At the Labour Party conference last October, the biggest group of resolutions from local Labour Parties was against the privatisation of air traffic control. They never got anywhere near the conference floor. Without comment or explanation, the New Labour government has now announced that it will privatise air traffic control in this parliamentary session.
Privatisation is more unpopular than ever, both in the labour movement and in the population at large. Yet the London borough of Islington, a long-time Labour stronghold and once one of its left-wing showcases, has just had all its schools removed from its control and handed over to private contractors. National Health Service hospitals are being mortgaged to private contractors under the "Private Finance Initiative". The Post Office is being reorganised in preparation for a privatisation that even the Tories shied away from. Effective privatisation of pensions is under way.
Pretty much the whole London labour movement, and for that matter the majority of the people of London, opposes Tube privatisation. The Labour leadership is going to extraordinary lengths to bar Ken Livingstone, the only candidate speaking out against Tube privatisation, from selection as Labour's nominee for Mayor. Despite the frantic Blairite campaign, a clear majority of London's trade unionists will probably endorse Livingstone - it would be a much bigger majority if key pro-Livingstone unions, RMT, ASLEF, MSF and BECTU, hadn't been barred from the ballot - though with the electoral college rigged that does not guarantee at all that Livingstone wins the selection.
This development confirms what we have argued in this magazine about the need for socialists to continue to relate to the remaining "old Labour" life within the "New Labour" structure. The rank and file of the trade unions and the Labour Party is no more uniformly "Blairite" than the whole population was "Thatcherite" in the years of Tory ascendancy. However, the broad assessment we made in September 1998 also remains valid.
Changes since then have been for the worse rather than the better. The latest "consultation process", A 21st Century Party, will abolish representative structures in local Labour Parties and remove the right of trade union delegates to influence local Party policy. It is still on track to be rubber-stamped at the next Labour conference.
Nevertheless, the Livingstone candidacy, with vast media coverage and sizeable meetings all across London, has stirred up the labour movement perhaps more than any other spat in the two and a half years of New Labour government. Formally, it is only a replica of the row over Labour's Welsh Assembly leadership, where the Blair machine imposed the English-accented muzak-announcer type Alun Michael and blocked challenger Rhodri Morgan just because Morgan, no left-winger, showed flickers of responsiveness to the rank and file. Livingstone is no left-winger either. The London business amounts to more because what supporters perceive in Livingstone - a symbol of the days of a combative Labour left - is very different from what he says. It has put the issue of working-class representation on the stage of mass public politics, and socialists can and must run with it as far and as fast as we can.
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