SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 79, November 2003

Reclaiming Labour: if not now, when?

THE BOURNEMOUTH conference was certainly the most difficult for Tony Blair since Labour came to power in 1997. The leadership was defeated on policy motions on foundation hospitals and pensions. A constitutional amendment was passed allowing future conferences to debate eight ‘contemporary resolutions’ – four each from the unions and Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) – instead of the current limit of four. If that rule had operated this year the conference would have debated opposition resolutions on Iraq and university tuition fees. Overall, more conference floor defeats were inflicted on Tony Blair this year than in his previous nine years as party leader.

This was the product of a more organised attempt at collaboration between ‘awkward squad’ trade union leaders to use what remains of the (formerly dominant) position the unions occupy within the Labour Party structures – a majority of constituency delegates actually voted against the amendment to give CLPs more chance to get resolutions debated! The big unions ensured it was four union-sponsored motions that were selected in the ‘contemporary resolutions’ conference ballot. However, because the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers union (RMT) anti-war emergency resolution was reportedly not backed by the GMB and AMICUS unions, the war was not debated.

After the 15 February mass anti-war demonstration, veteran left-winger Tony Benn spoke of "a crunch time" for Tony Blair. He could "now either be the leader of the Labour Party or leader of the war party". (The Guardian, 17 February) Alan Simpson, secretary of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, anticipated "a movement in the Labour Party to indict him". Instead of an indictment of Blair, however, or even a debate, delegates gave a standing ovation to ‘fraternal greetings’ in praise of the ‘war on terror’ from the US-imposed ‘president’ of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai.

Alongside their efforts to seek – in vain – differences of substance between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, the failure to ensure a debate on the war shows the limits to how far some of the union leaders are prepared to go to ‘reclaim Labour’. It is one thing to secure symbolic conference victories on specific policy issues – which will anyway be ignored as was last year’s resolution for an independent review of the government’s private finance initiative (PFI) method of funding public services. It is another thing to launch a real struggle, to ideologically and organisationally take on the parliamentary leadership and its supporters in the party, and effectively re-create the Labour Party – with the left unions at its core – out of the present shell.

Outside of the formal conference proceedings, a fringe meeting was jointly organised by five big union affiliates – AMICUS, the Communication Workers Union (CWU), UNISON, and the TGWU and GMB general unions – to announce a campaign to ‘Get Labour Back’. But this was not, as inaccurately reported in The Guardian (2 October), a meeting "to launch the so-called Labour Representation Committee (LRC)", an attempt to re-create the coalition of trade unions and socialist activists which established the Labour Party in 1906, in a parallel organisation to the moribund official New Labour structures. That is a project being promoted by Mick Rix, the former general secretary of the train drivers’ union, ASLEF, and John McDonnell MP, chair of the Socialist Campaign Group. The latter sees an ‘LRC’ as a vital organisational step given that "the party members and trade unionists who have attended the numerous conferences, rallies and meetings under the banner of ‘reclaim’ or ‘save’ the party are increasingly frustrated at our failure to move this agenda forward". (Labour Left Briefing, October 2003) But while general appeals were made at the ‘Get Labour Back’ meeting to revive union delegations to CLPs, there was no sign of a serious organised drive.

But would even a more organised coalition of the unions and the Labour left to re-capture control of the Labour Party structures have any prospect of success? The role of the CLP delegates at Bournemouth as the chief support for the Blair leadership was not accidental. As Labour Party membership has collapsed, from over 400,000 in 1997 to (officially) 248,294 at the end of 2002, so local parties, where they function at all, are dominated by councillors, party officers, candidates for public sector appointments, etc. John McDonnell, optimistically, sees the fact that "large numbers of CLPs are now either defunct or meeting in a way that makes them inoperable… [as] an opportunity to bring together people in a new organisational framework – trade unionists and Labour activists – to take over the constituencies and consolidate at local level the sort of coalition that has taken place nationally". (Solidarity, 9 October) But what prospects are there for an influx of new members? It hasn’t happened in the past twelve, turbulent months, during the mass anti-war movement or the fire-fighters’ dispute. But if not then, when? Simeon Andrews, the Socialist Campaign Group co-ordinator forlornly concedes: "We are going to have to accept that a new army of radical recruits to swell our [the left’s] numbers in the party remains an unrealistic aspiration. The invasion of Iraq and the continued dismantling of the welfare state and public services have seen to that. We have to begin to turn things round with what we’ve got…". (Labour Left Briefing, September 2003)

Moreover, serious moves to take over the party structures, if they led to threats to unseat cabinet ministers or select left-wing parliamentary candidates, would not be met with equanimity by the Labour Party apparatus and, behind them, their ruling-class backers. George Galloway had the support of Tony Benn, the former Labour leader Michael Foot, and the TGWU general secretary Tony Woodley, yet he was still expelled. Other organisational steps would also be taken.

The Bournemouth conference itself passed another constitutional amendment changing the composition of the ‘Clause V’ body which agrees the general election manifesto, adding officers from the national policy forum and parliamentary committee (MPs) as yet further insurance against any union influence. A review of the 1997 ‘Partnership in Power’ policy-making structures is planned for ‘after the 2004 conference’, but a consultation paper has already asked whether local branches and CLPs are ‘relevant’ bodies. And state funding of political parties, likely now to be included in the next manifesto, is another option to deal with any attempt to re-establish the unions’ position inside the party.

The end-of-conference Guardian leader article was unconcerned about "union power being used for desirable ends" inside Labour’s structures, challenging this or that policy position. It warned, however, "that does not mean that the unions should have a blank cheque. Important aspects of their prescriptions are wrong, especially those that oppose change and seek to turn back the clock". (2 October) Too much has been invested in removing the potential for workers’ interests to be politically represented through the Labour Party, for that to be lightly reversed.


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