Socialist Worker

'Thousands are leaving Labour'

Four Labour activists with over 126 years of membership between them explain why they have left Blair's party and are backing Respect

Issue No. 1901

Jim Rogers was an activist in the FBU firefighters' union and a Labour council leader in Harlow, Essex. Now he is heading up the Respect coalition's list of candidates in the Eastern constituency for the European elections

I JOINED Labour in 1982 and was a member for around 22 years. My family had always been Labour supporters. While I was a union activist I never felt any need to join the party. I felt everything was being achieved through the union movement. In 1977 we had the first national fire strike. That put a lot of people in my generation off joining Labour. The Labour government savaged a TUC-affiliated union. In the early 1980s I was injured and I wasn't fit enough to go back to firefighting. Just before I left the fire service I'd started talking to local Labour Party members in Harlow.

Joining seemed like a continuation of what I'd been doing in the FBU-making yourself useful in the labour movement. In 1984 I was elected onto the district council, which was run by Labour. I remember when the Tories brought down the limit on council spending. We were told to make around 400 redundancies. The local party met and said, "Well, if it's got to be done. And, if we resign, the Tories will come in and sack 800." It left a lousy taste in your mouth-doing the Tories' work for them. When the Blairites emerged a lot of people were sucked in. But I think the majority of members thought it was a massive trick-Blair would say we're going to do this and that, but when we get to power things will be different. But it never happened.

When Labour got elected in 1997, one of the first things they did was to attack single parents. My wife pulled out of the party then and there. The last few years have been the pits-foundation hospitals, top-up fees, and then they got stuck into the fire service. People in the fire service were saying, "What's going on here?" All I could say was, "Much the same as in 1977."

Iraq was the final straw. My membership came up for renewal in January and I didn't renew it. I sent an e-mail to the head office and the local Constituency Labour Party saying the party was now pursuing policies I could not support. I think there were thousands saying the same thing. In the run-up to the Iraq war we had a local Labour Party meeting with about 30 people there. Well over 20 supported a resolution to the effect that we did not support the government's stance on Iraq-with or without a second UN resolution.

Bill Rammell, the MP, presented the government's case and saw the result. He held a public meeting with around 100 people. Around 30 people spoke, but only three or four said anything that could be interpreted as support for the government.

By now he was junior foreign office minister-a bag carrier for Jack Straw. He's got his foot on the bottom rung and he's obviously decided he's going to be a professional politician, and sod the constituents. Before I joined Respect I'd been heavily involved with the stop the war movement.

I came to the conclusion that if Blair was run over by a bus tomorrow he'd be replaced by Gordon Brown, who is just as tainted. I ask the people who want to reclaim Labour-what do you want to reclaim? My experience as a trade unionist is that a Labour government is as bad as a Tory one. I would never have looked to the Liberal Democrats or the Greens. The Greens come from a sector of the class structure which I don't identify with-the disaffected middle class. The Liberal Democrats are urging people to vote for them as a protest over the Iraq war.

That's hypocrisy taken to a new height. Kennedy spoke at a few stop the war events, but he soon packed that up when the war started. I hope Respect will develop as a socialist party. While Iraq is the biggest stick to beat the government with, we also have to develop some policies beyond what we've got at the moment. We have to flesh out where we stand over the environment, public services and housing. It's not a one-issue party. I think Respect needs to get a high-profile result and get a few European seats on 10 June.


'I felt that the Labour Party had taken on the Thatcherite idea that private is good and public is bad'

Anne Swingler is an 89 year old pensioner living in Hampstead, London

I JOINED the Labour League of Youth when I was 19. I came from a working class family and I was very worried about the rise of the Nazis. I had been over to Germany and stayed with a Jewish family. I was horrified about what was going on. Labour were going to do something to lift people up from the bottom. I thought the post-war government was achieving that. My husband, Stephen, was by that time a Labour MP in parliament. I was a chair of the local Fabian society and on all kinds of committees.

I left the Labour Party this year. I thought about it very hard and was very miserable because of my longstanding connection with the party. The war was the issue that made me leave. I also wasn't happy about the housing policy, an issue I'd always been interested in.

I felt Labour had taken on the Thatcherite idea that private is good and public is bad. I felt we should be building housing that people on low salaries could afford. My youngest son was fuming about Iraq and he told me about the Respect coalition. He sent me a form for Respect and I joined. Paul Foot used my letter resigning from the Labour Party in his Guardian column and lots of old friends got in touch to say "Well done".


New Labour's 'proud' record

A number of leading Labour Party figures in the London borough of Tower Hamlets have broken with the party to back Respect. They have been circulating this letter:

'OUR LOCAL London Assembly member, John Biggs, says he is "proud" of what New Labour has done in government.

Is he proud of the continued privatisation of public services?

