Britain - From Blair to Brown - no change!

Jul/Aug 2007

It was hard not to think of the Who's song "We don't get fooled again" during the drawn-out Blair-Brown transition. "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss".

The whole process was like a carefully choreographed pantomime. Cinderella Brown's take over as Labour leader was reported as "smooth". The rifts in the Labour party were reported as healed. Brown was duly made Labour Party leader and prime minister. Blair departed gracefully. They both received the blessing of the Queen, while Blair got the Pope's benediction and perhaps forgiveness for his sins, as well.

Having had their knives drawn for Blair for so long, Labour MPs and the ever-obliging media suddenly closed ranks to protect the image and dignity (or what was left of it) of the state institutions Blair had presided over. They did what they had to do. After all, it might be fine to moan about Tony, but it is rash to saw off the branch on which you sit. So after knocking Blair down and stripping him, he had to be resurrected and given his clothes back.

As a result, "Blair's final days" were surreal. He was given an unprecedented standing ovation as he left the House of Commons. And generally speaking, the public was subjected to the most extraordinarily rose-tinted spectacles treatment of his 10-years in power. Obviously very little reference was made to the on-going bloody destruction of his wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A Channel 4 TV documentary called "the last days of Tony Blair", shown just a few days after "the end", was presented by ex-merchant banker and journalist/director of the Work Foundation, Will Hutton. Hutton has been a critic of many of Blair's policies. Nevertheless, his conclusion was that Blair was really a great prime minister, but it was just a shame about Iraq.

The businessmen show their appreciation...

The City's own press was almost lyrical in Blair's praise. The Financial Times, under the title "Blair: mixed legacy soiled by Iraq", wrote on the 11 May, "Tony Blair has unquestionably been the most remarkable politician of his generation, in the UK and across Europe. His hat-trick of election victories is historic. ... His and Gordon Brown's stewardship of the economy over the past decade has very nearly established Labour as the natural party of government".

This editorial must have warmed the cockles of Labour politicians' hearts, while chilling those of Cameron's aspiring "New" Conservatives.

So, now Labour is (almost) the "natural party of government"? That was certainly its aim. However, while the FT's hyperbole might be laughable, the idea that Labour has established itself as the bosses' ideal party is not shared by all sections of the bosses' press. Neither is it shared by all sections of the British bourgeoisie. There are still those who consider that the Tories remain the "natural party of government", as they always were, since, after all, this is an unadulterated "bourgeois" party, unlike the Labour Party which maintains, against all odds, its trade union links.

The Economist journal, which, unlike the FT, had fully backed the Iraq war, is probably a bit more to the right than the FT. And it has been a lot more cautious in its Labour-friendly language, keeping its options open as far as supporting the Tories is concerned. This is not entirely new. But, nevertheless, it points out that "New Labour has done well by the country, building on its predecessors' work". And again, when speaking of the effect of the Blair legacy: "In essence it is to have humanised Margaret Thatcher's lean, competitive free-market policies with measures to temper their effect on the vulnerable." In other words, Labour continued the same policies but couched them in kinder language.

One should recall that both the FT and the Economist backed Blair and his party in the general elections of 1997, 2001 and 2005. But at the time of the last election, the Economist had already begun to make similar points to those it made before switching from the Tories to Labour, 10 years ago. It asked whether Labour was not running out of steam. And it wondered how long the "Iraq effect", would continue to have such a drastic effect on Labour's electoral support.

...and tragedy turns to farce

That said, on balance, it has been a gratifying 10 years for the bosses, given the total and unquestioning servility that Blair and Brown have shown them.

It is to be expected that the capitalist class should show its appreciation for a functionary who served it well; that it would provide appropriate arguments to keep the democratic charade in credit; and that it would emphasise style and form, over substance and content. In fact the press reflects the political class almost exactly, just as the political class reflects the capitalist class.

The FT identified in Blair only two real faults - that he was not a "details man" and that "Iraq was a catastrophic misjudgement". Its editorial ends by giving him the credit for the Northern Ireland settlement - which, it says, "will always shine like a precious gem".

