary care trusts launched on April 1st, as well as "greater cooperation between the NHS and the private sector (..) building on the concordat set out in the NHS plan." Nothing very surprising, of course, knowing that Mr Wanless is a former chief executive of NatWest! But this means that working people will be made to fund a "modernisation" which will result in forcing them to pay more for healthcare while subsidising the profits of the NHS' private contractors and new partners.

In reality, however, most of the extra billions of taxes squeezed out of workers' wage packets will not go to public services, but straight into the pockets of the rich.

Brown's hidden handouts

Indeed, not "everyone" will have to pay more taxes. In fact the list of Brown's tax cuts in this budget is even longer than usual. But they all have one thing in common - they only apply to the wealthy.

So, for instance, company managers will now enjoy the same low tax rate as the low-paid - they will pay only 10% on the profits they make out of share options, provided they hang on to them for at least two years (just enough time to allow share prices to rise). And for fat cats who may earn £1m or more's worth of share options in a year, this may mean an additional tax-free bonus worth several hundred thousand pounds!

Meanwhile their companies will be awarded a 25% tax credit on research expenses - a tax break which, so far, had been limited to small and medium size companies under the pretext of encouraging "entrepreneurship." But for pharmaceutical and oil multinationals, this favour could be worth hundreds of millions of pounds! As to medium-sized companies, they will have their corporation tax reduced once again to 19%, while the smallest will pay no tax at all!

As to the loophole highlighted recently by The Guardian, which allows so-called "non-domicile residents" to pay virtually no tax on their incomes, there is only a vague reference to a review of the issue. So the 60,000 residents concerned, including many super-rich like Hans Rausing, Britain's richest man, will carry on depriving the public purse of billions of pounds of revenue every year - possibly as much as the additional NIC contribution that Brown plans to squeeze out of workers' pay packets.

Even Brown's cynical claim that his budget will lift the poorest out of poverty conceals another subsidy to the bosses.

The new Working Tax Credit which will come into force next year, will expand today's Working Family Tax Credit system to all those on low income. But just like WFTC, this new tax credit will replace existing benefits such as housing benefit and council tax benefit, rather than add to them. So most claimants will gain nothing or will be even worse off.

The only beneficiaries of Brown's "largesse" will be, once again, the bosses - since the tax credit will help them to make the bottom line on pay cheques look less paltry. In fact, Brown's department even spells out his objectives very clearly in a document detailing the operation of WTC. In a section entitled "helping employers", this document explains that the tax credit is intended as a "clear and targeted top-up to wages" - a transparent way of telling employers that it is alright for them to pay low wages since the government will top them up. In other words, under the hypocritical pretext of helping the poor out of poverty, this government's charity to the low-paid is merely another way of subsidising the bosses so that they do not have to pay decent wages!

But never mind, this did not prevent Brown from presenting once again these measures as a major move in the fight to reduce poverty. And the budget is full of glossy figures which are meant to show the affluent life which awaits those who will benefit from WTC. However, all these figures only apply to people who work in a regular full-time job. For the poorest, casual, workers who have to manage on irregular part-time jobs, Brown did not bother to put on paper what pittance the WTC will represent - no doubt for fear of losing yet more votes.

Blair's pandering to reactionary prejudices

The other main plank of Labour's campaign for the local election has been a series of measures and statements on law-and-order and immigration.

So for instance, Blair announced his plan to punish parents for their children's truancy and anti-social behaviour by cutting their universal child benefit. As if cutting benefit to families which are already under the poverty line, could do anything to restore their authority with their children! When, on the contrary, it is more often than not the loss of dignity caused among parents by poverty, unemployment and the squalid conditions in derelict estates, not to mention the impact on families of parents having to work unsocial hours as a result of casualisation, which are the root causes of the problem.

This arch-reactionary and rather stupid, plan caused some opposition due to its blatant targeting of the poorest. Some ministers even voiced their opposition, pointing out that depriving poor families of part of their income could only make matters worse, not better. But Blair remained adamant, thereby showing once again that in his electoral calculations, he is more concerned with making a show of his "toughness" against petty criminality among the youth, to please the law-and-order lobby, than to retain the votes of the poorest.

No doubt Blair's stubbornness on this issue had something to do with the ridiculous flop of the Domilola murder trial. The media had been duly summoned to highlight what was supposed to be an exemplary demonstration of this government's toughness against youth street crime. Alas, the case so painstakingly put together by the police and the CPS collapsed under the full spotlight of the media. This did not look too good on Labour's law-and-order record sheet. So, somehow, Blair had to make up for it with another sensational gesture and the poorest families were made to foot the bill.

Likewise, Blunkett's demagogic statement about the need to isolate immigrant children and educate them separately, for fear that they might "swamp" schools (and even or GP surgeries!), was plainly pandering to anti-immigrant and racist prejudices among voters. But then this is exactly what his new immigration and asylum-seekers bill does, by reducing significantly the rights of immigrants, subjecting them to a much more repressive and all-powerful bureaucratic machinery, while providing for the systematic use of detention centres until their final status has been cleared.

All this is in the same league as so many measures and legislation passed by Labour over the past five years, which have been part of Labour's reactionary overbidding with the Tories.

