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After Labour’s conference…

Critical Moments for Blair

For the first time since Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party, there is open speculation about his future. While at this stage rumours of his political demise may well be exaggerated, they do give a hint of what could come. But would a change in the leadership change the character of the Labour Party? CLIVE HEEMSKERK writes.

AS UP TO 400,000 people marched through the streets of London on September 28 in a massive protest against war on Iraq, delegates to the Labour Party conference prepared to set off to Blackpool for their annual gathering. The Stop the War demonstration, probably the biggest-ever anti-war protest seen in Britain, followed the TUC congress at the beginning of September, where a new mood reflected the growing discontent with Tony Blair’s New Labour government.

The formal decisions of Labour’s conference, however, gave the impression of a government united and unmoved by the gathering storm outside. The leadership did suffer a high profile defeat, when a union call for a review of the private finance initiative (PFI) scheme to fund public services was backed by 67.19% to 32.81%. This was more of a polite rebuff to the government rather than a determined defence of the public sector, by the leaders of the bigger unions in particular. But even this was immediately dismissed by the chancellor, Gordon Brown, and, in his leader’s speech 24 hours later, Tony Blair re-iterated his determination to break up the ‘1945 universalist model of public services’. This was an address, The Economist magazine declared, that "Mrs Thatcher in her heyday would only have dreamt of" (12 October).

The then Labour Party chairman Charles Clarke (now the education secretary) compounded the snub to the unions when he subsequently wrote that "the party leadership overwhelmingly won the argument about the need for PFI investment both before and during the conference". The vote against, after all, was merely the response of "producer-interest trade unions, which voted 92%-8%" against PFI while "the consumer-interest constituency Labour parties voted 58%-42% for continuing the investment". (Guardian, 2 October) It just needed the unprecedented appearance of a US Democratic Party politician, the ex-president Bill Clinton, addressing a conference ‘where our guys are still in office’, to confirm that British politics really has been ‘Americanised’, with two dominant capitalist parties and the working class denied political representation.

Certainly, Blackpool didn’t meet the pre-conference expectations of what remains of the Labour left who, at a conference organised by the Campaign Group of MPs in July, had spoken stridently of ‘reclaiming the Labour Party’. There John Edmonds, the general secretary of the GMB general union, announced he had ‘come to bury New Labour, not to praise it’. Subsequently, under the heading ‘Conference must vote for moratorium on PFI’, he wrote in the pre-conference issue of Campaign Group News "that a large vote against government policy looks inevitable". Yet, once in Blackpool, the demand for a moratorium on new PFI deals was dropped by Edmonds in a futile attempt to get Gordon Brown’s agreement to an inquiry.

Other issues pushed by the left fared no better. Prior to the conference, following the 17-13 vote at the July meeting of the national executive committee (NEC) against re-admitting London mayor Ken Livingstone into the Labour Party, left NEC members were confident they could get the decision overturned. But it was not to be.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU), whose general secretary Andy Gilchrist conceded to The Guardian that he has "fought hard over the past two years to ensure his union remains affiliated to the Labour Party" (21 October), was unable to even get a debate on a motion on the union’s looming pay dispute. Despite the outpouring onto the streets of London two days earlier, a clear anti-war position was defeated by 40% to 60%, in an blatantly stage-managed debate with pro-government speakers outnumbering anti-war speakers by 13 to four.

In the elections to Labour’s national executive committee (NEC) – now serving two-year terms in a further erosion of democracy – the left-wing Grassroots Alliance (GA) candidates polled an average of 25,958 votes from individual Labour Party members for the six constituency places. While a marginal improvement on last year, and the three sitting GA candidates were re-elected, it compared poorly with the average 46,537 vote they scored as recently as 1999 (showing that the exiting of left-Labour voting members has not been reversed). The left also had little success in elections to the Conference Arrangements Committee or the National Policy Forum, which will be the only place policy documents will now be voted on until the 2004 conference.

