Britain - The Hutton enquiry, the Labour party and Blair's future

Sep/Oct 2003

At the time of writing, the Hutton Enquiry is about to reopen, after four weeks of hearings, in order to examine a second series of witnesses.

Predictably, the whole process is proving to be an exercise in buck-passing and issue-fudging. After all, Lord Hutton's brief was merely to investigate the "sexing up" of Blair's dossiers on Saddam Hussein's alleged "weapons of mass destruction" and the death of MoD weapons expert Dr Kelly - not the slaughter of thousands of Iraqi people by British and US forces during the war, the destruction of their towns nor the subsequent occupation of their country, let alone the criminal role played by Blair and his government in all of this! But then, who could expect the powers that be really to expose themselves to the scrutiny of public opinion?

Besides, there is something inherently farcical in this enquiry. It purports to get politicians and top civil servants - many of whom belong either to Blair's "secret cabinet" or to Britain's shadowy "intelligence" service - to help shed some light on months of accumulated lies by Blair and his government. As if part of the job of all these people, politicians or otherwise, is not precisely to lie to the population in order to cover up the dirty tricks of the state! Why would they help to saw off the branch on which they sit so comfortably?

Above all, the purpose of the Hutton enquiry was always to deflect public attention from the real issues and responsibilities and, above all, from the role played by the institutions of the state. It will not find that these institutions have failed in any way - least of all the one at the top, that is, the institution of prime minister.

Of course, Blair did make a point of claiming "full responsibility" for everything that had been said or done. Doing otherwise would have been to admit that he was not in control of his own house - something he could hardly afford. But, according to him, there was simply nothing wrong with what was said or done, period. And, of course, none of the participants in the enquiry dared to challenge him, regardless of the evidence they had heard previously. Nor did they dare admit the well-established fact that his dossiers were crude fabrications designed precisely to justify a war in front of reluctant public opinion.

In the end, Hutton helped Blair to use his enquiry as a platform to put across a rather extraordinary argument: that he could not possibly have lied to the public since, had he lied, he would immediately have had to resign - Q.E.D. For a devout Anglican, Blair seems to have learnt a lot from the Catholic Jesuits!

However, the Hutton enquiry has to justify its usefulness in some way at least. So it is bound to find that some minor characters have overstepped the mark or neglected their duties.

For the time being, by way of pre-empting Hutton's findings, Alastair Campbell, Blair's director of communications and a favourite target for the critics of his government's on-going spin, was chosen to play the role of sacrificial lamb. This allowed Downing Street to imply that the whole affair was merely a matter of "bad communication" between the government and the rest of the country and that things were going to change in this respect. Campbell's "resignation" was a tactical retreat on Blair's part as well as an exercise in damage limitation. But others may have to be sacrificed by Blair in the near future, including among his closest loyalists, like defence minister Geoff Hoon, for instance.

Belated "anti-blairites"

Over time, Labour politicians have proved increasingly reluctant to share Blair's discredit, especially if means risking the loss of their seats. Hence the numerous "backbench rebellions" over all kinds of issues, from benefit reform to foundation hospitals and university top-up fees. No doubt a number of MPs have been banking on their voting record in the Commons as a means to help them retain the loyalty of their constituency electorates, despite the discontent created by the government's policies. By the same token, in so far as these "rebels" carefully avoid challenging Blair's agenda - and particularly his servility to big business at the expense of the working population - they have been allowed to retain the Labour whip without further ado.

However, the issue of the war in Iraq has somewhat disrupted this cushy arrangement. The huge demonstrations in London, which were dominated by a largely Labour-voting petty-bourgeois milieu from all over the country, showed that the discontent caused by Blair's policies had spread to layers of the party electorate which had previously been loyal to Blair. The resilience of the electorate's opposition to the war as measured by opinion polls, even after the war had begun, was another indication of the extent of the discontent. Finally, the local elections, which resulted in an almost uniform drop in Labour's score, highlighted the fact that Blair's discredit was now affecting all Labour's elected politicians, without consideration for their personal stance on this or that issue. For a whole number of Labour politicians this was a warning that Blair's leadership might not last forever, that they had better find a way of taking their distance from him before they came up for re-election; and maybe that this was the right time for them to prepare a career move and raise their own profiles.

Hence the steady stream of former Blairite high-flyers who, after years of wholeheartedly endorsing Blair's every policy, have begun to express their differences over some issues in a more or less clear-cut way.

