Blair & Jospin: Have They Made A Difference?

Last spring, in a political one-two punch that was felt in all of the world's financial centers, Britain and France elected socialist parties to power. While the directions of these parties and their leader's visions of them are rather different, the victories of Labour and Parti Socialiste were seen as a victory for the left in the midst of global economic change. In Britain in particular, Tony Blair won the opportunity to build the first Labour government in 18 years. Lionel Jospin's task, was one of leading a party nearly devastated four years earlier in its worst electoral defeat since the '20s, back to the position of power in the National Assembly. For this, as leaders of the parties of the working classes in two of the world's major economies, we give them their due. But after a half of a year to get down to the work of government, it's only fair and right that we should take a look at what's been done and ask, have they made a difference yet?

Tony Blair's New Britain

Tony Blair is most likely the most charismatic leader of the Labour Party in history. He led his party through a painful obstacle course of modernisation, re-organisation, and re-definintion to emerge with the most decisive electoral landslide in over 150 years. Labour, a party that people had begun to think would never again form a government, has now become the only party that Britons feel can govern the nation. After a party conference in October in Brighton that some described as "messianic," it has seemed that Blair's New Labour has been nothing but a stream of success, and the Prime Minister is already preparing for an unprecedented second term in office.

But what are the actual accomplishments of the Blair government, and how do they look from a socialist perspective? What about the clamour arising from more and more in the party that Blair is really no socialist at all, but merely an aspiring centrist with ideas that are past their time anyway? Do such claims have merit, or are they just more sniping from people who can't keep up with the pace of change in the Labour Party these days?

Andrew Hammer: That's a harder question than it may seem to both sides in the debate. The new Labour government came in with a bang, with more women in parliament than ever before, banning land mines and handguns, ending the assisted places schemes in schools, calling for a minimum wage, and pledging to sign on to the European Social Chapter. A few months later, we pushed for and won the devolution of Scotland and Wales, something that the left has been calling for for years.

But the other side of this story is that from an "inside the party" point of view, the government has created a masterpiece of confusion when it comes to knowing just what to expect. One minute we find Tony Blair fighting for more democracy with things like regional government and local government for London, and tearing hell through all of the old monarchial trappings, then the next minute he's cutting benefit to lone mothers, and talking about public-private partnerships in schools. Not to mention the whole controversy about the party's internal democracy.

Eva Cole: Yes, at [the Labour Party] conference it was somewhat of a circus of pain and pleasure... on one hand, you're celebrating this incredibly perfect victory after being unable to do anything for so long, while at the same time, you're also fidgeting on the inside. I think most of us in the party have been supportive of the modernisation process; we knew that it was needed, even back when Kinnock started it. I think we still are trying to understand that governing is not a matter of simply doing what you want, but struggling with blatantly capitalistic situations to do what you can. At the same time, if Labour is to have any meaning at all, not only to the party members themselves, but to the voters, there has to be a point at which we can say that yes, we are open to new concepts in economics, but there are certain core values which we shall not sacrifice, and certain political points beyond we which we will not pass. I think that Blair has most definitely made a difference; I think that's obvious and to our benefit in all of the ways you've mentioned. For the first time in ages Britain has some real opportunities to make dramatic political leaps, and that would have been impossible under the Tories, or even the Liberal Democrats.

Andrew Hammer: I find two strong areas of hope that I can still hold onto: one is the deep change in the British political system that is being carried out by this government, and there I'm back to significant things like devolution and the changes in the House of Lords, as well as small things like the opening of Parliament. Our comrades in other countries may not see this as much, but for a nation that is in some ways so antiquated, these are the kinds of changes that lay the groundwork for a more radical approach to other areas. It does no good... and we've learned this, to carry out all of these radical programmes if one is still trapped by a non-democratic political system, much less a bloody monarchy. The political institutions of the Crown can always recoil on you, and leave you right back where you started. So I'm fully in support of the changes Blair is making to the political system. Economically, I think he is off base and far too compromising to carry out even his own professed visions, but that brings me to the other area of hope.

