The 2003 Labour Party Conference meets at a critical moment. After six years of Labour government nothing has been solved for the majority of working people who look to Labour to tackle the problems they face.
The result of the 2001 general election, which on the surface looked like a comfortable victory for Blair, was in fact a warning, as we explained at the time. The historically low turnout was not a sign of voter contentment as the spinners claimed, but an expression of the disillusionment of millions.
Events since - the mounting mood of militancy expressed in strikes like those of the firefighters and local government workers and the shift to the left in a whole series of unions; the magnificent anti-war demo of two million people; the furore surrounding the death of Dr. Kelly, and the Hutton inquiry - have confirmed this.
The patience of the working class may resemble that of Job, but it does not last forever. On both the Industrial and political plane ordinary working people are now demonstrating that they can take no more.
Even and despite the decay afflicting the Tory Party, if the Blair government remains on its present path, growing disillusionment and anger mean that electoral turnout will fall again, and, even without a significant recovery by the Tories, Labour could lose enough seats for the Tories to creep back in at the next general election. Of course, for the careerist carpetbaggers who populate the ranks of Blairism this would make little real difference. They will simply move on to company directorships or Lordships. Blair himself has bemoaned the creation of the Labour Party. The achievements of Labour governments in the last sixty years mean nothing to them. They mean a great deal to us. However temporary they may have proved - like all reforms within the capitalist system, whatever the bosses are forced to give with their left hand they snatch back at the earliest opportunity with the right - they nonetheless had a major impact on the lives of millions. The abandonment of those reforms is likewise having an impact on the lives of ordinary working class families, as free education and healthcare has been destroyed first by Tory governments and then shamefully by Blair and co.
Until recently any suggestion that Labour could lose an election was met with derision. Now the possibility is taken seriously. As long as Labour governments act in the interests of the banks and big business the working class will not blindly turn out to vote for them over and over again.
Whilst a Labour victory albeit with a much reduced majority is currently the most likely outcome of the next election even that is far from guaranteed. Many workers would understandably ask what would be the point of electing Blair and co for another term to carry on privatising and attacking workers, which would only be a precursor for a Labour defeat next time around and the dreaded return of the Tories.
In this context, the Brent East by-election is a loud warning to the labour movement, no matter what 'analysis' the failed masters of spin cook up. Their lame excuses were entirely predictable. 'Mid-term blues' has always been the lowest excuse of the careerist who sees politics as a game. 'Oh, this always happens in the middle of a parliament' they chortle. Well, it would not happen if there was full employment, falling health service waiting lists, free lifelong education. It would not happen if a Labour government in power was acting in the interests of the overwhelming majority of society. Despite this 'mid-term effect' Labour was able to gain a majority in the Welsh Assembly elections earlier in the year simply by advocating a few minor reforms, most notably the abolition of prescription charges. Repeated across the country even this moderate step would have an enormous impact. Such a move to the left is the only way to guarantee keeping the Tories out at the next election.
In the past we have repeatedly heard the argument that 'rocking the boat' would endanger the election. 'We mustn't let the Tories back in' is an all too familiar refrain from those who try to silence the critics of Labour governments from within. Well, none of us want the Tories back. Given the crisis gripping the Conservatives such a prospect might seem hard to believe. However, Blair, and his pro-capitalist policies, mean that such a defeat is now possible.. Let us be clear, it was never because of Blair that Labour won. Before 1997 Labour were more than 30 points ahead in every poll. This illustrated the desperation of millions of workers not only to get rid of the Tories, but to get a Labour government that would solve their problems. From the moment Blair became party leader until the 1997 election that lead constantly fell. Labour won an historic victory in 1997 regardless of Blair not because of him. They won in 2001 in spite of him. They could lose in 2005 because of Blair and his capitalist policies.
The question then is how can the Tories be kept out, and not just for the sake of it, how too can we improve our lives? The Liberals are only Tories in orange-dyed sheep's clothes. In reality, they differ only superficially. They are both capitalist parties. They may dream that their Brent East victory promises a big swing from both Labour and the Tories at the next general election. They will now be reviving their hopes of overtaking the Tories and becoming the main bosses' party. Even leaving aside the fact that people often protest in by-elections, the facts of the Brent East poll tell us something different. Voting figures like any statistic are only of any use if they are seen in the context of all the other events taking place in society. The fact is that there was not really the 29% swing from Labour, and 15%from the Tories, to the Liberals, that the press are trumpeting. Had one third of Labour's voters last time around voted Liberal now, but the remainder of Labour's voters turned up and voted Labour, then the Liberals would not have won. Assuming that broadly speaking the 36% of the electorate in Brent who voted in this election were part of the 49% who voted in the general election, then nearly 3000 people who voted Labour in 2001 voted for the Lib Dems this time, while almost 2000 former Tory voters switched to the Liberals. Decisively, just over 10,000 former Labour voters stayed at home, either not inspired to vote, or inspired not to vote.