The first to do so was Robin Cook, when he resigned from government on the eve of the war. Cook was unrepentant about his past support for Blair and still described himself as a Blairite. His only gripe with Blair was that he had by-passed the UN by following Bush in launching the war in Iraq, something which was certainly in tune with the feelings of a large section of Labour's electorate, particularly among the London demonstrators. Since then, Cook has been careful to stick to this agenda, confining himself to remarking periodically on how right he was to warn against the dangers of by-passing the UN. He has become a major figure on Labour's backbenches, while remaining in the top ruling circles of the party. He is quite clearly keeping himself in reserve, in case there is a need for an alternative leadership for the party - one which would stick entirely to Blair's agenda without having to carry the can of his discredit over Iraq.

Outside a few minor figures who held government positions as parliamentary secretaries, the second Blairite high- flyer to follow in Cook's footsteps was Clare Short. Her initial threat to resign before the war and her failure to do so made her eventual resignation over the issue of humanitarian aid, after the end of the war, something of a farce. All the more so, because of her past role in using humanitarian aid as a political bargaining chip with central African dictators, while she was in government. In any case, Clare Short certainly does not carry the same kind of weight as Cook does in Labour party circles. However, her loud-mouthed attacks against Blair's total disregard for the situation of the Iraqi population may allow her to regain some credit among Labour supporters and buy herself a promotion in a future post-Blair government. Significantly, however, for all her virulent attacks against Blair, Clare Short was just as careful as Robin Cook to avoid challenging Blair's policies beyond the issue of Iraq.

A return of the Labour "left"?

The more recent case of Michael Meacher is somewhat different, in that it addresses a different audience and could serve a different purpose for the Labour party. It should be recalled that Meacher started his front-bench career as a minister in the Labour governments of the 1970s. At the time, Meacher was considered representative of the so-called Labour "left", for which he was the candidate in the 1983 deputy leadership contest against Roy Hattersley - and which he lost. In the 1990s, however, Meacher turned into a staunch Blairite, before becoming a minister from May 1997 until June 2003, when he was finally sacked by Blair in a reshuffle. With the exception of a few disagreements over environmental issues, he never expressed publicly any reservations over Blair's policies. In particular, he remained silent when Blair sent the troops into Afghanistan and then into Iraq.

However, after his sacking this June, Meacher finally saw the light. On 6 September he published a full-page article in The Guardian entitled "This war on terrorism is bogus", in which he argued that the "war on terrorism" - including the war in Iraq - is part of a vast US conspiracy to assert its worldwide supremacy and dominate the world's energy resources. In the process he attacked Blair for allowing Britain to join in this conspiracy behind Bush, arguing for "a more objective British stance, driven by our own independent goals."

But despite his radical-sounding exposure of Bush's policy, Meacher is merely barking up an old tree of the Labour "left" - the US bogeyman - and, in the process, verges on not-so-left British nationalism. As if, in its own sphere of influence, British capital was any less ruthless than its US rival! The poor populations of the Congo, Liberia and Sierra-Leone, among others, who paid with their blood for being caught in the cross-fire of Britain's covert and proxy wars, should know! By confining himself to attacks against US imperialism, Meacher allows British imperialism to get away with murder.

But in the present context, such a sleight of hand can serve a purpose. It allows Meacher to position himself as a determined opponent to Blair's policy in Iraq, using a language which can strike a chord with voters who consider that Cook and Short, with their wishy-washy condemnation of Blair, are merely Blair look-alikes. But at the same time, by carefully steering clear of exposing Blair's servility to British capital as being the root cause of all his policies, Meacher only helps to divert attention from the real issues.

By now, a whole spectrum of high-profile anti-Blair opposition has emerged within the Labour party, ranging from long-standing right-wing opponents like Roy Hattersley, Blair clones like Cook, to people like Meacher, whose role is to occupy the left flank of this spectrum. The emergence of this broad opposition may prove useful to the Labour party, by feeding the illusion that, after all, it has something to offer other than Blair's policies. But then of course, this is an illusion. Whatever their differences with Blair, and regardless of the rhetoric they use, these belated anti-Blairites all have in common the same fundamental agenda as Blair - managing the affairs of the capitalist class in the best interests of the capitalist economy, that is, capitalist profitability. And it is the built-in logic of this fundamental respect for capitalist profits which has led to the attacks on public services, the rolling- back of the welfare state - as well as the invasion of Iraq.

Towards Blair's resignation? So what?

