The last but one nail in Blair’s coffin

Tony Blair suffered his first ever defeat in parliament yesterday when 49 Labour MPs voted against the introduction of new repressive ‘anti-terror’ legislation. The defence of civil liberties, consistently under attack from the Blair government, is a vitally important question in its own right. However, as Phil Mitchinson explains, Blair’s parliamentary defeat has far wider implications for the future of the British labour movement.

Wednesday November 9, 2005, was a red-letter day for British politics. For the first time since Labour’s landslide election victory in 1997, Blair lost a vote on the floor of the House of Commons. Unlike the frequently ignored votes of Labour Party conference - where Blair has shown his contempt for democracy on many occasions - this one will be a little harder to dismiss.

The significance of the vote is far wider than failing to put the reactionary policy of holding suspects for 90 days without charge on the statute book. Blair did not just lose, having put his authority on the line and having made this vote a three-line whip (i.e. making it ‘compulsory’ to toe the leadership’s line), he was humiliated. The scale of his embarrassment was compounded further by having to drag Gordon Brown back from a trip to Israel only hours after he had arrived there. Similarly Jack Straw was flown back from Moscow because Blair needed every vote he could get. Ian McCartney had to limp in from his hospital bed despite just having had a triple by-pass heart operation. Yet even these desperate measures were not enough.

On Monday Blair had convinced himself that he had won over the parliamentary party with a speech appealing for unity. He did not understand the extent to which his authority has been undermined even in these upper echelons of the party. As one former minister explained in The Guardian, describing the power of Blair’s words: "It was brilliant. I have never heard him so convincing since he sold us weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."

Blair has long since lost the support of trade unionists and rank and file party members. His policies have already been defeated on the floor of the now ruthlessly stage-managed party conference. He has suffered, but survived, previous close votes with the help of his friends on the Tory benches. Now, for the first time, his authority in Parliament and the Parliamentary Labour Party has been shattered.

Only a week earlier in a previous debate on repressive so-called anti-terror legislation, he had scraped through with a majority of just one. On the same day he had had to wave goodbye to another of his loyal lieutenants, David Blunkett, mired in sleaze and scandal. ‘Things can only get better’ he may have been whistling to himself in the shower the next morning. How wrong he was.

Forty nine Labour MPs voted against Blair’s reactionary legislation and thirteen more abstained. Together with the votes of the Tories and Liberals the result was a defeat by 322 votes to 291. Blair has had to rely on Tory votes in Parliament before. This time, however, with Howard and co intent on giving the prime minister a bloody nose, the Labour leaders astonishingly appealed to the most hard-line, right-wing Tories for support, goading them that the Tory leaders weren’t right wing enough! The Tories’ spurious principled opposition to this bill, couched in hypocritical verbiage about civil rights, will have fooled no one. This was opportunism, a chance to defeat Blair in parliament and breathe some life back into their long comatose party.

There is a real irony in the complaint of one Tory MP, who interrupted the Prime Minister’s speech, shouting out “we aren’t in a police state”. This from a party which has consistently opposed civil liberties and democratic rights. The irony, however, is that in the current atmosphere, Charles Walker, the Tory MP in question, was lucky not to be arrested for the new terrorist offence of heckling.

Yet in constantly appealing to the authority of the police – Blair’s speech appeared to be an appeal on behalf of the Police Party rather than Labour – the Prime Minister demonstrated just how authoritarian he has become.

This is not the biggest rebellion by backbench Labour MPs that we have seen, more voted against the war in Iraq, for example. On health and education, perhaps even bigger Labour rebellions can be expected in the next period. The difference on this occasion was that the rebels won, Blair was defeated, and if his reactionary plans can be defeated once they can be again.

This is the biggest defeat in a ‘whipped vote’ since the Callaghan Labour government of the late 1970s. We explained after the last election that despite Labour’s victory Blair does not have a majority for his reactionary proposals:

“Labour’s majority in the House of Commons has been reduced to 67. This may seem a solid enough foundation for Blair to implement his programme, but remember with a majority of 161 Blair only squeezed through foundation hospitals (a form of backdoor privatisation) by fourteen votes, and student tuition fees by only five in the first vote, and only by 28 after all the concessions and pressure of the parliamentary whips convinced the less solid opposition on the backbenches to cave in.

