Why Blair and Mandelson are paranoid about the Labour left

First published: November 1998

An unprecedented and well-funded operation was launched over the summer to back the Blairite slate for the constituency section of the Labour Party national executive. This included spending at least £50,000 on half-page adverts in national newspapers and magazines, direct mail-shots to thousands of party members, printing thousands of glossy promotional brochures and employing a private marketing firm to undertake telephone canvassing. The centre-left slate was publicly denounced by party general secretary Tom Sawyer – who is supposed to uphold the impartiality of the election – and by former party leader Neil Kinnock. At issue was not control of the NEC, because the constituency section makes up less than a fifth of the NEC seats, but the elimination of all possible dissent from the leading bodies of the party. This looks like paranoia. But it is, in reality, rational.

Blair and Mandelson know that their political project – to eliminate trade union and rank and file influence from the Labour Party and move it towards coalition with the Liberals – and the government’s economic policies, notably the goal of cutting social spending, will collide with successive layers of the labour movement. John Edmond’s calls for lower interest rates, progressive taxation and attacks on ‘greedy bastard’ employers gave an early flavour of the sort of opposition Blair and Mandelson’s party ‘reforms’ anticipate. They are therefore acting, while the government retains relatively strong public support, to try to eliminate any points within the party leadership or structures – no matter how seemingly insignificant at this moment in time – around which opposition could coalesce into an alternative political perspective within the party.

Under rules introduced by last year’s Labour Party conference, party members can no longer elect Labour MPs to the NEC. This change was originally suggested by the Labour Coordinating Committee to stop the constituencies from registering dissatisfaction with a Labour government’s policies by electing left wing MPs – as happened under the Wilson/Callaghan government. What concerned the LCC was how to retain control of the party if the parliamentary leadership lost the support of both the local constituencies and the trade unions. After the last Labour government it was this combination which swung the NEC to the left. The political nexus around Blair and Mandelson are determined that this should not be allowed to happen again – even if labour movement opinion swings decisively against the parliamentary leadership.

The idea was that dominance of the parliamentary leadership would be guaranteed by downgrading the role of party structures, dominated by supposedly left wing activists, in favour of postal ballots of individuals. But the defeat of Mandelson by Livingstone in last year’s NEC election, support for Livingstone for London mayor and black members’ use of OMOV to try to select black candidates for inner city parliamentary seats showed that the individual membership cannot be totally controlled by the leadership.

That is why a Labour leader who made OMOV a central plank of his campaign for the party leadership, is now drastically curtailing its scope – by restricting the choice of candidates for the European parliament, Scottish and Welsh Assemblies, to those previously approved by leadership appointed vetting panels. The use of this device to purge left wingers and other dissidents from the list of Scottish candidates has already boosted the SNP’s standing against Labour at the polls. The party conference will be presented with proposals to extend vetting to the selection of Westminster candidates.

The ultimate goal of all this is to eliminate the Labour left and render the parliamentary leadership completely independent of the trade unions and the rank and file membership of the Labour Party – creating a party which seeks to govern in long-term coalition with the Liberal Democrats. In this scenario, business would replace the trade unions and membership funding of the party. The cash-for-access scandal gave a foretaste of how this would operate – with financial corruption filling the vacuum left by reduced accountability to the party membership. This money nexus is already well-advanced – ranging from the appointment of unelected business leaders to ministerial posts, the various trade-offs with Murdoch, the tobacco companies over Formula 1 racing and others, down to the merging of the political apparatus around Blair and Mandelson with lobbyists selling access to government ministers.

It would doubtless end up in the kinds of corruption scandals which have rocked the French, Spanish and, most spectacularly, the Italian Socialist Parties in the past.

But there is still a considerably long way to go before Blair achieves that goal and the peculiarity of the present situation in the party is that the pace of change is dictated by his need for the backing of the unions as long as they retain the major role in party structures and funding. None of the changes to downgrade the powers of the elected bodies of the party – notably the conference and NEC – and restrict members’ rights to select candidates for public office could have been adopted without support from the trade union bureaucracy.

The present alignment of forces is one of the right wing trade union bureaucracy organised by the AEEU leadership, allying with the most anti-union forces in the party, that is the Blair/Mandelson nexus, against the party membership and the left. The centre-left and centre-right trade union leaderships of the GMB, TGWU and UNISON are not necessarily happy with all of the operations being conducted by this alliance – but they are not playing an independent role at the present time on the internal Labour Party issues. The critical contradiction between the trade union and Labour Party leaderships is on economic policy. It remains to be seen whether Edmonds’ speech at the TUC marks a shift which will affect the inner Labour Party battle.

