The four-yearly spectacle called the general election is upon us once again and once again, for a short time at least, the working class — the vast majority of the population — is considered to be of some political consequence. As in the past, the politicians are desperate for our votes, but this time with one difference: it is now almost universally accepted that there isn’t the slightest difference between any of them.
Opinion polls are not famous for their accurate forecasts but this one was a bit different. Advertising agency Bates Dorland recently asked a thousand people whether their vote at the coming election would be influenced by the opinion of some celebrity in sport, business or entertainment. And enough of them said yes, they would change sides, to affect the overall result of a general election. Mega-costly footballer Alan Shearer, for example, could allegedly change the vole of about four million people. The Spice Girls, just by saying they would vote Conservative, could bring about a ten percent swing. Richard Branson could influence the way about a third of the electorate vote.
Well anyway that is how the poll (reported in the Sunday Times, 23 February) worked it out. Before we discuss it as a typical example of ad agency buffoonery we should bear two things in mind. The first is that both Labour and Conservative parties regard the matter of celebrity endorsement seriously enough to have units at their headquarters working on it The second is that the poll may have turned out as it did because of a growing recognition that there is really nothing to choose between the two big parties. If their policies are so similar, if Blair, Brown and Straw will behave roughly the same in office as Major, Clarke and Howard there is no point in choosing one or the other party on the basis of micro-differences in their manifestos. Instead of ploughing through their election addresses and TV party political programmes, why not simply vote the same way as your favourite footballer or pop star or tycoon? “When the two parties are so similar,” said Donald Shell, who lectures in politics at Bristol University, “someone like Branson could have a considerable effect.”
This widespread recognition that there is no real difference between the Labour and Tory parties may make this election different; in the past there has been little sympathy for the socialist view, that to choose between those parties was a waste of time. Labour Party members argued with some passion that their policies would bring about important, much needed changes in society. Now that party is consumed with anxiety to reassure the voters that they will change nothing that matters. If that makes them seem just another Tory party—well, the Tories have won an awful lot of elections even if we don’t count the last four and winning elections is what Labour is in business for.
In fact the two parties have always stood for fundamentally the same things — for all that is implied by a social system of class ownership of the means of production and distribution. The differences between them were always superficial, even in those heady days of 1945 when Clem Attlee became prime minister on the basis of the manifesto Let Us Face the Future (even then there were those who asked whether Labour’s willingness to have us face the future was rooted in their reluctance to face their past). Attlee did not use one of those big limousines which are now so essential a part of a minister’s life; he was driven around by his wife in a drab, modest family car and that was the style in which he went to Buckingham Palace to see the King about being prime minister. The King knew what was coming: nationalisation, the National Health Service, Keynesian economics and so on. At the time the Labour Party, celebrating the opportunity to put their ideas into practice, assured us that these measures were needed to build a stable, prosperous and secure life for us. But now most of what they established has been, or is being, dismantled—apparently without any official opposition from the Labour Party.
A prime example of this is the coal industry. One of the proudest achievements, heavy with an enormous emotional investment, of the 1945 Labour government was the nationalisation of the mines. The history of the coal industry — the terrible working conditions, the “accidents” which killed hundreds of miners, the greed and complacency of the private owners—was awful enough to generate a lot of support for the plan to take the industry into state control (after appropriately compensating those greedy owners). Vesting day was celebrated in mining communities all over the country.
Of course years of privatising Conservative government has since changed the situation but for a long time the Labour Party clung to a stated intention to re-nationalise the coal industry. In March 1994 their shadow Energy Secretary, Martin O’Neill, told the Commons, “The Labour Party is not simply opposed to the [Privatisation] Bill. It is committed to the re-introduction of public ownership of the coal industry.” A lot of Labour Party members, not to mention a lot of miners, must have thought that was pretty clear, except that six months later that same Martin O’Neill confided to a gathering of the industry’s executives, “While we envisage a national role for coal in our energy strategy, we do not intend to re-nationalise the industry.” He did not add, “Because we think nationalisation is a vote loser”, but if he had that would have made it clear to everybody.
