Report from Labour's conference
by Charlie Kimber in Brighton
There's no hiding growing unease
THE NEW Labour project is falling apart-and its tight control over dissent inside the party has also been broken.
That is the central lesson from this year's Labour Party conference. In the background was a succession of polls that showed the Tories in the lead. The leadership line was simply to repeat that the government is wonderful and to insist more people must recognise this.
Tony Blair and chancellor Gordon Brown believe that if anyone wants fundamental policy changes then they are muddle-headed or malicious. Such arguments satisfied the robotically Blairite section of the conference, the sort of delegates who got to speak more often than not.
A much bigger section was very uneasy with the government but unsure how to respond. However, a substantial number of delegates were in open revolt-and on some questions the majority turned against the leadership.
Clare Webster, a delegate from south west England, told Socialist Worker, "The people running New Labour are clueless. Very many of them have never been in a situation where we are behind in the polls. They do not know what to do about it. They are used to a tame press and the powerful on their side. They will drag us all down rather than admit they were wrong. And it's low paid workers, people on benefits, black people and asylum seekers who would pay the price if the Tories got back in."
A delegate from Wales said outside the conference, "The people around Blair know they are in a mess. They know one solution would be to make major concessions on some of the important issues like pensions. But they have really swallowed so much of the business agenda that they cannot bring themselves to do it. Many of us fear that Blair and Brown will do almost nothing new, that they will stick to the present direction and the election slogan will be 'New Labour is great-don't let the Tories back'. That won't convince millions of people to vote for us. We have to speak out, shout out, scream out that we want new policies."
Mary Pike from north east England told Socialist Worker, "It is very difficult to persuade anyone in my area to be active for the party. There is a general feeling that we have been let down. I can't believe some of the contributions you hear at this conference, where people come to the rostrum and sing hymns of praise to the government. I don't want the Tories back. Of course I don't. But if we go on like this we are playing into their hands."
This conference was very different from those in 1997, 1998 and 1999. Then the leadership brushed aside people who said the government was failing those who had elected it.
Union leaders backed Blair and Brown at key moments during those conferences to beat off challenges from the left. This time the union leaders were forced to rebel over particular issues, although they would not criticise the whole direction of government policy.
A London delegate from the GMB union told Socialist Worker, "We can feel the pressure from the shopfloor, from manual workers in the councils, from our retired members, from the people in the health service. We don't want to be oppositionists, but if we don't start making a fuss and get some policies changed then Labour is cutting its own throat-and the members won't believe that the GMB is standing up for them either."
Two of the best received speeches all week came from Rodney Bickerstaffe of UNISON and John Edmonds of the GMB. During the economy debate Rodney Bickerstaffe said, "I don't want an improvement in the Private Finance Initiative, I want to see an end to PFI. It's wrong in principle. Remember the 600 workers at Dudley Hospital who are in dispute. They have been sold like cattle in the marketplace. They want to work for the NHS."
John Edmonds said that the real lesson of recent debates over fuel prices is that "the oil companies are the all-time winners. They are on track for profits up to �40 billion. Perhaps they can help us all by paying a windfall tax. Take �3 billion from them and we could cut 25p off a gallon of fuel and still have enough left over to give the pensioners a �50 Christmas bonus."
Shifts in the unions' stance
THE TWO MPs on the committee that organises conference business-Stephen Twigg and Yvette Cooper-voted against having an emergency debate on pensions. But the three trade union reps-from the TGWU, the GMB and the normally pro-Blair AEEU-voted that the motions on pensions should be heard.
These same unions had voted against the restoration of the pension-earnings link at Labour's National Policy Forum in July. It was a similar story over immigration and asylum. The unions, led by the TGWU, insisted there must be discussion of a motion to scrap vouchers for asylum seekers and to restore cash benefits.
This is essentially the same motion that the unions, including the TGWU, voted against at the National Policy Forum three months ago. Socialist Worker went to press before key debates on pensions and asylum seekers. There were signs that the union leaders were trying to win backroom concessions and promises rather than pressing home crucial demands.
Certainly they cannot be trusted to lead opposition. But there can be no denying that the mood inside the party has shifted, reflecting the feeling outside.
First upsets for six years
THE LABOUR leadership lost two votes on the conference floor on Monday-the first votes they have lost for six years. The first was over a proposal that firms which cause pollution should not only face heavier fines but that the government should consider introducing penalties for directors.
The leadership opposed this moderate suggestion. But about 70 percent of the conference voted to support the bigger fines. Barry Camfield of the TGWU union told the conference, "We believe that those who pollute should pay the price." The second vote was even more significant.
The RMT rail union moved an amendment that the Advanced Train Protection (ATP) system should be installed on all lines as soon as possible. John Prescott wants ATP only on high-speed lines, the rest making do with the cheaper, less effective Train Protection Warning System.
RMT delegate Vernon Hince pointed out, "This leaves many of the travelling public not getting the safest system. It leaves out lines like London to Brighton. We don't want safety tacked on after profits."
A series of fawning delegates said everyone must just trust John Prescott. This tactic used to work. This time it failed. About 80 percent of the delegates voted against the leadership.