Issue 213 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1997 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature article: Waiting for Lefty?

Charlie Kimber

For the third year running, the Labour Party leadership was not defeated in a single vote at the party's conference in Brighton. That statistic hides the tensions within the party and the bitterness which many delegates feel at the government's direction.

The conference was intended by the coterie around Blair to be an occasion when a grateful membership could applaud their leaders and dedicate themselves to further 'modernisation'. The opportunities for real debate and discussion were severely limited, with 40 platform speakers, far more than at any previous conference, filling much of the time which was previously reserved for delegates. Those chairing the sessions seemed unerringly to choose a majority of delegates who followed the leadership's line.

Further proof of Blair's ascendancy over the remnants of Old Labour was expected to come on the first evening of the conference when the results of the national executive elections were announced. Peter Mandelson, personally backed by Tony Blair, was defeated. But that was by no means the end of the rebuff. The total number of votes was up 11 percent on last year, but the increase in the left vote was far higher. Ken Livingstone's vote rose 43 percent, Diane Abbott's 40 percent and Jeremy Corbyn's by 55 percent. Overall, the 'hard left' Campaign Group slate took 39 percent of the vote, up from 31 percent the year before. Dennis Skinner's vote was over 100,000 one in four of the entire party membership.

This was not a poll of the activists but a ballot involving every individual member of the party voting by post. The voting took place during the summer in the immediate aftermath of the general election win and with Blair's prestige as high as it is ever likely to rise.

Ken Livingstone wrote that the result was 'a shift to the left by the individual members of the party on a scale only previously seen in 1952 and 1980 after Labour governments had gone down to defeat as a result of alienating their natural supporters with public spending cuts and pay freezes.' This time, he noted, it was just months into a government with the largest majority in history. Asked to choose between the embodiment of New Labour and a representative of Old Labour, the party members decisively chose Ken Livingstone.

However, it would be wrong to think that the membership has entirely rejected Blair's agenda. Harriet Harman took almost as many votes as Livingstone and her vote rose 39 percent. The election of three left wingers will have no direct result on a national executive of 30 members.

Nor should we think that everyone who voted for the Campaign Group slate was signing up to the Campaign Group programme. You can think that 'things have gone too far' and that the leadership need a gentle reminder that Labour is supposed to present some sort of alternative to rampant capitalism without being a supporter of the hard left.

So why did the conference not vote through a single motion against the leadership? Some on the Labour left argued that the delegates at conference, even the constituency representatives, were to the right of the general party members. Much play was made of the fact that 80 percent of the delegates were attending conference for the first time. The 'modernisers' claimed that this showed how the party had changed, while the left retorted that these naive delegates had been first overawed and then manipulated by the leadership.

But the truth was much more complex. I spoke to 29 'first time delegates' while at conference. Only three of them had joined since Blair had become party leader. Most had joined during the leadership of Neil Kinnock. One had been in the party 30 years.

They had not come before because 'their turn' had not yet arrived or because they had simply been deemed too junior to be delegates in a party where there is a strong sense of seniority determining who goes.

They were certainly not blushing novices in politics. They had lived through the last ten or 15 years inside the party and had strong opinions on what had happened. They were not going to roll over just because of a spin doctor's charming smile.

Part of the reason why the leadership won is the trade union block vote. Repeatedly the union leaders transformed a narrow Blair majority into a thumping win. On at least two occasions they were the difference between Blair winning and losing. But the main reason is political. It has to do with the novelty of a Labour government and the political weakness of the Labour left which was unable to give expression and real direction to the doubts expressed at conference.

The first major rally of the left, organised by the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and with Campaign Group MPs speaking, on the eve of conference, gave the impression of a hard week ahead. Slightly halfhearted preparation for the debates to come reflected the belief that however well it organised, the left was going to lose everything.

By Monday night, after the defeat of Peter Mandelson in the national executive committee elections, the atmosphere had been transformed. As the Guardian columnist Decca Aitkenhead noted, 'It was evident in fringe meetings that Labour's dissenting left is in surprisingly fine form. Left wing meetings were conspicuously over-subscribed, and characterised by a cheerful humour. T-shirts reading 'Good Old Labour' soon sold out. Blair may or may not be pleased to hear that Tony Benn had a lovely conference. "I've never", he beamed, "been so optimistic."'

