Fallout from Madrid
One year on from the invasion of Iraq, Blair’s leadership is deeply compromised. The promise of ‘greater security’ that the war was supposed to deliver has been cruelly exposed by the atrocity in Madrid. The election defeat of José Maria Aznar stands as a serious warning to Blair and will lead to him being even more isolated. Almost one year to the day since Aznar stood alongside Bush and Blair in the Azores on the eve of the Iraq adventure, the Spanish electorate delivered its damning verdict on that war and the unstable, dangerous world it has produced.
Even in the absence of a tragedy like the Madrid outrage, the New Labour government is deeply mired in crisis over this. Clare Short’s dramatic intervention of a few week’s ago underlined that the pressure is building up from all directions - even from those who were ‘loyal’ throughout the conflict.
The charge that the British government was complicit in the bugging of the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, is serious enough, but there is much more. Also extremely damaging is the alleged pressure that was brought to bear on the attorney general to give a favourable opinion about the legality of the war because the chiefs of staff were only prepared to support it on that basis.
There is a danger on the left that we sometimes underestimate the importance of questions of ‘bourgeois’ legality. The fact that the war on Iraq is widely perceived to be in breach of international law is a factor that is producing extreme difficulties for this government. Similarly, the conditions of incarceration of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay - again, in clear breach of international law - deepen the government’s malaise. This is all the result of a war that was in contravention of international law and was deeply unpopular amongst most of the world’s people.
So what about Clare Short? Her outburst is probably the most useful thing she has ever done and we should not belittle her achievement in increasing the pressure on the Blairites. But the left of Labour must be absolutely clear about one thing - we must not touch her with a bargepole. She is not an ally; she is utterly unreliable.
Leave aside her wretched past and her support for ditching Liz Davies. We cannot line up with someone who threatened to resign from the government over the Iraq war - then did not. She ended up supporting that war, voting for it and reneging on her threat to leave the government. She wasted an opportunity to take a principled stand when it truly mattered, when it could have made a difference.
She is a loose cannon and cannot be trusted. She has even retreated on her allegations about the bugging of Annan. Let us use the fallout she has created, but with the strict understanding that she is definitely not on ‘our side’.
I do believe we should draw a distinction between Short and Robin Cook. For all his terrible faults - before and after he resigned - at least he had the backbone to go at the right time. You assess political figures by what they do at those historic moments. Thus - despite the problems she caused Blair - our judgement of Clare Short has to be extremely harsh.
Labour Representation Committee
Okay, Clare Short is no answer - so what is?
The Labour Representation Committee appears to be in the first stage of getting its act together. A conference has been proposed for July. The concept is a good one. We need an organisation that connects the trade union leaders with the trade union base, the parliamentary party with the party constituencies, and so on. The key question is how to build it.
At least the first steps are being taken by the Labour left to get back on its feet. Tentative though they are, these are moves towards rebuilding a party of labour in this country. Readers of this paper may wonder whether this is a contradiction with my repeated position that there is no electoral alternative to Labour. Not at all.
The existing Labour Party is controlled to such an extent by New Labour that the working class has largely ceased to be represented by it: our task is to recreate a party of labour to which the thousands of Labour Party members and trade unionists who have left in disgust can return.
So many have drifted away. Many more are tempted to leave the party individually. The RMT has been kicked out and now offers support to initiatives such as Respect or non-working class political forces like Plaid Cymru. There could be more haemorrhaging of working class and socialist forces from our organisation.
This is a disaster, but we have to be quite clear where the blame lies. There should be no question of damning or ostracising these individuals or unions - despite the fact that they have made important errors. The blame lies not with the people who are disorientated, but with those in New Labour who have induced this despair amongst some of the very best elements of the movement. This government has betrayed the movement it is meant to serve - the historical guilt lies with them, not with the people it has confused.
The Labour left has to be crystal clear that, whatever Blair’s problems, the ‘official alternative’ of Gordon Brown is no option. Let him take that job with the IMF - it would do us all a favour. New Labour with a different front man is not the answer.
The left must patiently work in the party to build a genuine programmatic and organisational alternative, from within the existing structures of the labour movement: there are no short cuts. But that is not an insular task. If it is to be successful, it must merge with the huge energy generated by the spontaneous anti-war movement that rocked this country to its foundations and gave us all a glimpse of what is possible. Without the power of that broader extra-labour movement, we will not have the strength to act; just as in itself the movement is not the answer - it does not have a coherent response to a crisis of political representation that is organically bound up with the crisis of Labourism.
There are no magic solutions. I appreciate I may sometimes sound like a stuck record on this question! But it must be underlined - we all have a long, patient job ahead of us that cannot be avoided.