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Blair's 'free market Stalinism'

Trevor Fisher on the return of the elective dictatorship.

After three years in government, it is essential to draw up a balance sheet of New Labour's political project. No one around Chartist expected radical redistribution of power and wealth, but what could be expected from New Labour from its rhetoric and manifesto promises was a real devolution of power and return to democratic values. The reversal of the Tory centralisation programme, quangoes and the domination of business priorities was the minimum that Labour's supporters expected.

It is now clear that despite some welcome social reforms, the Blair project seeks not to reverse the Thatcherite agenda but merely to adjust it on a technocratic basis. Unlike the 1945 Government, New Labour does not seek to move the political culture to the left, but to work within the parameters of the right. Right wing free market dominance has now become a permanent feature of political life, as it has in most other advanced capitalist societies.

In key areas Blairism seeks to extend the centralising tendency of Thatcherism, only modifying Thatcherism by replacing a free market laissez faire approach with a tightly controlled centralised target driven regime. Despite rhetoric, there is a marked hostility to democracy and popular action and control. The essentials of Blairism may be described as "Free Market Stalinism". At the heart of this is a thoroughgoing commitment to free market domination, with privatisation going forward unabated - Air Traffic Control being only the latest in a series of moves. Where services cannot be privatised, they will be transferred to quangoes or placed under tight Whitehall control monitored by centrally imposed targets.

Those who see resemblances to Soviet style central planning are entirely correct. Whitehall ministries are coming to resemble Gosplan in the USSR, while inspectorates run centrally bear more than a passing resemblance to the Rhabkrim. Where inspectorates have a degree of independence from the Whitehall machine, as with the Prisons Inspectorate and its criticisms of government policy, these are to be destroyed and replaced by more pliant creatures - in the name of efficiency.

The area in which Free Market Stalinism operates to most dangerous effect is in local government. Councils have been systematically undermined by a combination of privatisation - notably of housing and refuse collection - quangoisation and target setting by Whitehall. Funding increasingly bypasses councils to go straight from Whitehall to service providers, notably in education where schools are increasingly controlled from Whitehall. The privatisation of services proceeds apace, while other areas of school life are controlled by the DfEE and the centrally run OFSTED inspectorate. Criticisms of OFSTED and its chief, Chris Woodhead, by a parliamentary sub- committee, were met with the telling comment that Woodhead has the confidence of the media and the Prime Minister, and that was all that mattered. OFSTED has now been given inspection rights over pre-school and Further Education.

Nothing illustrates the drive to centralisation and unaccountable power better than the growth of quangoes and centrally set targets. Quangoes - particularly in the form of the new Task Force system - have grown enormously under Blairism. It is clear that they are largely staffed by businessmen - normally men, Blairism being a phenomenon of white male apparatchiks - or New Labour apparatchiks, with a few token trade unionists. The wider community is not represented. Nor is there effective public scrutiny of these, Parliament having been reduced to a laughing stock while cabinet government has effectively ceased to exist.

Central control through financial targets is endemic. Few things better illustrate the cynicism of New Labour than its claim that it has fulfilled its commitment to abandon crude capping of local government - by replacing it with sophisticated capping. Best Value has proved a system of centrally set financial targets. Education provides the best example of this, not merely through the school system but through the failure to provide any democratisation of the unaccountable Further Education Funding Council, set up by the Tories under John Major, with its annual budget of seven billion pounds. Indeed, this is now to be replaced by an even bigger quango covering both Further Education and Training.

New Labour's election victory was in part due to its commitment to freedom of information and open government. In practice it has abandoned both, with an enormous growth of secrecy and the effective subverting of the Freedom of Information statute. The bill to give MI5 total access to electronic communication, on the pretext of anti-terrorism, is unprecedented in any other state where parliamentary democracy is the norm. All this is well documented. What is not well documented is New Labour's threat to academic freedom. Under Thatcherism, the academic freedoms traditional to liberal democracy were leaned upon but not infringed. This is now changing. The Times Higher Education Supplement of 31st March carried a report that the Office of Science and Technology wishes to use science research "Effectively to support government departments' objectives". The document was hostile to new EU states who might favour "curiosity driven research". Professor John Field of Warwick University criticised the proposals as having a "concern to control the research agenda and bring it more in line with policy prescriptions".

