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Year 2001 No. 25, February 9, 2001 Archive Search Home Page

The Labour Government’s "Agenda for the Future"

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The Labour Government’s "Agenda for the Future"

The Choices the People are Permitted to Make

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The Labour Government’s "Agenda for the Future"

Tony Blair yesterday, February 8, made a speech widely seen as setting out the outline of the Labour Party’s manifesto for a coming general election. It was also widely connected in the media with the Prime Minister’s statement in the House of Commons that a decision would be made on whether to join the single European currency within the first two years of a new parliament.

Tony Blair’s task was not an easy one. The people have become increasingly disillusioned with the promises of New Labour and of the direction it is taking society. The workers who were supposed to have had their own mass party elected on May Day 1997 have seen that the programme followed by New Labour represents not their interests but those of the rich.

So Tony Blair had to begin with a "blunt admission". "Life is a real struggle for many people, uncertain, insecure and under constant pressure. And that goes for middle class as well as lower income families." Tony Blair cannot even bring himself to talk about the working class.

How can New Labour get itself out of this tight corner? The only way is to claim that "we have made a good start". The "foundations are being laid", and now is the time to show "what we can build on those foundations". If those foundations are too much like Thatcherism, well, New Labour must avoid the "historical mistake of Labour Governments – to try to transform without first getting the fundamentals right". How does New Labour define itself? If one remembers, it used to be "New Labour, New Britain". There is, however, not much that is new about New Britain, and so, "having defined ourselves as a party of competence and modernity, it is time for a second phase of New Labour, defined less by reference to the old Labour Party, than by an agenda for the country, radical but firmly in the centre ground". It is the Conservative Party which has allegedly vacated the centre ground. The Labour Party, rather, has kept "elements" of the "Thatcherite settlement of the 80s". For example, "Thatcherism allowed better rewards for those that did rise to the top".

It is important for the working class to understand that this is not simply a Blairite gloss, an aberration from the true vocation of the Labour Party to represent the interests of the workers. New Labour came to power with the mission to carry forward Thatcherism in the conditions where the Thatcherite programme was in crisis, and this is precisely what it has done. The second phase of New Labour carries this programme further, with a content which the rich deem appropriate for the deepening crisis of capitalism and impending world recession at the start of the 21st century.

This programme, as Tony Blair says himself in his speech, has the "two themes" running all through its agenda of "opportunity and responsibility". Here "opportunity" means, as Tony Blair says of Thatcherism, allowing "better rewards" for those that rise to the top, for the "meritocracy", which he is at pains to stress is not a dirty word. So, like the US of A, Great Britain is to be a land of "equality of opportunity", where everyone is deemed to be of "equal worth". What this means is the opportunity for some individuals to strike it rich, and anyone can do this if they put their minds to it. For the rest, they have their "responsibility", which is to release their potential through good works in the community so that the government does not have to exercise its responsibility to ensure that the claims of everyone in society are met.

But that claim also must be watered down in the face of the dire situation in manufacturing industry, of job losses, of insecurity, of the breakdown in the social fabric. Tony Blair concludes: "How far we are from a society of true equal opportunity, is a measure of how far a radical New Labour Government has to go. The foundations are laid. The land of opportunity is not yet built." But of course Tony Blair is certain that it will be built, and addressing the youth he in all sincerity assures them it will be built in their interests. The Labour Party will set the agenda for the future for the youth. "Even if three million children still live in poverty, there will be a million fewer than in May 1997 thanks to the measures we have put in place."

New Labour’s agenda for the future is an agenda to take Britain further down the road of paying the rich and keeping the people disempowered and the working class marginalised. The working class and people must base themselves on their own life experience and draw the appropriate conclusions. They themselves must march along the road to progress and a socialist Britain on the basis of the independent programme of the working class.

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The Choices the People are Permitted to Make

In setting out the government’s "agenda for the future", Tony Blair returned time and again to the issue of "choices".

A little thought about the logic he applies to this issue shows that he is engaging in sophistry and dissembling, or in plain language in flawed argument in order to pull the wool over people’s eyes.

