Britain - Labour paves Howard's way

Jan/Feb 2004

Michael Howard's uncontested takeover of the Conservative leadership on 6 November 2003, was generally considered to mark a new departure for the party, indicating that, for the first time since 1997, senior Tories think they are again in a position to challenge Labour.

Since the massive vote against them in 1997, which gave Labour its largest parliamentary majority ever, the party's main figures have spent the past six years in almost complete anonymity. The high-profile factional wrangles which dominated John Major's last years in office may have continued in the background, but no-one in the real world took much notice. Tory heavyweights kept a low profile, confining themselves to their busy lives in company boardrooms and the occasional appearance on BBC TV 's "Question Time" and similar programmes, if they were not writing novels. Meanwhile, it seemed that the party machine was being left in the hands of unknown lightweights who were really "acting-up" leaders or "temps", rather than the real thing.

With Howard's ascension, however, "the grown-ups are now in charge" - as commentators have put it. And they need to be. Taking opportunity of the discontent that the Labour government has sown over the past six years as a result of its "Tory" policies is not so straightforward, after all. Up to now , for obvious reasons, it is the Lib-Dems who have been capitalising on Labour's losses in elections and Howard's task will be to gather up some of these votes for the Tories.

The "temps" stop the gap...

The amateurs have, however had a fairly long period - six years - in which to try their luck. First to push himself forward was the youthful (36-year old) Eurosceptic, William Hague, who was elected after the 1997 defeat. Hague may have thought he could capture a new, younger audience for his chauvinism. But his "save the pound" speeches against the euro, interspersed with xenophobic gaffes, did not prove quite enough. He did, however, run a relatively successful negative campaign during the EU Parliamentary elections in June 1999 which, ironically, doubled the Conservative's EUP seats to 36 - by mobilising Tory voters who would probably normally have abstained. But Hague did not have such luck in the 2001 general election. No matter how disappointed voters may have been in Labour, they still blamed the Tories for degraded public services and social dereliction. Hague only managed to increase the number of Tory MPs by one and resigned immediately.

The Eurosceptic former junior army officer, Iain Duncan Smith, (or "IDS") then beat five candidates to become the new leader. He was a real unknown with the support of only 35 out of 166 MPs. Many of the Party heavyweights, like Anne Widdecombe, distanced themselves from him, turning down offers of shadow cabinet positions. Undeterred, he proceeded to gather together a cabinet "more right wing and Eurosceptic than Margaret Thatcher ever did" - to quote the Economist. The only party heavyweight who agreed to be part of it was Michael Howard, who accepted the shadow chancellorship. But then, Howard fitted with this "lurch to the right" and no doubt he was already preparing his next step.

While the Tory party itself appeared to be floundering, with its big guns seemingly in semi-retirement, its (albeit reduced) electoral base remained more or less stable. But it proved unable to win the votes of the huge numbers who began to desert Labour.

Already by 2001, just four years after Labour's "landslide" victory, nearly 3m of those who had voted Blair into office had deserted Labour candidates - one fifth of its former voters! Indeed, the main feature of the 2001 election was the huge rise in abstention, particularly in Labour strongholds, from 28.6% in 1997 to 40.6% in 2001. After four years of a Labour government, not one of the expectations of ordinary people had been fulfilled - instead, they had experienced a continuation of what they regarded as "Tory" policies.

This voting pattern was maintained in the local elections, with the Tory vote stagnating and the Labour vote declining. But in 2003, the local elections took on additional significance for many voters, who used the poll as a referendum on Blair's war in Iraq. The Liberal Democrats, who had voiced (albeit equivocal) opposition to the war, polled record scores - equalling Labour's 30%. But the Tories, whose policy over the war was identical to Labour's, maintained their 34% without gaining anything out of Labour's huge losses.

While these local elections and a by-election in Brent East which followed saw the Lib-Dems as the main beneficiaries of Labour's losses, many Tory politicians have been watching this situation - and doing their calculations. If Labour's losses on this scale were instead translated into Tory gains in a general election, the Tories could win.