These concerns were reinforced by Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat education spokesman who found that of 15 government departments, 12 were prepared to veto publication, 9 said they would make amendments, and despite advice from the Committe of Vice Chancellors that sponsors should not delay publication, nine departments said they could do just that. Harris said "This is not just sleaze. It is undermining the fabric of the research community. It is deplorable and disgraceful". Evans is right. New Labour poses a threat to the independence of academic investigation essential to the health of any democratic society.

It has long been a weakness of the British constitution that it allows elective dictatorship, but the presence of local authorities, a vibrant civic culture and the willingness of the power elite to abide by unwritten rules of academic freedom, freedom of speech and the principles of representative government have modified the worst excesses of Whithall government. Thatcher began to undermine these, Major continued the trends, and under New Labour they have accelerated. In one crucial area - the Local Government Bill - the Labour Campaign for Open Local Government has done sterling work with other groups on one vital New Labour initiative. However it is clear that a far wider campaign for Open Government is needed.

If nothing illustrated this, the cynical mock consultation on the NHS now taking place makes this abundantly clear. New Labour is now about to launch a controversial modernisation plan for the NHS, which Blair has been working on and which his disastrous WI speech was meant to trail. One of the proposals apparently being suggested is that social services should be removed from local authority control and placed in the hands of privatised quangoes. New Labour has realised that its plans are likely to be controversial, and is staging a mock consultation exercise. Twelve million leaflets went out in May.

However, the deadline for return to Alan Milburn was 5th June, only a week after the launch of the consultation. Blink and you missed it. Will Hutton has rightly commented that "this is not a serious exercise in finding out what the public wants...it is a high profile exercise in trying to demonstrate that the government is 'listening' even though it it knows the results will be unrepresentative and profoundly compromised by the tight time scale". This is a form of cynical manipulation which we are only too familiar in the Labour Party as the Partnership in Power project has driven on, stripping out genuine participation from ordinary members. As this culture of manipulation flows into the public arena, it threatens enormous damage to the political process.

If New Labour and the Westminster elite are not opposed effectively by a democratic alternative, Free Market Stalinism with its business oriented culture and manipulative politics will become the future whichever party controls the Westminster machine. The Tories are of course infinitely worse than New Labour and their xenophobic nationalism has to be prevented from winning the next election. But as the Right still controls the political agenda, and New Labour makes cynical compromises over issues like asylum seekers, the chances of reversing the dominance of right wing values become less and less viable. It is an error to think that Blairism is a liberal philosophy. As in the USA, with socialism destroyed as an effective force, liberalism has become a dirty word and for both Hague and Blair, liberalism has become a totem to be consistently attacked - though Blair occasionally genuflects towards Gladstone.

The debate has now to be how to revive the centre left, making a genuine democratic renewal and revival of public interest politics achieveable. In the immediate future, the role of local government is crucial. Councils provide one of the few points of possible resistance, and the Local Government Bill has to be resisted. However democratic renewal has to go well beyond defending existing structures, which command less and less public interest and support. A democratic renewal agenda has to have its own restructuring proposals.

Two issues immediately spring to mind. One is the opposition to the increasingly stalinist DfEE, which cannot rest secure on a defence of the council operated Local Education Authority system, which excludes most parents and other interested parties. Instead, campaigners should agitate for new community elected education authorities taking power from Whitehall and representing all interested parties. Similarly with the NHS crisis, power to run hospitals and local health facilities should be removed from the Department of Health to a system of elected local boards, replacing the powerless and ineffective Community Health Councils. In both cases the Ministry would retain monitoring and efficiency responsibilities.

New Labour has failed to provide the drive towards democratic renewal which was its main progressive platform at the last election. It now urgently neccessary to begin a conscious process of democratic renewal. In bringing together the coalition of forces needed to achieve this, I believe Chartist has a crucial role to play. The time for generalised debate about the Blair project is now over. After three years in power, it is clear that it is only a new form of the business oriented culture of the new right. Attention has to be focussed on how a new, effective, political movement countering the domination of the values of the right and their expression in the Whitehall elite can now be created.

July/August 2000