The big unions’ feeble opposition to PFI, the defeat of the anti-war position, and the continued stamping down on internal democracy, were all a rebuff to the hopes of those who wish to ‘reclaim the Labour Party’. Yet, at same time, the conference also gave an outline of how the unity of the leadership could be shattered in the events ahead, as economic difficulties mount, the battle over public services intensifies and, most significantly of all, if Britain goes to war against Iraq.

A dispute surfaced at the conference between the chancellor Gordon Brown and the Blair-loyalist health secretary Alan Milburn over the latter’s plans to allow some so-called high-performing national health service (NHS) hospitals to become independent ‘foundation hospitals’. Brown has been a zealous advocate for privatisation – insisting on public-private partnership (PPP) funding for the London underground and pushing the part-privatisation of air traffic control. He is undoubtedly fully behind Blair’s potential showdown with the FBU, to curb at source pressure for better public sector pay and make it easier to push through changed working practises and ‘efficiencies’ throughout the public sector. But in objecting to the proposal to allow the foundation hospitals to borrow ‘off the government balance sheet’, in other words, with no central control, he allowed the impression to be put abroad that he opposes competition in the NHS between them and other NHS institutions (although the foundation hospitals will own their assets, retain all surpluses and decide their own wages policy). Behind this nuanced difference over methods, between the brutal discipline of the market and the brutal discipline of the Treasury (on behalf of the market), The Economist points to the "tension building between him [Brown] and Mr Blair over public-service reform [that] is potentially far more serious than their previous differences over the euro" (5 October).

Then there was the debate on the war. As the conference got under way, the NEC was forced to withdraw its own statement on the Iraq crisis because it risked defeat for failing to place sufficient emphasis on the United Nations (UN). Instead there was a stage-managed ‘debate’ between a clear anti-war motion and a vaguer resolution, which was carried, referring to military action "within the context of UN authority". While the foreign secretary Jack Straw interpreted the motion as making a fresh UN mandate "desirable but not essential", the international development minister Clare Short, who resigned from Labour’s shadow frontbench during the last Gulf war, argued that "the conference is insisting that the government must act through the UN" (The Guardian, 1 October). Previously, fellow cabinet member Robin Cook had publicly stated that "no military assault should be launched without the UN’s agreement", a stance which earned him a reprimand for ‘public posturing’ from ‘government sources’ (The Guardian, 23 September).

As The Economist concluded, for all Tony Blair’s "display of confidence, two things stand out at the end of this week: the great difficulty he will have in realising his public-service agenda; and his vulnerability should the cabinet split, as is entirely possible, over British involvement in a non-UN sanctioned attack on Iraq" (5 October).

Could Blair be deposed?

TONY BLAIR IS not the first ‘unassailable’ prime minister. After all, his political inspirer, Margaret Thatcher, was also considered ‘irreplaceable’ in her time, but ultimately was removed in November 1990 as opposition grew in the Tory parliamentary party. As the late 1980s boom came to an end, as divisions over European policy deepened and, above all, as the anti-poll tax non-payment campaign reached mass proportions (under the leadership of Militant, the forerunner of the Socialist Party), Tory MPs rose in revolt. Thatcher was replaced by John Major who immediately cut poll tax bills, at an initial cost of £4.3bn, prior to its subsequent abolition. The pre-Maastricht Tory divisions over European economic and monetary union persisted, however, relating to British capitalism’s position on the world stage, becoming a running sore throughout Major’s premiership.

On the surface, it is true, it appears more difficult for dissident Labour MPs to unseat Blair in comparison to the challenge to Margaret Thatcher in 1990. Then just two Tory MPs were required to nominate a challenger and trigger a leadership ballot. Labour’s constitution, ‘where there is no vacancy’ for leader, requires a challenger to win the nomination of 20% of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) before the annual conference decides whether to proceed with an election. Yet even the most ‘refined’ constitutional defences can be overcome when serious social forces begin to make themselves felt.

Blair is not in the same position as Thatcher was when profound divisions, which had developed over time, finally exploded into the open: these surfaced as a challenge to her leadership with the ‘stalking horse’ candidacy of Sir Anthony Meyer in 1989, which prepared the ground for a serious contest the following year. In warning that "a pre-emptive strike against Iraq" could change things, The Economist commented that "remarkably, in five years of office, Labour has not suffered a single resignation by a cabinet minister" on policy grounds (7 September). But there are sources of opposition emerging which, if they were to coalesce at some critical juncture in the future, could still unseat him.

