Issue 179 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review

Following the leader

Tony Benn
Tony Benn

Tony Benn, MP for Chesterfield
There are two things happening in the Labour Party if you start at the bottom rather than the top. Firstly there is a great rejection of the whole 1980s, rather like in 1945 when people rejected the 1930s and wanted change. The popularity of Labour's leadership now is explained because people see somebody who is going to offer them change and is going to reject the past. The other side is that there is an anxiety about what would actually happen if there was a Labour government. The level of political discourse is as shallow and personalised as I have ever known it.

People want a change and they see in the Labour Party an alternative. But if the Labour Party tries to be like the SDP when everyone turns up expecting things there will be nothing there and the cupboard will be bare.

The left has to provide some analysis that goes beyond bad Tory ministers. There is no serious socialist analysis going on and if you can't talk about socialism then at least you can talk about capitalism. People realise that capitalism requires mass unemployment, homelessness, discipline, short term contracts, a widening gap between rich and poor.

The left can also provide solidarity as it's now doing with the signal workers and others. The identification of the left with what people actually need--the problems of unemployment and housing for example--means that people respond. You must relate socialism to the lives of ordinary people.

Everyone is very keen to beat the Tories and this explains why there is a strange sort of silence on things that would normally cause more of an uproar--people are still holding their breath hoping for a Labour government. At the same time there is a vacuum which the left has got to fill. If we were much bolder we would be doing it better--and there is a great deal of caution at the top. All change starts underneath. The signal workers' strike is very significant because here are a body of people who have been shabbily treated and have taken strike action and the public supports them. All the old arguments were about trade unions trying to dominate the country and so on. Yet everyone sees the signal workers as trying to get a living wage. They identify the trade unions as protecting their incomes and they also identify the trade unions with the protection of health, education and services. So under the surface the thing is coming right but it hasn't been collected, articulated and made explicit within the leadership of the Labour Party.

Bob Dillon
Bob Dillon

Bob Dillon, Labour councillor, Hathverton/Rushall (Walsall)
Someone like myself on the left of the party is a little bit dismayed. The party must get some radical policies together to pose a real alternative to the Tories. I am alarmed that Labour is backing off from the minimum wage. This will be a grave mistake.

Initially the election of Blair was greeted as good news because he will appeal to the middle class voters in the south east, but what about the areas of industrial decline? Blair should come out and support the signal workers. The government stepped in and provoked a strike. You can't sit on the fence in politics, and if you're a party that's meant to represent the workers then you must come out on their side.

Yet people are still active against the government, for example, against the Criminal Justice Bill (which Tony Blair supported). We will campaign against repressive acts like this. Labour has been out of power for 15 years and the public do not want to hear a bland programme that is a pale imitation of the bloody Tory Party's programme. They want a bold, radical alternative.

Every time the Labour Party has won a general election it's been on a radical programme--1945, 1964 and again in the 1970s. We have to say we will reverse all the cuts to the health service, to education, transport. It's no good people squealing it's impossible, if the political will is there we should do it.

Sue Calloway, Deputy MoC, GPMU Chapel, Guardian and Manchester Evening News, Withington CLP
Locally the mood is very much as it was before. Since the election people have felt a lot more involved in the leadership election because of One Member One Vote, therefore they have had more of an effect on actually who the leader is. It is still the members who make the policy, and the leaders are charged with carrying out the policy. So it shouldn't matter who is at the top. What Tony Blair said about single mothers was very badly phrased, and you have to be careful with the media. But I wish he had come out in support of the signal workers.

If Blair starts making policy on behalf of the members I will be annoyed. The majority of left wing trade unionists supported John Prescott, but we have hardly heard anything from him since the election. I hope things will be different after the conference because Prescott could rejuvenate the activists. The local Labour Party is usually quite good--such as around the Revel and George dispute we had in Manchester, but I wish the leadership would be more open in their support for disputes. Our union resolution to conference is about trade union legislation, secondary picketing, the right to strike. The leadership needs to come out more strongly in favour of those sort of things.

I know they won't agree to repeal the trade union legislation but they need to say they will make some definite changes. I think we will win the next general election--but they will have to be very careful that when we win we carry the socialist policies that the Labour Party should represent. Everybody has reservations because it's impossible to do things overnight, and it's very easy for people to build up their expectations and for those expectations not to be fulfilled, but there are some things that they have got to do, like the legal right to recognition of a trade union. Also one of the things I feel strongly about is the policy of the minimum wage. These sort of things would have a big impact on people's lives straight away. They should be bolder and honest about what we stand for.

Dave Church, Constituency Secretary, Walsall North (personal capacity)
The general mood is very much one of wait and see--we are hopeful of getting rid of the Tory Party, but the trouble is what will change? This is something Tony Blair has to address. If it's simply a matter of consolidating what the Tories have done or carrying on with the same economic system then we may get elected but this could lead to massive divisions inside the party.

Tony Blair can almost do what he wants to until the election--which is not surprising considering what we have gone through over the last 15 years. If we all struggle together to get Blair in and then socialist policy after socialist policy is abandoned there will be deep divisions.

If there's anything that will result in Blair losing the election it will be that he has not come out and supported the signal workers. This is amazing when you consider that the public support them. He should come out and say, 'We support them'--you cannot see a more justifiable case for support--especially after the government stepped in.

We should be standing on the rooftops and saying, 'You elect us and we will take water back into public ownership'. The public are prepared to accept the need for strong public ownership. Tony Blair should be arguing for that. We could lose the next election by not showing leadership.