At present a political alliance of the party leadership and right wing trade union bureaucracy is spending unprecedented sums of money to try to take control of this NEC section.

The first problem for Blair was that the right wing was split into two slates – the AEEU-backed Labour First slate made up of individuals tied to right wing unions, and a number of other Blairites, such as actor Michael Cashman, retired USDAW official Diana Jeuda and Scottish party official-turned-lobbyist Jack McConnell.

On the other hand, a very broad coalition had emerged in the centre left Grassroots Alliance around upholding party democracy, members’ rights and the broad-based character of the Labour Party. The Grassroots Alliance ranged from Labour Reform and Tribune editor Mark Seddon, through the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Socialist Campaign Group News to the campaign group Network and Labour Briefing. The Campaign Group of Labour MPs strongly backed the alliance. Tribune newspaper welcomed it although some of its staff objected to left-wingers on the slate. The only current on the left opposing the alliance was Workers’ Liberty.

In these circumstances a divided establishment risked defeat, particularly because it could not rely on support from some of the liberal bourgeois media – in part alienated by the Mandelson/Campbell methods of news control and in part believing that Mandelson-style uniformity within the Labour Party would prove counter-productive. As a result, a Guardian editorial on 10 August urged a ‘vote for Labour diversity’ saying that while ‘this newspaper would have differences with all six [Grassroots Alliance candidates]’ that political differences should be ‘aired around Labour’s governing table’ and urged ‘those who have a vote in this small but significant election [to] bear that in mind – and take a stand against uniformity.’ A similarly friendly tone was struck in some of the radio and television coverage.

Roy Hattersley, without going so far as to back the centre-left slate, caught the mood when he wrote in the Guardian on 20 August that the Labour leadership demeaned itself by defining ‘loyalty as uncritical agreement’ and that it ‘diminishes the party’s moral authority by endorsing candidates who promote their cause by buying advertising space in newspapers.’

By this time, the party leadership had already stepped in to produce a single Blairite slate. This was done around the Members’ First grouping which was originally billed as the brainchild of lobbyist Ben Lucas – whose role was downplayed after he was named in the cash-for-access corruption scandal.

A number of candidates, like Maggie Cosin, Jack McConnell and Christian Socialist Chris Bryant stood down, leaving a single Blair/Mandelson slate. To counter media support for pluralism, Members First spent enormous sums, provided by trade unions, on advertisements in the Guardian, Observer and other publications, as well as individual candidate mail-shots to thousands of party members and telephone canvassing. A Progress mailing promoting the Members First slate claimed the candidates were ‘experienced Labour Party members, prepared to speak up for what they believe in’. Spending on this publicity campaign was at least ten times more than anything ever spent before and far beyond the means of the left and centre, let alone ordinary party members. It is doubtful that union members would approve of this use of their dues.

Learning a lesson from Livingstone’s defeat of Mandelson last year, the leadership understood that to stop the centre-left it would have to present its slate as the middle ground rather than Mandelsonite. This was also the basis on which a coalition of the trade unions was held together with the cash-for-access lobbyist nexus to back the slate. The understanding was that most of the candidates would be pro-union as well as leadership loyalist. On this basis the anti-membership coalition of the union bureaucracy with Blair/Mandelson was created.

It is obviously unstable. Large sections of the national executives of unions like the GMB, TGWU, UNISON and others have more in common with the Grassroots Alliance than the AEEU and Mandelson. Again, Edmonds’ TUC call for higher taxation on incomes above £50,000 and lower interest rates underlines this. If union members were allowed to determine the orientation of their union in the NEC elections they might well wish to align with the centre-left. This could result in either different unions allying with rank and file currents on a political basis which would tend to equalise their impact, or an agreement that the constituency section be left to the rank and file.

The final layer to be added was the soft left in the government – with David Blunkett, Robin Cook and Peter Hain billed as backing the Members’ First slate. Their subservience obviously deepens the division between themselves and the centre-left in the constituencies around Labour Reform and Tribune newspaper. It contrasts with the situation last year where Prescott’s likening of Mandelson to a crab did not convey unanimous cabinet backing for his candidacy.

Even though Blair and Mandelson need the soft left ministers and the unions to broaden their base while they whittle away members’ rights and fight the left and centre-left – both the unions and the soft left are also in the firing line. The cabinet re-shuffle prior to the summer recess was used to weaken the influence of both Gordon Brown (who is linked to the most right wing trade unions) and the soft left linked to the traditional labourist unions. The replacement of Margaret Beckett by Peter Mandelson at the Department of Trade and Industry decisively swung the balance in the ministry in favour of business and against the unions.

