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A NEW RULING CLASS PARTY?

Harry Powell

 

The anti-EMU vote by the Tory Party sets the seal on a remarkable transformation in British politics: the emergence of Labour as the main political representative of the interests of the British ruling class.

Less than ten years ago the Conservatives seemed more secure than ever as the party of the rich and powerful. The Thatcherite project seemed to have beaten off any threats to social stability brought about by economic depression. Political commentators questioned whether Labour would ever again be elected to government. Yet the Tories had an Achillesí heel - Europe.

New Right politics in its Thatcherite form embodied an uneasy combination of neo-liberal economic and social policies with a defence of "traditional values" including nationalism. The latter meant that Margaret Thatcher and many of her supporters in the Tory Party were ambivalent or downright hostile to the European Union. This was the seed of her downfall. The dominant elements in British industrial and financial circles had long since decided that their future was in Europe. When Thatcher became increasingly obstructive about Britainís further integration into the EU they decided it was time for her to go. Despite the splendid services she had rendered they quite ruthlessly removed Mrs. Thatcher and replaced her with the pro-European John Major. The swift decisiveness with which Thatcher was despatched demonstrated most dramatically where power in Britain is really located - in the boardrooms of the major companies.

At the same time Labour was becoming more Europe friendly. The main locus of opposition to the EC in the Labour Party was on the left but by the late eighties they were becoming marginalised. Trade unions had always been fairly hostile to Europe but their influence on Labour policy-making was also declining. Part of Labourís emerging "modernisation" drive was a more positive attitude towards participation in European politics.

Tory Europhobia was intensified by the debacle of Britainís membership of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) and the consequent humiliating resignation of Norman Lamont as Chancellor. An increasingly disunited Tory leadership tried to find a clear policy-direction by pushing further the assault on benefit claimants and trade unions. By this time these policies had no great appeal to the electorate and the more perceptive elements among the ruling class realised things had gone far enough. Before the last general election the CBI opposed Tory proposal to place further legal restrictions on trade unions.

Meanwhile a new generation of Labour ideologists were hard at work. The battle against what has come to be known as the Old Labour of the trade unions and the left in the constituencies had largely been won under Neil Kinnockís leadership. But Labour had not found anything positive to put forward in place of its traditional policies - especially in terms of what would be acceptable to those who really matter. It was here that Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson made a breakthrough with what has come to be known as the "Third Way".

Already back in the nineteen eighties labour and social democratic parties in government - in Spain, Australia and New Zealand - had adopted New Right economic and social policies which made them safe for capitalism. The problem the Blairites faced was that in Britain these policies were known to the electorate as "Thatcherism" and by the mid-nineteen nineties had become extremely unpopular. Gradually a political formula - "New Labour" - emerged which managed to square the ideological circle between the new right and the old left.

An early manifestation of New Labour rhetoric was Jack Strawís promise to be "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime", neatly combining both authoritarian and liberal attitudes. "Welfare isnít working" provides a rich feast for deconstructivists. On the one hand it panders to the sentiments of those believing most benefit claimants are scroungers. On the other hand it can be interpreted as implying that Labour are going to do something effective about unemployment.

A key section of big business which had to be convinced that Labour could be trusted in government were the media moguls. General elections are now largely conducted through the media with newspapers being important in shaping electorsí views. Particular attention was paid to winning over Rupert Murdoch. After all, there was plausible evidence that the Sunís influence on its readers was the key to preventing Labour winning the 1992 General Election. The success of the Blairites with media proprietors was crowned by the late Lord Rothermere actually joining the Labour Party.

The rest is recent history. New Labour has won the confidence of the majority of the ruling class. The Blairites really did mean what they said in the last general election campaign and have no intention of deviating in a leftwards direction. Kenneth Clarke has aptly described New Labour as "Thatcherism with a human face". Any trouble the old left might have been able to cause has been considerable defused by the "modernisation" of the Labour Partyís structure. It has been dedemocratised so that constituency activists and union leaders have no influence on policy decisions. As the last Party Conference showed, New Labour wants to be sponsored by business, not by the unions.

It is hardly surprising that the "left" of the Tory Party - the likes of Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke - are wringing their hands in dismay. Already it was clear that the Tories were likely to spend at least ten years out of government. Now with the anti-EMU decision they are marching resolutely into the political wilderness. At this yearís Tory Party Conference many big corporations that used to be their faithful supporters couldnít even be bothered to book a stall. They were too busy the week before at another conference, consolidating the relationship with their new spokesmen, New Labour.