Britain at the Start of the 21st Century

Over the last decade our city centers have been transformed. There are shiny new shopping malls and fancy shops that used to be found only in London.

Coffee bars and bistros abound. Cinema multiplexes offer all the latest blockbusters five or ten times daily. In the big cities, supermarkets are open 24-hours a day for the consumers’ convenience. In our homes and about our persons many of us possess electronic hardware that we could scarcely have imagined ten or 15 years ago.

But the gleaming towers of commerce and the products that they sell are only one side of the picture. Britain has been transformed in other, more fundamental, ways. Outside the upgraded city centers, in the housing estates and suburbs where people live, conditions have also changed – not for the better but for the worse.

The Victorians used to say that it is not work but worry that kills. The deterioration in the quality of life for millions in Britain can be summed up as an increase in worry – in the stresses and strains of daily life. For those in work, hours have got longer and work has got harder. Secure jobs are increasingly rare.

Millions feel that they are clinging by the fingertips to the cliff face of a ‘civilized’ existence – just one paycheck away from the abyss of grinding poverty. For those out of work, making ends meet is a constant struggle, sometimes in vain. Housing and childcare are horrendously expensive. Transport is expensive and chaotic. The NHS seems to be on the brink of collapse. Violent crime, particularly by and against young people, is on the increase.

The neo-liberal policies (attacks on workers’ rights, working and living conditions, the privatization of industry and social services, etc) most associated with this increase in poverty and misery were known as Thatcherism. Margaret Thatcher became Tory prime minister in 1979. Ironically, the previous Labour government had started implementing the neo-liberal policies which she then carried out on a grand scale.

By 1987 Thatcher had cut £12 billion from the welfare state. As a result, basic state benefits for the unemployed covered only 55% of the basic necessities of life. The number of working poor had increased by 300%. By the time she was forced out of power, her ‘home-owning democracy’ had led to a 300% increase in private-sector rents and a 100% increase in the rents of the dwindling number of council houses.

The money that Thatcher saved was poured into the pockets of the very rich. One tax cut alone gave the richest 550,000 people an extra £33,000 a year each. Altogether, billions were transferred from the pockets of the majority into the moneybags of the very rich.

Thatcher famously said that there is ‘no such thing as society’, only individuals and families. It wasn’t and isn’t true. But her government’s policies ripped huge chunks out of the basic support system that the welfare state provided for working-class people and in doing so undermined the fabric of society.

A state pension which provided the bare minimums of life in old age, council housing for those who could not afford (or did not want) to buy, and the right of 16- and 17-year-olds to claim benefits, all this and more was taken away. Millions have been left with only the flimsiest of safety nets. The inevitable result is a huge increase in poverty and all that brings with it.

The results for the poorest are graphic and brutal. The death rate among those below the poverty line is four times that of the most affluent. For homeless people living on the street the average life expectancy is 47 years – as low as the very poorest countries on the planet. Over the last 20 years the suicide rate for young men has increased by 45%.

Nor were Thatcher’s policies limited to trying to remove the safety net. The Tories also destroyed whole sections of heavy industry that had provided relatively well-paid jobs. When Thatcher became prime minister, Britain – the first major capitalist power on the planet – had been in inglorious decline for a century and the process was accelerating.

Thatcher and her cronies decided to try and resuscitate British capitalism by turning away from manufacturing and towards the service sector. In doing so she also wanted to try and break the power of the trade unions. Twenty years on and manufacturing industry has been devastated. Manufacturing jobs have been replaced by ‘McJobs’. Call centers have replaced factories. Low-paid, insecure work has become the norm.

Thatcherism Continued…

Thatcher was no aberration. The neo-liberal policies that she pioneered stemmed from capitalism’s economic crisis and were adopted worldwide. Thatcher herself met her comeuppance in 1991. A mass movement against the poll tax, 18 million strong, led to the overthrow of the ‘Iron Lady’. But while Thatcher and her hated tax have gone, her policies continue unabated.

