Workers' Liberty #58


The Labour Party

Labour Party conference this year was a triumph for the new Blairite policy-making structures. They effectively excluded the majority of issues in the Party that are contentious between the leadership and the membership. The only awkward items that were discussed were contemporary motions, whose place on the agenda is determined by the union bureaucracies.

By a conference delegate.

Blair's 19th century 21st Century Party

The final year policy documents (all acceptable to the leadership) on Welfare, Health and Britain in the World, each a novelette long, were passed. No alternative positions had a realistic chance of getting debated. The "all or nothing" votes on policy areas became a test of Party loyalty, not a reasoned consideration of the issues.

Whilst the odds are stacked against anyone with a different view from the Labour Party leadership, the fact that no minority reports came forward from the National Policy Forum (NPF) and the fact that previous promises on the ability to take reports in parts were broken, without much dissent, shows the weakness of the left organisation in the Party. This is not totally related to the ascendancy of the leadership in Party organisation.

It is also a result of a lack of political focus by the Labour left. The success of the Blairite leadership clique in claiming credit for the landslide victory in 1997, and their subsequent re-use of the "don't rock the boat" cliché - used first to quell dissent before the 1997 election, and now being used to quell dissent in order to gain a "historic second term" - should not be underestimated. The pragmatic argument that being in power is 100% more effective (even if the ideology is near-unpalatable) than the correct ideology without power holds sway over the middle ground of the Labour Party, from the "old Labour" right (who don't like Blairism) through labour movement bureaucrats and their flunkeys ( who don't like Blairism) to the soft left (who don't like Blairism). These people make up the majority of individual Labour Party members. Blair and his supporters are a small clique whose coup on the Labour Party (via Clause Four and Partnership into Power) has been very successful.

The dichotomy of power with the wrong ideology versus no power and a socialistic ideology is of course totally false. It's a lack of belief in popular socialism and a masochistic view of the labour movement. But that's the current state of play.

The hold over Party structures of Blairites was confirmed at this year's conference by: the vote for Conference Arrangements committee, Stephen Twigg and Yvette Cooper beating the alternative slate, headed by Audrey Wise, by 20,000 votes (140,000 odd to 120,000 odd); the vote for NPF positions, where the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy candidates gained no more than 30% of seats; and the threat of The 21st Century Party document. This document is due to go out for consultation throughout the Party until next summer.

It is vitally important that resistance is organised to the new proposals. They will mean the abolition of representative structures in the Party at constituency level (GCs). And with no representative structures it is in practice impossible to have accountability in Party organisation. The plans are to cut back trade union involvement and abolish the ability of ordinary Party members to vote on matters of policy. Executive Committees of local parties, elected yearly, will not have to be held to account by a wider body. Beyond this straightforward democratic argument there are other important issues to be tackled. There is a Millbank spin that the reason that (New) Labour did so badly in Euro and local elections this year is because local activists were wedded to an old-fashioned view of the Party.

So, if we change the structure and make them go out campaigning instead, not asking awkward questions at GCs, we will win the next election. Could Party policy and campaign priorities have had an effect in the less-than-enthusiastic response of Party members to canvassing? Never!

The plans are based on the false presumption that activists in smoke-filled rooms don't go out and campaign. And to involve and motivate members, organisations have to let them have a participatory role, not a cheerleading role. There is also the fact that the organised labour movement, primarily in trade unions, has always punched above its weight in campaigning - both in organisational experience and work. Every time Blair sides with big business he loses trade unionists campaigning for the Party.

Then he needs more money in donations to cover for the lack of grassroots campaigning; for slick media work to get people to vote. The more money he needs, the more he relies on business donations. And so the spiral continues, all within the rhetoric of not being in hoc to "vested interests".

The resistance to The 21st Century Party will in the current situation inevitably be defensive. However, it would be a mistake to fall into the trap of "saving Old Labour" versus a modernisation of the Party. We should reject The 21st Century Party as an inadequate means of political representation of Labour Party members and the labour movement. We need a united campaign, like that against Clause 4, but one that stresses a modern agenda - a strengthened labour movement to fight the vested interests of the capitalists who bankrolled Thatcherism and now have their sleazy hands all over the Labour Party. We should create a powerful voice within the Party that marries democratic rights to the political expression of working class solidarity - for poor pensioners, against inequality in education, for trade union rights and other broad-based demands.

The democratisation of the trade union-Labour Party link is vital to any revival of the left in the Labour Party. A focus on the issues that would unite left Labour Party activists and trade unionists would give the left of the Party a positive agenda.

Much work needs to be done in affiliated unions - calling their representatives on the NPF and NEC to account, campaigning on their issues within the Party, not relying on bureaucratic methods to advance their views, and drawing collective union lines on issues of privatisation, PFI and welfare. These lines need to be drawn within the Party - not in official union policy that is conveniently forgotten at Labour Party meetings and Labour Party conferences.

On the clapometer, Prescott was welcomed more warmly than Blair. "Old" Labour Ministers got standing ovations, whilst "New" Labour ones met with polite applause. Conference speeches against privatisation of Air Traffic Control, against the "whingeing face of the CBI", and restating Old Labour values of a welfare state that cares, were all hits. When the trade union bureaucracies decided to take a stand on contemporary motions on the Working Time Directive and the Post Office, they won. The contradictions are all there: gut working class feeling trapped by Old Labour loyalty and New Labour design.

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