Losing votes—or winning them—has always been vital to the Labour Party but now it is their obsession, open and unashamed. It was not always so obvious. In the past, before the spin doctors ruled, Labour was capable of producing policies which seemed not only irrelevant to the needs of British capitalism but also inexplicably suicidal. For example in their 1953 statement Challenge to Britain Labour proposed to take the British Sugar Corporation into “full public ownership”. There was a storm of opposition in the industry led by the giant Tate and Lyle. This company was responsible for creating a cartoon character—Mr Cube, a talking sugar lump who appeared on every pack of sugar, going on about labour’s plan to bring down civilised life as we know it, starting with the sugar industry. Labour’s proposal came to nothing and now a state of peace and mutual admiration exists between the Labour Party and the sugar industry. In November 1994, when Tony Blair made one of his many speeches which assure a gathering of high-flying business people that they had nothing to fear from a Labour government, one of his audience enthused:
“. . . an excellent speech, very focused. If there is a Labour government I don’t think anybody is going to be concerned that there’s going to be a great vendetta against business.”
That comment came from Neil Shaw, chairman of Tate and Lyle.
The Labour Party manifesto in the 1987 election had a clear commitment on Child Benefit: “We will increase Child Benefit by £3 a week for all children, raise the allowance for the first child by £7.36 . . . ” In 1992 the figures were different but the promise largely similar: “We will increase Child Benefit to £9.95 a week for all children with the full value going to every family.” This was another of those promises dear to the hearts of Labour supporters but now shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown, has other ideas. He plans to end the payment of Child Benefit to all families, in particular for 16-17-year-olds in full time education. His argument for this, at last year’s Labour conference, was that at present the benefit would be paid for a millionaire’s child but not for an unemployed youngster but he did not say how it helped the out-of-work child to abolish the payment. At present Labour has no plans to keep to its former promise to increase the level of the benefit.
Of course Brown is busily building for himself a reputation as an Iron Chancellor—and this before he has taken hold of so much as one of those red boxes. He is not impressed by Labour supporters’ emotional attachment to schemes for spending out on things like hospitals, schools, houses. Under his unrelenting scrutiny there will, he warns, be only “ . . . costed, hard-headed radical policies . . . No quick fixes. No easy options . . . No wish-list spending solutions . . . “ This sounds just like any Conservative chancellor—in fact a sight more dour than many of them, just as shadow Home Secretary Jack Straw’s promises to be harsher and more demanding than Michael Howard, and shadow Education Secretary David Blunkett more rigid and repressive than Gillian Shephard. And over them all looms Tony Blair, who regularly dispenses the most appalling guff: “. . . Our education system must be guaranteed to serve all our people, not an elite . . . We must ensure that the new technologies, with their almost limitless potential, are harnessed and dispersed among all our people . . . We must create a society based on a notion of mutual rights and responsibilities . . . “
Anyone who has had enough of this kind of empty rhetoric may be asking why. The first thing to say is that there has not been a transformation in the Labour Party. The apparent change is not out of the party’s character, something which can be reversed when the party rediscovers its soul. The Labour Party was formed and developed with the aim of governing British capitalism. That is what they did in those days, the subject now of so much misguided nostalgia, when they nationalised almost everything except the sugar industry, when they set up the National Health Service and what came to be know as the Welfare State. Their record shows that they ran capitalism as it had to be run—as a class society of poverty and riches, of exploitation and conflict. They did not control capitalism, as they had promised, because it is a system out of control. That essential chaos has been the story of every Labour government since 1924.
After nearly 20 years in opposition, the Labour Party has decided that their best hope of winning an election is to make the necessary changes so that they are almost identical to the Conservatives. After all if Tory policies and images have been so successful why not just imitate them? Of course this may upset a few traditional supporters but they can always join Arthur Scargill’s doomed battalion
. But the cynicism may be too obvious; the fact that it is now clearer than ever that the parties are so alike may alert a lot of voters that in this election they don’t have a real choice. Why, it may even occur to the advertising industry.
Which brings us back to that opinion poll, When they told the Spice Girls about it one of them (a Tory voter) was suitably outraged: “What is the state of the government if we can have any influence. I think that’s terrible.” Was this an appeal to the working class to take the election more seriously, to value more highly their political power to change society in a meaningful way? If it really needs a pop star to do this the situation may be even more depressing than we feared. However, we are certainly not mystified by it. Only those who support the market economy can be truly surprised by the weariness and political disillusionment which infects the population at large after decades of posturing and broken promises by the parties of capitalism.