What choices are the people able to make as to how society is governed and how decisions as to the basic questions which affect their lives are made? At election time, they are permitted to choose which party candidate in their constituency should be their MP. That is all. They are not permitted to be a part of the process where the candidate is selected (unless they are part of an inner elite of the party in question), nor are they permitted to be part of the process whereby the platform of the party in question is decided on (even the constituency associations are excluded in effect from this). Nor for that matter are they permitted to choose the judiciary, the civil service, or anyone else in the machinery of government.

But what is at stake in even electing the MP? First of all, the system is premised on the mechanism that the party with the overall majority of MPs forms the government. Because no decisive break has been made with the political system as it has taken shape since the 17th century, the Prime Minister and his Cabinet formed from the majority party as the executive, armed with the Royal Prerogative, have absolute power to govern. They are even under no obligation to govern according to the platform they put before the electorate at the election. Certainly, the ordinary MP is not delegated to represent his constituents, but to uphold the political programme of her or his party. In this system, to choose to vote for a candidate from a party that is unlikely to form the government is considered a "wasted" or perhaps a "protest" vote. Or to put it another way, the choice for the electorate is being restricted, if it is to be "effective", to the large political parties whose manifestos the people have in any case had no hand in drafting. When election time comes round, these same parties are supposed to convince the electorate that they have or have not done a good job, that they have or have not carried out their mandate, that their manifesto is or is not valid. This whole system, nothing more than a popularity contest, is what is given the name representative democracy. The point to note in relation to the issue about "choice" that Tony Blair raises is just how circumscribed is the choice the electorate is asked to make. The elector is a spectator to the action that is happening elsewhere (but is nevertheless expected to have "responsibilities" to society), and has to chose from this position as spectator which party "represents their interests", as the parties are alleged to do.

Returning to Tony Blair’s "agenda for the future", having admitted there is much to be done, his argument is that the Labour Party in its first term has laid the foundations and must now build on them. However, having begun to present this argument, he switches the subject of discussion surreptitiously from the Labour Party, or the government in which Labour dictates the programme, to "we" meaning "the nation". He slips into the argument the sentence, "As a nation, we are wasting too much of the talents of too many of the people." Followed immediately by, "The mission of any second term must be this …" Once he has begun to identify "we, the nation" with "we, the Labour government", this deliberate confusion becomes enmeshed in the whole logic. What must be done by a second-term Labour government which Thatcherism (which the speech is extremely sympathetic to) failed to tackle? There follows a list. At the end of it comes: "But none of it can happen without us choosing as a nation to make it happen."

The speech then becomes peppered with one line paragraphs to try and consolidate the identification of the "choices" the government makes in power with the "choices" the electorate, as the "nation", is supposed to make. On investment in public services: "But we had to choose to spend that money." On producing a first class health service: "But again it only comes through choice." On a whole list of policies relating to crime, constitutional reform, and Europe: "But it is all a choice we, as a nation, have to make." And then: "Those are the foundations. But they are only the foundations. Now we have to make the next steps based on new choices." Once this connection is made, the identification of the "choices" the government makes with the "choices" the electorate makes, Tony Blair then uses "we" willy nilly to mean both things: "How we spread prosperity …"; "How we invest …"; "How we build a welfare state …"; "How we renew our civic society …"; "How we strengthen Britain’s influence in the world …"; we will do this, we will do that, we now aim to do more.

This identification of party with nation, of the unity between the two (which, it can be noted in passing, was and is the content of the standard anti-communist criticism of "one party states", but is actually closer to the Hitlerite "national socialism") of course has an aim. It is to assert in the face of a reality which is increasingly at odds with it that the government represents the will of the electorate. It is to cover over who decides what in society and in what manner and where those decisions are made. When it comes down to it, it is to attempt to coerce the people to submit to a direction for society which their whole experience tells them is against their interests. It is to say: we as a government have made the tough choices, now you have to make the tough choice of re-electing us.

The electorate must not be permitted even to think of participating in choosing a candidate to represent them, of participating in choosing the mandate for the government, of participating in choosing what the direction for the economy should be, of participating in the actual choices of governance. However, all these choices are supposed to be accomplished by nothing more than choosing to vote for a party candidate at election time.

It is this system which is causing such havoc with people’s lives, and which the working class and people must reject with the demand for a political process in which they are empowered to decide on the programme for society.

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