The Labour Revolt

Submitted by Anon on 21 March, 2003 - 9:08

By Frank Higgins

One hundred and thirty seven Labour MPs voted against the Government in the House of Commons, on 17 March, opposing a US-British war with Iraq without United Nations approval.

There have been other revolts against the New Labour government during its six year history, but nothing remotely like this.

During the near-decade when Blair has been unchallenged dictator of the Labour Party, the MPs, with a few honourable exceptions like John McDonnell, Alan Simpson and Jeremy Corbyn, have acted like mindless robots responding to the commands of New Labour's spin-liars.

Now, for the first time, ministers - one senior, and a handful of junior ones - have resigned on a matter of principle. They include Robin Cook and John Denham, both one-time Labour lefts.

Something like real political discussion has emerged in the Labour Party for the first time since the debate over Clause Four in 1995. A large part of the membership in the withered Constituency Labour Parties - including erstwhile Blairites - have come out against war and against Blair.

One measure of the new Labour rebels against war on Iraq is that they - with the few honourable exceptions have never revolted, or even agitated, against the Tory anti-union laws, which New Labour has kept on the statutebooks and which Blair himself, on the eve of his victory, described as "the most restrictive union legislation in Western Europe". (He was promising the Tory Daily Mail that under New Labour the restrictions would continue. He kept his promise).

But Solidarity's call for a special Labour Party conference has been echoed by a number of left MPs. Is something like the old Labour Party reviving?

Solidarity has argued two key points about New Labour. First: that it is something fundamentally unlike the pre-Blair Labour Party.

This is not primarily a matter of political ideas, though of course ideas conditions everything else. Lenin long ago accurately described the Labour Party as a 'bourgeois workers' party'. It was based on the working class and the trade unions. In tactics and programme it never went beyond seeking reforms (or often, even before Blair, milder counter-reforms) in the capitalist system. Its nominal commitment to socialism - 'Clause Four' of the Labour Party constitution - never had practical consequences for what the party did in office.

The decisive change was in the structures of the party. Where once there had been open structures through which the members and representatives of affiliated trade unions could participate in party life, from local level all the way up to annual conference and the National Executive Committee, now those channels were blocked.

Things called annual conference and National Executive Committee still existed, but they were changed out of all recognition. The Blairites had gone a long way towards abolishing the Labour Party. MPs were drilled and regimented in a way that bore a horrible resemblance to the old-style Stalinist parties. The possibility of the party debating and trying to change policy no longer existed. The old conduits for changing policy or putting pressure on party leaders and the MPs had been cemented over in a Blairite counter-revolution against the left-wing Labour Party of the 1980s.

The party no longer represented the interests of the workers or the labour movement, even in the minimal way it once did. The Government loudly proclaimed its break with the working-class movement.

Our second main point was that the process was probably not at an end. Even now the trade unions are the main financiers of the Labour Party. They retain sizeable representation on the National Executive and at Party conference.

It has been made much more difficult, but if they had the will to do so, the unions could still do a great deal to challenge the Government within the Labour Party structures on such things as trade union rights and the cumulative destruction of the National Health Service. Blair's 'project' had been made possible only by active support, or passive acceptance, from the trade union leaders.

We urged the trade unions to fight for working-class interests and policies within the Labour Party structures.

Given the shamelessly self-serving character of the typical New Labour MP and their lack of working-class or trade union roots, we thought the most that could conceivably result was a concerted trade union split from New Labour to restore working-class representation by refounding the Labour Party.

It would be something like the split of 1931, when the renegade Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald and his friends split to found a so-called National Labour Party and - with MacDonald continuing as prime minister - served in a 'National Government' which was a thinly disguised Tory government. Except that this time not many of the MPs, and of course even fewer of the spin-doctors, advisers, and quango-people who staff the top layers of the New Labour machine, could be expected to back the union-based party.

The Labour Party suffered severe losses in the 1931 General Election after the MacDonald split, but that split laid the basis for revival.

What does the revolt of so many New Labour MPs against the war mean for this basic assessment of New Labour? It comes on top of the revival since the last General Election of militant, that is, genuine, trade unionism.

If there is a quick, relatively easy and not too bloody US/UK victory, it is possible that Blair will come out of the war with some credibility restored. But it is improbable that he will be able to restore himself within the Labour Party as the virtual dictator that he has been since 1994.

Many Labour Party members have torn up their cards, and more may do so. But the size of the MPs' revolt may also lead people to join or rejoin the Labour Party.

The miserable basis on which most of the MPs revolted - most of them would have backed Bush if only they had a second, conscience-salving, UN resolution - is not cause for encouragement, or for believing that they can be the basis of a revival of Labour's political life. All the old channels of debate, communication and decision-making remain cemented over.

Some scepticism is necessary. But it is not impossible that some of the key Blairite changes that made the Labour Party into New Labour could be reversed. The MPs' revolt, the bringing-down of Blair from his heights, and the trade-union revival, may mean that the possibilities have increased. The Labour Against The War conference on Saturday 29 March, which at least one union, the CWU, is sponsoring, will be an opportunity to test those possibilities.

Solidarity supporters will argue for it to launch a range of campaign initiatives:

  • For a recall Labour Party conference.
  • For votes of no confidence in Tony Blair as leader of the Labour Party; for withdrawal of union sponsorship from, and CLP votes of no-confidence against, pro-war Labour MPs.
  • For unions to make their representatives on Labour's National Executive (NEC) and other key bodies stand for union policies. (At the 28 January NEC, every single union rep voted for the Government line on war. There is a lobby of the next NEC, on Tuesday 25 February, from 9am at Old Queen St, London).
  • For local Labour Against The War groups, a steering committee with delegate representation, and a planned intervention in this autumn's Labour Party conference.

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