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Prescott's Last Stand

As the election draws closer, Trevor Fisher sees New Labour making a desperate bid to marshall the support of alienated activists through glitz, glitter and John Prescott.

All Labour Party members received a copy of the House Journal Inside Labour in January with John Prescott's face and finger on the cover. The finger was pointed accusingly at the reader with the message "Are you ready"? Inside the parody of Kitchener's recruiting poster of 1914 was made explicit. A flyer with the same lettering as in the famous appeal was printed with the injunction to "recruit new members/donate/send us your e-mail address" as new Labour continues to try to build a party in cyber space controlled from Millbank.

Going into the General Election, new Labour is trying to rally its troops with increasing difficulty. On Prescott's left breast on the Inside Labour cover was the legend "Don't let Hague in the back door. Apathy is the Tories' number one weapon". The message that if the Tories' gain at the election is one which has been heard since last summer. Blair told the NEC in July that this was the most successful centre left government for a century, Prescott told the Education conference that the government was such a success that if activists could not get the voters out they were to blame. This is becoming increasingly difficult as membership collapses and activity levels drop to invisibility. Core supporters are increasingly unwilling to vote new Labour, though not likely to vote for anyone else.

This is worrying Millbank. In the editorial for Inside Labour, General Secretary Margaret McDonagh argued that "if just one in five of those who voted Labour last time doesn't (sic) turn out to vote this time, Labour will lose sixty seats. That's a 120 seat reduction in our majority... it can happen. Just look at the European elections last year. Labour voters stayed at home and the Tories won". Indeed this is so. But the fault lay with the leadership for running a totally centralised campaign. Candidates were selected nationally, the campaign was run nationally, and the election broadcast focussed totally on the Leadership of Tony Blair. Those who hoped the leadership would learn from this disaster have been sadly disappointed.

The apathy which threatens new Labour is entirely due to their contempt for traditional Labour voters and failure to build progressive politics on the back of the 1997 election victory. This is not a centre left government - it is a right wing government with few, and grudging, concessions to progressive elements in society. Will Hutton noted in bewilderment in the January Chartist how new Labour assumes as a dogma that Private is Good, Public is Bad. Professor Wyn Grant argued in the September 1999 Politics Review that this was a government dominated by "a closer relationship between business and government, while the trade unions have enjoyed little more influence on policy than they had under the preceding Conservative governments... This has been described as the most pro-big business government ever seen in Britain". Since Wyn Grant wrote, the situation has grown worse.

New Labour was elected in 1997 to reverse the Tory policies of Sleaze, Privatisation, and the ending of the arrogance of a Secretive Whitehall elite. The public expected higher standards in government and a reversal of the Thatcherite policies of the previous twenty years, with a more caring face to politics - especially important to women and vital in closing the gender gap. These hopes have been dashed. Opinion polls now register new Labour as being more sleazy than the Major Conservatives, a price paid for the cosy attitude to big business figures and the massive cheques received by Millbank, which they brandish with honour as signs they are now respectable.

On privatisation, the scale of the offensive against the public sector is breathtaking. The Private/Public Partnership scheme is pressed ahead in health and transport without heed of the consequences, Local Education Authorities are handed over to private sector companies with no experience of education, and the government not only fails to take any stake in the failing Railtrack company but presses ahead with Air Traffic Privatisation which even for Thatcher was a bridge too far. In Scotland, their policies make a mockery of devolution, reminding the Scots that Blair once described their Parliament as having "parish pump" powers. Indeed it does not. The Scots leadership have just handed contracts for all Scotland's trunk roads to private companies, leading to 3,500 redundancies in the public sector and provoking intense anger amongst Scottish people who pride themselves on public services. Like Thatcher, Blairites operate North of the Border as if dealing with a subject people. The implications for the survival of the United Kingdom are deeply serious.

In the run up to the election it might have been prudent for new Labour to modify the worst aspects of the arrogant contempt for its traditional supporters which it has shown over the last six years. Any hopes that this would be so were dashed on Tuesday 13th February when new Labour announced a return to selection for secondary schools, indicating a revival of the eleven plus which neither Major nor Thatcher were able to attempt because of opposition among progressive people. The announcement was made by the unelected Prime Ministerial spokesperson and hatchetman Alastair Campbell with the sneer that "the days of the bog standard comprehensive are over". This was immediately seized on by William Hague to call for the reintroduction of the grammar school, a policy which until new Labour re-opened the door to selection had been as dead as a dodo.

The sad fact of British politics today is that far from reviving the progressive, centre left tradition, new Labour has entrenched the neo-conservatism which arose in the 1970s and which has yet to be challenged. Of all people, the "Murder She Wrote" actress Angela Lansbury put her finger firmly on the problem in, of all places, the Radio Times of 3rd-9th February by arguing "I say I'm a-political, but I'm a bit of a socialist. He'd have a fit and turn in his grave if he saw the present Labour lot and the unbelievable right turn the movement has taken. The void between the haves and have nots is still enormous and no country is addressing it". And who might the "He" be? Angela Lansbury's grandfather, Labour pioneer and former leader George Lansbury.

As new Labour has moved more and more firmly into the Right of the political spectrum, so its core support has dwindled and even new supporters have abandoned it. Among women the gender gap has re-emerged, with support down from fifty per cent to thirty eight per cent from January to November 2000. Luckily for Blair, this does not translate into support for the Tories because Hague and his extremist Tory party is regarded as a joke. And yet while people will not vote Tory, they will not vote Labour or pro-new Labour Liberal either, which means that apathy sets in and with the Tory vote rump vote remaining solid the possibility of Labour losing seats to the Tories grows increasingly likely. And Millbank, unable to put the blame on the leadership and new Labour's swing to the right, blames the activists and issues rallying calls to its dwindling band of supporters.

As the election draws nearer, Millbanks' efforts depend increasingly on John Prescott as one of the few credible figures who might rally the troops. But Prescott's own credibility is being eroded. On February 1st the Times reported that "Prescott aims to win back the core vote". He is said to be touring Britain with a road show featuring two soap stars and a TV detective. Specifically Michelle Collins off East Enders, Liz Dawn from Coronation Street, and George Baker better known as Inspector Wexford. The sad thing about this report is that it has to be taken seriously. Millbank and the leadership really do think that glitz and glitter can counter the swing to the right and the abandoning of principle and progressive politics.

Within a few weeks this will be put to the test. Chartist should behave with caution and not give any hostages to fortune. But we must set down clear markers that we will not be blamed for any losses new Labour might suffer. Tony Blair said on the first day of the government back in 1997 "We were elected as new Labour, and we will govern as new Labour". And as new Labour they must be judged. Neither Blair nor Prescott can be allowed to blame Labour's activists if things go wrong. Hopefully the election will not be a re-run of the first day of the Somme, and John Prescott will not be reviled as a new Field Marshall Haig. But it is already clear that Labour supporters cannot be treated as cannon fodder, and lessons must be learned from new Labour's record however much the leadership try to tough out the evidence that its policies have alienated core Labour supporters.

March/April 2001