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The English lesson.

It's not quite a victory for socialism, is it?" mused Tony Benn, the radical conscience of British politics, as he and I watched election returns in Chesterfield as Labour tallied up a landslide win.

After eighteen years of rightwing domination -- first in the dramatic form of Margaret Thatcher and later in the grey visage of John Major -- the United Kingdom's traditional party of the left returned to power on May 1.

But the Labour Party that won control of the British government bore scant resemblance to the party that marched into parliament in 1945 singing "The Red Flag." Once a beacon of democratic socialism, the Labour Party won this year's election with little mention of the traditional party values of trade-union solidarity, economic democracy, and individual rights.

Newly minted Prime Minister Tony Blair, the Oxford-educated lawyer who took the helm of Labour in 1994, has dragged the party of R.H. Tawney and H.G. Wells through the sort of transformation not seen since Dr. Jekyll became Mr. Hyde.

Blair dispenses the feel-good rhetoric of Bill Clinton. "In a sense, I am modern man," says Blair. "I am somebody of my own generation, a generation that's grown up without the tags of easy political simplicities of left and right."

Translation: Blair is part of an international strike force that is grabbing hold of traditional parties of the left and draining them of their historic passion and principles.

During the past three years, Blair and a circle of politically savvy aides -- many of whom proudly proclaim that they have borrowed pages from Clinton's playbook -- have "modernized" the Labour Party by undermining its ties to the trade unions that created it.

They have jettisoned "Clause Four" of the party constitution, which had always committed Labour to the goal of wresting control of the means of production from the private sector.

They have imposed corporate lawyers and public-relations specialists as candidates in constituencies that once sent miners, nurses, and radical intellectuals to parliament.

They have done everything in their power to muffle unions, damp down the enthusiasm of grassroots activists in communities like this historic mining town, and marginalize committed socialists such as Chesterfield's Benn, the longest serving Labour Party member in parliament.

In Chesterfield, as in a number of other Labour strongholds, the Blair reformation ran up against a proud history. At the Chesterfield Labour Club, where members still call each other "comrade," local campaigners refused to distribute the literature of New Labour, choosing instead to campaign as they have for more than 100 years on behalf of the cooperative commonwealth.

"Blair tried to kill off socialism in the Labour Party, but people here know that you can't have a Labour Party without socialism," declared Benn on election night.

While the red flag still flew in Chesterfield and other "Old Labour" constituencies, it was pretty much hauled down at the national level. For the first time in the nearly 100-year history of the national Labour party, it ran a campaign without serious mention of redistributing Britain's wealth. Blair's "New Labour" promised Middle England "no new taxes," embraced a get-tough-on-crime policy guaranteed to downsize individual rights, and unveiled an economic policy so pro-business that the Conservatives found themselves scrambling to keep up.

Margaret Thatcher reviewed the Labour Party election manifesto and said, "Don't grumble when you win converts; they are always welcome. We applaud the fact that Russia has rejected communism, so why criticize those in Britain who have rejected socialism."

For British leftists who spent eighteen years battling the Conservatives, the Iron Lady's kind words left a bitter taste.

Some, like actress Vanessa Redgrave, parted company with Blair and New Labour. "All my life, I've voted Labour," Redgrave announced before the election. "The history of the Labour Party still moves my instincts to vote Labour. But that Labour Party has ceased to exist."

Most, however, ended up in the same boat as socialist songwriter Billy Bragg. "In the past, I always voted for the Labour Party but they don't seem to be standing this time," Bragg sighed on the eve of the vote. Still, like many "Old Labour" voters, Bragg stuck with what he knew -- even if it had, in Bragg's words, become a variation on the Conservative Tory Party: "the Tony Party."

"Much of what the Tony Party says has all the charm of a newly opened theme pub -- the Claret and the Candidate, or Bullshit and Bulldog, perhaps," said Bragg. "But where else is somebody like myself going to go?"

Blair is likely to find the task of taming his party's left wing a tad more difficult than Clinton's cuckolding of the Democratic Party.

There is already talk about when -- not if -- socialists will challenge Blair to make real his rhetoric to abide by "Labour values." They will have support across Britain from militant trade unionists, environmental campaigners, anti-racism activists, and millions of citizens who are not quite prepared to surrender their Labour Party to the caresses of a business community that once supported Thatcher and her Conservatives.

There are still plenty of activists like Rod Storer, a twenty-eight-year-old unemployed electrical engineer in the village of Coalville, who says, "I'm an old-fashioned socialist. Old Labour. I'm not a Blair man, I'm a Labour man. And there's a lot like me, I figure."

Tony Benn believes there are more like Storer than the leaders of New Labour imagine. Indeed, he suggests that, while Blair won the prime ministership, he may have missed the mood of the country when he trimmed Labour's sails.

"The election result represents a massive rejection of Thatcherism and its stepchild, Majorism. What is amazing is that, at precisely the moment when the people are rejecting Thatcherism, Blair and his people are embracing it," says Benn. "The people are becoming more radical -- not just in Britain but all over the world. They're looking for alternatives to an unrestricted free market that puts profits ahead of everything else. Just because the political parties have stopped leading, that does not mean the battle is lost. It simply means that the leadership will have to come from the people."
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Title Annotation:Labor Party wins British election
Author:Nichols, John
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Column
Date:Jun 1, 1997
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