Tony Blair’s drive towards war with Iraq is producing convulsions throughout the Labour movement. With the threatened resignation or sacking, which ever comes first, of Cabinet Minister Clare Short, after her attack on Blair’s policy on Iraq as “reckless”, the whole edifice of New Labour is threatening to come crashing down.
Blair himself has become increasingly isolated as he struggles alongside George W. Bush to piece together a second UN resolution as a fig leaf for war. With the French and Russians apparently digging in their heels for their own reasons, guaranteed UN support for the war is in deep trouble. France has already announced in advance that they intend to use their veto. Whatever happens, Bush is determined to go to war come what may. Whatever happens, this is the beginning of the end for Blair.
The magnificent two million-strong demonstration in Britain was the biggest in history, and illustrates the deep-seated opposition to the Blair/Bush war. Despite the government propaganda, the bulk of the population understand this is a war for oil and imperialist domination. Even Clare Short admitted, “What is happening at the moment is down to American power.” The British government is trailing behind Uncle Sam like a poodle.
Short also stated that, “If Tony continues to go along with it, then it’s going to create serious problems.” This is the understatement of the century. All hell is about to break when Blair goes to war. A declaration of war on Iraq will mean war inside Labour too. The revolt of 122 Labour MPs, the biggest revolt in British parliamentary history, will be a tea party by comparison. There are estimates that as many as 200 Labour MPs will revolt next time. Former Cabinet Ministers, Chris Smith and Frank Dobson, all respectable Blairites in their day, voted against Blair on Iraq and have signed early day motions opposing the government’s plans for universal top-up fees and foundation hospitals. They were joined by two other former ministers Peter Kilfoyle and Glenda Jackson.
Without precedent, there are mounting calls within the Labour Party for the ousting of Blair as party leader. The veteran Labour MP and Father of the House Tam Dalyell, when asked if Blair should go, replied “Yes, immediately!” There is talk of a leadership challenge taking place. Even if this doesn’t materialise, it represents a massive change within the Labour Party. Many local party members, overwhelmingly opposed to war, are joining anti-war groups. There has not been such a shake-up since the Livingstone affair, which sent shock-waves through the Labour Party.
The Financial Times, the organ of Big Business, has warned of what is coming in the Labour Party. They can see the splits at the top which reflect a groundswell of opposition from below. “These experienced and articulate politicians are making common cause with single-issue rebels”, states the FT.
“The emergence of prominent backbenchers prepared to challenge Mr Blair on several fronts raises the risk that protests against individual government policies will cohere into wholesale opposition to the course he is charting.
“There is already some evidence that this is taking place. The anti-war vote included many normally loyal backbenchers. But a majority of the rebels had already declared their opposition to the government either on foundation hospitals or top-up fees - or both.
“Of the 108 Labour MPs who had registered their opposition to foundation hospitals at the start of this month - since joined by at least three others - 73 voted against Mr Blair on Iraq.
“And of the 140 Labour MPs who had declared their opposition to university top-up fees, 84 also voted against the prime minister and for the anti-war amendment.
“About 60 Labour MPs now oppose Mr Blair on all three fronts. That is almost double the number of Old Labour refuseniks who regularly voted against Mr Blair during his first term in office.” (FT, 6 March 2003)
There will be a showdown on all these policies. The previous appearance of deep-seated loyalty to Blair in the Parliamentary Labour Party has been undermined. As more and more speak out, the pressure will build up. Given the frustrations and feelings within the Labour movement, it is a dam waiting to break. Without doubt once war begins, there will be a whole series of ministerial resignations at lower levels, and possibly at a higher level. They include Anne Campbell, PPS to Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Patricia Hewitt; Andy Reed, PPS to Secretary of State for Environment, Margaret Beckett; Michael Jabez Foster, PPS to Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General; and Tony Wright, PPS to Ruth Kelly, the Financial Secretary. A fifth was named as Ken Purchase MP, an aide to Leader of the House of Commons, Robin Cook. We have entered uncharted waters politically. We are witnessing the death of Blairism.
The shift to the left in a whole series of trade unions, who have now come out against Blair, will be reflected increasingly within the Labour Party, as we have always maintained. Support for Blairism is exceedingly weak. All it would take to develop a mass opposition inside the Labour Party is a pole of attraction, a catalyst around which the mounting discontent can rally. The Livingstone affair was a graphic illustration of how quickly events can unfold. When Livingstone was bureaucratically blocked from becoming the official Labour candidate for London mayor, despite the overwhelming support of the rank-and-file, there was a massive surge of activity. The party membership came alive, and mass meetings were held to protest against Blair. The mood is far more critical today. The opportunity for a mass opposition in the Labour Party has never been greater for the past decade or more.
With this situation opening up, the ideas raised in some quarters for the trade unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party is completely counter-productive, and simply plays into Blair’s hands. Today, there are no more than 100,000 members in the Labour Party. If the trade unions were to send 25 or 50 members into every constituency party, they could take it over. It is as easy as that! Already there have been moves to deselect Blairites in some local parties. For instance, in the London seat of Bethnal Green and Bow, the Labour MP Oona King narrowly survived the first stage of an attempt to deselect her on Monday night. A parliamentary aide at the DTI who backed the government in the Iraq debate 10 days ago, Ms King told the Commons that it was "futile" to give Saddam Hussein more time. “Many activists in her constituency disagreed. Voting predated Clare Short's outspoken attack on Mr Blair, but other Labour MPs, who must go through reselection by the end of the year, will be alarmed that even before Ms Short's intervention, the local party's activists voted narrowly in favour of triggering the full reselection process”, stated The Guardian.
Councillors such as Labour leader Helal Abbas pointed out that Ms King represented the highest number of Muslims in the country. "She must justify her actions to the people to whom she is accountable," he said. "As socialists we have a humanitarian obligation. We don't believe in killing innocent women and children, regardless of the regime where they live."
Only after one branch was excluded on a technicality, and she received the backing of five affiliated trade unions, was King's survival assured. In other words, the trade unions if they wanted to could easily kick out the Blairites. The call must go out, not to contract out, but to contract in! It is time the trade unions took back the Labour Party for the working class.
The organisation ‘Labour Against the War’ has circulated a document correctly urging its supporters to use the selection process to "reclaim" the Labour Party by axing MPs who have backed Tony Blair. According to the BBC's Politics Show, six Labour MPs are at risk in London alone - Martin Linton, Bridget Prentice, Oona King, Barbara Roche, Jim Fitzpatrick and Ann Keen. One anti-war activist, Juliane Jung, is joining Martin Linton's Battersea Labour Party in a bid to help remove him.
Geoff Martin, an official of the public sector union Unison, said: "MPs who follow in the Government's wake, rather than standing up and joining the 121 rebels, are fair game. If they lose out on the selection process as a result of their attitude taken on the war, that's a good thing."
Now is the time to act! All those who are opposed to Blairism should join the Labour Party to get rid of the Blairites. It is no good just talking about it. It is no good being in piddling little sectarian groups on the fringes of the Labour movement. The trade unions must stop backing those Labour MPs and councillors who pursue anti-trade union policies. They must act to reclaim the Labour Party for the working class. In doing so, we must reject the pro-Tory policies of the Blair government. It is time to return to the socialist programme the party was created to carry through, based upon Clause Four. Only then can we rally the working people of this country, which has decisively rejected Thatcherite policies, for an end to capitalism and the building of a new socialist future.