Greasy Pole: Panic Aboard ‘SS New Labour’

A strategically timed withdrawal from government need not ruin a political career

If Tony Blair had been an officer on board the Titanic it is quite likely that, as the liner subsided into the icy sea, he would have occupied himself in re-arranging the seating on the deck. In that way, he might have hoped to convince the richer and more influential passengers that he was taking action to compensate for the design flaws which had made the ship so sinkable. This may even have persuaded the Cunard Steamship Company to overlook the fact that he had failed to notice the iceberg which ripped open the ship’s hull while he was on watch. But that’s quite enough on maritime disasters; what about this latest reshuffle in the government? (Of course “reshuffle” is another felicitous word – using the same dog-eared set of cards with the same paltry values but flicking them out in a different order hoping for a change of luck).

When it comes to political parties like New Labour “luck” means government ministers being able to give the impression that their control over capitalist society is such that that they can neutralise causes of concern like crime, sickness and pollution. If they can parade statistics which support their self assessment of the effect they have, they are rated as a success and can look forward to promotion to other, more important and more attention-attracting, jobs. But if they can’t provide those statistics
they face the sack. And if the government as a whole are in a crisis of inability there is liable to be a tidal wave of sackings, washing away some prominent politicians and encouraging the impression that we are ruled by a fresher, more energetic, government.

This was how it was with Harold Macmillan’s “Night of the Long Knives” in 1962, when the supposedly unflappable Prime Minister was so panicked by some spectacular by-election defeats that he fired,  among others, his Chancellor of the Exchequer and odd-job man Selwyn Lloyd.

There have been similarities between Macmillan’s panic and Tony Blair’s recent blunder into the minefield of political reality in conflict with party imagery. Among the prominent victims of Blair’s reshuffle was Charles Clarke, the third in a succession of Home Secretaries who have all pledged to cure crime with a mixture of symptom repression and social surgery. Before he became Home Secretary Clarke, living down his reputation as a fiery student leftwinger, held a succession of increasingly important posts. He became Education Secretary after Estelle Morris had resigned – or sort of been sacked – because she could not keep up with the job. Clarke, who obviously could do the job, put down his marker as a convert to the opponents of a range of traditional Labour policies when he supported the concept of specialist secondary schools and argued that state funding should not be available for “unproductive” humanitarian research. In case there was any misunderstanding he also said that “Universities exist to enable the British economy and society to deal with the challenges posed by the increasingly rapid process of global change.”

Which at least signalled that he had grasped the proper role of schooling in capitalism’s competitive, commodity-based system without any nonsense about developing individual talents. And to drive the point home he introduced the Bills which established topup university fees – even although his party’s election manifesto had solemnly promised not to do this. Clarke had to be one of the favourites to succeed David Blunkett when the latter finally had to give up being Home Secretary. This must have been very satisfying to the one-time Head Boy of the exclusive Highgate School, afterwards President of the
Students’ Union at Cambridge, which was a kind of apprenticeship for the job of President of the National Union of Students.

As the Home Office is one of the three big government jobs anyone who gets there might assume they will one day make it to Number Ten. Except that the Home Office is known as a graveyard of political ambition, with quite a few career corpses – like Rab Butler, Roy Jenkins and Douglas Hurd. That fact puts Clarke’s sacking – or rather part-sacking, part–resignation – in another perspective. As Anthony Eden, Harold Wilson and Aneurin Bevan learned, a strategically timed withdrawal from government need not ruin a political career. It is no coincidence that soon after Clarke had left the Home Office he was said to have a promise from Gordon Brown of a prominent job in a future Brown government.

As a canny, long term operator Clarke will be aware that he has to keep an eye on a particular rival – John Reid, his successor as Home Secretary. Since he came into the job Reid has devoted himself, while being careful to formally salute Clarke’s industry and skill in the Home Office, to undermining Clarke’s hopes of reviving his career, by publicising higher and higher figures for the foreign nationals who should have been deported after release from prison. He has recently described the situation he inherited at the Home Office as having “…some very serious and systemic underlying problems…” and there is no
secret about who he considers to be the likeliest person to sort them out.

Like Clarke, Reid is a fully paid up member of the Left Wing to Right Wing Tendency. “I used to be a Communist,” he once said; “I used to believe in Santa Claus”. Not that he is averse to a little gift, like in 1993 when, during the Bosnian war, he spent three relaxing days at a luxury hotel beside a lake in Geneva with his friend the indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic. At home he has keenly supported measures calculated to raise the blood pressure of the most placid Old Labour devotee – like compulsory Identity Cards, top-university fees and the Iraq war. Speaking on plans to introduce the American company Kaiser into the Health Service, he sneered at anyone having doubts about this privatising measure with the hint that they suffer from intellectual rigidity: “I believe that a preparedness to learn and improve is a sign of strength, not of weakness”.

The ex-Education overlord Reid is as well known for his robust vocabulary as for preparedness to refashion his principles; told that he had been promoted to secretary of State for Health he responded: “Oh fuck. Not Health”. So far he has been too busy undermining Clarke’s reputation to let on about how he feels at being Home Secretary; no doubt he was mollified by the fact that, as MP Frank Field put it, he would “certainly” be among those to challenge Gordon Brown for the Labour leadership.

Reid’s enemies (and there are plenty of them) in the Labour Party will be hoping that his intention to unravel the chaos at the HomeOffice will come to grief in face of what Clarke called its “seriously dysfunctional” style of operation, once cursed by David Blunkett as “a culture of incompetence and deliberate undermining of official policy”. Others have had much the same opinion about the Foreign Office and perhaps that was why Margaret Beckett was promoted to take over there – the first ever female Foreign Secretary. Beckett is known (or should that be damned?) as “a safe pair of hands”, which means she can be relied on to bat away any inconvenient questions about Labour’s doomed attempts at efficiently managing British capitalism.

She is another reborn left-winger, who once savaged Neil Kinnock for his refusal to back Tony Blair against Denis Healey for the Deputy Party leadership.On another occasion she deeply upset Joan Lestor (herself no stranger to making massive adjustments in her political standpoint) by accepting Callaghan’s offer of the very job in Education that Lestor had resigned over expenditure cuts. Beckett is well known for her unpretentious demeanour, what with her caravan holidays and her readiness to repair her make-up while sitting chatting in the pub.

But nobody should be deceived that she will fail to represent the international interests of British capitalism for if the ups and downs, as well as the moves from left to right and back again, prove anythingit is her steely resolve to do whatever her job demands.

So these are the new seating arrangements on the deck of the crippled ship. The lifeboats are filling up; being privileged and ruthless helps with getting a seat in them. But there is no prospect that anyone can repair that massive gash in the plates below water. Apart from the few socialists, nobody seems able to offer any idea other than waiting to be picked up by another, equally unhopeful, crew .


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