Socialist Worker

A journey through the heart of Labour

A new book by GEORGE GALLOWAY MP, who is heading the Respect list in London for the European elections on 10 June, is published this week. He spoke to Socialist Worker about his journey from the Dundee Labour Party to taking on Blair at the ballot box.

Issue No. 1899

MY PARENTS worshipped the 1960s Labour leader Harold Wilson. He talked the language of the "white-hot heat of the technological revolution". He spoke of an end to deference and elitism. It was exciting to hear that as a youngster. Wilson unexpectedly lost in June 1970. I became a part of the great working class upsurge against Ted Heath's Tory government.

I remember being caught playing truant by appearing in a picture on the front page of the Scotsman newspaper on a demonstration in Dundee against John Davies, the Tory minister in charge of running down "lame duck" industries. I was well to the left of my parents. I'd been elected to Labour's Young Socialist Scottish committee. The majority on the committee regarded me as not left wing enough, but not one of them is involved today in politics, let alone socialist politics.

From around 1973 I began to move through the ranks of the "big Labour Party". I was the youngest ever chairman of the party in Scotland and then organiser. By the time of the collapse of the Labour government in 1979 I was a full time official.

My conclusion at the time was that the Labour government had failed and collapsed not because it was too left wing, but not left wing enough. It disappointed, even betrayed, its core constituency. I became part of the wave of support for Tony Benn. I remember organising a 5,000-strong rally for Benn. I was arguing for Benn to broaden his campaign to the trade unions and the middle ground of the Labour Party.

I had some very hot arguments with people on the left of Benn's campaign who have now metamorphosed into Blairite fanatics, like Margaret Hodge and Patricia Hewitt.

Benn lost the deputy leadership by an eyebrow to Denis Healey. We can only speculate about what the impact of having a genuinely socialist Labour leader who popularised socialist ideas would have been. I think it would have left us in a stronger position than we were. I moved to London in 1983 as the head of War on Want and spent four years almost wholly absorbed in international work.

Like other activists I was involved in the miners' strike. In 1987 I was elected to parliament, beating Roy Jenkins of the SDP, a right wing breakaway from Labour.

I entered parliament as a relatively mainstream person, given Labour's political spectrum at the time. I was on the centre left in Labour Party terms. I joined the Tribune group. With Peter Hain and Ken Livingstone, I issued a call for a joint slate for the shadow cabinet elections between the Campaign group and Tribune. I wonder if Peter Hain remembers that now.

I took up fairly mainstream positions inside the Labour Party. I was elected senior vice-chairman of the party's foreign affairs committee, a position I was elected to 13 out of 15 times. The only times I was not were in the run-up to the Gulf War in 1991 and again in 2003.

One of my first parliamentary memories was staying up all night trying to talk out the Tories' bill to abolish the national dock labour scheme. Then we were unexpectedly plunged into Gulf War One.

My wish to be part of mainstream Labour politics was immediately posed against my understanding of the Middle East and what the impact of a savage assault by 30 countries on Iraq would be. Iraq was at that time the only Arab country I had never visited. I would have been arrested if I had, as I was a well known opponent of Saddam Hussein's regime.

But I had no hesitation in making a stand against the war. With the Labour front bench backing the Tories all the way, that had the effect of driving me further outside the party mainstream. I don't regret that, but it was not my choice.

I spent the 1990s as one of the few prominent people talking about the impact of sanctions on the Iraqi people. I had the chance in 1993 and 1994 to see just how desperate the situation was. It is still underestimated today. You really would have had to be in an Iraqi hospital in the mid-1990s to understand the suffering.

That marked my soul and pushed me further away from the Labour leadership. There was a brief pause under John Smith, to whom I was personally close and friendly. But then we are into the triumph of Blair, the scrapping of Clause Four and the festival of destruction of everything Labour about the party. I was certain at the time that he was determined to destroy anything that was social democratic about the party.

From 1987 to 1994 people like me in the parliamentary party began to be winnowed out by one way or another-by the grim reaper, by retirement or the kind of rigging that has become so synonymous with New Labour. You used to be able to go to the tearoom and choose between the miners' table, the north west table, the Scottish table and so on. They were all working class left of centre people.

They were all genuinely Labour people. They would not have dreamt of sending their children to selective, opted out or private schools or of privatising industries.

The die was cast from the moment Blair scrapped Clause Four. The rest was a rearguard action. I still believe that action was worth fighting. I believed that right up to the night Labour MPs voted in their hundreds for war on Iraq last year. I now regret not leaving the Labour Party on that night. I think it became intellectually and morally indefensible to remain.

Even though going through the witch-hunt and the farcical trial that expelled me did expose the Labour leadership, going then would have given us an extra year to build Respect.

So now we are where we are. The world is in flames. Labour is on its way to severe defeat in the elections on 10 June-losing out to everyone, including abstentionism.

It is distinctly possible that Blair will be out by the next general election and Bush too. The issue is whether we can break through with Respect, and that requires a monumental effort from all of us over the next six weeks.

The argument for Respect in my book is aimed to two groups. It is appealing to those whose historic allegiance to the Labour Party is very hard to break, and that's commendable. You don't spend your life and your parents' lives before you loyal to a party and then leave it easily.

It's always tempting to think that Labour will come back to being a genuinely labour formation. Even if you believe that is going to happen, the best way to make it so is to demonstrate there is life outside New Labour and ensure that is reflected in the ballot box.

Perhaps more importantly, it is addressing the millions who feel good that they marched against the war. I'm trying to persuade them that though protest is vital it is not sufficient. We came up against the rocks of the democratic deficit in this country. The MPs were going to do what Blair told them to do.

If our marches had been matched by industrial action and big penetration of organised labour we would have made more of an impact. The great lesson is we have to challenge these people politically, and that also means electorally. I hope it works. I think it will work. If it doesn't, then it's back to the drawing board. If it does work it could change everything.

We need to keep the anti-war movement alive and continue the politics of the street demonstrations. We need to continue our work to connect the trade union movement to the broader anti-war and anti-capitalist movement. There are many unions affiliated to the Stop the War Coalition.

But we should not fool ourselves into thinking that the mass of the organised working class has yet been connected to the anti-war and anti-capitalist movements. That's partly a reflection of the new shape of the movement and of the working class.

It's also a product of the economism that has bedevilled the union movement in this country. We also have to look at ourselves. We are talking about rebuilding the labour movement with a new approach on a new footing.

We have to be attractive to people. You can't just put up your flag and hope people come flocking. It has to be a bright flag. It has to touch people. We have a responsibility to work in new ways. But the fundamentals have not changed.

The working class is still utterly indispensable to life and to any attempt to change society for the better. Its structures have changed and we need to take account of that.

The cutting edge of the anti-war and anti-globalisation movement in Britain is coming on board with Respect. We've got to work harder to bring in other figures and constituencies.

  • I'm Not The Only One by George Galloway is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, for £10. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com


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    Features
    Sat 1 May 2004, 00:00 BST
    Issue No. 1899
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