One such possible future ‘critical moment’ was outlined by the former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Roy Hattersley, as negotiations at the UN over a new security council resolution appeared to be stalling. Pointing to the need for a military campaign against Iraq, if it is to be conducted, to begin by the early spring before rising temperatures make a land battle impossible, he asked what would happen "if the UN agonises on for weeks" and the US began action "before the deliberations were complete and concluded"?

"Whatever the limits of gaining UN approval, refusal to wait even to see if it is available would be an intolerable display of imperial arrogance. That would be the moment at which the prime minister would have to make his reservations public… choosing the US instead of the United Nations could only lead to absolute humiliation" (The Guardian, 7 October). Former Labour chancellor Denis Healey has also warned that "I don’t think he [Blair] would survive overwhelming public and party opposition to British support for an American attack".

These rumblings, which have also been aired within the PLP, reflect the position of a section of the ruling class who are more conscious of the catastrophic possibilities of an Iraq war for the Middle East, for Britain’s relations with Europe (with Germany and France trying to counter the unilateralism of the Bush administration), and for Britain’s world role, including trade links to the Muslim world. Not the least significant fear is that expressed by Gerd Häusler, the IMF’s director of international capital markets, who warned, in something of an understatement, that "purely from a financial markets perspective a serious conflict with Iraq would not be a very healthy development" (13 September).

The ‘authority of the UN’ is also an important consideration for these establishment critics. The United Nations is an assembly of the governing classes of competing capitalist powers, not a genuine expression of international collaboration (although it serves the interests of the different governing classes to present it as such). Its very structure, with the five permanent members of the executive security council each having a right of veto, means that the essential interests of the ruling classes of the ‘big five’ powers (the US, China, Russia, France and Britain) will not be compromised. Yet, in a post-Cold War position as the world’s only superpower, US imperialism increasingly objects to even its secondary interests being made subject to ‘international control’. On the other hand the European powers grouped together in the European Union (EU), economically a challenger to the USA but militarily a ‘pygmy’ (in the phrase of the NATO general secretary, the former Labour minister George Robertson), are concerned to maintain any ‘multilateral’ means they have to exert diplomatic and political pressure on the US. As The Guardian comments, "while Mr Bush is right to say that the UN’s credibility will be undermined if its resolutions are ignored… the damage may be even greater if, faced ultimately by a UN that will not do its bidding, the US goes ahead and attacks Iraq anyway… For Mr Bush and the US, a la carte multilateralism", in their opinion, "is not an option" (13 September).

Blair’s unflinching support for Bush, however, threatens to weaken both the position of the UN and the EU against the US superpower. In the European parliament debate on Iraq even the German Christian Democrat chairman of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee complained that Blair’s differences with French president Chirac and the German chancellor Schröder were "harming efforts to forge a joint European position" (The Guardian, 6 September). The former defence minister and Liverpool MP Peter Kilfoyle, hardly a left-winger, expressed his opposition to Blair’s policy in similar terms. The Bush administration acts "in America’s immediate national interest, regardless of international opinion and convention", he argued. It has "unilaterally rejected Kyoto, the international criminal court, the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, the Biological Weapons Convention, World Trade Organisation provisions and much more – all in favour of narrow American interests. It openly despises any restraint on its autonomy… what value is the UN when the world’s only superpower treats it with open contempt? What of the EU, derided as wimps?" (The Guardian, 23 September).

Ironically, Blair, who portrays himself as a ‘leader of Europe’, is effectively denounced by Kilfoyle as an ‘Atlanticist’. Britain’s so-called ‘special relationship’ with the US, Kilfoyle argues, means "we end up as America’s handrag, with diminished credibility within Europe and facing increasing hostility across the globe. Is this in the British national interest?... Are we to be Europe’s heartland or America’s frontline?"

