LABOUR conference delegates inflicted a serious defeat on Tony Blair's privatisation policies on Monday. By a vote of 67 percent to 33 percent they called for an independent review of the use of private finance in public services - the government's PFI and PPP schemes.
This modest demand was too much for New Labour leaders. It had become a symbol of the anger which millions of people feel about the rip-off firms that are making huge profits out of the NHS, schools and local government services.
The party leadership fought hard to defeat the motion. They lost the vote comprehensively, despite wheeling out John Prescott, Gordon Brown and Ian McCartney to argue against the motion. All three have at various points been seen as closer to 'Old Labour' views than the coterie around Blair. Yet despite their speeches the 'affiliated organisations' section of the conference (made up almost entirely of the trade unions) voted 92 percent for the review.
When chief secretary to the Treasury Paul Boateng spoke parts of his speech were slow-handclapped, booed and jeered by delegates. There were shouts of 'Sit down!' and 'Rubbish!' 'His patronising and sneering tone summed up everything that is wrong with this government,' a delegate told Socialist Worker. It is only the second major conference defeat Blair has suffered since he became leader.
The first came two years ago when the conference demanded a restoration of the earnings link for pensions. New Labour of course ignored that vote. The general secretary of the Unison public sector workers' union, Dave Prentis, opened this week's conference debate on PFI. 'This is not about abandoning investment or putting jobs of building workers at risk, as some have cynically claimed,' he said.
'It's about why profits of 20 to 30 percent are made from these PFI schemes, and what happens to workers pushed into the hands of private companies. We have low paid women workers eulogised from the platform by ministers, but under PFI they are sold on as commodities to the lowest bidder.'
Several delegates claimed that without PFI the government would fail to build the hospitals and schools that everyone wanted.
And pensions minister Ian McCartney tried the outrageous trick of saying that using private companies represented a socialist move. 'I joined the Labour Party because I wanted to get my hands on private capital. We are taking the money from City speculators and using it for schools and hospitals,' he said. McCartney stood the truth on its head.
Under New Labour private firms are pumping money from public services into their profits. Money that could be used for the benefit of everyone ends up enriching a tiny few. Mick Rix, general secretary of the Aslef train drivers' union, said, 'If the government doesn't listen we'll all pay the price. 'The public can see we are mortgaging our kids' future to make the fat cats fatter today.'
Lewisham delegate Christopher Mills said that it would be wrong for New Labour to say 'public good, private bad'. He heaped praise on the success of the vast 'Public-Private Partnership' project to rebuild Glasgow schools. Nobody had told him that just a few days earlier Glasgow City Council had begun moves to renegotiate the whole contract.
The council has found that local communities cannot get proper access to the privately-controlled school sports and leisure facilities that form part of the project.
Bill Morris from the TGWU transport workers' union said, 'If the public services debate is about anything, it is the future of the NHS. 'We are told that we have to move on from the 1945 model of the NHS. 'But I have no wish to move on from the principle of a publicly funded, publicly available service free at the point of use.'
In a very effective speech, John Edmonds, the leader of the GMB general workers' union, said: 'We have a dossier of PFI failures that stretch from here to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. That was seen as such a success that the prime minister was taken there to open it. Six days later the health board announced that because of cost overruns clinical and support staff were to be sacked. The directors of the top 15 PFI companies last year got increases of 32 percent. I wish GMB members and the firefighters could get their hands on increases like that.'
Struggle strikes a chord
THE INCREASE in strikes has lifted the mood at the Labour Party conference. Many delegates still side instinctively with ordinary people fighting back, despite the changes Blair has pushed through in the Labour Party. On Monday more than a third of the delegates wore stickers supporting the firefighters' pay claim.
Many delegates backed Aslef rail union leader Mick Rix when he said, 'I'm sorry if you were delayed getting to the conference by a strike. 'But I don't make any apologies for our members on First North Western fighting for better pay when Railtrack directors are walking away with £6 million payoffs.' Unison delegate Irene Stacey received some of the loudest applause of the conference when she said, 'Local government workers in London are striking for a flat rate increase.
'It's time for the government to start making the hard choices we hear so much about. Don't blame us for standing up for low paid workers. If you want decent public services then you're going to have to pay for them, now.'
As for where the money would come from, delegate Glyn Williams, who introduced himself as 'a humble steel worker', pointed to the greedy managers who had taken so much. He pleaded to Gordon Brown to 'tax these bastards'.
Anger at refugee policies
MANY DELEGATES were angry at the way New Labour has scapegoated asylum seekers for the problems in society. Black delegate Collette Cork-Hurst, from the TGWU union, denounced the 'exclusion and segregation' imposed on refugees. 'They are not treated as valid citizens,' she said.
'One of our particular concerns is the way children of asylum seekers are separated off from children in local schools.'
Leadership shows its contempt for democracy
CHANCELLOR GORDON Brown and other ministers said they would ignore the conference vote on privatisation. Brown was much more concerned to soothe the fears of City financiers and private companies than to listen to Labour delegates.
But whether New Labour can ignore the fury expressed in the debate depends on whether it is followed up with a fight. The Labour conference vote could serve as a springboard to action if union leaders turn their words into effective campaigns and strikes. Ministers' contemptuous dismissal of party democracy shows how people at the top of New Labour's hierarchy regard the trade unions.
The party's website even headlined the conference vote as 'Party membership backs leadership on public service reform'. This was based on the fact that delegates from local constituency Labour parties voted by 57 percent to 43 percent against a review of PFI. This ignores the delegates elected from the trade unions which represent working people. For the New Labour hierarchy trade union affiliates no longer count as 'party members'.