From Solidarity 3/14, 11 October 2002
Before the Labour Party conference last week in Blackpool, the Labour leadership was assiduously briefing the media to tell them that "Labour Party conference no longer decides party policy".
Those media briefings showed two things. First, that the New Labour hierarchy knew they would be defeated at conference on central issues, and wanted to discount those defeats in advance. Second, that they were confident that they could get away with blatant dismissal of democracy.
In fact there has been no formal, constitutional abolition of Labour conference's power to make party policy. On the other hand, in Blair's "New Labour", party conference is no longer what it was in the 1970s or '80s, let alone back in 1944, when it was a conference vote that pushed a reluctant party leadership into including extensive nationalisations in Labour's 1945 manifesto.
It is not new for Labour Party leaders to ignore, evade or flout conference decisions. However, they used to have to wriggle through a more or less loud outcry.
The union leaders who defeated Blair on the Private Finance Initiative (bringing private contractors in to build, operate, and profit from public services), and half-defeated him on the war, made no great outcry against the Government's arrogant dismissal of the conference. In that respect, the patterns of the late 1990s still hold: Labour conference as primarily a media show, speaking time heavily controlled from the platform, agenda and constituency delegates manipulated to suppress dissent, the whole operation swamped by a crowd of commercial sponsors, lobbyists and media people who outnumber the actual delegates ten-to-one. The constituency delegates, as distinct from the trade-union representatives, still mostly voted with the platform.
Amidst much unsurprising continuity, the Blackpool conference also showed important change. For the first time since Blair started his "New Labour" hijacking of the labour movement, a large cluster of trade unionists flatly defied him and started to map out a different political direction.
What now? It would be stupid to push for the more assertive and militant trade unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party. Those unions would spiral off into "non-political" or "pick-and-mix" trade-unionism - the direction sketched in a recent pamphlet by CWU general secretary Billy Hayes, one of the so-called "awkward squad" of left trade union leaders, which advocates unions "engaging with" the Lib Dems, Scottish Nationalists, and Plaid Cymru. Blair would be left with a docile rump. The revival of trade-union politics would be aborted.
On the other hand, there is no prospect of the Labour Party being returned to its patterns of the 1970s, or 1940s, in the fashion of an easy swing of the pendulum. Blair has changed Labour's structures fundamentally. On top of the "Labour" structure, he has constructed his own "party-within-a-party", an army of thousands of spin-doctors, advisers, media-people, assistants, and so on, recruited and financed almost entirely from outside the labour movement.
That "party-within-a-party" has made it very clear that, rather than submit to any serious accountability to the organised working class, they will cut loose entirely and go for state and big-business funding. They can almost certainly take most of the Labour MPs with them on such a course.
In 1997, in the earlier years of the Blair project, socialists advocated the idea of "a new Labour Representation Committee" to regroup the working-class core in the Labour Party against the "New Labour" leadership. London UNISON activist Geoff Martin wrote in Workers' Liberty:
"There is now a solid case for reforming the Labour Representation Committee as a pressure group within the party. This was originally formed by trade unionists and socialists who realised that the old Liberal Party could not be relied upon to represent the interests of labour. More than 100 years later, a similar set of conditions has been created by the hijackers behind New Labour.
"A reformed Labour Representation Committee makes great sense in the current political climate. To be successful, it would need to involve trade unions at a national level, along with a solid core of Labour MPs..."
In the earlier years of the Blair government, almost all the union leaders were servile and compliant, and the notion of a broad new political action committee based on at least a significant minority of trade unions came to look remote and unrealistic. Socialists still pursued the general argument for trade-union self-assertion and for independent working-class political representation, but the specific "Labour Representation Committee" formula lacked grip.
Labour Party conference 2002 changes that. Whether the phrase "Labour Representation Committee" will catch on or not, socialists should be arguing for the trade-union "awkward squad" to get together, to organise links down to local and grass-roots level, and make itself an organised, consistently-campaigning force in the labour movement, together with those Labour MPs and constituency activists willing to challenge Blair.
Such a body should, for example:
* Build both industrial and political support for the firefighters;
* Go ahead and implement the Labour Party conference decision which Blair has dismissed, for an independent inquiry into PFI, while at the same time campaigning to stop PFI and other privatisations, for example PPP on the Tube;
* Campaign against the war on Iraq, not just by adding unions' names to lists of sponsors for big demonstrations, but by organising leafletting, petitioning and meetings at workplaces;
* Work to get class-struggle trade-unionists selected as Labour candidates through mass sign-up campaigns in workplaces, directed not at supporting the Labour Party in general but at getting candidates selected to represent working-class constituencies who are committed to trade-union rights and to public services.
* Set and proclaim the aim of winning a workers' government, answerable to the labour movement, pushing through policies to serve working-class interests.
We still need the Socialist Alliance: we cannot afford to wait until the trade unions move, or slow down the tempo of socialist political and electoral activity to the pace of the mixed bag of "awkward squad" trade-union leaders. But socialists need to transform the labour movement, not just build an "alternative" alongside it. Socialist Alliance activists in the unions should assist, ally with, and promote the organisation of the "awkward squad" right down to grass-roots level.
From Solidarity 3/14, 11 October 2002