An initiative has been launched to “draft” John McDonnell, the left-wing Labour MP who sought to challenge Gordon Brown for the Labour leadership after Tony Blair’s retirement, to contest the leadership again.
McDonnell himself has so far been reluctant to put his name forward, but there seems a real chance that he will go for it as momentum builds up to the TUC and Labour Party conferences.
In 2007, McDonnell did not get on the official ballot paper, because union Executives where the majority said they backed McDonnell would not deliver official union nominations or press union-sponsored MPs to nominate McDonnell. Nevertheless, his challenge had a refreshing effect, generating large campaign meetings in many cities.
Above all, a McDonnell challenge would be the only way of cutting across the limits of the present Labour-leadership talk, which is all about whether Blair-loyalist ultras will oust Brown and replace him with someone more “Blairite”. This does not necessarily mean someone more right-wing — there is no evidence that such differences as there have been between Brown and Blair place Brown to the left of Blair — but certainly not someone more left-wing.
The nearest thing to a “left” input into the leadership talk, without a McDonnell challenge, ar rumours about John Cruddas being put up again as deputy.
Meanwhile, the big story in the Labour Party is not the clique battles between “Blairites” and “Brownites”, but issues on which “Blairites” and “Brownites” are united.
On 25-27 July the Labour Party held its National Policy Forum. Now that political motions to Labour’s annual conference are banned, the Forum is the nearest thing the Labour Party has to a democratic discussion of policy.
Nearest, but not very near at all! Of the 184 delegates, only 30 are from the trade unions, and the whole thing takes place behind closed doors, without the open scrutiny from union and local Labour Party members typical of old Labour Party conferences.
But this time the union leaders told the Guardian that they had got their act together, with a list of 130 demands to press at the Forum.
In Solidarity 3/136, we were sceptical about how vigorous the union leaders would be, but reckoned that: “The Labour Party’s finances make it very likely that the unions will get something” in the way of concessions.
We overestimated the union leaders’ vigour, and underestimated the New Labour leaders’ obdurate resistance to even the mildest working-class demands.
The Financial Times reported (29 July): “Facing a list of 130 union demands, Mr. Brown rejected the vast majority outright and gave little ground on the rest”.
An old-Labour blogger, Peter Kenyon, gives the best available “insider” report from the Forum. “Trade union delegates to Warwick simply sat on their hands as mildly radical proposals that made it on to the agenda were mowed down by the vast majority of National Policy Forum representatives.
“Even a modest suggestion that a third of the governors of academy schools should be parents was shot down. A hand or seven from the brothers and sisters would have at least enabled a debate and vote at conference. But No. 10 had made clear if the trade unions wanted to see any of their policy suggestions agreed, then the price was no concessions to the left of Genghis Khan”.
Since Warwick, the soft-Blairite pressure group Compass has started a campaign for the Government to impose a “windfall tax” on energy companies’ super-profits. It put a letter in the Guardian on 6 August, with signatories including the general secretaries of two of the biggest unions, Dave Prentis of Unison and Tony Woodley of Unite.
It wouldn’t be too daring to push that, would it? After all, Blair and Brown introduced just such a “windfall tax” on privatised utilities in 1997. Even if they dropped all 129 other ideas, Prentis and Woodley would have argued the toss on that one at the Policy Forum?
Not at all. Kenyon reports: “A windfall tax proposal at the NPF attracted a derisory number of votes - less than you can count on the fingers of two hands. And those in favour did not include either Dave Prentis or Tony Woodley...”
The combined effect of the shutting down of democratic processes in the Labour Party, the union leaders’ wretchedness, and increased bureaucratism in the trade unions, is that the organised working class has been politically disenfranchised.
Workers still have a vote. But who can they cast it for? Socialist candidates, such as those that Workers’ Liberty and our partners in the Socialist Green Unity Coalition run where we can, are few (because we do not have the resources to run more), and face obvious problems in getting themselves seen as credible without support from large and well-established working-class organisations.
But the unions continued to be tied to Labour in a “link” which is now reduced to a process of the union leaders giving Labour money and accepting politically whatever “No.10 makes clear”, without any substantial accountability to the rank and file.
The unions, and in the first place the more active, lively, and democratic unions, must break from Brown, and, through local Trades Councils or similar bodies, re-establish the possibility of working-class candidates in elections, based on and accountable to working-class organisations.
Otherwise we are saying that the only options in politics are different shades of government at the service of the profiteer class, and ruling out the possibility of the working-class majority ever having a real voice in government.