The media circus which is being orchestrated around minor aspects of Blair's policy in Iraq is fuelling speculation that, in the end, Blair may have to stand down. Clearly, this is unlikely to happen as a result of an enquiry which is designed, first and foremost, to protect him. But, although there has been no indication so far that Blair might relinquish his office, this could result from other factors which have nothing to do with the Hutton enquiry.

Indeed, even the most entrenched Blair loyalists would have to admit that all the governments' attempts at overcoming the distrust created among the electorate by Blair's policies since the run-up to the Iraq war, have failed. And this distrust comes on top of the discontent caused by years of accumulated attacks against the standard of living of the working population and jobless.

Judging from an opinion poll published by the Observer at the beginning of September, which showed that 43% of voters wanted Blair to resign, Labour's electoral prospects seem rather bleak. If such a trend was to be reproduced in the next national poll - the European election in 2004, which will be also Blair's last national test before the general election - Labour's share of the votes is almost certain to show a very sharp drop. And despite the European election's usually low turn-out and limited political significance, this prospect can only cause unease in Labour's ruling circles and lead them to consider the necessity of an extensive revamping of the party's image. Such a revamping exercise could, of course, be attempted under Blair's leadership. But a majority in the ruling spheres of the party may also come to the conclusion that Blair has reached his sell-by date and that it would be hopeless to try to improve Labour's electoral prospects while he remains at the party's helm.

An important factor in this respect could be the attitude of the trade union machineries. At this year's TUC conference a whole raft of anti-government resolutions were tabled. The fact that in a conference which is so well stage-managed by the union machineries, the TUC leadership allows this to happen, is unusual. However, while it is certainly not an indication of a new willingness to lead a fight back on the part of union leaders, it is definitely an expression of their discontent towards Blair, particularly over his insistence on keeping them at arms-length and his very one-sided conception of the "partnership" policy that union leaders have been sticking to with so much loyalty themselves over the past seven years. So, now that Blair is in trouble, union leaders seize the opportunity to remind him that they would have the means to derail his government if they chose to and that he should not take their support for granted.

It is an open secret that a number of heavyweights among the TUC leadership would prefer to have Brown in Downing Street instead of Blair - if only because they have always been much more welcome at the Treasury and at its satellite, the DTI, than at Downing Street. But few among them have ever dared to express their dislike for Blair in public. Even Tony Woodley, the newly-elected T&G general secretary and alleged "awkward squad" member, was careful to confine his call for Blair's resignation to a fringe meeting at the TUC conference. Since making this call from the conference platform would have carried a lot more weight and hit the front page headlines of the newspapers (rather than make a snippet in the inside pages) one can only deduce from Woodley's tactical choice that he took this stance to feed his "radical" image rather than because he seriously wants to try to force the course of events. This is to say that whatever their preferences or plans, the trade-union leaders remain very careful to keep these to themselves. After all, they are also, first and foremost, respectful of the institutions of the state of the capitalist class - and the position of Labour leader is an institution of this state, whether Labour is in office or not. So, if at some point they decide to drop their support for Blair and choose instead to initiate or encourage a leadership contest, in an attempt to revive Labour's electoral chances, this will be carefully planned behind closed doors.

From the point of view of the interests of the working class, calling for Blair's resignation is either resorting to a demagogic ploy, as in the case of Tony Woodley and his like, or encouraging dangerous illusions.

Indeed, what difference would it make if Blair resigned? Maybe the new Downing Street tenant would break with the "New Labour" jargon introduced by Blair and invent another one, or revert to a more "Old Labour" type jargon. But behind the packaging, would the content of the policies be different? They would still be the policies of the Labour government - i.e. policies designed to protect the profits of the capitalist class, necessarily at the expense of the working population and the jobless. What would the working class have gained? And what would the consequences be of disappointment, should workers be encouraged to believe in such a "change", if not demoralisation, once again?

Of course, it would be different if the working population and the jobless were mobilised behind a programme aimed at defending their class interests and on such a scale as to have the means to dictate the policies of whoever replaced Blair. In that case, forcing Blair's resignation could provide the fighting masses with a moral success in the context of a generalised offensive by the working class, a step which would be followed by many others, aimed at taking from the capitalists' accumulated wealth and current profits what is necessary in order to regain the ground lost by working people over the past two decades.

Real change will only come out of this kind of mobilisation, not from changing a few heads at the top of the institutions of the state. In the meantime, the most urgent task is to prepare for such a mobilisation, for a general fight back of the working class, by rebuilding the confidence of our class in its own capacity to fight collectively and to win.

13 September 2003