Due for a victory

At the end of the Stop the War Coalition conference, Mark Fischer spoke to Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn about the situation in the Labour Party

Mark Fischer: Many who spoke today emphasised Blair's isolation in his party over the question of the war. If it starts, what effect will it have on Labour? Tony Benn: It is not so much a question of asking what effect it will have: more of what it should have. If Mr Blair goes to war, he will leave the Labour Party. He will make the final split between New Labour and the Labour Party. The Labour Party is a working class organisation, with trade union affiliates and socialists in it. It has never been a socialist party, but there have always been socialists in it - just as there are some christians in the churches. That's an exact parallel. If that happens, what the Labour Party has to do is reclaim itself. The situation we have now is bad. There are too many socialist parties and not enough socialists. There's the CPGB, the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Party, the Socialist Alliance, the Scottish Socialist Party, the Socialist Labour Party - too many of them! What we need is unity in a political movement, in the same way that we have unity in the industrial movement. That's why I'm a Labour man - we have the trade union link and some socialists in the party. Mark Fischer: Agreed, the war will have important effects on Labour. But one speaker here today suggested that Blair was totally isolated at cabinet level - is this accurate? Jeremy Corbyn: I would say so, yes. There is a general recognition that Blair is in an untenable position. He is too close to Bush. The public mood is against the war: people see that it's a war for oil and George Bush's neck and they want none of it. The prime minister has got himself into a position where he thinks that somehow by being close to Bush he has influence over him. The opposite is the case. In order to maintain the pretence of influence over the president, Blair will sign up for National Missile Defence, for instance. I think the price of his 'influence' will be that we get American nuclear weapons back in this country. Mark Fischer: So would you say that there is a resurgence of the left in the party? Jeremy Corbyn: The 'After New Labour' conferences that we have organised around the country have been very large, very confident, very successful. The Socialist Campaign Group of MPs is also working very closely with the RMT, with the post office workers, with local authority workers and - crucially - with the firefighters. So the resurgence of active trade unionism is mirrored by a resurgence of left activity in the parliamentary Labour Party. I think ordinary members of the Labour Party are very confused. They were delighted to win the election in 1997, but now they are very angry about the war. They are very angry about privatisation, about the economic philosophy that is being pushed by New Labour. The majority of them have stayed in the party, particularly the left, in order to maintain the link with the unions and to continue the battle for socialist ideas. Tony Benn: Of course, Downing Street's view is that leftwing militants have somehow 'taken over' these unions. The unions are actually made up of ordinary people who have chosen leftwing leaders. Opinions have shifted. For the first time in my life, the public is to the left of what is called a Labour government. Blair's only strength is his opinion poll ratings. Once they drop, the Blairites will disappear like snow in spring. He is only supported because he tells people - 'I'm the only man who can win'. When it becomes obvious that he can't win, he'll be dropped very quickly. Mark Fischer: But history does tell us that opposition to war can also disappear like snow in spring. Look at the prelude to World War I. Then you had Labour and the TUC opposing the coming conflict, you had the world movement in the shape of the Second International committed to making a revolution if war broke out. It didn't happen, though. Tony Benn: Let me answer that. Kier Hardy stood against the war, so did Ramsey MacDonald - and he was prime minister 10 years later. They opposed the war. So don't be too pessimistic. Wars do lots of things. Of course they bring terrible suffering, but they also mobilise opinion to an extraordinary extent. The welfare state and the reforming Labour government of 1945 were products of war. People resolved that they were never going back to unemployment, the means test, appeasement - they wanted a new Britain. Jeremy Corbyn: Don't underestimate the education that masses of people have had in the past 18 months - young people in particular. They recognise there is no stability with injustice, there is no stability while there are rich and poor, while nuclear missiles and other weapons of mass destruction are held by the west. Tony Benn: Not only that: if your pension is crap, where's the money going? - to the war! If your student fees are raised, where's the money going? - to the war! If you hospital is privatised, where's the money going? - to subsidise private healthcare! I know optimism can be dismissed as being foolish, but optimism and hope are actually the fuels of progress. So don't be pessimistic. Look, Ramsey MacDonald reduced the Labour Party to 50 MPs - 14 years later, there was a landslide for the party. Mark Fischer: I've been in the Communist Party for over 20 years - I'm definitely an optimist. Tony Benn: God, you'd have to be "¦ Mark Fischer: The 100 Labour backbenchers that are reported to be against the war - are they a solid group? Could they withstand the pressure of war itself breaking out? Have they crossed the Rubicon in their attitude to the government? Jeremy Corbyn: Some have. Others have the rather curious attitude that if the UN sanctions it then the war would be basically alright. But then that is an untenable position - the UN charter specifically rules out a war for a regime change. We have a meeting of the parliamentary Labour Party this coming Wednesday that Tony Blair is going to address. Interestingly, he has recently addressed more meetings of the PLP than I can ever remember - we've got a pep talk from him every week at the moment. But I'm hearing Labour MPs - some quite New Labour in their way - that are saying, 'The public won't wear it, the public don't want the war'. So, as Tony was saying, it's public opinion in this country that has actually moved ahead of the parliamentary Labour Party. That's what my postbag is telling me. Opposition in parliament is very much a reflection of the mood below, in wider society. The media are totally oblivious of this. Tony Benn: That's right. Peter Kellner wrote that on the massive September 28 demonstration last year what we saw was 400,000 "Trotskyites" having a day out! Now, if that was true I suggest the establishment should be rather worried. Have there ever been that many Trotskyites, even in Petrograd in 1917? Mark Fischer: Lastly, a word on today's conference? Jeremy Corbyn: For me it was a surreal day - I was at a conference in Paris this morning on the same question. It was a very serious, very intense meeting. Then coming into this hall, I sensed a fantastic buzz. Here were people of a huge range of political opinions. There was scope in that hall to have the most massive disagreements about a whole range of questions. But instead the message was, 'We're united: we're going to stop this war'. That's very inspiring. Tony Benn: I am very optimistic. Like everything, it will be a hell of a struggle. Remember, every struggle - win or lose - helps build a movement that takes you on to the next fight. The old communist Willie Gallagher said that the working class goes from defeat to defeat, to defeat, to defeat "¦ to final victory. I think we must almost be due for that victory by now.