Socialist Appeal - the Marxist voice of Labour and youth.

In Part One of British Perspectives Phil Mitchinson looks at the general trends in British politics, with an eye to the international situation, the war in Iraq, and the decline of Blairism.

“The British working class is entering a period when it requires the greatest belief in its mission and its strength. To gain this there is no need for any stimulants like religion or idealist morality. It is necessary and sufficient that the British proletariat understands the position of its country in relation to the position of the whole world, that it has become clear about the rottenness of the ruling classes and that it has thrown out of its way the careerists, quacks and those bourgeois sceptics who imagine themselves to be socialists only because they from time to time vomit in the atmosphere of rotting bourgeois society.” (Leon Trotsky, Writings on Britain, Volume Two, p.182)

This year we are celebrating the 80th anniversary of the magnificent General Strike of 1926, when Trotsky wrote the words quoted above, as Britain stood on the brink of revolution. At first sight those events seem distant, both chronologically, and politically, compared with the situation which confronts us today.

The task of writing perspectives against the background of general strikes and mass demonstrations, or other dramatic political, social or economic events would certainly seem to be easier than under the current circumstances in Britain. Yet when Leon Trotsky did exactly that in the period preceding and immediately following the General Strike he was met with a stone wall of reactionary Stalinist ignorance in Moscow, and infantile petty bourgeois cynicism on the part of the left labour leaders in Britain. Eight decades on and when one reads the analysis made by Trotsky one is struck by its vitality and its relevance. In the long view of history eighty years is but the blink of an eye. In human terms it is an entire life. Of course much has changed in the intervening years. The betrayal of the leaders of the workers’ organisations, the devastation of a world war, and the long years of economic boom which followed, have all combined to delay a new episode in that titanic struggle, although there were mighty battles which came close to doing so in the 1970s and 80s.

The world looks very different, as does Britain’s place in it, from the perspective of 2006. Nevertheless the method used by Trotsky has not only stood the test of time, but is the only way we can understand the nature of the period through which we are passing and the events that are being prepared.

Some might argue that so little has happened here over the last twelve months that we could just as easily republish the last perspectives document, rather than prepare a new one. There is a grain of truth in this; the present document should certainly be read in conjunction with those from previous years. The ideas presented there retain their full force. It is important at each stage that we check and re-check our previous perspectives, to correct errors, to compare developments as they have unfolded, and to test whether or not the methods used remain valid. The fact that we could indeed republish those documents demonstrates, at least in part, that we have been correct in the broad strokes and, indeed, in many of the specifics.

Perspectives must deal with processes and not predictions. For this reason it is not possible, necessary, nor even desirable to try to analyse every single statistic, or event ad infinitum. Instead we must draw out from the evidence available those elements which help to uncover the processes at work in society, in politics, in economics, in every field.

However, it would be a serious mistake to believe that the continued slow tempo of events here makes British Perspectives less important. On the contrary, to orient our forces, to understand the causes and effects of events, or the lack of them, to point the way forward in a period such as this is, if anything, even more vital. The dangers of ultra-left or opportunist errors, in an attempt to shortcut the historical process, must be carefully avoided.

“The revolutionary proletarian Party must be welded together by a clear understanding of its historic tasks” Trotsky explained. “This presupposes a scientifically based programme. At the same time, the revolutionary party must know how to establish correct relations with the class. This presupposes a policy of revolutionary realism, equally removed from opportunistic vagueness and sectarian aloofness.” (Leon Trotsky, Writings on Britain, Volume Three, p.79)

In any case it would be a gross error to imagine that, just because events have (on the whole) been far less dramatic here than elsewhere, nothing of any importance is happening. This would be to fall into the trap of empiricism, to be seduced by the surface appearance. One should never judge a book by its cover. From the same evidence diametrically opposing conclusions can be drawn depending on the method employed. We must attempt to use Trotsky’s method, Marxism, if we are to understand what is going on under the surface.

Perspectives for 2005 have already been supplemented by the analysis of the General Election, which confirmed what we had written previously, and also added new information for us to consider. In July London experienced the shock of bombs on public transport which were the terrible price paid for Blair’s kow-towing to US imperialism and its adventure in Iraq.

The Tories have a new leader, as do the Liberals, and before long so will Labour. Ironically the New Labour leaders want to return to one of the worst traditions of old Labour, buggins’ turn, by handing over the keys to Number Ten to Gordon Brown with no leadership election.

The last period of Blairism, which we have clearly entered, will not be a quiet one, and the crises being prepared will leave their mark on the opening of the post Blair period for which we must also now be preparing.

Blair has lost his first votes in parliament, exposing the cracks at the very top of the Labour Party. In the past when we pointed to the possibility of some form of national government, we were met with scorn and derision. Now, even before any serious crisis in society, Blair finds himself increasingly forced to rely on Tory votes to get his legislation through the Commons.

Important underlying economic and social changes must all be considered too, not least the latest developments in the housing market, and in relation to attacks on civil liberties, two aspects on which we have laid heavy emphasis in the recent past.

Make no mistake, dramatic events impend in Britain no less than anywhere else. We can assert this confidently. We have faith in the struggles of the workers. The British working class has a very long and proud tradition, before, during and since the great General Strike. That whole history has left its mark on today’s outlook and will equally play its part in the revolutionary struggles of the future. Our faith however is not based on sentiment nor any kind of mysticism, but on the sound science of Marxism and perspectives. When the most dramatic events explode, they do not do so unannounced. All the conditions for creating explosions are prepared in advance, by an accumulation of changes beneath the surface. For some time now we have been trying to describe that molecular process of change, and to understand it, in order to arm ourselves, and to direct our activities in the directions necessary to build our tendency.

