TONY BLAIR got a taste of the discontent and debate inside the Labour Party when he spoke in east London last week. Blair and deputy prime minister John Prescott conducted a question and answer session at Queen Mary & Westfield College. Some 400 invited Labour Party members were crammed into the hall, with another 200 in an overspill room.
Blair insisted that Labour had been elected in 1997 only because he had created a 'sensible, serious, forward looking Labour Party'. He told the audience not to risk that by going back to the 'impotence and irrelevance' of the 1980s. But nearly all the questions asked by ordinary party members were critical of government policy.
A Labour Party member from Romford asked, 'Why do you insist on calling Ken Livingstone an extremist when New Labour has adopted so many of the policies he supported in the 1980s? Isn't he just a man ahead of his time?' Another party member said, 'Give us one good reason not to vote for Ken Livingstone - he is opposed to tube privatisation.'
Blair increasingly began to lay down the law. He said, 'I don't want the idea to gain ground that what Ken Livingstone stood for in the 1980s, New Labour stands for now. The Labour Party in London at that time was a byword for extremism. The reason we are in government is because the party woke up after the experience of the 1983 general election defeat.' He attacked Ken Livingstone for opposing the expulsion of Militant from the party and for being opposed to talking to business.
But Labour members continued to ask critical questions. 'Why did you not let the mayor be elected by one member one vote?' asked one. Another said, 'I want to know why my MP for Bow and Bethnal Green has written to me twice to try to persuade me to vote for her preferred candidate for mayor. What choice is that? It is unfair and undemocratic,' she said to applause.
Blair became more and more annoyed by the questions and his answers produced some heckling from the audience. He was forced to resort to attacking the Tories. He suggested that Livingstone as mayor would be 'a focus for discontent with the Labour government - that's what the Tories want.'
Some of the audience were won round by Blair's arguments. But many more were distinctly unimpressed. Blair and Prescott wound up the meeting after just 45 minutes - much to the anger of most of the audience. A few people shouted, 'Stitch-up!' because they had not been able to ask their questions.
A Newham Labour Party and TGWU member told Socialist Worker: 'People are questioning what Blair is doing to our party. They don't want to be disloyal, but they don't like policies which are the same as, if not a damn sight more painful than, those of the Tories. Blair said that in the 1980s Labour was known as anti law and order and anti-business. He thinks that's a bad thing. Most of us think it is a good thing, especially to be anti-business. We are, after all, supposed to be the party of working people.'
Dobson feels the pressure
'THE MORE Frank is associated with Tony Blair, the worse he seems to do in the polls.' So said one of Frank Dobson's campaign managers to the press last week.
Four weeks of election campaigning have taught Dobson that working class people hate Blair's pro-business policies. After weeks of claiming that he was close to Blair, Dobson has changed tack. He says he is not Blair's puppet and has even distanced himself from tube privatisation, telling postal workers, 'At the moment I believe nothing should be ruled out.'
But Dobson has not turned over a new leaf. Just one day after the postal workers' meeting, Dobson spoke at a gathering of New Labour loyalists in central London. There he praised Labour's privatisation plans for the tube.
Debate influences choice
By GARY WATT, committee member, North West London Counter and Clerical CWU branch
AROUND 40 branch reps attended a mayoral hustings called by the CWU London regional political committee on Tuesday of last week. The three Labour candidates each spoke for 15 minutes, then answered questions from the floor. The main issues raised were reinvestment for jobs, housing and homelessness, and transport.
The first speaker, Frank Dobson, was vague and unconfident. He spoke about his visit to the Mount Pleasant picket line, the 'Fairness at Work' reforms, and his attempts to involve the NHS workforce when he was health minister. He even refused to back Blair's privatisation plans for London Underground.
Ken Livingstone then spoke. He received the best response of all the speakers. He was clear about his opposition to the privatisation of the buses, hospitals and water, all of which have created massive profits at the expense of public services and workers' conditions. He said that as mayor he would keep the underground in public hands. He spoke about the progressive policies of the GLC in the 1980s and said, 'I want the same relationship with the trade unions as big business has with the prime minister.'
Lastly Glenda Jackson lectured us as if addressing a group of school students. She delivered the Blair message, declaring her support for PPP and PFI, and received only polite applause.
The debate took place following a campaign update on resisting Post Office management's attacks in London. Parcelforce workers face the loss of 500 jobs through the transfer of work to Coventry and 1,700 jobs are threatened at Mount Pleasant. The regional meeting was not allowed to pass a resolution on which candidate to back. CWU branches must therefore call their own meetings at once.
Later that day our branch committee unanimously voted to recommend Ken Livingstone to our members as Labour's candidate. Some reps had previously favoured Dobson. They admitted that they changed their views after hearing the contenders speak.
ALL OVER London trade union branches are organising hustings where the three candidates for mayor will speak.
CENTRAL LONDON: Wednesday 8 December, 1pm, The Medical School, Cleveland Street (next to Middlesex Hospital). Called by UCLH UNISON and UCL UNISON
HACKNEY: Tuesday 7 December, 7pm Stoke Newington Town Hall, Church Street, N16. Called by Hackney UNISON in association with Hackney branches of the TGWU, GMB, UCATT, UNISON Health and HTA
SOUTH LONDON: Wednesday 1 December, 8pm, Atheldene Centre, 305 Garratt Lane. Called by Tooting Labour Party (Labour Party and trade union members only - bring proof of membership). Monday 13 December, 1pm St Andrews Church Hall, Short Street, SE1. Called by Southwark College NATFHE
WEST LONDON: Sunday 5 December, 7pm, Willesden Green Library. Called by Brent UNISON, GMB, FBU and Brent Trades Council
AT LEAST 44 London Labour MPs are openly backing Frank Dobson. Trade union branches and protest groups will be handing in petitions and letters of protest about their choice for mayor.
HACKNEY: Lobby of Brian Sedgemore MP's surgery, Friday 3 December, 6pm, Rose Lipman Community Hall, De Beauvoir Road
HARINGEY: Lobby of Barbara Roche MP's surgery, Saturday 4 December, 2pm, Wood Green Library
ISLINGTON: Lobby of Chris Smith MP's surgery, Friday 10 December, 6.30pm, Finsbury Town Hall