Expect more of the same, stupid

11th April 1997 at 01:00
Vernon Bogdanor (TES, April 4) suggests that Tony Blair is being true to the roots of the Labour party in recognising the importance of community. He refers to Orwell's image of a Britain "in which old maids cycled to Communion on Sundays". This evocation is most clearly depicted in A Clergyman's Daughter.

Another Britain is portrayed in that story, too. The harsh working conditions of the hop pickers is its main focus. Much of Orwell's writing depicts the struggle of British workers such as miners and restaurant staff and the homeless (they were called tramps in those days). He recorded their history, a history which was not to be found in schoolbooks with their glorification of the economic system which created their poverty in the first place.

These groups have not disappeared. They are all around us. Those sleeping in shop doorways no longer even have recourse to the common "spike" (or lodgings) Orwell described.

Seventeen years of Tory social and economic policies have served to undermine the advances made in the postwar period. People's working conditions have harshened through the combination of high levels of unemployment and the weakening of unions by legislation.

When the Conservatives passed their anti-trade union laws, they may have spoken about protecting individual workers from "bully boy" tactics of the "hard left dominated unions", but the reality is that they couldn't care less about the individual worker. What they did was engineer a situation which gave management every opportunity to bully their workforce into accepting worse conditions. We are all a lot more vulnerable these days.

Bogdanor conjures up the image of the so-called "winter of discontent" as a consequence of changes in institutions which are not accompanied by a "change of heart". Well, just who needs to change their heart? Among the workforce there has been and remains a strong sense of community. Time and time again they have supported each other in acts of solidarity. Indeed, it is against these very acts of solidarity that some of the anti-union laws were passed. And it is precisely because the institutions holding power were never really changed in the first place that the industrial action was provoked.

People don't take strike action lightly. They lose money which they can ill afford to do without. People were acting in community together to resist what was being done to them both as employees and consumers. They lost and the result has been more than a decade of continual onslaught. When the International Monetary Fund finds Britain's position "enviable" we mustn't imagine its members are talking about the position of the majority of the people reading this.

Time was when the Labour party seemed to be concerned with those people going about their daily struggle in a system driven by profit which demands that costs - especially labour costs - be kept as low as possible. These days Tony Blair's new Labour seems to be no longer really very interested in these groups. Words such as "struggle", "resistance", and - whisper it - "class" have become unfashionable and embarrassing.

Take the Liverpool dockers' dispute, for example. There is plenty of community to be found there. Community among the dockers, and community from people all around the country, and internationally too, who are supporting them out of a sense of solidarity.

So where is Mr Blair? Nowhere to be seen. Nothing to say. Yet I suppose he expects these people and their families to vote for him. To trust him. But trust him to do what? Just whose side is this man on? Because there's no getting away from it: you have to take sides. Doing nothing is connivance.

Why is David Blunkett warning teachers - a group which shows a high level of support for the Labour party - that he won't be bullied? Because he knows that the Labour party can only dash the few expectations they have managed to create. The party's real message is: more of the same, stupid. Does anybody seriously believe that five years after a new Labour government, things are going to be that much different. Get real.

Yes, community is at the heart of socialism. So is a sense of common cause with - unfashionable word again - the exploited. So is economic change. A sense of community alone will not lead to socialism, there has to be economic transformation because inequality is structural in the present system. I don't think Mr Blair wants to effect that transformation. He may have a social conscience but this doesn't make him a socialist.

Francis Farrell teaches English at The Derby High School, Bury

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