Kick 'em while they're down

Graham Bash argues that when Denis Healey starts attacking New Labour from the left, it is time for the real left to go onto the attack

You know you are onto something when you wake up on a Sunday morning to see Denis Healey on television bemoaning the closeness of Labour's relationship with the United States. This man was one of the main architects of that Atlanticist link. Now he is challenging the entanglement of his party with the US right.

And you also know you are onto something when you read Roy Hattersley in The Guardian stating that the big four unions have been too silent in the last year and must now stand up and make their voice heard in the party.

These are both straws in the wind, showing the extent to which the mainstream Labour right have become disillusioned with New Labour and especially with its role in the Iraq war. Clearly Blair is increasingly isolated.

So we need to address this question - to what extent should the left go along with the call for Blair's head, given that, if he goes, he will almost certainly be replaced by Gordon Brown? This is a man who helped create New Labour and has supported it throughout. If anything, on economic questions, he has been to the right of Blair in the sense that he has been more ideologically grounded. He has uncritically supported every aspect of Blair's war on Iraq and the subsequent disastrous occupation. Is that who we want to lead the Labour Party?

Hattersley actually refers to this dilemma when he correctly points out that "for a year" the new general secretaries of major unions, "once excoriated as dangerous extremists", have actually "been depressingly silent … they held on to nurse for fear of something worse" (The Guardian May 17).

The answer is a complex one. But I am convinced that we should go onto the attack. We should not only call for Blair to go. To the extent that we are able, we should struggle to take a lead in that campaign. At the same time, we must sow no illusions at all in what will probably come after him, given the current balance of forces in the party. However, we should hit our enemy at their weakest point. The weakest point of the Labour right is New Labour and the most vulnerable part of New Labour is Blair himself, at least for the moment.

By isolating and bringing down Blair, the movement will be playing a role in reasserting the role of the Labour Party as a party of labour, rather than merely an appendage of big business and the US right.

New Labour represents the power of the big bourgeoisie reflected within the workers' movement, in a situation where our movement has suffered decisive defeats, starting with the miners' strike and the rise of Kinnock. It represents the victory of Thatcherism - not only in the Tory Party and the country, but also over the Labour Party itself. As Geoffrey Howe once put it, that was her greatest triumph. In that sense, New Labour embodies the defeats of the labour movement.

New Labour's aim is to destroy the Labour Party as a party of labour and to create a US-style system, where we have two explicitly bourgeois parties. It has gone a long way towards success in that reactionary project, but it has not yet succeeded. It is true that Blair, unlike others of the right, including some New Labour people, has always been particularly contemptuous of the structures of the party. He never really had to bother about them.

However, from his point of view that is ultimately a weakness rather than a strength. It is something we have to pay great attention to in our struggle with him and what he represents. Because he is seen as an alien figure, he is unable to call on centres of support within the movement when New Labour runs into trouble. Therefore, he is more vulnerable in this crisis.

We have to be careful. On the one hand, 'Kick 'em when they're down' is a good Marxist slogan. On the other, what Brown represents is New Labour, but speaking more in the language of the Labour Party itself - a dangerous false friend, in other words. This is the contradiction, of course. Brown does represent New Labour dressed in Labour Party clothes, able to draw on support from sections of the trade union bureaucracy in a way that Blair cannot - indeed has never even seen the need to do.

Yet, even if Brown replaces Blair, we cannot characterise that simply as a negative development. We should give absolutely no political support to Brown under any political conditions. However, the process of bringing down Blair would weaken the right and give impetus to the labour movement and to those who are seeking to reassert the class character of the Labour Party. We should take a full part in the process and seek to put our own - socialist, working class - stamp on the outcome.

Big four make their move

Unison, Amicus, the TGWU and GMB - the big four unions that have been scandalously quiet for the past year - have at last come out with a statement that appears to be attacking some of the fundamentals of New Labour and reasserting the party's class character (see Kevin Maguire in The Guardian May 18).

