Dear Brothers and Sisters,
There are times when politics is in flux, when resolute action, or, alternatively, gutless inaction, shapes the future. Now is such a time.
Tony Blair’s “retirement agenda”, what he wants to do in his last period as prime minister, is thoroughly reactionary.
He wants to complete the destruction of the National Health Service which Thatcher began 25 years ago.
“Market forces” within the Health Service are working increasingly to disintegrate it. You know that as well as we do. Everyone who pays attention to politics knows it, too. NHS patients are being made painfully aware of it.
NHS trusts are already determining what they do by budget calculations without regard to patients’ needs. All sorts of barriers now exist for NHS patients against even getting an appointment with an NHS doctor. You know this. Everyone knows it.
Schools are being reorganised in a way that cannot but create a new edition of the old system in which working-class children were massively disadvantaged and excluded by class-biased selection procedures.
Here, as in so many things, Blair is an unapologetic old-style conservative. You know that. Everyone does.
On a whole raft of other social policies — from driving the disabled into low-paid work, through withdrawing benefit from single mothers, to cutting public sector pensions — Blair is a thoroughgoing Tory reactionary. You know that. Everyone does.
Eight and a half years after a “New Labour” government took office, the British labour movement is still shackled by what Blair himself — in a promise that it would remain so, given to the Daily Mail before the 1997 general election — rightly described as “the most restrictive trade union laws anywhere in the western world”.
This “Labour” government — still financed heavily by the trade unions — confines the British working class within a framework of trade-union law created by the Thatcher class-struggle Tories to outlaw cross-workplace and cross-union solidarity action — that is, to make effective trade unionism illegal.
Eight and a half years! In this, it is difficult to decide which is more astounding. That a government with many members linked to the trade unions, should have done this without even one — not one!— ministerial resignation in protest. Or, that the trade unions should have accepted it — occasionally requesting repeal of the anti-union laws in a mild, and respectful voice while continuing to pay many of New Labour’s bills. What are trade union leaders made of these days?
On taking office in 1945, the Attlee Labour Government began to repeal the Tory anti-union laws imposed after the defeat of the General Strike. The Liberal Government elected exactly a hundred years ago quickly legislated to undo the court decision in the Taff Vale case, which had made unions legally liable for losses inflicted by strike action. Even the Wilson Labour government of 1974 was quick to repeal the Industrial Relations Act brought in by the Tories in 1971. Not Blair — he has kept his promise to the Daily Mail!
Any one of the long generations of trade unionists over the last two hundred years, militants and leaders alike, would, could we talk to them, listen in amazed disbelief to the story of how the worst generation of trade union leaders in our long history, your predecessors, backed the Blairite coup in the Labour Party which created “New Labour”, and then sustained in office a government which maintained the savage Tory anti-union legislation. They would listen with scarcely less astonishment to the story of how your generation of new trade union leaders took office and did nothing about it for years, while continuing to finance the Blair-Brown “Labour Party”!
This is a relentlessly authoritarian government. Its attitude to civil liberties owes more to Stalinism than to democratic socialism in either its revolutionary Marxist or its reformist variants. It has attacked trial by jury, the right to political demonstration, the right to freedom from imprisonment on the mere say-so of the police, the traditional right to free speech. It even wants to abolish MPs’ freedom from having their phones tapped by the police!
It is a racist government — hypocritically, but nonetheless viciously racist — whose ministers have chorused in tune with the most foul of the Tory press to whip up hostility to immigrants and asylum-seekers “flooding” and “swamping” the country. That cannot but increase the quotient of day-to-day racism experienced by black and Asian trade unionists and others.
It is a profoundly undemocratic government. The most spectacular example of that, of course, is the way the country was lied into war in 2003 (and to say that, one does not need to have sympathy with the Saddam regime in Iraq, to regret its fall, or support the quasi-fascist, Sunni-supremacist, Islamist and Ba’thist “resistance” in Iraq now).
New Labour has done great damage to British democracy — even to British bourgeois democracy. They imposed a regime of “discipline”, intolerance, and systematic regimentation on the Parliamentary Labour Party that was Stalinist in its precedents. That has broken down in the last three years, in a series of “revolts”, but the Parliamentary Labour Party is still far from what it was before the Blairite coup 11 years ago.
This government has gone a long way ahead of any previous one in abolishing even the pretence of parliamentary control over government. The rule of “president” Blair and his cronies has replaced even Cabinet control of government policy.
Blair and Brown have destroyed or paralysed the democratic processes that allowed the old Labour Party to function, however imperfectly and inadequately, as a living working-class party. Party conference is a choreographed outing and “photo-opportunity” for the government; the National Executive only a powerless sounding-board.
The result is that the overwhelming majority of Constituency Labour Parties have withered into little or nothing. How could it be otherwise, when virtually all possibility of even expressing opposition to the government, even at conference, has been destroyed?
The Blairites’ solution to the perennial Labour leadership problem of a Party that habitually went into opposition to Labour governments — the problem that dogged Labour prime ministers Callaghan and Wilson, earlier MacDonald, and, to an extent Attlee — is, in effect, to abolish the Labour Party. They have realised in their domain the “solution” which Berthold Brecht satirically suggested to the East German Stalinist government after it suppressed the working-class rising of June 1953:
“The people/ Had forfeited the confidence of the government/ [So] dissolve the people/ And elect another".
They have hijacked the Labour Party and strangled it. It can, maybe, be revived, but nothing less than a massive, union-led, revolt against the Blair-Brown gang will now revive it. Union-led? There is, except the unions, very little else left alive in the old structures of the Labour Party.
