Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/211/8560
Inside Labour's Bermuda Triangle
LIZ DAVIES'S recent book "Through the Looking Glass - A Dissenter Inside New Labour" is a justification of her decision to leave Labour and look elsewhere for a socialist alternative.
The question posed for many reading the book will be why it took Davies, a former member of the Party's National Executive Committee (NEC), so long to reach that decision says TONY SAUNOIS, who was a member of Labour's NEC from 1978-81.
THROUGH THE Looking Glass is a devastating, detailed insight into the capitalist character of Tony Blair's New Labour Party, revealing a party stripped of any meaningful internal debate or democracy. Some of the examples are even reminiscent of the former Stalinist bureaucracy in the ex-Soviet Union.
The Socialist Party's forerunner, Militant, concluded in the early 1990s that Blair had succeeded in transforming Labour into a capitalist party. Accordingly our members and supporters began the task of fighting to build a new mass workers' party and winning support for our own party's programme and ideas.
We opposed Labour at the 1997 election, warning what Blair's policies would mean for the working class. Liz Davies, and others at the time, supported Labour at the last election and were not involved in fighting to build an alternative.
Despite a correct but belated decision to leave the party, some of her accounts, regarding her own role and conclusions indicate a lack of a fully rounded-out understanding of tasks and programme needed by socialists today. She finishes her account simply stating that "I have left the Labour Party. I have certainly not left politics, the movement for social justice, or the search for socialism."
The book's weakness is failing to explain what should be done now and her own alternative is absent. Although she includes important details about the changes that have taken place in Labour, there is no analysis of what this means in terms of the changed class character of the party into an openly pro-capitalist party.
This absence of an alternative socialist programme among the Labour Party 'Left' is indicated by her description of the 'Centre-Left Grass Roots Alliance' she represented when elected to the NEC in 1998.
THIS ALLIANCE was put together during 1997 following opposition to the party leadership's programme 'Partnership in Power'. Also involved in it were those on the right-wing of the party who had either fallen foul of the Millbank machine, were excluded from it or who opposed the methods used by the Blairites and the New Labour apparatchiks.
She boasts that the likes of Andy Powell (a Birmingham councillor and son of a former right-wing Labour Minister) and Roy Hattersley suddenly had "more in common with the Left than with New Labour". What this meant in terms of policy and programme rather than opposition to Millbank she does not explain.
Politically this alliance represented no threat to capitalism and the ruling class. Even the "Guardian' supported this 'Left' slate in the elections to the NEC constituency section". She point out that this "threw Millbank into a frenzy", as they cannot tolerate any opposition however mild.
However, it would have been unimaginable for the Guardian or any other capitalist paper to support the election of supporter of Militant or even left-wingers like Tony Benn to the NEC in the 1970s and 1980s.
Davies points out that the NEC elections were conducted on the basis of postal and even telephone voting! Millbank conducted a vicious campaign against the alliance during the election.
Tom Sawyer, who as general secretary was responsible for organising the election, accused Davies of conducting a campaign of "slur and innuendo against Labour Party staff."
Davies demonstrates, however, an unbelievable naivete in her dealings with New Labour's bureaucracy. She was invited to debate with Sawyer on Radio 4's 'Today' programme but refused. "After all, Sawyer was the party's general secretary, the returning officer for the election in which I was a candidate, and responsible for its fair conduct." Sawyer in the end debated with Livingstone and Davies wondered: "Just why Sawyer allowed himself to be used for such undignified dirty work."
When the Grassroots Alliance took four out of six constituency seats it was greeted with silence at the party conference reflecting how Blairite conference delegates had become.
THE LINKS between big business and New Labour are clearly exposed in Davies's book (see column right). However, as a member of the NEC what did she propose? By 1999 it was evidently impossible to reverse the situation.
She proposed a motion at the NEC that "had in mind the establishment of ethical criteria for the acceptance of payments, similar to guidelines for ethical investment funds that most investment companies now offer."
