By Colin Foster
IT is eighteen years now since the last open and direct challenge to the ever-more-right-wing leadership in the Labour Party. We have paid a very high price - in lack of overall political perspective for struggles on different issues, in demobilisation of activists, and in the growth among the general public of the idea that all politics is a waste of time — for those 18 years of deference.
Now the long deference is ending. The conference, on 22 July, of the Labour Representation Committee, a significant minority in the Labour and trade union movement, is set to launch a new bid. John McDonnell MP, the most determined of the growing group of persistent rebels in the Parliamentary Labour Party, has indicated that he is willing to be a candidate to replace Tony Blair, and many LRC activists are keen to support him.
The LRC has the affiliation of four unions - the Communication Workers, the Bakers, the RMT rail union (expelled by the Labour Party), and the Fire Brigades Union (which disaffiliated voluntarily after its bitter pay dispute). It is backed by activists in many other unions.
And its challenge now is linked to active campaigns on two axial issues. The Public Services Not Private Profit campaign organised a thousand-strong lobby of Parliament on 27 June, and is planning now for a demonstration in the autumn. The campaign for a Trade Union Freedom Bill has won wide trade-union support, and is also planning a demonstration.
No-one thinks it will be easy. Under New Labour's current rules, for McDonnell even to get on the ballot paper when Tony Blair steps down will require enough pressure to get many Labour MPs beyond the usual left-wing rebels to nominate him.
The last direct left-wing challenge, launched in 1988 when the rules were easier, won only 11.4% of the vote for Tony Benn as leader, and 9.5% for Eric Heffer as deputy, in an attempt to unseat Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley. But if that minority support had been built on — rather than allowed to dissipate, as defeatism spread in the aftermath of the 1985 miners’ defeat - then Tony Blair would at least have had to reckon with a consistent, high-profile “alternative leadership”.
In the event the leadership contests in 1992 (when Kinnock resigned) and in 1994 (when John Smith died) passed with only the feeblest “soft-left” rival candidates — Bryan Gould in 1992, John Prescott and Margaret Beckett in 1994. And for the last 12 years Tony Blair has ruled the Labour Party in a manner scarcely seen since the proclamation, many centuries ago, of “the divine right of kings”.
Now Tony Blair’s approval rating, in opinion polls, has hovered around 30%, or below, for four months. 62%, and rising, think he should resign this year or next. 70% think his deputy, John Prescott, should go immediately. 52% agree that Prescott is “a buffoon who should never have made it to high office”. Blair’s chief fundraiser, Lord Levy, was arrested on 12 July in Labour’s millionaire-loans funding scandal.
Blair has to go — though how long he can hang on, protected by the grossly undemocratic structures he has built over the top of the old Labour Party, and how much damage he can do in the meantime, are still open questions.
The legacy of the last 18 years is that most trade unions — even the most left-wing ones - support Blair’s sidekick Gordon Brown to replace him. Brown feels so confident that the left and the trade unions will back him that he can prepare for the succession by ostentatiously, gauchely, advertising to the ruling class how right-wing he is — wrapping himself in the Union Jack, declaring public-sector pay must be kept down, making no secret that he considers Blair a softy on state pensions, and jumping in ahead of time to declare in favour of a new round of nuclear weapons after Trident.
Still the union leaders support him — either pretending he is not as bad as he seems, or shrugging and saying that he will win anyway and the important thing is to try to get a friendly hearing from him.
On Friday 7 July the Guardian carried a letter calling for an open debate on Labour policy, signed by Michael Meacher and a few other “soft left” MPs and, ostensibly, all the “big four” trade union leaders. The next day the newspaper had a correction: none of the “big four” except Tony Woodley of the TGWU had signed the letter after all, and some of the “soft left” MPs hadn’t signed it either.
This setback for Meacher’s attempts to make himself a candidate — which would produce no more than a re-run of the weak 1992 and 1994 contests — is welcome in so far as it clears the way for a genuine left challenge. Sadly, though, the reason why the union leaders insisted on not signing will have been that they want to back Brown.
That can be turned round — if, and only if, we can mobilise the activists within the unions to take up the issue vigorously and put pressure on the leaders. If, and only if, we can rally those who agree that the purpose of the Labour Party should be to represent the working class in politics, and that the labour movement should aim for a workers’ government, not just to “get the ear” of openly hostile New Labour politicians.
The success of the LRC conference on 22 July, and of efforts to build LRC networks in the unions in the months following, will be critical in that.