The People Resist Blair

01 March 2004
The traditional hegemony of the Labour Party over the working people of Britain is being shaken, opening space for new alliances between the British labour movement and emerging new peace and alterglobalisation movements in the search for alternatives.
Italian translation

It is nearly ten years since John Smith, a traditional right wing but `Old Labour' leader of the British Labour Party, died of a heart attack. Several months later Labour Party members and trade unionists of every political colour put their trust in a man who had no real Labour credentials at all. In the words of an ex-General Secretary of the party who worked closely with Tony Blair `he could have been leader of the Conservative Party.'

After four election defeats and nearly fifteen years in opposition, Labour Party members and supporters were desperate. Tony Blair and his maestro spin doctor Peter Mandelson, presented themselves to Labour Party and trade union members as the team with the techniques to win. `Never mind the politics, get rid of the Tories' was the mood of the moment. Just as people traumatised by a marriage break-up hand things over to a lawyer, so a party traumatised by defeat handed over their political fate to a group of electoral technocrats. Party members felt they no longer understood the British people: experienced political organisers found themselves deferring to the judgements of market researchers, `focus group' facilitators and advertising consultants.

Now, ten years, two election victories, three wars, one dead intelligence whistleblower and two inquiries later, the situation is reversed. Across the land, the few Labour party members who remain - from retired senior Labour party officials having tea in the House of Lords to loyal local organisers talking over a pint of beer - say that Tony Blair is no longer an electoral asset. He is a liability. The opinion polls bear this out. The public no longer trust their Prime Minister. Gossip at Westminster is not about whether he will go but when and how. Will he stick to his deal with Gordon Brown, his neighbour in number 11 Downing Street and leave in time to give Gordon a decent residency in number 10? Or will his eye on his role in history make him cling to office until he can leave with dignity rather than in disgrace?

There is little disagreement about who will replace him. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown has his acceptance speech as party leader already on his computer. The only possible rival is Robin Cook, who resigned as Foreign Secretary because he rejected Blair's case for going to war. He spelt out with all the clarity and insight of a sceptical insider what everyone on the extraordinary two million strong demonstration of February 15th already knew: that Blair had agreed to follow Bush into war as early as August 2002. Cook is a constant source of embarrassment to his old boss: both of them saw the same intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. Blair used this evidence to justify the case for war. Cook was not convinced and now uses every moment to spell out how threadbare the evidence was, reinforcing the intelligence officers who speak openly of their own doubts and strengthening the belief of the people that they were led into Bush's war on false claims. But whether Cook has the courage to present an alternative leadership of the party is another matter.

Beyond the gossip that circulates in the cliquey atmosphere of Westminster, the debates are more profound though also more uncertain. The situation in Britain fits Gramsci's description of circumstances where the old order is in decay but the new order is yet to be born. The gulf between public opposition to the war and Blair ‘s total commitment to war, followed by parliament's decision to give Blair the cover he needed, dramatically undermined New Labour's democratic political legitimacy. With the ending of the war and later the capturing of Saddam – though without the Iraqis cheering British and US troops – Tony Blair hoped that the war issue would fade into the background and his government could get back to its domestic programme. But as his case for war began to crumble, public opinion increasingly felt he had something to answer for. The doubts of chemical warfare expert David Kelly about the intelligence basis of the Prime Minister's case and the way it was presented (`sexed up'), and used, was just the tip of an iceberg of scepticism. During the Hutton inquiry, other experts connected with intelligence came forward to question the government's use of their expertise.

The gap between what was revealed during the Hutton inquiry and Hutton's decision to completely exonerate the government left the public unimpressed. They trusted the BBC. Their doubts were further deepened by the statement of the former head of the Iraq Survey Group, David Kay, almost the day after the Hutton report, that in his opinion no weapons of mass destruction were ever going to be found. Far from the gap between the people and the government closing, it has become a part of a very unstable political landscape. The issue of weapons of mass destruction has boomeranged back to threaten the survival of the Blair government. But Blair and his coterie are walking blindfold. How else can the Prime Minister think that the people will be convinced by a second inquiry? This time to be held in secret, by a judge, Lord Butler, known to be zealous in his loyalty to the established order, and with a narrow remit which fails to include the vital issues - for example the validity of the legal case for going unilaterally to war, and the realities of the decision-making processes that committed the UK to war?

