The Labour Party Conference in Brighton was the setting for clearing up one of the great myths expounded by many seen as being on the left of the labour movement, particularly the leaders of several trade unions, that somehow there was ‘clear red water’ between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The idea that Brown has been secretly opposed to privatisation, to the war in Iraq, to the Labour government’s assault on civil liberties - but keeping quiet through ‘loyalty’ (to his career that is not to the Labour Party or working class Labour voters) - is patently absurd.
In his Brighton conference speech Brown cleared up this confusion once and for all. “New Labour Renewed” was his battle cry. But there are none so blind as those who refuse to see and none so deaf as those who refuse to listen.
Derek Simpson (Amicus) and Dave Prentis (Unison) for example, continue to see what is not there. More, they quote what isn’t said, while blithely ignoring what is. “He didn’t try to defend New Labour policies about private sector involvement in the NHS” said Prentis. No, but he did say he would continue with Blair’s ‘reforms’ and ‘modernisation’ and ‘choice’.
They talk a lot about choice, but they are not so keen on the labour movement making a choice in a leadership election. It must now be clear that the ‘choice’ between Brown and Blair is like choosing between Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee, or between the devil and the deep blue sea.
One Minister after another now appeals for the heir apparent to be handed his crown peacefully. They want Brown to be annointed with no discussion and no opposition. Not only are we expected to accept a single candidate, but also apparently we should wait until they are good and ready to reorganise themselves at the top with no reference to the rank and file. Blair has said he will go before the next election (ie sometime in the next four years) and that should be good enough, “just rejoice at that” as Thatcher once said.
Where has all the vocal opposition of the backbenches following the election gone? There should be a challenge mounted to Blair immediately, he has already bought his retirement mansion and he should be forced to move in right away. All the bluster about getting rid of Blair following the last election has, it seems, been silenced by the desire not to undermine career prospects on the eve of a new Brown era.
Brown, meanwhile has booked the removal van for his move into Number Ten. He promises a twelve month tour of every region to “listen, hear and learn” then, presumably, as his attitude to party conference decisions demonstrates, ignore every single word and continue with a big business agenda.
Brown hurriedly made it clear that he intends to completely ignore the conference vote – by 60 to 40 percent – demanding that secondary strike action be legalised again in the wake of the magnificent struggle of the Gate Gourmet workers. There was not a word of opposition to Blair’s latest plans to privatise the NHS and to force those on disability benefits into work. He has even started to sound like Blair, the absence of verbs from both their speeches metaphors for inaction.
If Brown’s speech contained no reference to any difference with his boss, then Blair’s speech the following day was noteworthy for the lack of any mention of standing down. Despite the fact that, as we have long pointed out, Labour won in 1997 regardless of Blair, and won again in 2001 in spite of him, in 2005 the government won barely 35 percent of the vote precisely because of Blair and his capitalist policy at home and abroad.
Blair entered the conference hall to the sound of 1970s punk band Sham 69’s The Kids Are United. Their contemporaries, The Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I Go Now? would have been more appropriate. 55 percent in the latest ICM poll want him to go now or go soon.
For years we have heard about the feud between Brown and Blair. The fundamental difference beneath these arguments can be summed up as who gets the top job. Many rushed to support Brown simply because he is not Blair. Now he has made it clear that he wants to be Blair the second. Just to swap one for the other now would be no advance.
Those on the fringes of the movement busily creating new mass parties of two and three will see this as a confirmation that Labour is now just another bourgeois party. They are as blind to the real situation as those who dupe themselves that Brown is to the left of Blair. They confuse the leadership and the government with the rank and file and the links with the trade unions. Labour remains the mass party of the British working class in spite of the current bourgeois leadership and capitalist policy.
Whether Brown likes it or not New Labour is dead. It cannot be renewed. Its time has passed. It lives on only in the cabal around the prime minister’s office. Blair still seems keen on beating his idol Thatcher’s eleven years in Number Ten taking him on until 2008. Brown wants nothing more than to swap his own clique for Blair’s when the time for his succession comes. Ultimately the decision rests with neither of them.
Events at home and abroad can scupper their best laid plans. The economy is already faltering under the weight of debt. Iraq continues to bleed.
There must be a real challenge to the Blair/Brown big business agenda at every level of the labour movement. We cannot wait two, three, or four more years. Those union leaders who have been backing Brown must wake up to reality. The alarm must be sounded by the ranks. If the trade unions united their resources behind a real left candidate they could have a big influence. No support should be given to any candidate who does not support withdrawing troops from Iraq, who does not oppose privatisation, support renationalising the railways, and abolishing the anti-union laws. This is a minimum requirement.
A left candidate like John McDonnell, for example, even if he did not win a leadership election could open the door to real debate about the need for socialist policies throughout the movement.
The process of questioning in society, of changes in the unions, which has already begun, will not go away. The task of socialists and trade unionists must not be to rally around any candidate who might win, regardless of their policy, but instead to organise the discontent, the searching, the mounting militancy in British society into a real force for change. Change inside the labour movement, and change inside the Labour Party, as steps toward the change that really matters – the radical socialist transformation of society.