Why Blair is in charge, yet always in crisis

The new 'wave' of strikes apparently washing over the government this winter would hardly have wet the feet of previous administrations.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

Tony Blair’s New Labour government bestrides British politics and has routed all of the opposition. Yet it still appears to be in a near-permanent state of crisis, capable of being thrown off balance by anything from a row over school examination results to a relatively small outbreak of industrial action.

With the firefighters’ dispute continuing, while other groups of workers threaten industrial action, there is talk of a new ‘wave’ of strikes washing over the government this winter. In reality this looks like the kind of wave that would hardly have wet the feet of previous administrations.

An eight-day firefighters’ strike and some one-day walkouts by teachers and council workers bear little comparison to the industrial conflicts of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, when millions of working days were lost in major strikes across industry and the public sector.

In this sense, the suggestion that the firefighters’ dispute is ‘Blair’s miners’ strike’ makes no sense. The confrontation between Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government and the miners’ union lasted a year (1984-85), during which a state of near-warfare existed in Britain’s coalfield communities. Thatcher, invoking the militaristic spirit of her Falklands War victory, branded striking miners ‘the enemy within’. More than 10,000 were arrested in violent confrontations with the riot police.

Blair faces no comparable challenge to his authority today. Nor is there much opposition in parliament. The Tories are still somewhere off the political map, fighting internal battles of their own. And while there are undoubtedly rumblings of dissent within Labour’s own ranks, the government’s easy parliamentary victory on the issue of action against Iraq suggests that most dissenters are more mouth than action.

Yet those following recent events in the media could be forgiven for thinking that everything the government touches turns into a crisis. And given the great store that New Labour puts by presentational matters, that image of crisis is more than an illusion. Government ministers frequently feel vulnerable to being picked off by the media. This reflects the genuine atmosphere of uncertainty and failure of nerve at the heart of New Labour, despite its domination of the political scene.

Against this background, the firefighters’ dispute represents one of the few occasions where the government has been called upon to act decisively on the home front. The confused initial response reveals its problem. New Labour lacks a clear ideological vision to fight for, and its managerial style of politics is not suited to a bare-knuckled fight.

Nor is a firefighters’ strike readily susceptible to the sort of therapeutic intervention the government has employed in other disputes – for example, when sending out former education minister Estelle Morris to flatter the teachers for their caring dedication.

Whereas the Thatcher government planned for the miners’ strike, provoked it and then fought it with military ruthlessness, the firefighters’ dispute appears to have caught New Labour on the hop. It has less in common with the industrial disputes from the old days than with the fuel price protests of a couple of years ago, when the government allowed itself to be put on the defensive by a relative handful of truckers and farmers. This time, however, there is more public support for the firefighters (albeit passive sympathy rather than active solidarity), which means the stakes are higher.

Yet it remains pretty clear that if the government finds the nerve to hold the line, it will get away with it, regardless of the blithering incompetence displayed by the ministers involved (no wonder Blair feels the need to take the reins himself on almost every issue). The anger and frustration of individual firefighters might mean the dispute drags on, but should not be enough to defeat a government that enjoys such a commanding position. If, however, New Labour ducks the challenge in characteristic style, it will inevitably invite others to try their luck.

All of which throws some interesting light on the talk of an imminent war with Iraq. Blair has always found it easier to look tough striding about on the international stage than scrambling around back home. But the current state of institutional disarray afflicting the British machinery of government, symbolised by army commanders publicly complaining that they cannot be expected to fight both fires and Iraqis, raises serious questions about whether the state is any state to go to war.

From a strategic point of view, Blair has little alternative but to follow President Bush’s lead on Iraq, and no doubt British bombers will do their bit from afar in any conflict. But if he seriously attempts to put the reported 20,000 British troops into a battlefield to fight a full-scale desert war, the fallout is likely to make the current chaotic dispute look like a storm in a firefighters’ helmet.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

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Topics Politics


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