Britain: Civil war in New Labour

Time for a new workers’ party

As we go to press Tony Blair is answering questions at his last TUC conference. As he pointed out, in an aside which revealed his abhorrence of the trade union movement, it will probably "be a relief" for both Blair and the TUC delegates that they will not meet again.

Now that it is clear that Blair is on his way out even Brendan Barber, pro-New Labour leader of the TUC, has found the courage to criticise him. Anger at the TUC from rank-and-file delegates will still be a faint echo of the fury of millions of trade unionists at New Labour’s anti-working class, pro big-business policies.

Such is the anger building up that Blair could be forced to go quite soon. It’s certainly likely that he will have to quit before the May elections. Until he does go, the vicious infighting at the top of the Labour Party will continue.

However, unlike previous battles within the Labour Party, there are little or no ideological differences between the warring factions. Blair once famously declared that: "I have taken from my party everything they thought they believed in. I have stripped them of their core beliefs. What keeps it together is power."

Now it is the prospect of losing power that is leading the Blairites and Brownites to turn on each other like rats caught in a trap. In particular, it is the prospect of disastrous results in next May’s elections in Scotland, Wales and local authorities that has triggered the recent civil war.

The Labour Party today is an empty shell. John McDonnell, the left MP who has declared he will stand for the leadership, estimated the real membership at an all time low of 100,000 and the active membership at ’ten to twenty thousand’. The current drama is therefore taking place in an empty theatre.

This makes the result of the battle difficult to predict. But it is still most likely that Gordon Brown will become the next prime minister – for no other reason than most Labour MPs believe he is the best chance of rescuing New Labour from its current slump in the opinion polls, and therefore of rescuing their careers. Already there is talk of launching a "Blairites for Brown" campaign in order to try and cut across the conflict of recent weeks.


CURRENT OPINION polls suggest that a Brown-led Labour Party would only gain two points in the opinion polls. However, if he is elected there will be undoubtedly be sections of working-class people who hope against hope that he is ’a wolf in sheep’s clothing’ who will reveal his pro-working class policies once elected. Unfortunately, that will not be the case and those illusions will be quickly shattered as the reality of a Brown-led government is revealed.

While Brown may differ from Blair on some points of detail he will pursue the same neo-liberal programme. He has gone out of his way to emphasise this in recent days – warning the trade unions that he planned to "intensify" privatisation of public services. He also praised the ’war on terrorism’ and raised the need to introduce more draconian, anti-democratic legislation in its name.

He argued that Britain has a "responsibility" to continue the brutal occupation of Afghanistan, although he was more equivocal on Iraq. It is not impossible that whoever takes over from Blair could try to gain popularity by withdrawing British troops from Iraq.

The Socialist Party will be mobilising for the anti-war demonstration outside the Labour Party conference on 23 September in order to exert the maximum pressure in this direction. However, even if withdrawal takes place, it will not alter the general direction of a Brown government – of supporting US imperialism’s brutal foreign policy abroad, and attacking workers’ living conditions at home.

New Labour today is a capitalist party devoid of rank-and-file membership. The Socialist Party does not believe that New Labour can be ’reclaimed’ and argues that the only way forward for working-class people is to build a new party that actually stands in their interests.

Since 1997 the trade union leaders have given more than £100 million of their members’ money to New Labour. It hasn’t bought them a fiver’s worth of influence. While the billionaires get knighthoods and cut-price public services in return for their ’dodgy loans’ trade unionists get kicked in the teeth.

However, the majority of trade union leaders are still mistakenly arguing that New Labour can be changed. If they are sincere in this, those in affiliated trade unions should support John McDonnell’s campaign for the leadership, as the only candidate who stands on a programme that is in the interests of trade union members, in that it is against cuts, low pay and privatisation.

While we do not think John McDonnell’s campaign will succeed, given the pro-big business nature of the Labour Party, we will call on those trade unionists that have a vote in the election to vote for him.

However if, as we unfortunately expect, the Labour leadership contest confirms Labour cannot be reclaimed, McDonnell and the other Labour lefts should draw the necessary conclusions from this and throw their weight behind the building of a new mass workers’ party – a party that stands for the millions not the millionaires.

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales

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September 2006