1990s >> 1997 >> no-1113-may-1997

The Greasy Pole: So that’s it then

After the long campaign, the speeches, the manifestos and the voting we are under a new government. All over the country millions of people emerged from the polling stations on 1 May convinced that they had done something significant-like exercising their democratic rights, like deciding on how Britain will be run for the next few years, like choosing between two different policies about the best way of making us happier, freer, more prosperous . . .

Then it was back to business—business as usual, which was not surprising because all those eager, self-satisfied voters were actually taking part in a political charade, contributing to their own repression and exploitation. After the election nothing, except in the most trivial and insignificant way. will change. The problems which the big parties claimed to have solutions for, set out in their election programmes, will go on and on. If they are pressed, the politicians will explain their failure to keep their promises by reference to events outside their control—the perfidy of foreign governments, the obstinate greed of British workers, even perhaps some natural disaster.

Consider, for example, John Major’s startling discovery that there are people in Britain who are underprivileged and who don’t seem to be getting their share of all that wonderful prosperity which the Tory government swamped us in. This was a rerun of his “Brixton boy” theme—the honest lad from a simple background who understands, and agonises over, the plight of the more impoverished in society. It was all very well Major showing his sympathy in this way but this does not answer the point about what the Conservative Party has been doing since they came in in 1979, on the assurance that they could pretty well wipe out such problems. It doesn’t tell us anything about what happened to Major’s talk, when he became Prime Minister over six years ago, about managing a kinder society, a country at ease with itself.

Dinosaurs
In 1979 the Tories told us that it only needed a few adjustments to society—like making the unions impotent, like privatising the railways, the mines and the rest, like denying state subsidies to ailing industries—to establish the kind of briskly efficient capitalism which would benefit us all. They had no reservations about this then: why should they have them now? And how much longer should we wait for them to get things right?

These questions can be answered partly by considering how the Labour Party have also made some discoveries. Not so long ago life for a Labour supporter was a lot simpler. On the one hand there was the Tory Party and the damage being done to the working class while they were in power. On the other hand there was the Labour Party; obviously their job was to undo the damage by following policies different from those of the Tories.

It was, as we say, simple except the Labour Party too made some discoveries and foremost among them was that the safest way to bid for power was to become as much like the Conservatives as possible. Of course this might upset a few stubborn dinosaurs in the party but they must either understand the necessity for the discoveries or join some other mob like Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party. If the dinosaurs got too restless and could not be extinguished there was always the option of the party making what is politely called a fudge.

One who once seemed to be a dinosaur is David Blunkett who, in the days when he roamed in Labour’s primeval swamps, became famous as the leader of Sheffield City council who cut the local bus fares. In those days he was a hero of Labour’s left—a man who was staunch in his principles—so there was rejoicing in the City of Steel when he got into parliament and moved steadily upwards through the ranks of shadow ministers.

Declarations
He seemed to be ideally suited, in left-wing Labour terms, for the part of Shadow Education Secretary because he left school without so much as an ‘O’ level and worked as a clerk at the Gas Board until, he took evening and day release classes and then went to university to study politics. So when he declared, to Labour’s 1995 conference, his stolid faith in non-selective schooling he brought the house down:

   “. . .  watch my lips. No selection either by examination or interview under a Labour government.”

But alas poor Blunkett, who had to discover that such dramatic declarations might not go down so well with voters in some key constituencies as with a bunch of disconnected Labour activists. Labour’s manifesto put a different, more seductive line, saying they “ . . . will never force the abolition of good schools” (even if “good” means selective?) and that any changes in the admission policies of grammar schools (which are selective) will be decided by local parents.

If Labour—and Conservative—activists were embarrassed by this sort of thing how did they survive, with the knowledge that their parties were so close in their policies that at times the wording was almost identical like:

  • We will raise spending on the NHS in real terms every year (Labour).
  • We will, year by year, increase the real resources committed to the NHS (Tory).
  • We must crack down on dishonesty in the benefit system (Labour).
  • We will crack down on benefit cheats (Tory).

Labour suggested “parental responsibility orders” for the parents of young offenders: the Tories promised a “parental control order” to do roughly the same thing. Labour’s “long-term objective” is “high and stable levels of employment”: the Tories’ “priority is to create jobs”. Finally, Labour thinks “the British people are a great people” and the Tories say “Britain is admired the world over”.

Well they would say that wouldn’t they? They are hardly likely to conclude, looking at the sickness, the alienation, the homeless, the crime which characterises capitalism in this country, that the British people are anything but great and universally admired.They wouldn’t say that because they rely on those same people to vote for them, ignoring all the evidence about their impotence covered by their cynical chicanery and ask again and again for the same again.

And that’s what we have got.

Business as usual.