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Labour Representation conference
Hope and desperation
THE LABOUR Representation Committee (LRC) held its annual conference on 22 July. It was dominated by Labour MP John McDonnell's announcement that he will be standing for the leadership of the Labour Party when Blair finally leaves within the next 12-18 months.
McDonnell's announcement takes place at a time of debate within the trade unions on the question of working-class political representation and particularly whether the unions should break with the Labour Party or help to reclaim it.
The Socialist Party does not believe it is possible to reclaim the Labour Party for the working class and calls on socialists and trade unionists to join the campaign for a new workers' party.
Historically the Labour Party was saddled with a pro-capitalist leadership but its actions were constrained by a membership rooted in the unions and a mass electoral base in the working class. Today the sickening enthusiasm of Blair and Brown for the capitalist market and the enrichment of their friends has gone well beyond the failed old Labour idea of a mixed economy. New Labour is an open party of big business, whose attacks on workers' pay and conditions have left millions politically disenfranchised.
Past gatherings of the LRC condemned Blair's polices of privatisation and cuts to public services, and his Bush-toadying foreign policy of war and destruction. But there was no clear strategy of achieving the LRC's central aim of reclaiming the Labour Party beyond calling for trade unionists to become party members.
This year, McDonnell's announcement provided a focus, with the conference effectively launching his campaign. The LRC plans to go around the country, with McDonnell and other speakers appealing to the thousands of former Labour Party members to rejoin and fight.
However, highlighting the LRC's difficulties, one delegate pleaded: "I'm not asking you to be happy about joining the Labour Party; it pains me every time I write out a cheque for my subscription".
McDonnell claimed that this was the best opportunity for the left in the Labour Party since Tony Benn's bid for deputy leader in 1981. This fails to recognise the transformation in the Labour Party that has taken place since then. Benn himself spoke at the conference and received a standing ovation. He argued explicitly that it is wrong to found a new party and instead the aim should be to 'refound' the Labour Party. He said he would like to see the RMT and FBU come back to the Labour Party.
Trade union leaders Bob Crow, Mark Serwotka and Matt Wrack all praised McDonnell's parliamentary trade union group work and endorsed his campaign. Ironically however, as Crow acknowledged, none of their unions, who back the LRC, are affiliated to the Labour Party. But unfortunately, none of them is taking the necessary bold step of giving union backing to the idea of forming a new mass workers' party.
FBU general secretary Matt Wrack stated that had McDonnell been leader of the Labour Party it was unlikely the FBU would have disaffiliated. Another FBU member said that if McDonnell won the FBU should re-affiliate.
Bob Crow however, while backing McDonnell's campaign, questioned those who call on people to stay in the Labour Party and fight. Crow cited privatisation on the railways and tube as reasons why his members are not convinced about joining the Labour Party to reclaim it. Crow went on to explain that people in Barking and Dagenham were not racist but felt let down by the Tories and New Labour.
The immense hope placed in McDonnell was evident at the conference but also a sense of desperation. One delegate warned that if McDonnell is not elected, demoralisation amongst party ranks will continue.
Another delegate correctly pointed out that all the recent big movements had happened outside the Labour Party and no new generation was coming through Labour's ranks.
In The Socialist 27 July 2006:
Invasion of Lebanon
Socialist Party NHS campaign
Socialist Party youth and students
Socialist Party campaigns