Presumably by her criteria it would have been acceptable for New Labour to receive backing from companies with an "ethical criteria" if such companies could be found. It would still leave New Labour tied to capitalist companies who would demand that the party adopt policies that defend capitalism's interests.
The book also reveals an internal party regime that lacks any democratic debate or discussion. The road for party members and workers to change or even influence the direction taken by the party leadership has long been closed off.
A National Policy Forum (NPF) of 175 "delegates", which meets in secret, has replaced the conference. This determines any "minority" opinions to be taken to the party conference. To be a "minority" view at conference requires the backing of 25% of the NPF.
Davies describes her attempt to get amendments discussed at the NPF. Before the meeting "delegates" are invited to discuss it with a Minister at a "one to one". Arriving to the "one to one" meeting she was allowed to take along a supporter.
After waiting for half an hour to be shown into the meeting she confronted a panel of more than ten people. It included one Home Office Minister, Jack Straw's parliamentary private secretary, two members of Downing Street policy staff and a Millbank policy officer!
Such meetings were designed to intimidate delegates with proposals opposed by Downing Street and Millbank.
However, those delegates who oppose government policy and made it to party conference must pass through further vetting processes. Those wishing to speak to conference must report to the "delegate support office". Here the content of their intended speech is discussed.
Davies explains that those intending to speak against the government or attack its policy are "politely thanked" and their names passed to the chairperson. Rarely are they called to speak.
Those supporting government policy are shown to a support staff of researchers and speechwriters who "suggest" what the contents of speeches should include.
Davies describes how one rail union delegate critical of government policy suddenly found the microphone switched off! A set pattern exists for speeches - usually with "jokes" about more radical speeches made by some party leaders in yesteryear. Unwittingly she gives an example of the impact of Militant in the Labour Party in the past.
She quotes Alistair Darling who "referred to speaking at Labour Party Conference 20 years earlier in support of nationalising the top 200 monopolies (Militant tendency policy, instantly recognisable to everybody in the room.)"
"Away Days" are organised for the NEC to allegedly discuss strategy and programme. At one such event, NEC members were treated to a session run by party general secretary Margaret MacDonagh and finance director David Pitt-Wilson, which included flip charts and management consultancy jargon.
The most bizarre according to Davies was one entitled "The Bermuda Triangle" which included three labelled boxes - "people", "Party" and "government".
Sarah Ward the youth representative on the NEC proposed at one meeting that each constituency party should appoint a member to be responsible for "defending the government." This is a far cry from the Young Socialists who consistently fought in the 1970s and 1980s for socialist policies to defend working-class people.
THE BOOK succeeds in showing up New Labour's rotten character. However, it also reveals Davies's own weaknesses. This is clearly reflected in her criticism of the 'Left' in the past. She wrongly claims that it made a mistake by opposing one member one vote in the 1980s.
The opposition to this right-wing proposal by Militant supporters and Tony Benn was correct at the time, when hundreds of thousands of workers and young people were active in the Labour Party.
Then party meetings debated policy and programme and elected delegates to represent their point of view. Trade union delegations to the party conference increasingly reflected the combative mood and struggles of their members and supported radical socialist policies and control over the party leadership.
The right wing's proposal intended to strip away trade union influence of the party and swamp it with inactive members who the right wing and capitalists hoped they could influence through the press and media. Davies does not explain why she thinks it was wrong for the Left to adopt this position at the time.
In a contradictory statement earlier in the book she correctly says that one member one vote was introduced in the constituency section of the NEC and "...designed to keep out the Left."
This mistake seems to reflect her weakness in understanding how a new mass workers' party will emerge. In her own area of Hackney, while supporting the Socialist Alliance, she recently opposed the local council shops stewards' decision to stand an anti-cuts candidate in a council by-election.
