Britain - Blair's third term - an agenda for no change

July-August 2005

Blair's vow to "listen and learn" from the electorate lasted as long as it took him to make it. As far as he is concerned he has achieved an "unprecedented feat" for a Labour government in winning this third term, even if it was thanks to the gross distortion of the electoral system, on the back of a derisory 21.6% "endorsement" from registered voters.

But 21% Tony's deafness is selective. He has listened, and very conscientiously at that, to the prejudices of conservative "middle England" and most especially, to big business whose interests he has serve faithfully since 1997.

So Labour's reduced majority in parliament (67 MPs) is not going to be permitted to break an 8-year continuity for the benefit of private capital and its rich shareholders. Blair's loss of credit demonstrated by the loss of votes, both over Iraq and his anti-working class measures over the past 8 years, will not be allowed to translate into "weak" government. If anything his repressive policies are to be intensified. Even if he knows that he might have to tread somewhat more carefully than before.

This will disappoint many "old Labour" back-benchers of course, including the Campaign Group, who had hoped that the reduced majority would act in their favour. But since a good few of them have put their eggs in Brown's basket, despite the fact that it is identical to Blair's, it will serve them right. Anyway, as has always been the case for these Labour parliamentarians, the thought of losing their own seats and therefore their hugely generous salaries and allowances is a good incentive to vote the "right way", when it comes to uncomfortable choices.

The "new" Labour cabinet gave the first indication of Blair's intentions. Brown is, of course, back as chancellor (until he replaces Blair as big boss). And back on the front bench is David Blunkett, who is now Pensions Minister. The abilities he demonstrated as Home Secretary against immigrants and asylum seekers while covering up Labour's failure to cater for basic needs in housing and healthcare, will without doubt be put to good use against the rights of the elderly.

Former DTI minister, Patricia Hewitt has been moved over to the NHS to use her private sector skills to implement the latest NHS "reforms" - that is the transfer to private health"care" companies of at least 15% of all NHS procedures by 2008. The DTI, in turn, now has at its head, Alan Johnson, who will use the obsequiousness he practised long ago as the leader of the Communication Workers' Union, helping the bosses turn the screw on the workforce even tighter.

John Reid, the former health secretary is now going to use his bully-boy bluster to defend the arms industry and to keep British troops in Iraq.

Blair has also added a few new faces from his notorious entourage of "advisors". Andrew Adonis, the architect of tuition fees and champion of education privatisation, was made a "Lord" in order to join the government. Oxbridge-educated Hazel Blears, will be in charge of a punitive drive against "dysfunctional parents. Apparently she has a plan to apply penalties like benefit cuts, tagging, community service or even criminal prosecution to parents who do not organise their home lives according to her prescriptions. Lastly, there is Lord Drayson, from the pharmaceutical industry, who has been brought into the ministry of defence, since Blair obviously cannot conceive of a government without at least one multi- millionaire!

A raft which could sink

Since Blair has said he will step down as prime minister some time in the next four years, he was also quick to show how he intends to use this 21% "mandate" to provide one last proof to British bosses and their establishment that he should go down in British political history as the Labour PM who out-Thatchered Thatcher.

Accordingly, the Queen's speech on the 17 May, announced 44 bills - a record number - for parliament to debate by November 2006. Blair explained that this legislative programme was designed to create a culture of "respect", the heart of it being laws on crime and disorder. Indeed. There are 16 bills to introduce laws which would curtail current civil or social rights to some degree.

Whether they will actually go through in the end remains to be seen. The objective of these announcements was obviously to make a show of "ruthlessness" to counter any idea that the poor election performance of Labour would result in weakness. But it has happened many times before that a government has discarded even very prominent bills, before they have got to their first reading - or they have been quietly placed on a back-burner somewhere.