Revolutionary events will not simply fall from a clear blue sky. We cannot wait for those events to build our organisation. Once the masses are on the streets it will be too late. Our task is to prepare for those events, by understanding the stage we are at and using that understanding to direct our work and our efforts to build the forces of Marxism. Therefore Perspectives are no less important in a ‘quiet’ period. Rather they are essential if we are to build in readiness for ‘noisier’ times ahead.

That means digging beneath the surface of society, of politics, and the economy, to uncover the changes taking place and how they affect the outlook of all classes.

Of course if we were to confine that analysis to events on our small island we would be able to understand little. Britain must be scrutinised against the background of international events. Trends in politics, economics, and society can only be understood in the context of world politics, the world economy, and so on. In order to understand the role Britain plays in the world revolution, and the impact of international events on developments here, we must always read British Perspectives in conjunction with world perspectives.

International Situation

On a world scale, no-one can doubt that we have entered the most turbulent period in history. This must not be lost sight of no matter how quiet times have been in our own backyard. Every aspect of human society - politics, economics, diplomacy etc. - displays a profound instability. None of these crises are accidental. They are all expressions of the impasse of the capitalist system.

The system has outlived its historical usefulness and is now an immense barrier to human progress. The struggle to maintain itself against the tide of history is what gives rise to one crisis after another in the shape of wars, civil wars, revolutions and counter-revolutions. Nature itself seems to be mocking those crises with disasters of its own. In tsunami, hurricane, and flood we see not only the might of nature but also the inability of capitalism to deal with it. The social tragedies they leave in their wake serve to expose the true nature of the capitalist system and its cold calculating cruelty. These tragedies may not be directly caused by the profit system, yet they are reminders of the damage being done to the planet by the senile short-sightedness of capitalism.

In its death agony capitalism’s ugly counter-revolutionary face is being unmasked for all to see. However, dialectically and inevitably that death agony also gives rise to new life, the seeds of the future are being cultivated in the shape of the revolutionary tendencies growing and maturing beneath the surface.

Revolutionary developments are immanent everywhere, if not imminent here. This process unfolds in different ways, at different speeds, in different countries. After all if the revolution pursued a uniform course then there would be no need for a revolutionary international. Nevertheless, for all the differences on display, this same process will find its expression in the changing consciousness of the working class everywhere, resulting in all kinds of social and political explosions.

As we have pointed out previously the attempts of the capitalists to solve political problems tend to exacerbate economic crises, and vice versa. The world economy is experiencing enormous instability at present. The abrupt changes in the price of oil are an expression of this instability. In turn this is partly an expression of the political and military convulsions in the Middle East following imperialism’s adventure in Iraq. It is now three years since the invasion of Iraq, and politically, militarily, and economically this folly continues to dominate international relations. It continues to have the most important political and economic consequences in the United States and here in Britain.

Bourgeois economists are now drawing parallels between the current situation and the early 1970s when rising oil prices served to provoke the first real world slump since the second world war. Oil prices did not cause that slump, it had already been prepared in advance, but the oil crisis succeeded in tipping the world economy over the edge.

Similarly today all the conditions are being prepared for a sharp crisis. The current boom is a house built on chicken’s legs. For some time now the entire world has been heavily dependent on the United States and to a certain extent China. The high rates of growth in China cannot be maintained indefinitely and are preparing for a crisis of overproduction, whilst simultaneously creating an immense polarisation of Chinese society. Social and economic crises are being prepared in China, which, as we pointed out in the last document, plays an increasingly important role in world perspectives. However, it is not destined to play the role of saviour of the world market previously predicted by many economists. Instead China will add tremendously to the instability in every sphere in the next period.

At the beginning of the last century those who believed in the dawning of a new era of peace and prosperity could at least argue that there had not been a major war involving all the great powers for nearly a hundred years. The price level in the first year of the first world war was actually lower than it had been at the time of Waterloo. New inventions and new technology – the car, the aeroplane – were flourishing. What followed was the most convulsive period in human history, approximately four decades of revolutions and counter-revolutions, two world wars, a global slump, and the rise of fascism.

As the great American writer Mark Twain once wrote “History may not repeat itself but sometimes it rhymes.”

The world is always at its most unstable when the global balance of power shifts. Today world relations are in flux. The centre of gravity, which some time ago moved across the Atlantic from Europe to America, has continued its journey on to the Pacific. In understanding this process we can learn a great deal from a previous period of ‘globalisation’, the decisive period in which capitalism became a barrier to progress on a world scale, the years leading up to 1914 and the first world war.

By the end of the 19th century Britain’s role as the hegemonic power was already being challenged by the United States, along with Germany and Japan. The Ottoman and Hapsburg empires were already in terminal decline. These years were dominated by the decline of British imperialism, wars, civil wars, revolutions and counter-revolutions. Does the position of the US resemble that of Britain 100 years ago? There are many differences. Is their period of unquestioned superiority drawing to a close? China is still a long way from matching America’s wealth, but the growth in its economic strength brings with it international political clout too. In the period ahead there can be no doubt that China will look to flex its muscles. Washington and Beijing are already competing for Africa’s oil stocks. Competition from China is part of the reason why America now imports so much more than it exports. The US is living beyond its means to the tune of $60 billion per month, their current account deficit is running at 6 percent of GDP. This cannot last indefinitely.

The dominance of US imperialism is not yet challenged by China, but battle lines are already being drawn particularly in relation to world trade. This was demonstrated by the latest stalemate achieved at December’s international trade talks in Hong Kong intended to pursue further reductions of tariffs, quotas and other trading restrictions under the so-called Doha round of trade liberalisation.

