Vote Labour anti-war

Paul Marsden MP needs to make up his mind. The honourable member for Shrewsbury and Atcham defected from Labour to the Lib Dems in 2001, "because I refused to be silenced over the war in Afghanistan and my unhappiness over the levels of investment in public services". Now he is rejoining Blair's party because he fears "good constituency Labour MPs" may lose their seats in an electoral backlash against the Iraq war and - rather more oddly - he believes that "I can now disagree with that policy from inside the Labour Party, which is more tolerant and more willing to listen" (http://news.bbc.co.uk). Graham Bash makes clear what left activists in the party think of the assessment of New Labour hacks as "tolerant and more willing to listen" these days - it is obviously nonsense from his viewpoint (see back page). Blair's presidential ascendancy within Labour has been associated with the squeezing off of even the pretence of inner-party democracy, the reduction of many MPs to the role of creepy marionettes and the transformation of the party's annual conference into a stage-managed rally. Obviously, Mr Marsden - who stands down at this election - will have his own, less than principled reasons for making this return journey. However, the man does have a certain point. The control freak Blair can hardly be blasé about the fact that Labour Against the War is calling for party activists to "vote with their feet" - ie, abandon pro-war MPs and work exclusively for anti-war candidates, particularly those with slim majorities (http://politics.guardian.co.uk/election2005, March 29 posting). The Iraq war is hardly a peripheral matter for this prime minister - writing in The Guardian on April 6, Jonathan Freedland observes that an important campaign tactic for Labour will be to "ceaselessly repeat that May 5 is not a referendum on the government, nor the personality of the prime minister, nor the morality of the Iraq war. If those were the questions, it fears that the answer would be a vigorous thumbs-down." On the same day, the paper's website reported the fun Michael Howard had with this theme during a rowdy question time in the Commons - "Hands up how many of you are putting Mr Blair on your election leaflets," he gleefully challenged the Labour benches. Just six creeps were brave enough to indicate, apparently. Of course, Blair's dramatic loss of credibility with the electorate is inextricably bound up with the flimsy case he presented for the war on Iraq. Given this vulnerability, along with the vast powers at the disposal of the prime minister (let alone his profoundly anti-democratic personal proclivities), you might expect the anti-war trend in Labour to be getting a much rougher ride. After all, none of the major parties now deem it necessary to even pretend to uphold internal democracy. For example, the Tories under Howard have actually modelled their party's organisational culture on that of the rigidly centralised New Labour. Thus, when Howard Flight's (actually pretty uncontroversial) comments on Tory plans to slash social spending if elected were taped and released, Michael Howard responded in a very Blairite manner. Flight was immediately sacked from his post as party deputy chairman and was then subsequently banned from standing as a Tory candidate. This provoked real anger in his constituency, with many local activists complaining that "the leader's" action was heavy-handed and draconian. There were mutterings in some quarters of Flight standing as an independent and the man immediately began to agitate for a meeting of his local Conservative Association (Arundel and South Downs) that could either confirm his candidature in defiance of the party centre or re-adopt him - legal advice had apparently indicated that Howard had overstepped his formal remit in excluding him as a candidate. Flight failed to convene that meeting and on April 6 he caved in. Despite the fact that he still felt he had been treated "unfairly", he told a constituency meeting called to choose his replacement that he would not fight on to be the official candidate, still less consider standing as an independent. He even - rather pathetically - reassured the Conservative tops that he could "understand the reasons for the reaction and stance which the party leadership has taken" (http://news.bbc.co.uk). An obvious question suggests itself, of course - if Howard is able to get away with such blatantly 'Blairite' party management, why is Blair himself not throwing his weight around in his own party? Specifically, given the sensitivity that still surrounds the question of the Iraq war, why does Blair not respond with expulsions, proscriptions and disciplinary diktat to silence Labour Against the War and the candidates it is sponsoring? Precisely because Iraq unleashed a mass movement and continues to be a potent source of anger amongst voters, Blair has his hands tied. Any moves to discipline anti-war candidates or campaigns in the party would raise the prospect of independent Labour candidates opposing the official nominees on May 5. Given current opinion polls, the Blairites could well lose any such contests. A bitter lesson was learned by Labour apparatchiks in the Livingstone fiasco - they have no intentions of provoking 'One, two, many Livingstones'-style battles. If nothing else, Blair's dilemma underlines what our attitude should be to these forces and confirms the correctness of the tactic championed by the CPGB in the forthcoming general election: our call for votes only for working class candidates who opposed the Iraq war and demand an immediate end to the occupation. It is clear that Labour remains a bourgeois workers' party - justifications for the notion that it is now bourgeois pure and simple are without exception politically misconceived. Yes, the bourgeois pole within that odd political amalgam is now more dominant than at any time in the organisation's history. Yet it is also obvious that - bolstered by the social weight and political authority of the anti-war movement behind it - we are seeing the working class pole reasserting itself to a certain extent in this general election in the shape of the LATW and openly anti-war Labour candidates. It is the duty of serious working class politicians (given current balances of class forces in the movement and our own weaknesses) to support and strengthen this pole, to attempt to drive a wider wedge between it and the right of the party and to critically engage with the people who will be working and voting for these left candidates. Blair would like to cast these characters out of 'his' party - but he cannot. He has the formal power in organisational terms, but not the political authority. We are seeing a weakened Labour leader having to live with a small, but irksome, reassertion of the party's historical left wing during a crucial period - a general election. Communist tactics must be aimed at exacerbating that tension between the broadly defined left and right and - crucially - between different trends within that left itself. For instance, the position of LATW has been widely misreported in the mainstream media as being for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq: in fact, the campaign's official position - adopted at its AGM on February 5 - is a far more equivocal call for "the speedy withdrawal of coalition forces and the dismantling of their military bases in favour of the Iraqi people being left free to build their country's infrastructure "¦ with assistance from international agencies if required" (www.labouragainstthe- war.org.uk). There are those who do stand for the principled call for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of British troops - we intend to identify all candidates upholding such a clear position and actively work for their election. Many will, of course, have soft, pro-imperialist illusions in a 'positive' alternative of a 'policing role' for United Nations forces or even a coalition of reactionary Arab states. Despite that, under the concrete circumstances that apply in Britain today these candidates should be supported. LATW has already seen a defection in the shape of Harry Barnes MP, the Socialist Campaign Group veteran. The man broke with LATW in February saying that the campaign "hasn't adopted a creditable analysis of the changed position [ie, the fact that Iraq is now occupied by the imperialists] and adopts an approach which aids terrorist, religious extremist and anti-democratic forces in the Middle East" (www.labourfriends-ofiraq.org.uk). It is also this type of differentiation and political clarification we should seek to promote in our engagement with the Labour left. Those on the left who tell us that we must stand aside from current battles in the Labour Party, Respect and elsewhere in the name of "programme" reveal themselves as anarchists in practice - and not very good ones, frankly. Mark Fischer