Issue 176 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review


Labour leadership

Modern times

Can you tell them apart?
Can you tell them apart?

Who will be the next leader of the Labour Party? If we believed what we read in the papers there should be no contest. Tony Blair is young, a Labour Party 'moderniser' with few ties to the unions. He is, according to the political commentators, the only person who can get Labour elected.

But will he win the leadership contest in the party itself, which thankfully still elects its own leader rather than relying on the Independent or even the Sun to do the job? That is by no means certain. Already the unseemly haste with which the media picked up the torch for Blair has created signs of a backlash among Labour supporters.

It is not that they want a left wing candidate--after all, they happily accepted John Smith's leadership, which was always to the right of centre. But they have two reservations about Blair: the first is that he is untested, the second that he wants to go further than even most modernisers in breaking with Labour's trade union roots.

They are right on both counts. The same political columnists who now praise Blair so effusively are likely to turn on him if he becomes leader, when his 'freshness and originality' can instead make him lightweight and inexperienced. A post office worker questioned about the leadership contest by the Financial Times said, 'I will back John Prescott. He's a strong character. The Tories would blow Tony Blair away.' There is at least as much to be said for this analysis as for the one which claims that Blair is the Labour candidate the Tories fear most.

It is claimed that Blair's right wing law and order line has won Labour support. But even the Economist magazine makes the following observation:

At least some of the top union leaders are resistant to Blair. They fear that he wants no links with the unions--except for their money--and that his election will lead to a further decline in their influence with the Labour leaders. Even if they do feel they can live with Blair as leader, they do not want him propelled into the position without the assent of the unions.

This explains attempts by John Edmonds of the GMB union to push for an open and democratic election, and his stress on candidates committed to full employment--something which Blair has been less than forthcoming about. The Guardian explained Edmonds' intervention by saying: 'The GMB and other large unions are convinced that winning back Labour's lost working class voters, rather than wooing the southern middle class, is the road to electoral success.'

The death of John Smith has, in effect, begun to open up a debate inside Labour about the sorts of policy it should follow. Smith's policies were right wing and concerned to demonstrate above all that Labour could manage ailing British capitalism better than the Tories. There is a feeling now that perhaps such policies did not sufficiently stress inequality.

So Ian Aitken wrote in the New Statesman:

That eerie silence existed long before any political truce declared after John Smith's death; and more than anything it has allowed the Tories to cling on to power.

All the signs are that this basic caution will continue, whoever wins the leadership election. There is little to choose between Blair and Gordon Brown, his rival among the modernisers. The supposedly 'left' candidates, Robin Cook, John Prescott and Margaret Beckett, have all supported the party's policies since the 1992 election, further distancing themselves from tax increases for the rich and loosening the connection with the unions.

Many left wingers favour a vote for Prescott, on the grounds that he at least represents a stronger voice for Labour in the unions. But they will do so reluctantly rather than with enthusiasm.

Those on the left who would prefer Labour to stand up and fight rather than concede ground to the Tories are hindered by the legacy of the recent past inside the Labour Party. They are also at a disadvantage with the method of election of the leader. Although the system is popularly referred to as 'one member one vote' and is regarded as more democratic than the old system of leadership election, in practice some members are more equal than others.

Labour MPs and MEPs have overwhelming dominance in the election process. They have one third of the votes anyway, with one third of the votes going to local constituency members and socialist societies, and the final third to trade unionists paying the political levy. Most MPs will have several different votes, and so will be able to vote for their preferred candidate up to five times: as MP, constituency member, trade unionist and member of the Fabian or Cooperative societies.

There is nothing equal about the system. Each MP's vote is worth 14,500 trade unionists, and the 250,000 constituency members will have a vote worth 18 times that of the 4.5 million trade union levy payers.

So the parliamentary party will have an overwhelming say in who the leader is. It will therefore be difficult for even the views of Edmonds and his like to prevail.

None of this bodes well for those who want Labour to adopt a more left wing voice. The MPs are some of those least in touch with the mood of anger among working class people, and those most influenced by the pressures of the media and political commentators--most of whom have no idea what ordinary Labour voters want.

The party is still not building on the anger that is felt by so many people. Capitulating to a media backed candidate in the leadership election will only reinforce the still substantial gap between Labour and its potential supporters.

Labour left

Don't rock the boat

The most notable absentee in the leadership elections is Labour's hard left. Less than a decade ago the left candidate would have been a force to be reckoned with. Until John Smith's leadership contest in 1992, there had always been a main left contender, and usually the leader of the Labour Party had started political life as a left winger.

Not today. The Campaign Group of MPs has restricted itself to calling for the election to be delayed until party conference at the beginning of October. There is no hard left candidate.

The decline of Labour's left as a real force, both in parliament and in the wider party, is not new. As Ian Aitken wrote in his New Statesman article on John Smith, such is the backlash against the left inside the party that 'it is now harder to find someone willing to own up to being involved in it than to find someone who admits to having been a Nazi in Hitler's Germany.'