The battle lines over trade are drawn broadly between those who favour 'globalisation' as the way forward, and those who fear that the opening up their agriculture, or their industries and financial sector, to American multinationals or imports from Latin America or Asia (produced by American multinationals) will hurt the interests of their own ruling class.

Behind the stalemate in Hong Kong is the fact that globalisation is just not working. It is not working for those economies that are raped by the big multinationals once the doors are opened. But what worries some strategists of capital much more is that, far from globalisation generating steady economic growth that is balanced across the world, it is breeding serious imbalances in capitalism.

One figure alone can illustrate what these strategists fear: China's 1.3bn people consume only 42 percent of their annual output, they save and sell the rest overseas, 40 percent of it to the US. At the other extreme, Americans consume 71% of their annual output, saving nothing and increasingly importing all their energy and daily consumption needs. The US is borrowing hugely to finance its spending binge and is becoming increasingly dependent on the rest of the world, particularly Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, India, Brazil and Japan to provide these needs on credit. The US is now the world's biggest debtor, while Japan and China are its biggest creditors, and the gap is widening.

So far, the US has sustained this imbalance because it controls the purse strings with the dollar as the major international currency; it has a huge banking and financial sector; and, standing behind it is the mightiest military force ever assembled.

According to a recent book analysing the impact of globalisation (The Politics of Empire by Alan Freeman), between 1980 and 2000, the population living in the so-called advanced countries (the main capitalist economies) fell from 32% to 19% and yet their share of world income rose from 80% to 84% - such is the success of globalisation for all! The annual income per person of the advanced economies was 11 times greater than in the so-called developing countries in 1980. By 2000, this ratio had reached 23 times.

It will come as little surprise that globalisation is increasing inequalities between nations and within them. This fact is of little concern to the world’s capitalists. However, they will be more disturbed by the fact that their much vaunted globalisation is not even helping the capitalist system as a whole. Whereas in 1988 the average annual output per person in the whole world was $4885, in 2002 it had fallen to $4778! In the 1970s, annual world GDP per head rose at over 4% a year; in the 1980s it slowed to just 0.8% a year; in the 1990s, it was negative. The world under capitalism is going backwards. The results would be far worse if one removed China - an economy only just entering the control of capitalism – from the calculations.

Even in the US itself globalisation has done nothing for the average American worker as the big multinationals shift their industry abroad to cheaper locations and the government allows cheaper imports of goods and services to wipe out local industry.

As a result, inequalities of income and wealth within the US have worsened sharply. Now, if your household income in America is just $57,000 (£32,000) a year or below, you are in the majority 75 percent of households. In 1993, the bottom 50 percent earned 15 percent of national income; by 2003 that had fallen to 14 percent. Meanwhile, the top 25 percent had increased their share from a massive 62 percent to an even more staggering 65 percent over the same period.

American consumers, corporations and government, have overstretched themselves. As a result the American economy is weighed down by unprecedented levels of debt. In any other country this would already have led to a slump by now. The position of the US as the most powerful and wealthy nation has allowed this to continue as long as it has, but it cannot last forever.

This boom has not led to an improvement in living standards in general. Instead it is based on an intensification of exploitation, lengthening working hours, increased pressure in work. This is the case everywhere. The increase in toil and stress is something we know a lot about in this country. Britain’s foreign policy, home policy, and economy more and more resemble a pale shadow of its American master. The deregulated, hard-pressed British workers have become a model for increasing exploitation internationally.

The fact that this intensification is an international phenomenon, as is cutting social expenditure and attacks on pensions, tells us that this is neither accidental nor incidental. This is not the fault of one government, but a generalised phenomenon. Everywhere we see the old mask of reformism slipping away to reveal the greedy and rapacious face of capitalism in its senile decay exposed beneath. Capitalism can no longer afford the reforms it was forced to concede in previous periods. What it was forced by the working class to give with its left hand in the past, it is now forced by its own inadequacy to seize back with its right hand.

Inequality between nations and within nations has widened into a yawning chasm. According to the United Nations some four billion people, two-thirds of the planet, live, or more accurately struggle to survive, on £2.30 or less a day ($1500 dollars per year). Even in the richest countries, while the share of the wealthy continues to pile up, the poorest are sinking into absolute poverty. This was graphically exposed by the tragic scenes created by the hurricane in New Orleans.

Today more than at any other time in the past it is easy to recognise the process which Marx described as the concentration of capital - both in the mergers and acquisitions which constitute one of the main activities of the huge multinationals that dominate world trade, and indeed every aspect of life, as well as in the accumulation of obscene wealth in the hands of the super rich.

The combination of these factors – war, inequality, and stress – has an impact on all classes in society. While the ruling class strip away the reforms of a bygone age in pursuit of profit, and legislate in an attempt to shore up their power and privilege, at the same time a mood of discontent is prepared among the mass of ordinary working class and middle class people, especially amongst the youth. In the US, in Europe, indeed here in Britain, as well as elsewhere, this has been reflected in the movements against globalisation and the mass demonstrations against the war in Iraq. These are the first signs of a growing revolutionary mood amongst the youth, which also proceeds at different speeds, in different countries, at different times. These changes are already evident in advance of a new world recession, which is casting an ever-lengthening shadow over the whole situation.

Of course the situation faced by the masses in the Third World is immeasurably worse. The impasse of world capitalism means misery, disease, war and death for millions. Africa has been abandoned, for all the fine words on TV and at rock concerts by bourgeois politicians. More accurately the masses of Africa have been abandoned to their fate. The rich natural resources of the continent mean one proxy war after another as a land of plenty is raped in the interests of profit and power.