It is this which probably prompted those in the higher spheres of the Tory party to think that the time had come to go onto the offensive. And it was Michael Howard, one of the party's more ambitious heavyweights who played his hand.

On 29 October 2003, just after the Conservative Party's annual conference, Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith lost a confidence vote among MPs by 75 votes to 90. And on 6 November, Howard stepped forward as new Tory Party leader, unopposed.

From Howard the hawk....

At first sight, the unanimity of support among senior Tories was a little surprising. Howard can probably be said to have epitomised the "nasty party" more than any other Tory former minister. ("Nasty party" being the way that then party chairwoman, Theresa May, characterised the Tories in a call for reform and image refurbishment at their party conference in October 2002.) His reputation as one of the most formidably reactionary Thatcherites in the party is well known.

Howard was a late starter in the Commons compared to his fellows at Cambridge - all part of the so-called "Tory Mafia" of the 1960s including Clarke, Gummer, Fowler and Brittan. Having failed to win a parliamentary seat in 1966 and 1970, he put off his political career and first made it as a barrister (specialising in planning and employment law). Eventually, in 1983 he got himself elected to the safe seat of Folkestone and Hythe joining Thatcher's Commons majority just after the Falklands War.

But he made up for lost time. In his maiden speech, he called for the legal protection of workers who break strikes, the return of the death penalty and praised the US invasion of Grenada! The very next year he was appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Solicitor General. In 1985 he was brought into the government as Secretary of State at the DTI with responsibility for consumer affairs. Two years later he was a Minister of State for Local Government and busy preparing the Tory demise in Scotland by "trying out" the Poll Tax on the Scots. 1990 saw Howard helping to negotiate the UK's "opt-out" from the Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty (thus excluding British workers from the albeit minimal protection this would have offered), and ending the trade union "closed shop" (compulsory union membership in a workplace).

After the 1992 election, Major was happy to have him on board, first as Environment Secretary and then in the role in which he really earned his nasty reputation - Home Secretary from 1993 to 1997.

He became notorious for his "tough on crime" policy, admiring and adopting some of the worst aspects of the USA's penal system - like the "three strikes and you are out" - meaning compulsory, fixed, long-term custodial sentences for third-time offenders. In short, Howard favoured locking up as many people as possible.

When the tabloids called for tougher sentencing, after Howard had allowed two under-age children to be publicly tried for the killing of a baby, Jamie Bulger, Howard literally played to gallery. Such was his populism and demagogy, that he openly and proudly "responded to public demand", i.e. the Sun newspaper campaign, to lengthen their sentences. To do so, he took on new powers which allowed the Home Secretary to go over the heads of the judges and set prison terms, extend sentences, and even refuse release of offenders. When Myra Hindley's parole came up, it went without saying that she was consigned to prison until her death.

It was under Howard that the UK prison population began to reach record levels. He had to hire in prison ships from the US to accommodate the overflow. At the time even a Tory mouthpiece like the Economist castigated Howard for keeping thousands of petty offenders in jail, plus 750 asylum seekers and illegal immigrants, as well as 12,000 remand prisoners when 7,000 of them would not receive jail terms when their cases were finally heard. The magazine's editor recommended that Howard reserve jails for the "real criminals" rather than fill them with people who should not be there. The 20% increase in the prison population under his rule was considered a scandal and rightly so!

Jails were stretched far beyond their capacity, leading to riots and break-outs, like the escape from Whitemoor in 1996, which brought the spotlight onto the appalling deficiencies in the system. The director of prisons, Derek Lewis, who Howard scapegoated for the crisis, "resigned", but it was widely perceived that Howard had forced him to fall on his sword. It was this incident which apparently made an enemy of Anne Widdecombe - and why she spoke of Howard as having "something of the night" about him. Howard the dove

When Duncan Smith invited Howard in as shadow chancellor in 2001, even the Economist questioned the wisdom of including someone from the party's "hard right", who was associated so much with a past that the Tories would rather forget. But in fact it was as a member of IDS's shadow cabinet that Howard first began to show a "caring" side.