“With this reduced majority, in the absence of those Blairite MPs defeated on May 5th, these policies would never have been passed. Therefore it would seem likely that this smaller majority will prepare new parliamentary rebellions over any further attempts to privatise health and education, or to introduce identity cards, particularly on the basis of pressure from below, of developing events in society, and, above all, in the trade unions. Under pressure from the movement of the working class outside parliament, backbench Labour MPs will be able to defeat Blair, who will have to look to the Tories and Liberals to vote for his anti-working class measures. Labour has a majority of 67, Blair does not.” (The General Election of 2005: Results and Prospects, May 2005)

Does this one defeat in parliament mean the end of Blair? In a sense yes, it is certainly another nail in the coffin, but then his days have been numbered for some time. However, when is a different matter. Major’s Tory government continued for two years without a majority. His government lost four votes in parliament. The difference here is that Blair is hell bent on confrontation, and not just with the Parliamentary Labour Party. He is intent on carrying through his Tory policies of privatisation in hospitals and schools. This will provoke further rebellions inside parliament and outside.

The arrogance of the man is staggering. In responding to his defeat he made it clear that he was right and those who voted against were wrong. "The country will think parliament will have behaved in a deeply irresponsibly way, I have no doubt about that at all," he said. ‘President’ Blair would no doubt like to dissolve this “irresponsible” parliament and elect a new one more loyal to him and the police. We will await with baited breath the demonstrations in favour of shoot-to-kill, and holding suspects for months on end without charge. "Sometimes it is better to do the right thing and lose,” Blair continued “than to win doing the wrong thing. I have no doubt what the right thing was to do in this instance, to support the police.”

Even in the restricted democracy afforded to us by capitalism it is generally understood that Parliament is elected to make laws whilst the police and legal system are supposed to implement them, not the other way around. Of course, ultimately parliament, the judiciary, the police are all parts of the state machine designed to manage and defend capitalism. However, as we have often commented, the needs of that system in a new period are coming into conflict with parts of this establishment as they try to refashion it into something more suitable to the task of defending capitalism in a new era. These splits at the top of society represent divisions in the ruling class over how best to proceed.

Blair’s annoyance with parliament, which he would like to disregard in the same way that he does party conference, is clear for all to see. The disappointment in his voice when he commented "Parliament cannot be treated like children, they know what the issues are" was palpable.

This arrogance is another important factor, linked to the Iraq war, which drove many Labour voters into the arms of the Liberals or simply into their armchairs, at the last election. It is a question of trust, of Blair lying, and of the centralised unaccountable clique, the cabal of advisers and cronies, which has increasingly displaced the cabinet and the House of Commons.

Following the election, Blair and co evidently imagined it would be ‘business as usual’. As we said at the time “if Blair, Brown and co think they can just settle down to another four or five years in office resting on a growing economy, continuing to attack our democratic rights whilst allowing the freeloaders and moneygrabbers to scavenge for profits from the rotting carcass of our public services they will have another thing coming. Labour’s third term will prove to be fundamentally different to the previous two episodes of Labour government.”

So what will happen now? In reality, despite Labour winning the last election with a majority of 67 Blair now effectively leads a minority government. No doubt if there were a vote of confidence tomorrow morning he would win. However, as for the rest of his modernising agenda, this will now face stern opposition in parliament. The rebels must stand firm and vote against these measures. The line of argument advanced by Polly Toynbee in The Guardian – that MPs must now be careful not to erode support for Labour by voting against the government – is entirely spurious. Indeed, probably the only way to bolster support for a Labour government is for Labour MPs to prevent Blair and co from continuing their attacks on working class people. The maximum number of Labour MPs must vote against each of these attacks. But this is not enough. The struggle against privatisation in health and education must be extended beyond the walls of the Palace of Westminster. Backbench MPs must unite with trade unions and rank and file party members to organise action, demonstrations and rallies. Opposition in parliament alone will not be enough. For his Tory privatisation policies Blair will now rely on the votes of the Tory party to outnumber Labour rebels. In this sense he will lead a kind of ‘national government’, with a Labour opposition behind him.