As the Financial Times put it on 29 July, Blair used his ‘reshuffle to display his ever-increasing ardour for business people and business practice’. Lord Sainsbury, holder of Sainsbury’s shares worth £1.4 billion, was appointed junior minister at the DTI, joining Peter Mandelson and Lord Simon, former chair of British Petroleum. Anti-union link Blairite, Stephen Byers, was made number two to Brown at the Treasury and Nick Brown was removed from the crucial position of Chief Whip.

Irrespective of the outcome of this year’s NEC elections, the critical tactical challenges for the Labour left are to continue to broaden the alliances in defence of party democracy and to start to prise apart the bloc of the trade union bureaucracy and Mandelson/Blair. The points of greatest pressure will be first, those which impact onto the membership of the trade unions, secondly, those with the largest social forces behind them and thirdly, those where the trade union bureaucracy cannot avoid the political contradictions with Blair.

The issue which is going to have the greatest impact in terms of destabilising the unions’ relations with the government is economic policy. High interest rates, an over-valued pound and mounting international competition are pushing the economy towards recession. This, together with the public sector pay freeze, will hit the government’s spending plans and trade union members. But to start to construct an alliance of the unions with the Labour left, and for the left within the unions to advance politically, requires focusing opposition to individual government policies around an overall alternative economic strategy centred on cutting interest rates and raising progressive taxation, which will have to be won at next year’s trade union conferences. As recession starts to bite the necessity for this will become apparent to wider layers of trade union political activists.

Secondly, it is no accident that in two of the areas where sections of the population are to the left of the rest of Britain – Scotland and London – Blair is running into his most serious problems to date. In Scotland the Labour Party faces a simple choice. Either Scottish Labour takes a position to the left of Blair, which it could do by deciding that it, not Millbank, will determine policy for the Scottish Assembly, or else it risks an historic defeat at the hands of the SNP. As Dundee East MP John McAllion put it, ‘Scottish Labour will have to demonstrate that, where it is in Scotland’s interests, we are willing to stand up and to take on our own government in Westminster’ (Tribune, 31 July).

In London, Blair’s attempt to stop Livingstone being selected as Labour candidate for mayor suffered a setback when the regional party conference voted almost unanimously for a motion saying that all candidates nominated by 10 CLPs should be automatically shortlisted for an OMOV ballot to select the candidate.

Thirdly, the appointment of Alistair Darling to the Department of Social Security is clearly designed to re-launch the attacks on the welfare state which stalled after the rebellion on lone parent benefit cuts. This will bring the government into renewed conflict with those scheduled to suffer the cuts. First in line appear to be disability benefits. Darling used his first day in the post to declare that the ‘time for talking’ about welfare was over and that people should now expect action. Subsequent statements implying there would be no quick moves to introduce legislation indicate that the government has concluded that the level of opposition its proposals will provoke necessitate a combination of piecemeal changes, tightening up of regulations and getting a better balance of forces for itself into place before embarking on head-on attacks.

It also remains to be seen whether the Blairites in Labour Students can hang onto control of the student movement as tuition fees and lower grants and spending cuts start to bite. The other potentially large-scale clash is with pensioners as the government desperately looks for ways to cut spending.

Fourthly, the black community expects action from the government against racism and, if it is not delivered, will fight back. It is already clear that a racist asylum policy is to be pursued. In addition, the black community will want to see what action follows the Lawrence inquiry into the police response to racist murders. Failure to meet black aspirations will result in extra-parliamentary mobilisations and intensified demands for proper black representation at every level of the party and society as recent CRE demands show. The left must be the best possible ally in this fight.

Fifthly, the Belfast Agreement makes it easier than ever before for the labour movement in Britain to ally with the cause of equality and self-determination in Ireland.

Within the Labour Party the next key objective for Blair is the removal of the rights of members to select candidates. This has already been done for the European elections, the London and Wales assemblies and, most explosively, the Scottish parliament. It has been announced for local government; the local government White Paper would pressure councils to adopt ‘cabinet’-style administrations and directly elected mayors.

Removing rights of selection for Westminster is advanced in the consultation document on parliamentary selections which will go to this year’s Labour Party conference for endorsement. Millbank will also be organising to prevent left resolutions featuring on this year’s conference agenda and to carry through a purge of the left in parliament – which, as Scotland and the Euro-selections have demonstrated, will be greatly facilitated by an approved list system of selection of candidates. These issues present themselves as priorities for the Labour left.

Finally, strategically, the two key issues around which Blair will seek to fundamentally re-draw the map of the British political system are entry into the European Single Currency and electoral reform. These, no longer distant goals, are linked. The latter will create the breadth of coalition government with the Liberals necessary to force through the former. The work must now be done to ensure that the Labour left understands why both have to be opposed.