At that year's party conference, he announced that the Conservatives task was to make people's lives better. And it is maybe worth quoting the following: "I am the son of an immigrant. I was educated at a local grammar school, later abolished by Labour. I became Home Secretary in a Conservative government. The first Jewish prime minister of our country was a Conservative. The first woman prime minister was a Conservative. I very much hope that the first Asian and black Prime Ministers of our country will be Conservatives too. ... It is utterly wrong to suggest that only the Labour Party are interested in this goal or that only they believe in social justice."

In fact, IDS has left two policies on the Tory agenda which the Tory press has a big problem with - opposition to university top-up fees - very much endorsed by Howard as shadow chancellor, and the re-linking of pensions to earnings. The press points out that this burst of anti-Labour rhetoric must, of course be reeled in - these are not "conservative policies". But of course given that those who send their children to university and the elderly have always been more likely to vote Tory in the past, there is a logic in this "caring" demagogy. And needless to say, policies can be "flexible".

That Howard is a heavy-weight "pro" as some of the papers call him, is not in doubt. And his reactionary reputation will probably keep most of the rank-and-file supporters of the Duncan Smith/Eurosceptic type on board. So the more crucial issue for him is whether he is now prepared and able to act "mellowed" or "softened" enough to keep the so-called "left" of the party, including the Europhiles happy enough.

In his shadow cabinet - halved in size to 12 members with 7 portfolios, which may reflect the lack of suitable candidates for his balancing act, Howard has kept Oliver Letwin as shadow chancellor. One may well regard Letwin as somewhat nutty, recalling in particular his suggestion during the last Tory conference that immigrants and asylum seekers be put on an island somewhere offshore. However the "respectable commentators" of the right, such as the Economist actually regard Letwin as a "charismatic intellectual to the liberal left of the party". David Curry, a Europhile ally of Kenneth Clarke, has been chosen for local government and John Bercow, also on the "liberal side" of the party and a backer of the right of homosexual couples to adopt, is to act as spokesman for international development.

Of course, plenty of advice has been offered from the press. The Guardian suggested that it was crucial for Howard to "purge the party of Thatcher's legacy" and go back to Tory roots. Others like the Economist and Telegraph referred to Howard's past, Widdecombe's observations and the need to rebuild the party as a national organisation. Of course, as no opposition party in UK history has so far succeeded in overturning an overall parliamentary majority of 160, as the Economist helpfully pointed out, "the most the Tories can plausibly hope for is to do well enough at the next election to establish a platform from which to have a realistic chance of winning the one after that. Most of the Conservatives present travails are the consequences of their remoteness from power..."

Howard immediately embarked on a national tour. To underline the Tories opposition to Labour's version of university top-up fees, he used the opportunity of a back-to-his-roots visit to Llanelli in Wales, where he had attended the local state grammar school. On the spot (now transformed into a 6th form college) he reiterated how he was not "going to take any lessons from a public schoolboy [Blair] on the importance of children from less privileged backgrounds gaining access to university." Then, at the beginning of his visit to Scotland, he apologised for the poll tax, spoiling the apology somewhat by saying that: "It was a bold and brave experiment but it didn't work, it was a mistake. I've apologised for it before and I'm happy to do so again."

At the dawn of the New Year, Howard took out a two-page advert in the Times newspaper to make a fervent, almost religious statement of his "beliefs", (and disbeliefs) to prove to the constituency he is targeting - the "political centre", which is really middle class England - that he is a changed character, or maybe that he had always been Mr "nice guy", only nobody knew it! So, after starting with an "I believe it is natural for men and women to want health, wealth and happiness for their families and themselves", he continues with such pearls as "I believe that the people should be big, that the state should be small" and "I do not believe that one person's poverty is caused by another's wealth"...

Obviously, despite all attempts to prove otherwise, neither Howard nor the Tory party has changed. Their policies, just like Labour's, are those required by British finance and industry - by British capital.

The language they choose to formulate these policies is merely a matter of expediency. The aim is always to gain the votes needed to defeat their rivals. Howard's present "caring" demagogy is designed to regain the ground lost to the Lib Dems - but concentrating on areas which do not put into question any fundamentals, particularly in the run-up to this year's London mayoral, and assembly elections, the local elections and the European elections in June.