Dubious as this settlement may be from the point of view of the working population, the resulting Northern Ireland institutions are certainly priceless - if only because they provide the local privileged class and its politicians with numerous perks, jobs and ways of parasitising public funds. No wonder "the reverend" Ian Paisley stood up during Blair's final session of Prime Minister's Questions in order to thank him.

The speculation over Blair's next job as Peace Envoy for the Quartet (responsible for the implementation of the Israeli-Palestinian "Roadmap") at first seemed to be a joke in very bad taste, especially in view of Blair's outspoken support to Israel's bombing campaign against the Lebanon, in 2006. But then it turned out to be true.

That said, since the Quartet itself is there purely for show anyway, having Blair on stage to add his own empty rhetoric is hardly going to make a jot of difference to the intractable situation. So perhaps the peoples of the Middle East should not feel too insulted. They are used to the empty showmanship which passes for politics in a region where the balance of power is being decided by brute force.

Crowned, but not yet king of the castle

So what of "new boss", Gordon Brown?

The cover of the Economist journal, depicted him as royalty, robed in ermine, and was entitled "The Coronation" - referring to the fact that Brown was not actually elected by his peers, since there were no eligible contenders.

Of course, this was not quite the image summoned up by Brown's first words outside Number 10 Downing Street, which made him sound more like someone who had just been made head prefect. "I will do my utmost, as my school motto goes...", he told assembled journalists.

Brown has had a bit of job presenting himself as "new", given the fact that he had been sitting right next to Blair for 10 years, in every sense. But he had the willing Press to help - so they have not reported any major gaffes during his first days in power.

"Spin" is over, "sofa government" is over, and now, he said, "let the work of change begin". Change? It was not even days, but hours, before the sticky spiders' webs were back, now in order to turn the latest "failed terrorist plot" - the three attempted car bombings in London and Glasgow - into an opportunity for Brown to show that form may have changed, but content remains exactly the same.

The same evasion over the obvious link to the war in Iraq came out of Brown's mouth, along with the same speeches on the need for repressive measures, and the need to win hearts and minds away from those "evil" people who twist "good" religion so that it becomes "bad" religion... As if terror attacks have anything to do with religion! But we are still stuck on that same old broken record. So no change there!

Today, when there is so little difference in the policies of the political parties, everything has to hinge on image, presentation, personality - and "spin". And this is why Prime Minister Brown cannot do without spin - no matter what he promises. He will just have his own style of spin!

While it seemed during the Blair/Brown changeover that everyone had forgotten that Blair had actually been ousted by his own MPs and that they had stabbed him in the back, the Labour machinery has not forgotten this and has been hard at work.

After all, whatever the media and the spin doctors might say to paint pretty pictures and create myths, nothing can change the fact that Blair had become the most unpopular prime minister ever, thanks to his Iraq war, and that he was such an electoral liability that Labour was (and is) in severe danger of losing the next general election - which must take place within 3 years - by May 2010, at the latest.

So Brown, after waiting so long to become prime minister, may well not stay in Number 10 for very long unless he manages to revamp the image of Labour. And he must do this convincingly in front of the biggest part of the electorate - the middle class - and in front of the "doubting Thomas" section of the bourgeoisie, on whose behalf the Economist asks if Brown will succeed in "being remembered as more than the fag-end of a stale regime".

Trying to win Sugar's Apprentice award

Brown did announce one policy which seemed to be a real "change" in approach. This was his idea of having a "government of all the talents". In fact it was ironic that the new French right-wing PM, Nicholas Sarkozy, had announced the very same thing after he was elected in April this year.

It is worth remarking on how much Brown and Sarkozy seem like mirror images of each other. One comes from the (so-called) Left of politics and the other from the Right. Both have the dilemma of presenting themselves as "new", since they have both been part of governments which have been in power for some time already (10 years for Brown, 5 for Sarkozy). Sarkozy was of course elected by the population and Brown was not. But in a way, that is the only difference, because the political task of kow-towing to the bourgeoisie is the same.

