Time to get factional!

Submitted by Anon on 25 February, 2004 - 1:59

"One man is king", remarked Karl Marx in an aside in Capital, "only because other men stand in the relation of subjects to him. They imagine that they are subjects because he is king".

That about sums up the Labour Party for most of the time since Tony Blair became leader of the party almost 10 years ago, on 21 July 1994. Labour activists - and, decisively, trade unionists - have been "subjects" of the "king" who looked as if he could beat, and then did beat, the Tories. He has been "king" because they have been willing to be "subjects".
That is beginning to change. Trade unionists and Labour activists are not yet ready to depose king Tony, still less to declare the labour movement a republic. But now Blair is widely seen as king, but a bad king.

During the Iraq war, last year, a sizeable Labour Against The War conference voted two to one for no confidence in Blair. Last summer, the conference of the GMB said that Blair should resign if it were proved (as it has been) that he lied about the reasons for the Iraq war.

When four of King Henry II's knights killed Thomas Becket, then archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170, he thought that the death of "this turbulent priest" would strengthen his power over the Church. In fact the Church became stronger.

Now Labour's National Executive has expelled the railworkers' union RMT (on 7 February).

Essentially, the RMT had behaved as if its members were not subjects but democratic citizens. It stopped sponsoring Labour MPs who betrayed basic union policies and working-class interests. It set up a new union-loyal group of sponsored MPs. When some of its Scottish branches saw a party of some working-class substance, the Scottish Socialist Party, representing labour much better than Blair's clique, they supported it.

RMT leader Bob Crow has written in Tribune: "The union still wants the party to be reclaimed and return to its traditional roots... We will work constructively with activists, Labour MPs and trade unions within the party."

If the RMT follows through on that, founding a new Labour Representation Committee with other combative unions and socialist groups, then its open break with New Labour will be a healthy start to building an alternative to Blair.

Academics Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart have surveyed parliamentary voting patterns over a long period, and found that this Blair government has had its own MPs voting against it more often than any previous Labour government ever, or any other government at all since 1945.

Cowley sums up: "Although there are lots of MPs who are willing to rebel against it, it does not yet face large-scale factional opposition on the back benches."

This government has seen the biggest MPs' revolts since the mid-19th century. Two Labour MPs, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, are far more rebellious than any others, but by September 2003 thirty MPs had voted against the government on over half the contentious issues in parliament.

To compare: the 1964-66 Labour government had no parliamentary revolts at all in its first session. The 1945 government had only ten. The 1997 Blair government had 16. This 2001 Blair government had 76 in its first session, and had had 141 by the end of 2003.

The two recent big parliamentary rebellions, on foundation hospitals and top-up fees, have taken the process a stage further. The Blairocracy now has a majority of its back-bench MPs in more or less open, more or less chronic discontent.

It is similar in the trade unions: vast discontent without, yet, organised opposition. Bob Crow writes: "One of the rules that was quoted at us was that the union had to support Labour's manifesto. If that was used for other affiliates and members, there would be no-one left in the party, let alone trade unions".

At the last Labour Party conference, all the big (and not especially left-wing) unions, Unison, TGWU, GMB and Amicus, banded together to defeat Blair on chosen issues and to run a fringe meeting about getting Labour to "play on our side and in our colours" (as Derek Simpson of Amicus put it), rather than serving big business.

Yet Blair "does not yet face large-scale factional opposition" there, either. The talk last autumn by some union leaders about setting up a Labour Representation Committee has gone quiet or retreated into hushed private meetings.

Socialists must agitate, educate and organise openly against the Blair "monarchy" right now, rather than burrowing away and hoping to nudge and cajole the MPs and union leaders into doing the job. We do not tell the RMT to be patient, renounce the SSP, get back into line with slower-moving unions, and bide its time until they are all ready to rebel together.

Even if a minority of the union leaders can be pushed to make a solid and determined attempt to move from discontent to active, organised opposition, that opposition has a huge pool of disillusion, anger, and dissent to draw on. If the unions can be made to fight, we will be able to knock King Tony's head off his shoulders.

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