Perhaps this explains the astonishing tribute to John Smith written by Ken Livingstone in Tribune. Livingstone claims that Smith 'would have been our greatest prime minister since Clement Attlee' and that, 'contrary to the press label as a right winger, he actually would have presided over a radical, reforming government.'

There is absolutely no evidence for this statement. John Smith was a member of the right wing Labour government which attacked workers in the late 1970s. He did not split with Labour to form the SDP, like many with similar politics, but he was central to Solidarity, the right wing grouping inside Labour which was formed to smash the left in the early 1980s. He was always clearly on the right of the party.

Experience of office, according to Livingstone, would have led him to radical reform. 'The scale of the economic crisis he would have inherited is so severe that his intelligence would have led him to act quickly and decisively to modernise the British economy and ancient institutions.'

Well, it might have done, but if so, he would have been the first Labour leader to have seriously attempted such a goal. Much more likely is that John Smith would have followed in the footsteps of other Labour leaders and accepted the need for workers to make sacrifices in order to save British capitalism.

A few years ago most Labour lefts would argue very differently: that the party had to embrace more left wing policies, that there was a clear difference between left and right inside the party. Today after years of defeat and witchhunts, the left is compromised. It used to argue that there were two sides to the struggle: what went on in parliament and what went on outside.

It is obvious today where Labour left's priorities lie: in parliament and nowhere else. And if parliament is dominated by the right and centre, then the left will compromise to accommodate.

Many of the left felt that under John Smith's leadership their political situation improved. There was no longer the atmosphere of witchhunts and demands for loyalty which characterised the Kinnock leadership.

But that is to misunderstand what has happened in the Labour Party in recent years. Kinnock met with real resistance from the left and responded by expelling his opponents. John Smith never needed to take so hard a line against the left. The left had moved so far onto his ground that it was no longer necessary.

Ship without a keel

The triumph for the Labour Party in the council elections (to be followed, everyone agrees, by something very similar in the European elections this month), has had a soothing effect on lots of socialists. Buoyed by success at the polls, some of Labour's most militant supporters are inclined to argue that it is now time to sit back and wait for the general election victory which is now inevitable.

At an SWP meeting during the MSF conference, a delegate angrily rejected calls for more militant trade union action. Militancy, he said, had not won any gains in the last few years. Now was the time to concentrate all our hopes and efforts on getting Labour elected.

'Don't rock the boat, and wait for Labour to storm back into office in 1996 (or 1997).' That's the convenient and easy message which seems to have been the favourite at trade union conferences this summer, and will certainly be the tune of the new Labour leader and the conference which elects him.

Precisely the same attitudes and advice prevailed in Labour when it was last riding high in the polls, after the poll tax demonstration in 1990. Such fantastic gains were made in the council elections a week or two later--and in by-elections right across Britain--that almost everyone reckoned it a near certainty that Labour would win in 1992. The only danger was the activities of the 'wild men', or, to use Neil Kinnock's favourite term of abuse, 'the headbangers'. Kinnock and his team made it their main aim in life to squash the left, especially in the constituencies. Labour policy shifted further and further to the right. There was universal silence and acquiescence... and Labour lost the election.

All the gains made by employers and reactionaries through all those years of restraint ended with the employers and reactionaries winning the election for the sake of which they had been afforded such a clear run. The gloom on that frightful April night in 1992 was compounded by the fact that a network of militants had been persuaded to make all sorts of concessions in order to win the prize which had now been plucked away from them.

The Labour leaders' main mistake was to measure the political temperature solely by the opinion polls. Polls say how people are going to vote. They seldom record the enthusiasm for one preference or the other. And they are quite incapable of forecasting when public opinion will change.

'Labour victories at the polls need to be reinforced by real labour victories. The Tories must be humiliated long before the next general election'

Those of us who take the view that the chief characteristic of our society is that it is divided by class, consider first this question: how are the classes doing in their battle with one another? If the rulers are winning, then, whatever the shifts in opinion polls, they are more likely to win elections; if the workers are winning, then their representatives are more likely to win elections. Of course there are exceptions to that rule, but in most cases the ebb and flow of the class struggle will determine the ebb and flow of radical and reactionary opinion, and so determine what happens at election times. If change can and does take place as the result of workers' action, or even as a result of elected councillors taking a stand against central government, the party arguing for change will find it much easier to win.

This is the background to the argument about the course for Labour in the next two years. The Major government is probably the most unpopular government this century. But the opposition is a ship without a keel. It is based not on the firm foundation of a confidence and strength which knows that it can shake employers and roll back the priorities of Tory administrators and bureaucrats. On the contrary, in the real political struggle, the struggle between the classes, the Tories--the employers and their banks--are winners. The success of the new breed of Thatcherite 'line managers', arrogant, offensive, untalented but in the workplace extremely powerful, is testimony to long, long years of ruling class confidence.

Like that ship without a keel, such an opposition is vulnerable. No amount of votes piled up in municipal or Euro elections can guarantee it that elusive general election victory. The votes and the widespread fury which they represent need the ballast of class victories.

