Britain - Politicians' squabbles versus working class politics

Sept/Oct 2006

The latest storm in Downing Street's tea cup marked the re-opening of the silly season. Just like last year at the same time, the rivalries within Labour's top spheres re-surfaced in the run-up to the party's annual conference. Except that, as time goes by, the contenders for Blair's mantle are becoming increasingly impatient, especially as they are beginning to see the rug slipping from under their feet, as Labour's score in opinion polls seems to be undergoing an unending slide.

The new development this time, of course, was the unusual step taken by eight junior members of the government to resign collectively. Significantly, however, the only reason they gave in their resignation letter was that Blair's failure to announce the date of his departure from office was damaging the government and the electoral prospects of the party. There was no mention whatsoever of any disagreement over the government's present or past policies, meaning that they were only arguing for the need to carry on with the same unpopular policies with a less unpopular character at the helm! Meanwhile, letters from Brown supporters in the Commons were circulating formulating demands along the same lines.

Then the "heavy weights" entered the fray. Some Blairites, like Harriet Harman, denounced such "appalling" behaviour in the name of the interests of the party and left it at that. Others, like Clarke, launched into a scathing attack against Brown.

As to Brown and Blair, they strove to look way above such undignified behaviour. Brown denied having anything to do with the "rebellion", although he made no secret of his aspiration to be prime minister in due time. While Blair, having promised that he would be leaving within a year at most, but still without setting any actual date for his departure, called his troops to order, reminding them that this sort of squabble does not go down too well with the electorate.

This is probably not the end of the story. There will be more backstabbing between rivals, more in-fighting by proxy through the media, more sensational headlines on the matter - to the point of boring everyone to tears. Leadership contests in the mainstream parties have a habit of turning into farce, especially when the incumbent and his clique have been in place for long enough for a lot of people to have missed out on getting access to coveted positions within the high spheres of the party machinery - which is undoubtedly the case.

But is there anything at stake for workers in this quarrel between rivals? Nothing whatsoever. The would-be contenders for the party leadership have all lent their support to Blair's most reactionary policies ever since 1997. So whether Blair leaves today, tomorrow, or the day after, it will not make any difference as regards Labour's policies in government - no matter how much one might finally enjoy the sight of Blair's back.

Brown, who, by now, seems to have lost some of his support among union leaders, has been directly in charge of implementing most of the policies against the working class. Yesterday he was the man who imposed a raw deal on the unemployed and single mothers, thereby paving the way for the explosion of casualised labour. He then proceeded to cut tens of thousands of jobs in the public sector, while reducing the value of pensions for new entrants. Today, he is busy throwing his weight around to impose not just a wage freeze, but a wage cut on public sector workers, by demanding from the independent review bodies that they should set next year's wage increase below 2% - not even half the rate of inflation if housing costs are taken into account! And all along, his "investment policy" in the public sector has consisted of mortgaging the income of the state for a whole generation, in order to line the pockets of private companies with juicy "partnership" contracts. Such are the policies that Brown, the good friend of the City, and his "prudent management" of the economy in the interests of big business, have in store for working people. The working class can certainly expect nothing from him.

As to the other possible contenders for the succession - whether it is John Reid and David Milliband, who may stand for the leadership, or Peter Hain and Alan Johnson, who may consider bidding for Prescott's position, to mention only those who have more or less declared themselves - all of them have held senior portfolios under Blair and sat in the Commons without ever murmuring a word of dissent over any of his policies. Why should workers imagine they have anything at all to offer?

However, while Labour grandees squabble between themselves over their political career prospects, working people have more down-to-earth problems to face.

With energy prices having gone through the roof since the beginning of the year (increases were between 30 and 50%, depending on suppliers), petrol prices still at a record high (despite the fact that oil prices have gone down on the world market) and housing prices still going up, wages are trailing further and further behind the cost of living. Last year, most pay deals were between 2 and 4%, which already meant a pay cut in real terms. But with real inflation probably going over 5% this year, workers will need a lot more than the usual miserly wage increases to keep up. And this is not to mention pension cuts which, for a significant section of the working class, result in higher contributions and, therefore, another wage cut.

And let no-one complain that the bosses are short of cash or that substantial wage increases would undermine "economic growth". The wealthy may be able to afford to stash money away, but workers cannot. Every penny they earn is ploughed back into the economy through consumption and therefore contributes to "economic growth". As to profits, they are at a peak, even for those companies which are cutting jobs. Thames Water, the largest water company in Britain, has announced plans to cut 25% of its workforce, when it had just announced a 31% profit increase! The City is so awash with cash that its managers have awarded themselves a total of £19bn in bonuses this year - the equivalent of the country's entire transport budget - meaning a 16% increase over last year! As to the government, if it was able to find £2bn this year alone, to pay private consultants in order to find ways of cutting jobs, it can certainly afford more than a ridiculous 2% wage increase across the public sector!

A recent survey showed that each employee in the country's 20 largest companies made £96,000 a year for shareholders. Isn't it time that workers reclaimed a larger share of the value they produce, instead of lining the bank accounts of big shareholders who have so much money that they do not know what to do with it? Isn't it time that they stopped the government from using the state as a cash cow for the capitalists?

As opposed to the political pantomime which is being staged by Labour politicians around Blair's succession, this is what real-world politics is about - about the interests of the majority of the population. As long as politics is left in the hands of politicians who see themselves as respectful trustees of the capitalist class, the working class will be left to foot the bill. Only when the working class takes its political interests into its own hands, by building its own party, a party that unashamedly represents its class interests, and fights for them, will politics take on a different meaning.