The left after the general election

First published: July 1997

Labour’s 179 seat majority in parliament will not be taken by Tony Blair as a mandate for progressive social reform. Instead it is going to be used to impose the most right wing economic policy of any Labour government in history.

In the period between now and when the voters, trade unionists and party members start to realise this, Blair will use the good will he starts out with to move as fast as possible – starting at this year’s conference – to suppress the mechanisms whereby alternative policies could be expressed within the Labour Party.

The left wing of the Labour Party, centred on the Socialist Campaign Group in parliament, some of the trade union lefts and campaigns like the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Labour Women’s Action Committee, have already made clear that they are not going to go along with such policies. That is already a step forward.

At the very first meeting of the new Parliamentary Labour Party, Dennis Skinner pointed out the double standards of a leadership which says MPs must stick to the letter of the manifesto but then pulls Gordon Brown’s move on the Bank of England out of its hat. Ken Livingstone made the same point on the front page of Socialist Campaign Group News and as did Diane Abbott on Newsnight.

No matter how isolated this left may appear in the first afterglow of the election, sooner or later it is going to be joined by ever-widening layers of allies in all those sections of society who will suffer as a result of the government’s policies.

A harbinger of what is to come was seen at some of this year’s trade union conferences where the bureaucracy’s efforts to keep in step with Blair for as long as possible already started to meet serious resistance from the ranks. The Communication Workers’ Union – which has lost its Blairite general secretary to the House of Commons – threw out the Labour into Power document and the civil service union PTC rejected the Maastricht convergence criteria.

Fire brigade workers had already continued their industrial action in Essex through the general election campaign.

The student movement, which voted massively for Labour, will enter a period of enormous political upheavals once students grasp that Blair is going to abolish grants and try to impose tuition fees.

Women, who closed the gender gap between Labour and the Tories on 1 May, will now find Frank Field equally, or more, reactionary than Peter Lilley in his attacks on single parents and on pensions.

Scotland, with the lowest Tory vote in the UK, will become an immense thorn in Blair’s side because the Scottish Assembly will create an independent base of political activity for the Scottish labour movement.

The black communities will be horrified when Blair’s economic policies not only slam into the poorest people in Britain but also create a base for a new rise of racism and fascist groups like the BNP.

Blair’s right wing policies will also meet opposition from pensioners – the only group who swung away from Labour on 1 May – in Ireland, and amongst every other group whose hopes he betrays.

Obviously, however, realisation of what Blair will mean to peoples’ lives will take time to sink in. Having ended 18 years of Tory rule, Labour supporters will give the government a period of grace.

That is why Tony Blair will be looking for an early opening to show the media and money markets that he will crush left wing opposition – before the left is reinforced by extra-parliamentary movements in all these areas of society. This will pose tactical problems for the left in parliament. But before very long, the left MPs will be facing issues where millions of Labour voters understand that Blair or Frank Field or Alan Howarth are attacking their vital interests.

Because the right around Blair will rapidly exhaust whatever credit it retains in the unions, the soft left around Peter Hain and Clare Short – organised in the What’s Left group of MPs – is going to play a vital role as Blair’s ambassadors and left cover. They will be supported in this by John Prescott and Robin Cook – who is manoeuvring himself into the position of the next ‘left’ leadership candidate.

But this soft left starts out so far to the right that it has already suffered a series of splits to its left. These started with Bryan Gould’s resignation – which Hain publicly opposed – over front bench support for Britain joining the ERM. They deepened with the shift of the Tribune newspaper to the left, under the editorship of Mark Seddon.

The debate around the Labour into Power document, which in essence gives the Prime Minister control of policy-making at both conference and the NEC, resulted in a further split – and also illustrated the cleavages likely on other issues.

The class struggle left – organised in the Keep the Party Labour umbrella group and the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs – took a clear position against the document and adopted tactics to maximise unity with any part of the soft left prepared to defend any aspect of party democracy. This meant, for example, calling for the vote to be delayed until 1998 to allow proper discussion.

The soft left split

The Labour Reform Group, which supported OMOV and revision of Clause IV, rejected many of the attacks on party democracy and, in particular, launched a campaign for the vote to be delayed.

Peter Hain and Derek Fatchett, on the other hand, welcomed the document and gave it a left cover in the party. When the What’s Left group of MPs rejected Labour Reform’s proposal to defer decisions to allow proper consultation, Labour Reform issued a press release announcing their withdrawal from the What’s Left group. They are now working closely with Keep the Party Labour on those issues on which they agree.

The same political division appeared in Tribune – though without a split. Front page articles by John Blevin extolled the virtues of Labour into Power claiming the document was ‘a genuine attempt to strengthen and extend internal democracy’ (7 February) which ‘has come down firmly in favour of a rebuilt partnership between membership and leadership’ (31 January).

In contrast to its own front page, Tribune’s editorial said Labour into Power’s aim was to ‘effectively downgrade the NEC’ and ‘neuter Labour’s annual conference’ turning it into ‘a rubber-stamping jamboree’. The editorial called for decisions to be deferred to 1998.

Adopting the appropriate tactics towards the soft left – to distinguish between those, like Hain, who provide a left cover for the right and those, such as at present Tribune newspaper or Labour Reform, opposing such attacks – is absolutely vital for the class struggle left. Winning over the middle ground is the only way to win majorities in the trade unions and Labour Party on individual issues. If the class struggle left does not do this, it will find the tables turned upon it with the soft left tending to peel away sections of its support.

In this context any concessions to ultra-left sectarian currents, at present notably Workers’ Liberty, will simply aid the right against the left. For example, through their front organisation Keep the Link, Workers’ Liberty simultaneously gave a left cover to trade union leaders who were pushing support for Labour into Power and, at the same time, opposed precisely the proposal – to delay the vote on rule changes – which cemented relations with the soft left in defence of party democracy.

The tactics of the class struggle left which flow from this situation are clear. It is the only current in the labour movement which supports virtually every progressive struggle. It must therefore itself remain organised and resist any pressure to dissolve into the soft left, because its support is vital to people fighting imperialism, black people fighting racism, women protesting against the assault on the welfare state, workers on strike and every other progressive struggle. Central to the support it can provide is to fight for a coherent alternative to that of Blair, knitting all of the individual issues together around an alternative economic policy to reverse, rather than continue, Thatcherism.

But the class struggle left is, and will remain, very much a minority – and a minority which Tony Blair will try to eliminate. By far its largest and most influential component remains in the left wing of the Labour Party. It should try to stay there because this provides a more powerful platform to fight for a majority in the labour movement than anything which exists outside. The Labour left represents a third of the constituency membership, has significant support in the unions and a smaller minority of Labour MPs.

The first priority is to maximise the forces who understand and oppose the Labour into Power proposals.