For me the highlight of the Labour Party conference was the election of Ken Livingstone to the [National Executive Committee]. Even though the NEC will not be elected in the same way next year, the fact that Livingstone [a longtime champion of the party's left] topped the vote and took down Peter Mandelson [the mastermind behind 'New Labour'] was the clearest signal the party could give to Blair that while we in Labour are supportive of the government, we are still a socialist party. That is something that any Labour leader, even Tony Blair, ignores at his own high risk. The uprising over the cuts to lone parent benefit is just the beginning with things of this nature. And oddly enough, that gives me hope that Labour, not so much Blair himself, can find its footing in a very gradual way that will allow the party to return to the kind of bold social and economic legislation in our time that Clem Attlee managed to put through in 1945. That said, Blair is doing things, there is no doubt about that. He is certainly making a difference, even though in a number of areas now, it is clearly not the kind of difference I want to see. But my feeling is that a Labour government will benefit all of us in the long run, despite the whims of the Prime Minister. I say let him carry on changing the political structures of Britain, and trust the party to revolt as it has done if and when he goes too far in the opposite direction. I still trust the Labour party, even if I don't trust Millbank [the party office].

Jospin Rises to the Occasion

Eva Cole: Let's move on to France... I remember you saying that the election of Jospin could not have come at a better time because it provided a perfect counterbalance to Blair's near-beer kind of socialism. What do you think of him now, with the unemployment crisis?

Andrew Hammer: I think that Lionel Jospin will have his place in history as the person who reduced the French working week. I didn't expect anything more initially from the Jospin government but a halt to the rampant privatisations that had begun to take place, and a social democratic voice that would stand up to, not nod to, the Americans. The goal I saw for his government was the work week issue, and I think that despite the very difficult situation for workers in France as well as throughout Europe, Jospin will deliver that 35-hour week. I feel that with France, and again throughout Europe, the rest is up to the workers, and that the responsibilty of the Socialists is to listen to what the streets are saying. Otherwise they will throw Jospin out just as they did Juppé, and we will have accomplished nothing. You were there after the election, how do you see this?

Eva Cole: What occurs to me is that we're talking about whether these two men have made or are making a difference in their countries, from a socialist perspective, and there is an irony here in that while Jospin is viewed by most of us as being more of a traditional social democrat not a "Blair type" he has actually made less of a difference in France than Blair has in Britain. Part of that has to do with the difference in the two nations' political structures, but it also has to do with the fact that where Britain is a nation still sorely in need of basic democratic governance structures (where we agree that Blair has been instrumental), France is a nation quite content with its governance structures as well as its rather traditional approach to things.

So in context, Jospin has not made as much of an impact on his country as has Blair. That opens him up to criticism not from people who feel he is betraying his principles, but from people who feel he is simply not doing enough to live up to them. The backdown on halting the privatisations is a perfect example of this. Now he is trying to put through a reduction on the work week that has been a part of the Parti Socialiste programme for over four years, and he is instead being deluged by demonstrations of the unemployed, who truly do need much more than five less hours on the job, because they don't even have five hours of work to begin with. I guess what I was asking of you, though, is do you still see Jospin as a counterbalance to Blair?

Andrew Hammer: Well, yes, because he is not moving ever closer towards the center with a gleeful look on his face. He is in a coalition government, albeit an uncomfortable one, with the Communists and the Greens, and that in and of itself puts him in a different league than Blair. But to speak to this point of a counterbalance, it's more of a theoretical point for our own sakes as socialists rather than an expectation of radically different methods. I think that Jospin is doing what all socialist and social democratic leaders have had to do up to this point; steer a capitalist ship as best he can while the crew hopes to change the rigging. At this point in history, I think that what we hope for from these kinds of parliamentary socialist leaders is a shot at some kind of 'parliamentarian hegemony,' so that we can seize the apparatus that makes international agreements like Maastricht and decides the operation and flow of markets, and therefore the economy itself. So a more accurate assessment of my view might be to say that I see Blair on one side representing a very unexplored territory for our movement, and Jospin on the other side representing tradition, despite his difficulties. What weighs in the balance of course is Germany, where a possible social democratic government in September not only could pave the way for just that kind of parliamentary hegemony, but also could define the future of the traditional social democratic movement.

Eva Cole: That I see as an excruciating process, one which cannot afford people jumping to quick conclusions, either about policy outcome or programme. It's hard to know what the outcome will be, and we socialists are all too quick to criticise. With both of these blokes, what I think we will find is that when it comes to the types of economic differences we want them to make, over and above the question of whether they would do them, is the larger question you raised as to whether they or any national leader can do them under the current global economy. In that sense maybe the question we should be dealing with is not have they made a difference, but how can they, and more to the point, how can we? I mean, I'm glad that we are electing socialists across Europe, but that's merely the beginning of what's going to have to be a much bigger and more challenging project.

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