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What’s behind the backbench revolt?

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Issue 1759

What socialists say

What’s behind the backbench revolt?

By Hazel Croft

“IT’S MUTINY.” That was the Sun’s headline last week as Labour backbench MPs staged their biggest ever rebellion against Tony Blair. Over 100 Labour MPs defied the government’s decision to sack Gwyneth Dunwoody and Donald Anderson from the transport and foreign affairs parliamentary select committees.

The revolt went far wider than the minority of left wing MPs. It included 15 former ministers, a parliamentary private secretary, and eight of the new Labour intake. Normally loyal New Labour MP Fiona Mactaggart also slammed the government last week. Why have people who toed the Blair line throughout the last parliament now decided to bite back?

Last week’s revolt was about much more than the obscure workings of the select committees. The revolt reflected opposition-albeit in a timid way-to the government’s zeal for privatisation.

Gwyneth Dunwoody was sacked from the transport select committee because she is an outspoken critic of the privatisation of the tube and air traffic control. The MPs’ revolt goes wider than these issues. Blair has made clear his second term will see a drive to privatise public services from health to education. It is the scale of that Thatcherite agenda that is fuelling a quite different mood among Labour MPs to that which prevailed throughout Blair’s first term in office.

Blair looked shocked when Labour MPs led the assault against him at prime minister’s question time. Labour MPs tackled Blair over disability benefit cuts, privatisation and his kow-towing to George Bush over “Son of Star Wars”. Last week Labour MPs not usually critical of the government queued up to slam the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) in parliament.

David Taylor, Labour MP for Leicestershire North West, said, “I must confess dismay and astonishment at the readiness of my government to prod and coerce public agencies down the PFI and Public-Private Partnership route.” Kelvin Hopkins, Labour MP for Luton North, said, “Many Labour members believe that PFI is irrational nonsense, and it is also extremely unpopular with the public.”

The Thatcherite ideologues who form the core of the Blair project have always been a small coterie. Most Labour MPs have so far been prepared to go along with the project, in the hope of a leg up the career ladder and the prospect of a glittering ministerial future. Others have been conned by the Blairites’ argument that if they speak out and rock the boat they’ll be ushering in a Tory victory. But few have been hardcore headbangers for the cause of Blair’s neo-liberal privatisation agenda.

Now, with a huge Labour majority and the Tories humiliated, and with many hopefuls having had their ministerial ambitions dashed, some have decided they have nothing much to lose by speaking out. Even if the backbenchers keep up their revolt-and this is by no means certain-we need far more than a few rebel votes in parliament to halt Blair’s plans. Fortunately the MPs’ reaction to Blair’s plans is only a very pale reflection of the deep and widespread hatred of privatisation among millions of Labour voters and trade unionists.

That feeling has pushed trade union leaders to react. Leaders of the GMB union voted unanimously to slash 1 million funding from the Labour Party over the next four years. The union says it will use the money to fund a major campaign against privatisation.

The GMB’s decision follows votes by the Fire Brigades Union and UNISON to question the political fund payments they and many unions make to Labour. UNISON, the GMB and the TGWU union are planning a joint meeting against privatisation at Labour’s conference in September. These developments open up an exciting situation for workers and trade unionists everywhere to build a fight against privatisation, with protests and strikes. Every trade unionist can also argue that their union branch should follow the GMB’s example and use their members’ money to fight privatisation.

The debate about the political fund, and union links with the Labour Party, can become a major discussion in every trade union branch and workplace in Britain. Some trade union leaders have strongly hinted that they would consider supporting the Liberals.

“We will go into uncharted territory and talk to the Liberal Democrats and others,” wrote UNISON’s general secretary Dave Prentis in the Guardian last week. GMB leader John Edmonds and the TGWU’s Bill Morris have made similar noises. But the Liberals are a pro-business party which supports private sector involvement in public services and backs anti trade union laws. Every trade unionist can instead raise the question of whether the real alternative to funding Labour should instead be throwing weight behind those fighting privatisation like the Socialist Alliance and Scottish Socialist Party.

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