|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Turning point in Britain
A new movement emerging
As a human wave of protest converged on Hyde Park on February 15 the question was inexorably posed: how can this movement find a political expression? In this respect, argues PETER TAAFFE, George Galloway’s speech predicting splits from the Labour Party if Blair supports a war, was the most significant of the day. Where could such developments lead?
FEBRUARY 15 WAS a day when the world was on the march, when it was turned upside down, when the ‘dissenting minority’ became the majority. The Bush junta, the Blair cabal, the crooked circle of Berlusconi, and the rotten court camarilla of Aznar, cowered in their bunkers. The Guardian newspaper, in one estimate, put the number of participants worldwide at 30 million, although once a movement reaches these dimensions it is virtually impossible to give accurate figures. However, one thing is clear: such numbers could not come out onto the streets without the latent colossal support of the mass of the population behind them. Aznar’s argument that the ‘silent majority’ were opposed to the demonstrators is like a multi-storey building resting on flea’s legs!
It is no accident that Britain, Spain and Australia, whose governments slavishly support Bush, saw the greatest mass demonstrations in their history. The Berlusconi government in Italy was also besieged by more than three million demonstrators in Rome and millions more throughout the country. One International Herald Tribune journalist, William Pfaff, spoke in Brechtian terms about the isolation of Tony Blair and George W Bush: "The people can elect new prime ministers, but the prime ministers can’t elect new peoples". (11 February)
This was the greatest international display on one day of ‘people’s power’ – not yet clearly working class in composition and leadership but with significant sections of the working class and trade unions participating. It signified that the mass of the people believe that they must act themselves because bourgeois leaders and their parties in all their hues and disguises cannot and will not prevent the world from sliding into the abyss of war, poverty and degradation. Building as it has on the anti-capitalist mass movement, this mood will not disappear. In this political reawakening is the generosity, even naivety, which characterises the ‘spring’ of all mass movements. There is an expectation that the bourgeois leaders must ‘listen’ and act accordingly in the face of such a mass movement.
However, all the indications are that Bush and Blair’s drive to war continues unabated. They calculate that a ‘quick victory’ over Saddam Hussein would change the political landscape and win majority support. They are mistaken, because the anger and bitterness at the refusal of these ‘democratic’ politicians to heed public opinion will be unabated even in the face of a bloody ‘victory’ over Saddam. Therefore, the call for more decisive action now, mass civil disobedience, strike action and even a call for a general strike – made in London even by people like Tim Robbins, the American actor – will grow apace.
As important as these initiatives – particularly for the long term – is how to politically sustain this movement and at the same time provide a mass political socialist alternative for those who are moving into action, particularly the new generation of workers and young people. The absence of such an alternative has left a huge vacuum with the consequent frustration and discontent amongst working class people evident. The neo-fascist British National Party (BNP) is seeking to occupy this space, garnering votes and a council seat in Halifax on top of the positions they have gained in ruined former mill towns in Lancashire.
In the past, when Labour was a bourgeois workers’ party – with a leadership that always leaned towards the ruling class but working class at the bottom – it was at least a reference point for working-class people, sometimes a countervailing influence to reactionary views and ideas like those of the BNP. Labour is now a bourgeois formation whose knee-jerk reaction is to seek to partially borrow the clothes of the racists and the Tories on the burning issue of immigration and asylum seekers. The Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith in effect flags up the need to construct concentration camps for newly arrived asylum seekers. The reaction of Blair and home secretary, David Blunkett, is to seek to borrow this idea and combine it with suggestions that European human rights legislation be put aside in the cause of stopping the ‘flood’ of asylum seekers into Britain.
Anti-working class policies
THE LIST OF betrayals and broken pledges is endless and grows by the day. On the issue of top-up student tuition fees, a ‘mainstream’ Labour backbencher Eric Guisely declared in the Commons: "This is a betrayal of working people in my constituency. It will be the equivalent of taking out an extra mortgage and it will mean university is not for people like my family". If the children of MPs are denied a chance at university, what hopes are there for the working class? Blair and his crew have climbed up the ladder of education provided by the ‘welfare state’ in capitalism’s boom years and are now snatching it away. This will deny working-class young people the chance to go on to higher education which has been enjoyed by their parents in the past. Or, after completing their education, they will face the risk of becoming, like Chinese peasants of old, crushed by debt for the rest of their lives.
