Global issues May 2010 UK


After 13 years in government the British Labour Party has been ousted by British voters. The defeat of Gordon Brown comes 3 years after the resignation of Tony Blair. The defeat ends 16 years of a curious project called New Labour. New Labour was the shape and image of Blair with its structure maintained by Gordon Brown. Its meteoric rise in the 1990s concluded with an equally rapid fall at the end of the 2000s.


Tony Blair was little known outside of the internal Labour Party in 1994. He entered the party during the 1980s under the leadership of Neil Kinnock. Starting in 1983, Kinnock initiated a purge of the party of Marxists and old line Social Democrats in order to defeat the Conservative Party of Margaret Thatcher from the right. Blair was a product of Kinnock’s purge of left wingers within the party. Kinnock’s efforts to defeat Thatcher ended disastrously during the 1980s. Kinnock’s third and final effort proved equally futile in the 1992 general election against Thatcher’s successor John Major.

The Labour Party seemed to wake up to the fact that moving to the right was a key reason for its repeated defeats. The party appointed the Scottish left winger John Smith as its new leader. Smith was the most popular politician within Labour. Moreover, he commanded the love and respect within his native Scotland which despised the Tories. Smith was in the process of remodelling the party by re-orientating along the Social Democratic lines of Clement Atlee. Under Smith, the party wanted to highlight inequality inherent within capitalism. He came up with an agenda not only to defeat Thatcherism but to politically recreate Britain by creating more participatory democracy. Smith was the most popular politician in the UK and polls showed him consistently with a huge lead over John Major. It was a certainty that Smith would become the next Prime Minister.

During the month of May 1994, Smith died suddenly of a heart attack. A shocked nation grieved for him. The grief was most pronounced in Scotland. Many progressives fell into depression as they believed that Smith was the final chance to oust the hated Tories. The Labour Party found itself suddenly in a leadership vacuum. Tony Blair filled it quickly.

The selection of Tony Blair as new leader took both the British and world public by surprise. Unlike Smith who was in his mid 50s, Tony Blair was young at 41 years old. He was obviously brilliant and dynamic. His gift for language was outstanding even for the exceedingly high standards of British parliamentary politics. Never before in British political history had such a young and dynamic leader ever emerged as a contender for high office. He was born after the Second World War making him the first political leader not to remember the war. Born in 1953, he was shaped and influenced by The Beatles and Rolling Stones. He spent his teenage and young adult during the tumultuous years between 1968 and 1974. Not only could he relate with his fellow baby boomers but he could speak the language of the youth. The British youth were a scarred generation. For most of them, their entire living memory was dominated politically by Margaret Thatcher. They despised Thatcher. The youth, particularly in the North of England were especially embittered. They grew up in dire poverty. They saw their fathers, grandfathers and uncles get brutalised by the police during the bitter Miner’s Strike of 1984-85. They saw the pain and humiliation of the fathers as they got sacked by the masses. The youth grew up with few if any prospects for employment. The mine pits where their fathers and grandfathers had worked were shuttered. Once vibrant industrial cities in Yorkshire where work was plentiful and well paying turned into dead end zones of desolation and despair. Everyday thousands of youth took the train south to London in search of jobs and a better life only to find a high cost of living and the few jobs available scarce. For every two thousand Northerners who arrived at Euston and King’s Cross in London daily, there were one thousand who departed on those same trains back to their home towns in the North. Depressing return journeys made all the more bitter by the humiliation of having been unable to “make it” in London.