Is he proud of attacks on the legal rights of asylum seekers and refugees?

Is he proud of attempts to destroy council housing?

Is he proud of attacks on trade unions like the FBU?

Is he proud of the announcement of thousands of civil service job losses in the Budget?

Is he proud of the alleged corruption and misuse of public money at Tower Hamlets council?

Is he proud of the invasion and occupation of Iraq?

Is he proud that the gap between rich and poor has grown under New Labour?

If he can answer "yes" to these questions, then John confirms that this is a Labour Party that we no longer recognise. The minimum wage and investment in health and education (still inadequate) are the very least we should expect, but they are the most this Labour government can claim credit for.

We have served the Labour Party and the local community for many years, but now we say that New Labour has abandoned both its principles and the people of Tower Hamlets. It's time for an alternative, which is why we are supporting Respect: The Unity Coalition and will be voting for Respect on 10 June.'

Yours sincerely

Paul Beasley former leader Tower Hamlets council Phil Maxwell former chair of housing Arthur Downs former mayor of Tower Hamlets Terry Sullivan former councillor and chair of Bow & Bethnal Green CLP John Rowe former Labour councillor and chief whip


'Brown is part of New Labour. If Blair goes we'll still have New Labour'

Berny Parkes, a social worker from Dorset, is a candidate on the Respect list for the South West constituency in the European elections

I'VE GOT a strange history because, between 1979 and 1989, I was a copper. I got active in the Labour Party in 1984 through the miners' strike. I saw first hand, from a copper's perspective, people fighting for their communities getting battered into submission.

I joined Labour in 1987 because of what I saw as principles in Clause Four of the constitution-peace, justice and equality. I became a Labour councillor in 1990, representing Sefton in Merseyside.

Neil Kinnock was the person I wanted to be leader of the Labour Party. I supported unilateral disarmament and my first political activity was with CND. I started to question what was happening with the debates about Clause Four under Tony Blair. The unions supported Blair, saying it was just a cosmetic change, but I felt it was more fundamental than that.

Democracy in the party has been eroded. Party members have become cheerleaders for the government. I never renewed my membership in 2003. The war was the straw that broke the camel's back, but my disillusionment went back further.

I was one of the people who was persuaded that if we gave Labour one term in office to bed in, we'd see more radical policies in the second term. But it was apparent that this wasn't going to happen. Brown and the rest are part of New Labour. If Blair goes we'll just have a different version of New Labour. The Campaign Group of left MPs are just spokespeople with no clout.

I stayed in the Labour Party ten years to try to reclaim it-but it's worse now than it was then. Respect is a broad, radical, inclusive movement. The Liberal Democrats are rubbish. I fought against them when I was a councillor. I have considered the Greens over the last few years. I see a possibility of an agreement with them in the future, but they are very introspective.

They've never been able to broaden their policies or horizons-they haven't built on their success. I think that Respect could do that. It has the contacts in the labour movement to build on this and have a real influence.

People still in the Labour Party should look at where their money is going-it's going to fund and provide publicity for a government that is killing thousands of civilians in Iraq.

Bernie Gallagher is a homelessness officer for Bolton council

I JOINED Labour in 1979. I felt it was the mass party of the working class, and I wanted to do something about Thatcher, who had just been elected. My dad and his father before him were members of the Labour Party.

I was the ward secretary for 15 years, the constituency women's officer, the vice-chair of the party locally, and I was the election agent at every election. I started having real doubts around 1996 when the party got rid of Clause Four. They also introduced "Partnership in Power". This destroyed any democracy in the Labour Party.

Today people don't go to party meetings-they can't influence decisions. I was against "Partnership in Power", but I tried to make it work. Whatever issue you wanted to influence or change just went into some black hole.

I left Labour at the start of the Iraq war. I wrote an open letter to Tony Blair. It was quite emotional. I desperately wanted to reclaim the Labour Party. But this country doesn't get two million people on the streets unless they feel very strongly that something is wrong. There were other issues: the attacks on lone parent benefits, the attacks on disability benefits, the so called reforms of local government and the public sector.

I've been active in the Stop the War Coalition and in Bolton Against Racism, which has been refreshing. There are lots of ex Labour Party members who have found something they can get involved in.

I'm still not sure about Respect. It's early days. But I'll be campaigning for it. I'm not sure whether it's going to be a successful alternative but I hope it will be.

Respect is going for the anti-war vote, which is huge. I'm not sure it's as clear yet on what it stands for, and it's not yet getting the mass media coverage that it needs. If it's successful in June, that will change.

My Labour MP voted against the war and against tuition fees. I felt I was letting him down because he was voting the right way-but he didn't make any difference.

They've had half my adult life and hundreds of pounds of my money. I feel it was a waste of my time.


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Article information

Features
Sat 15 May 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1901
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