How Blair paved the way for Howard

Above all, Howard relies on the general discontent caused by Blair's policies. In other periods, when the Labour party's policies seemed more obviously different from those of the Tories, loyalty to Labour might have stopped voters from switching to the Tories, no matter how disillusioned they were.

But today, there is not one area of politics in which Blair's government has not in some way or another, out-Toried the Tories, thereby making even the most reactionary policies seem acceptable to a layer of the electorate, regardless of who advocates them.

Michael Howard may have been discredited, even among Tories, for his right-wing populism as John Major's Home Secretary, particularly for increasing the population by 20% in 4 years. But after promising to change all this what has Labour done once in office? The prison population has continued to increase - by another 14,000 - in the context of intense over-crowding. So that now Britain has the highest imprisonment rate in the EU. In fact, during the 1997 election campaign, Jack Straw, the then shadow Home Secretary, already used young offenders to overbid the Tories, promising curfews for children and court orders for parents, which even Howard had not dared to propose. The Crime and Disorder Bill eventually enacted these proposals. Straw also enshrined the precedent set by the Jamie Bulger case (where two ten-year olds were found guilty of murder on the grounds that they knew right from wrong), thus abolishing the provision which prevents children under 14 years from being found guilty of a crime.

As to his successor, Blunkett, he has extended the parental responsibility orders initially proposed by Straw and in fact the first prosecutions (and jail sentences) against parents whose children truanted from school have already been carried out. And since the House of Lords has ruled Howard's supra-judicial powers unconstitutional, Blunkett is now enacting a new Criminal Justice Bill which would force judges to impose fixed sentences for serious crimes. And he has put on the agenda other controversial measures which all reduce the rights of the accused, such as the end of jury trials in certain cases, so-called double jeopardy immunity, etc..

All of these measures go much, much further than the "dreadfully reactionary" Michael Howard even dreamt of.

What is more, police have never had such powers as they have today. Even without the Terrorism Act which was brought in well before 11 September 2001, the police had been given the right to stop and search anyone they like, when similar but lesser powers under Thatcher's "sus law" (stop and search on suspicion) which were one of the triggers of the summer riots of 1980, were actually revoked shortly afterwards.

The Jobseekers' Allowance (JSA) instituted by the Tories just before they left office was taken over by Labour and its repressive edge strengthened under the New Deal. The attack against single mothers and those on incapacity benefit was actually broadened and intensified. Everyone was supposed to be pushed off benefit and into work, no matter how low-paid or precarious the work may be, which was a leaf taken straight out of former Tory Employment Secretary Peter Lilley's book - he even sang a ditty at the annual Tory conference about the way that single girls deliberately get pregnant in order to get to the front of the council housing queue. In fact Labour just took over, without any qualms, the Tory policy of blaming the poor for being poor, the unemployed for being unable to find a job - but has gone further - by punishing them for it. In fact, Blair took this punitive policy even further by introducing a full review and compulsory job interviews for all disabled, thereby also blaming them for their disability.

Even on the issue of asylum seekers Labour managed to go further than Howard. Straw's and Blunkett's rhetoric against asylum seekers culminated in a series of Immigration and Asylum Bills all of which reduced further the rights of new immigrants, but which also left them with little option but to choose the illegal route into the country. The tragedies - such as dozens of deaths in the back of lorries, under trains, at sea in the Channel - naturally increased accordingly. Special detention centres have been built in the meantime for those awaiting processing and for those awaiting deportation. The latest Labour idea - to take into care the children of immigrants or asylum seekers whose applications to stay have been turned down - and who therefore also no longer have the right to food or accommodation, is indicative of how far down the reactionary road Labour has gone.

From one policy in favour of the bosses to another

Time and again, Blair has cynically referred to the fact that when it comes to the crunch, working class voters will have no option but to vote Labour. His point being that there is no-one else for workers to vote for.