"All the talents" however were not willing to join Brown's government. He was turned down by the Liberal Democrat Paddy Ashdown, and at the time of writing, has not yet had a "yes" from Shirley Williams, another Liberal peer who received an invitation. But others have accepted - like the Lib Dem Baroness Neuberger who will be a minister in charge of the voluntary sector and the Lib Dem Lord Lester who is meant to advise on constitutional reform - which has been one of the first issues to be discussed in the Cabinet. This should surprise no-one because talk of a "British Bill of Rights" by the Tories is something Brown would need to pre-empt - and he is doing so.

Still others "of talent"(!) will take the "Labour Whip" (in other words vote with Labour) in the House of Lords, to which Brown has appointed them, if they were not there already.

These are: Admiral West, a Falklands War veteran, who will be a Home Office minister responsible for security, Sir Digby Jones who will be an international trade minister (more of him later), Professor Ara Darzi a rich private surgeon who has been made a Health Minister in charge of "patient care", Lord Malloch Brown, made minister in the Foreign office for Asia, Africa and the UN, and finally Lord John Stevens, the ex-chief of police, and supporter of the Tories (or so it was thought), who is now an advisor on security.

Brown has also created a special business council which will meet 3 times a year to advise him directly as prime minister on whether a policy is helping or hurting "Britain's competitiveness". Given that Brown's Treasury Select Committee has been meeting for the past few months to quiz the private equity partners after their demonisation as the new "masters of the universe", and the epitome of tax-evading "bad capitalism" (what is "good" capitalism?) - it may have been surprising to some, to see the name of one of these demons on Brown's list.

This council comprises Damon Buffini (of private equity firm, Permira), Stuart Rose of M&S, Tony Heywood of BP (of course!), Terry Leahy of Tesco, Arun Sarin of Vodafone, Stephen Green of HSBC, Sir John Rose of Rolls Royce, Mervyn Davies of Standard Chartered and J-P Garnier of Glaxo Smith Kline.

Apparently, this was part of a "bold plan" by Brown to redefine Labour as the real party of business... And he has certainly left no stone unturned!

In fact, going back to the FT's comment that Labour "almost" became the "natural party of business" while Brown was chancellor, perhaps this Business Council is meant to prove a point.

Is it possible to get any more "pro-business"?

Anyway John Hutton who was appointed as the new secretary for Business and Enterprise, immediately gave an interview to the FT to make clear that it was indeed Labour's intention to be the "natural party of business".

He even accused the opposition leader, David Cameron, for "downplaying" the importance of business and attacked him for promising to extend flexible working rights to the parents of under-18s. "In the debate about more employment regulation", said Hutton, "you have to be mindful of the costs to British business". He also defended the private equity executives as adding value for the British economy. His new department, he asserted, would be "aggressively pro-business". Well, at least his aggression is no longer aimed at the unemployed and those on disability benefit.

In fact Brown has split up what was previously the Department of Trade and Industry - and symbolically removed the word "Industry" completely - creating a new Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (DBERR).

In doing so he seemed to be fulfilling the wish list of former Confederation of British Industry (CBI) chief Digby Jones, who has never stopped fulminating about the need for "regulatory reform", getting rid of red tape and high corporate taxes - despite everything Brown did as chancellor, bending over backwards, to make the CBI happy! And then within a week of the changeover, Brown had appointed Digby Jones himself as a minister in the new DBERR! So he can take care of deregulating the whole shebang himself, as minister of overseas trade and investment...

Elsewhere in this journal, we discuss the 10 years that Brown administered the Treasury, making economic policy on behalf of the British bourgeoisie and in its interests. We also discuss the supposedly new phenomenon of "private equity". The point we make is that Brown has really been doing the bidding of British business all along - and if there was one section of the population which should have had no worries about his "coronation", it was the City!

But nevertheless, within days of becoming PM, Brown has seemingly gone even further to cover his bases with the British bourgeoisie, and then some!