Anyway it worth running through the list, nevertheless, because it is quite telling. Key bills would bring in Identity Cards, (already debated and given a second reading), bring in "tougher penalties" for violent crime, extend the Prevention of Terrorism Bill's powers (and renew the Northern Ireland anti-terrorism powers), cut Legal Aid for defendants, create a new "fraud" offence of "obtaining services dishonestly" (eg social benefits), cut housing benefit by introducing a flat rate system, reduce the possibility for ordinary people to claim compensation in court, bring in a points system for immigrants and reduce the rights of asylum seekers, extend electronic tagging of offenders, extend the current Anti Social Behaviour Orders to "tackle yob behaviour in town centres" and increase the sentences for violent crime. Thrown in for good measure is further proposed legislation to force people on incapacity benefit into work. The controversial "Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill", which was criticised as "unnecessary", and Blair's attempt to try to gain favour with Muslim leaders who disapproved of the Iraq war, is also there.

Is there anything in the list which would extend the rights of "the people"? Well yes, the NHS Redress Bill will allow patients to claim compensation for mistakes made by NHS hospitals (private hospitals not mentioned). MRSA will be "tackled" with new hygiene codes and fines attached, of course. That says something about how badly the NHS has deteriorated under outsourcing and PFI. But not nearly enough.

Significantly there is also a bill which will overhaul charity laws, to boost the voluntary sector, "so that a vibrant, diverse and independent charitable sector can continue to flourish with public confidence." Just as well, because the way things are going, even more of Britain's poor will be queueing up at the doors of the Citizens' Advice Bureau and requiring charity to replace what has been cut from their benefits. This is yet another echo from Thatcher, whose personal view was that the clock should be turned back to the 19th century when there was only charity and no social welfare. In accordance with his own "morality" it would be fitting for Blair to come up with a bill for the next Queens speech which would reintroduce the workhouse, to solve the housing crisis and "anti-social" behaviour in one blow - complete with curfews, bans on drinking and smoking and compulsory attendance at the chapel every Sunday. These could be called "Big Brother Homes".

And oh yes, there is also a bill to allow "the people" to have more of a say in how the money from the National Lottery is spent!

Among the bills however, is one which looks very "minor" - called the "Regulatory Reform Bill". However, this is what the bosses have been begging for and it will, no doubt, answer many of their prayers. It aims to "streamline" regulatory structures and remove outdated or unnecessary regulation. In other words, remove first and foremost, the (very) few remaining rules which protect employees!

Big Brother Blair... and big money

The first of Blair's new bills to come before the House of Commons - on the 28 June - was the highly unpopular proposal to introduce biometric identity cards. Indeed commentators predicted that this Big Brother scheme could well turn into Blair's "poll tax".

Blair has promoted it as a protection against crime and terrorism, identity fraud, illegal immigration and illegal working, and of course as a way to restrict access to public services, since anyone using the NHS, claiming benefits, or applying for housing would have to produce a card first. So it would help ration shrinking public services and if a harassed official happens to key in the wrong strokes someone could find him/herself denied access to hospital treatment!

Monitoring the population's movements was not included in his promotion speeches, of course. Nor did he draw attention to all the information an ID card would hold, via the planned central database. So for instance a worker cautioned by the police on a picket line could well find him/herself inexplicably refused future employment!

Blair's case was not at all helped by a report from the respectable London School of Economics, endorsed by a team of 14 professors, which suggested that the minimum cost of a card could be £170 and the "median" cost £230! Blair's response was to accuse the LSE of double-counting, claiming that the cost of cards would be no more than £30. But there is certainly very big money involved in the scheme - £19bn according to the LSE report. Big money, that is, for the companies who will have the contracts to bring it into being. Already EDS, the US company which is the main culprit in the recent tax credit "errors" (leading to both underpayment and overpayment), has been granted the contract to produce a working blueprint!

And if the LSE's damning report was not enough, the government's own information commissioner, Richard Thomas, who had been asked to prepare report on "privacy issues", also condemned the cards, saying that in his view, it was part of Britain's growing "surveillance society", in the context of widespread use of CCTV, the use of automatic number plate recognition and proposals to introduce satellite tracking of vehicles for road pricing. He did not mention the mobile phone - an electronic tagging device already (voluntarily!) held by many.

