A New Alternative To New Labour?

ON 3 March a meeting entitled “Where is New Labour going?” took place in London. Around 500 attended, predominantly left activists. This meeting marked a significant development in the positions of all the platform speakers.

Hannah Sell

Importantly, on the war Mark Serwotka, President of civil service union PCS speaking in a personal capacity, raised the need for workplace protests and action on the day war breaks out. However, the discussion concentrated on the need for an alternative to New Labour.

Mark said that: “I take my hat off to those who continue to fight inside the Labour Party – but I don’t hold out much hope for their success. If we limit our aspirations to that we will cut ourselves off from hundreds of thousands of people.”

George Galloway MP made similar points. He explained that he saw this meeting as the start of a discussion, but that a decision on the issues under debate was coming closer. The coming weeks, he explained, would be of vital importance for the left.

Describing how trade unionists’ money was, by funding New Labour, helping to pay for the war, and how he was under the whip of Tony Blair’s cabinet, he declared:

“This cannot go on. Enough will eventually be enough. The rail union NUR, predecessor of the RMT, founded the Labour Party 103 years ago. They were told it was premature and divisive. Lots of good comrades wanted to stay in the Liberal Party.

“But the vast majority came to see that independent political representation was necessary. 103 years later Blair, on the other hand, thinks the foundation of his own party was a historic mistake.”

George condemned the lack of democracy in the Labour Party, describing present-day Labour Party conferences – which “wild horses” would not drag him to – as having “straw hats, balloons and trumpets but no votes or rather rigged votes.”

Both George and Mark left their conclusions open about what kind of new force was necessary. George declared that “Labour people and trade unionists will have to make a choice and we deserve better than a choice between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.” He argued that Blair might break the Labour Party in the coming weeks and that the discussion had to continue on how to act in the decisive times ahead.

Democracy vital

MARK MADE it clear that trade unions should be able to support trade unionists and the left generally when they stand in elections. So did Linda Smith of London FBU.

Linda explained how the left in the FBU had argued for democratisation of the funds but that “we are all a product of our experience” and things had moved on as a result of the strike.

She reported that the London FBU had voted 15-0 to suspend all payments to the Labour Party until the FBU conference discussion on the issue. She said that she felt “New Labour had gone too far to change” and that this was a “defining moment”.

John Rees of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) also spoke, on behalf of the Socialist Alliance (SA). In the past the SWP have argued that New Labour was no different to the Labour of the past, that it was still a capitalist workers’ party (i.e. a party with a pro-market leadership but with a working-class membership that could exert pressure on the leadership).

Now however, reality has made this position untenable and the SWP are doing a somersault. John Rees said that “we cannot watch history rolled back 100 years to a time when there is no party to represent the trade union movement. We are on the cusp of that happening.”

He went on to say that he saw the SA as an important beginning, but that they had no special pride about a name or a symbol – but wanted the “broadest possible” working class organisation.

This was another change of position – the Socialist Party had no choice but to leave the SA exactly because the SWP forced through a SA constitution which gave no rights for individuals and organisations to publicly put forward their own ‘names’, ‘symbols’, and most importantly ideas, thereby ensuring that the SA remained a narrow, small organisation.

This meeting gave a glimpse of the possibility of a significant new political force developing out of the anti-war movement, particularly around the figure of George Galloway. This could represent an important turning point in Britain, unless it makes the mistake of going down the cul-de-sac of becoming a Socialist Alliance mark II.

We are currently at an early stage. The 3 March meeting did not involve many new forces but mainly existing activists, most of whom were members of the SWP.

But the potential for a new force that can attract the fresh layers – the tens of thousands of anti-war youth and workers, the trade unionists who are entering struggle – is undoubtedly there.

However, a new formation must work to include significant fresh layers from the beginning with a series of open meetings around the country with genuine debate and discussion. Any formation must, to succeed, be very open, democratic and inclusive.