Brown's other main Cabinet appointments were no big surprise, even if the media felt obliged to write encyclopaedias about each one of them. There are fewer women, and no senior black ministers except for "Baroness" Scotland who is now Attorney General. And the average age of the cabinet is 49 years, apparently the youngest ever. Blairites like Hazel Blears, Hilary Benn and David Miliband remain, even if Blair's bouncer, John Reid has gone from the Home office to be replaced by the first female Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith.

The wars will continue

Brown always said deliberately little about foreign policy - except when he was pretending to care about poverty in Africa. This was wise, since he did not want to be similarly "soiled by Iraq" as Blair has been.

The attempted car bombings which took place within days of his taking office, however, forced him to "come out" in this respect. And he made it perfectly that the "war on terror" continues.

As far as the occupation of Iraq itself is concerned, Blair had already hinted at a possible gradual withdrawal. This was both a way of keeping all his options open, and allowing some of the pressure built up from an alienated public to dissipate. Brown does not have the same "image problem" - at least, not for the time being. This may explain why he did not see the point of mentioning Blair's old official "target" of handing over control to the Iraqi army in the British-occupied south.

In any case, contrary to what some may have hoped, Brown certainly gave no indication that he has "softer" policies concerning Iraq. His policies are not determined by personal "faith", nor being a US poodle, but by the interests of British capital. Brown is not going to neglect these. On the contrary, as we have seen, he is wholeheartedly embracing them, even more flamboyantly than Blair! But it does Brown no harm that the media keeps referring to the fact that his new Foreign Secretary, David Miliband was not whole-heartedly in favour of the Iraq war (even if he voted for it).

Another aspect of Brown's attempts to ensure he stays in power is his "Britishness" campaign - a transparent attempt to appeal to Tory Middle England. This started a few years ago already, but has been stepped up a notch of late. Of course some might put it down to the fact that he is Scottish and needs to distance himself from his origins in a post-devolution Britain.

But the British flag loomed over the Manchester conference where Brown took office as Labour Party leader, and Brown has certainly wrapped himself in the Union Jack at every opportunity. As Samuel Johnson said, "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel".

No change unless workers make one

So what does Brown's tenure mean for the working class?

Brown has said only one thing about workers' concerns so far. That more houses had to be built. And the press immediately seized on this to say how it showed how "in touch" Brown is! Never mind the fact that you would have to have been living on planet Mars not to know what a burning issue housing is!

So no, there will be nothing new under Brown's regime for the working class. Of course, things are certainly not going to get better - not thanks to any of Brown's policies, anyway. And unless he is faring badly at the polls, he has no real need to make concessionary noises in the direction of the working class electorate.

The weight of the working class vote has gone down, compared to the weight of the middle class vote and the vote of "Middle England". The Labour machinery knows very well that it has lost the vote of its working class constituency - largely due to abstention - and to some extent it really does not care.

Brown already spoke about changing the Labour party's voting system at conference - even if this is largely irrelevant since this vote has no bearing on government policy. He said he would like to get rid of what remains of the Trade Union "block vote" to be replaced by a system based entirely on "one member, one vote". And in this he was playing purely to the bosses and Middle England who find Labour's remaining tenuous links with its trade-union past unacceptable.

Right now, the precarious situation of the working class is illustrated graphically by the Kwik Save workers who have been working without pay, after this supermarket company went bankrupt and have now lost their jobs - or the poor families in the flooded parts of Yorkshire with no insurance and no hope of being rehoused.

Yet in June and July, postal workers have finally, after 11 years of taking blow after blow from the government, staged their first national strike against a de facto pay freeze, privatisation and job cuts. There are rumblings among other public sector workers and calls for unity - with these even being expressed by the union leaders themselves. This is empty rhetoric on their part, but nevertheless it expresses a true need - which is the breaking down of sectionalism between workers so that an effective fightback against the government and the bosses will be possible.

For the time being such a fightback is not on the cards, but when the time comes, Brown and his government will not be expecting it. They will be too busy ingratiating themselves with the ruling class. And this, the working class should be able to use to its advantage.