Instead, she backed the sectarian decision of the local Socialist Alliance to stand its own candidate against this group of workers who are being drawn into industrial and political activity through the struggle they have waged against the local council.
The detail in this book fully vindicates the idea argued by the Socialist Party over the last decade that New Labour has become a capitalist party.
What it fails to explain is why Liz Davies and others bolstered Labour by refusing to break with it in the 1990s, when the urgent question facing socialists then and now is how to build a new party to represent workers and young people in the fight against capitalism.
The New Paymasters
THE MOST devastating criticism on New Labour in Davies's book is in the chapters dealing with party financing and its undemocratic functioning.
Chapter Three - The New Paymasters includes pages of the donations from big business to New Labour reflecting the fact that it has more and more become a party of capitalism.
In 1997 the party received donations of more than £5,000 from Raytheon Systems Ltd., Enron Europe Ltd, British American Financial Services Ltd and Nvartis Pharmaceuticals UK Ltd, - all of which are either based in the USA or subsidiaries of companies based in the USA.
Raytheon is in fact one of the world's three largest arms manufacturers and has sold Tomahawk, Patriot, Stinger and Sidewinder missiles and other arms to Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and other countries with repressive regimes.
It declined an invitation by Human Rights Watch to cease the production of land mines.
Payment for its donation to New Labour funds was rewarded with an £800 million Ministry of Defence contract.
According to Amnesty International Enron Europe, a subsidiary of the US power company Enron, was involved in brutal repression and slaughter in India.
It owns the Indian sub-continent's largest power plant near to Bombay. Local peasants protested at the destruction of their livelihood because of pollution by effluent from the plant.
Local police arrived together with Enron security guards while the village men were fishing. Hundreds of women and children were beaten by police batons and then imprisoned.
According to Amnesty Enron paid the local police for the operation.
In 1999, Enron was awarded the Wessex Water franchise and given a monopoly of supply to South-West England in a contract worth £1.5 billion. New Labour refused to refer the bid to the Monopolies Commission.
Davies points out that this decision was taken three weeks after Enron donated £15,000 to party funds. The company is reported to have donated more than £30,000 since 1997.
Enron's European chairman became a CBE in Blair's 2001 New Year's honours list! In the USA Enron was the single largest donator to Bush's election campaign fund.
Out to lunch?
TESCO, SAINSBURY, Safeway, Nestle and even McDonald's are now big donators to New Labour coffers. McDonald's is an enthusiastic backer of the government's Education Action Zones, teaching primary school children to sing "Old MacDonald Had a Store" and to recognise images of French fries and milk shakes in allegedly educational material.
Company donations are accompanied by lavish dinners at the party conference and other fundraising events, where company directors and lobbyists pay hundreds and in some cases thousands of pounds to have dinner with Cabinet ministers.
In April 1999 Blair hosted a dinner at the Hilton Hotel. It cost £500 per head and according to press reports raised £5.47 million in pledges from 31 businessmen.
A donation of £100,000 came from Issac Kaye, chairman of the pharmaceutical company Norton Healthcare, a subsidiary of the US Ivax Corporation. Norton Health is cited as one of worst companies for overcharging the NHS and has a policy of not recognising trade unions.
Davies quotes from a 1999 Daily Telegraph report, which pointed out that of the 20,000 people attending the conference that year 18,500 were lobbyists, business representatives and journalists.
The stage-managed events of a New Labour conference is a million miles from the Labour Party of the 1970s and 1980s. Then party conferences were followed attentively by hundreds of thousands of workers throughout the country and workers involved in struggle would arrive at the conference seeking support.
Then it was possible for a rank-and-file member of the Labour Party or a trade union to change or influence Labour Party policy.
On a number of occasions in the 1970s and 80s, Militant supporters (the forerunners of the Socialist Party) did achieve this, particularly notable was the 1978 Labour party conference where they were responsible for ending the then Labour government's hated pay policies.
In The Socialist 22 June 2001: