Anti-war fightback and the Blair-Brown leadership battle

I have taken a quick break from the tedious task of stuffing envelopes with leaflets for the Labour Against the War annual general meeting on February 5 to dash off this column, my first of 2005 (For details of the LATW conference see 'Action'). The aim of this meeting is twofold. First, to report on the Iraqi 'elections'. These are clearly a fraud, a transparently dishonest attempt to give legitimacy to the US puppet government. I think the turnout, the levels of general political participation and the continued ungovernability of whole swathes of the country will underline this simple fact. How can you have free and fair elections in a country where so many areas have been simply razed to the ground? The recent revelations about the role of British soldiers expose the lie that it is just the Americans who are acting as arrogant imperialist conquerors. There is no division between 'good cops' and 'bad cops' in the occupying coalition troops. So one of the responsibilities of the whole anti-war movement is to expose this 'election' charade and give as much publicity as we can to the brutal truth of life in Iraq. We will have Iraqi speakers at the LATW AGM who will report on the reality of the occupation. The second part of the day is designed to prepare for the British general election. Obviously, in this country we face the major problem that the two main party leaderships are both pro-war - in fact, when the bullets started to fly, so was the third. The Lib Dems were a useless 'opposition'. So, in practical effect, all three parties had the same position. How can the substantial part of the population that is against the war - probably a majority - be represented? Who should these people vote for? There are various alternatives on offer. One is to support various fringe parties, including Respect. Regular Weekly Worker readers will know what I think of that. It may have its place as a form of protest, but it totally fails to address the problem at the very heart of the workers' movement. On February 5, what we will be trying to do is show that there is a more serious alternative. In the lead-up to the war, a number of Labour MPs - some 140 in total - voted against it. In the next general election, first-time Labour candidates who are also anti-war will also be standing. The LATW is in business to ensure that their voice is not drowned out. We are under no illusions that, overwhelmingly, the voice that ordinary people will hear most distinctly in the coming elections will be that of the front bench, that of the New Labour warmongers. But we have to fight for the space for other voices. We will be advocating that Labour supporters and members who - for the very best of reasons - cannot bring themselves to campaign for a warmongering Labour candidate should use their time to work for anti-war Labour candidates. This is not a crime. It is not an expellable offence to refuse to canvass. The only restriction on Labour members is that they cannot openly advocate support for a candidate standing against the Labour Party. You are well within your rights to say, 'I am not going to lift a finger for this warmonger.' They can't touch you for it. But it is simply not good enough to abstain, to do nothing during this period of heightened political debate and mobilisation. It would be a terrible state of affairs if we simply registered our opposition to the warmongers by imposing a silence on ourselves during this time. The way to avoid that is to turn out, not turn your back. Work for the anti-war Labour candidates rather than the fringe candidates. This would be doing something really worthwhile. It would be contributing to the fight to reclaim Labour as a voice for peace. Now that sounds a rather trite and glib phrase, but it does have real content. We have to ensure that the genuine voice of Labour is heard and is not drowned out by New Labour's warmongering din. Speakers at the LATW will include Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn, Alan Simpson (who will be chairing), Alice Mahon, plus Gerry Doherty (general secretary of the TSSA - personal capacity), which is a good step forward for us. Also, we have Michael Meacher, who actually supported the war at the time. Subsequently, he has left the government and spoken out against it. We also have Yasmin Qureshi, the Brent East Labour candidate, whose presence will illustrate that amongst the new crop of Labour candidates there are those prepared to stand against the war - and this will also give some political breadth to the platform. Blair-Brown Gordon Brown and Tony Blair If there were a leadership contest tomorrow in the Labour Party, what would the left do? Actually, we have a terrible problem. As I have just outlined, we are facing a general election without a major anti-war party. And internally we are approaching a leadership election - whenever it comes - without a candidate. In a sense, we are reduced to fighting purely on a programmatic basis. This is a weakness not in the sense that our programme is unimportant - it is something we always need to struggle for. But unless that takes the concrete form of some struggle for leadership, for real power within the party, then it is abstract and carries the danger of propagandism. However, this weakness cannot lead us to support Brown. He is a co-founder of New Labour and has supported every privatisation. Who was it that recently attacked the civil servants? - that's the calibre of the politician we are dealing with. The left should not even entertain the notion of supporting him. The main danger is, however, that sections of the trade union bureaucracy will support him. The big four in particular could be bought off by the odd concession to the unions and the old Labour rhetoric he may employ on occasion (see the recent statement of Unison leader Dave Prentis). The political content of his programme is essentially the same as Blair's, however. This is the real danger, not that sections of the left would fall in behind his campaign. There is a view - although I don't necessarily subscribe to it - that things could actually be worse under Brown. The reasoning goes like this: Blair ignores the party and has total contempt for everything it ever stood for; Brown on the other hand would attempt to manage and police the organisation, much more in the style of a Kinnock. Frankly, I don't see how things could be much worse. I urge the left and the trade unions to take no side in any tussle between Brown and Blair. The danger is that - without a candidate - we will be able to do nothing more than make propaganda from the sidelines. But even that is better than backing Brown "¦ Labour Representation Committee The possibility of sections of the trade union leadership swinging behind a Brown leadership challenge reflects a reality of the movement that I have pointed to before. The leftward shift of the trade unions has been effected from above. It does not embody a properly articulated movement from below that can put pressure on and hold to account those leaders. To a very great extent, that means that these union leaders are free to operate without constraint. Given the nature of this layer in the movement, they are inevitably prone to unprincipled compromise. This underlines the limitations of the gains we have made. For instance, we just have to remember the last Labour Party conference. The unions capitulated on Iraq for a very small price - that is, the meagre gains of Warwick. It is one thing for trade union leaders to broker deals - I'm certainly not against a bit of horse-trading if you get a good price for what you have on offer. But Warwick actually circumscribed the unions' freedom of manoeuvre in the run-up to an election for very little - Blair was the real winner. So, it remains a weakness of the Labour Representation Committee that the trade union leaders are not on board; on the other hand, it gives the LRC a certain freedom of manoeuvre. We will continue to engage with these union leaderships and seek a constructive relationship with them. However, we must be realistic about what can be achieved. Without a movement amongst the membership of these unions, there are no magic solutions. We have to rely on the reappearance of rank and file movements that are strong enough - organisationally and politically - to hold these leaders to account. Of course, this is just another way of reformulating the main task for all of us - the restructuring and rebuilding of the institutions of the working class. This cannot be anything other that a painstaking and long-term task. So I am sober about our prospects in 2005. That huge task looms over us. And in the current conditions that prevail in our movement, I'm afraid we need to set about it with gritted teeth rather than starry-eyed naivety about big victories quickly won. So, I repeat the call made numerous times before in this column. Yes, come into the Labour Party - but come in ready for a bloody and protracted fight. Not a particularly attractive invitation, but then what is the alternative? To wallow in academic debating societies and self-delusional sects on the edges of the workers' movement? Don't waste any more of your time, comrades.