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Debating the future of Labour

This article is over 20 years, 2 months old
Millions of Labour supporters feel a growing distress at the direction the party has taken This feeling was reflected at a conference fringe meeting organised by the Socialist Campaign Group in Bournemouth on Monday evening. The speaker who really captured the sense of bitterness with New Labour was Bob Crow, leader of the RMT rail workers' union.
Issue 1871

Millions of Labour supporters feel a growing distress at the direction the party has taken This feeling was reflected at a conference fringe meeting organised by the Socialist Campaign Group in Bournemouth on Monday evening. The speaker who really captured the sense of bitterness with New Labour was Bob Crow, leader of the RMT rail workers’ union.

He told the meeting, ‘At RMT conference we passed a resolution saying we will only back Labour candidates that support our union’s policies and we will also support other candidates that do. At this conference we see people from Nestles, that has been criticised for selling formula milk in the third world, speaking with government ministers. You see people from W H Smith’s, who want to get into schools, people from Murdoch’s Sky TV.

Ministers are proud to rub shoulders with people like them. But when it comes to Royal Mail shifting post from the rail to the road, costing jobs on the rail and in the post, they don’t want to know. Someone asked me recently who I would like to see replace Tony Blair. I said none of them. They are all carrying out Tory policies. I don’t believe Gordon Brown will be better than Tony Blair. Brown talked to the New York Times recently about how we want more efficiency and greater rewards for the bosses. Why should we keep giving our money to people wearing red rosettes but using blue Tory boots to kick workers. John Prescott publicly gave back his union card because he said he didn’t want to be dictated to by the union. But he hasn’t been so quick to give back his posh grace and favour London flat owned by the union. My union will support left wing Labour MPs.

But I think people should stand against Prescott, Jack Straw and David Blunkett. They took us into an unjustified war. But when it comes to pensioners, students, the low paid, there is no money. Why should we carry on supporting a political party that is putting the boot into us?’

Other speakers shared this hostility to Tony Blair. But they were so keen to cling to the idea of reclaiming the party, they offered nothing to the millions radicalised over the war and looking for a focus for their political energies.

Many in the anti-war movement have cheered Tony Benn to the rafters for his powerful condemnations of the war on Iraq. But in Bournemouth he also argued, ‘We should be relaxed about reclaiming the Labour Party. We have been through periods much worse than this. Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald was the first New Labour leader when he formed a national government with the Tories back in 1931. But just 14 years later, there was a Labour landslide. We did that-the trade unions did that. Blair comes here and says Iraq is his greatest triumph, but we can’t actually discuss it. But don’t call for Blair’s resignation. That is what the right wing press would love. Just concentrate on the issues, and ignore what is going on in number 10.’ Jeremy Corbyn described travelling to the conference on a train packed with corporate lobbyists.

He laid into the government over the war, saying, ‘The most serious thing to come out of the Hutton Inquiry was the cynicism with which ministers presented the case for war, as though 10,000 Iraqis didn’t count for a hill of beans. One in ten of all Labour voters were in London on 15 February. But Tony Blair thinks if he doesn’t talk about it, it will just go away.’

While Labour’s collapsing support is testimony to how bitterly disappointed people are with it’s Tory policies, Corbyn argued that the government also had a good legacy it could build on. ‘We have done a lot of good things, with the minimum wage, the human rights legislation. But we have to deliver on our core values, otherwise our voters will just stay at home.’

Diane Abbott addressed the lessons of what she called the ‘catastrophic defeat’ of the Labour candidate in the Brent East by-election. She said, ‘Labour MPs are talking about Tony Blair in a way they never have before. They have lived with cuts in single parent benefits, in disability benefit, with other wars, with Tory spending limits. But they can’t live with the idea that Tony Blair might lose their seats for them. They are rediscovering their consciences fast. So perhaps some good will come out of Brent. Centre right MPs will wake up to the need for change.’

‘Fostering illusions helps the BNP’

GEOFF MARTIN, convenor of London region Unison, pointed to the dangers of sitting back and waiting for right wing Labour MPs to act. The political situation demands urgent action, not changing one leader for another with the same policies.

He spoke about how the Nazi BNP was building out of New Labour’s failures. ‘New Labour has created the conditions under which the BNP can thrive. It is David Blunkett’s anti-asylum seeker agenda that feeds the BNP. Labour’s membership has fallen from 400,000 to 248,000 and many think that figure has been engineered upwards. This disengagement from Labour politics means the far right can flourish in some areas. In the elections next June, the BNP could win a seat in the European parliament, or even on the Greater London Assembly. This will be the legacy of the New Labour project-destroying the party at its base. We are reaping the whirlwind with the growth of the far right. Now it is about what we can do to stop the fascists.’

Many Labour activists are desperately clinging to the hope that Tony Blair is finished and that Gordon Brown represents real hope that life will improve for ordinary people. This is an illusion and fostering such illusions can only weaken the movement for real change.

Stage-managed conference can’t even put on a good show

STAGE management at Labour’s conference is nothing new. But Labour sunk to new depths when it tried to stop a vote on the war on Iraq. The RMT union put in an emergency motion calling the war unjustified and demanding the immediate withdrawal of troops.

Bob Crow explained, ‘The first argument the Conference Arrangements Committee put as to why it couldn’t be put to conference was that they hadn’t received a hard copy. We gave them a hard copy. Then they said they couldn’t find any RMT delegates. We found five for them. Then they said it wasn’t an emergency because the war was over. They are waiting until Blair’s speech is out of the way before they discuss the war. If they believed in their hearts the war was right, they would have the debate out. Next year it could be foundation hospitals or tuition fees.’

Christine Shawcroft, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee said Blairite stooges manipulated delegates, saying there would be a full debate on Iraq in the Britain and the World session. ‘They said don’t vote to prioritise Iraq because it will be discussed anyway so you will be wasting your vote. But the leadership’s attempts at a stitch-up have bitten them in the bum and the bad newspaper headlines are making them think again.’ Tony Benn added, ‘If they don’t let us discuss the war, even though our troops are being killed in Basra, it tells you everything you want to know about New Labour.’

And Jeremy Corbyn expressed the same feeling: ‘They have spent the last week trying to persuade people in the constituency parties to vote against debating Iraq. Blair thinks that if he doesn’t talk about it, it will go away. No one voted Labour because they wanted to go to war five times in six years for the US.’

A conference delegate from the south east region told Socialist Worker, ‘I think some of the unions have been promised changes to workers’ rights or pensions if they don’t vote to prioritise Iraq.

‘A few years ago we got promises over pensions, it turned into a review, where they came and asked us questions, but didn’t listen to the answers. In the end, the policy didn’t change at all.’


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