Such establishment opposition to Blair’s policy is not an anti-war position. This was made clear in The Guardian’s leader comment on Labour’s conference debate on Iraq. Criticising the conference delegates for not insisting on a resolution requiring "a new UN security council resolution, a specific vote by parliament, and a common European position" – by which "they threw away a huge opportunity to speak out for Britain and unite the forces of caution over Iraq" – the article peremptorily dismissed the left’s anti-war resolution opposing all armed action against Iraq under any circumstances (1 October). Nevertheless, it is not impossible to imagine a future situation where growing ruling class ‘forces of caution’ coincide with a broader groundswell of opposition – from the trade unions to nervous backbenchers – to create the conditions in which Blair’s position could be at risk.

A growing number of Labour MPs now fear the electoral consequences of an unpopular war, particularly from Blair’s tail-ending of Bush’s ‘US interests first’ unilateralism. September’s parliamentary rebellion involved 53 Labour MPs, compared with eleven who voted against the Afghanistan war, 13 who opposed the bombing in Kosovo in 1999, and 22 who voted against renewed air attacks on Baghdad in February 1998. One recent poll recorded Labour’s support falling to 39% – with just a 5% lead over the Tories – the first time it has scored less than 40% since the September 2000 fuel protests and only the second time it has done so since November 1993 (The Guardian, 24 September). Other polls, showing the volatility of the present situation, have shown significant fluctuations in levels of opposition to a war on Iraq and, in late October, a recovery in Labour’s poll position. In the immediate aftermath of the Bali bombing support for a military attack on Iraq rose from 32% to 42%, only to fall again a week later. The only constant has been that all polls have recorded less opposition if a war is conducted through the UN.

Another factor that will undoubtedly wear at the nerves of even the most Blairite MP will be the consequences of Blair’s ‘war on the home front’ – his assault on public sector workers – possibly starting with the fire-fighters. Although at the time of writing it is not clear how this trial of strength between the fire-fighters and the government will unfold, it appears that Blair has been spoiling for this fight: ministers blocked a 16% offer from the local authority employers in July and, on August 28, five days before negotiations broke down with the employers, secretly started army training for strike-breaking duties.

Blair appears to have picked the most difficult target in the public sector to deal with first. An ICM poll, measuring the support for different groups of public sector workers, found that strike action by the fire-fighters was the most popular – with 68% backing, including 63% of Tory voters, compared to 56% for teachers and 36% for London underground workers (The Guardian, 26 September). Defeat the well-organised and popular fire-fighters first, seems to be Blair’s thinking, and the road is clear to curb other public sector pay claims and ‘reform’ working practises. But as with the proposed ‘Baghdad first’, or ‘inside out’ strategy recently discussed in the Pentagon for the war on Iraq (to take Baghdad first and then deal with the rest of Iraq), a confrontation with the fire-fighters will be fraught with difficulties!

On the eve of Labour’s conference The Economist speculated that, as Thatcher’s "most active period of reform came after she defeated aggressors abroad and doubters at home over the Falklands in 1982", so Blair could use the authority of a military triumph to "turn to domestic affairs with new vigour" (28 September). Instead there is now a possibility that he will be fighting on two fronts at the same time.

Thatcher’s military success in the Falklands/Malvinas war undoubtedly reinforced her position. She had the advantage over Blair, moreover, in being able to point to the 1,800 Falkland Islanders – whose rights had been trampled on by the Argentinean dictatorship – to cover up the real interests of British imperialism. Nevertheless, a ‘successful’ military campaign may, temporarily, reinforce Blair. "If military action goes ahead, if it is successful, if Iraq looks reasonably stable afterwards and if the world is a safer place as a result", the pro-war Economist writes optimistically, "then all the carping [at Blair] will be instantly forgotten" (7 September). But more realistically, military stalemate or, more likely, an unravelling of the Bush scenario of post-Saddam regional stability – or defeat on the home front combined with difficulties abroad – could once again leave Blair isolated and open to a leadership challenge.

A new leader, a changed party?

