Build electoral alternative

Liz Davies, former member of the Labour Party's national executive, last week resigned from the party and announced her support for the Socialist Alliance. This is the full text of her speech made to a Socialist Alliance-Leeds Left Alliance rally on March 23

As we approach the general election, Labour Party members all over the country, many with decades of commitment, are wondering just what they can or should do in the coming campaign. They're wondering what to do when they're given a Labour leaflet boasting of the government's attacks on asylum-seekers, of its threats to civil liberties, its promises of more privatisation or another crackdown on benefit claimants. They're wondering how they can tell working class people to vote for politicians who treat them with contempt.

For people like myself, who have dedicated many years to building the Labour Party, to representing it publicly, and who spent 18 long years trying to replace a Tory government with a Labour one, these are very difficult and painful questions, but after much deliberation, I've come to the conclusion that I think many others will reach in the months and years ahead. Accordingly, this morning I resigned from the Labour Party in order to campaign against New Labour and for a socialist and democratic alternative in the general election.

My criticism of the New Labour government is not that it is going in the right direction, too slowly, but in the wrong direction, too quickly.

Since 1997, New Labour has presided over an increase in the gap between rich and poor. A recent report showed that five million people cannot afford one or more basic amenities. In other words, five million people are condemned to poverty as defined by global standards - and that's a disgrace in the fourth richest country in the world. Meanwhile, thanks first to the Tories and then to New Labour, the richest 20% of the population take home 45% of all of the country's post-tax income. New Labour has cut corporation tax and capital gains tax to the lowest in the European Union, and proposes further cuts in the second term. It has refused to restore the link between pensions and earnings, and excluded pensioners from sharing in the economic prosperity of the country. New Labour did implement the party's long-standing commitments to a minimum wage, and to greater employment rights, but in each case the final result was a watered down version of the labour movement's original purpose.

New Labour has also taken privatisation of public services further than the Tories dared to go. Acting against public opinion, and against the lessons of the recent disasters, it refuses to renationalise the railways. Instead it insists on the privatisation of the London underground and of air traffic control. It invites private corporations into the NHS and into our schools, colleges and universities - and prisons.

New Labour has presided over an onslaught on our civil liberties that goes much further than Michael Howard ever went. Under New Labour, we have a freedom of information bill that actually restricts freedom of information rather than extends it. Jack Straw wants to abolish the ancient right of defendants to choose to be tried by a jury rather than by magistrates. Legal aid is being systematically withdrawn. We have the highest proportion of our population in prison than any other country in Europe, and both New Labour and the Tories are determined to make it even higher.

But New Labour has shown itself at its most despicable with its attacks on asylum-seekers. When people flee persecution, war or poverty we should be welcoming them, not depriving them of welfare benefits and scapegoating them for having the temerity to claim the same freedom of movement that is granted to multi-national corporations.

Behind all New Labour's attacks on our rights and the maldistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich lies the pernicious influence of big business, over the Labour Party and over public culture. Big business's influence extends from ministers doing individual favours for individual rich men - a passport here, an appointment to a quango there, the sale of the Dome if you're lucky or gullible enough - to the whole direction of government policy. Privatisation, reduction of welfare benefits, watering down of employment rights and the minimum wage, tax breaks for the rich, selling arms to repressive regimes are all policies that benefit big business.

There can now be little doubt that big business has a grip over New Labour; in the last two years, and for the first time in the party's history, Labour has received the same amount in donations from big business as it has from the trade unions. Companies that directly benefit from privatisation have given money to the Labour Party: power companies, Railtrack and other privatised rail companies, companies that are bidding for privatised education services. All the leading supermarket companies have given money and New Labour's planning policies and the low minimum wage have benefited supermarkets. Purveyors of GM foods have given money and New Labour has encouraged GM food trials despite the opposition of public opinion. Arms manufacturers have given substantial donations to the Labour Party so it's not surprising that Robin Cook's much-vaunted "ethical foreign policy" turned out to be such a sham - the sales of arms, particularly the sales of arms to dictators and human rights abusers, have actually increased, not decreased, under New Labour.

In New Labour, big business calls the shots and party members and trade unions are ignored. During my two years on the national executive committee, I watched close up as party members' rights and their views were brushed aside. I watched as party leaders and officials ran after big business money, regardless of the consequences to Labour voters. As New Labour took over and tightened its grip, as it ignored party members' rights to make policy, or to select their own candidates for public office, New Labour decided that ethical and democratic boundaries don't matter. All that matters is power, and what you can get away with. As a result, the rot that started inside the party as an affront to members' rights has now extended into government, and, now, we are faced with a very serious threat to democracy, to public standards and to the future of working class rights and living standards.

We've all seen over recent months where this has led and it's important to understand that it isn't about a few isolated instances. Mandelson, Vaz, endless lobbyist scandals are merely symptoms of a political culture that is rotten to the core. Every day there is a new political scandal and New Labour are rapidly looking as sleazy as the Tories did. The only antidote to this rotten political culture is public scrutiny, public debate - and a public alternative. That means New Labour should be subject to electoral challenge from the left, from supporters of progressive and democratic values - values that neither New Labour nor the Tories stand for.

The increasing convergence of New Labour and the Tories has left too many people unrepresented, too many vital ideas unadvocated - the choice on offer from the major parties is simply too narrow, too meaningless and it needs to be expanded. It's true that there are a handful of Labour Party socialist candidates in the general election, including Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and my own MP, Diane Abbott, and they deserve strong support from socialists. But, isolated within New Labour, they may well not be able to do the job that needs doing.

That's why I'm delighted to be here today supporting Steve Johnson, the Socialist Alliance candidate in Leeds Central, and Celia Foote, the Leeds Left Alliance candidate in Leeds North East. Both candidates, and the alliances they represent, will campaign on the policies that matter and will give disheartened Labour voters and people who've never voted before a reason to get to the ballot box on election day.

Building an electoral alternative to New Labour is a long-term business we have to learn from each other as we go along. But it has to start somewhere and some time and the general election is a big step for all of us on that road. I've been impressed by the unity in the Socialist Alliance, the diversity of views, and the respect for each other's differences. It's vital for the left to show it can overcome the sectarianism and dogma that has bedevilled our efforts in the past. And I've been encouraged by the strides made by the Socialist Alliance in this regard.

But what's important now is that we all work together to get out the good news: that in this election, there will be a place on the ballot paper to put an X for all those who want to see big business's political influence curbed, redistribution of wealth, an end to privatisation, pensions and benefits at a level that ensures all of us can lead a decent life, a real and meaningful minimum wage, stronger trade unions and rights in the workplace, respect for the rights of asylum-seekers and cuts in military spending. A place on the ballot paper for all those who want to see public need come before private greed.

For all those who dare to dream of a socialist society where all of us live as free and equal human beings. That's how we'll put some life back into democracy.