Key debates surface

Over 350 Labour Party members and delegates gathered in Friends Meeting House in central London on March 29 to discuss how to organise opposition to Blair's warmongering. Mark Fischer reports

George Galloway MP was spot on with one of his opening comments to the morning session of the Labour Against the War conference. "I am going to say some things that you won't necessarily agree with," he warned. "Of all the meetings I am going to do today, you have to face the unpalatable fact that this is probably the smallest of them. You have to face some difficult truths "¦ We effectively do not have a Labour Party in this country "¦ Can the Labour Party be reclaimed for peace and anything like socialism? [shouts of "Yes!"] If so, you'll have to provide some evidence. The question is, are there enough of us left inside the party? Have most of us already gone? ["Join the Socialist Alliance, then!"] This is a deadly serious business here: we shouldn't be making trivial remarks. The second question - is there enough democratic space left in the party to reclaim it?" George's comments had the great merit of highlighting questions that this gathering needed to address before it could decide whether it was even worthwhile getting on with the rest of the day - that is, was the meeting's stated aim to 'reclaim the party' feasible or not? The bulk of the delegates - despite a palpable respect for the Glasgow MP's sterling work in the mass anti-war movement - clearly believed that they can do more than simply exist in the Labour Party. They are convinced of their potential to fight within its ranks and to win. Thus, the tone of many contributions was pugnacious - some comrades were quite willing to ignore calls for caution. Despite criticisms that need to be made of aspects of the event, this was a positive day - not simply for the Labour left, but also for the broader movement. The agenda was divided into two halves. The morning session was billed as 'analysis' of the war - its effects on Labour and wider society. This would have been a little bland, had it not been spiced up by comrade Galloway's blunt observations. In effect, despite the fact that he found little support for his line of argument, he provided a contentious introduction to a key discussion for this new Labour left, as it reasserts itself - stay in the party, or decamp? In the afternoon, conference debated practical measures aimed at 'reclaiming' their organisation. Again controversy stirred around the less immediately practical question of LATW including in its aims the removal of Blair as leader of the party. A succession of prominent figures, including Tony Benn, Alice Mahon and Billy Hayes, lined up to tell conference that the question of who led the Labour Party was an irrelevance, that there should be no talk of bloodletting internally with all this gore flowing on foreign soil and even - most imaginatively in the speech of MP John McDonnell - that Blair has somehow "gone"! Apparently he is "no longer the leader of the Labour Party". Thus, in an indicative vote called by conference chair Alan Simpson, delegates voted by a solid (although not overwhelming) majority that a serious fight against the war must logically imply a challenge to Blair's leadership. A welcome sign of confidence. It was a sensible move to make this vote indicative rather than binding. True, the final statement drafted by LATW leaders outlining the "stark choice" facing Blair - that he "can claim to lead the war party or the Labour Party, but not both" - contains an implied challenge to his position. But clearly MPs and other luminaries are wary of alienating potential soft allies who have been prepared to vote against the government, but would balk at launching a coup against the PM. Chris Smith's name was mentioned more than once in this context. So it was good that the organisation did not split over such a question at its first gathering. However, there exists a fundamental difference in orientation that must be addressed at some stage soon. One comrade told me of his hope that LATW would come to resemble "less of a 'support group' for MPs and CLPs; more of an organisation that campaigns for action". Doubtless the comrade was pleased that a number of motions remitted to the incoming campaign leadership included the call to deepen and broaden the LATW presence in the party - Leyton and Wanstead's, for instance, suggested setting up local Labour Against the War conferences and groups. Less positive was the confusion that seemed to surround the LATW leadership itself. The fact that it is an "advisory committee", not a "steering committee", seems to indicate a very limited remit. As delegate Pete Firmin wondered in the debate, "advisory to what, to who?" A 25-person committee was agreed by conference and - despite continuing ambiguities around its exact role - the vast majority of delegates took away the conviction that conference had ratified a project of initiating local action and organisation. Judging from the quite robust and democratic discussion, the Labour left's confidence is on the up: it is starting to seriously reconstitute itself as a force within the party. This process - which we have been commenting on for some time - has clearly been propelled forward by two historically unparalleled anti-war marches and the largest ever parliamentary revolt by Labour MPs. The Labour left has also been revitalised by the series of left victories in the trade unions. This underlines conclusively the fact that the Labour Party remains a type of workers' party, with the vitality of its left wing organically linked to the general combativity of the workers' and progressive movement. Proof that the Labour left is starting to organise itself once more as a left was provided by John Edmonds, new realist turned government critic. In funereal tones he told us that there was nothing to be done to stop the war. Therefore, our role should be to "concentrate that energy on arguing for a massive increase in humanitarian support for the Iraqi people - through every NGO, every relief agency, every support agency that is willing to go. Because the more people, the more organisations, the more relief we can get into Iraq, the less chance there is that the war will be won by excessive bloodshed." Edmonds' advice to conference that our new role is as pathetic, charity-mongering camp-followers of the advancing imperialist armies went down like Billy Connolly's proverbial fart in a space suit - he walked back to his seat to applause so lukewarm I almost weakened and gave him a clap myself. Of course, communists do not believe that Labour can ever be a vehicle for winning socialism. Our strategic task remains to convince through their own struggles and experiences the millions who support the party electorally and the tens of thousands of sincere activists in its ranks of that. This can never be achieved through moralism or shrill ultimatums.