By Simon Basketter
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What’s behind the Labour leadership battle?

This article is over 17 years, 3 months old
The crisis created inside the government over the Iraq war has spilled over into the debate around who will lead the Labour Party after Tony Blair leaves office.
Issue 2040

The crisis created inside the government over the Iraq war has spilled over into the debate around who will lead the Labour Party after Tony Blair leaves office.

There is a left wing challenge for the leadership. But the disorderly queue of those not wanting to stand against chancellor Gordon Brown (but instead vying for the deputy leadership) is wracked with confusion over the war.

They include ministers Peter Hain, Hilary Benn and Hazel Blears.

Hain says, “No Labour minister, as I was at the time, can shirk responsibility for [the war].” However, he also says, “The intelligence was plain wrong”.

This chimes with Hilary Benn’s statement that, “although we now know the intelligence was wrong, I think the case for war was made in good faith”.

The challengers are all caught between the need to move beyond Blair and the stubborn refusal of the Labour leadership to admit that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are unmitigated disasters.

Debate in Labour, however muted, is welcome. It is an echo of a much bigger mood in society.

The debate opens a space for activists to argue over the unions’ relationship with the Labour Party.

John McDonnell and Michael Meacher, the two left wing candidates who have put themselves forward for the Labour leadership, open that space further.

However, there are problems – particularly with Meacher’s campaign. It could be seen as a spoiler to hinder the previously declared McDonnell.

Meacher, the former Bennite, spent a long time as a minister in Blair’s cabinet. What Meacher describes as his biggest mistake – voting for the invasion for Iraq – does not suggest a man of principle.

More impressive is John McDonnell. He has consistently been against the war and New Labour’s neoliberalism.

Martin Mayer, chair of T&G union’s Broad Left group, said, “The despair at the New Labour agenda in recent years has turned to anger and a determination to reclaim the Labour Party.

“By supporting John McDonnell we will add to the pressure on many of our Labour MPs cocooned in the unreal atmosphere in Westminster who currently believe that there is no alternative to Gordon Brown.”

Unfortunately, the notion that pressure from rank and file trade unionists and Labour members will be enough to get their MPs to nominate McDonnell seems extremely unlikely.

It remains doubtful whether he will get the nominations from 44 MPs necessary to get on the ballot paper. There are only 24 MPs in the Socialist Campaign Group, and not all of them are going to vote for McDonnell.

Socialist Worker applauds McDonnell’s efforts to campaign at a grassroots level.

Activists should push for their union to back McDonnell in the leadership election. The campaign has played a part in the much bigger debate about how the left regroups, and what sort of political representation workers and anti-war activists need.


But local Labour parties are frequently empty shells. For every Labour activist on the Stop the War protests there many more former activists who will never vote for Labour again because of the war.

The left wing Labour MP Alan Simpson last week announced that he won’t be standing again at the next election. He said, “There are good people in the Parliamentary Labour Party, just not enough of them.

“Many MPs complain of a government that no longer listens to the party, but they dutifully walk through the division lobbies to vote for whatever regressive measures Downing Street asks for.”

The reality is that the Labour left was far more powerful in the past. Yet even then it never managed to win the party to implementing socialist policies. The Labour Party was never there to be claimed for the left. It is a forlorn hope to imagine we can reclaim it now.

The meetings around the country set up by the Organising For Fighting Unions initiative provides a focus for debate both inside and outside the Labour Party.

The critical arena of struggle lies outside Labour. While a number of Labour MPs have stood out against the war and for workers’ rights they are a tiny layer.

There is a much bigger group of Labour Party supporters who are opposed to the war and against privatising the NHS.

They were on the streets of London and Glasgow last weekend. It was the Stop the War movement that created the crisis for Blair. It is the mobilisations of Stop the War that provide the basis for coming together to get rid of Blairism as well as Blair.

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