Britain: Nightmare on Downing Street - Time to reclaim the Labour Party

The Blair government faced its worst nightmare in the immediate run up to the war with Iraq. According to the Guardian revelations, Blair, Straw, Blunkett, and others in the Cabinet were on the verge of resigning if the Commons vote went against them.

The Blair government faced its worst nightmare in the immediate run up to the war with Iraq. According to the Guardian revelations, Blair, Straw, Blunkett, and others in the Cabinet were on the verge of resigning if the Commons vote went against them.

In an interview Blunkett recalled: "Everyone believed, in the run-up to that vote, that Tony had put his premiership on the line and those who are very close to him would go down with him." Straw said: "The projected voting figures were very serious ... I knew there would be a point at which Tony would resign and I would resign as well."

The defence secretary, Geoff Hoon warned his US counterpart, Donald Rumsfeld, about the possible consequences of the vote. He told the Guardian: "I had a long conversation with him, warning him that if the vote went wrong we might not be able to be there… The US came to understand it was about us gambling just about everything in getting this right." He added: "If we had lost that vote, that would have been it."

The revelations show just how perilous the government's position was. At one point, Labour whips told Blair that up to 200 Labour MPs would vote against the government, and frantic last-minute efforts were made to persuade rebels back on side. With two million marching in the streets, many backbenchers finally found the courage to oppose Blair.

However, in the end, the Blairites were able to hold on by the skin of their teeth. Yet it would be a grave mistake to believe that now the war is over it will be business as usual. Nothing will ever be the same again. Blair will face opposition at each new turn. "After a month of war, the domestic agenda is about to return with a vengeance", states the Financial Times.

The immediate issues that have given rise to so much opposition are Tory-inspired policies of foundation hospitals and university tuition fees. These elitist and regressive policies can provoke a backbench rebellion as big as, if not bigger, than that against the Iraq war.

"If these two plans are defeated by the rebels", continues the FT, "the prime minister will no longer look in control of his domestic agenda and Labour will have reverted, at least in part, to what it was before he took control."

In other words everything is set to unravel for Blairism. That is why the leadership has unleashed a witch-hunt against George Galloway. They are determined to crush all opposition and silence their critics. They have stonewalled the firefighters, threatening them with legislation if they do not back down. However, the harder the Blairite careerists attempt to smash criticism, the greater will be the backlash against them. Disciplinary measures and witch hunts are a sign of weakness not of strength.

Blair and Co. are determined to continue with their Tory agenda. They have bowed down before big business and the bankers. For all their talk of the dangers of letting the Tories back in, they were the ones who were prepared to risk the fate of the Labour government to do the capitalist's bidding.

The shift to the left in the trade unions, however, has already begun to undermine the grip of Blairism within the labour movement. Many of the new left general secretaries now talk openly about the need to reclaim the Labour Party from the middle class carpetbaggers. Tony Woodley, the left candidate for general secretary of the powerful TGWU, has stated that if he wins he will convene a summit of trade union leaders to take back the party.

Given the fragile base of the Blairites, now is the time to draw up concrete plans to put this idea into effect. All it would require would be for the unions to get say 300 trade unionists to volunteer in every constituency to go in and take over the party. The trade unionists already exist in the constituencies. The unions even have the resources to pay the membership fees of every new recruit. This would be a better protest than simply cutting the unions donations to the Labour Party, putting the money to better use to sign up thousands of trade unionists to reclaim the party. The task of the new recruits would be simple enough. They would vote only for those people in the Labour Party who supported union policies. Come the time for selection of Labour candidates, on the basis of one member one vote, union-backed candidates would be democratically selected. Nothing could be easier.

Of course, this is nothing new. In the past, rightwing unions, such as the EETPU or the AEEU, ensured the selection of Blairite candidates by sending in members to vote. That was a case of sending in careerists to hijack the party. Why not send in workers to take it back? As the saying goes, what is good for the goose is good for the gander. The party must be flooded with ordinary trade unionists seeking to change the party in the interest of working people.

Not long ago, many believed Blair and co to be unassailable, their grip on the Labour Party permanent. In frustration some left and even flirted with the idea of building an alternative outside Labour. Now it becomes clear that their grasp is slipping. They are forced to dig in with their nails to cling on. At the same time, the idea that the Blairites can be defeated by standing candidates against the Labour Party is nonsense. It is barking up the wrong tree. The Socialist Alliance, for instance, is regarded by most people as a joke, and can only muster a handful of votes. They will never succeed in a million years! Those who call for unions to disaffiliate are also wrong, and simply play into Blair's hands. After all, don't the Blairites want to break the trade union links? Just to pose the question is enough to see how false it is.

There are millions of working people who are disillusioned with the Blair government. That is why voter turnout has fallen to record lows. Many are angry after waiting 18 years for the return of a Labour government and ending up with a government little different from the Tories. But the point is not just to get angry, but to get even. With the Blairites on the back foot, trade unionists must go on the offensive in the fight for socialist policies. Reclaiming the Labour Party is the only realistic way forward.