THE TURMOIL inside the Labour Party over the war was on display at last Saturday's conference of Labour Against the War. Around 300 anti-war Labour Party members gathered to discuss how to stop the war and what to do about the leadership. Every speaker was bitterly critical of Blair and the war. George Galloway MP posed some stark questions.
'I will speak at three anti-war meetings today and this is the smallest of them,' he said. 'We, the Labour Party, are led by liars, forgers and war criminals. There are calls to reclaim the Labour Party for peace. If I thought the Labour Party could be reclaimed there would be nobody happier. But it is not just the war. At the same time as we're setting fire to Baghdad we are extinguishing the rights of the firefighters' union here. In Belmarsh prison there are people who are held without charge and without rights. There is the witch-hunting of asylum seekers, and top-up fees and student loans. We effectively do not have a Labour Party. Yes, 139 Labour MPs voted against the war but we do not see them on demonstrations. In this room I see tried and trusted comrades, not the 139. Can the Labour Party be reclaimed for peace and Labour values? (Shout from the floor: 'Yes'.)
'I ask people to provide evidence. Are there enough of us left or have most already gone? It's true that 150,000 have left since 1990. (Shout from the floor: 'Get out and join the Socialist Alliance!')
'No country like ours can afford to be without a Labour Party. I don't mean a Leninist party or a Marxist party. I mean a broadly based, trade union based social democratic party. If we cannot quickly show that this can be done then we face the unpalatable fact that someone will have to form the Labour Party that Britain no longer has.'
Several speakers immediately said it was not time to 'walk away from the Labour Party'. But even those who disagreed with some of George Galloway's speech gave evidence of how the leadership has cut itself off from what people think. Joy Kramer from Hastings and Rye constituency said that she and others had been 'hanging on for today and pleading with people not to resign from the party. On a recent anti-war demonstration an 82 year old woman member tore up her party card in disgust at what Blair had done.'
Joan Sinnett from Blackburn told how 100 constituents had gone to see Jack Straw, their local MP: 'He refused to meet us and there is now deep bitterness.'
Len Silverstone from Hertsmere, just north of London, said, 'There is frustration at being a party member. I have never seen so many people tear up their party cards. I have been speaking to a very good, left wing councillor in our area who says he will not stand again. We had a lot of resignations over Ken Livingstone. But there are already twice as many party memberships cancelled over the war. How far down the line can we go with that man, Tony Blair? At the recent Labour local government conference in Glasgow me and my wife tried to join the anti-war demonstration outside. We were blocked at the door, so we held our own demo inside, some 100 councillors. John Reid, the Labour Party chair, said we were traitors. I'm not a traitor, Reid is.'
Jenny Rathbone from Islington North told how working class people had almost all left the local party. Rozanne Foyer made a telling speech that showed the problems Labour is facing in the run-up to May's Scottish Parliament elections.
She is assistant secretary of the Scottish TUC but on this occasion was speaking as an ordinary Labour member from Glasgow's Maryhill constituency. She described how the recent Scottish Labour conference had seen 'revolt, the lid flew off the pressure cooker.
'In Glasgow now you face a barrage just for being a member of the Labour Party. People don't want to campaign in the parliament elections. I was leafleting recently and as I pushed leaflets through doors they came back out again with people saying, 'Not in my name'.'
There was a debate about whether Labour Against the War should call for Blair to go. In the end the conference held an 'indicative vote' which was not binding on the group's policy. About 70 percent of the delegates voted to make getting rid of Blair a central aim.