The Labour Representation Committee (LRC) held its first rally last night at this year’s Labour Party Conference in Brighton attended by some 250 activists. This successful event marks an important milestone in the challenge to Blairism and the campaign to reclaim the Labour Party. The enthusiasm of the meeting demonstrated not only that the Labour left is alive and kicking, but the groundswell of opposition to the Iraq war has given it further impetus to carry its campaign into the ranks of the party and the trade unions.
The rally was chaired by John McDonnell MP, the secretary of the LRC, and featured a host of speakers from the Labour and trade union movement. These included veteran leftwinger Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn MP, Michael Meacher MP, Alan Simpson MP, Alice Mahon MP, Mark Seddon and Christine Shawcroft from Labour’s National Executive, Tony Woodley (General Secretary, Transport and General Workers’ Union), Kevin Curran (General Secretary, GMB), Mark Serwotka (General Secretary, PCS), Gerry Doherty (General Secretary, TSSA), Kat Fletcher (President, NUS) and others. The speakers also included Alan Woods who spoke for the Hands Off Venezuela campaign.
While many contributions took up the question of the Iraq War and the anti-war composite resolution that were being debated the next day, the platform covered a wide range of issues. Mark Serwotka dealt in detail with the government’s scandalous attack on civil servants and the announcement to sack over 100,000 workers. “The civil service has experienced more measures of privatisation under this Blair government than under Thatcher and Major”, declared Mark. “Some 20,000 workers are looking to be transferred to the private sector. On 12th July the Chancellor announced 104,000 job losses, crippling redundancies with an end to redundancy agreements, pensions, etc.” The tactics of Blair and Brown were, “the biggest attack on the public sector I have ever seen”, he said. “The government is disgracefully refusing to negotiate.” Mark explained the union had called a strike ballot and called for solidarity from other unions in the face of this onslaught.
Tony Woodley explained that the unity of the trade union movement over the last year had been “a huge step forward.” The unions were working together for the first time in many years and concessions had been won for workers’ rights in the next Labour government. However, he said much more needed to be done, especially “the repeal of Labour’s anti-union laws”, which have blocked workers defending their rights. “We have a lot more to do to reclaim our party and its values.”
However, when Woodley was challenged from the floor about his position on the resolution being presented to Labour Party conference calling for the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq, he temporised, saying that although the T&GWU delegation had voted to support the resolution, certain things were taking place “behind closed doors” which would “have to be taken on board.”
The conduct of the leaders of the “BigFour” unions on this question, which has let the Labour Party leadership off the hook, aroused a lot of anger among rank-and-file delegates.
The theme of trade union rights was taken up by John Hendy QC, who said British workers had fewer trade union rights than most other countries, including South Africa. He quoted Blair from early 1997 that Britain had the “most restrictive laws in the western world.” While they had won the case of Friction Dynamic workers at an employment tribunal, they were still unemployed and had received no compensation. John went on to point out the dramatic decline in the number of workers now covered by collective agreements, down from 84% in 1979 to 35.9% today – less than half. “With the hands of the union tied by red tape of the law, they cannot defend or protect their workers, and this is one of the reasons for the decline in membership”, he said.
Michael Meacher concentrated his contribution on the Iraq war. In answer to Blair’s so-called apology of the previous day, he said: “With 35,000 dead in Iraq, the question was not whether you apologised for the faulty evidence. He massaged the evidence in the government’s case for war.” Blair had taken the decision to invade Iraq, “a year before the war without any consultation with Parliament or the electorate.” He went on: “Blair says Iraq is the crucible of international terrorism and that we need to fight it to the end. But the insurgency today, which is continually getting worse, is due to the occupation. There will be no peace in Iraq until the withdrawal of troops, both American and British.” In conclusion Michael said that there has been a colossal centralisation of power under Blair. “It is our party and our country and we want it back.”
“We need a sense of our strength”, stated Jeremy Corbyn. “We need to be inspired by the two million people who marched against the war February last year.” He said Blair wanted to invite the interim Iraqi Prime Minister Allawi to speak at the Conference. I wrote to him advising him not to. If he wanted to invite someone with democratic credentials, he could have invited Hugo Chavez!”
The veteran Tony Benn, who was in fine form, summed up the Rally. “For me the most important question is: Who runs the world? It is the people with money and power. In Britain, we don’t have a prime minister, we have a king!” This concentration of power and the manipulation of events mean that there has been a complete loss of trust, growing cynicism, which opens the way for the hard right. Things may seem very bad in the party, “but if we can survive Ramsay MacDonald, we can survive New Labour,” he said. “I urge people to stay and fight in the Labour Party.” “Of course, if you want to leave you have plenty of choice”, he said with a wry smile, “I’ve a list of 20 socialist parties you can join. I got it off the internet.” The point was not missed by the audience, who gave Tony Benn a rapturous response. It was a fitting end to a very successful rally and augurs well for the future of the LRC. The task now remains to take the socialist alternative to Blairism into the trade unions and labour movement generally
Report by Rob Sewell,
September 29, 2004