THE SOCIALIST PARTY argues that, over the last decade, the Labour Party has been transformed into an openly capitalist party. Previously, from its inception in 1900, it had been a ‘capitalist workers party’, a party with pro-capitalist leaders but with a democratic structure and a working class base that could, through enormous pressure from below, force the party leadership into taking a stand against ruling class interests. But while Tony Blair has come to personify the process of ‘bourgeoisfication’ his replacement would not, in itself, change the character of the Labour Party.

The main features of this process were as follows: the ideological shift from any idea of fighting for a fundamental change from capitalism or even for the old ‘social democratic’ idea of reforms in favour of working class people (against the international backdrop of capitalist triumphalism following the collapse of the Stalinist regimes of the USSR and Eastern Europe); the driving out of the socialist left, starting with Militant, the Liverpool councillors etc, which was necessary to carry through this ideological shift; the subsequent erosion of the trade unions’ role within the Labour Party, along with the systematic dismantling of the party’s democratic structures; and the consequent changed perception of the Labour Party amongst broader layers of the working class as no longer being ‘their’ organisation.

How far this latter process has gone is revealed in newly available evidence from the British Election Study of the 2001 general election. This survey recorded that, for the first time ever, a higher percentage of former trade unionists (often retired, with an average age of 56) voted Labour than current trade unionists (with an average age of 46). The difference in ‘strength of identification with Labour’ was even higher, with 30% of former union members identifying ‘very strongly’ with Labour compared to 18% of current trade unionists. The survey also confirms a MORI polling organisation finding that, of 29 social and economic categories of voters, Labour’s share of the vote in 2001 fell the most amongst 18-24 year olds, private tenants, the unemployed and trade unionists. This is despite another MORI poll finding that more people feel "working class and proud of it" today (68%) than did so in 1997 (58%) or 1994 (52%).

So how would a ‘Westminster Palace coup’ impact on these interconnected processes? Nothing can be ruled out in advance. An open campaign to remove Blair by the new left trade union leaders developing alongside growing mass protests – strikes and demonstrations on domestic class issues as well as the war – if the new trade union lefts placed themselves at their core, would raise their public authority. In turn, this might create a new consciousness that the Labour Party could be ‘reclaimed’, in effect, that a new party with the left unions at its core could be forged out of the shell of the Labour Party.

But this is by far the least likely prospect. Even the best of the new left union leaders who have denounced Blair, do not see their task as removing the leadership, the majority of the parliamentary party, and their supporters at local level, and effectively re-founding the Labour Party with a socialist programme and a democratic structure. Others merely look to Gordon Brown, or possibly Robin Cook, as a replacement, with no alternative programme or intention of struggling to reverse the democratic counter-revolution in the structures of the Labour Party. Prior to this year’s TUC conference John Edmonds even appealed to Tony Blair to "bury New Labour stone dead", arguing that "the prime minister has the perfect opportunity to… [move] beyond New Labour and forge a new coalition for radical reform" (The Guardian, 6 September). Dave Prentis, the UNISON general secretary and another alleged ‘critic’ of Blair, nevertheless made a point at the union’s Affiliated Political Fund conference of defending the conduct of the UNISON representatives on Labour’s national executive committee (NEC) at its March meeting when they voted not to discuss a resolution against privatisation and to remove the NEC’s policy-debating powers (Labour Left Briefing, June 2002).

In addition, it is extremely unlikely that Blair would face the prospect of being removed until he has led the government into a war which itself or, more likely, its after effects, has gone badly. Certainly, he will initially have the support of the Tory front bench whose only criticism in September’s parliamentary debate was a call, from the defence spokesperson Bernard Jenkin, "to expressly embrace the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive attack"! (The Guardian, 25 September). It will be a protracted process before the prospect of Blair’s removal is posed.

