TONY BLAIR'S policy of supporting Bush over war with Iraq is causing the biggest turmoil inside the Labour Party for 20 years. In 1982 important sections of the right wing went from Labour to form the Social Democratic Party. This time it is the left who are outraged by the party's direction. The debate on the war at this week's conference gave one sign of the bitter mood. It involved leaders of some of the most important trade unions, still the bedrock of Labour, pitting themselves against the leadership. The revolt in parliament last week, when 56 Labour MPs voted against the government, was another important indication.
The MPs involved went beyond the Socialist Campaign Group or the traditional pacifist section of the party. They included Tony Banks, favourite to be selected as Labour candidate for mayor of London, and Ian Gibson, the chair of a Commons select committee. The party which has for over 100 years been the main focus of working class politics is now split over an issue of life and death.
The question of war touches on the questions of poverty, imperialism, peace and social justice that most Labour members are interested in. This upheaval will intensify debates about where the government is going, about what the union leaders should do, and whether the unions should continue to give their political funds just to Labour.
And some Labour members will decide they have had enough of what Blair has done to the party. Last week Paul Whiteley and Patrick Seyd wrote about the scale of the dissension inside Labour. They are the most respected academic researchers into the party's members. They said, 'If Blair continues with his current war policy and the inevitable row results then it would have two significant effects. The short term effect would be in the opinion polls. The long term effect is likely to be a significant haemorrhaging of the membership, much larger than in 1992 after the first war against Iraq. The party will lose significant amounts of money at a time when it is already in financial difficulties, and its electoral prospects will be greatly weakened in the future by the lack of campaign volunteers on the ground. In the long run, the road to Baghdad may leave the Labour Party bankrupt and in opposition. If the first Gulf War produced mass defections from the Labour Party, then the second is likely to produce a massive crisis in the grassroots party.'
When they say that more people could leave Labour now than left in 1992, they are suggesting that perhaps 30,000 could tear up their cards. The sort of people who could leave are also likely to be more rooted in working class organisation than in 1992. Then many Labour trade unionists hung on to play a role in beating the Tories when the next election came in 1997.
They also wanted to see what Blair as prime minister would really be like. Today's revolt against war comes with Labour in government and on top of a host of issues on the home front.
Anger with Blair is not just over war or privatisation. For many it is about war, PFI, the treatment of refugees, and what their local council is doing. Dissension inside Labour leads some people to sniff the possibility of winning the party back to the left. They feel that Blair is on the defensive and can be toppled, so it is time to stay.
But we can already see that, with a few honourable exceptions, the mood of Labour MPs over the war is well behind the mood in Britain generally. The past efforts to build a left inside the Labour Party have always meant pulling away from the main struggle in the outside world. Even when the left inside Labour has made gains it has still remained isolated and ultimately been defeated.
The revolt against Blair needs to go beyond the Labour Party. The future direction of left politics in Britain is not set in stone. It depends on the events and political forces which shape it. One of those forces is the politics, organisation, energy, intervention and size of the socialist alternative to Labour. We are not just interested observers watching what will happen - we are participants in the process.
The stronger the socialist alternative is, the more people will make the break from Blair. Moreover, unlike many previous occasions when Labour has gone through internal debate, there is a powerful global anti-capitalist movement adding to the forces at work.
People breaking from Blair to the left is precisely the situation that the Socialist Alliance was set up for. The job of the Socialist Alliance and the Scottish Socialist Party is to work with a broad range of people against the war, and at the same time argue to urgently build a left alternative to New Labour. Politics is opening up in a way that many of us have never experienced.