A danger for all working people and jobless

Today, this despicable demagogy is already paid for dearly by the poorest and most vulnerable sections of the working class. But it also constitutes a dangerous threat for all working people and jobless in this country for tomorrow, by feeding and giving legitimacy to all kinds of reactionary prejudices in the population.

Of course, Labour ministers deny this. In fact, they claim that their demagogic gestures are the best way of protecting society from such prejudices. So, following the shock caused by the French far-right leader, Le Pen, coming second in France's presidential election, on 21st April, Blair boasted that "this will never happen here." He went on to argue that "there is always a danger that if people feel that there are certain real social problems that aren't being tackled by those in power, they'll be seduced by deeply unpleasant populism." But, he added, because his government was "talking about crime and anti-social behaviour", it was pulling the carpet from under the feet of the far-right. In other words, Blair claimed that the fa-right can be kept out by his own adoption of the far-right agenda!

This argument is both cynical and hypocritical. Labour's "talking about crime and anti-social behaviour" over the past five years has amounted to wooing reactionary prejudices in the population. It has done nothing to tackle the "real social problems" that Blair referred to, but it has given these prejudices respectability.

In fact, the French experience is an indictment of such nonsense. The French far-right has grown over the past two decades thanks to two factors. On the one hand, the frustration caused by the anti-working class policies carried out by left-wing governments claiming to represent working people. And on the other, the many concessions made by these governments to reactionary prejudices in areas like law and order and immigration. These concessions gave respectability and legitimacy to the unashamed champions of these prejudices - Le Pen and the far-right. This allowed the French far-right electorate to grow, from virtually nothing twenty years ago to its present 5.4m votes.

Of course, the political landscape is different here. But not the factors which encourage reactionary ideas and can allow the fa-right to emerge. And the factors which presided over the rise of the far-right in France exist in much the same way in Britain today.

Let us not forget the 1970s and how the National Front's racist policies gained support under the Labour governments of the time, due to the frustration and demoralisation caused by their austerity policies against the working class, but also due to the way in which they scapegoated immigrants by tightening immigration controls. The National Front virtually disappeared along with the Labour government, but its racist ideas returned in respectable clothes under Thatcher. It took the inner-city riots to force Thatcher to moderate the racist slant of her camp.

Today, the British far-right seems irrelevant. But this is because British politics have been shifted so far to the right by Blair's overbidding with the Tories, that, for the time being, most of the far-right electorate actually feels represented by the two main parties.

However, this does not mean that this electorate does not exist, nor that it is not growing. On the contrary, each time this government makes a gesture towards this electorate by stepping up repression against asylum seekers or against the youth, it is reinforced. One of these days, some politician may well crawl out of the woodwork and try to use this potential electorate as a springboard to serve big business, of course, just as the main parties do, but by using more dictatorial methods, like the French far-right. And contrary to what Blunkett tells us, such a politician will not necessarily come from the present far-right sects. He may very well come from the ranks of the Tory or even the Labour party, like Oswald Mosley, the former Labour minister who launched and led the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s.

Preserving the future

This is why it is in the interest of all working people to fight relentlessly against the reactionary prejudices which are nurtured by this government under the hypocritical pretext of "addressing the real social problems." They cannot be fought by moralising, but only by putting forward concrete objectives which can provide an effective answer to the difficulties faced by the working population and the jobless and cement their ranks in the struggle.

It is a fact that there are real social problems in this society. But they grow from the same roots - poverty resulting from unemployment, casualisation and low pay and a huge lack of resources in education, health and social housing. When Blunkett dares to point at immigrant children or adults as being a "problem", it is also a cynical means to avoid acknowledging the real problems, which have nothing to do with the number of immigrants, but everything to do with the servility of this government to big business - the fact that schools are intolerably overcrowded due to underfunding in education; that there are not enough GPs because no government has ever shown enough concern for the health of the population to draw long term plans in this field; and that there is no decent and affordable housing for those who need it, because Blair's government has chosen to reduce public funding of social housing to virtually nothing.

Blair's way of "addressing" social problems resolves nothing and is a danger to all: it involves pandering to reactionary prejudices by blaming the victims, because its cost nothing and it is electorally expedient. When Blair appoints policemen on permanent duty to troubled schools, it is not because it is more efficient, but because police uniforms are always welcomed by that section of public opinion which would prefer all offenders to be locked up forever. But it is also because Blair does not want to set a precedent by hiring the number of teachers which would be necessary in such schools. Never mind the fact that seeing cops' uniforms at school is also likely to boost the truancy that he claims to be fighting!

But Blair's way is not the only way. There is another way which can protect the interests of the working population - by using its collective strength to force this government to take measures aimed at really reducing poverty and unemployment, ending casualisation and low-pay, and creating a social environment in which the working population has a real stake because it can really control what is being done. For this to be successful, this government will have to be compelled to stop squandering public funds on subsidies to private capitalists and instead to take what is required for the needs of the population from the profits and the wealth of the rich.

There is only one way to stop the politicians' reactionary drift. It is for the working population and the jobless to fight off the offensive of the capitalist class, using the weapons of the class struggle. This is the only way to preserve the future.

29 April 2002