We Need A Political Voice

THE MOVEMENT against the war has revealed starkly the lack of a mainstream mass political party that represents the interests of the demonstrators.

If such a party existed, and was able to lead mass movements against the war and to challenge the rule of New Labour it would shift the balance of forces significantly in favour of the anti-war movement.

It is true that Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats, spoke at the last anti-war demo, but neither he nor his party are anti-war in the way that the vast majority of those that demonstrated on February 15 are anti-war. On Radio 4’s World at One Kennedy made it clear that he would support British troops once a war starts.

Whilst as socialists we have every sympathy with ordinary soldiers who are being ordered to risk their lives in an unjust war, this is no excuse for ceasing to oppose the war once it has begun. This is typical of the Liberal Democrats on every issue – whilst they appear slightly to the left of New Labour in words – when they have been elected at local level they have carried out identical policies of cuts and privatisation.

In the days before New Labour, the Labour Party would have acted as the party of the anti-war movement to a large degree. Whilst it was capitalist and usually pro-war at the top, the membership was overwhelmingly working class and was able to exert pressure on the leadership through the party’s democratic structures. As a result the Labour Party was never a wholly reliable tool for the capitalist class.

In the 1960s, for example, the US president Lyndon Johnson attempted to bully the British government into participating in the Vietnam war. The Labour prime minister Wilson, however, by no means a left-winger but sensitive to the consequences at home, the mass anti-war movement and its potential impact inside the trade unions and the Labour Party, refused to commit British troops.

Big business party

THE LABOUR Party today though, is completely different.

It has become another party of big business, no different in essence to the Tories. The current crisis in the Labour Party has raised the hopes of some that the Labour Party can be reclaimed from the Blairites.

It is true that 122 Labour MPs found their courage and voted against the government on the war. For the vast majority of them, this was as a result not of their own convictions, but feeling the pressure of the anti-war movement.

This is demonstrated by the difference between that and the Labour Party conference vote that took place in Glasgow on 15 February as tens of thousands demonstrated outside it, and over a million demonstrated in London.

The conference gave Blair a standing ovation. It was true that it was less enthusiastic than usual, but it took the hot breath of a mass movement to shake large sections of the Labour Party into actual opposition to Blair!

Now they have stirred, however, open opposition to Blair will probably continue. In all likelihood Blair’s days as prime minister are numbered. However, the obstacles to the voice of ordinary working class people being heard in the Labour Party are immense.

The fact is that it was easier for Tory MPs to trigger a leadership election against Margaret Thatcher than it is for Labour MPs and party members to unseat Blair. Nominations for a leadership candidate not supported by 20% of the parliamentary party (83 MPs) are invalid and even then an election can only take place at the annual conference in October.

A recall, or special conference, is possible but it can only be convened by the NEC, the same body (not facing re-election until October 2004) that voted in January by 22 votes to 4 to support Blair’s war policy.

And crucially, the transformation of Labour into New Labour has had its effect on how millions of working class people see the Labour Party. The reason for low turnout in elections is not, as the anti-war movement has demonstrated, apathy. It is because unprecedented numbers of people, according to the British Social Attitudes survey, now see no significant differences between the parties.

A mass alternative

HOWEVER, THE most politically aware layers of the working class – the tens of thousands of anti-war youth and workers, the trade unionists who are entering struggle – are not, in the vast majority of cases, interested in struggling to overcome the enormous hurdles necessary to transform New Labour.

On the contrary most have the same attitude as the 80% of FBU members who have decided to pull out of the political fund because of their contempt for New Labour.

If Blair goes it will be to save New Labour. He will almost certainly be replaced by another type of New Labour politician, probably Gordon Brown. It would be wrong to imagine that this will make a fundamental difference to New Labour.

If Blair was to go before the war was over, his replacement would not be able to take exactly the same position on the Iraq war.

This is not because of principles – Brown has willingly allocated £5 billion from government coffers to help bomb Iraq – but because of the mass movement against the war. It would therefore be a major victory for the anti-war movement.

On every other issue, probably including future wars, Brown will be essentially the same as Blair. It was Brown who said ‘no government on earth’ could meet the firefighters pay claim. Even on the issues where he has a different approach to Blair, it is not a ‘left’ position. For example, when asked why he opposed ‘top up’ fees he said that the universities would just fritter the money away on extra wages for their staff!

Therefore the anti-war movement has two major tasks ahead of it now.

To build the widest possible mass civil disobedience against the war, especially strike action.

But also, to campaign on a second front – to seize the time to begin to build a mass political alternative, a new workers’ party, that would involve a large section of the anti-war movement, trade unionists and anti-capitalists and would take on the pro-war, anti-working-class policies of Blair and New Labour, and take forward the fight for a new socialist society, free from poverty, exploitation and war.