Labour victories at the polls need to be reinforced by real labour victories. The Tories must be humiliated long before the next general election. The confidence of those line managers needs to be cut down by organised labour. The trade union leaders have been backing off a fight ever since Thatcher first brought the Tories into government in 1979. All they have to show for the deference and obedience is a long line of defeats. These will go on unless the union leaders take a stand. If they don't, their members will have to do it on their own. There is an overwhelming argument now for refusing any longer to accept the demands of ever greedy management; and for fighting back.

This is not only a matter for shop stewards and trade unionists. In the Labour councils too there are all sorts of ways in which the Tories can be counted out. The councils have huge sums of money piled up from the sale of council houses. The Tories forbid them to spend that money. They should refuse to obey the Tories and spend it. If they are surcharged they should refuse to cooperate, resign their chairs and go into majority opposition. They should make the councils unmanageable rather than accept any longer the diktats of a government which has plainly lost the support of the people.

Labour councillors should resign from all the new government quangos, the development corporations, enterprise agencies, city challenges and all the rest of the business speak nonsense whereby the capitalists have sought to undermine democracy in the urban areas. Up to now Labour representatives have played along; they should call a halt and let the quangos stew in their own juice.

Defiance, if widespread and determined enough, would start to win concessions and victories. These will be worth in real ideas and in real votes a hundred times the lead in the opinion polls, and will lay some sort of foundation for a Labour victory which could mean something.
Paul Foot


Balancing act

Union organisation in key factories is as strong as ever
Union organisation in key factories is as strong as ever

It took six weeks of infighting for Silvio Berlusconi to form his new Italian government. For the first time since the war fascists are in office, and it is not just a token presence. Five of the new ministers are from the National Alliance; three of them are members of the overtly fascist MSI, including Giuseppe Tatarella, one of the two deputy prime ministers. Tatarella is the new minister for communications. Fascists have also been put in charge of agriculture and higher education.

Meanwhile the federalist Northern League has put aside all its pre-election statements about refusing to cooperate with fascism. In return its members have control of law and order (through the interior ministry) and the ministry for institutional reform, which will play a key part in drafting a revised constitution.

The new coalition is, however, enormously vulnerable. Those who voted for the League have quite different aims from those who supported the National Alliance. Berlusconi's triumphalist Forza Italia movement in reality contains an enormous vacuum: leaders of 2,000 Forza Italia 'clubs' were recently called to a meeting in Rome, in effect to construct the movement from the top down.

The National Alliance is divided between 'modernisers' (led by Gianfranco Fini) who are aiming at building a new right wing authoritarian party, and the unrepentant fascists who are now trying to gather round them a new layer of disaffected youth. As a result there are many accidents waiting to happen.

The fragility of the situation was shown by events in the northern town of Vicenza, where a demonstration by 200 'Nazi-skins' led to a convulsion in the government. Many of the demonstrators were members and supporters of the MSI, including the secretary of the local youth wing of the party. The link between the sanitised National Alliance and the thugs and bootboys was shown up. Fini had to rush to repair the damage by expelling or suspending members and declaring his 'opposition to historical fascism'. However, he was careful to stress the word historical.

The leadership of the National Alliance is trying to balance between respectable politics and the pressure from the active fascists. So, while Fini distances himself from the totalitarian past, he leads demonstrations calling for the restoration of the 'Italian' Balkans--Istria and Dalmatia--harking back to Mussolini's imperial delusions.

To many Italians this is simply folklore, but the MSI has secured a big electoral base in Trieste with this claim. The MSI also called a demonstration for 24 May in honour of the anniversary of the declaration of war against Austria in 1915.

The response from the left has been magnificent at the rank and file level, pathetic at the top. The demonstrations on 24 April to commemorate the victory over fascism were supported by hundreds of thousands of people--more than 300,000 marched in pouring rain in the main demonstration in Milan. A demonstration of several thousand people in Vicenza, a week after the fascists marched, showed the potential of organised opposition at local level. In Palermo more than 50,000 people marched against the Mafia on the anniversary of the murder of the anti-Mafia investigator Giovanni Falcone.

At the same time the votes in works council elections across the country show that union organisation in key factories is as strong as ever. At Fiat's Cassino site near Naples the main unions won 84 percent of the vote, with the left wing Fiom taking more than a third of the vote. At the Alfa Romeo plant in Arese near Milan, the militants of the Cobas ('autonomous unions') came top of the list, followed by the Fiom. The combined left vote was more than 2,500 out of 3,000 workers. These are very important votes on the eve of national pay negotiations in the engineering industry.

The danger is that pessimism at the top can weaken the will to fight. Fausto Bertinotti, the leader of the hard left Rifondazione Communista, which won 2.5 million votes in the election, speaks of Berlusconi's government lasting 'five or even ten years'. As for the leadership of the former Communist Party (the PDS), it has now committed itself formally to the role of 'loyal opposition'. The model, it says without a shred of irony, should be the Labour Party in Britain.

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