Meanwhile, we must not forget that the amendment passed to the anti-terror bill allowing suspects to be held for 28 days is still an affront to civil liberties and democratic rights, and must be opposed. Not just privatisation, but the continued disastrous occupation of Iraq, the introduction of identity cards and other assaults on democracy, and every other repressive or reactionary proposal emerging from Ten Downing Street must be fought against.

This first parliamentary defeat for Blair may prove to be the penultimate nail in his coffin. When will he go? That question cannot be answered with any certainty. Not a day too soon obviously. As Oscar Wilde put it “some spread happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.” Despite his desire to stay on until just before the next election – coincidentally beating Thatcher's record along the way – ultimately the decision is not in his hands. After losing one vote in parliament the question of his resignation is raised everywhere. Further defeats will pile on the pressure from him to move into the millionaire’s row retirement home he has already bought himself. To paraphrase the old saying, if it limps like a lame duck, and it squawks like a lame duck, then it is Tony Blair.

More rebellions combined with effective opposition by the labour movement outside parliament would make his decision for him. As we pointed out following the election, only Labour can defeat Blair.

However it is Blairism, that trend of Toryism, of market-obsessed, pro-capitalist policies that needs to be defeated, and not just the man himself. Unlike Toynbee and co we do not demand a smooth transition from Blair to Brown. Remember it was Brown who flew back overnight to vote for this reactionary bill. It will be Brown who will vote for the privatisation policies now being proposed, as he has done consistently since Labour were elected.

Blair’s defeat yesterday brings the downfall of Blairism that much closer and is therefore to be welcomed. However this is far from the end of the matter, on the contrary it is only the beginning. A new chapter has been opened in the struggle for the Labour Party. Parliamentary rebellions can play an important role in that process especially if they are linked to the struggle throughout the rest of the labour movement. That struggle cannot have as its aim the puny ambition of replacing Blair with Brown or some other clone, it must set its sights higher. The cause must be to reclaim Labour for the working class, and to fight for socialist policies.

Labour won a general election just six months ago, but Blair won nothing. Blairism is already dead. The pipedream of converting Labour into a British version of the US Democratic Party, which seduced many of the sectarian groups, as well as the Labour leaders, has evaporated. The triumph of Blairism was a consequence of defeat and demoralisation in the labour movement, leading to a period of inactivity. The right of the movement always rests on such periods. However, that period is over. Blairism reflects yesterday, not today and tomorrow.

The task of Marxists is not to be seduced by the surface of events, not to see things in black and white, isolated and unconnected, but instead to piece together all the available evidence to grasp the process under the surface, the direction in which events are moving.

There is a shift taking place in British politics, and in British society. Conditions determine consciousness and the changing conditions of the working class are at the core of the class polarisation of society, which will be a fundamental feature of the next period.

There is only one force that can defeat Blair – the trade unions and the party rank and file. It is not just in parliamentary voting lobbies, but inside the labour movement that Blair and co must be defeated. What is needed now is a militant trade union defence of jobs and pensions combined with a struggle against the Blairites, in defence of civil liberties, and for socialist policies inside Labour.

However, this is only a first step. In the next period the working class will turn their organisations inside out and upside down, transforming them time and again until they are more suited to fighting for their needs, for the needs of society. The Marxist tendency and the ideas we represent have a vital role to play in that struggle inside the labour movement which represents the cleaning and sharpening of tools in readiness for the job in front of us, namely the overthrow of capitalism and the construction of a new socialist society. The ideas of Marxism must become a potent weapon in the armoury of the working class in all its day to day battles and in the struggle to transform the planet. Only in that transformation can the problems we face be permanently solved and all the remarkable advances in science and technology be put to use rationally, scientifically and democratically in the interests of all humanity.

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