Why this year’s Labour Party conference poses the need for a new workers’ party

Time to take the ‘German’ road

Why this year’s Labour Party conference poses the need for a new workers’ party

IT IS twenty years since Neil Kinnock, then Labour leader, talked about ‘grotesque chaos’ in his infamous witch-hunting attack at Labour Party conference on Liverpool City Council and the Militant Tendency (predecessor to the Socialist Party).

Hannah Sell, Socialist Party, national organisers

At the time we warned that if Kinnock and the Right got away with the witch-hunt against us, it would end with all socialists being driven out the Labour Party.

It has now ended in the ‘grotesque chaos’ of an 82-year old man being forcibly evicted from the conference and detained under the terrorism act.

Control-freakery has reached such vast proportions that delegates are banned from bringing sweets into the conference for fear that they might use them as missiles!

In the 1990s the Labour right wing succeeded in transforming Labour into New Labour, a party for the big corporations. The democratic structures which had previously at least allowed the working class a voice within the Labour Party were destroyed.

The reality of New Labour was epitomised by this year’s party conference. Corporate sponsors were present in unprecedented numbers, while the delegates’ seating remained half empty.

Ministers addressed fringe meetings organised not by the trade unions but by big corporations. They included ‘Kyoto: dead or alive?’ sponsored by oil giant Shell and ‘public service delivery’ addressed by Patricia Hewitt and the arch-privateers Price Waterhouse Cooper!

However, many of the national trade union leaders have hailed this year’s conference as a victory for the left. Tony Woodley, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) declared that, “ministers will now have to listen”. And it is true that anger and disillusionment with the government was reflected, albeit faintly, in the hallowed halls of Labour Party conference.

The government was defeated more times than at any conference since 1997 – on the right of trade unionists to take solidarity action, privatisation in the NHS, council housing, and the public sector retirement age. The motions were far to the left of New Labour, but they were actually very ‘moderate’.

On secondary action, for example, the motion accepted that all strikes would be subject to a ballot. This means it would take endless bureaucracy and at least a month before legal solidarity action could take place.

The Heathrow baggage handlers who walked out immediately in support of the Gate Gourmet workers showed the only way to organise effective solidarity action, which could, if they had been backed up by the TGWU leadership, have led to a clear victory for the Gate Gourmet workers (see also page 10).

However, even this mild measure will not be implemented. As ministers made clear both before and after the conference – it will not make one iota of difference to government policy.

Following the voting down of the government’s plans for the NHS, health minister Patricia Hewitt declared brazenly that ‘profit is not a dirty word’ and that she would continue to dismember the health service and hand it over to the big corporations.

Blair’s speech, reactionary even by his standards, declared that he intended to step up the pace of “change” and he stated clearly what he meant by that – privatisation, forcing people off incapacity benefits, looking at new nuclear power stations, and attacking pensions and public services.

Changed situation

IN THE past, however partially, Labour governments responded to the pressure of the working class. When in 1969, for example, the Wilson government attempted to introduce anti-trade union legislation (misnamed In Place of Strife) a series of strikes put the government under such pressure that the cabinet openly split and Wilson was forced to retreat.

Today is a very different situation within the Labour Party – where the Blairites have completely insulated themselves from the pressure of the organised working class in the form of the trade unions. While the trade union vote still has power at conference, the conference itself has no decision-making power at all!

But even in 1969 it was militant action by the organised working class which played the major role in forcing the Labour government to retreat. Today, given the nature of New Labour, it is a delusion for the union leaders to rely on passing motions at party conference, as they seem to be, particularly on the issue of secondary action. Only united strike action will defeat the government on pensions, the NHS and secondary action.

Nonetheless, such is New Labour’s control-freakery that, in an attempt to avoid future conference defeats, sections of the New Labour hierarchy are even toying with moving to abolish, or further dilute, the union votes at conference. If they do so they will make it very difficult, probably impossible, for the union leaders to continue to defend maintaining a link with Labour.

For now the majority of the union leaders, including those that were seen as part of an ‘awkward squad’ when they were first elected, are continuing to argue that the way for workers to gain political representation is to reclaim the Labour Party.

After this year’s TUC and Labour conferences it is absolutely indisputable that a Brown led-government, as he himself said, would not represent a “shift to the left”. His talk of “a home-owning, asset-owning, wealth-owning democracy” was lifted directly from Thatcher via Blair.

Yet, some of the union leaders continued to cling to their tattered dreams in the face of reality. Dave Prentis (general secretary of UNISON), pathetically declared that Brown had “articulated Labour values at their best”.

It has been reported that the Campaign Group of MPs are considering standing a candidate for the leadership. However, this will most likely not be part of a serious campaign to transform the Labour Party. Instead the candidate would probably be a ‘stalking horse’ designed to trigger a leadership contest and bring the Blairite Brown to power!

New party needed

THE SOCIALIST Party agrees with Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT, that a new workers’ party is needed. Not another penny should be given to New Labour by the trade unions. They should instead move to found a new party. The Left Party in Germany, which recently won 54 MPs and 8.7% of the vote in its first time out in a general election, gives a glimpse of the potential for such a new formation.

The majority of trade union leaders, who insist on still defending the Labour link, must draw some conclusions from the calculated kicking that Brown has given them. We argue for a breaking of the link with Labour, but if trade union leaders continue to insist that they can reclaim Labour they need to finally back up their words of the last few years with action.

A real campaign to reclaim Labour would have to ideologically and organisationally take on the parliamentary leadership and its supporters in the party, and effectively re-create the Labour Party – with the left unions at its core – out of the present shell.

The key demands would have to go much further than the motions put to this year’s Labour Party conference. For example, for the re-introduction of the socialist clause (Clause IV) in the Labour Party constitution, for the re-admittance of socialists to the Labour Party, for the reversal of all privatisation of public services and for the repeal of the anti-trade union laws.

Any appeal to the rank and file of the Labour Party is difficult, because the rank and file barely exists! Labour Party membership has halved since 1997 as disillusionment with the government has deepened. Some, like John McDonnell MP, chair of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), argue that this will make it easier to “re-democratise the Labour Party and enable the rank and file to take control again.”

In reality, without a major influx of workers into the Labour Party, any campaign for rank and file control will be ineffective. But as the LRC discovered when they attempted to launch a recruitment drive in the anti-war movement, workers and young people entering struggle have no interest in joining the party they are fighting against. The LRC itself has only 500 members.

Unfortunately, there is absolutely no indication that the union leaders will launch a serious struggle against the Blairites.

The working class cannot afford to keep waiting while the government continues to occupy Iraq, and destroy our public services and pension rights.

The time has come to take the ‘German’ road and launch a new party. Those like Bob Crow and the growing number of activists and shop stewards in the trade unions, who have already drawn the conclusion that a new party is needed, should not wait.

They should immediately call a representative conference of trade unionists, the anti-war movement, community and environmental activists, and left organisations, to discuss steps towards a new mass workers’ party in England and Wales.