Brothers and sisters, without the support of your predecessors, the Blair-Brown gang could not have seized control or held it so long. A revived political labour movement will look back on the memory of that generation of trade union leaders, and of the Labour “lefts” who went over to Blair, with the same loathing and detestation with which we remember scum like Ramsey MacDonald, the Labour Party prime minister who went over to the Tories in 1931, and the one-time railworkers’ leader Jimmy Thomas MP who went with him.
But you, the new generation of union leaders — why brothers and sisters, despite good words and occasionally good speeches, do you refuse to fight Blair-Brown — organise and coordinate and fight to reclaim the Labour Party?
Tony Benn put it well in the Guardian on 23 January:
“The greatest challenge will be to reintroduce democracy into a stagnant political system where the centralisation of power has fatally eroded it. Any candidate [for the new Labour leader, to follow Blair] who came out against the Iraq war, privatisation and the crude commercialisation of our school system, with a hidden return to selection, at the expense of local education authorities, could be sure of party and public support...”
Things are in flux now. Blair is going — perhaps sooner than he thinks. That is something you, collectively, could decide on. He is deliberately flouting the determindedly-expressed will of the labour movement on education policy. Even such a toothless “doctored” waste of space as “two Jags” Prescott has been roused to a little falsetto yelp of protest over what Blair and Kelly are doing in education and Hewitt in the NHS. As many as 90 Labour MPs may vote against the government or abstain on the education proposals, leaving Blair dependent on Tory votes.
Now is the time to organise a concerted, union-led fight outside Parliament, as well as in the House of Commons, to reclaim or reconstitute the Labour Party.
Vast numbers of people who can see no hope now would rally to an open union-led attempt to call local Labour Parties to the flag of political revolt against Blair and Brown.
The issues are clear: Health Service, education, trade union rights, the democratic rights of the British citizen, disability benefits, privatisation, and many others. Tory Tony has in his own way drawn up the agenda around which a determined trade union leadership could reconstitute a real Labour Party.
How? In one of two ways. Either by reconquering the existing party and restoring the structures necessary to the functioning of a broad working-class-based party — conference; National Executive; constituency party rights; the right of the left to dissent, to argue, to organise, and to publish and circulate socialist literature. Or if Blair and Brown choose to split rather than see Labour Party democracy restored, by creating a new trade union-based Labour Party.
The choices are as clear as they will ever be. Either let the labour movement continue to be deprived of a political voice; or act decisively against Blair-Brown, breaking with their (in part millionaire-financed) party machine.
Anyone who says things will be different when and if Brown replaces Blair is either a political Robinson Crusoe who has been alone on a desert island for a decade, cut off from the press, TV, and radio, or an outright liar and charlatan.
Nobody in politics is so foolish as not to know that Brown and Blair are, in political terms, near identical twins, even if they are locked in mortal hostility by conflicting personal ambitions.
The attendance of over 300 at the conference called on 21 January by the RMT about working-class representation, despite poor publicity, is one measure of what could be done now if you were to decide to act. The Labour Representation Committee, which has the affiliation of RMT, CWU, FBU, and the Bakers, could quickly become a mass movement, if the big unions supported it, and pushed it actively.
Why, brothers and sisters, do you not act? Your inactivity conjures up the question in a famous piece of verse that helped shape the mind of the British labour movement, and of the radical movement before it, from Shelley’s To The Men of England. He asked the downtrodden victims of capitalism why they did not revolt:
“Or what is it ye buy so dear
With your pain and with your fear?”
What is it that the trade union movement gains from its shameful submission to rule over the political labour movement by undisguised Tories like Blair? What do you think you gain? What do you hope to gain from people engaged primarily in the sort of policies now pushed by Blair and Brown? What have we gained?
The pitiably inadequate minimum wage? The so-called “stealth reforms” here and there?
They are better than the Tories? The difference is small and getting smaller. In any case, the crying need is for an independent political labour movement — a representative, democratic labour movement that allows workers to act politically, which pursues independent politics, which can if it so wishes work to win a majority for a socialist workers’ government.
You fear the labour movement being isolated politically? We are isolated now. You fear going outside the political “consensus” in a bold campaign? But without a politically campaigning labour movement, the “consensus” will continue to be what the Rupert Murdochs make it. Our job is to change it by campaigning for the policies which the labour movement wants and thinks right.
You fear splitting the Labour Party? Without the split of 1931, in which McDonald, Thomas, Snowden and others opening went over to the Tories, and the Labour Party did very badly in the subsequent general election — without that there would have been no 1945 reforming Labour government! We do not, for all practical political purposes, have a Labour Party now. It has been hijacked, stolen, turned into a de-facto Tory Party Mark Two.
We, brothers and sisters, are the great British labour movement — a proud part of the great international labour movement! We are the people who built the welfare state; imposed quasi-civilised behaviour on the red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalist barbarians; won the civil liberties that for long were the “British” norm. The seven million trade unionists have a tremendous latent strength if only we would use it. We can see off Blair and Brown as we saw off McDonald and Snowden. We can and we will remake British society — next time, maybe, for keeps!
We repeat: things are in flux. The political and social issues are clear, and already in contention. If they are not resolved in our favour, they will be resolved to our disadvantage.
We appeal to you: Act against Blair and Brown. Don’t just talk in private, and occasionally, in public — act! We appeal to rank and file trade unionists: act to urge your unions to seize the time and launch an offensive against the Blair-Brown Tories who have hijacked our movement!
Kate Ahrens, UNISON
Maria Exall, CWU