Battle joined over Labour’s future

First published: March 1998

The first nine months of the Labour government have confirmed that Tony Blair is not simply ‘another’ right wing Labour leader. Blair’s project is to dismantle the Labour Party as a party based on the unions, to destroy the elements of democracy which exist within the party and to transform the British political party system, through electoral reform, to make possible a long-term governmental alliance with the Liberal Democrats and, if possible, the Heseltine-Clarke wing of the Tory Party. The obstacle to this project is the Labour left – linked to the growing opposition to Blair’s attacks on the welfare state in the labour movement.

Blair and Mandelson believe, like those who walked out of Labour to form the SDP in 1981, that the risk of political radicalisation by the trade unions linking up with the left in the constituencies and parliament, makes the traditional mechanisms for right wing control of the Labour Party unsafe. But, unlike the SDP, Blair is using the central apparatus of the party and of government, to try to break up the Labour Party’s structures from within.

His proposal for a ‘patriotic alliance’ with Paddy Ashdown and the Heseltine wing of the Tories, to campaign for British entry into the European single currency, is the long term political cutting edge of this project. He is bidding to exploit the split between big business and the Tories over the European Union. In essence, Blair is telling big business that a sanitised Labour Party moving away from the unions and into alliance with the Liberal Democrats is a safer bet than a Tory Party which may not be able to win another general election. He is reinforcing this message by giving a leading role in his government to private businessmen while ceremonially keeping the unions at arm’s length.

For the entire twentieth century the battles over policy in the labour movement have been fought within a unitary Labour Party. In a political system organised around the dominance of the Conservatives, Labour’s periods in office served primarily to head off and demoralise the waves of working class discontent which shook British society in the 1920s, after the Second World War and at the end of the post-war boom in the 1970s.

In this system Labour was ‘a broad church’ within which the left was marginalised by an unshakeable alliance of the right wing trade bureaucracy and the parliamentary leadership. In the 1970s, the political radicalisation of the unions fractured that alliance. Although, under Kinnock, Smith and Blair, the right wing regained control of the party, Blair and Mandelson believe that the central pillar of that control – the stability of the union leaderships’ backing for the parliamentary right – cannot be relied upon, particularly in the context of a government trying to dismantle the welfare state.

Hence their drive to destroy all channels for union and rank and file influence over the Labour Party and to create a new political system based on governmental coalitions with the Liberal Democrats.

It goes without saying that in Blair and Mandelson’s scheme of things there will be no place for the Labour left. The planned purge of left-wing and ‘Old Labour’ Euro-MPs and the exclusion of left-wing MPs from the constituency section of the NEC are harbingers of what is intended at every level, including Westminster. In that sense Blair’s project involves splitting the Labour Party to drive out the left. But what is not yet determined is whether that project can succeed, and, even were it to do so, what forces would exist on either side of the divide. Because, if it does not give in and pursues effective tactics, the Labour left cannot be eliminated as a mass, albeit minority, force in British politics. The exclusion of the left from the Labour Party would simply result in the emergence of a new party to the left of New Labour, with serious electoral support.

The Labour left is the single most powerful political force seeking to defend the working class against Blair’s attacks. It did not give up on 2 May. It has not been bought off by posts in government. It is not isolated from Labour’s individual membership – nearly 40 per cent of whom voted for Socialist Campaign Group candidates in last October’s NEC elections and, for the first time since the early 1980s, the middle ground in the party is moving to the left.

The left shook the government by the breadth of alliances it led against cuts in lone parent benefits. And, although the trade union general secretaries at present are not rocking Blair’s boat, Mandelson and Blair still fear an eventual link-up between the Labour left and trade unions forced by their memberships into opposition to Blair’s policies. Even in the parliamentary party, where Blair has a firm grip, disagreement with the government’s direction is already broader than the Campaign left – as shown by the election of Alice Mahon to the National Policy Forum by Labour MPs.

The first nine months of the Labour government have therefore confirmed that the battle over the future of the labour movement will pass through, not outside, the Labour Party. The Labour left is the most powerful ally of every progressive force in British society. It is now getting stronger, not weaker. Because Blair’s project is to dismantle the Labour Party and the welfare state, he confronts not merely a small class struggle minority, but also substantial forces rooted in the traditional structures of the labour movement. The Labour left is starting to put itself at the head of that opposition.

That is why Tony Blair is going to try to drive the left out of the Labour Party before it can be reinforced by a radicalisation of the unions. The left clearly has no interest in allowing him to do so. It is not going to give in to Blair politically and it is not going to vacate the field of battle over the policies of this government.

After more than a decade of retreat the time has come for the left wing of the labour movement to move forward.