However, said Thomas, the "51 categories of information" which will be held on the central register, would go far beyond the needs set out in the ID card legislation itself, and what is more, there would be the possibility of creating a "data trail" of an individual's life each time it was used to check identity.

No government in the world has yet undertaken such a scheme although Blair points to the fact that the EU, Canada and the US are all bringing in biometric passports containing one or more items of ID such as fingerprints, and iris or facial recognition schemes. In fact a pilot scheme of such biometric passports rather discredited the system, because a significant number of people who used them on their way out of the country were not recognised when they returned - maybe because they got sunburnt? But this, said Blair, was why these cards would be voluntary... at first, since collecting all the data and screening each individual would take years!

Blair could not have been too pleased either, when 10 trade union leaders signed a letter condemning the ID card scheme, but on the other hand, he knows how little their sound and fury ends up signifying.

However, as the press pointed out, the first reading of this bill gave Blair his first real chance to demonstrate how he can steer his way past his reduced parliamentary majority.

In fact, the Commons debate was interspersed with a lot of howls of laughter. But the bill was not derailed, as rebels had threatened, even if Labour's majority of 67 was cut by more than half. The bill went through, with 314 votes to 283, with 40 MPs abstaining or absent - so Blair got his second reading by a margin of 31 votes despite "all-party opposition"! Only 20 "Labour rebels" voted against it, while David Taylor, MP for Leicestershire North voted both "for" and "against"! The rather disgusting excuse of many of those who voted for it, was that since ID cards were in Labour's manifesto, and Labour "won" the election (with a "mandate" from only one in five voters!) MPs had a mandate to vote for it from their electorate!

However, during the debate, Clarke did concede that the cost of cards could be capped, or even that a lower price could be offered to the "poor"! But when he said that the cards would be no threat to the individual, but rather, that they would enhance everyone's security, he was met with hilarity.

Surprising as it may be, in addition, there is this "tradition" in British politics that the first bill of a new government after the election is supposed to be allowed through to its second reading! This excuse was even used by opposition members to vote for the bill. No wonder Blair chose this bill first then, since it is probably the most likely of all his 44 bills to end up in defeat... eventually. And now he has a second chance to build up fears in order to promote it.

Pricing workers out of their homes and off the roads

So how has Blair fared so far in the first two months of his final term? Apart from a flare-up over the EU and the G8 circus, which are dealt with elsewhere in this issue, the government has squeezed in as much as possible before the Summer holidays.

Given the housing crisis, which in all its aspects was a big electoral issue and one which the government has consistently failed to address, Brown probably felt obliged to say something soon after he returned to his Treasury.

But did he announce what is really needed, i.e., a state funded programme to build decent homes at affordable rents for those who cannot afford to buy? Of course not! He announced a programme of state-funded subsidies - to the banks and other mortgage lenders, supposedly to help "deserving" first-time buyers onto the "first rung of the property ladder", but mostly designed to give a new lease of life to the housing market which seems increasingly threatened by a meltdown!

First time buyers will be able to part-own a new home by paying for a reduced mortgage covering part of the value of the house, while they pay an additional rent on the rest, which would be "owned" by the same lender. This is meant to reduce repayments by 50%, with the state compensating the mortgage lender for its "losses". But according to the government's own examples, a small £120,000 home would still cost £522/month.

So who are the real winners? Not the low-paid, who still will not be able to afford housing. No, the same financial institutions which have made a killing out of the current crisis in housing, thanks to lack of supply, the wholesale transfer by the government of almost all remaining public stock into the private/voluntary sector, the buy-to-let boom, the higher mortgage interest rates and plain greed!

The next bright proposal ministers came up with was to propose road pricing as a "solution" to congestion on Britain's badly maintained and inadequate road system.