British people are being faced with their own powerlessness in a country whose leaders boast abroad of being a democratic beacon to the world. The reality is an overmighty political executive able to force through largely unaccountable actions and policies that may fairly be described as "policy disasters" which should be examined independently, impartially and convincingly. Yet the head of this self-same political executive establishes the "independent" inquiries and sets their terms of reference. But the situation is not one in which people are passive. February 15th 2003 marked a moment when not only did public opinion become a distinct force (remarked upon at the time by Kofi Annan's press secretary who talked about ‘the two superpowers' i.e. the US and public opinion) but also to an important degree, an organised force. On that morning many people participated in extra-parliamentary protest for the first time, waking up to go on the streets part of an organised movement. They marched because they believed that if they stood up and made politicians aware of the strength of feeling that existed against their policy, this would convince the government to change its mind. The experience of the failure of such an overwhelming protest has led many to rethink what it takes to create a democracy and to realise we still have a long way to go. Digestion of this failure is leading to an openness to more radical political initiatives which would open up the narrow, elite forms of `democracy' which dominate British politics.

One example of this is in Scotland. On May 1st, nearly two months after the demonstration to stop the war, six members of the party most closely identified with the stop the war movement - the Scottish Socialist Party - were elected to the Scottish Parliament. Until that day there had been just one SSP member of the parliament. Membership of the party had risen to over 3000, making it the one of the biggest socialist parties in Europe per head of population. The SSP has strong roots in working class communities, amongst young people and in the Scottish labour movement. It was well-positioned to be a magnet for discontent and the desire to participate actively in creating an alternative. The SSP is the product of nearly twenty years of local campaigning, alliance building across different parts of the left – Labour, Trotskyist, direct action, feminist and Scottish nationalist – and a willingness to rethink tradition and move beyond traditional left dogmas. It has thrived in the conditions of a broad and successful popular movement for constitutional reform and a Scottish Parliament based on a proportional electoral system. With the SSP, in 1998, the radical left in Britain has for the first time had the chance of relatively fair elections to put its ideas to the popular test, independently of the Labour Party. With a charismatic spokesperson, Tommy Sheridan, and a membership of well-respected local activists, it has established itself as the champion of the poor, the marginalised, the angry and the idealistic. It has also succeeded by shrewd alliances to win practical reforms through the Scottish Parliament – which is far more effective in holding the Scottish executive to account than Westminster is at reigning in the British executive. Physically, there is no divide between England and Scotland. Hadrian's wall which in the third century used to mark the border is now a ruin. But politically the divide is deep - the English political elite, and the media that mirrors its priorities, treats Scottish politics with contempt. Beneath the calm complacent surface of British politics, however, developments on the Scottish left, in a more democratic parliament, able to respond more sensitively to public opinion than in England, are beginning to have an impact which could surprise those whose eyes are focused on Westminster. One of the most interesting developments, a repercussion not only of the government's behaviour on the war, but also its persistence with Conservative policies of privatisation and regressive tax, concerns the relation between the Labour Party and the trade unions. Earlier this year, 5 branches of the National Union of Rail, Maritime & Transport Workers (RMT) decided to affiliate to the Scottish Socialist party. The RMT executive supported their decision.

In most European countries, the decision of a few union branches to support a new radical left political party would not cause any significant ripples. In Britain it could set off a slow earthquake. Already it has precipitated a crisis in the 100 year-old relationship between RMT and the Labour Party. The reaction of the Labour Party leadership was to threaten to expel the RMT within 24 hours if the RMT allowed this affiliation to take place. Even before the RMT's decision to go ahead was announced, the Labour Party declared the union expelled. The reason why this decision was historic was that from the founding of the Labour Party in 1918 to the present day, trade unions have had direct organisational links with the Labour Party. These institutional links – whereby the union affiliate, paying altogether over £7 million , and play a part in the party's decision-making – have given the Labour Party an effective monopoly over the political representation of the labour movement. With the RMT's decision, one of the unions which originally founded the Labour party is opening up its political funds and challenging the Labour Party's taken-for-granted monopoly.

If other unions follow the RMT's example this will have many wider repercussions. The union/Labour Party link is the most important relationship on the left of British politics. Together with Labour's historic refusal to countenance reform of Britain's 19th century `first past the post' electoral system, it explains why there has never been any effective pluralism in the political representation of the labour movement. This in turn makes any accountability of a Labour Prime Minister depend ultimately on the democracy or otherwise of the party. Westminster's relatively strong institutions of scrutiny (compared with most European legislatures) can be and have been rendered null and void by a neutering of democracy within the Labour Party. In fact, the Union-Labour Party links have always been more a force for bolstering and protecting the Party Leader than a source of democratic pressure. Labour's Parliamentary leaders have always been able to use the fact that the unions have nowhere else to turn to lean on their loyalty, and union leaders have commonly used the unions' dependence on Labour to isolate any dissent that might seriously upset the government.

