Michael Wills is worried…
North Swindon MP Michael Wills is worried. His speech to a fringe meeting at the conference of new Labour pressure group Compass, was reported on the front page of the Guardian in the lead article. Mr Wills is known to have a close friend by the name of Gordon. Perhaps this explains the prominence of his comments. At any rate he is warning of the prospect of electoral defeat at the next General Election. Whilst he recognises "profound disillusion and disnegagement" amongst Labour supports he fails to face up to the roots of this.
North Swindon MP Michael Wills’ is worried, and you can understand why. Speaking at a fringe meeting at a conference organised by the new Labour pressure group, Compass, he claimed that at the General Election “every single Labour MP on the doorstep reported profound disillusionment and disengagement”. This does have the merit of trying to grapple with reality, whilst the Prime Minister and his coterie merely seem to want deny that such a thing exists. But when it comes to an appreciation of the roots of this “profound disillusionment” of traditional Labour voters, Wills cannot himself face the reality. The problem it seems is that the voters will not listen to New Labour’s “message”. It is they who are at fault not New Labour!
“Unless we can get people to start listening to us, unless they are prepared to hear the message we are putting across, we are going to lose next time. There is no question of that.”
There are none so blind as cannot see. There are none so deaf as those who refuse to listen! Wills is suggesting that the problem is one of presentation rather than substance. The electors refuse to see the reality of New Labour’s ‘successes’. How very irrational of them. What Michael Wills and New Labour cannot face up to is the fact that it is what the government is doing which has alienated vast swathes of its traditional supporters; and not just the Iraq war which he says lost him 3,500 votes. It is very common to hear the refrain from people who have voted Labour for many years, ‘they are no different to the Tories’. Whilst there are differences with the Tories Blair reconstructed the Party on the same ground as Thatcherism. This involved the abandonment of the welfare state, not its ‘modernisation’, and the progressive marketisation of public services. They have even introduced a market into the NHS in which hospitals have to ‘compete’ for patients. In Wiltshire this has led to an unprecedented crisis, with the decimation of services (see http://martinwicks.blogspot.com/2006/05/health-crisis-what-crisis-health.html ).
Wills is right when he says that the electorate does not ‘trust us’. And he recognises that the ‘Presidential style’ of the Prime Minister is a problem. But he cannot face up to the fact that it is the substance of New Labour which is the reason for the disillusionment of its traditional supporters and the decline of its membership.
Wills is worried about losing his Parliamentary seat, of course. The crisis of New Labour in Swindon does not bode well for his chances. The Council, which was historically a Labour one for decades has seen a precipitous decline both in the Party’s organisation and in the number of councillors. Even in the Thatcher days the Tories did not gain control, even though they had the MP. Yet after 3 years of the Blair government Labour lost its majority on the Council, though remaining the largest party. In 2000 it had 28 councillors to 24 Tories. Today the Tories have 42 and Labour has only 12. Four Labour Councillors have defected to the Tories, one resigned and left local politics, and one broke with Labour over their support for increasing Councillors’ allowances at the same time as the Tories were cutting services.
The dilemma of New Labour in Swindon was in part summed up by an article in the Swindon Advertiser by Michael Wills and South Swindon’s ultra-New Labourite MP, Anne Snelgrove, on the future of the town. What criticism did they make of the Tory Council? That they are privatising council departments? That they are not opposing Bath University’s ultimatum on the location on which it wants to build a campus?1 That they are accepting vast numbers of new houses being imposed by an unelected body in the South West? That they are trying to rush through a proposal for an Academy which will be run by a private company? Alas, our two MPs accept all this, just as the Tories do.
Well might Private Eye ridicule Anne Snelgrove for her comment that ‘the country’ is ‘proud’ of the work of the Deputy Prime Minister.2 This is the man who has the Midas touch in reverse. He turns gold to dross. This is the man who has given power over our town (and others) to an unelected body which, at his department’s prompting tells us how many houses we ‘need’, regardless of our view. This is the man who has made the planning process less democratic. This is the man who has sought to eradicate Council Housing and still maintains the effective ban on Councils building new houses. The reality is that Prescott is the object of ridicule and contempt in equal measure, astutely summed up by Steve Bell’s cartoon, the bulldog caricature.3
So what are the profound differences with the Tories which the MP’s revealed in their article? Apparently the Tories are not “sufficiently ambitious” for the town. Instead of, dare we say, a bog-standard library, “why not plan for one that surpasses the best elsewhere”. Frankly, this is pathetic, providing an easy target for the Tories, who can say with some legitimacy, why didn’t Labour produce a new library in all the years they were in power? 4
We have also seen the spectacle of the MP’s complaining that the Tory Council does not build enough social housing. This is the cheek of Old Nick after 9 years of a New Labour government. One Labour Councillor informs me that he told Michael Wills, “it’s your government which is stopping Council house building”. As for Anne Snelgrove, as we discovered at the Defend Council Housing lobby of Parliament, she is opposed to Councils building their own houses. (See http://martinwicks.blogspot.com/2006/02/home-owning-democracy-whats-in-phrase.html )
Undoubtedly the decline in Labour’s support in Swindon reflects the national picture of disaffection amongst traditional labour supporters. But when a Labour candidate in Parks (a council estate where I live) manages barely a 100 majority over a Tory candidate you know the party is in trouble.
In the old days (certainly pre-Blair) political and ideological differences between the two major parties were significant enough to make defection from one to the other very rare. But that was before Blair’s political and ideological coup. That four councillors have crossed over to the Tories reflects the absence of real ideological differences.5 The recent defector Mavis Childs said that she wanted to get things done for her constituents. Their interests “come before party politics”, she says. Clearly, according to this logic, the only place to have a direct influence is in the ruling Tory group which has an absolute majority.
