Marxism 2003: Magical mystery tour

Manny Neira attended the 'Marxism 2003' session on 'What is the alternative to New Labour', addressed by John Rees and rebel Labour MP George Galloway

On flicking through my Marxism 2003 programme last Saturday morning, I read the following: “What is the alternative to New Labour? George Galloway and John Rees.”

“Surely not,” I thought. It took my shocked mind a moment to refocus: the programme was advertising speakers, not suggesting an answer to the question. Looking back on the event, though, I think I probably read the programme right the first time.

Logan Hall at 3.45 on Saturday was packed. It seats nearly a thousand, and I could see very few empty places. For the SWP, this was clearly the ‘main event’. George and John took the platform to cheers which could not have been louder had they had Paul and Ringo with them.

Comrade Galloway spoke first, and with a polish so high it was difficult to look directly at him. The man is good. “Brothers, sisters, comrades and friends. William Gallacher, the last communist MP, used to begin speeches by addressing himself to ‘comrades and friends’, and add that by the time he’d finished speaking, he hoped there’d be no friends left. Well, that sometimes happens to me.”

With the timing of a comedian, he rode the laugh. “He meant, of course, that he hoped they’d all have become comrades and joined the party. Well, I have no party, but I have a voice.”

He used it to handsomely praise the Socialist Workers Party for the Marxism 2003 event - “this great festival of ideas” and their leading role in the Stop the War Coalition. The SWP, he announced, deserved the congratulations of everyone on the left for the unsectarian way in which it had all been done.

It was at this point that a slight feeling of unreality came over me. I had spent the morning distributing leaflets advertising a fringe meeting at which Steve Godward was to speak. Comrade Godward is a Socialist Alliance independent and FBU militant. Yet the unsectarian SWP removed him first from his post as SA vice-chair, and then as chair of the Birmingham SA. SWP comrades packed the meeting with newly signed recruits who loyally voted out every officer questioning the latest turn.

The story of the STWC was the same. Had the SWP taken a tighter grip they would have broken their fingers.

But, back in the present, Galloway was warming to his theme of warming to his new political partners. He and John (and they both used each other’s first names throughout) had been out speaking every night, addressing “meetings full of determination, full of hunger for what comes next”.

I can only imagine that these meetings remained hungry, because no clear answer to the question ‘What comes next?’ was forthcoming. Comrade Galloway rightly lambasted Blair’s recent attempts to paint himself as a ‘progressive’. He spoke in defence of the Fire Brigades Union, Labour affiliates for 75 years, striking on the strength of a 90% ballot in spite of threats by the state of bans and imposed settlements. He raised the plight of students reduced to poverty and debt through the system of loans. He attacked Blunkett for the appalling suggestion that immigrants should speak English, and not their own language, even in their own homes.

He ended on a Shakespearean quote, describing Blair:

“Now does he feel/His secret murders sticking on his hands/Now minutely revolts upbraid his faith-breach/Those he commands move only in command/Nothing in love: now does he feel his title/Hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe/Upon a dwarfish thief.”

The politics were sound, the rhetoric excellent, but this was a rally speech and not a political discussion. As the hall gave him a standing ovation, I waited to see if comrade Rees would be any more forthcoming.

He wasn’t. He took comrade Galloway’s speech, which had little new content but wonderful style, and removed the style. The theme of mutual admiration, though, flowered: “That response you’ve given, George, has been mirrored at all the meetings we’ve spoken at - especially since he has been attacked and vilified by his own party. Few would have stuck to their positions with his guts and his courage.”

I began to feel embarrassed. John and George had found each other, and while this was undoubtedly a rare and beautiful thing to observe, was there yet to be any discussion of politics today?

It’s a measure of my mood that I grew nostalgic for the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s passionate distrust of comrade Galloway. It made no more sense than this did, but a quick AWL walkout would have broken the mood. I could see their comrade Martin Thomas a couple of rows in front of me, his head in his hands, and perhaps felt more sympathetic than I had previously.

Comrade Rees spoke of the new political orthodoxy: that the lives of working people should not be under their own control, but under that of the ‘markets’. He highlighted the message which New Labour echoed: if there is a failure, if you are unemployed, or sick and untreated, or poorly educated, the problem lies not in the market, but in you. You have not tried hard enough. You are not fit for the market.

There were hints, though, of what he thought we should do about it: “The STWC had the biggest demonstration, the second biggest demonstration, and the biggest demonstration in wartime. At the last general election, though, turnout was historically low. It is not that people don’t want an alternative, but they see none, and they are cynical about those who claim to speak in their name.”

He returned to the theme of the STWC as a basis of a political movement at the end of his speech: “Stop the War was not a party but a coalition, but from it we went to the muslims, the trade unions, the labour left: to those who understand the need to forge something broader than was done with the Socialist Alliance. This is our work, to go to our unions, our communities. Now is the time to construct a political alternative to New Labour. If not now, when? If not us, who?”

On these questions, he sat down: if not to a standing ovation, at least to warm support.

What little light this meeting shed on the plans of George and John was switched on during the summing up of the debate. Comrade Rees spoke first this time, addressing himself to the links between the trade unions and New Labour:

“The RMT didn’t disaffiliate from the Labour Party. They decided that they would support Labour and other organisations. That needs to be the model for other unions. We must have the humility to understand that we cannot yet replace the Labour Party, and socialist Labour MPs like Jeremy Corbyn and others should continue to get support. In this way, the trade unions can support the whole left, inside and outside Labour. Our message cannot be simply ‘Join the SWP’, or even ‘Join the SA’. We must build a larger project as an alternative to New Labour.”

Comrade Galloway’s summing up also addressed the question of the Labour Party: “The Labour Party has been 103 years in the making. It is a brand recognised in every home. It has the electoral allegiance of millions. It has the affiliation of millions of trade unionists, and millions of their funding. It has thousands of councillors, and hundreds of MPs. It has many fine comrades, some known, others not. No left movement is possible unless we win them.”

But he seemed genuinely unsure about any project to ‘reclaim’ Labour: “Can we reclaim the party? Maybe the answer is ‘no’, but we cannot approach it as if we want it to be ‘no’. This will place us in opposition to some Labour MPs who are amongst the finest socialists in the movement today.”

He ended the session by emphasising the urgency with which the political alternative to Labour must be built: “Do we reclaim Labour, or build a new alternative? Each project is an Everest. But time is short. We cannot take decades, or even years, to decide. We have months. There will be important events next year, where our alternative will be tested. There must be the most intense discussion amongst ourselves, in the most comradely manner. The agenda must be the fundamental changing of society. They may say that this is the ‘new American century’. We say that it will be the ‘new socialist century’.