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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Tony Blair parti, que va-t-il rester du blairisme ?

by B. D.

Will Blairism Outstay Blair?

Translated Monday 21 May 2007, by Jonathan Pierrel

Neo-liberal Great-Britain may seem the example to follow because of its low unemployment and its steady development. But appearances can be deceiving.

Tony Blair stands down after he had stayed in power for 10 years. When it comes to turn the page, everybody wonders: will Blairism survive Blair, whose name is linked to an improbable economic and social model and to the disastrous war in Iraq? The expressly neoliberal and bellicose character of Blair’s and New Labour’s policies, in relation to Thatcher, made him estranged from part of his traditional socialist and socio-democrat allies in Europe, especially in France (although he still has a few flatterers), and it pushed him towards alliances leaning more and more to the right. Not content with Aznar, Berlusconi, the MEDEF Party (Movement of the French Enterprises), Nicolas Sarkozy’s new ’friend’ Tony Blair, paid him a visit in Paris on 11 May. One is considered as the US’s ‘poodle’, the other, riding his little white horse, takes the Camargue for a Texan ranch. There is no doubt the two men will have plenty to say to each other, particularly about the ‘mini European Constitutional Treaty’ the new French President proposes. Blair will ask to soft-pedal European institutions, lest the British public and the rather Eurosceptic future Prime Minister might be scared, in order to write down part of the principles which irrigate British economic and social policies in the new bill. Such as the liberalisation of services, which Blair has always protected.

During the electoral campaign, the French debate was largely inspired by the British example; an enchanted kingdom with low unemployment and its ‘flexible’ labour market whereas France would be stagnating in a dying conservatism. There is a parallelism between the apparent ‘modernism’ promoted from the start by Blair and the ‘rupture’ so dear to Sarkozy: to reduce public spending, flatter an individualist market, favour the rich and widen the wage gap, dishonour social welfare, blame the disadvantaged class, step up the immigrant manhunt. Well, what about the ‘British model’ then?

1. The unemployment illusion

The United-Kingdom, whose growth, envied by many European countries, and its unemployment rate of 5%, fail to mask a much darker reality: constant decrease in the industrial production and household consumption, excessive debts and ‘oniomania’ (buying on credit), over-heated property market, the key sector of the British growth, i.e. services, slowing down. Since 1997, what Blair has proposed has been a social welfare reform to reduce expenses, by imposing new coercive rules to the benefit of social help and to put unemployed people back to work at any cost. If this ‘welfare to work’ system artificially made unemployment figures melt, it also worsened constraints by encouraging job seekers to accept insecure jobs. By way of compensation, Blair set up a whole range of state benefits aimed at young people, single parents and these insecure workers. Long-term unemployed people have been put away as ‘unfit’ for work, which is the case for disabled people, single women or many workers laid off during Thatcher’s era. According to official sources there is, in fact, a total of 2.5 million unemployed people who are not taken into account.

2. Labour: lack of security in a shrinking market

Another change: Great-Britain, once the ‘workshop of the world’, currently one of the most important financial centres of the world, has lost more than one million jobs in the productive sector whereas its deficit in foreign trade had reached its highest peak, especially in 2002, for three centuries. The jobs lost in the industrial sector have been brutally replaced with insecure temporary or part-time jobs where there is a large female workforce. The minimum wage (around £5 an hour) which was imposed by Blair during his first mandate is now a reference for millions of workers who are forced to work more than the 48 hour European weekly norm; thanks to his bypassing mechanism called ‘opt-out’. According to the experts, the overall employment level has increased relatively slightly in Great-Britain for the last ten years. Illusory employment figures are also the result of a narrowing labour market.

3. The misery of public services

The British ‘model’ remains a bad example with regards to its neglect of public services. Not only did Blairism accept the heavy privatisation process of Thatcher but the neolabour administration invested less between 1997 and 2001 in public services than John Major’s conservative administration. It is only since 2001 that there have been urgent increases in the health service, railway transport (after a series of lethal disasters) and education, for fear of general collapse. The British public sector has been deeply transformed with the introduction of public-private partnerships; e.g. foundations hospitals, new schools or new jails. This system, where the government contributes as a financial guarantee, leaves the facilities’ constructions and their management in the private sector’s care, thus allowing it to live off the government. Despite this, the quality and the accessibility of the public services have not improved.

4. Poverty is still endemic

Blair’s is certainly not the best policy as far as tackling social discriminations is concerned. The development of the flexible labour market, which is essential to Blair, to face the world economy did not reduce inequalities, unlike what he promised when he came to power in 1997. Poverty is not an illusion. If two million British people (among which one million are children) came out of poverty between 1999 and 2003, thanks to the introduction of the minimum wage, the number of poor people remains one of the highest of the ‘rich’ countries.

The poor worker phenomenon is devastating, especially for people born into a single-parent family, but not only for them. In 2004, the New Policy Institute estimated that 12 million people in Britain lived on an income below 60% of the median income (definition of poverty in Britain), which is one quarter of the British population. There is no comparison with Thatcher’s era. The curtain falls on the so-called British miracle: Blair did not stop the spread of poverty. It remains endemic. Even worse, according to the National Statistics Office, quoted in the New Statesman on 7 March, 1% of the richest British people (about 600,000 people) have doubled their wealth during the first six years of the Labour legacy. In six years, their wealth increased from 20% to 23% while the wealth of 50% of the poorest people decreased from 10% to 5%. According to the magazine, taking into account council tax and VAT, the top 20% of the wealthier spent only 34% of their income on the taxes against 42% for the 20% poorest. London, an ‘extraordinary’ fiscal paradise where the disadvantaged have to work more to earn more. Does it ring a bell?

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