Labour Against the War conference: no confidence in Blair!

Submitted by AWL on 6 April, 2003 - 7:21

About 350 people, about a third of them trade-union or Labour Party delegates, and representing about 100 Constituency Labour Parties between them, attended the Labour Against the War (LATW) conference
in London on Saturday 29 March. Matt Cooper reports

The main controversy was about whether or not to campaign for no confidence in Tony Blair as Labour Party leader. Eventually pressure from the floor led to an indicative vote, with a majority of about three to one for "no confidence" despite strong opposition to it from
the platform.

Unfortunately the organisers had not printed up the resolutions submitted to the conference from trade union branches and CLPs so that clear debates and decisions could be taken on them.

Some submissions had been composited, or part-composited, into statements from the platform, but the rest were just spoken to, without the text being made available or any vote being taken.

In a final twist the conference nominated an "advisory committee" rather than an accountable body to continue LATW's work. Just whom this committee "advises" was unclear.

In the five and a half hours of the conference there were (at least, I lost count) thirteen platform speakers, mostly MPs, union leaders and so on. The vast majority of them made generic anti-war speeches without any real engagement in a debate about what LATW should do.

Alice Mahon MP stated that to mount a Labour leadership challenge would be a distraction. So we just lobby Blair and the cabinet to execute what would be one of the most unlikely u-turns of British history? Communication Workers' Union leader Billy Hayes not only advised against expressing no confidence in Blair, but also called for no "ritual assaults" on pro-war MPs. Meaning that the left should not attempt to deselect them, where we have the chance, while the right attempts to deselect the anti-war Diane Abbott in Hackney North?

Much of the floor debate was unfocused because of the lack of texts.

Maria Exall moved, from the Central London Telecom CWU branch, that LATW should say "no to war, no to Saddam", but no debate followed. A motion from Leyton and Wanstead CLP on directions for LATW was proposed, but neither refuted not adopted.

Many important points were raised from the floor. Delegates from Erith and Crayford plan to mail every CLP in the country to call for a recall Labour Party conference, an objective also endorsed in the platform statement. Jay Kramer from Hastings and Rye CLP, and Tim Row from Mid Leicestershire CWU, proposed motions of no confidence in Blair. Mick Blackburn, Assistant General Secretary of ASLEF, supported the call for no confidence. He argued that the rank and bbfile of trade unions must compel trade union representatives on Labour's National Executive to carry through their unions' policy against the war. Trade unions must take a far greater lead in the anti-war movement. "The struggle on the TUC General Council needs to be intensified in order to win a special TUC conference with a view to encouraging and supporting peaceful civil protest, including strike action, to end this unjust war".

Whether this is a hesitant beginning or a wasted opportunity is now in the hands of Labour Party activists and members of affiliated unions around the country. A concerted campaign for "no confidence in Blair" can breathe life back into the Labour structures. If union branches put pressure on their representatives on Labour's Executive and other Labour Party bodies to argue against the war for union policies, then a powerful current for working-class politics can be formed in the Labour Party and unions.

But if Labour Against The War decides that its role is to cajole MPs, ministers and even Blair into adopting a more reasonable stance, then the defeat in the Labour Party will be absolute.

There is a long history of struggle in the Labour Party between its right wing leadership and its socialist left wing. Usually the left was based on the activists in the constituencies. It became powerful when the affiliated unions joined its struggle, as they did in the early 1960s when the party adopted a policy of unilateral nuclear
disarmament and defeated Labour's then leader, Hugh Gaitskell, in his attempt to rewrite Clause 4 of Labour's constitution.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the struggles that culminated in Tony Benn's challenge for deputy leader of the Labour Party in 1981, union and party activists together showed their potential to create out of the Labour Party something that fought consistently in the interests of ordinary working people.

After Tony Blair became leader, radically curtailed Labour democracy, installed a new political machine of spin-doctors and "advisers" on top of the party, and won the 1997 general election, that long struggle seemed to die. The rebels among backbench MPs were like hold-out from another age. The constituencies often became moribund.

Party conference was sanitised into a media friendly platform for the party leadership. Where party members showed that they were still critical of the party leadership, by electing some left-wingers to the constituency places on Labour's Executive it had little impact.

Union leaders backed Blair within the official structures of the party despite their members' votes against privatisation and anti-union laws.

But by backing Bush's war, Blair has created an issue around which resistance to his leadership and his attempt to make the party a no-go area for working-class politics can coalesce. By no means all the 170-odd Labour MPs who have voted against or abstained on votes against government policy would support a reforging of the Labour Party as one that fights for working-class interests, but they have opened up the possibility of such a struggle re-emerging.

Most of these MPs will not lead or even support such a struggle. That is why a movement of constituency activists and members of Labour-affiliated trade unions is so vital.

Weblinks:
www.reselect.org.uk
contains details of how to run a reselection,
and details of MPs' voting records, signing of Early Day motions etc. against the war. No news on current reselections.

www.labouragainstthewar.org.uk
Labour Against The War.

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