Almost half a million teachers were offered a derisory 2.9% wage increase, apportioned in such a way that teachers are divided against one another. Some in inner London, for instance, will receive significant increases, while others, even in the immediate vicinity, will receive very little when increases in national insurance are taken into account. This, at the same time as the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine – he of grossly expensive office wallpaper – was offered 12.6% a year (£22,000), more than a fire-fighter’s total salary. Soldiers in the Gulf are also being asked to risk their lives for a 3.2% increase. This is at a time when £8.6 million of taxpayers’ money, our money, was spent on champagne receptions by British ambassadors! This has been compounded by Blair’s support for an appointed second chamber – a new House of Lords – against the opposition of Robin Cook and many in his own cabinet and in a clear ‘material breach’ of New Labour’s 1997 election manifesto.
But the issues which have finally brought things to a head are the vicious actions of Blair and his ministers towards the fire-fighters and, of course, the war. Deputy prime minister, John Prescott, an alleged ‘friend’ of the unions, was used as the club to beat the fire-fighters, threatening to bring back the 1947 Fire Services Act (repealed in 1959), thus allowing the government to unilaterally impose pay and conditions on the fire-fighters. This earned a stinging rebuke from the Daily Mirror who characterised Prescott as ‘a working class zero’. Its political editor, Paul Routledge, who has sung his praises in the past, wrote bitterly: "John Prescott is a child of the unions. He was educated by his union; sent to Ruskin College, Oxford, by his union – the National Union of Seamen. He got to parliament as a union man. He lived in a union flat". This sense of betrayal displayed by Labour-inclined Fleet Street hacks was palpable but is nothing to how the working class as a whole feel. Routledge furiously added: "The Labour Party is finished". Not quite yet, Paul, we would add but the forces that could significantly break the influence of bourgeoisified New Labour over the British working class and the organised trade union movement are rapidly maturing.
The attack on the fire-fighters added to the sense of outrage felt even inside the ranks of the sanitised New Labour Party. Combined with Blair’s poodle-like acceptance of Bush’s war plans it has brought divisions out into the open. Blair is completely isolated on the war, with open hostility towards him displayed by the Labour ranks in parliament (70% of his own constituents are also opposed to his position on the war). The loss of authority of the ‘king’ has led to an unseemly and public jousting within the court circle (cabinet) on issues such as ‘foundation hospitals’ (Blairspeak for privatisation) and on tuition fees.
This in turn is linked to a collapse in the already depleted Labour Party membership, which officially stands at 180,000, half of what it was when Blair assumed the leadership. This has compelled Labour ‘fundraisers’ to scramble desperately for donations to help pay off an estimated £5.5 million on its new Westminster headquarters. Donors have been promised a ‘place in Labour history’ with an annual £100 donation gaining a ‘silver membership’ and an invitation to a garden party, while £500 a year secures a ‘gold level’ pass to regional and national receptions as well as Labour’s annual conference (The Guardian, 17 January 2003).
Collapse in support
MATCHING THIS ORGANISATIONAL meltdown is the plummeting of New Labour in the opinion polls, with the February poll in The Times showing them to be on just 35%, 1% ahead of the inept Tories. The Times revealed that "more than half of the public says that their view of Mr Blair has changed because of Iraq, a third less favourably". This is Labour’s lowest point in the polls since the fuel protests in September 2000, and on a par with Labour’s support in the 1992 general election. It is true that the poll is run by an organisation called ‘Populace’ and is managed by Tories, former employees of Michael Portillo. But even these polls concede that Labour’s plummeting support has very little to do with a revival in Tory fortunes. Their poll standing has remained static but the decisive new factor is the intention of those who supported Labour in the past to abstain. As Jackie Ashley put it in The Guardian: "The real threat to New Labour just now is not from Iain Duncan Smith, but from not bloody voting". Even New Labour luminary, Blunkett, has conceded that the turnout at the next general election could be 50% or less, which would mark the culmination of a process of ‘Americanisation’ of British politics.
If this was to come about, no doubt learned electoral scribes could then write more treatises on the ‘apathy’ of the British population towards politics. Yet February 15 gives the lie to that argument. Only weeks before, those very same bourgeois journalists, who in awe recorded the sweep of the mass movement, had bemoaned the lack of ‘involvement’ of people against the war and the seeming indifference on all the great issues affecting society. In reality, bitter anger exists at the state of Britain and the world but this could find no ventilation. The anti-war movement provided such an outlet. Direct action will deepen and reinforce this mood but for a sustained challenge to capitalism to be mounted requires a political alternative to be created.
In this sense, the speech in Hyde Park on February 15 of George Galloway was the most significant of the day. In the tumult of denunciations of Blair and Bush, his message, his foreshadowing of crucial developments in the British labour movement, was perhaps submerged. Nevertheless, their importance remains. He warned that if Blair supports war, as he fully intends to if it goes ahead, then the Labour Party would split and Galloway and others would "refound the Labour Party" on socialist principles. To those looking for an alternative to Blair, this raises the prospect that a new formation is now on the agenda.
