By John Rees
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Politics after Blair

This article is over 15 years, 3 months old
John Rees examines the strategic choices that those who oppose war and neo-liberalism face in the post-Blair era.
Issue 310

The end of Tony Blair’s prime ministership, announced almost exactly five years after the events of 9/11, is a major success for the anti-war movement. For people who became politically active through the struggle against the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon, five years can seem like a lifetime. But in terms of British politics it is a blink of an eye.

Yet in those five short years we have got rid of our prime minister over the question of the war – and that is a fact that is clearly understood by millions of people in Britain, and millions more around the globe. The reason why this could happen is primarily down to the sustained pressure brought to bear by the anti-war movement. Governments can do bad things on a regular basis, they can tell very big lies, and they can even cause untold bloodshed. And they can get away with it – if there isn’t a movement that can hold them to account. By getting rid of the prime minister, we succeeded in holding our government to account. But, of course, our aim is to change the policy as well as the person.

The political situation is characterised by two distinct windows of opportunity for those who opposed the war. The defeat of the Israelis, and by extension George Bush, in Lebanon has produced a window of opportunity where the anti-war movement can halt the planned assault on Iran – maybe permanently. However, that window will not remain open indefinitely, so we must act firmly and decisively now.

Neither the Israelis nor the US can allow their defeat to stand for too long. The fact that Hizbollah led such successful resistance to Israel has greatly destabilised the Arab regimes of the Middle East, because they have always proved themselves impotent in the face of Israeli aggression. It is a lesson that is spreading across the region to the detriment of the existing governments.

This international window of opportunity is related to a domestic window of opportunity which also presents itself. Blair has fallen because his failure to call for an immediate ceasefire during Israel’s assault on Lebanon was a war too far, even for many of his hitherto loyal cabinet ministers.

This has produced a peculiar limbo in British politics where everyone knows that the prime minister is finished, but he remains in office. But Blair’s weakness offers us a chance to drive home our advantage, both on the questions of the war and the occupation, and on domestic issues as well. If the left can press home its advantage, it will impact on the international situation by making it difficult for Blair and his successors to continue the alliance with Bush. In turn, a rupture in the transatlantic alliance will start to crack open the Project for a New American Century.

Decomposition of Blairism

Despite the fact that the left has the advantage, it is possible that Blair’s successor could enjoy something of a honeymoon period – for no other reason that he or she is not Tony Blair. But if there is going to be a honeymoon, it is going to be a short one. The difficulty facing Gordon Brown, or whoever else who may take over from Blair, is this: while their personal predilection will be to maintain existing foreign policy, it will be very difficult to hold that course when you know that your predecessor was driven from office for precisely this reason. And whoever follows Blair will not have the benefit of his track record of success in elections. The faultlines in Blair’s premiership will return to haunt his successor.

When something as monolithic and long lasting as Blairism begins to break up, it is inevitable that there will be a degree of political turmoil. Therefore it is understandable that some on the left of the Labour Party, like Clare Short, rejoice when they see Blair going, but are dismayed when they see that his policies will live on. They have drawn the conclusion that there is no viable future for the left inside Labour, yet they have not decided to commit to Respect or form their own alternative to New Labour.

Despite this, Respect members will need to work with all those who have drawn this conclusion, whether that is through the anti-war movement, or at the forthcoming Organising For Fighting Unions conference, or any other campaign. We must hope that by working alongside them on the issues where we agree, we can persuade them that Respect can be a viable political vehicle for themselves and others.

Clearly, Respect members are not alone in thinking that the Labour Party cannot be transformed or recaptured by the left. Nevertheless, we believe that whenever there is a gain for the left, whether inside or outside the Labour Party, it is a gain for the whole of the left. If there is a stronger voice inside Labour which is anti-war, anti-privatisation and pro-trade union, and one which defends the welfare state, that strengthens the whole of the left. It is in this spirit that we welcome John McDonnell’s bid for the leadership of the Labour Party. If he does well, then we all benefit.

Tory revival?

