As we enter an election campaign that may end thirteen years of New Labour government, Alex Snowden takes a look at Tony Cliff’s assessment of Labour’s victory in 1997.

Thatcher and Brown

Today is the 10th anniversary of the death of Tony Cliff (1917-2000), revolutionary Marxist and founder of the International Socialists tradition. In 1997 he wrote an article assessing the Labour election victory and its significance. It is, with hindsight, a very perceptive piece. As we enter the election campaign that will probably lead, on 6 May, to the end of thirteen years of New Labour government, it is worth taking another look at Cliff’s prognosis back in 1997.

Cliff opened by noting the oft-made comparisons with the landslide victory for Clement Attlee’s Labour Party in 1945. It’s easy to forget now that such grandiose comparisons were ever made. The 1945-51 government was a genuinely reforming one; thirteen years of betrayals by Blair and Brown have bred a cynicism far removed from the high hopes of May Day 1997, when millions of working class people thought the incoming Blair government might prove genuinely progressive.

A significant similarity between 1945 and 1997 was that both elections marked a mass popular rejection of the Tories and their legacy. As Cliff wrote: “In 1945 millions of workers voted Labour because they rejected completely the experience of Tory rule and mass unemployment of the 1930s.” He argued that the 1997 landslide reflected a reaction to eighteen years of Tory rule. It was, he wrote, “overwhelmingly a class vote – a working class vote”.

This was, crucially, a different interpretation to the dominant one in the media at the time, which stressed Labour’s shift to the right and Peter Mandelson’s supposedly ingenious PR, which had apparently made voting Labour palatable for middle class voters in the political ‘centre ground’. The party’s rightwards trajectory under Tony Blair did, however, point to the direction New Labour would take in office. Whereas the Attlee government delivered reforms – most famously establishing the NHS – Blair’s regime would be very different.

The promises made in advance of the election had always been meagre. Blair and Brown, the joint architects of the New Labour project, offered very little. They offered even less than John Smith, Blair’s right wing predecessor, as Cliff observed: “Smith promised that a coming Labour government would repeal all the Tory anti trade union laws, yet Blair is against amending any of these laws. In an article on 31 March in the Times he explained that the changes that ‘we do propose would leave British law the most restrictive on trade unions in the Western world.’

Blair, once elected, stayed true to his word, defying those in the union movement who thought he was merely talking moderately to get middle class votes before steering left in office. Fast forward to 2010. Gordon Brown supports union-busting British Airways against cabin crew workers in the loyally Labour-supporting Unite union. Brown and his ministers happily allow a high court judge to rule the RMT’s strike ballot illegal.

Blair also made it clear he wouldn’t renationalise industries privatised by Thatcher and Major, despite polls showing majority support for renationalisation. Rejection of the privatisation agenda helped drive the anti-Tory backlash, and carried Labour to victory in 1997, but New Labour leaders never intended to change very much at all. Cliff cited evidence that Labour’s right wing policies were out of step with its supporters’ aspirations:

“For example, polls show that over 70 percent of people believe that the trade unions are too weak rather than too strong. Between 70 and 80 percent of people believe that the privatised public utilities should be renationalised. Only 11 percent are in favour of the privatisation of the railways. As many as 76 percent think there is a class struggle in this country. And 43 percent of the population and 61 percent of Labour voters believe there should be more socialist planning.”

The explanation for the Blairites’ timidity could be found above all in the state of British capitalism. Cliff wrote: “The Labour government of 1945-51 took place when capitalism was expanding more quickly than ever before… Tony Blair comes to office after 20 years and three recessions”. The state of the economy shapes whether reforms are likely to be granted: “The path to reform is open when capitalism is expanding, but when capitalism is stagnating the path to reform can only be opened by revolutionary struggle that challenges the whole capitalist system”.

Recognition of slow economic growth and the boom-bust cycle of capitalism underpinned Cliff’s view that New Labour would fail to deliver meaningful reforms. This was reinforced by awareness of how little it had promised even in opposition. It was also a view supported by the experience of past Labour governments. Despite offering more than Blair’s New Labour, the Labour governments elected in the 1960s and the 1970s had disillusioned their supporters by caving in to the demands of employers and bankers.

In 1997 Cliff made an interesting observation: “There are three levels of consciousness among workers at present – those workers who say they trust Blair, those who are worried about what Blair will deliver, and those who say they don’t trust Blair”. He noted that these groups overlapped and were in flux, and predicted that the high expectations placed in the new government would both provide it with ongoing support and sharpen tensions when it failed to deliver reforms. Of course this turned out to be true. There was only a very brief honeymoon: from early days Labour voters expressed disenchantment with Labour in office.

This was made highly visible in the 2001 general election, when Labour’s overall vote fell drastically. The main story was falling turnout, so Labour held on to a comfortable majority (and did so again in 2005) rather than losing to the still-discredited Tories. But it was clear that continuing Labour government was not an endorsement of its neoliberal policies – and certainly not of its warmongering in Afghanistan and then Iraq, which prompted the biggest demonstrations in British history.

Here’s what Cliff wrote in 1997: “We don’t know what will happen in advance, but what we do know is that conflict will take place. This is because the ideological crisis in Britain is rooted in the fact that millions of workers want big change and Tony Blair refuses to fight for change. This must create tensions although the form they will take cannot be predicted.”

It seems to me this prognosis has been vindicated. There have continually been tensions – rooted precisely in that contradiction between aspiration and reality – expressed in various ways. The most high-profile expression was the mass movement to halt the drive to war in Iraq, which was surely about more than the specific issue of Iraq. It reflected the pent-up bitterness and disillusionment with Labour government across a range of issues. And there have been many smaller-scale disputes, campaigns and mobilisations in which traditional Labour supporters have clashed with Labour in office.

In one respect I think Cliff was, understandably, a little over-optimistic. He anticipated a level of “explosive” industrial struggle that we’ve unfortunately not seen. I suspect this has turned out differently to his predictions for two reasons. One is that he underestimated the damage inflicted to the union movement by two decades of neoliberal restructuring and successive defeats of the working class (especially in the 1980s). The unions remain weak, though there are currently welcome signposts to a revival of working class resistance in the airline, railway and civil service strikes. Neil Faulkner’s excellent article ‘The workers, the unions and the crisis’ offers a deeper analysis of neoliberalism’s legacy and the implications for socialists.

The second factor is economic: Britain avoided crisis for over a decade after Labour’s 1997 victory, allowing some increases in public sector spending and thus undermining chances of any kind of generalised fightback by public sector workers. But that is changing now, as the recession bites and the mainstream parties share a pro-cuts agenda.

The crisis, especially the public sector cuts, has the potential to drive resistance to the political elite, whether we wake up on 7 May to a re-elected Labour government, a Tory majority or a hung parliament. Popular attitudes have not budged since the mid-1990s, when the surveys cited by Cliff identified they were broadly to the left of the Blairites’ positions. There are profound tensions between these progressive attitudes and the current orthodoxy in Parliament. The crisis of the last 18 months has generated a number of reactions, including widespread disgust at the bankers and increasing questioning of the system’s priorities.

Whatever happens in the general election, the outcome will not be a cheering one for socialists. But an analysis that extends beyond the narrow constraints of current electoral politics can help us see the potential for change.

Luna17 activist

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).

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