What New Labour in Swindon has yet to explain is why the Tories have gained such a big majority; why it has declined so precipitously. Amidst all the hype in the early Blair days we were told that the party was going to increase its membership to 1 million. In fact, so disgusted has much of the membership been with Blair that instead of an influx he has succeeded in more than halving the party membership. Perhaps our MPs can explain why, if the government has been such a ‘success’, party membership is less than half the 1997 level. We wait with baited breath. Perhaps the members failed to face up to reality just like the electorate.
Why should traditional Labour voters, never mind anybody else, vote for New Labour? This is the question posed as a result of 9 years of a ‘business friendly’, privatising government. What is the difference between what a Labour Council would do in office and what the Tory Council is doing now? Unless the electorate sees some positive reason to vote Labour again, then the Tories will maintain their stranglehold on the Council, at the expense of working class people. The Tories appear to be ‘getting things done’. If the policy of New Labour hardly differs from that of the Tories, then why not vote for the more effective or ‘efficient’ party? Such at least was the conclusion of Mavis Childs.
Labour can hang on and wait for the electorate to get fed up with the Tories, but overturning such a big majority could take a long time. If they want to campaign against them in a way which resonates with local people, and is believable, they have to have a different programme and policy. But here they face the twin obstacle of their government and their MPs, both of whom are New Labour zealots.
Labour could have allies to build opposition to the Tory Council. For instance, they could work with the local government unions to oppose the Tories privatising Council departments. Unfortunately, there is no sign as yet of them opposing the Tory policy.
Labour could campaign with the unions and tenants for the right of Councils to build Council housing once again. Two Labour councillors joined the delegation which lobbied Parliament in relation to the ‘fourth option’. The housing crisis facing the town is a major issue. House prices in Swindon are too high for many local people. All we see being built in the town centre at the moment are luxury flats. The Council house waiting list will not be cut without a Council house building programme. A campaign to change government policy, to allow Councils the right to build new Council housing would be a significant difference with the Tory Council.
Labour could campaign for the Housing benefit and Council Tax service to be brought back in-house. OK, it was they who privatised it, handing it over to WS Atkins with disastrous consequences.6 However, they could recognise it as a mistake and campaign for the service to be brought back in-house. Thus far the Party has missed the opportunity of criticising the Tory administration over its latest move in relation to Liberata (the company which took over from WS Atkins). These worshippers of ‘the market’ (the Tory Council in this case) have punished Liberata for failing to carry out their contract with the Council, by handing over to them an extra £850,000! You might imagine that if the company fails to carry out their contractual obligations to a satisfactory standard then they would take the financial hit rather than the Council Tax payers of Swindon, especially at a time when the Council was cutting services. Isn’t this supposed to be the ‘free market’? But even here New Labour has failed to attack the Tories for feather-bedding a private company with our money. What better opportunity than this to demand the service be brought back in-house?
Labour could campaign with the trades unions and local people against the Academy which is proposed to replace Headlands school. That would mean opposing government policy, of course. Yet Michael Wills was over the moon at the involvement of Honda in the proposed project. Labour movement people on the other hand are appalled at the involvement of an anti-union car firm in Education.
The Labour group could attack the Tory Council for its fraudulent ‘consultation’ on the issue. Lead member Garry Perkins has said that this is the only way that the people of the area will get a new school, so there is no debate about whether or not local people want it. Presumably we can discuss what colour the doors are. But because of New Labour’s support for the privatisation of education they have failed to defend the democratic rights of local people to genuinely debate whether or not they want to go down the route of an Academy.
Nobody in the wider labour movement in Swindon underestimates the problem that a big Tory majority on the Council represents to working people in general and the trades unions in particular. Even those of us who believe that a socialist political alternative to New Labour is necessary, would be in favour of a united front with Labour to build opposition to the Tory administration, if such a thing were possible. Yet if it was possible for Labour Councillors to work with people who they consider as political opponents (even the dreaded Socialist Unity) to jointly campaign against the BNP, why not to campaign for new Council housing, or in opposition to privatisation?
Michael Wills, without spelling it out, seemed to be saying in his speech that Blair should go. But what difference would Brown make when (as explained to me by another Labour Councillor) he is wedded to the very same policies as Blair? Certainly some traditional Labour voters might be persuaded to hold their nose and vote for the party again if the much hated Blair departed, but it is the ‘free market’, means testing, privatising agenda of New Labour, as well as its support for a right wing Republican administration in the USA which lies at the root of the “profound disillusionment and disengagement” which Wills admitted to.
 Bath University had said that it wants to build on a site adjacent to Coate Water Country Park, or else it will not build a campus in the town. 27,000 signatures have been collected against this unpopular proposal. See http://savecoate.blogspot.com
 She has made quite a profession out of asking what might be described as ‘please give a job’ questions, being duly rewarded with some junior post or other.
 Prescott is pictured as a dog called ‘market’, pulled along by the lead by Blair. It sums up the role of lap dog which Prescott has performed, doing his master’s bidding, presenting a ‘left’ face for Blair’s neo-liberalism.
 For the benefit of people outside of Swindon, the central library has inhabited for many years prefabricated huts in the town centre.
 One of them is actually a Tory who crossed over to New Labour and has now gone back to the Tories.
 A massive backlog of work led to elderly people (on benefit and hence having their council tax paid for them) being threatened with eviction, since it had not been paid, through no fault of their own.