Many political pundits, as well as sections of the Labour leadership, have been making much of the threat of a revived Conservative Party. In doing so, they are attempting to discipline both the Labour Party and the wider movement. In effect they are saying that any dissent will open the door to a Tory government. But I am not convinced that by the time it comes to an election David Cameron’s Conservatives will unseat Labour.

In fact, the Tories already look much weaker than they did a month ago. Cameron’s main strategy is to appear to be to the left of Labour on a number of issues, while presiding over a party and a set of policies that are still to the right of Labour. In the meantime, the core of the Conservative Party, which is as anti-immigration, anti-Europe and as pro-tax cuts for the rich as ever, is already complaining. Cameron may be the perfect product of the advertising industry from whence he came, but people are already asking the question, “so where’s the substance?” The reason there is no substance is that you cannot be both left and right at the same time. By the time of the next election, I think Cameron will look vacuous and fatuous to many people.

Gordon Brown

Many union leaders want and expect things to change under Gordon Brown, who they expect to be the next leader. But the issues they are most concerned with, the social and economic questions, are the very areas in which Brown is more of a Blairite than Blair. It is worth remembering that Brown is the architect of Labour’s neo-liberal policy towards the welfare state and he is the primary representative of neo-liberal economic policy inside the government. So the prospect of getting anything more than a Scottish brogue on Blairite policies is unlikely.

In order to exploit the growing realisation that this is the case, and the resulting tensions between Brown and the union leaders, the left will have to continue to build the opposition from below. This requires that we coordinate our efforts and learn from where we are strongest. The Organising For Fighting Unions conference that has been initiated by Respect is particularly important. It will demonstrate that Respect has support right across the working class movement and that it is as much about trade union issues and a defence of the welfare state as it is about opposition to war. The conference will be a means by which the political radicalisation that has been a feature of recent years can be fed into trade union battles.

One of the key goals of left must be to take the areas of struggle where political radicalisation has advanced furthest, in particular the anti-war movement, and apply it to those areas of struggle where radicalisation is still developing. Respect as an organisation has serious roots in the trade union movement but it developed out of the anti-war movement. It is uniquely well placed to perform the role of a bridge between one and the other.

There is a great desire on the part of trade unionists to haul the level of industrial resistance up to the level of the political resistance that already exists. Even some trade union leaders who are loyal to Labour are desperate for change. They know that their members are getting hammered at work, and they clearly sense that there is a mood among the rank and file to do something about it. They often feel extremely frustrated with the political deadlock that New Labour has imposed upon them. And if that’s what the leaders feel like, you can imagine the strength of feeling that exists among shop stewards and activists.

A number of recent strikes, such as those of the Merseyside firefighters, can give you a glimpse of what happens when political radicalisation fuses with industrial militancy, and how both are stronger when they work together.

In recent months, I have been invited to speak to the Merseyside firefighters FBU union brigade committee on two occasions. On the first, they asked me to talk about the war. On the second, I spoke to them about the fighting unions conference – which they decided to back. On both occasions there was a great deal of support for what I was saying. You might argue that Merseyside firefighters are a particularly political group of workers, but I don’t believe that they are that different from workers elsewhere, certainly not from other organised trade unionists.

That the level of industrial struggle in Britain is low is undeniable. However, I don’t believe that there is a means by which this can be remedied on its own. A change can only come about by combining with the forces of political radicalisation. You can see this process in action in the course of the last 15 months since George Galloway was elected to parliament in east London, where Respect is strongest.

The anti-war movement produced an electoral radicalisation, which has fed back into the question of the privatisation of council housing. Since the election, council tenants in east London have voted time and again to reject the privatisation of their housing estates – a fairly dramatic defeat for a key New Labour policy. A similar process can take place with regards to industrial struggle. One consequence of such an increase in the level of workplace militancy would be an improvement in the electoral opportunities available to both Respect and the left of the Labour Party.

In many ways the developments inside the Labour Party pose this question for us: if Brown won’t deliver the kind of change that we want, then what type of action will? The demonstration outside Labour’s conference in Manchester is evidence of this process at work. The level of trade union involvement in building for that demonstration, and their participation in it, was probably greater than that of any demonstration since the march of two million on 15 February 2003.

