Britain: Time to make the break

CLARE SHORT left Blair’s cabinet with a bang. Her resignation speech contained a withering attack on the "control freakery" of the Blairite "clique" at the top of the party and Blair’s "presidential" rule by "diktat". Her attacks will have found an echo amongst many people, fed up with a government that they see as arrogant and out of touch.

Her resignation, following that of Robin Cook during the war on Iraq, has led to some commentators raising the prospect of a new ’left-wing axis’ on the Labour backbenches. This could, they claim, unite the increasing rebellious Labour MPs into a coherent and effective opposition to Blair.

Those, including many left union leaders, who still believe that the Labour Party can be ’reclaimed’ and transformed into ’Old Labour’, may be boosted by this and the recent rebellion over foundation hospitals.

Such views are misplaced. Clare Short’s credibility was damaged by her failure to resign over the war itself. Her attacks concentrated on the style not the content of the New Labour government. There is no ideological unity amongst what is left of the ’left’ in the Labour Party. Robin Cook resigned over the war on Iraq but spoke gushingly in support of foundation hospitals, which represent a significant undermining of the NHS.

The differences between Brown and Blair over foundation hospitals are about the degree to which privatisation and market forces should be introduced into the health service, not one of principle. Similarly, the divisions over the euro centre on timing not fundamentals. If, as Clare Short seems to be proposing, Blair were to step down in favour of Brown, it would not significantly change the capitalist nature of the Labour Party.

63 Labour MPs rebelled in Parliament over foundation hospitals, but contrast that with opposition to Prescott’s bill to impose a pay settlement on firefighters. This bill is a fundamental attack not just on the rights of firefighters but on the whole working-class, and yet just 27 Labour MPs voted against.

This, and the witchhunt against left-wing MP George Galloway pose starkly the need to build a new alternative to New Labour based on the working class. At this year’s union conferences motions are once again being tabled calling for a severing of the link with New Labour. The rail workers’ union RMT could become the first major union to make that break.

This raises the prospect of the RMT, in conjunction with others on the left, taking the initiative and calling a conference to unite together trade unionists, anti-war protesters, community campaigners etc to discuss creating a party that can challenge New Labour both electorally and through building a mass movement to defend the interests of working-class people.

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May 2003