The election of New Labour in 1997 represented an overwhelming and ferocious desire of the majority of the people for change. At the same time, the low turnout reflected a justified feeling from many that New Labour would not deliver such change.

New Labour has pursued a continuation of Tory policies. Blairism is, in essence, Thatcherism delivered with added smarm. As a result, an extra 400,000 pensioners are living in poverty since 1997. In Labour’s first two years in office a further 100,000 children fell below the poverty line.

Just like the Tories, New Labour sees the untrammeled market economy (that is, capitalism at its most naked) as the only way of running Britain. The twice-disgraced ex-minister and architect of Blairism, Peter Mandelson, summed up the approach in typically brazen fashion when he declared that New Labour aims to establish “the most business friendly environment in the world”.

After 18 years of Tory rule it seemed that there were no public services left to privatize. But New Labour wants to privatize anything that remains, including the maintenance of nuclear weapons and London Underground, which even most of big business is opposed to privatizing.

The government is selling off ever more public housing, resulting in huge rent rises. In 1999, 71,265 people were evicted through the courts from rented accommodation. This is the highest rate for over 20 years. Any remaining social housing is being brought ‘in line’ with market rents. There has been a staggering 365% increase in evictions from social housing since New Labour came to power!

In the health service more and more services are being handed over to private contractors. The same is true in education and local government. Without exception this means worse wages and conditions for the staff and worse services for the public. Despite New Labour’s determination to ignore the facts, it is blindingly obvious that private companies only run public services for one reason: to make profits.

In the first six months of 2000 the pre-tax profits of Laing, the building firm, rose by 70%. The increase was largely due to its involvement in Private Finance Initiatives (PFI – the government’s favorite privatization scheme). Serco, the facilities and contracting managing group, saw a 13% rise in its profits in the first six months of 2000. It openly explains that this is due to “the increasing shift by government to use private funding for public infrastructure”. What this means is that ever-increasing amounts of taxpayers’ money are going into the bank accounts of private companies instead of into public services.

The resulting services are generally expensive and substandard. The first NHS hospital to be built under PFI opened in Carlisle in June 2000. In the first three months, shoddy, cheapskate building led to a series of disasters. These included two ceilings collapsing because of cheap, plastic piping joints, an inadequate sewerage system leading to filth flooding the operating theatre, and expensive trolleys having to be made specially because the standard ones did not fit. The transparent roof results in temperatures in excess of 33C on sunny days as there is no air-conditioning.

And as the stock markets tumble and the British economy slides into recession many of the companies involved in PFI will find their profits under threat. Unless it is prepared to bring privatized services back into public ownership, New Labour will end up pouring public funds into subsidizing big-business efforts to leech the public sector dry. This is what happened with Railtrack before New Labour was eventually and reluctantly forced to partially renationalize it.

It is true that in his last spending review, finance minister Gordon Brown promised increased funding for education and health, although the figures do not compensate for the previous five years of continual under-investment. Even if all the money is forthcoming, however, public spending will still be lower than it was in 14 of the 18 years of Tory government. And Brown’s funding pledge is combined with a further onslaught on the rights and conditions of public-sector workers and even more privatization. Once again, a large percentage of the money will end up in the pockets of major company executives.

Big-Business Britain

Journalist and environmental campaigner, George Monbiot, described how New Labour’s pet project, the Dome, encapsulated its attitude to the big companies:

“The Millennium Dome exhibits the work of some of our most cherished national institutions: the American companies Manpower, Ford and McDonald’s. Its Body Zone was sponsored by the chemist chain Boots, its Mind Zone by the weapons manufacturer British Aerospace and the Learning Zone by the supermarket Tesco. The ‘Our Town’ stage, where ‘the diversity of local culture is celebrated’ was financed by that guardian of cultural diversity, McDonald’s.”

What was true of the Dome is also true, on a far grander scale, for the whole of British society. For example, it has always been the case that capitalism means there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. Since New Labour came to power, however, the police have more reason than ever to go easy on big-business crime:

“The saddles used by the City of London’s mounted police now bear the logo of HSBC, after the bank helped to save the division from closure by meeting some of its costs. Crime prevention in Cleveland is sponsored by General Accident Insurance and a company called Modern Security. In Avon and Somerset law and order was, until recently, underwritten by the drinks chain Threshers!”