To understand the negative, anti-democratic impact of Labour's monopoly of working class political representation, and the implications of breaking it, imagine a scenario in which the union- party links were made democratic, able to fully express the variety of ways in which the unions might further their goals politically. If political funds could be freely spent on campaigning movements, uninhibited by the fact these might lead to electoral challenges to Labour, the momentum for a left political alternative could grow qualitatively beyond `the bunch of Trots' caricature. A movement for electoral reform could gather unstoppable momentum – as it did in New Zealand for example. Westminster's parliamentary institutions would really be tested and no doubt radically strengthened. MP's would be looking sideways anxious of electoral competition to their left, competing to be the best scrutineers rather than looking upwards for patronage and advancement.

Any shift in this direction is going to involve fierce conflict with the acolytes of New Labour. On the one hand, New Labour's authoritarian, managerial view of politics drives it to cling fervently to the party's historic dominance over centre left political representation – indeed it seeks to extend this monopoly rightwards. On the other hand it has contempt for the very institutions on which this monopoly rested. Tony Blair has long wanted to end the union-party link. Inherited from the Social Democratic Party (a short-lived right-wing breakaway from the Labour Party) this (what?) was always a central plank of `the New Labour project.' Hence Blair and his henchmen will do little to discourage moves in the trade unions to disaffiliate: loyal but left wing trade union leaders like Billy Hayes (the postal and communications workers) and Andy Gilchrist (the fire fighters) cannot expect support in their efforts to hold the line on affiliation to the party.

Frustration with the essentially masochistic relationship that the unions have with the Labour party is at boiling point, especially in public sector unions. In Scotland there is an obvious policy for them in the developing relationship with the Scottish Socialist Party. In England some unions are tentatively experimenting, mainly through working with campaigning social movements like the movement against the war and occupation of Iraq, or movements against racism and fascism. In some localities there are growing relationships between unions and community groups over privatisation and also low pay. The civil servants unions (PSC) and the journalists (NUJ) are increasingly taking initiatives which go beyond a traditional defence of their members to also take up issues of wider significance as an alternative to underwriting Labour's election campaign.: the independence of the BBC, the preservation and extension of the state pension are two examples. There is some interest in an English electoral initiative led by George Galloway, the Scottish anti-war MP expelled from Labour and moving his focus south across the border. Named RESPECT, the coalition behind this initiative has its roots in the anti-war movement and the Muslim community but, paradoxically given its name, has yet to win widespread respect. Many on the left cannot sufficiently trust the Socialist Workers Party who dominate RESPECT's leadership, although the SWP contains many committed and able comrades. One o the largest – unorganised group of people on the British left ex-members of the SWP – critics who have been expelled or who have left in disillusion with the undemocratic methods of many in its leadership.

Followed to their logical conclusion the moves towards a more independent and plural political stance by the unions implies much deeper changes in the politics and culture of the trade union movement than simply a reallocation of trade union funds. The union/party links have often pulled union officials away from the needs and day to day problems of their members into a privileged routine and a way of life. The more the government has distanced itself from the trade unions, and taken away this, often illusory, source of power and status, the more the trade union leaders have come to need the support of their members. There are also many signs that a new generation of trade union leaders at all levels realise that the renewal of the left requires a new relationship with radical campaigning and cultural movements. Here British trade unionist and social movements have much to learn through involvement in the international Social Forums now happening across the world and hopefully in the UK.

The change in the last ten years is not merely that the party has been through a process of disillusionment; it is also that Blair's attempt to make the Labour Party a second and permanently hegemonic party of capital has backfired. A bit like Mrs Thatcher, Blair has ruthlessly used British state institutions that he inherited - and in his case, the British labour movement too – to access extraordinary executive power. PM's before Thatcher and Labour PM's before Blair have traditionally softened their exercise of power by long-established customs of compromise and negotiation. But these softening customs disguised the truly undemocratic power of political power in Britain. In effect Thatcher and Blair swept them aside. In doing so they have in their different ways set in motion a reaction which is now galvanising people from disparate stances - from the desire for self-determination, in Wales and Scotland; to resistance to privatisation, in the case of the trade unions; to opposition to war and imperialism, in the case of young people. In a fragmented way, challenges are developing to the foundations of traditional power structures. Whether these processes will mature or end up in weak and typically British compromise is an open question whose answer depends partly on the left in the UK opening itself up to more radically democratic and socialist winds from other parts of Europe.