Tony Blair’s drive towards war with Iraq is producing convulsions
throughout the Labour movement. With the threatened resignation or sacking,
which ever comes first, of Cabinet Minister Clare Short, after her attack on
Blair’s policy on Iraq as “reckless”, the whole edifice of New Labour is
threatening to come crashing down.
Blair himself has become increasingly isolated as he struggles alongside
George W. Bush to piece together a second UN resolution as a fig leaf for war.
With the French and Russians apparently digging in their heels for their own
reasons, guaranteed UN support for the war is in deep trouble. France has
already announced in advance that they intend to use their veto. Whatever
happens, Bush is determined to go to war come what may. Whatever happens, this
is the beginning of the end for Blair.
The magnificent two million-strong demonstration in Britain was the biggest
in history, and illustrates the deep-seated opposition to the Blair/Bush war.
Despite the government propaganda, the bulk of the population understand this is
a war for oil and imperialist domination. Even Clare Short admitted, “What is
happening at the moment is down to American power.” The British government is
trailing behind Uncle Sam like a poodle.
Short also stated that, “If Tony continues to go along with it, then it’s
going to create serious problems.” This is the understatement of the century.
All hell is about to break when Blair goes to war. A declaration of war on Iraq
will mean war inside Labour too. The revolt of 122 Labour MPs, the biggest
revolt in British parliamentary history, will be a tea party by comparison.
There are estimates that as many as 200 Labour MPs will revolt next time. Former
Cabinet Ministers, Chris Smith and Frank Dobson, all respectable Blairites in
their day, voted against Blair on Iraq and have signed early day motions
opposing the government’s plans for universal top-up fees and foundation
hospitals. They were joined by two other former ministers Peter Kilfoyle and
Without precedent, there are mounting calls within the Labour Party for the
ousting of Blair as party leader. The veteran Labour MP and Father of the House
Tam Dalyell, when asked if Blair should go, replied “Yes, immediately!”
There is talk of a leadership challenge taking place. Even if this doesn’t
materialise, it represents a massive change within the Labour Party. Many local
party members, overwhelmingly opposed to war, are joining anti-war groups. There
has not been such a shake-up since the Livingstone affair, which sent
shock-waves through the Labour Party.
The Financial Times, the organ of Big Business, has warned of what is
coming in the Labour Party. They can see the splits at the top which reflect a
groundswell of opposition from below. “These experienced and articulate
politicians are making common cause with single-issue rebels”, states the FT.
“The emergence of prominent backbenchers prepared to challenge Mr Blair on
several fronts raises the risk that protests against individual government
policies will cohere into wholesale opposition to the course he is charting.
“There is already some evidence that this is taking place. The anti-war
vote included many normally loyal backbenchers. But a majority of the rebels had
already declared their opposition to the government either on foundation
hospitals or top-up fees – or both.
“Of the 108 Labour MPs who had registered their opposition to foundation
hospitals at the start of this month – since joined by at least three others –
73 voted against Mr Blair on Iraq.
“And of the 140 Labour MPs who had declared their opposition to university
top-up fees, 84 also voted against the prime minister and for the anti-war
“About 60 Labour MPs now oppose Mr Blair on all three fronts. That is
almost double the number of Old Labour refuseniks who regularly voted against Mr
Blair during his first term in office.” (FT, 6 March 2003)
There will be a showdown on all these policies. The previous appearance of
deep-seated loyalty to Blair in the Parliamentary Labour Party has been
undermined. As more and more speak out, the pressure will build up. Given the
frustrations and feelings within the Labour movement, it is a dam waiting to
break. Without doubt once war begins, there will be a whole series of
ministerial resignations at lower levels, and possibly at a higher level. They
include Anne Campbell, PPS to Secretary of State for Trade and Industry,
Patricia Hewitt; Andy Reed, PPS to Secretary of State for Environment, Margaret
Beckett; Michael Jabez Foster, PPS to Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General; and
Tony Wright, PPS to Ruth Kelly, the Financial Secretary. A fifth was named as
Ken Purchase MP, an aide to Leader of the House of Commons, Robin Cook. We have
entered uncharted waters politically. We are witnessing the death of Blairism.
