Time to speak out

Graham Bash is on the editorial board of Labour Left Briefing and is one of the organisers of the March 29 London conference of Labour Against the War. He spoke in a personal capacity to Mark Fischer about his hopes for the conference

How do you think Saturday's conference will go? We are hoping for the rank and file Labour opposition to the war to become much more visible. Already, there has been an historic vote in parliament, with 140 Labour MPs, including the teller, opposing the government. That was the biggest parliamentary vote against the government in over a century. Now the struggle moves outside parliament. It comes back to the people. There have been massive demonstrations. In particular, last Saturday, March 22, was simply magnificent. That so many came out after the start of a war is incredible and a tribute to the democratic impulses of the people of this country. However, what I think has been somewhat lacking is a labour movement core to this wonderfully broad and diverse movement. That is why Labour Against the War has been set up - to try to rectify that weakness. It's not just about building huge demonstrations - critical though that is. It's also about finding an expression within the labour movement: the trade unions and the Labour Party. There is an enormous anti-war feeling in Labour: it is without doubt the majority opinion. What we are trying to do is build a conference with representative delegates from Labour branches and trade unions to express that strength of feeling. At the same time, we are trying to prevent what could be a major haemorrhaging of Labour Party membership. If the Labour opponents of war are silent, it will be the green light for thousands - possibly tens of thousands - to tear up their party card. That would be a disaster. It would be doing Blair's job for him. It would be destroying what is left of the Labour Party. Could you tell us something about what's been happening at a rank and file level in the party? Well, Oona King, for example, recently faced the reselection process like every MP has to. The vote wasn't whether to deselect her or not: it was whether to have what is called a 'trigger ballot', a ballot to deselect her. In fact, the majority of branches in her constituency voted in favour of the ballot, but they were defeated because a majority of affiliated organisations are counted and she was reselected. So, despite that, there is pressure on her and other pro-war MPs precisely because of the substantial anti-war sentiment in most constituency parties. Is it realistic to talk about large numbers walking out of Labour? And where would they go? I'm not saying it's inevitable, but it is a real danger. And it looms at the same time that there is a threat of disaffiliation from certain unions. Not so much because of the war on Iraq, but because of New Labour's other war - the attacks on trade unions and public services. Coming together, this makes for a very, very serious situation - a crisis of representation. In the absence of any other viable alternative, it would mean the labour movement would have even less of a presence in political life. At least it can be argued that there are real representatives of the labour movement, certainly in the Campaign Group and in the revolt in parliament against the war. These MPs represent 'us' in that sense - the anti-war constituency. I think now that members of parliament - and the Labour party itself - must see that two million on the streets are our constituency. We have to connect with it and help enrich the movement and in so doing help enrich the Labour Party. It's a two-way process. So Saturday's conference is part of that process. The people have spoken: now is the time for the Labour Party to speak out. But we are told - sometimes by people who were embedded deep in Labour at one time - that there are now no avenues to challenge the leadership, no space for dissent in the party "¦ I have to say that's clearly stupid when it is being said at a time of mammoth revolts in parliament and a huge strength of feeling at a rank and file level. However, the critical pressure now has got to come from the trade unions. A number of union leaders have spoken out against the war. But often trade unions have one position, but then their representatives at the NEC or the national policy forums vote the opposite way! The trade unions with left leadership must ensure their reps in the party are accountable to the organisations that actually placed them where they are in the Labour Party. The trade unions have got to start using their weight. They have done at recent conferences and it's been the constituency parties lagging behind. But on the war, there is an enormous opposition in the constituencies that could, paradoxically, help reinvigorate those constituency parties - if only people don't vote with their feet and walk away from the fight. Things are on a knife edge. That is why it's important to have something visible for the anti-war elements in the Labour Party. I interviewed George Galloway MP recently and he spoke of the need for a challenge to Blair. Yet other Labour lefts - Corbyn, Benn and Simpson - have been very wary of 'personalising' the fight, saying instead they want a challenge to policies, not personalities. How do you view this? Speaking purely personally on this, I think it is absolutely impossible to separate the policy issues from the leadership issue. Blair has put his leadership on the line over this question - he understands that. He has breached international law, his actions over the war are totally against the party constitution. In Briefing in this issue, the heading is that he is a war criminal - that's how I regard him and don't see therefore how he can be a leader of the Labour Party. I understand very well those who want as broad a coalition as possible. In order to do so, they have to build with people who are against the war but stop short of a challenge to Blair. But it's a wider question now - we have to relate to our constituency in those massive demonstrations on the streets. They - almost universally - are not only against this work. They also detest Labour's leadership. It is vital, in order to keep people in the party, and to give people a reason to join it, that there is a realistic challenge to the leader himself, not just the policies. Even if it can't be done tomorrow, we ought to lay down that marker of a challenge. Blair can be the leader of the Labour Party or he can be the leader of the war party. But he can't be both. And I think he's made his choice. That's my personal position. I saw an anti-war group from a college that had adopted a good slogan - 'For regime change everywhere'. Including in the Labour Party? Absolutely! In fact, starting there would be a good idea "¦