Blair’s crusade against democracy

Everybody loves him - the media barons, the union bureaucrats, the establishment. Who will wipe the grin off Blair’s face?

This year’s Labour Party conference was always going to be Blair’s show. Enter the man who ‘beat the Tories’ and secured Labour’s biggest ever majority. The conquering hero returns to congratulate his humble foot soldiers.

For this reason alone, the conference resembled an American-style rally, with some of the fervour of a Billy Graham revivalist meeting. Blair’s project - New Labour, new Britain, new British confidence - is getting the full rapturous treatment. In his television-friendly speech on Tuesday, winning the acclaim of the Daily Mail, preacher Blair invoked the need for “hard choices” - as opposed to “soft choices” - on nine occasions, and told the nation that it needs “compassion with a hard edge”. He followed up this unpleasant American-speak with more pages from the Bill Clinton phrase book - “family life”, “ending welfare dependency” and the usual law and order bash. He concluded that “we can be the best”.

Instructively, the Blackpool events conclusively show that turkeys do vote for Christmas. Blair’s New Labour vision, codified in Partnership in power, means that the conference will be severely downgraded. There will be fewer resolutions, less opportunity for local CLPs to propose their own resolutions, strict control over MP selection, etc. In other words, the power of initiative - or embarrassment - traditionally allocated to conference, will come to an end. Balloons and applause is the role allocated to the ‘new’ conference, not debate and dissent. 

But the awestruck and supine delegates - trade union block votes included - eagerly voted for Partnership in power anyway. The Blairite revolution entails the death of Labour Party democracy - a small price to pay for keeping the Tories out, according to the prevailing mindset.

Unsurprisingly, Blair wants to leave behind him the permanent civil war that used to be the Labour Party conference, where the rank and file and unions regularly rebelled against the arrogance of the Parliamentary Labour Party. These periodic eruptions were always greedily lapped up by the media, which used them to maximum effect - ‘Reds under the bed’, ‘Union barons run the show’, etc. At last Blair is free of such distractions.

This is not to say that there will no further ‘newsworthy’ conferences. Of course there will be - but in a completely new sense. We will have staged events and press handouts courtesy of the Mandelsonite spin doctors and the bright young things that surround Blair and his team. The media will only get what they want them to have - not that the pro-Blair press will be complaining. This week’s conference was a grim harbinger of this new ‘consensus society’ - all the media, including the formerly Tory tabloids, loved it.

We can see how Blair is protecting himself from the Labour membership - and the left, however you define it. For the moment the new passive rank and file now flooding into the Labour Party are, for the most part, unquestioning admirers. He also has the trade union bureaucrats behind him, even if some of them do grumble a bit. Lew Adams of the train drivers’ union, Aslef, on Monday boasted that the unions, his in particular, had “driven out the Trots and the militants”, and now wanted their reward. With the “Trots” beaten, Tom Sawyer, Labour’s general secretary, looked forward to “holistic” politics. We have heard about new trade unionism a lot recently - but now we have got ‘new age’ trade unionism.

The ‘opposition’ has surrendered already. Its ambition was limited to delaying the Partnership in power proposals for a year - hardly storming the barricades. John Edmonds of the GMB, just like at the TUC bash in Brighton the other week, was the most acerbic critic of Blair and Blairism. He talked about Blair’s “dodgy goods” and told the leadership to “stop playing games with us” - and then promptly voted for the Partnership in power ‘reforms’. He warned Blair, though, that “we will be watching you”. Scary.

Instead of rising to the real challenge of Blair’s constitutional changes, the left has all gone to sleep. It busies itself inventing new excuses. No doubt some will get terribly excited that Ken Livingstone beat Peter Mandelson in the elections to the National Executive Committee. But Livingstone’s ‘victory’ came at a price. As Hugo Young of The Guardian pointed out,

“Ken Livingstone himself, admitted to the rostrum for the first time since 1980, ventured nothing more than a polite request ... So thoroughly has leftism been purged from the grammar that you couldn’t even see a sub-text at work here” (September 30).

The Socialist Workers Party, for one, has absolutely no idea how to tackle the Blairite world, which in a small way it helped to vote in. It wants the old, familiar world back, as made clear by Socialist Worker:

“There is a danger that the fight over the party constitution can be a substitute for fighting over other issues like education, pensions and the minimum wage. Blair is at his strongest when he is fighting on constitutional matters - the cards are stacked in his favour. But when it comes to issues in the ‘real world’ then every demonstration, protest and strike keeps the pressure on the Labour government to deliver real reform” (September 27).

In other words, leave politics to Blair, as that is what he is good at. We will get on with strikes and demos, which is what we - the SWP - are ‘good’ at. This non-political ‘Marxism’ is typical of most of the revolutionary left.

It is clear that Blair and the establishment in general now feel very confident. They can forge ahead with ‘New Britain’ without any anxiety about the workers’ movement upsetting the applecart. Hence the appearance of the call for a federal republic in The Observer (September 18), a bold statement of radical liberalism and undisguised hostility to the institution of the monarchy, but very different from the same slogan in the hands of a combative working class.

If the workers’ movement does not wake up from its big sleep - and if the left does not start to think - Blair’s new Jerusalem will be built at our expense. The working class, removed from history as a living agent, will remain as mere voting fodder.

Eddie Ford