Contained in this threat – notwithstanding the limitations of using the now discredited label of ‘Labour’ – is the implicit recognition that Labour cannot be ‘reformed’, as others on the Labour left still imagine. For instance, Mark Seddon, the editor of Tribune, which still describes itself as the journal of the Labour left, recently seemed to make a similar point to Galloway but drew the wrong conclusion (February 7). He wrote that the government is "against many of the policies and principles that have sustained the Labour Party since its inception". This is nothing new, Mark; this was and is the essence of the New Labour ‘project’, which has unfortunately succeeded in completely obliterating the principles upon which the Labour Party was originally built. He then goes on to add: "There have been Thatcherite responses from ministers to the fire-fighters’ dispute: proposals for foundation hospitals, top-up fees for students, and a massive expansion of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI)". The conclusion he draws is: "The time has come to say ‘enough is enough’. It is time to reclaim the Labour Party and refound it. In constituency parties and in the unions this proposition is being advanced with increasing urgency. What is currently lacking is the organisational base to bring all these forces together". So far, so good!
But then, crucially and fatally, he adds: "A Labour refoundation would eschew the path chosen by the old Labour right when it broke away to form the ill-fated Social Democratic Party". In other words, he opposes a split from the Labour Party. This is the same warmed-over dish which the Tribunite left served up as the Blairites marched to power, crushed the left and established a party in the image of the US Democratic Party. A left split from Labour, on the other hand, backed by the left trade union leaders in particular, would tap into the huge radical constituency created by the anti-war movement. If just 20% of the one to two million on the march supported such a bold step, that would give a base of 200,000 to 400,000 members. Even 10% would mean the creation of a force of 100,000, roughly equivalent to the 100,000 or so members of Rifondazione Comunista (PRC) in Italy. Such a force could attract new forces who are looking for such an alternative and they would be joined by tens of thousands of trade unionists, socialists, environmentalists and radicalised blacks and Asians.
The failure of Seddon, and the handful of Labour lefts on the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the Labour Party, to win the party to radicalism, never mind socialism, is transparent. The character of Blairism is well understood even by its relatively recent converts such as Kim Howells, the ‘culture’ minister and former socialist firebrand in the South Wales National Union of Mineworkers. He recently spelt out the real intention of the ‘project’: "New Labour is about running capitalism better than the Tories". (The Guardian, 17 January)
The trade union link
NOTWITHSTANDING THIS, THERE are those on the left like Seddon and Labour MP Alan Simpson who seek to feed the massive discontent with Blair into the Labour Party in a futile attempt to change it. Unfortunately, the same idea predominates amongst right-wing trade union leaders. Since 1979, the trade unions have given the Labour Party a total of £200 million and what have they received in return? A totally inadequate minimum wage and now the promise of ‘parity’ for privatised workforces to those in the public sector. On paper the promised new code defends the rights of ‘privatised’ workers, much to the fury of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) which was expecting a code which at least allowed new workers taken on in privatised industry to be employed with worse rights and conditions than in the public sector. Now, according to UNISON’s general secretary Dave Prentis, all new workers taken on by companies to provide public services within local government should enjoy "no less favourable" pay and conditions than their "comrades in the public sector".
While it is to be welcomed that the more brutal demands of the bosses have, it seems, been defeated, it remains to be seen whether this is enough to safeguard the rights and conditions of public-sector workers. But this ‘concession’ should not mean that Labour should be financially rewarded by the trade unions. It should be axiomatic that a real ‘Labour’ government should eschew privatisation and support the public sector. Yet this government is still pursuing a policy of privatisation, whereas the trade union movement as a whole and the working people of Britain are implacably opposed to this. Moreover, the Tories’ vicious anti-union laws remain. The only one that Labour MPs are demanding should be repealed is the stipulation for ballots to ratify the political levy!
Bill Morris, the leader of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), has been organising a ‘whip round’ estimated to come to £40 million over five years, in order to bail out New Labour. This was put into cold storage during the fire-fighters’ dispute and now in the flare-ups over the war. But it is absolutely scandalous that Morris can promise further largesse from union members’ pockets, more resources to Blair and New Labour to undermine the rights and conditions of working people. This is comparable to what happens in China where the families of those to be executed are forced to pay for the bullets of the firing squad!
This is in flagrant opposition to the mood within the unions. Even a pillar of New Labour, former TUC general secretary John Monks, recently warned that "it was virtually impossible for anyone to win a union contest standing on a Blairite ticket". The election of the so-called ‘awkward squad’, Mick Rix and Bob Crow in the railworkers’ unions, ASLEF and the RMT, Mark Serwotka in the PCS civil service union, Andy Gilchrist in the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and Derek Simpson in Amicus, all signify a rank-and-file revolt against New Labour’s stooges in the unions. The TGWU is likely to join the growing ‘awkward squad’ with the prospect of Tony Woodley winning the general secretary’s election to replace the discredited Morris.