In Manchester, unemployed youth took their dole money and invested it in sound systems. To alleviate their boredom and rage, they raved. They danced away their misery drowning themselves in generous heaps of LSD and Ecstasy. Hundreds of underground raves took place in old shuttered factories and out in the surrounding moors. They were not, however, to be left in peace by the Tory government. Police raids accompanied by violence ended many happy gatherings. In 1989, the peak year of riots of a decade chock full of riots (not a year passed between 1981 and 1990 without at least one serious outbreak of rioting in England and Wales culminating in the Poll Tax riot which forced Thatcher out of power.) young people of Manchester held a street party protest for the “Right to Rave.” That protest was attacked by the police but the youth fought back. It became known as the Right to Rave Riot. The biggest cultural expression of the “Madchester” rave scene was a psychedelic band by the name of The Stone Roses. By 1990, they were the biggest band in the UK. Their success had carried over to the United States. In summer of 1990, The Stone Roses were the headliners at the largest concert ever held in the UK at Spike Island. It was the largest rave ever held in the UK. The music media competed to outdo each other heaping praise on The Stone Roses. They were “the next Beatles”. They were going to be even bigger than The Beatles. On their self titled album is a short track, “Elizabeth My Dear.” It was a thinly veiled message to Queen Elizabeth II. “My aim is true/My message is clear/It’s curtains for you Elizabeth my dear” As the guitar chords fade out there is the unmistakable sound of a gun with a silencer being fired. The revolutionary and treasonous implication of the song was enough for the police to go after The Stone Roses. On the eve of their American Tour, Manchester Police arrested all the members of the band along with their manager charging them for drug dealing. It was more than that. The police accused the band of providing and selling all the Ecstasy in Greater Manchester. They were charged with organised crime and conspiracy. The charges were ludicrous but the desired effect was produced. The Stones Roses were sidelined. They became quickly forgotten. It took another 4 years before they were to be cleared of all charges and to release a second album but it was too late.

After winning a 4th consecutive mandate in 1992, the Tories under Major were not through humiliating and oppressing the youth. As techno music exploded by 1993 and raves springing up all over the countryside, the government decided to outlaw not only raves and rave culture but to even make techno music itself illegal. The justification had many roots. The first one obviously was drugs. According to the right wing tabloid press, raves were drug culture and all ravers were either drug addicts, drug dealers or both. The second was based on private property. Many owners, who happened to be members of the House of Lords, were angered to find hundreds and thousands of young revellers, oftentimes nude, occupying their land. The Tories are first and foremost the party of moneyed property owners. The third reason for the attack was that many ravers didn’t have a fixed address. Many of them owned and lived in trucks and vans. They travelled from rave to rave often being part of the underground economy. They became known as travellers. When they weren’t attending raves, many of them parked on country land and lived there. The final reason was economic. Raves did not take place in clubs or other entertainment venues. Clubs and music halls had to be licensed. At raves, much alcohol was consumed. Many enterprising young people would go to the supermarket and buy cases of beer and then re-sell them at raves. The government saw that it was missing out on lots of taxes and other revenue. Moreover, the London nightclub owners wanted a piece of the techno action.

The Tories introduced and passed the Criminal Justice Act of 1994 to deal with these issues. Perhaps the most absurd clause ever written into any law in any liberal democracy stated that it was illegal to play “music with successive repetitive beats.” That was an obvious reference to techno music. The Criminal Justice Act of 1994 had provisions that not only ravers and DJs hated. It vastly expanded police powers to stop and search people on reasonable suspicion. It was a return of the hated “Sus Act” of 1976 which had the effect of criminalising all Black youth. Blacks who had been engaged in a long trench war against the police and white racists for nearly 20 years were particularly afraid of the Act. The previous year, 1993, was one of the deadliest years for race relations in the UK. That year alone, more than 15 Blacks were killed by white racists just within London. Moreover, it had long been known within London’s Black community that the police worked with Nazi skinheads and even covered up their racist violence. This fact was among one of the primary causes of the 1981 Brixton Riots. This awareness was painfully reminded in 1993 with the Stephen Lawrence case. Lawrence was a young Black youth who was brutally killed by a group of 5 white racists. The police in the area were on a personal friendly basis with the suspects. Therefore, the Criminal Justice Act of 1994 for Blacks seemed to be racism encoded by law. Moreover, Thatcher and the Tories openly used racism for political gain and succeeded doing so. Incidentally, the Tories were the first party to use racism in modern British history during a 1964 by-election campaign when the Tory candidate unseated his Labour rival in an inner city working class district of London using the campaign slogan: “If you want a nigger for a neighbour vote Labour.” In 1968, Tory MP Enoch Powell made racism politically acceptable during his inflammatory address against Black immigrants warning that unless Black immigration was reduced, a race war would erupt in the UK resulting in “rivers of blood.” There hass also much documentation revealing a secret alliance between Thatcher and the Neo-Nazi National Front during the 1979 and 1983 general elections.