Drowning in Riches

For those at the very top of society New Labour has certainly delivered. After 18 years of the Tories giving money to the rich, one of the first acts of the current government was to cut corporation tax again. In 2000 the highest paid directors of the FTSE-100 companies (the top 100 on the stock exchange) earned 48 times the pay of the average employee. At the end of 2001, four directors received bonuses worth a total of £43 million.

The argument of the market is that good bosses are worth what they receive. Why an ‘efficient’ business person is worth so much more than a doctor, nurse or firefighter is never explained. In any case, in Britain today every kind of boss gets showered in riches. In fact, there is now a kind of bonus for incompetent bosses, a ‘golden parachute’, where a huge bonus is paid for those incapable of doing their jobs.

Recently, the top man at NatWest was given £3 million to sweeten his sacking while the chief executive of Sainsbury’s received £1.2 million to clear his desk sharpish. Compare this to what happens to the rest of us when we lose our jobs. Take the example of WorldCom. The former boss of WorldCom, the company responsible for the biggest corporate fraud in history, is getting a pension pay-off of $1.5 million a year (£1m). Meanwhile, 20% of the 17,000 WorldCom workers who have lost their jobs as a result of the fraud have not received a cent.

No Party for the Working Class

New Labour has gone over to support for the free market, lock, stock and barrel. It is, in that sense, no different to the other major parties. Prime minister Tony Blair tells us that he is proud to receive big-business donations even though – from Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One racing millionaire onwards – working people are disgusted by sleazy big-business influence over New Labour.

One-third of Labour Party funds now comes from corporate donors. For the first time ever this is more than the income from trade unions. At New Labour’s 2000 conference fewer than 2,000 of the 20,000 who attended were party delegates. The rest were corporate sponsors, lobbyists and journalists. There were a record 188 corporate exhibitors who paid about £900,000 for the privilege of displaying their wares.

The concept behind the foundation of the Labour Party – that working people should have independent political representation – has been utterly jettisoned by New Labour. Instead, Blair promotes a class ‘partnership’ where we all work together for the ‘common good’. But what is the common good? The interests of working-class and middle-class people, and the interests of the owners of the big corporations are poles apart. To combine them is like trying to mix oil and water.

When the government introduces private finance into a hospital no amount of spin will make the interests of the hospital workers, patients and the local community the same as the interests of the private company taking the contract. The former are interested primarily in running an effective hospital that looks after people and saves lives; the latter is interested in making a profit!

These two interests are not complimentary, they are diametrically opposed. The reality of Blair & Co’s policies – graphically proven by 18 long, hard years under the Tories – is that the majority of the population is losing out to the big businessmen and women.

Blair has openly admitted that he sees New Labour as a version of the US Democrats – that is, as a party of big business. In the US magazine, Talk, he stated:

“It has been taboo in the Labour Party even to talk about the American Democrats. You could talk about the Swedish social democrats or the French socialists, but this was taboo. It struck me when I was reading the speeches of people like Bill Clinton that what they were saying was precisely what I felt the Labour Party should be about.”

In the same article Blair even regrets that workers ever formed their own independent party by splitting from the Liberals and founding the Labour Party a century ago:

“When it was formed, out of its dissent from the Liberal Party… the Labour Party suffered as a result. It was more narrow in its base, it was more doctrinaire in its views, and it lost an essential Liberal strand of radical thought. And the truth of the matter is that people like myself in the Labour Party today and people like Charles Kennedy and the Liberal Democrats, we basically are driven by the same value systems.”

Blair has succeeded in his mission: he has deprived the working people in Britain of any kind of political representation. Instead, we have New Labour, a party that claims the impossible: that it represents the billionaires and the working people at the same time. The result is a party that, on every occasion without exception, backs the millionaires against the millions of working-class people who voted it into power.