Millions die of starvation, of curable diseases, or are slaughtered in wars and civil wars. In other words what we are seeing here is a descent into barbarism in one country after another, bringing Marx’s prediction that the choice before humanity would be between socialism and barbarism into stark relief. Yet there is another side to Africa, where hope can be found. Not in foreign aid or charity but in an immensely powerful working class. The general strike in Nigeria shows the way. Only the working class of Africa can halt the slide to barbarism by conquering power. Then, in association with the working class internationally, Africa could be transformed into a paradise on earth.

The profound instability in every field is reflected in sudden and sharp changes in the consciousness of the masses. We must be prepared for this in Britain too. Its dependence on the world market and on US imperialism combined with British capital’s own long term decline ensures that it will not be immune from this process. We cannot allow ourselves to be lulled into believing that because nothing much has happened recently that this will continue to be the case. This may have been – in general, anyway – a long period of calm, but still it comes before a storm.

Closer to home in Europe we have already seen general strikes and a government crisis in Italy; a general strike and mass demonstrations in Belgium; a wave of strikes and demonstrations in France (as well as rioting amongst the dispossessed youth which is a symptom of their despair, and the inability of the system to offer them any kind of future). The EU constitution referendum was like a political earthquake in France, and was in reality a referendum on Chirac (the EU referendum in Holland was a vote on the political establishment as a whole). It can also be seen as a rejection of the reforms argued to be necessary to make the country more flexible and more competitive, in the British mould. That is to say making the workers flexibly bend themselves in two under stress and strain, until their backs break. Then, of course, they can simply be fired like the workers at Gate Gourmet. In the French referendum, at least in part, “flexibility” translated as “work till you drop or you are fired” and was rejected.

The political situation in France is extremely unstable, not only did the EU referendum illustrate the mounting anger in French society, it marked the opening up of a new period in the class struggle in France. The mobilisation against the privatisation of the SNCM and the anti-CPE campaign are also fantastic examples of that developing class struggle. The events in France will have a huge impact on the movement in Europe. France can become a model for the most advanced workers and the youth

In the most powerful country in Europe, Germany, there are over four million unemployed, and a growing social and political crisis which is reflected in the splits in the SPD and the vote for the left party in the recent elections.

In Spain the right wing PP government of Blair’s friend Aznar was overthrown by a movement of the masses. The Zapatero government now sits like a loose lid upon a bubbling cauldron of social unrest. The right wing in concert with the Church organises provocations and demonstrations with the aim of destabilising the government. Army officers even talk openly about the need for a coup.

All across Europe, without exception, we see a growing polarisation to the left and to the right. Though this process is more visible in a country like Spain, it is no less demonstrable in Britain. Politics here continues to be dominated by the imperialist adventure in Iraq, as demonstrated by the London bombings on July 7 last year, and the wave of “anti-terror” legislation which followed. These legal attacks on civil liberties have had a profound impact with Blair losing a vote in the House of Commons for the first time, as he attempted to overturn basic democratic freedoms enshrined in the Magna Carta.

For Jean Charles de Menezes they had a more immediate and tragic impact, as we learned that the police had been given the power to shoot to kill, not through a debate in Parliament but through the brutal execution of an innocent man on an underground train. We will return to this, but the unprecedented attacks on democratic rights in Britain demonstrate that the ruling class at least is preparing for sudden and sharp changes in the situation. This is the meaning of a phrase we have used many times before. The ruling class cannot simply rule in the same way that they could in the past. They are forced to abolish reforms, to squeeze the working class, and to attack democratic rights. In doing so they are preparing for dramatic battles in the future.

Furthermore this turbulence is not confined to Europe, but is a truly international phenomenon. Mass strikes and demonstrations have shaken Australia and Canada, two countries which until now would have been considered to be amongst the most stable of capitalist democracies. What we are witnessing here is a worldwide crisis, which inevitably affects different countries in different ways and at different times, nonetheless it does not leave one single country untouched, not apparently quiet Britain, nor even the mighty USA.

A large majority of the US now opposes the continued occupation of Iraq. Two thousand US troops have died there. Three times as many have suffered brain damage from their injuries. Countless tens of thousands of Iraqis have died. These facts - together which each new scandal of abuse and torture - have a tremendous impact on the outlook of American workers, and on the troops themselves.

The USA is the most powerful imperialist nation in history. With the end of the cold war stand off between the Stalinism of the USSR and the imperialism of the US, came a profound instability in international relations. The US is now spending some $500,000 million on arms per year. Just imagine what that wealth could achieve put to productive use. This is more than the combined military budgets of Russia, China, Japan, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and India. In relation to British imperialism when it ruled the waves, Leon Trotsky wrote that its military doctrine was based upon preventing a single land power from gaining preponderance in Europe and then maintaining a fleet stronger than the combined fleets of any two other countries.

Now the US maintains a military power greater not than its two nearest rivals, but than two continents. The foreign policy of the ‘Bush Doctrine’ sees the world as the domain of the US. This is an inflated version of the famous Monroe Doctrine of the 19th century, through which the ruling class in the US claimed the whole of the Americas as their dominion.

Bush and co used the excuse of the September 11 terrorist attacks to launch their new gunboat diplomacy with the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. This has had the most profound impact on politics, on economy and on diplomacy. It produced a split between the ruling classes of Europe and the US. The European bourgeoisie has its own interests in the Middle East and elsewhere and cannot simply accept the domination of the US in their spheres of influence. The result has been divisions within NATO and within the EU, reflected in the crisis over the European constitution. There has been a sharp clash between Britain and France, further destabilising the EU, where Britain plays the role of faithful servant to its US master. Blair is Bush’s poodle but more importantly what is demonstrated in this relationship is that British imperialism’s power has diminished to such an extent that it no longer really plays an independent role in world affairs.