In 1994, there was a large national protest organised against the Act in Hyde Park, London. Several sound systems were set up and the biggest and most famous techno DJs from all around the UK played. At sundown exactly, the police gave notice to leave. When the people refused, the police attacked. They attacked with horses and helicopters. Suddenly, the usual bobby in uniform wielding a truncheon was replaced by Robo-Cops carrying plastic shields with plastic helmets and face visors. The old short truncheons now replaced with American made aluminium batons. The Home Secretary Michael Howard and the Metropolitan police had learnt from the debacle of the Poll Tax Riot 5 years prior. Hyde Park and Oxford Street became a militarised blood bath. By the end of 1994, the Tories were beyond despised. They had lost legitimacy in the eyes of most young Britons.

It was in this environment which Tony Blair emerged. Two early characteristics quickly became evident within Blair. The first was his arrogance. No one could be blind to his enormous ego. In fact, his ego was blinding. This was explained by the media as simply “youthful arrogance” and also by the fact he was clearly intellectually superior to John Major. The second notable characteristic was his penchant for doublespeak. His words were too clever and too smooth. He spoke well but early listeners couldn’t quite discern what Blair was really saying. The words were clear but their meanings elusive. Combined with the quickness of his speech, he was early on dubbed Tony Blur.

It is a factual matter of history that Blair changed the nature of British politics for generations to come if not longer. Before Blair, candidates for Prime Minister were earnest and sober believing that dignity was an image necessary for high office. Blair was brash and bold. He dressed to kill but with fashion. His personality dominated and truthfully concealed his politics. He was both photogenic and telegenic. He became the first opposition leader to make headlines and the editorial pages of the foreign media. A New York Times lead editorial in 1994 swooned as it gushed with praise for him. Blair was the first British politician to hire a full time public relations company. He was not the contemplative politician who attempted to woo voters with policy matters. No, Blair was all about image and PR.

Blair was Britain’s first American politician. In fact, the use of public relations he borrowed from George HW Bush. Blair even hired a Madison Avenue advertising agency to see himself and the party. Moreover, he was the first British politician to bring in foreign politicians and advisors, American politicians and advisors, to organise his political campaign. Blair received generous assistance from the Bill Clinton White House. Clinton’s entire campaign staff from his 1992 election against George HW Bush was sent to London to advise Blair. Indeed, Blair’s 1997 election campaign was copied and pasted from Bill Clinton’s.

It’s impossible to speak of New Labour without mentioning Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Tony Blair was their star pupil. Clinton and Gore were the founders of the Democratic Leadership Council. The DLC was formed in the mid 1980s to move the Democratic Party to the right politically. Ronald Reagan was elected one year after Thatcher and they were politically ideological twins. Clinton and Gore convinced the Democrats to abandon their social liberalism of social welfare, social justice and social equality in favour of more neo-liberal and right wing politics. Clinton and Gore were convinced that Reagan’s and Bush’s political success was the abandonment of New Deal and Great Society policies of the past by the electorate. To win the White House, the DLC argued, the Democrats must outflank the Republicans on the right. Clinton and Gore called themselves New Democrats.

Blair followed lockstep behind them. While Kinnock had managed to purge the Labour party of Marxists and left wingers, the party still positioned itself to the Left of the Tories. Blair announced that he was New Labour. He whipped enough members of the party to transform it into New Labour. However, that was not enough. The biggest obstacle of transforming “Old” Labour from a Social Democratic party to a capitalist Neo-liberal New Labour was the party constitution. Most of the constitution was drawn up at the conclusion of the First World War with new amendments added immediately during the post-war years. The Labour party was still formerly Marxist as it had references to the political ideas of Marx though in practice it had long abandoned Marxism by the 1920s under the first Labour government of Ramsey MacDonald. The main problem for Blair was Clause 4 of the Labour Party constitution. Clause 4 committed the Labour Party to the nationalisation of industry. As a neo-liberal party, New Labour had to remove that clause. That move revealed that Blair was not simply adapting the party to the current political realities for the short term. Rather, it was a move to permanently remove Nationalisation and Social Democracy as the political policy and ideology of the party. New Labour was forever to be the party of neo-liberalism and multi-national corporations. In other words, New Labour was not to be the party of the working class but the party of the capitalist class.

