Britain: Tony Blair’s long goodbye

Ditching hated PM will not end New Labour rightwing policies

Tony Blair’s final speech to Labour Party conference was greeted with wild applause. Delegates hoisted ‘homemade’ placards declaring ‘TB 4 eva’ and ‘we love you Tony’. Outside the Labour Party conference his speech will have been greeted rather differently.

Tony Blair is now even more hated than Margaret Thatcher was in her final months in power. Despite the positive gloss he tried to put on his departure at the Labour Party conference, in reality he is being forced out because Labour MPs and councillors believe he has become a liability for the Labour Party, and therefore for their careers.

However, the New Labour machine is making a mistake if it believes that ditching Blair will simply solve their problems. It is not only Blair, but Blairism, which people are fed up with. Blair claimed in his speech that New Labour spoke for all of the people, yet he defended privatisation of public services, the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and his close relationship with George Bush – all of which are extremely unpopular with a majority of ‘the people’.

Gordon Brown, who remains the most likely successor to Blair, used the conference to emphasise again that he will continue the New Labour ‘project’ and is singing from the same hymn sheet as Blair on the central foreign and domestic issues. His ‘radical’ proposal for a new independent board to run the NHS will in reality be a further acceleration of privatisation, which Brown has promised to “intensify”.

While it is clear that there is, as Peter Mandelson described it, a “fissure” at the top of New Labour, and a deep-seated hatred between the ‘Blairites’ and the ‘Brownites’, there are virtually no ideological differences. Like rats caught in a trap, the squabbles at the top of New Labour have nothing to do with principles and everything to do with politicians trying to rescue their careers.

Nonetheless, there will be some workers who are hoping against hope that Brown is only pretending to be a Blairite, and will reveal his ‘true socialist’ colours once elected.

Unfortunately, their illusions will be quickly shattered as Brown continues with the anti-working class, pro-big business policies he has pursued as chancellor. New Labour today is a party of the billionaires that does not, in any sense, represent the interests of working-class people.

Blair in his speech emphasised the continuity between New Labour and the Labour governments of the past – pointing out, for example, that in 1969 Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, tried to introduce anti-trade union legislation in the form of the misnamed “In Place of Strife” Bill.

Blair argued that the difference then was that Wilson did not dare to go ahead. In a sense Blair was right. The tops of the Labour Party have always acted in the interests of big business. Nonetheless Labour governments in the past were forced to respond to the pressure of the working class.

In 1969 a series of strikes put the government under such pressure that the cabinet openly split and Wilson was forced to retreat. Today is a very different situation within the Labour Party – where the Blairites have completely insulated themselves from the pressure of the organised working class in the form of the trade unions.

While the trade union vote still has power at conference, the conference itself has no decision-making power at all! As was the case in recent years the trade unions will succeed in inflicting some defeats on New Labour at this year’s conference. Already a motion on the rights of agency workers has been passed in the face of government opposition. However, as with last year’s ‘victories’ on trade union laws, privatisation and council housing, it will not make one iota of difference to government policy.

New Labour today is an empty shell. Its official membership has more than halved since 1997, and its active membership is as little as ten to twenty thousand. Sixty thousand people marched in Manchester on the eve of the conference – opposing the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, cuts in the NHS, and demanding that Blair should go.

But those issues will barely be discussed in the hallowed halls of Labour Party conference. Even, or rather especially, the question of the Labour leadership. It is consuming the New Labour apparatus but the last thing that they wanted was for it to be openly debated on the conference floor. As a result seventeen motions on the Labour leadership were ruled out of order.

Nor will there be genuine debate on more serious matters. According to the Labour Representation Committee resolutions have been ruled out of order on: Iraq, Trident replacement, the council housing ’fourth option’, nuclear energy, trade union laws, Venezuela, incapacity benefit, school admissions policy, party political funding, and Thames Water! As the socialist has explained before, the democratic structures which had previously at least allowed the working class a voice within the Labour Party have been completely destroyed.

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 Labour has lost four million voters – the vast majority of these are working-class ‘traditional Labour’ voters who have been betrayed by New Labour’s big business agenda. A party that stands in their interests – for the millions not the millionaires – is needed.

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 MP’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.

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