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The Socialist - What we think
Labour's union links crack at seams
LAST WEEK'S decision of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) to loosen its financial links to the Labour Party is major step forward. Rejecting the recommendation of the union's executive, delegates to the annual conference voted by 27,000 to 23,000 to allow financial support to candidates opposing the Labour Party.
Coming as it did just days after Labour's Manifesto launch promising an ever-greater 'involvement' of private companies in public services, this was a timely response. It followed the early news coming from Wyre Forest that New Labour could well lose the seat to a Kidderminster hospital campaigner, such is the anger at the local attack there on the NHS.
With New Labour now so clearly another capitalist party, albeit of a more 'liberal' character than Hague's Tories, workers, public service users, and young people, need a new mass alternative, a new workers' party, to represent their interests.
The successful motion at the FBU conference, from the union's London region, reflected the experience of FBU members there. Having voted overwhelmingly last year to back Ken Livingstone for London mayor they had been compelled by the then FBU general secretary, Ken Cameron, to withdraw financial support for his independent candidacy.
Another telling argument was when the mover of the motion, a Socialist Party member, explained that under the previous policy the union would not be able to support the Socialist Alliance candidate in St Helens South, long-standing Labour Party member and FBU activist Neil Thompson, who has resigned from the Labour Party to stand against the millionaire ex-Tory MP, Shaun Woodward.
Significant though the FBU vote is, however, the experience even within that union shows that the process of building a new working class party will not be a straightforward one. The London region that moved the resolution to loosen the links, for example, also calls for Ken Livingstone to be re-admitted to the Labour Party.
Reflecting a lingering ambivalence amongst some sections that perhaps the Labour Party could be 'reclaimed', there is also a lack of confidence that a viable alternative to New Labour can be built. Significantly, a motion from Bedfordshire FBU, which explicitly argued for disaffiliation from the Labour Party and support for the Socialist Alliance, was withdrawn when early soundings showed that it would be defeated.
The Kidderminster candidate, Dr Richard Taylor, also sees the electoral successes of the hospital campaign as starting "a revolt against the major party political system" (Guardian, 26 March). But at this stage it is seen as an 'independent revolt', not linked to a national alternative.
A good showing by Socialist Party, Socialist Alliance and Scottish Socialist Party candidates in the general election will increase the weight of The Socialist's arguments that a new workers party is necessary. Clarity within the Socialist Alliance, on the need for a federal structure that can accommodate workers moving onto the political plane at different speeds, and even on the need for a new workers' party, will also be important.
But it will be mainly events, of workers responding to the deepening crisis that a second-term Labour government will face, that will fill out the processes signposted by the FBU decision and the Kidderminster campaign into the basis for a new mass workers' party.
In The Socialist 25 May 2001: