Socialist Worker

Labour's conference of shame

Tony Blair is in deep trouble, but you wouldn't have known it from the mood of most delegates at last week's Labour Party conference. It was a watershed, argues Judy Cox

Issue No. 1872

IT WAS a truly stomach-churning sight. The massed ranks of Labour Party conference delegates were on their feet for Tony Blair's speech, cheering away. Blair had deliberately echoed Thatcher's famous phrase 'The lady's not for turning', claiming he didn't have a reverse gear.

He pandered to the gutter press by talking of a 'gravy train' of legal aid for asylum seekers. And he bragged that he would readily launch another war.

And the delegates' response? Not walkouts or heckles, but a standing ovation for a man millions condemn as a warmonger.

Party fixers or small numbers of hardcore Blairites could not have bullied all these delegates to their feet. Their applause was genuine.

Forget how Blair's popularity was shown plummeting in pre-conference opinion polls and the growing calls for his resignation.

Never mind Labour's electoral disaster at Brent East and the 100,000 who marched against his war and his lies the day before the conference began. In this conference hall reality was turned upside down and Blair was an all-conquering hero.

No wonder Bob Crow, leader of the RMT union, left the conference to tell anti-war demonstrators, 'Yesterday I couldn't find a single delegate who supported the war. But when Blair spoke they clapped him.

'The people in there will have to make their minds up which side they are on. Blair and his cabinet were war criminals yesterday and they'll be war criminals tomorrow.'

Many delegates who applauded enthusiastically were not fully signed-up Blairites. They clapped from a forlorn hope that if they were nice to the leader, somehow he might be nice to them.

They gave health minister John Reid a standing ovation when he told them he wanted for the NHS exactly what Margaret Thatcher had wanted.

They got up again for the despicable David Blunkett when he banged on about crime and asylum seekers.

It seemed that no violation of labour movement traditions, from any cabinet minister, could stop them clapping. Millions of people who in the past would have looked to Labour have demonstrated against war on Iraq in the last year.

But the greatest protest movement in British history barely found an echo on the conference floor.

The Labour leadership was ready to pull out all the stops to avoid a potentially damaging vote on the Iraq war. But it was union leaders and constituency delegates who let them get away with it.

Leaders of the four biggest unions, Unison, Amicus, the TGWU and the GMB, said they wanted to prioritise issues that matter to ordinary people-pensions, jobs, workers' rights and health.

When the RMT union tried to put forward an emergency motion condemning the war on Iraq, the big unions refused to back it.

The RMT appealed again to the conference to have the motion discussed. Again the big unions refused to use their voting muscle.

The issue that has dominated world politics, British politics and the Labour Party for the last year never even made it onto the conference agenda.

The conference only referred to Iraq as part of a wider debate on foreign policy in which the word 'war' did not appear. Even this debate was tightly stitched up to marginalise anti-war voices.

A few, like Jeremy Corbyn, Alice Mahon and Jimmy Elsby of the TGWU, managed to be heard and won some support. But the delegates' tears only flowed when sycophants who justified the war got up to speak.

The saddest part of this sorry spectacle was the group who still insist it is worthwhile trying to reclaim the Labour Party. They say a Blairite clique has hijacked the party. They had their chance at the conference to act.

But they were too cowardly to take it. Rumours that Blair's big speech would be greeted by protests and heckles came to nothing.

Even when Blair asked his audience, 'what do you want me to do, stop or go on?' not one person had the guts to shout 'Stop'.

Yet thousands watching on TV must have been willing them to shout that out. Those trying to reclaim Labour cling to the delusion that they have some clever backroom strategy for winning the party to left wing policies.

They convince themselves they are gaining ground. One left MP seized on Blair's tiny criticism of Tory rail privatisation, calling it a 'leap to the left'.

A couple of years ago, those who wanted to reclaim Labour had a bigger vision. They talked of winning large numbers of anti-war activists to join Labour's party branches and sweeping away Blair and his clique. But the drain of good activists away from the party actually gained momentum.

Then the 'reclaim the party' lobby turned to the new crop of left wing trade union leaders, the awkward squad, to save their party for them.

But it was the four biggest left-led unions that manoeuvred to block the vote on Iraq at the conference.

Even before the leadership was defeated over foundation hospitals, ministers made it absolutely clear they would ignore any conference decisions and will press on with privatising the NHS.

This was an almost exact rerun of the 2002 conference vote against PFI privatisation schemes, which Gordon Brown ignored. And it was an exact rerun of the 2000 conference decision to restore the link between pensions and earnings that was tossed aside.

The day before Tony Blair's big speech, the 'reclaim Labour' campaigners felt the wind in their sails.

They had pinned their hopes on Gordon Brown. All he had to do was drop the word 'new' from 'Labour', and Labour left wingers forgot his appalling record on privatisation, enforcing Tory spending limits and sucking up to big business.

But the vain hope that Brown was the man to replace Blair only lasted until Blair beat his breast enough to win over the conference.

This conference was a watershed. Never before have Labour delegates so gloried in being isolated from their bedrock of support in the country.

And never has the conference felt less like a labour movement event.

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Article information

What Socialists Say
Sat 11 Oct 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1872
Share this article

Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.