More evidence comes in the form of the number of delegates and speakers at the fighting unions conference who are still members or supporters of the Labour Party. There is a feeling among a very wide layer of people that we have got to get beyond where we are now, both in terms of the level of trade union organisation, and the need to defend the welfare state.

Many people share with us the view that the anti-war movement serves as a model for a type of campaigning where people of different political backgrounds can work together for common goals. When we were approaching people to speak at the conference, we could do so with the knowledge that many of us had already worked together and that there was a degree of trust and goodwill between us. The same is true for the people who have been raising the conference in their trade union branches and with other activists.

That the radicalisation associated with the anti-war movement could act as a means of regenerating the trade unions relies on a high degree of political generalisation. Of course, the strike against job losses, the fight against the sell-off of council estates and the struggle against imperialism don’t always feel like they are linked in the minds of those who are protesting, but on an objective level, they are absolutely linked. The neoconservative foreign policy of George Bush is directly connected to the neo-liberal economic policy that demands privatisation, cuts in the welfare state and assaults on the unions. They are increasingly seen as two sides of the same coin.

They are also linked in the consciousness of many of those who participate in the protests. It is impossible to understand the scale and breadth of the anti-war movement without understanding that it is a lightning rod for all sorts of other concerns – many of which are about domestic policy. The reason why the links between the different issues are not always immediately obvious is that there isn’t always an organisation that can pull it all together.

When an organised link is provided, for example when the NHS Logistics strikers spoke at the anti-war demonstration in Manchester, it becomes clear that there is an appreciation of how the issues are related. There is then a willingness to join with others engaged in struggle. Even among the protests against hospital closures that have been taking place in less urban areas, such as the recent march of 2,000 people in Epsom, Surrey, there will be people who joined the anti-war demonstration on 15 February 2003. There will be marchers who are anti-war and who will be sympathetic to those who say that the money spent on the war would be better spent on the NHS.

Future battles for Respect

Respect fought the European elections within the first few months of being formed. A few weeks later we fought parliamentary by-elections in Birmingham and Leicester, and a matter of days after that we ensured that Oliur Rahman was elected as our first Respect councillor in Tower Hamlets. In May 2005 we fought the general election with 25 candidates, and secured the election of George Galloway. A year later we stood in the local council elections and won a good number of councillors.

Although a third of council seats outside London are up for election next May, for the first time since we formed Respect we are not confronted with a huge election battle in the coming period. This gives us a critical opportunity in which we can broaden the base of Respect.

On issues aside from the war, I think it will be possible for us initiate some broad based activity. Locally, we should take up the RMT’s trade union freedom bill by organising pickets of MP’s surgeries. Another good initiative is the proposal from the civil service workers’ PCS union to set up local public service alliance meetings. These would be inter-union bodies that bring together trade unionists to defend jobs and services. We will also need to continue our work in defending the NHS and opposing hospital closures.

But the critical issue for the left remains the “war on terror” and everything that is associated with it. At both a domestic and international level, the war is a permanent fixture. You have to take Bush and Blair at their word. Bush said it would be a “long war”, while Blair, in his farewell speech, said that the war would last “at least a generation”.

The “war on terror” is the imperial structure that has replaced the Cold War, providing the critical context of political life. It is possible that in the future we might win over the question of Iraq or Afghanistan. But for the war’s protagonists, the question is one of reordering the entire Eurasian landmass – everything from the borders of the Balkans to China, including the Middle East. It is a question that they cannot walk away from.

For that reason, activists will need to maintain their work in the Stop the War Coalition, whether they are fighting to end the occupation in Iraq, to prevent new wars, or to end the resulting Islamophobia.

The stakes we are playing for are now extremely high and what the left in Britain does can have an impact on the global situation. We have taken the step of removing the prime minister, now we must fill the vacuum that his departure will create.

John Rees is National Secretary of Respect and the author of Imperialism and Resistance, published by Routledge

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