That is very positive, but it does raise some questions for the Labour Representation Committee project (see Weekly Worker March 18). It is an opportunity for the LRC to constructively engage with the big four and sections of the trade union bureaucracy moving into conflict with New Labour. However, the fact is that this initiative has been taken separately by these major unions.

The separation is regrettable. We have to combat that through building links between the unions, and between the constituency Labour Parties and the unions. We have to fight for positive control over the trade union tops; we can never have any faith or trust in the trade union bureaucracy, however left they pose. But we can make sure that they are subject to the pressures we can exert in the wider movement.

So, the big four development is positive. A section of the trade union bureaucracy is reasserting itself against the New Labourites. But this move to challenge Blairism has been made without any real input or influence from the Labour and trade union left. In effect, we are unable to engage these union leaderships from within; in a sense we are coming from the outside.

It is urgent that we get involved in this process, however. It needs our politics in the mix. The trade unions, in the form of the bureaucracies, have started to flex some muscle: good. But the left should not be satisfied with the political programmes of the trade unions leaderships - we have a different, wider agenda.

Labour was born a rotten, bureaucratised, rightwing party. We must have no illusions. Yet the task remains to build a party of labour based on the trade unions. To the extent we can, this must be done through the structures of the one that still exists. If necessary, we must start anew. So our role as a Labour and trade union left must be to set a minimum political programme that defines that party of labour. That is what we are in the process of trying to create in the LRC - a minimum labour programme, not a Trotskyist transitional programme or anything like it.

This minimum programme sets out the basis on which we could start to rebuild the links between the constituency parties and the trade unions. To what extent we can save the existing structures is something that will be resolved by struggle: if we cannot, then we must build a new mass party of labour with organic links to the class itself.

There is simply no chance that any one of the socialist sects could substitute itself for that process of 'tectonic shifts', to borrow Prescott's phrase, in the class and the mass organisations it has built over generations of struggle.

No Respect

With the 'super Thursday' elections bearing down on us, I have to revisit the thorny question of Respect and electoral challenges to Labour.

The failure of the Socialist Alliance and the looming debacle for Respect at the polls is not primarily the fault of the socialist groups involved, although they make their own contributions of course. As I have said repeatedly in this column, there is simply no electoral space for them within the movement while the Labour Party remains connected to the trade unions as the party of the organised working class.

Spain illustrates an important point. There, if you were pro- or anti-war, there were parties that represented your views. If you were anti-, you could vote for the Spanish Socialist Party. In contrast, the British political scene is characterised by a crisis of representation - the working class and the left are totally unrepresented, other than at the margins of the Labour Party and in the wilderness outside it. The only realistic way of even beginning to resolve that crisis is to fight to ensure that Labour is that alternative voice of the working class.

I sympathise with socialists who cannot bring themselves to vote for Blairite warmongers, supporters of privatisation and other attacks on the working class. While I do not share their illusion that voting for a far-left sect represents any sort of alternative, I do share their revulsion at New Labour.

What I cannot understand is when a non-Blairite, anti-war candidate stands in the name of Labour Party - such as Ken Livingstone, for instance, for all his faults - that this is not regarded as significant, or a move forward for the left in general. In these circumstances, how can any socialist who is doing anything other than playing games support the candidature of Lindsey German?

Comrade German played a wonderful role in the Stop the War Coalition, no doubt. But she is not a serious candidate. Now, I am not talking up the numbers of non-Blairite candidates standing on a Labour ticket - but in the case of the London mayor and then one or two other candidates for the Greater London Authority, we do have them.

I make an appeal through this column for some common sense here. Our role as socialists is to critically engage with these people and the forces around them rather than support a no-hope electoral assault on them from a far left that will be lucky to score a couple of percentage points. Martin Sullivan wrote in your letters page last week that our comrades outside the ranks of Labour need to start acting as mature working class politicians rather the champions of "brain-dead sectarianism" in our movement (Weekly Worker May 13).

Well said, that comrade …