Peter Hain
Peter Hain

Peter Hain, MP for Neath
There is a bit of a state of limbo inside the party since the leadership election. Blair was elected by a massive majority and nobody is quarrelling with that, but there is a lot of unease about a series of policy initiatives that have been taken on the unions, the signal workers and economic policy.

It's too early to say if the left has been marginalised by his election until the Labour Party conference. But the party can only win the election by putting forward radical socialist policies. It's not just a demand from the left, it's an essential prerequisite for victory. There is disillusionment about what Tony Blair said about the signal workers.

Gregory Elliot
Gregory Elliot

Gregory Elliott, author of Labourism and the English Genius
There is a short term euphoria with the election of Tony Blair, aided by the general incompetence of the Major government. Labour is fully on course to form a majority government at the next election. I get the impression there is very little resistance to what he is doing, as people in the Labour Party are desperate to get the Conservatives out. However, there appears to be more anxiety within the trade union movement, and from some leaders of the trade unions.

There is a vacuum of ideas at the top of the Labour Party. Blair has only been in parliament since 1983, he's had an amazingly smooth and easy passage to the top. He's the darling of the media because he's seen as one of the modernisers of the party, and has never been put under pressure or the spotlight. Although the media supported him during the leadership election campaign they will turn the heat on him in the run up to an election and there isn't any evidence that he will be able to stick that kind of heat.

The only thing that can be said with any certainty, apart from the fact that the word 'community' is evoked at every occasion, is that Labour would do the same thing, only slightly better, than the Conservatives. This strategy has been attempted before by Kinnock and Co and it didn't work. If Labour wasn't offering to do anything terribly different then why risk the British economy to an untested and untried Labour Party? This could very well happen again.

Blair is the worst of both worlds--he is clearly anti-socialist. At the same time he is not a very good liberal--on such issues as the state, proportional representation or the Criminal Justice Bill he has actually been a supporter of right wing policies.

Mike Marqusee
Mike Marqusee

Mike Marqusee, author of Defeat from the Jaws of Victory--Inside Kinnock's Labour Party, Islington North CLP
Despite the breathtaking opinion poll lead by Tony Blair there is demoralisation, apathy and inactivity at the base of the party. Meetings are more poorly attended than at any time in my experience and people do very little. In my ward there are quite a few people that voted for Tony Blair who do not agree with any of the things that he says, but say we have to win the election. The mood is mesmerised by the prospect of a general election victory but fearful that it could still be thrown away.

Blair has gone out of his way to make calculated attacks on single parents, the signal workers, on the minimum wage, not to mention the Larry Whitty affair. If a left winger like Tony Benn had made similar moves he would have been denounced for being divisive, for rocking the boat in the run up to the general election. I am very despondent because we can still lose the next election. I haven't forgotten the last time and it's a pity that people in the Labour Party do not want to talk about the lessons of the 1980s.

A lot of people I know who are staying in the party, who have no involvement with the far left, who are very much Labourists (before they are socialists) are saying we joined the Labour Party because we believed in the welfare state, trade unions, we want to see full employment--yet all of these things are abandoned or derided by the leadership. The discontent and unease will not be expressed until and unless the trade union leaders get going. It's not good enough for them to imply that they are unhappy with what Blair is doing. Of course they are unhappy as he is attacking their members--the minimum wage, single parents and so on--they hate all that but they must take some action. The left leaning trade union leaders must take action to at least halt Blair or else he could, possibly, lose us the election. Or, just as bad, if we do win it he will lead a government that is no different to Major's government and possibly worse in some ways.

For all of Thatcher's 'success' in the 1980s one of the projects they didn't complete was smashing the welfare state. They wanted to and the rhetoric was there but largely the welfare state is still there. So the tragic and frightening irony that we face is that Tony Blair may complete that aspect of the Thatcher project and I don't think that's just crying wolf. Blair has repeatedly said that we don't want a society on benefit, we want a society at work (which of course we all do) but in the code phrase of politics it's the same codes that Clinton used to introduce his workfare in the US.

I fear that the Labour Party conference will be a 'Blair-in'. His arrogance knows no bounds and it's already made its effects felt among the full timers. Some of the 'hard-right' yuppies are completely dominant in the party apparatus. They have no respect for democratic norms and very, very little contact with the broad mass of Labour supporters.

Ten things everyone should know about the Labour Party

Poor pay and conditions for nurses
  1. Labour, which is linked to organised workers, is better at any time than the Tories, who are linked to organised capital.
  2. 'Without struggle there is no progress': everything worth winning by the workers and the dispossessed has to be fought for.
  3. The less Labour fights the Tories, the less it is likely to beat them at the polls or anywhere else.
  4. The more Labour compromises and prevaricates, the more the fighting spirit of the people who vote Labour is dampened.
  5. The more that fighting spirit is dampened, the stronger and more confident grow employers, racialists and reactionaries of every description.
  6. The power of the elected parliament is all the time frustrated by the power of the undemocratic banks, corporations, judges and the media.
  7. The more a Labour government tries to be fair to the banks, corporations, judges or media, the more it becomes their captive.
  8. The more it becomes their captive, the more it attacks the people who vote Labour, thus ensuring a Labour defeat next time.
  9. This vicious circle is written into the history of the whole century. Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson couldn't avoid it. There's no chance that Blair and Co, further to the right even than Attlee and Wilson, will avoid it either.
  10. (Conclusion) Vote Labour, but keep up the fight down below to build the resistance into a force which is strong enough to dictate to the undemocratic elite at the top of society--and put an end to their interminable dictatorship.

Paul Foot

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