Blair or Brown: don't fall for lesser evilism

Labour presents a confused picture, writes Mark Fischer

Tony Blair’s ‘I’m not for turning’ speech at this year’s Labour Party conference got him what he wanted: a seven-minute standing ovation and a chance to restore his popularity with audiences at home watching on TV. However, a wide swathe of trade union leaders expressed profound dissatisfaction. As well they might: Blair is determined to preserve the Tories’ anti-trade union laws, push ahead regardless with student top-up fees and foundation hospitals and maintain his warmongering alliance with George Bush and US superimperialism.

Of course, the Bournemouth conference is notable for two platform speeches. Gordon Brown went out of his way to carefully distance himself from New Labour. He is plain “Labour”. In terms of substance there is nothing in it. Both men are equally committed to neoliberal economics and promoting the interests of capital. Nevertheless, while Blair trots out vacuous buzzwords designed to appeal to the media and the middle classes, Brown has another agenda. Quite clearly he is making a bid to become the next leader and he is doing so by attempting to win the loyalty of the trade union bureaucracy and Labour’s rank and file. Consequently, countless informal debates amongst the left centred on whether or not Brown could be supported against Blair.

This split at the top of the Labour government is of great significance. Not that communists have any faith or illusion in Brown. He is a reactionary, fully in the spirit of Labour’s long line of traitors, from Ramsay MacDonald to Neil Kinnock. That is why we do not run with the ‘Blair out’ slogan. It could imply that we want Brown in. But not to recognise or exploit the first signs of a clear split opening up between the two most powerful figures in the government would be profoundly stupid and profoundly sectarian.

Our tasks are twofold: strive to unite the revolutionary left in a Communist Party; at the same time work alongside those who have no wish to merely replace Blair with Brown, but nevertheless have illusions that the Labour Party can be transformed into a vehicle for socialism and working class liberation. And there are many of them.

True, left fringe meetings at Bournemouth have not attracted more delegates than in recent years. The Tribune rally was about 300-strong, with ‘left’ luminaries such as Clare Short, Robin Cook and Michael Foot speaking. Events staged by the likes of Labour Left Briefing, the Campaign for Socialism and Labour Against the War averaged around the 100 mark each. In other words, numbers have held up rather than taken any leap forward. (Conference veterans told me again and again of the days when Militant was getting over 200 to its rallies - so times have changed.)

Speeches at the fringe have been repetitive - Christine Shawcroft actually warned the audience at the September 28 LATW meeting that they would get used to listening to “the usual suspects” throughout the week. Despite that they also had an air of confidence and a sense that Blair has stumbled into a crisis, at last. Addressing the Tribune rally, the journal’s editor, Mark Seddon, spoke of the “bubbling up of debate” on Iraq that Blair and the party managers around him would be powerless to resist. He was only partially right, but Blair remains acutely vulnerable over the question.

The four biggest unions - Transport and General, Amicus, GMB and Unison - voted as a bloc to have their motions on manufacturing, pensions, health and employment rights debated at conference as the four (a cut from previous years) contemporary motions. This cooperation pushed Iraq into fifth place. Left activists could be forgiven for suggesting that Tony Woodley’s fine words at the Tribune rally, effectively reiterating his TUC call for Blair to resign, cut little ice when it was not backed up with support for debating Iraq at conference.

At the Labour Against the War fringe George Galloway condemned what he called the gagging attempt on the party’s right to debate Iraq as “making a mockery” of the conference. The last-minute agreement by conference organisers to permit a debate - albeit around a relatively uncontroversial section of the party’s policy document - certainly heartened many on the left.

There were other indicators that the left is making its presence felt once again. However, it was the flexing of muscles by the leaders of Britain’s major unions that really set the tone of opposition at the congress. Their willingness to coordinate tactics took party managers by surprise and helped loosen Blair’s grip over the agenda.

Yet Wednesday’s debates - on foundation hospitals and the policy document, ‘Britain in the world’, which included the government’s policy on Iraq - underlined the weaknesses and fragility of the Labour left.

Conference did defeat the leadership on foundation hospitals - although this will make no difference to the government in practice, of course. A composite opposing them was passed on a show of hands without a card vote. The pro-government composite was lost mainly due to the union’s block votes, not the mobilisation of the rank and file (over 75% of the unions cast votes against; 66% of the CLPs actually voted for the composite).

The failure of the RMT to get its emergency motion on Iraq debated tells us a great deal about the real balance of forces. Rumour has it that the RMT was opposed by Unison. The leadership won overwhelming support for its ‘Britain in the world’ document, which saw a brief debate on the war. Again, this was on a show of hands rather than a card vote, reflecting the fact that most CLPs are still well to the right of the principal unions.

This underlines the fact that the revival of the Labour left is mainly driven by developments in the trade unions. The election of a raft of lefts undoubtedly reflects an inchoate rebellion from below. Yet, at the same time, the confidence of the rank and file remains low, as shown by the unwillingness of postal workers to vote for national strike action.

Nor are CLPs being transformed. Many remain defunct. Many have rightwing or mushy centre majorities. Indeed, there was a palpable sense of resentment from many CLP delegates against the ‘big battalions’ of the unions. During the foundation hospitals debate, several delegates complained about being dictated to by the union leaders - to warm applause.

So the Labour Party presents a confused picture in many ways. But there is movement. Clearly Blair’s current difficulties open up space for the Labour left. Whether it is programmatically or organisationally capable of launching a really serious fight still remains unclear. For the moment it does not even envisage being able to stand a credible alternative to Blair. Instead it is mired in lesser-evilism.