Last week MPs had the opportunity to vote for an inquiry into the Iraq war - but just 12 Labour MPs took the chance.
This was the first opportunity in two years for MPs to debate the most important issue in British and international politics in most people’s lifetimes. But the rebellion by Labour backbenchers was one of the smallest since Labour came to power in 1997.
Some of those who rebelled, such as Roger Godsiff from Birmingham Sparkbrook and Sir Peter Soulsby in Leicester South, must have done so because of the pressure brought against them by Respect candidates in recent elections.
But if you want the full measure of the degeneration of the political representation of working people try this little thought experiment - would the vote have been any better if it had been on any of the major demands of last weekend’s climate demonstration or on the RMT sponsored Trade Union Freedom Bill? I think we know the answer.
The truth is if we want better political representation we are going to have to fight for it ourselves. That doesn’t mean that we won’t welcome any strengthening of the left in the Labour Party, but it isn’t going to deliver much for working people any time soon.
The task of creating an alternative to New Labour will not be easy. A 100 year old monolith like the Labour Party will not be replaced overnight.
Generations of working people have given Labour their loyalty because they know how bad a system with no party based on the organised working class can be. They have 18 years of Thatcher and Major to remember if they are in any danger of forgetting how bad the Tory party is.
But, for all that, many hundreds of thousands are now desperate for change.
Nowhere is this more true than in the unions. There is a palpable desire for a different politics based on the kind of socialist and trade union ideology that most people thought they would find when they joined the Labour Party.
This is why the Respect initiated Organising for Fighting Unions conference is so important. It gives all those who want change, whether they are in the Labour Party, Respect or no party, the chance to shape a common response to privatisation, anti-union laws and attacks on the welfare state.
It gives us all the chance to work together to deepen the anti-war movement in the unions. With nearly 1,000 registered, over half of them elected delegates from union bodies, it’s the most representative gathering of trade unionists for many years.
It gives us the chance, as part of our common work, to discuss how we can develop the kind of political representation that is now no longer available from the Labour Party.
There’ll be a chance for all of us to have our say on how best the views of trade unionists can be represented in the parliamentary arena.
The task is urgent, as last week’s parliamentary vote on the Iraq inquiry shows only too clearly.
John Rees is the national secretary of Respect (personal capacity)
Organising for Fighting Unions conference
- Create a fighting union movement
- Discuss the issue of political representation for trade unionists
- Registration fee is £10 per delegate
Speakers include Mark Serwotka (PCS), Bob Crow (RMT), Matt Wrack (FBU), John McDonnell MP, George Galloway MP, John Hendy QC.
Conference initiated by the Respect coalition
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org phone 020 7613 5624 Organising for Fighting Unions, 9 Club Row, London E1 6JX