A break from New Labour
THE LEFT GENERAL secretaries (in the aforementioned unions) have raised the need for change, some of them suggesting or hinting at an alternative outside the Labour Party. However, unlike George Galloway, their public statements have indicated a certain inconsistency, which also contradicts the growing mood within their own unions. Within the RMT and certainly the FBU there are probably clear majorities to get out of the Labour Party and, as an alternative, stand their own candidates or finance those who support their members in struggle. Eighty per cent of fire-fighters are reported to have promised to, or have already, contracted out of the political levy which is currently paid to the Labour Party. A preferable position would be to continue to pay the political levy but for the FBU to disaffiliate from New Labour at its next conference.
Despite their trenchant criticism of New Labour, however, neither Rix nor Crow have clearly come out for a break with New Labour and the ‘refoundation’ of a new political alternative. Despite our warnings to them, particularly in discussions with Bob Crow, they burnt their fingers in Arthur Scargill’s ill-fated Socialist Labour Party (SLP). Both are fiery workers’ leaders who resonate with the rank and file of their own unions and the wider working-class movement. But both are reluctant, probably because they cannot see a ready-made constituency for a new mass party existing at present, to make a bold call.
Bob Crow has unfortunately made ambivalent statements about chancellor, Gordon Brown. He was reported by the Financial Times as saying that Brown was "closer to the working class" than Blair. However, Brown is no real alternative. A few weeks ago he once more elaborated his mantra of support for capitalism, the market, berating the ‘old left’ for its ‘fetish’ in supporting the public sector. He argued that New Labour "now had a radically different view of markets to the one it held in the past". He is the most enthusiastic advocate of PFI in the cabinet, although he has clashed with the health secretary, Alan Milburn, over the ‘foundation hospitals’ proposal. There are certain illusions amongst workers and trade unionists, however, that he harkens for a return to ‘Old Labour’ principles, because of the recent boost in public expenditure which he sanctioned. Nothing could be further from the truth: the election of Brown as New Labour’s leader after Blair’s resignation or overthrow would mean a continuation of the ‘project’ (with minor variations) with all that would mean for the working class of Britain.
Too much time has been wasted already since 1997. The price for prevarication will be paid by the British working class if the trade unions and authoritative figures don’t act now. The time when Labour could be changed by the mobilisation of forces from within and into Labour has long gone. The channels for organising such a change have been blocked up, dynamited in some cases, which makes it impossible to organisationally break the grip of the Blairites.
To his credit, this is recognised by George Galloway. His threat that the Labour Party would split should Blair go to war, leading to an attempt to ‘refound the Labour Party’ on socialist principles, is still posed as an initiative to take place under the signboard of ‘Labour’, probably designed to attract Labour dissidents. This may not be of decisive significance particularly for a transitional organisation, which is what George Galloway’s idea probably implies, but it is not the best one. It may pull in, as Socialist Party councillor and former Labour MP Dave Nellist has commented, perhaps a few thousand existing older Labour Party members, but will not be attractive to the young fresh layers who poured onto the streets of London on February 15. They need a new, clean banner, with a clear commitment to fighting capitalism and for a new socialist society.
The Socialist Party will argue the case for this if debates on Galloway’s ideas open up in the next period. But the kernel of the proposal, for a break from Labour and the construction of a political alternative, is more important than the outer shell, a temporary label. What is vital now, while the mood on the war and other issues is white hot, is for George Galloway, and any other left MPs and trade union leaders who support his call, to take firm political and organisational steps to bring to fruition what could be a vital step forward for the British working-class movement.
The mistakes of Scargill, and the narrow cul-de-sac which the SWP-dominated Socialist Alliance has also unfortunately become, need to be avoided at all costs. Organisational proposals on the precise form of this alternative should be kept to a minimum at this stage but it must be open to all on the left and, by necessity, federal in character. British workers should borrow from the best examples of their brothers and sisters worldwide. The construction of a mighty mass party, which stood clearly under the signboard of socialism in the first instance, the Workers Party (PT) in Brazil, began its life in a series of ‘assemblies’ where the idea of such a party was propagated by authoritative figures such as Lula, then a workers’ leader. Similarly George Galloway, who has assumed great prominence and authority as one of the main spokespersons of the anti-war movement, together with left trade union leaders and other authoritative figures such as Dave Nellist, could play such a role now in Britain. If they speak with one voice on the need for a new formation, for a political and organisational break with the Labour Party, then this would resonate throughout the length and breadth of Britain. A new chapter could then be opened for the working class.