New left majority

John McDonnell MP chaired the Congress House conference. He spoke to Mark Fischer

Is this a step forward?

Easily. Five hundred delegates. The largest left Labour conference for perhaps 15 years. Trade union general secretaries from every major trade union. Everyone committed to one objective - reclaiming the Labour Party - and with a remarkable level of agreement on the key policies we need to be driving for. Today’s conference is a major breakthrough.

Does the impetus come from the protests against the war?

This is more an organic development of the left in the party. There has been a coalition formed, issue by issue, of people who have realised they have a common interest - that is, developing a policy platform from the left that can also win the next general election. Another key element has been an interest in re-establishing democracy within the party.

The war was a mobilising factor for people who were disillusioned with the Labour Party but realised they had to get back in to fight back. New progressive forces also appeared that realised that, if things are going to be changed, you have to have power, and the way to that in this country is via the Labour Party. And there’s been a coming together of industrial workers who have been involved in individual disputes and sections of the trade union movement who have been negotiating within their industries for progressive policies that the government has not delivered.

So it’s wide-ranging coalition that no one can now ignore - certainly not the Labour leadership.

A key development surely is the attitude of the trade unions and sections of its leadership. Do you see more cohesion amongst the ‘awkward squad’?

Tony Woodley of the Transport and General Workers Union described this as a ‘united front’ in development. Billy Hayes from the Communications Workers Union talked of a “new left majority” - and that’s the phrase we’ll use in future because we are the majority and we are the left.

What organisational form will this take? The first thing is how we organise the policy debate we want to have. It’s about linking up - for the first time for a long period - with socialist academics and specialists. So we are looking at how we conduct that policy debate - not within smoke-filled rooms, but through an extensive policy discussion with the movement itself.

That means going on the stump around the country in trade union and party branches, and bringing that to a head through some form of intervention at the Labour conference. That is beginning to happen already.

The second question - what organisational form do we need in order to reinvigorate the grassroots of the Labour Party? I think that is a matter of trade unions, Labour Party activists, rank and file socialists coming together constituency by constituency and ensuring the unions affiliate to that constituency party. Left members of the party must volunteer to serve as chairs and similar positions. In this way we can incrementally reclaim the party - again it’s happening already.

I’ll give you just one example. The one bastion of New Labour control was London. The regional board is now controlled by the left. It is faced with the dilemma of what happens in next year’s mayoral elections with the controversy over Ken Livingstone. I think there is a majority position on that committee to restore Ken’s membership.

So it is happening at the grassroots level. Our problem is that so many people have left the party as a result of the war. Officially, we are meant to be down to 250,000 members; I doubt that we are much more than 150,000.

I think via conferences like today’s, via left Labour MPs and trade union general secretaries standing up and saying, ‘We’re within the Labour Party, its ours and we are reclaiming it’, we’ll both attract people back and recruit new members as well.

How strong do the Blairites remain?

Theoretically, they are bankrupt. They can’t control policy debate any more and they can only control the party on the ground and the Parliamentary Labour Party from above. The Blairite apparatus hasn’t won anyone’s hearts and minds.

For example, in the Campaign Group we have about 40 members. But on a regular basis, there is a left, or an anti-New Labour, vote of anything between 60 and (on the war) 150. On hunting, for example, it was interesting to see the government withdraw its own legislation. On foundation hospitals, they’re in exactly the same position - on the run, having to give concessions and at the end of the day they know their policy won’t work anyway.

It’s beginning to have its effect even within the PLP, which was the bastion of control for New Labour. I don’t think there will be many candidates going into the next general election who’ll have on their manifestos that they’re New Labour, do you? Just as in trade unions at the moment, anyone who brands themselves New Labour loses the election.

So we are beginning to mobilise, negotiate and activate from a position of left strength.