Socialist Worker

Crisis inside Labour Party

Issue No. 1842

CRISIS IS gripping the Labour Party as Blair drives towards war. Cabinet minister Clare Short attacked the prime minister as 'reckless', and threatened to resign if Blair went to war without United Nations backing. In ordinary times that would be enough for instant sacking from her cabinet job. Yet as Socialist Worker went to press Blair had not dared move against his Overseas Development Secretary.

'Minister's Survival Is Sign Of Prime Minister's Vulnerability', headlined the Financial Times business paper. Short has until now loyally backed war in parliamentary votes. She is now drawing the line at the US and Britain going to war alone. War is wrong with or without the UN, but her stance has revealed the deep fissures ripping through Labour's ranks.

Political commentators talk of other cabinet ministers, such as Robin Cook, also preparing to resign if Bush and Blair go to war alone. A wave of junior government figures are already saying they too will resign. Andy Reed, official parliamentary aide to environment secretary Margaret Beckett, this week resigned his position because of the war.

By Tuesday at least five other parliamentary private secretaries to ministers had also threatened to resign over the war in some circumstances: Michael Foster, Dennis Turner, Russell Brown, Lorna Fitzsimmons and Anne Campbell. In Scotland, the crisis over the war has meshed with the run-up to Scottish parliamentary elections in May, to create an even sharper crisis for Blair. Tommy Sheppard is a former deputy general secretary of the Scottish Labour Party. He has resigned from the Labour Party (see below).

The Scottish Labour Party's former treasurer Bob Thomson called Blair 'a cuckoo with no Labour connections' who should resign as party leader. The crisis at the top of the Labour Party is driven by the anger and disgust among thousands of ordinary party members. Reports suggest that some 40,000 Labour Party members across Britain have already quit in protest over war on Iraq.

Behind all this stands the huge wave of mobilisations and anger against the war across the country. We need to step up the protests so that if Blair does go to war his regime is one of the first casualties.


Rebels speak for majority

THE CRISIS ripping through the Labour Party is the deepest in decades. It is quite unlike the crisis which swept the party in the 1950s or 1980s over issues like nuclear weapons. Then many of those at the heart of rebellion against the leadership were fighting over an internal issue of party policy.

That was echoed by movements in the country as a whole. But the debates were not matters which gripped the passion of the majority of the population. This time those opposing attacking Iraq in Labour's ranks are not speaking for a concerned minority in society. They are echoing what the majority of people feel, and feel passionately.


Battling at home

WHILE TONY Blair was trying to drum up support for war his government was pressing ahead with its agenda on other fronts. Education secretary Charles Clarke was off selling New Labour's plans to impose top-up fees on higher education.

Health secretary Alan Milburn let slip that he was considering renaming his planned 'foundation hospitals' as 'foundation companies'. Home secretary David Blunkett was also pushing a vile new policy. He is dropping legislation to help the victims of crime to make begging a criminal offence. Chancellor Gordon Brown's claim to have ended 'boom and bust' in the economy is looking like a sick joke this week.

Share prices tumbled, and the total value of shares in Britain is less than half what it was at the height of the 1990s boom. That means more assaults on workers' pensions, as companies push wage cuts to plug the gap in pension funds caused by falling share prices. And it threatens both job cuts and public spending cuts on a scale not seen for years.

On Tuesday steel maker Corus announced plans to massacre 3,000 more jobs. Blair hopes to ride the storm over war, and then crush resistance on all the other fronts. If he can be stopped or toppled over war, then the government will find it much more difficult to press attacks on every other issue.


Not the time for secret protests

TONY BLAIR is gambling that he can contain the rebellion in Labour's ranks. He thinks that if he can win a second United Nations Security Council resolution it will head off the revolt. Even if he and Bush go to war alone, Blair hopes that once troops are in action Labour's rebels will back down and support war.

It is a gamble he could easily lose. But for that to happen means the anti-war movement should not rely on manoeuvres within the Labour Party. Key cabinet ministers are reputed to have privately told journalists that they could resign.

The time is long past for private doubts, off the record briefings, backroom cabals or even mere threats to resign. All those who oppose war, including MPs, ministers and cabinet members, have to make a stand, and now.

They must be pressed to publicly make clear to Blair that he has a simple choice. That is between his survival in office and support for Bush's war.


Key figure quits the Party in Scotland

TOMMY SHEPPARD was deputy general secretary of the Scottish Labour Party from 1994 to 1997, and before that he was a key figure in Labour's student organisation. He was a key architect in Scotland of Labour's 1997 election victory. This week he wrote in the Scottish Left Review why he was quitting the party. Here are some extracts:

'I JOINED the Labour Party in 1979, just before my 21st birthday. Now 25 years later I've finally got around to cancelling the direct debit. I can no longer bring myself to vote Labour. My outlook has barely changed, but clearly the Labour Party has. I can no longer believe the Labour Party is likely to change the world very much, or at least not in a direction I would like.

On every level the actions and expressed beliefs of the government create a range of negative emotions; sometimes merely irritation, more often disgust and contempt. The Labour government's continuing love affair with a right wing Republican administration in the White House is the most depressing and demeaning spectacle. It is sickening to behold the British prime minister play Robin to Bush's Batman gallivanting throughout the world from one imperial crusade to the next.

Labour has also failed at home. It started well, but devolution quickly became an end in itself rather than a start of a process of democratisation and self-government. Particularly disappointing is that Labour has spent so much of our cash in funding partnerships with the private sector. Why has it become extremist to argue that public services should not be run for profit? Labour has continued the shift from direct to indirect taxation and introduced tax cuts which mean the rich get richer and the poor get (relatively) poorer. I can't pretend this is OK anymore, and I withdraw my consent.'


Turning to socialism

TOMMY Sheppard's resignation has shaken the Labour Party in Scotland. He suggests that he may back the Scottish National Party in May's elections. Labour and the Scottish National Party are now neck and neck in opinion polls. But many others in Scotland are drawing the far better conclusion that the alternative to New Labour is the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP).

A series of opinion polls has suggested that the SSP could overtake the Tories in Scotland and win up to eight seats in the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood. Tommy Sheridan, the SSP's single current MSP, says: 'If we can maintain this support we will send at least eight socialists to Holyrood in May.'


Who uses veto most?

RUSSIA has used a veto only twice since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. FRANCE has used a veto separately from Britain and the US only five times in the history of the UN. CHINA likewise has only used its veto five times. BRITAIN has used a veto 32 times, on 23 occasions alongside the US. THE US has wielded its veto on 76 occasions, 35 times to defend the actions of Israel.


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Sat 15 Mar 2003, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1842
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