THE LEFT of the Labour Party had a spring in its step on Saturday. Around 300 Labour Party members and trade unionists came together for a conference called 'After New Labour'. It was organised by the left wing Socialist Campaign Group of MPs.
The national publicity for the conference and the renewed confidence of those who attended are a sign of what is changing in politics. The meeting could not have been better timed, coming just after the council workers' strike and the election of Derek Simpson to the leadership of the Amicus union.
The idea that 'the tide is turning' ran through the day. Labour Party members who have felt marginalised and ignored for years now believe they can make an impact in developing Labour's future. London Labour Party member Irene Johnson told Socialist Worker, 'Tony Blair can't brush us aside any more. It's clear from the union elections that most people are sick of right wing policies.
'The general public are to the left of Labour, and the union members are to the left of Labour. Things are going to change.' Several important union leaders were present at the conference, including John Edmonds (GMB), Billy Hayes (CWU), Bob Crow (RMT) and Dave Prentis (Unison). John Edmonds said to applause, 'I came not to praise New Labour but to bury it. Some people have said that New Labour is already dead, but the problem is that nobody has told the corpse yet.'
Conference chair John McDonnell MP said, 'We are coming together in the same way as those before us did-this time not to create the Labour Party but to save it.' Speaker after speaker spoke of shock and anger among Labour Party members about what the government is doing-over privatisation, support for Bush's war and the scapegoating of asylum seekers.
A series of workshop discussions gave detailed evidence of just how far and how fast New Labour has gone to the right. The conference showed that there are many issues where the left inside and outside the Labour Party can unite in activity.
We can, for example, march together against the war, organise to push back the BNP Nazis, campaign for the left in future union elections, push for more action against low pay and privatisation, demand an end to anti-union laws, and oppose sell-offs of council housing.
Which direction is needed?
THE MAIN theme of Saturday's conference was taking on New Labour's Tory policies. But there was not a great deal of direction about how to do it. Dave Prentis of Unison put his stress on the need to get more private meetings between union chiefs and cabinet ministers. Some speakers called for a renewed effort to raise issues in internal Labour Party structures.
Others demanded a campaign to make union representatives on the party's executive vote in accordance with union policy. There certainly should be pressure to make these trade unionists vote as their members want.
It is a disgrace that, as Labour National Executive Committee member Christine Shawcroft revealed: 'The Unison delegates on the executive are a total waste of space, and it would be a step forwards if the CWU's John Keggie actually turned up for a meeting.' But Blair has fixed the internal structures to make it very hard for any real opposition to emerge through this mechanism.
There was not nearly enough discussion on Saturday of really confronting the government through protests, demonstrations and strikes. The other main argument put was that people should now join or rejoin Labour, and that the unions should rebuff any calls to question the link with Labour.
Barry Camfield, who is likely to run as the left candidate to follow Bill Morris as leader of the TGWU, said that he wanted to increase the amount of money the union gave to Labour. Alan Simpson MP said that it was wrong to talk about any sort of break with Labour: 'You stay and fight your corner-we should strengthen the trade union link with Labour, not weaken it.'
It is right to emphasise the need for the unions to have political funds, and for the unions to be politically active. But it would be wrong for the unions to hurl even more cash to a party that is attacking union members. It would simply encourage Labour ministers to think they can get away with anything.
It is also wrong to oppose moves to democratise the political funds. This would mean that union members could decide to give it to a range of parties and MPs that genuinely represent the union's views.
RMT leader Bob Crow said of the left wing MPs which the RMT now gives money to, 'Those 13 have done more in the last two weeks than the other lot did in 17 years.'