Voting for fringe groups is understandable as a protest, but obviously can achieve less than nothing. Their candidates in Brent got a sprinkling of a few hundred votes apiece. Far more Labour voters protested by not voting - more than half of those who had voted Labour in 2001 did not vote at all - and the same will be the case in the next general election. The result would be Labour losing seats to both the Tories and the Liberals without either of them garnering a great deal of new support themselves.
So what should we do? Just support Blair? Just vote Labour in order to keep the dreaded Tories out? Clearly this is not good enough. Keeping the Tories out is not a matter of personalities. It is their policies and the consequences of those policies which would spell misery for millions. It is not enough to keep the Tory Party out - we must keep their policies out too. The only alternative, the only practical policy is to fight, and to change the Labour Party.
Blair, meanwhile, like Thatcher before him, is not for turning. Indeed he is clearly intent on pursuing his disastrous policy of privatising public services. This makes a confrontation between the government and the unions inevitable. UNISON's motion against foundation hospitals at the party conference will no doubt defeat the platform, confirming once more just how isolated Blair really is inside the party. Defeat at the hands of the unions at conference will be the latest in a series of bloody noses for Blair. Sooner or later he is finished.
As a new general election draws near a challenge to Blair's leadership may appear to diminish, but in the end that line 'we must keep the Tories out' will finish him. Either because the Tories win in which case he will quickly be removed, or because Labour win with a much reduced majority and it quickly becomes clear that Blair is a liability, who must be removed to 'keep the Tories out.' Whichever side the electoral coin lands, which is impossible to predict with accuracy at this stage, Blair loses eventually.
Simply replacing Blair with another leader who pursued the same pro-big business agenda however, would solve nothing. The ship does not just need a new captain, it needs a new course.
The left emerging in the trade unions as a result of growing militancy, has begun to co-ordinate its actions inside the Labour Party, at least at national level to ensure debate of their motions on foundation hospitals, workers' rights, pensions and manufacturing industry at the National Conference. This is a step forward even if the resolutions concerned do not go far enough. Of course we back the call for the rejection of foundation hospitals, backdoor privatisation of the NHS and the creation of a two-tier workforce. However, unless more than half the CLP delegates back calls to debate the war in Iraq, we would have the absurd scene of a Labour conference following the biggest demo in British history and the resignation of two cabinet ministers over Britain's part in the imperialist adventure in the gulf without a word being raised from the floor.
There is much talk now of the left union leaders co-ordinating a campaign to reclaim Labour from the Blairite carpetbaggers. We would back such a campaign to the hilt. At the same time it is our duty to honestly criticise the weakness of the policies being proposed as an alternative. Essentially their solution to all problems is to raise taxes. One can assume that they mean taxes on the rich, not on all of us. Who could object to reclaiming this wealth to spend on health and education? True, but it is not a solution. It is at best a sticking plaster, but it comes with side effects, as long as we continue to operate within the capitalist system. The rich always find loopholes and exemptions to avoid paying taxes. The likely effect of higher taxes in general will be less investment and less spending. The bosses would not be willing to pay for reforms in our interest for long. One way or another, the cost would be passed on to us. In the end under this system the working class always has to pay.
Surely as a bare minimum we have to demand an end to all new privatisation and part-privatisation schemes. The restoration of free health care and education. The immediate renationalisation of the railways without compensating the fat controllers - who in some cases have literally got away with murder - and the rest of the privatised utilities. Britain's oil and gas supplies are running out and the coal industry has been demolished. The consequence will be more power cuts like the one that crippled London just a few weeks ago.
Obviously we are not against taking money from the rich to pay for health, education and pensions. But to even begin to solve the daily problems encountered by millions of ordinary working people will require far more than that. That will require planning and resources. Decision making must be taken out of the hands of the rich minority and into the hands of the majority of society. The resources exist to do much better than reduce child poverty by half in 50 years as Brown has pledged. In reality, this is a feeble ambition. Britain is a rich country. Or more accurately it is a country in the hands of a rich few. Those resources, devoted to the needs of society instead of the profits of the few, could transform the face of society and all our lives. Such a transformation cannot be achieved gradually, with the consent of the bosses, over a century or more. That is one of the central lessons the labour movement must draw from the last century of struggle.
Many genuine trade unionists and Labour Party members are now searching for policies to deal with each problem facing society, a realistic and practical way to deal with each problem separately. Yet all our problems are interlinked. None can be permanently solved while the others remain - and all trace their roots back to the capitalist system.
Socialists must fight to defend and to gain every reform, every step forward we can. We will certainly fight alongside those on the left who are advocating progressive reforms and more democracy inside the party. For us however this is the beginning of the matter not the end. If you want to go further and fight for genuine socialist policies, not only to reclaim Labour from the Blairites but to regain the entire labour movement for its original aims, the abolition of the profit system and the socialist transformation of society then join with us.
September 26, 2003.