One can only expect that during the coming period, this argument will be hauled out again, and with even more attempts at persuasion, given that Blair knows all too well that Labour has been losing voters by the trainload all along its policy track.

However, this kind of blackmail will not necessarily make working people forget the record of Labour in power and how it has continued and extended the attacks of the previous Tory governments against the working class. The subcontracting which the Tories started under competitive tendering has just continued - under Labour's PFI and PPP - and at each stage wages and conditions are undermined, while casualisation increases.

Pension provision for workers has been under particular attack. Blair has stood by as company after company cut final salary schemes. It is his government itself which is attacking pension provisions by continuing Thatcher's running down of the state pension system. And while it was under the Tories - and the spurious excuse of sex-equality - that the decision was made to phase out payments of the state pension to women under 65 years between 2010 and 2020, this has been endorsed by Labour without any qualms. But then it is Labour who is now considering increasing retirement age in the civil service to 70 years!

Thatcher's policy is always characterised as the "rolling back of the state". But this was merely a way of cutting the social expenditure which went to the poor while rolling out new forms of direct or indirect subsidies to the rich whether by handing over lucrative parts of the state (privatisation) or removing all restrictions on the bosses' behaviour. And this is exactly what Labour has been doing.

Under the guise of rescuing the health service and the transport system from years of Tory under-investment and cuts, Blair has in fact carried on cutting just the same, retained and expanded the NHS internal market, subsidised the privatised train companies, etc..

It would be impossible to list all the attacks that workers have been putting up with since Labour came to power, six years ago. But suffice it to say that workers have borne the brunt of the seamless continuation of Tory pay policies in the public sector, the degradation of working conditions following huge job cuts in industry, and the resort to casual jobs, the decline in social support and absence of affordable good housing, etc., etc.

In this respect, from the point of view of the working class, Howard is neither worse nor better than Blair. He represents the same interests - those of a capitalist class which over the past two decades has become accustomed to living a comfortable life by way of an unprecedented parasitism on working people's labour and taxes.

The future will not depend on the ballot box

If the Tories do get back into government, and the odds are that, all being equal, they will at some point, it will be a direct consequence of the slavish attitude of the Labour government towards the bosses. Because it will only reflect the fact that the wage earners of this country, who form the overwhelming majority of the electorate, will see no stake in keeping Labour in office.

The real issue then, as now, will not be who sits in the House of Commons or in Downing Street, but what is the relationship of forces in the workplaces and on the streets. Other Tory governments have come to power in the past, with reactionary policies up their sleeves. And some of them found that they were unable to put these policies into practice.

This was the case in 1973/4 with the Heath government. When Heath wanted to impose anti-working class measures, starting with the miners, under the pretext of the oil crisis, he was faced with what amounted to a mini-general strike. Miners were determined that they were not going to pay for any crisis. They initially banned all overtime and were joined by electrical engineers who did the same. This resulted in power and fuel rationing, a three-day week and the government declaring a state of emergency. Train drivers joined the dispute and when the government would not back down all-out strike was declared. This made it impossible for Heath to implement his policies, of course. Labour had to be called in to save the situation and regain control. So Heath called an election and was then "officially" deposed.

The unfortunate fact was that there was no party which was prepared to defend the interests of the strikers - and the working class as a whole - that is, by not seeking accommodation with the bosses or positions in the institutions of the state, but by aiming to take the workers' collective fight back as far as they were prepared to go. The working class needed such a party at the time and it still needs it today.

Today the capacity of the working class to make an issue of its vital interests has not changed nor decreased. Other changes have occurred, of course, since 1974. Our class is more fragmented, our large battalions have been split up (although some still exist intact), and the union leaderships are so entwined with the bosses in their partnerships that they are the first obstacle workers generally meet when trying to fight for their interests.

But knowing all of this allows us to be prepared to face up to the anticipated difficulties. If we have no alternative, as Blair will no doubt tell us, it is not a question of not having anyone else to vote for, but a question of having no alternative but to fight back against all the attacks which we face. Because what we need is for governments - whether Labour or Tory - and their capitalist masters to become too afraid of us and what we might do if they go ahead and implement their attacks.