Article from the October 2005 issue of the Socialist
newspaper of the Socialist Party, Irish section of the CWI
Time for unions to break with New Labour
We need a new party By Ciaran Mulholland
THE EJECTION of 82 year old Walter Wolfgang from the Labour Party conference, after he dared to heckle Jack Straw, says everything about the state of the Party today. This blatant attack on democracy is only the most glaring example of New Labour control freakery, however-there are many more from the conference.
According to the left wing Labour Representation Committee (LRC), emergency resolutions were excluded from the conference agenda for spurious reasons, delegates received text messages from regional party officers telling them which way to vote, speeches from the floor were in fact planted and drafted by party officials and first time delegates were intimidated by government ministers. No meeting of the National Executive Committee (NEC) was called during the conference because the leadership feared defeat on this normally tame body. Angry delegates renamed the NEC the "Non-Existent Committee".
The annual conference is now part rally, part meaningless debate. Over half of Labour MP's no longer attend. Most of these MP's are out and out careerists. They would be there if they thought it mattered to their futures and clearly it doesn't. Much more importantly more than a third of constituency parties no longer send delegates.
David Clarke, a former New Labour adviser, recently commented on the state of New Labour in The Guardian: "Membership is below 200,000 and falling, and the base that is left is ageing and largely inactive. Labour is in a state of organisational collapse. With Blair still in charge, next year's local elections threaten the sort of wipe out that would leave Labour effectively moribund in large parts of the country. The great worry for Gordon Brown must be that, like Major, he will inherit a party broken beyond repair"
In the 1950s, the Labour Party had one million members. When Blair came to power in 1997, it had 400,000 members. Today it has only 200,000 and if the current trend continues, it will have disappeared completely by 2010! The Labour Party, of course, will not simply disappear. The real question is whether the working class can ever reclaim the Labour Party as their own.
In 1974 Tony Benn went home from the Labour Party conference to write in his diary "This enormous centre of power, namely the Labour conference at Central Hall, was dominating parliament; it was much more important than parliament."
Benn was greatly exaggerating the real situation in 1974, though there was a core of truth to his assertion. Then, conference delegates could at least occasionally check Labour Ministers and determine Labour policy in some areas. At the same time, the Labour leadership were absolutely safe as far as the capitalist class were concerned. They could be relied upon not to ever challenge the status quo in any meaningful way.
For Blair and his supporters, any element of democracy within the Labour Party was anathema and had to end. Blair stated his ultimate objective years ago: "I want a situation more like the Democrats and the Republicans in the US. People don't even question for a single moment that the Democrats are a pro-big business party. They should not be asking that question about New Labour" (Financial Times, 1997).
Blair has achieved most of what he set out to achieve. The Labour Party has not lost all of the features that previously characterised it as a workers' party. It has the support of the majority of the trade unions for example (only the RMT and the FBU have broken at this point) and most of its voters are from the working class. These factors do not in themselves mean that the Labour Party is a Party of the working class however.
The Democrats in the US have the support of the majority of the trade unions and have much greater support amongst the working class and the poor than the Republicans. Despite this, the Democrats are in no sense a workers' party and no one in the States argues that they are. There is now little difference between New Labour and the Democrats and there is no possibility of Gordon Brown changing direction.
The Socialist Party in Britain drew the conclusion that a new mass workers party was needed as long ago as 1995. Since then, a number of false starts (for example Arthur Scargill's undemocratic Socialist Labour Party) have complicated the arguments but it is now clear to a large layer of working class people that Labour does not represent their interests.
The onus is now on left wing trade union leaders, such as Bob Crow of the RMT, Matt Wrack of the FBU and Mark Serowtka of the PCS, and all trade union and socialist activists, to point the way forward. A genuine representative conference of trade unionists, community activists and young people is now required to begin the debate on how to build a new, mass workers' party.