Yet the spectacle of a Labour government going to war will itself create a further shift in consciousness amongst wide layers on the real character of the Labour Party as another capitalist party. Even the diminished ranks of the Labour Party itself will not be unaffected. The Guardian reported "a senior cabinet minister" warning that "a quarter of Labour Party members will resign if Britain goes to war against Iraq alongside the US without explicit support from the UN in a fresh resolution" (8 October). In an earlier survey of former Labour Party members, researchers Paul Whiteley and Patrick Seyd found that an estimated 17,000 resigned as a result of the last Gulf war (The Guardian, 27 September). Even supporters of ‘reclaiming the Labour Party’, such as the Campaign Group MP Alan Simpson, recognise that "Labour faces a haemorrhage in membership if it supports a war on Iraq". The task, however, is "to say to everyone who opposes a war that they must stay in the party – or join it"! (Labour Left Briefing, October 2002) In reality, the effect of a Labour government going to war, even with UN backing, would reinforce the idea among wider layers of workers and young people that an alternative to Labour must be found.

Time for a new workers’ party

IN TIMES OF conflict the Labour Party leaders, even when it was a ‘capitalist-workers party’, invariably backed the war policy of the ruling class. From Arthur Henderson who, replacing the anti-war party leader Ramsey MacDonald, joined the ‘war coalition’ government in world war one, to Michael Foot, who propped up Thatcher against Tory backbench discontent in the Falklands/Malvinas war, Labour rallied to the ‘national interest’. Once the ruling elite go to war they mobilise all the resources of the establishment – their control of the workplaces, the media, the legal system etc – to face down any opposition at home.

Yet, as in domestic policy, so in times of war – although the stakes are higher for the ruling class – the character of the Labour Party in the past meant that it always presented a latent danger for the capitalists, a potentially unreliable tool. Even Arthur Henderson, having joined the war-time coalition in 1915, was obliged just four years later in 1919 to go along with a general strike call by the joint council of the TUC and the Labour Party in protest at the British war of intervention against the Russian revolution. Blair’s notorious comment about Britain ‘paying a blood price’ to preserve the ‘special relationship’ with the USA was in fact a reference to a comment made in the 1960s, when US president Lyndon Johnson was attempting to get Britain’s participation in the Vietnam war. The Labour prime minister Harold Wilson, sensitive to the consequences at home, the mass anti-war movement and its potential impact on the labour movement, refused to commit British troops.

The situation today, of course, is completely different. Even the advocates of ‘stay and fight’ concede that the channels to do so are completely blocked up. Diane Abbot, secretary of the Campaign Group of MPs, admits that "the internal democracy of the party has been systematically stripped out. Annual conference has become a PR event. The national executive used to be a key body and a voice for the party in the country. Under Tony Blair it has lost all its powers over policy", and organisational decisions are "effectively taken by full-time officials" (Campaign Group News, September 2002).

Particularly revealing in this context are the comments of Roy Hattersley who, as deputy leader to Neil Kinnock in the 1980s, started this process in their battle with Militant, the forerunners of the Socialist Party. "There was method in his [Blair’s] marginalisation [of the party conference]. Voices that would have been raised against the part-privatisation of the public services, the gradual return to selective secondary education and the imposition of unwanted and unrepresentative parliamentary candidates, have been stilled… The new constitution does not allow them to be expressed by rank-and-file party members" (The Guardian, 22 July). But things have gone too far and "it will take years of methodical and often tedious argument to set Labour back on the long and winding road to socialism. The unions should pay their subscriptions, vote their full strength and save the party they created".

Far from accepting the advice to meekly ‘pay subscriptions’ to the Labour Party, however, the new left union leaders should seize the time to organise a cross-union rank-and-file conference to discuss what steps are needed to build a new political alternative, a move which would have a major impact on the situation unfolding in Britain. The Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union leader Bob Crow, at this year’s RMT conference, asked delegates to ‘give us another 12 months’ to test out whether the new RMT Parliamentary Campaign Group increased the political influence the union could wield. But timing is the essence of politics. There have been turning points before when it would have been possible for initiatives towards a new workers’ party to have won wide support. But the possibilities now are even greater.

The anti-war movement will undoubtedly suffer ebbs and flows in support and its levels of mass participation, although the magnificent 28 September demonstration is unlikely to be its high tide. Other issues, such as the fire-fighters’ struggle or other flashpoints in the public sector, may come to the fore. But in the turbulent times ahead, ever-widening layers will be open to the need for a socialist solution to society’s problems and the idea of a new mass working class alternative to the Labour Party, with or without Tony Blair at its head.

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