ll Labour Party members received a copy of the House Journal
Inside Labour in January with John Prescott's face
and finger on the cover. The finger was pointed accusingly
at the reader with the message "Are you ready"? Inside the
parody of Kitchener's recruiting poster of 1914 was made explicit.
A flyer with the same lettering as in the famous appeal was
printed with the injunction to "recruit new members/donate/send
us your e-mail address" as new Labour continues to try to
build a party in cyber space controlled from Millbank.
Going into the General Election, new Labour is trying to
rally its troops with increasing difficulty. On Prescott's
left breast on the Inside Labour cover was the legend
"Don't let Hague in the back door. Apathy is the Tories' number
one weapon". The message that if the Tories' gain at the election
is one which has been heard since last summer. Blair told
the NEC in July that this was the most successful centre left
government for a century, Prescott told the Education conference
that the government was such a success that if activists could
not get the voters out they were to blame. This is becoming
increasingly difficult as membership collapses and activity
levels drop to invisibility. Core supporters are increasingly
unwilling to vote new Labour, though not likely to vote for
This is worrying Millbank. In the editorial for Inside
Labour, General Secretary Margaret McDonagh argued that
"if just one in five of those who voted Labour last time doesn't
(sic) turn out to vote this time, Labour will lose sixty seats.
That's a 120 seat reduction in our majority... it can happen.
Just look at the European elections last year. Labour voters
stayed at home and the Tories won". Indeed this is so. But
the fault lay with the leadership for running a totally centralised
campaign. Candidates were selected nationally, the campaign
was run nationally, and the election broadcast focussed totally
on the Leadership of Tony Blair. Those who hoped the leadership
would learn from this disaster have been sadly disappointed.
The apathy which threatens new Labour is entirely due to
their contempt for traditional Labour voters and failure to
build progressive politics on the back of the 1997 election
victory. This is not a centre left government - it is a right
wing government with few, and grudging, concessions to progressive
elements in society. Will Hutton noted in bewilderment in
the January Chartist how new Labour assumes as a dogma that
Private is Good, Public is Bad. Professor Wyn Grant argued
in the September 1999 Politics Review that this was
a government dominated by "a closer relationship between business
and government, while the trade unions have enjoyed little
more influence on policy than they had under the preceding
Conservative governments... This has been described as the
most pro-big business government ever seen in Britain". Since
Wyn Grant wrote, the situation has grown worse.
New Labour was elected in 1997 to reverse the Tory policies
of Sleaze, Privatisation, and the ending of the arrogance
of a Secretive Whitehall elite. The public expected higher
standards in government and a reversal of the Thatcherite
policies of the previous twenty years, with a more caring
face to politics - especially important to women and vital
in closing the gender gap. These hopes have been dashed. Opinion
polls now register new Labour as being more sleazy than the
Major Conservatives, a price paid for the cosy attitude to
big business figures and the massive cheques received by Millbank,
which they brandish with honour as signs they are now respectable.
On privatisation, the scale of the offensive against the
public sector is breathtaking. The Private/Public Partnership
scheme is pressed ahead in health and transport without heed
of the consequences, Local Education Authorities are handed
over to private sector companies with no experience of education,
and the government not only fails to take any stake in the
failing Railtrack company but presses ahead with Air Traffic
Privatisation which even for Thatcher was a bridge too far.
In Scotland, their policies make a mockery of devolution,
reminding the Scots that Blair once described their Parliament
as having "parish pump" powers. Indeed it does not. The Scots
leadership have just handed contracts for all Scotland's trunk
roads to private companies, leading to 3,500 redundancies
in the public sector and provoking intense anger amongst Scottish
people who pride themselves on public services. Like Thatcher,
Blairites operate North of the Border as if dealing with a
subject people. The implications for the survival of the United
Kingdom are deeply serious.
In the run up to the election it might have been prudent
for new Labour to modify the worst aspects of the arrogant
contempt for its traditional supporters which it has shown
over the last six years. Any hopes that this would be so were
dashed on Tuesday 13th February when new Labour announced
a return to selection for secondary schools, indicating a
revival of the eleven plus which neither Major nor Thatcher
were able to attempt because of opposition among progressive
people. The announcement was made by the unelected Prime Ministerial
spokesperson and hatchetman Alastair Campbell with the sneer
that "the days of the bog standard comprehensive are over".
This was immediately seized on by William Hague to call for
the reintroduction of the grammar school, a policy which until
new Labour re-opened the door to selection had been as dead
as a dodo.
The sad fact of British politics today is that far from reviving
the progressive, centre left tradition, new Labour has entrenched
the neo-conservatism which arose in the 1970s and which has
yet to be challenged. Of all people, the "Murder She Wrote"
actress Angela Lansbury put her finger firmly on the problem
in, of all places, the Radio Times of 3rd-9th February
by arguing "I say I'm a-political, but I'm a bit of a socialist.
He'd have a fit and turn in his grave if he saw the present
Labour lot and the unbelievable right turn the movement has
taken. The void between the haves and have nots is still enormous
and no country is addressing it". And who might the "He" be?
Angela Lansbury's grandfather, Labour pioneer and former leader
As new Labour has moved more and more firmly into the Right
of the political spectrum, so its core support has dwindled
and even new supporters have abandoned it. Among women the
gender gap has re-emerged, with support down from fifty per
cent to thirty eight per cent from January to November 2000.
Luckily for Blair, this does not translate into support for
the Tories because Hague and his extremist Tory party is regarded
as a joke. And yet while people will not vote Tory, they will
not vote Labour or pro-new Labour Liberal either, which means
that apathy sets in and with the Tory vote rump vote remaining
solid the possibility of Labour losing seats to the Tories
grows increasingly likely. And Millbank, unable to put the
blame on the leadership and new Labour's swing to the right,
blames the activists and issues rallying calls to its dwindling
band of supporters.
As the election draws nearer, Millbanks' efforts depend increasingly
on John Prescott as one of the few credible figures who might
rally the troops. But Prescott's own credibility is being
eroded. On February 1st the Times reported that "Prescott
aims to win back the core vote". He is said to be touring
Britain with a road show featuring two soap stars and a TV
detective. Specifically Michelle Collins off East Enders,
Liz Dawn from Coronation Street, and George Baker better known
as Inspector Wexford. The sad thing about this report is that
it has to be taken seriously. Millbank and the leadership
really do think that glitz and glitter can counter the swing
to the right and the abandoning of principle and progressive
Within a few weeks this will be put to the test. Chartist
should behave with caution and not give any hostages to fortune.
But we must set down clear markers that we will not be blamed
for any losses new Labour might suffer. Tony Blair said on
the first day of the government back in 1997 "We were elected
as new Labour, and we will govern as new Labour". And as new
Labour they must be judged. Neither Blair nor Prescott can
be allowed to blame Labour's activists if things go wrong.
Hopefully the election will not be a re-run of the first day
of the Somme, and John Prescott will not be reviled as a new
Field Marshall Haig. But it is already clear that Labour supporters
cannot be treated as cannon fodder, and lessons must be learned
from new Labour's record however much the leadership try to
tough out the evidence that its policies have alienated core