Labour’s spring conference in Glasgow last weekend was a chance to see what is going on at the heart of the Labour Party. It brought together 3,000 Labour members from all over Britain to hear a series of speeches and, for all practical purposes, to hear the leadership launch the election campaign.
The delegates are the sort of people who will form the backbone of New Labour’s doorstep army. Socialist Worker was not allowed to have reporting credentials for Labour’s conference, which seems to have become the norm. But it was possible to speak to delegates outside.
Two conflicting pressures weighed on every delegate. These pressures were to shut up to get Labour in, or to speak out to denounce Labour’s betrayals. With the election expected in just a few weeks time, everyone wanted to pull together to provide a united face against the Tories.
Delegate after delegate told Socialist Worker that the New Labour government had been ‘disappointing’, or ‘too much like the Tories’, or even ‘a bloody disgrace that would have made me think it was Thatcher if I’d been blindfolded’. But they all also said it was still important to re-elect New Labour to prevent the Tories unleashing even more privatisation, even worse anti-union laws, even worse attacks on benefits and even worse racism.
Some delegates to Labour conferences are odious Mandelson-like figures who have abandoned any belief they might once have had in socialism or the working class. They look, think and act like management. But, in the main, the delegates were decent people from constituencies and unions who want to see a better world. At the same time they are terrified of doing anything which might be seen as helpful to the Tories and the right wing media.
There was a deep bitterness from many delegates at the squalidly right wing policies of Blair that are making it very hard to get the vote out for Labour. As Alan Mitchell, a delegate from north east England, told Socialist Worker, ‘I dread going on the doorsteps this year. I know people think we’ve let down the pensioners, sold off the public sector and let the rich make hay. ‘The worst thing is I know they’re right. And then there’s Mandelson…’ As Blair rose to speak at the conference, delegates were digesting a very detailed poll in Scotland on Sunday.
It showed that just 56 percent of Scots are certain to vote (compared to 68 percent at the same stage in 1997). This is not because they are ‘cynical about politics’. For most it is because they hate the Tories, aren’t at all sure about the nationalism of the SNP, but are also utterly disillusioned about Labour. The same poll found that only 15 percent of people think the NHS has got better under Labour, while 35 percent think it has got worse. Many delegates at the conference also agreed with TGWU union leader Bill Morris’s criticism of the bombing of Iraq.
‘I think it is appalling. It is terrible. It is killing people-women and children in particular,’ said Joyce Magennis from Dundee West. Union delegate Jennifer Sanderson said, ‘We’re just a bloody US satellite. There seems to be no limit to how far we’ll go to do what the US wants.’
This angry mood about the government found expression in the conference sessions that were closed to the press. Freed from possible charges of disloyalty, delegates attacked the government over the use of PFI, over its lack of ‘family friendly’ measures, and other over issues.
In an effort to still these doubts, education secretary David Blunkett and deputy prime minister John Prescott made a point of criticising the use of the term ‘bog-standard’ that Blair’s spokesman Alistair Campbell used about comprehensive schools. But the doubts remain.
The mood among Labour’s core members, which is reflected in much of its wider support, is a challenge to those of us campaigning for a Socialist Alliance or Scottish Socialist Party vote. We have to explain that we are utterly opposed to the Tories, that we are not indifferent to Ann Widdecombe becoming home secretary or William Hague taking charge. But we are also determined to stop Tory policies coming from a New Labour government, determined to put up open opposition to privatisation, handouts to the rich, and racist asylum policies, whichever party they come from. The choice before us is wider than right wing policies from Labour or right wing policies from the Tories.
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