The Labour Party conference at Brighton reflected the political state Britain is in now. The question is: did it offer any way forward for the labour movement and the working class?
The simple answer is: no. The longer-term answer is: maybe.
The atmosphere now is one of chronic, prolonged, irresoluble political crisis. The Iraq war and its aftermath form the eye of the political storm that continues to rage around Tony Blair.
But many other things are caught up in it. Over the years this Blair “Labour” government with its Thatcher-Tory policies and brutish hostility to the labour movement has stirred up much bitterness, disappointment and anger against itself. Without that, it is not at all clear that the aftermath of the war which smashed Saddam Hussein’s murderous fascistic regime in Iraq would have been what it has been for British politics.
Blair span a weak, transparently false, and obviously contrived case for war — that the Iraqi regime had “weapons of mass destruction” and was a “threat to Britain”. Whether or not Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction”, who believed that Iraq constituted a “threat to Britain”?
It was unmistakably clear that the reason Blair took Britain into war with Iraq was that the American administration was determined to go to war, and Blair was determined that, come what may, he would stay in lockstep with Bush. All the other reasons were just con-man politician’s patter — the “good”, but not the real, reasons.
Except for his initial decision to stick with Bush, Blair did not have any control over what happened. Britain was — and is — a satellite locked into orbit around the USA.
But that, of course, is not something which Blair or his apologists can very well explain or insist on.
Naturally, people object to having been lied to. That is not something that, for Blair, will soon go away. The man who once described himself as “a pretty straight sort of guy” has shown that even that statement was a lie.
The only thing “straight” about Blair is that he is a Tory — a Thatcherite Tory — and that isn’t so “straight”, either, since this Tory is the leader of the Labour Party. No: he has for 10 years been virtual dictator of the Labour Party. He has politically disenfranchised the labour movement.
At Brighton, for the first time in a decade, Blair looked more like a traditional Labour Party leader than a dictator. He got his way on most things — most significantly, he escaped an implicit censure on Iraq — but this time he had to argue and bargain for what he wanted.
His “victory” on Iraq would not have happened if the trade unions had not, after much bargaining and haggling, thrown their block votes (50% of conference) behind him.
For 10 years as leader, Blair has stood up before the Labour Party conference only to scorn and jeer at “Old Labour” politics and values, to dismiss them with contempt. Blair in office has been the son of Margaret Thatcher, and no relation at all to Clem Attlee, the Labour prime minister who presided over the creation of the modern welfare state in the late 1940s.
In the 1960s the American cartoonist Jules Feiffer did a famous strip cartoon in which a “Black Power” militant poured scorn and abuse on a white, middle-class audience. The last panel showed his masochistic audience handing him wads of notes in payment for it. The relationship between Blair and the trade unions and the old Constituency Labour Parties has been rather like that.
Blair’s anti-labour-movement speeches to “his” Labour Party conferences were of course made for the Tory media. This time he had to “lower” himself and actually try to influence his audience.
This time he was less arrogant, less the hectoring, all-powerful headmaster.
He had already had to make (weak) promises to the union leaders (the “Warwick agreement”) on such things as ending the “two-tier workforce” in privatised services, where new recruits get worse pay and conditions than older workers who have been transferred over from a public employer and have their old conditions protected by European Union regulations.
This time he sounded less like the boss’s son come to give the ignorant proles lessons in high finance and realpolitik, and more like an old-fashioned labour movement right-winger. Not exactly, as Peter Kilfoyle MP puts it, one of “the Labour tribe”, perhaps, but not someone flaunting the colours, the catch-cries, and the anti-Labour animosities of the alien tribe either.
He did not quite say that he was “sorry” about the Iraq war, but he did half-apologise for getting it wrong about the “weapons of mass destruction”. He shifted his ground decisively: for his justification he now stands not on “weapons of mass destruction” which were supposedly a threat to Britain, but on getting rid of Saddam Hussein.
The desirability of getting rid of that Iraqi Hitler is not something many would disagree with. Certainly Solidarity would not. The issue is getting rid of Saddam Hussein in that way, by those methods, with all the overheads that may lead to bloody regression rather than the stated goal of establishing a bourgeois democratic regime in Iraq. Whatever Blair says, the implications are now unfolding in Iraq.
Blair did not surrender to the unions by promising that after the 2005 election the “next Labour government” will repeal the anti-union laws that have now been on the statute book for nearly a quarter of a century. But the trade unions are no longer automatically “on side” as they have been for most of the last decade.
Is the Blair Labour Party really pregnant with an “old Labour” party feebly kicking its way back towards rebirth? Here it is not a question of left or right wing politics, or of the “line” on, say, Iraq, which conference took, but of the structures and relationships within the Labour Party.