By 1996, a year before the next scheduled general election, Blair constantly reminded his party and the media that New Labour wasn’t quite ready to take power yet. Though Blair had managed to remove Clause 4 from the party constitution and to approve a policy manifesto, he had to convince Rupert Murdoch, the Confederation of British Industry and the City of London that he was going to be their servant. It’s important to reiterate that Blair had no reason to do so as a matter of political expediency. By 1996, the Conservative Party was imploding. The party was suffering from a debilitating and embarrassing internal war. The government benches in the House of Commons had been transformed into war trenches. The front lines of the trench war had extended outside Parliament to Downing Street and Whitehall. Conservative MPs were resigning by the dozens. Each by-election to fill rapidly empty seats produced a Labour MP. The most die hard Conservative consistencies were falling to Labour. By mid 1996, John Major lost his majority in the House of Commons and was forced to rule by government decree. Blair was all but assured of victory in the next general election. In fact, he wouldn’t have had to campaign at all. He was going to receive a crushing majority.

No, Blair wanted to make sure that he had the support of every right wing, reactionary and neo-liberal institution in the UK. Blair robbed the Conservatives of their historical pillars of support. New Labour was to be the New Conservative party. Those whose support he had sought gladly gave it to him. The deal was cinched after a meeting with Rupert Murdoch, the media emperor. All of his papers, including the tabloid Sun combined had an absolute majority share of newspaper readers in the UK, supported New Labour. Only The Spectator, the Tories house newspaper remained loyal to the party.

With the support of the British elites in pocket, Blair went to Washington to meet Bill Clinton at the White House for a meeting. It was the first time that any British Opposition leader was invited to the White House to meet the President. More than the support of Murdoch, the CBI and the City of London, Blair wanted the support of the Empire and he got it. After the White House, Blair returned to London and announced that, at last, New Labour was ready to govern.

One almost felt sorry for John Major. His chances for re-election were slim from the start but by the time he called the election at the latest possible date allowed by the constitution he was doomed. He couldn’t compete with Blair on any level. Blair wiped the floor of the House of Commons with Major each day. The Conservatives running a 20th century election campaign without PR firms couldn’t withstand New Labour’s “shock and awe” propaganda blitz. Moreover, neither he nor his party could get their message out. With the exception of one newspaper, all others had endorsed Blair. The media simply wasn’t interested in what he or his party had to say. Even the “impartial” BBC put him through the ringer. To complete the contrast between the two candidates were the physical appearances. John Major looked grey, old and tired. His appearance became symbolic for the party as a whole after 18 (18!) long years in power. Tony Blair looked fresh and dynamic. He had that American razzmatazz. He was surrounded by youth. All his campaign appearances were more rock concerts than political pandering. Blair’s popularity with the youth had excelled that of Morrissey’s and The Stone Roses. Indeed, The Rolling Stones even held a concert for him. His popularity was on par with The Beatles during their heyday.

Meanwhile, John Major was cast as Gramps who belonged at home with the Bridge club or if he was outdoors, looked as he belonged with the old men on the bowling green on a Sunday afternoon. The few people who actually attended his campaign appearances only reinforced the image. The veterans of the first two world wars and folks who could still recall Dunkirk were typical of the faces of his audience. Not a single journalist in the country besides the staff of The Spectator wanted to be assigned to Major’s campaign. The only ones assigned were either on the S-list of their editors or free lancers desperate for a Quid. Major had only two points to make during the campaign. Knowing how hated both he and his party were he couldn’t defend its record. So he tried to scare voters into believing that Blair’s proposal of more autonomy for Scotland and Wales presented the danger of the United Kingdom breaking apart. Of course no one believed him, mostly because neither the majority of Welsh nor Scots wanted to break up the Union. Indeed, if he got re-elected it was most certainly possible that after 5 years, the Scots would make a serious attempt to leave the Union.

Major’s campaign slogan was basic and simple: “You can always be sure with the Conservatives.” He turned out to be precisely correct on that score. However, it was over. Labour not only routed the Conservatives but obtained the largest parliamentary majority in party history.  The Conservatives had the lowest share of the vote since 1832. The close of 20th Century closed 20th Century politics in Britain. Tony Blair was the new Prime Minister. He along with the new Century would change both Britain and the world forever.

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