The idea is to install a chip in every car so that it can be identified by a satellite tracking system and to price motorists for every mile they drive by 2p per mile on quiet roads outside rush hour and £1.34 per mile on the M25 at peak hour. In other words, simply price the less well-off, off the roads, while conveniently implementing a comprehensive surveillance system to spy on all drivers. Alastair Darling, (still in the Department of Transport), who announced this brainstorm on 6 June, claimed that petrol tax and road tax would then be scrapped. The timescale for this is 10 years, but Darling wants it decided on during this parliament. We shall see if this "hot" idea crashes, or not.

At this point, Darling did not say whether public transport would be immediately expanded to be able to carry all the motorist driven off the road by this scheme and the ridiculously high price of train tickets reduced.

But this question was soon to be answered, because on the 21 June the Association of Train Operating Companies proposed "rail peak pricing", apparently to counter a forecast rise in passengers of 28% in 10 years! Since the government is congestion-charging drivers onto the trains, they say, they would be obliged to congestion-charge them right back off them.

Great Western, one of the most heavily-used services could not wait, however, and immediately announced another price-hike of between 2.2% and 6%. The excuse in this case was the increase in the price of diesel fuel... Nothing at all to do with the old "law of the market": when demand is high, increase prices, so that profits can soar!

Zimbabwe: Blair wants to have his cake and eat it

There is another issue which has exposed this government's cynical demagogy - a hunger strike by dozens of Zimbabwean refugees threatened with deportation.

Government ministers claim that the Zimbabwean refugees who are protesting against imminent deportation face no risk if returned to their country. Indeed the ban on deportations was removed in November last year and these asylum seekers have now exhausted all appeals to be allowed to remain here.

Yet the same government which says they face no risk has singled out the Zimbabwean regime as Africa's worst offender on human rights. At the same time as the hunger strike, television reports have been showing images of Zimbabwean shanty dwellers being made homeless by president Mugabe's bulldozers. This has been accompanied by loud condemnation by Blair, Straw and every minister who could manage to get himself in front of the camera. However, not one of them thought to mention the regular bulldozing of Palestinian homes in the Occupied Territories by the Israeli regime nor the fact that this is "normal business" in South Africa, Kenya and in fact in all poor countries, where the governments implement regular "clean-ups" of squatters, with exactly the same result for those affected, as in Zimbabwe.

But of course, Mugabe is the worst dictator in the world, according to this government for one reason and one reason only. He has condoned expropriation of white commercial farmers (mostly very wealthy), who had been monopolising the country's richest land since colonial days. Capitalist private property is sacred for this government.

To date, the Zimbabwean asylum seekers are still under deportation orders, although their removal has been put on "hold" until after the G8 summit at Gleneagles. For obvious reasons.

Of course Mugabe's regime is a vicious dictatorship, but this government cannot have it both ways. It cannot claim the right to condemn Mugabe for violations of human rights when it is infringing human rights here in Britain by not doing its duty to asylum seekers!

These Zimbabwean are not the only victims of this government's pandering to anti-immigrant prejudices. In fact it knowingly condemns many deportees to Africa to death because of the simple fact that they are HIV positive, usually incidentally diagnosed while here on student or workers' visas, and placed on treatment. They face certain and accelerated death if they are sent back home because their treatment will cease. They are invariably deported, nevertheless.

This is why the hunger strikers - and indeed all so-called "illegal" immigrants - who are consistently criminalized by this government, placed in jails, (called "holding centres") facing rejection of all appeals and plans to cut their rights even further - should be supported by all working people.

Reclaiming the ground lost

In any case, the working class has a "long" four years ahead given the government's agenda of attacks against pensions, hours and conditions of work, social benefits, public services, and its rights.

Against these attacks it will need to make its voice heard by using its only effective weapons, the methods of the class struggle. And it will need that for all Blair's and Brown's arrogance, this government is one of the weakest it has ever faced. Indeed real change is possible. But it will take a determined fight back by all sections of workers across industries, united behind a set of demands which can really resolve the problems they face and allow them to start regaining the ground lost.