Socialist Worker

Where now for left after vote?

by Judy Cox
Issue No. 1879

BLAIR HAD to scramble desperately to succeed in forcing legislation for foundation hospitals through parliament last week. This was despite the vote at Labour's conference last month against the scheme. It shows how hollow the idea of the left 'reclaiming Labour' really is. Trade unions, Labour members and many ordinary people hate the foundation hospitals plan.

Designated 'top' hospitals will be free to raise private cash, and to poach staff and resources from their downgraded neighbours. The government's huge majority shrunk to just 17 votes in parliament last week, as it won by 302 to 285. It was the smallest margin of victory on a piece of major legislation since Blair was elected leader six years ago.

Tony Blair was rocked by the size of the rebellion. He and his whips carried through a now familiar campaign of threatening and bribing MPs into backing him. But the actual number of Labour backbenchers who rebelled against the government rose by only one.

In July, when the last vote on foundation hospitals was held, 60 Labour MPs voted against the government. Last week it was just 61. Eighteen Labour MPs who abstained in July were persuaded to back the government, and more Tories turned out to vote against. This is a truly pathetic display of cowardice by Labour MPs.

The leaders of the four biggest unions in the 'reclaim Labour' camp saw foundation hospitals as the key issue to hit Blair with.

Dave Prentis, leader of the 1.3 million strong Unison union, told his annual union conference that this was the issue over which the union could demonstrate its influence over the party. Kevin Curran of the GMB, Tony Woodley of the TGWU and Derek Simpson of Amicus all declared their intention to 'give Blair a bloody nose'. Kelvin Hopkins was one of many left wing MPs who agreed with this.

In the run-up to Labour's October conference Hopkins said, 'The trade unions have decided enough is enough, and now seem determined to put workers' rights and democratic socialism back on the agenda. 'Conference could be the turning point, perhaps the most important conference in the party's modern history.'

At the conference the big four unions acted together for the first time to defeat the party leadership over foundation hospitals. At last, left wingers said, the unions were flexing their political muscles. They dumped the opportunity to force a potentially damaging conference vote on Iraq to instead focus on foundation hospitals.

Cheers echoed in the conference hall when the jubilant unions defeated the government. A Unison magazine produced for members who pay their political levy to Labour summed up the mood of many Labour lefts.

It said, 'The conference vote shows that the Labour Party agrees with Unison, and opposes not only foundation hospitals but the drift to privatisation in other services.'

The truth is that vote has made absolutely no difference to Labour's policy. Even before the conference health secretary John Reid announced that he would ignore the vote and press ahead with the policy. The Labour leadership was utterly contemptuous of their members' democratic decision.

But Labour MPs have shown themselves to be little better. They used the pathetic excuse that they daren't risk handing a Commons victory to new Tory leader Michael Howard. So we had the spectacle of Labour MPs supporting Tory policies on health to supposedly stop the Tories getting back in.

The question of foundation hospitals has shown that the crisis of political representation in British society is not confined to the Iraq war. The disenfranchise-ment of many people exists over other issues affecting working class life.

That's what makes the plan for a new left wing coalition, announced at a meeting with George Galloway in London this month, so important. It is planning to field candidates in next June's elections.

And there is also an opportunity for trade unionists to discuss what representation we need at the Convention of the Trade Union Left on 7 February next year.

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Sat 29 Nov 2003, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1879
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