"There is every reason to think we are about to enter the most dramatic year in the story of New Labour", stated the Financial Times.
Without doubt, things are coming to ahead at home and abroad for Tony Blair's government. The unprecedented Parliamentary revolt, in which 121 Labour MPs defied the Labour leadership to vote against war, was the biggest ever against any government. This bombshell reflects the groundswell of opposition within the party and the country.
After winning two elections, Blair is arrogantly trying to ram unpopular policies down the throats of ordinary working people.
Firstly, there is war with Iraq. With two million demonstrating on the streets of London and Glasgow, Blair is intent on defying public opinion and waging a bloody war on the peoples of Iraq. He is acting as the lapdog of George Bush. This is producing big splits within the Labour Party, and even rumblings within the Cabinet.
Secondly, the government is squeezing the working class by holding down public sector pay, and proceeding with further privatisation. In January, the contract was signed to begin the privatisation of London Underground, despite the chaos surrounding the scheme and the further concerns over safety after the derailment on the Central Line. The government attacks on the firefighters, even threatening to reintroduce legislation from 1947 to impose a pay deal, have resulted in massive opposition to Blair within the union movement. Although the FBU are in negotiations, the dispute is far from over.
The adoption of university top-up fees, which is based upon Tory elitism, is symbolic of the approach of New Labour. Again, the promotion of 'foundation hospitals', another Tory proposal, will introduce a two-tier system within the NHS. Private firms are also being allowed to bid to take over NHS hospitals that the government has dubbed as "failing". Blair's crusade to 'modernise' the public services is viewed with alarm in the Labour movement, as it signals an onslaught against terms and conditions. Blair's proposals for the fire service, based upon the Bain report, will mean massive job cuts, reduced fire cover with the inevitable loss of life as a consequence.
Blair's worship of the 'market' and continuation with Tory policies has resulted in a groundswell of opposition in the working class. In one opinion poll the Tories were only a single point behind Labour! In Scotland, where new elections will be taking place again in May for the Scottish Parliament, Labour's support has recently collapsed by eight percentage points. This could see Labour thrown out of the ruling coalition, and the entry of the Scottish nationalists. Such an unthinkable eventuality would send massive shock waves through the Labour movement in Scotland as well as down South.
In December, this situation provoked Bill Morris to state, "the dividing line between the parties seems to be blurred if not erased altogether." Recently, the general secretary of the Labour Party, David Triesman confessed that the unions and labour were "sleepwalking" towards separation. But it is not the trade unions that are straining the union-Labour link, but the Blair government and its anti-working class measures. The revulsion in the ranks of the unions has raised the possibility of one or two unions disaffiliating from the Labour Party. There will certainly be big arguments over this question at this summer’s union conferences.
Union leaders demand special TUC conference on war
An indication of the growing mood of militancy in the British Trade Unions is also reflected in the fact that the leaders of unions opposed to the war on Iraq have demanded a special conference of the Trades Union Congress.
Mick Rix, general secretary of ASLEF, Jeremy Dear, general secretary of the NUJ, Paul Mackney, the leader of NATFHE, Billy Hayes of the CWU, Mark Serwotka of PCS and Bob Crow of the RMT have pressed the TUC under rule 8K to convene this special conference. The rule states “In order that the trade union movement may do everything that lies in its power to prevent future wars, the general council shall, in the event of there being a danger of an outbreak of war, call a special congress to decide on industrial action, such congress to be called, if possible, before war is called”.
This unprecedented move also coincides with the threat of industrial action in the event of a military attack on Iraq. Blair is ignoring this growing opposition both in the Trade Unions and in the Labour Party itself. He appears intent on destroying the Labour Party. He has forced things to the very limits in his pandering to big business at home and abroad. Everything is coming together for a massive showdown. The only reason why Blair has partially sidestepped an all-out confrontation with the FBU is the war with Iraq that is consuming all his energies. The idea of taming ("reforming") the public sector has not gone away.
"Tony Blair in 2003 will endure his most uncomfortable year in power so far. The shine has long since gone off his administration. In 2003 the paintwork itself will begin to crack and peel. The British economy will falter, but that will be the least of Mr Blair's worries…" writes Anthony King in The Economist.
"Instead, one of Mr Blair's most painful afflictions will be highly disruptive public-sector strikes. For years pay increases in the state sector have lagged far behind those in private business, and in 2003 chronic discontent among public sector employees-teachers and health professionals as well as manual workers-will turn into outright anger. Some groups of aggrieved workers will take to the street; others will close down parts of the railway system, the London tube and even schools and some hospital services. Britain in 2003 will be like France in almost every year since the Second World War. The British public will be annoyed and inconvenienced. But, as in France, it will back the workers. Most ordinary Britons see the Blair government as 'them' and public sector workers as 'us'. They will instinctively side with 'us'. Most people have friends and neighbours who work in the public sector and regard the long-term clampdown on public sector pay as unfair. The national sense of fair play will come to the workers' aid." (The World in 2003).
With these battles in the offing, it is essential that the trade unions take the fight to Blair. The unions remain the key to the Labour Party. Blair has a very shallow basis of support, now that the unions are shifting to the left. It was the cabal of rightwing union general secretaries that sustained Blairism. Now that has changed, especially with the defeat of Sir Ken Jackson in Amicus/AEEU.
Rather than contract out or worse disaffiliate, the unions must organise a campaign, starting with the lefts, to reclaim the Labour Party for ordinary working people. This must go hand in hand with the fight for socialist policies, based on the original Clause Four, as an alternative to the capitalist policies of Blair. We agree that 2003 could be the "most dramatic year in the story of New Labour", providing we seize the time and put an end to Blairism once and for all.