The Blair coup destroyed or radically rearranged the old structures of the Labour Party. The constituency Labour Parties’ ability to take motions on policy to Labour Party conference was virtually abolished (it has only just, in very small part, been restored); the function of the National Executive was downgraded; conference itself was turned into a TV jamboree, rigidly controlled.
In their place, the entire power was shifted to the leader’s office. Blair and his coterie make policy and then impose it on the party. Blair’s right-wing, anti-union politics are the measure of what resulted, but decisive has been the closing-down of the old Labour Party channels and forums through which Labour Party members and affiliated unions, at all levels from constituency to national conference, could do something about government policy.
In fact, old Labour governments, as much as Blair’s New Labour government, did not necessarily do what Labour Party conference told them it wanted doing. But at least it was possible to register opposition, and to organise to pit the Labour Party against the Labour government.
For most of the time in the 1960s and 70s when Labour was in power, the Labour Party in the country was in strong opposition. When a Labour government made the first attempt in modern times to bring in anti-union legislation, the Labour Party members and the affiliated unions stopped it. Frustrating or not, the Labour Party was a vehicle for expressing and organising for the political affairs of the labour movement and the concerns of the working class.
All that went after the Blairite coup. And yet, as we have argued before, all sorts of elements of the old Labour Party remained unchanged within the Blair Labour Party. The unions remained affiliated; they still financed the Labour Party (though Blair and his friends got donations from millionaires, especially to maintain the newly inflated leader’s office); they still had 50% of the vote at Labour Party conference.
Without the backing of the union leaders, Blair could not have made his coup. At every point of contention, throughout the life of the New Labour government, the unions had the power — if only they had the will — to oppose the government and rally opposition inside New Labour’s structures.
The union leaders allowed Blair and his gang to transform the old political labour movement out of recognition. They did not try to hinder Blair. They helped him.
The election of a new generation of trade union leaders in recent years has created a new situation. What matters is not that they are “left wing”, but that they are genuine trade unionists — people who believe that unions exist to better the wages and conditions of their members.
They inherited a situation in which the Blairites expected them to behave as their predecessors had — like the audience in Jules Feiffer’s cartoon. They refused.
The leaders of the “big four” unions began to coordinate their proposals and responses to the government. They did that at last year’s Labour Party conference, and they did it in Brighton. What is new is not that they wound up backing Blair — and Bush — on Iraq, but that they were a compact, coherent, working-class force to be reckoned with. That in the unions and in sections of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and even in the enormously depleted constituency Labour Parties, one can see (as we have argued before) the outlines of a re-emerging Labour Party.
But only the outlines. For more than that, the unions will have to assert themselves much more than they have done so far — and break with the Blairites.
Instead, the leaders make deals and bargain. In a situation in which Blair is weakened, and in which general social discontent is expressing itself through the cracks created by the Iraq war, they pussyfoot around, more concerned to defeat the feeble Tory devil they haven’t got than the Blair-Tory devil riding on their shoulders. They do nothing to recreate the structures of a real union-based working-class party.
They draw closer to Blair because a general election is expected next year. They look to Gordon Brown to eventually replace Blair, and pretend to themselves that everything will then be fine, though Brown is no different at all in essentials from Blair. They do not fight for their own unions’ policies, to repeal the Tory anti-union laws. And they may subside into a donkey-to-rider relationship with Blair or Brown.
The dim outlines of something resembling the old Labour Party are visible now. They are still very dim, and may prove insubstantial.
The fundamental interests of real trade diverge from Blairism. But much of the structure of the old Labour Party — the limbs and muscles — has been destroyed. They would have to be recreated and rebuilt if a new Labour Party were to emerge.
With a lead from the union leaders, that could be done, and, probably, done quickly. That presupposes a break with Blairism.
The measure of the political weakness of the leaders of the big unions is that what they do will most likely depend on what the Blairites do. Alan Milburn has been appointed to draft New Labour’s manifesto for the general election. They talk of a new “radical” drive — radical as Thatcher was radical — in the third term which they will very likely win. That means massive job cuts in the civil service going full steam ahead, and new privatisations.
If the Blairites take that course, then they will make it difficult for the trade union leaders to accommodate to them. And they will face a trade union movement that has reconstituted itself — if only at the top so far — as a distinct and semi-organised trade-unionist force inside New Labour. Such a conflict could lead to a split and the separation of the elements of old Labour from Blair or Brown Labour.
Activists should build the new Labour Representation Committee and argue in each union for a break with Blair and Brown.
We must rebuild the unions at workplace level, and open them up to democratic rank-and-file control. And we must agitate for clear, sharp, working-class socialist politics, in place of the inadequate “old Labour” politics that led “old Labour” to destruction.