The shift to the left in a whole series of trade unions, who have now come
out against Blair, will be reflected increasingly within the Labour Party, as we
have always maintained. Support for Blairism is exceedingly weak. All it would
take to develop a mass opposition inside the Labour Party is a pole of
attraction, a catalyst around which the mounting discontent can rally. The
Livingstone affair was a graphic illustration of how quickly events can unfold.
When Livingstone was bureaucratically blocked from becoming the official Labour
candidate for London mayor, despite the overwhelming support of the
rank-and-file, there was a massive surge of activity. The party membership came
alive, and mass meetings were held to protest against Blair. The mood is far
more critical today. The opportunity for a mass opposition in the Labour Party
has never been greater for the past decade or more.
With this situation opening up, the ideas raised in some quarters for the
trade unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party is completely
counter-productive, and simply plays into Blair’s hands. Today, there are no
more than 100,000 members in the Labour Party. If the trade unions were to send
25 or 50 members into every constituency party, they could take it over. It is
as easy as that! Already there have been moves to deselect Blairites in some
local parties. For instance, in the London seat of Bethnal Green and Bow, the
Labour MP Oona King narrowly survived the first stage of an attempt to deselect
her on Monday night. A parliamentary aide at the DTI who backed the government
in the Iraq debate 10 days ago, Ms King told the Commons that it was
"futile" to give Saddam Hussein more time. “Many activists in her
constituency disagreed. Voting predated Clare Short’s outspoken attack on Mr
Blair, but other Labour MPs, who must go through reselection by the end of the
year, will be alarmed that even before Ms Short’s intervention, the local
party’s activists voted narrowly in favour of triggering the full reselection
process”, stated The Guardian.
Councillors such as Labour leader Helal Abbas pointed out that Ms King
represented the highest number of Muslims in the country. "She must justify
her actions to the people to whom she is accountable," he said. "As
socialists we have a humanitarian obligation. We don’t believe in killing
innocent women and children, regardless of the regime where they live."
Only after one branch was excluded on a technicality, and she received the
backing of five affiliated trade unions, was King’s survival assured. In other
words, the trade unions if they wanted to could easily kick out the Blairites.
The call must go out, not to contract out, but to contract in! It is time the
trade unions took back the Labour Party for the working class.
The organisation ‘Labour Against the War’ has circulated a document
correctly urging its supporters to use the selection process to
"reclaim" the Labour Party by axing MPs who have backed Tony Blair.
According to the BBC’s Politics Show, six Labour MPs are at risk in
London alone – Martin Linton, Bridget Prentice, Oona King, Barbara Roche, Jim
Fitzpatrick and Ann Keen. One anti-war activist, Juliane Jung, is joining Martin
Linton’s Battersea Labour Party in a bid to help remove him.
Geoff Martin, an official of the public sector union Unison, said: "MPs
who follow in the Government’s wake, rather than standing up and joining the 121
rebels, are fair game. If they lose out on the selection process as a result of
their attitude taken on the war, that’s a good thing."
Now is the time to act! All those who are opposed to Blairism should join the
Labour Party to get rid of the Blairites. It is no good just talking about it.
It is no good being in piddling little sectarian groups on the fringes of the
Labour movement. The trade unions must stop backing those Labour MPs and
councillors who pursue anti-trade union policies. They must act to reclaim the
Labour Party for the working class. In doing so, we must reject the pro-Tory
policies of the Blair government. It is time to return to the socialist
programme the party was created to carry through, based upon Clause Four. Only
then can we rally the working people of this country, which has decisively
rejected Thatcherite policies, for an end to capitalism and the building of a
new socialist future.