For that matter, Europe as a whole is experiencing a decline in its importance on the world stage. The Mediterranean has not been the centre of the earth for some time now. It will be across the Pacific, in Asia, and above all in China, that the future will ultimately be determined. The US and China are bound to come into conflict, economically and politically, over the Pacific in the next period. China’s growing economic power will be asserted politically, diplomatically and militarily in the future.

American imperialism now considers the whole world to be its sphere of interest, but above all they seek to establish their dominance over the Middle East and Latin America. For all their might they find themselves bogged down in an unwinnable war in Iraq. Sooner or later they will be forced to withdraw. The limits of their power will be exposed.

Those limits are also on display in Latin America, though for different reasons. In the space of just a few short months last year we witnessed an insurrection in Ecuador which overthrew the government, and an insurrectionary movement in Bolivia where only the absence of leadership prevented the coming to power of the working class. Alongside this we have the unfolding revolution in Venezuela.

The inspirational events in Latin America, the insurrections and revolutionary developments across that continent, above all in Venezuela, have the ruling class of the US in a state of apoplexy. This is not the place to go into the perspectives for those revolutions. However, the revolution in Venezuela has entered a new stage in its development. At present it is undoubtedly the key to the world revolution. It is our duty to follow its progress closely, to offer the revolution whatever assistance we can, to learn from its experience, and to use its inspiration to raise our own sights and to win over new layers of workers and especially the youth.

In the faces of Bush and co we see the naked reaction of a feeble and senile system. On the faces of millions of Latin American workers and peasants we see a glimpse of the future.

The economic, political, military and social changes of the last few years, which we have described as opening the most turbulent period in history, are now beginning to have an impact on the outlook of the masses. This represents a most important turning point. Human consciousness always tends to lag behind events. Now it is beginning to catch up. The idea is beginning to take hold that these problems are not local difficulties, nor are they temporary, soon to be replaced by a return to the good old days, but instead something is seriously wrong with the world.

That there has been a delay in the movement of the proletariat can be chiefly explained by the bankrupt leaderships of the workers’ organisations. Britain suffers from this delay more than most, for reasons we have explained many times, nevertheless this phenomenon is repeated everywhere. It is no accident that the workers’ leaders, have moved as far to the right as possible just as the movement beneath them will begin to swing sharply to the left.

Here we have all the conditions maturing not only for class struggle in general, but also, at a certain stage in that process, struggles within the mass organisations of the working class, the trade unions and the political parties.

How does Britain fit into this world view, and what impact are all these factors having on British society, politics and economics? What impact are these developments having on the consciousness of all classes in Britain, above all what effect are they having on the outlook of the working class and the youth? Finding the answers to these questions will help to point us in the right direction to be able to build our tendency.

Britain and the war in Iraq

“Britain had been led into a war under false pretences. It was a war that was to unleash untold suffering on the Iraqi people… During the build-up to war and since, most of the electorate of this country have consistently opposed the decision to invade. People have seen their political wishes ignored for reasons now proved false. But there has been no attempt in parliament to call Mr Blair personally to account for what has transpired to be a blunder of enormous strategic significance. It should come as no surprise therefore that so many of this country’s voters have turned their backs on a democratic system they feel has so little credibility and is so unresponsive.”

General Sir Michael Rose, former adjutant general of the British army

and commander of the UN force in Bosnia.

Politics in Britain has been dominated for the last three years by the imperialist invasion of Iraq and its consequences. Just a few weeks ago the 99th and the 100th British soldiers died in Iraq. Walter Douglas from Aberdeen (father of the 99th British fatality) told the Daily Mirror, “He was against the war he couldn’t see the point of it. The lives of 99 young men have now been lost – and all for nothing.” To those 100 and the 2000 US dead we must add, of course, the countless tens of thousands of Iraqis killed in the interests of US imperialism.

Mr Douglas’ comments provide us with further evidence of the declining morale, and the growing anger in the ranks of the armed forces and their families. This was already demonstrated by the formation of ‘Military Families Against the War’, and in the general election by relatives standing as candidates to express their anger and to protest at the loss of their loved ones.

The decline of the Territorial Army, which is now being integrated into the regular army provides yet more evidence. The TA is supposed to be 42000 strong but 500 are leaving every month. There are now only 35000 of these ‘part-time’ soldiers, the lowest figure since the Territorials were formed in 1907. The morale of the troops is further drained by excessively long tours of duty, as Britain’s armed forces are overstretched by their role in Iraq and Afghanistan. Almost one in twelve of Britain’s frontline soldiers are currently tied down on ceremonial duties, rehearsals for state occasions and guarding royal palaces. Meanwhile those on the front line have to remain there longer than ever.

In the House of Commons, Blair, Cameron et al express their condolences, and shed their crocodile tears at the news of the latest deaths. Yet the parliamentary cant for which British politics has long been famous was exposed when only 20 or so MPs bothered to turn up to listen to the Defence Secretary commit an additional 3300 more young British soldiers to fight in Afghanistan.

With each passing day new slaughter and new atrocities fill our TV screens. Still more photographs from the appalling scenes of torture at Abu Ghraib have been released at the same time as footage of British soldiers beating unarmed young Iraqis, leaving their bodies in pools of blood, have been broadcast worldwide. According to Blair, Bush and co, their troops will only leave when asked to do so by the Iraqi (puppet) administration. In reality they will be increasingly keen to get out of the unholy mess they have concocted for themselves leaving behind a hellhole.

Even the local administration in Basra has announced that they will now refuse to cooperate with British troops. So much for the more civilised, understanding approach of the British army compared to the Americans. We have pointed out previously what inane nonsense this was. The American command shows absolutely no sensitivity at all towards the people of Iraq, and in so doing they are following in the infamous traditions of their British imperialist forebears.

The Iraqi people are faced with one provocation after another. The occupation of their country has brought with it the following fruits of ‘democracy’ courtesy of US and British imperialism: the destruction of the country’s infrastructure; shortages of energy and water; mass unemployment; torture, abuse and death; and now a descent into sectarian conflict and civil war. A price worth paying, according to Blair and Bush, for being able to put a cross on a ballot paper to elect a puppet government.

The war in Iraq was a central question in the general election of 2005. It was also at the heart of the other major event of the year, the terrorist attack on London’s public transport. Both have been analysed in great detail elsewhere so it is not necessary to repeat what has already been written. Instead we must draw out the lessons from these events, their causes and consequences, in order to see where they lead.

In brief, the election saw Blair’s majority reduced significantly in parliament. This is the consequence of the government faithfully doing the bidding of the banks and monopolies at home, and slavishly following the diktats of US imperialism abroad.

Meanwhile the terrorist attacks resulting from this policy are used to introduce further new legislation with little impact on the ability of anyone to bomb, but massive repercussions for our civil liberties and democratic rights. We have devoted considerable attention to this question in the recent past, and for good reason. This is not a secondary question. It represents the preparations being made by the ruling class for the period ahead. Attacks on democracy must be seen as the other side of the coin of attacks on our living and working conditions. It is not just the social and economic reforms won by the struggle of the working class in the past that are being overturned, but also the political and democratic freedoms too.

2005 General Election

The 2005 General Election was the least inspiring and most predictable for a century. Labour won an unprecedented third successive term in office, yet there were no celebrations. Barely 60 percent of eligible voters turned out on May 5th, 2005 and less than 36 percent of them voted Labour. Put another way, just 22 percent of all potential voters went to the polling stations to keep Labour in office. As a result the government’s majority was slashed by 94. ‘At least we kept the Tories out’ was the view held by most people the day after Labour won a third consecutive election for the first time in its history. The reaction of Glenda Jackson, Labour MP for Hampstead & Highgate and former transport minister, was highly indicative: “The prime minister has spent his premiership distancing himself from his party. Now the time has come for him to leave it for good.”

The combination of widespread opposition to the war in Iraq, distrust of Blair, and disillusionment with the failures of the last two terms of Labour government means that Labour won the election with the lowest share of the vote, just 35.3 percent, of any victorious party in history.

As we explained at the time: “Labour’s majority in the House of Commons has been reduced to 67. This may seem a solid enough foundation for Blair to implement his programme, but remember with a majority of 161 Blair only squeezed through foundation hospitals (a form of backdoor privatisation) by fourteen votes, and student tuition fees by only five in the first vote… With this reduced majority, in the absence of those Blairite MPs defeated on May 5th, these policies would never have been passed. Therefore it would seem likely that this smaller majority will prepare new parliamentary rebellions over any further attempts to privatise health and education, or to introduce identity cards, particularly on the basis of pressure from below, of developing events in society, and, above all, in the trade unions. Under pressure from the movement of the working class outside parliament, backbench Labour MPs will be able to defeat Blair, who will have to look to the Tories and Liberals to vote for his anti-working class measures. Labour has a majority of 67, Blair does not.”

For all the Blairites’ talk of ‘a mandate to continue with a reform of public services’, the reality is that, despite winning the election, Blairism is already dead, ‘New’ Labour is done for, and Blair himself cannot be far behind. Blair should go, but merely to replace him with Brown, the ‘anointed heir’ according to the media, would be no more than a cosmetic change. Yet the desire for a change of policy inside Labour is precisely what is reflected in the desire for a change at the top of the party, even in the shape of swapping Blair for his next door neighbour.

The real meaning of the 2005 election result is clear. Huge numbers are disillusioned with Blair and co; are opposed to the war, to the foreign policy and the home policy being pursued by the Blairites; but the alternative, a Tory government, would have been even worse.

With turnout refusing to budge much above 60 percent, despite the highly controversial ‘liberalising’ of postal voting, Blair won the support of little more than one in five of those eligible to vote. Never has an elected British government’s mandate been so thin. Not only was Labour’s share of the vote, scraping just over 35 percent, the lowest of any winning party, but the Tories 32.4 percent marked the third consecutive election at which they have plumbed depths not seen since the 1850s. They scraped a narrow majority of the popular vote in England – 35.7 percent to Labour’s 35.4 percent - but remain a distant second in Wales and fourth behind both the Liberals and the Scottish Nationalists north of the border.

The Tory vote actually fell in the north of England compared with the 2001 election, and they now hold just 19 of the 162 seats in the north-east, north-west, Yorkshire and Humber regions. In reality they remain a rump in the south-east of England.

The Liberals improved their vote securing more MPs than at any time since Lloyd George was their leader. However their share of the vote actually declined in seats where they were trying to challenge the Tories, illustrating their classic problem of being trapped between the two main parties, moving to the left to win Labour votes loses them Tory votes, while swinging back to the right to win those Tory votes will lose them Labour votes. This is their ultimately insoluble dilemma.

The swing from Labour to Liberal in those 50 seats with the biggest Muslim populations was 8.5 percent. The increase in their vote as a protest over the war is obvious, and is reflected too in the seven percent plus swing in those seats with the highest numbers of students. Election statistics like these are an important indicator of political trends, like a snapshot they give an indication at least of the most general picture, but they must be seen in context.

The turnout figures tell us almost as much as the result itself. Halfway up Mount Snowdon, on the Watkin path, there is a plaque that marks the spot where in 1892 William Gladstone addressed a crowd of 2,000 people on the issues of the day. “How politics has changed” complained Labour’s General Secretary Matt Carter, following the election. “In May, when we were out canvassing, it was often more than we could manage to get voters off their sofas to answer the doorbell, let alone climb a mountain to hear a speech.” Who can blame them?

Politicians, pundits and the bourgeois press like to talk about ‘disengagement, declining turnouts, and disappearing party members’. The reality is that they do not understand the basis of what is an international phenomenon.

Point to any trend in modern British political life and you can find a host of other countries with similar experiences. This is not an accident. Labour Party membership has fallen in Britain, from the recent high point of 400,000 in 1997 to under 200,000 today. Membership of political parties is falling in almost every European country, both as a percentage of the electorate and in absolute numbers.

Turnout in elections has dropped significantly in Britain, falling from 77.8 percent in 1992 to a low of 59.4 percent in 2001, rising only slightly to 61 percent last year. But global turnout has also decreased by almost 10 percent in the past decade, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

Growing ‘disengagement’ is not restricted to these shores either. The British Election Survey shows the number of people who say they have no party attachment has risen from one in 20 voters in 1964 to almost one in six in 2001. Recent studies in Sweden, Canada and the US have revealed a similar trend.

A combination of factors including the Iraq war, and the failure of governments to address the problems of working people, explain the parallel process on the continent. The same trends that helped to aid some of the smaller parties in the UK were also evident in the rise of Haider's Freedom party in Austria, the resurgence of Le Penn in France or even the emergence of the Left party in the German elections. This represents a growing polarisation in society, which we have described previously.

The idea that low turnouts represent contentment or apathy, and that this explains the disinterest in politics is fallacious. According to Mori, people are not switched off from politics. In 1973, 14 percent of the public said they were very interested in politics, with another 46 percent fairly interested. At the end of 2004, the figures were 13 percent and 40 percent respectively. This is the result when people are asked about their interest in ‘politics’. If they were asked their opinion on the environment, the war in Iraq, or the attacks on pensions being repeated everywhere – in other words real politics – the figure would be much higher. It is not politics, but bourgeois politicians and capitalist political institutions which hold little interest for the majority of people.

Blair is Finished

Labour has won an historic third term in office, but Blair knows that he is mortally wounded. Blairism is finished. Blair has announced that he intends to organise an ‘orderly transition’ (not an election one notes) before the next election. By that he evidently means just before the next election, after having served another four years.

Blair’s aim has been to beat Thatcher’s record (in modern terms) of eleven years as prime minister. That means staying on until May 2008. That is highly unlikely. Growing rebellions in parliament, even in advance of movements outside, mean he will be lucky to survive another twelve months. Despite his well documented tendency to be a control freak, and this rather pathetic personal ambition, ultimately the decision will not be in his hands but will be determined by events. As we explained following the election, “the more he tries to implement his programme, the greater the pressure will grow for him to go. If he backs down on that programme he can last longer, but only as a lame duck.” In other words, either he waters down his ‘reforms’ to prevent backbench revolts defeating him, or he relies on Tory votes to get his ‘reforms’ past. On some legislation the Tories may choose to back him, as Cameron tries to position himself as Blair’s real heir, on others they may prefer to see Labour lose. In either scenario pressure will mount on Blair to leave.

In trying to mimic his idol Thatcher (in longevity as well as in policy) he may well end up like her, despised and forced out. Exactly when he will go is not yet clear, but go he will. As Oscar Wilde put it “some spread happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.”

How is it to be explained that having won a third successive term in office for the first time in Labour’s history, with a majority of 67 in parliament, we declared Blair and Blairism to be finished?

There is a widely believed myth that Blair was the reason Labour won its landslide victory in 1997, that Blair made Labour ‘electable’ again. In reality the European Exchange Rate Mechanism disaster which pushed interest rates up to 15 percent, combined with the pit closure programme, following the Tories re-election in 1992 saw Labour’s lead rise to over 30 percent in the polls before the death of then leader John Smith. From the time Blair took over the leadership until the 1997 election that lead fell, and it has continued to fall, more or less, ever since. Labour won a landslide in 1997 regardless of Blair and co.

Four years later, in 2001, Labour secured a second term with the lowest turnout on record, in spite of Blair and the experience of four years of New Labour rule. Some refused to vote in protest at Blair and co’s failures, but some wanted to give them another chance. Labour needed longer than four years to roll back 18 years of Tory rule, we were told.

In 2005 nine and a half million people voted Labour, many holding their noses, to make sure that the Tories did not win. That is two million less than voted Labour when Kinnock was leader in 1992, and the Tories won. Labour has shed 4 million votes since 1997. In other words, one in three voters who put Labour in office in 1997 did not turn out to support them in May 2005. The number of voters who chose Labour last year was fewer than in any of the elections fought by Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan or Neil Kinnock.

It was not just the voters who did not turn up. After being trodden on and ignored time and again the party membership all over the country refused to campaign, at least in anything like the numbers that would have been seen in the past. Streets that once would have been thick with Labour activists were instead thick with the chickens of Iraq, foundation hospitals and tuition fees coming home to roost. Meanwhile Labour posters in gardens and front room windows were about as rare as hen’s teeth.

The Parliamentary Labour Party, Blair’s Programme and Brown’s Inheritance

With the election out of the way, returning to their usual arrogance, the Blairites claimed that their programme of privatisation and attacks on civil liberties was in the manifesto and therefore is what people voted for. "Our job is to implement the manifesto but it's only going to be carried through if we are united as a political party… Our fourth victory will be under different leadership but we have to remain united until then," Blair announced at the first post-election PLP meeting, holding out the carrot of his departure to lure the backbenches to vote for his policies.

