Editorial statement of the Socialist Appeal on Tony Blair's speech at 2004 Labour Party congress

The Blair government is facing serious difficulties. It cannot convince the trade unions that its pro-big business policies, its continued privatisation of public assets are in the interests of the working class. Brown tried to make up for this by hinting that in some way he might be “old Labour”. In reality there is no fundamental difference between the two.

Tony Blair paraphrased Mark Anthony’s words at this year’s TUC saying he had come to “praise Warwick not to bury it.” He was referring to the agreement reached between union and Labour leaders at Warwick castle over certain minor reforms in relation to pensions and workers’ rights. Are these meagre promises the height of ambition for Labour’s third term in office? No, this is nowhere near enough.

As we write this article Blair is addressing the 2004 Labour Party conference. This may turn out to be his last conference speech as leader – it certainly should be. After seven years in government, Blair has dragged Britain into a war in Iraq, presided over a widening wealth gap, and ploughed on with the desperately unpopular privatisation of public services.

But according to Blair it’s our fault, we aren’t listening, he keeps telling us things are getting better, but, silly us, we prefer to rely on our own experience in work, in schools, in hospitals, than trust in government statistics, spin and soundbites. He is trying to speak to us but it is as if he is an area where his mobile phone doesn’t work, he said. He is right about one thing, he is out of touch – according to the most recent poll 63 percent of people agree. The Blairites live in a different world.

A party member from Devon disrupted Blair’s opening words by shouting “You’ve got blood on your hands” in protest at the war in Iraq. The invasion and occupation of Iraq has been a complete disaster. The death toll continues to mount; the imperialists have failed to gain control of oil supplies, which was one of their objectives; the Iraqi people are fighting back against the occupaton of their country; and now even Blair has to admit there never were any weapons of mass destruction. Everyone now knows the war in Iraq was based on a lie. Blair’s holier than thou image is destroyed. His popularity has plummeted. The entire labour movement must demand the immediate withdrawal of British troops and an end to imperialist interference.

Blair’s slavish adherence to US imperialism in foreign policy only mirrors his subservience to the interests of the City and big business at home.

As a result Labour membership has fallen below 200,000, the lowest figure for seventy years. Party membership has halved since 1997. Many of those who joined in the euphoria following the defeat of the Tories have left, leaving the party in the hands of the careerists on one side and the old stalwarts and, decisively, the trade unions on the other.

Once again the stage-managed atmosphere of Labour’s conference has been shattered by the dominance of the trade unions. Those who have mistaken the period of Blairite leadership for a fundamental transformation of Labour into a British version of the US Democrats are at a loss to explain not only the party’s union base, but the power which the trade unions continue to wield inside Labour.

The leadership has been defeated on its plans for further privatisation of council housing stock, forced into a debate on Iraq which they wanted to avoid at all costs, and defeated on renationalising the railways.

No matter say Blair, Brown, Darling and co, we will not take any notice of conference decisions, anyway! Despite its huge popularity, and the disaster of private ownership, the Blairites will not countenance taking the railways back into public ownership because they are ideologically wedded to the market.

It would cost £22 billion, they argue, and that money would be better spent on health. We could not agree more. Take the railways back into public ownership, under the management of the workforce, without paying a single penny in compensation to the fatcats who have already made a fortune from destroying the rail network, and spend £22 billion more on health. If only they had £22 billion, they say. Yet tax avoidance by the super-rich deprives the exchequer of up to £85 billion a year, according to the Tax Justice Network. This is roughly the same as the projected public-sector deficit for this financial year. It is more than is currently spent on the national health service. It is hard to see how sacking 100,000 civil servants (many in the Inland Revenue) can only help those Blair and co. represent, by letting them continue to cook their books.

In defeating the leadership at conference the unions have demonstrated what they can do when they only raise their little fingers. But now Blair and co say they will ignore conference decisions, so what’s the point? Obviously democracy does not mean a great deal to the Blairites. This is not news. The only conclusion to be drawn is that passing a resolution alone is not enough. A real concerted campaign around a programme of socialist demands, could mobilise the activists and the rank and file around the country. MPs could be deselected, the leadership changed and, most importantly, the policy and programme of the party turned to meet the needs of the working class people who vote Labour.

Such a campaign has been promised. Now is not the time for unions to be debating disaffiliation or even cutting finances that would eat into the number of delegates the unions get. Instead the unions must mobilise their membership into the GCs and begin the serious work of taking the party back from the careerists.

In contrast to the heckling that greeted Blair, the standing ovation for Brown, is another indication of the desire for change. However, our ambitions would be low indeed if our objective were merely to get another pro-market, pro-privatisation leader into Number Ten. For all that Brown is happy to allow the media to cultivate an image for him as somehow “old” Labour, he is anything but. Brown has more roots in the movement than his next door neighbour in Downing Street, and therefore a better understanding of how to speak in front of a trade union audience. Nonetheless this is only window dressing, behind it lies the same pro-market Blairite agenda. Brown would not be an alternative to Blair but a continuation.

In recent elections Labour voters have stayed at home in their droves. They are likely to do so again in the forthcoming general election. Not Labour’s popularity but the ongoing shambles in the Tory party continues to make a third term the most likely outcome, though this is not guaranteed. None of us want the Tories back, but we don’t want them at the top of the Labour Party either.

After seven years of Labour government, there has been precious little to praise. Now it is time to bury Blairism.

  • For Socialist Policies at home and abroad
  • Troops out of Iraq
  • Trade unionists reclaim Labour
  • Finish off Blairism and fight for a Labour government with a socialist programme

September 28, 2004