Socialist Worker

'We deserve better than Blair or Brown'

AS TONY Blair moves towards war a great debate is raging in the labour movement. It is a debate fuelled by New Labour's attacks on the welfare state, public sector workers and trade unions. Where is New Labour going and what kind of political represen

Issue No. 1841

'THIS IS a very important debate about the future of the labour movement. There are weeks when decades happen. I believe we are in the middle of such weeks. Our country committed a war crime today. Six Iraqi people were killed in an act that went far beyond the government's extraordinarily elastic definition of its legal position.

That bombing, that act of blatant illegality, was done in our name, with our taxes, by our government. The trade unions helped with their money to pay for the New Labour government that committed the crime. I, even worse, sit in the Commons as a Labour MP under the whip of Tony Blair's cabinet.

We cannot go on like this. There are limits, and enough will eventually be enough. One hundred and three years ago the national union of railway workers founded the Labour Party. At the time people were told it was premature and divisive. They were told lots of good comrades wanted to stay in the Liberal Party. But in time the vast majority came to see that an independent voice of working people in parliament, separate from the capitalist Liberals, was indeed required.

Tony Blair still believes the creation of an independent Labour Party was wrong. He told Paddy Ashdown that it was an 'historic mistake'. It comes to something when a party leader believes his own party was an 'historic mistake'.

Of course, in time the Labour Party became a great power in the land, organising labour people in every corner of the country. Its conference was truly a parliament of labour. The battles and arguments at it were worth having and could be won.

Now we have to face uncomfortable facts. The Labour Party conference is no more. Wild horses wouldn't drag me into it. There are straw hats and balloons and trumpets but no votes, no debates. Or rather there are rigged votes and rigged debates.

I say, as someone who wrote a book about the Romanian Revolution, that Ceausescu would have been embarrassed to coordinate a conference like the last Labour conference. The national executive of the Labour Party is a sham. Month after month the national executive votes to support crimes here and abroad by this government. Trade union reps on that committee vote for those crimes against the policies of their own unions.

By and large, in the House of Commons I am looking at benches where a shiver runs along looking for a spine to run up. It was a great vote last week when 122 MPs voted against war. But most of them were frightened into the lobby by the anti-war movement and over 250 were in the other lobby.

If 250 in those circumstances cannot stand up for what is right, then when will they ever stand up? It is wider than the war. It began to sharpen in my mind during the firefighters' dispute. I was in the Commons for a statement, quite a few MPs were there, and I realised I was the only person who supported the FBU claim for £8.50 an hour.

It is not just the peace camp that is effectively locked out of the House of Commons. The trade unions are effectively locked out. Very few MPs will speak up for unions when it matters, over their wage claims and during strikes.

The left is locked out and the peace movement is locked out and the trade unions are locked out and the students are locked out - left with the albatross of debt hanging around their necks by ministers who enjoyed free education and grants.

Another episode has helped crystallise the situation for me. When we were taking our open-top bus around Britain to build for the September anti-war demonstration the only aggro we got was from poor, white youths spouting BNP racist filth.

The clamour around this time of the tour was a Labour home secretary telling immigrants that they could not speak their own language in their own house in case it made them 'schizophrenic'.

The truth is that the people with psychological problems were not the immigrants or the asylum seekers. If the left and the peace camp and trade unionists and students and immigrants and refugees and ethnic minorities are locked out, then where does it leave us? It leaves us on the streets.

We have built a mass movement of millions. I have always wanted to say that, and now we have really done it! We have not marched the millions up to the top of the hill only to march them down again or to see them drift away in disarray.

All of us, especially those in the Labour Party and the trade unions, are shortly facing a choice. I hope Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are right and that the reverberations of this crisis are such that the Blair regime will be toppled.

It's right that we deserve a better choice than just Tony Blair or Iain Duncan Smith. But we also deserve a better choice than Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Michael Foot put it well when he said that if Blair takes us over the cliff to war then he may break the Labour Party.

We all now have to be thinking, planning and discussing what to do in the next decisive weeks that will shape decades to come.'

Raise banner of socialism

A NUMBER of other speakers also addressed Monday's meeting.

LINDA SMITH, treasurer of the London Region of the firefighters' FBU union, said, 'On every picket line during the firefighters' dispute there have been two questions. They are, why is there £3.5 billion for war but no money for the firefighters? And, why are we paying money to support a government which treats us so badly? I think there is a case to be made that the Labour Party has gone too far to be turned back. We need a united challenge to Blair.'

MARK SERWOTKA is the general secretary of the civil servants' PCS union, and a member of the Socialist Alliance. He spelled out just how rotten New Labour's record in office has been, on everything from privatisation to racism and now war.

In the wake of the 15 February anti-war demonstration he said that 'we live in exciting and inspiring times. It would be a mistake if we did not seize the opportunities. We must raise the banner of socialism in this country.' And he argued, 'If we put our hopes for the left of the labour movement in winning battles in the Labour Party we will cut ourselves off from the hundreds of thousands of people who want a political voice.'

JOHN REES of the Socialist Alliance argued that 'out of the anti-war movement will emerge people who want to go further, who will crystallise a political programme, and it will be a socialist programme and a socialist party they want. We need a party that working class people can vote for with confidence in this country.'

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Sat 8 Mar 2003, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1841
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