Of course, we should note in passing that Brown has gone along with all of this, just as he has supported PFI, student fees and the war in Iraq. In reality Brown would represent no real change. However, the reality and the perception are two different things. The left has no intention of standing against him. Lacking the perspective of Marxism, they have no programme (hence the twists and turns of their voting record) and as a result they have no confidence. Nevertheless the desire for change inside the party and the wider movement is reflected in a distorted way even in the support for Brown. Of course, we can give no support to Brown whatsoever. The choice between Tweedle-Glum and Tweedle-Glee is no choice at all. Not that there will be any choice if Blair and Brown get their way. The intention is a seamless transition from Blair to the heir apparent.

Brown spelled out his Blairite credentials at Labour’s last annual conference. The Party conference voted by 60-40 to legalise secondary action following the experience of Gate Gourmet, but Brown made it quite clear that he will ignore that and any other conference decisions not designed to impress the City. The Brownites no less than the Blairites represent a capitalist trend in the Labour Party.

Those on the fringes of the movement busily building their new mass parties of two and three will see this as a confirmation of their empirical analysis that Labour is now just another bourgeois party. They confuse the leadership with the rank and file and the trade union links. Labour remains the mass party of the British working class for all its current bourgeois leadership and capitalist policy.

Blair has his millionaires’ row mansion ready and waiting for him, and Brown has booked the removal van for his short trip next door. They want Brown to be anointed with no discussion, and no opposition, certainly no election. The trade union leaders, and almost the entire opposition to Blair – except the Marxists – have rushed to endorse Brown. They have been willing to delude themselves that he is ‘better’ than Blair simply because he is not Blair. He has now made it quite clear that he wants to be Blair the second. Brown’s succession is the most likely outcome when Blair finally goes, but it will not be as smooth and simple as either imagine.

Brown will want to simply continue where his predecessor leaves off. However, Brown will not get the honeymoon period enjoyed by Blair after 1997. Whether Brown likes it or not New Labour is dead, it cannot be renewed. The condition of the economy, the situation in the trade unions, in the Parliamentary Labour Party, and in society is very different now.

Had Blair been elected with a majority of 67 against a background of social peace and a booming economy, with rising living standards and without a disastrous war in Iraq, he would now be under less pressure, and there would be little prospect of successful backbench rebellions. Similarly if Brown were to inherit such conditions, his life would be a lot easier. That, however, is not the case. Revolts in parliament are only one element in a complicated equation of social, political, industrial and economic unrest which confronts a third Labour term and will ensure that it is fundamentally different to its two predecessors.

During the last parliament, between 2001 and 2005, Labour backbench MPs rebelled in 21 percent of divisions, a higher figure than in any other parliament since 1945. The rebellions in 2003 over the introduction of foundation hospitals broke the record for the largest health-policy rebellion ever by Labour MPs against their own government. The 72 Labour MPs who voted against the second reading of the top-up fees bill in 2004 were precisely double the number that had until 2001 made up the largest education rebellion ever by Labour MPs. And the rebellions over Iraq were the largest by MPs of any governing party, Labour, Conservative or Liberal, for more than 150 years. To find a larger backbench revolt than Iraq, you have to go back to the Corn Laws in 1846, when the franchise was enjoyed by just 5% of the population. Since the beginning of modern British politics, in other words, there has been nothing to match the Iraq revolts.

For the Blairites the arithmetic is simple and depressing. The government's effective majority is 71. To defeat the government it takes only 36 Labour MPs to vote with the opposition. That has already happened and will happen again. It is never possible to judge how sincere the opposition of each of the ‘rebellious’ backbench MPs is, or how principled their voting will be. As Lenin once explained there is no such thing as a sincerometer. What really matters is the pressure put on them from outside parliament by the labour movement. For example, if the TUC were to call a national demonstration against the proposed attack on public sector pensions (and it is yet another demonstration of the depths to which they have sunk that they do not manage this bare minimum of opposition), this would provide the rebellion of the backbenches with a solid backbone.

When Labour backbenchers do vote against the government, the Tories can, on some questions, vote with the Labour leaders. These calculations will be keeping Brown awake at night too. At present he is odds on not only to take over from Blair but also to win a fourth term for Labour in 2009. However, that can change very quickly. An ICM poll in December put the Tories four points ahead of Labour for the first time since 1992. Current polls indicate that Brown would defeat Cameron by 43 percent to 37 percent, but that is if an election were to take place tomorrow.

Everything depends on events. Changes in the economy, political or international developments can transform the situation overnight. If a week is a long time in politics, then in the space of four years anything can happen. A crash in house prices, events in the Middle East, trade union struggles, parliamentary revolts and any manner of unforeseen shocks can disturb the situation in Britain suddenly and sharply.

Just such a shock took place two months after the election when London was shaken by its first experience of suicide bombers on public transport. On this occasion there were fewer casualties than in the earlier attack on Madrid. There the combination of widespread opposition to the war and Spain’s part in it, and the Aznar government’s bungling of the situation resulted in a mass movement which effectively overthrew the government and led to the PSOE administration of Zapatero coming into office.

Here the response was different. The bombs caused a wave of shock, and the opposition to the war is no less in Britain than in Spain. However, what was the alternative here? The Tories who supported the war? No, instead the attacks created a mood of fear amplified by the media and the government to provide the background to a further assault on civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism.

Even before the rush to write new legislation we experienced the further shock of the police being given the right to shoot to kill ‘terrorist suspects’. The brutal execution of Jean Charles de Menezes has been dealt with in detail elsewhere, it is not necessary to repeat that analysis here. On the one hand this operation demonstrated a degree of bungling incompetence that is fatal when combined with firearms. On the other it provided a graphic illustration of the changes tasking place in the powers of the capitalist state machine.

To be continued...