It is true that the meetings were mostly well attended. People who had no chance to make their views known during the conference or to express their frustration with a Labour government following Tory policies came in large numbers. But the basis for the optimism which mushroomed after Mandelson's defeat was almost entirely electoral, based on the belief that the left can win more positions.

Early in the conference the bulletin put out by the network of Socialist Campaign Groups argued, 'The course the government is pursuing, and the shackles it has put on party democracy, will only be changed by action. We need to organise in support of those in dispute like the Liverpool dockers and others, in support of those challenging the racist asylum laws and those opposing cuts in the NHS and education.' But as the week progressed this message was gradually submerged.

There were still nods towards the struggle outside the Labour Party, but by Thursday the same bulletin could say, 'The coming year must have one watchword, organisation, organisation, organisation. Ken Livingstone's glorious defeat of Peter Mandelson was the result of much hard work and collaboration by the left. The network believes such cooperation is a question of life or death for the left in the Labour Party.'

Life or death not the struggle outside but the tactical alliances inside the Labour Party. This theme was developed by Ken Livingstone at a rally where he explained that his win was the result of collaboration with people to the right of the Campaign Group supporters of Tribune and members of the soft left Labour Reform group. This was the model for the future. It would mean, said Livingstone, having to vote for people who the hard left did not particularly like. But that was the price of progress.

The Tribune rally was much bigger than in recent years. Over 700 people came to the meeting. But the platform included Gordon Brown. Tribune has been critical of some of Tony Blair's policies, but its programme of 'constructive criticism' is not going to point a way forward.

It is quite conceivable that the left can get more people elected, that it can use the new party structures in a way that the leadership does not expect. Any revival of industrial struggle, for example, will have echoes inside the Labour Party. It is possible that a 'broad left' slate can out manoeuvre the 'modernisers' whose committed supporters are only a small section of the party. But such a strategy is not going to provide a real socialist alternative.

The alternative to Blair has to begin with recognising that real power does not lie in parliament and that the key struggles are not in the Labour Party but in the factories and offices and on the streets.

Livingstone's election is very welcome, but it has had the effect of driving the left even further away from any focus on such a set of politics.

However, nobody should underestimate the strains and explosions which are to come inside Labour as well as outside. People who regard themselves as staunch Labour members are extremely angry about the government's behaviour and this feeling is growing. The proposed cut in lone parent benefit is a good example. Throughout the week at Brighton a group of mainly women delegates and visitors lobbied for a motion which condemned the benefit cut. Then, on the morning of the debate, the chair of the conference arrangements committee simply announced that it would not be heard. With half the delegates not present and the decision wrapped up in a bureaucratic report, a week's campaigning was wiped out.

If you care about such issues and many in the Labour Party do and your party cynically prevents you from even discussing them, it has an effect. It does not mean people will break immediately. None of those I spoke to thought that now was 'the right time' to be leaving Labour. But many Labour Party members are ready to read the publications of the SWP and to discuss seriously about the way forward.

Many delegates, from both trade unions and constituencies, feel very uneasy about the government but believe it must be given more time. This view you can hear in any workplace and is of course much stronger inside the Labour Party itself. Typical conversations with them centred on reforms like returning unions to GCHQ and banning land mines, followed by, 'If they've done that, perhaps they'll do more in the next year to really change things. We've got to give them a chance. They've only been in five months, you know.'

An abnormally large number of motions were remitted passed to the executive for consideration and, if they decree, further action. Traditionally it is a way of burying a proposal but not actually seeing your hopes dashed by a conference vote, or of getting the leadership out of a hole. This year it was also a way of showing unity, of not even calling for a vote. It was a concrete demonstration of 'giving the leadership a year'.

In their own homes party members can vote for Livingstone, not Mandleson. Faced with a vote in the full glare of the media and told that the headlines will be about 'damaging splits', those same people can back off from defying the leadership.

The other big factor is the lack of a political alternative to Blair's analysis the world has changed, the electorate has changed, we had to change because the only way you get things done is by getting elected. On individual issues party members thought Blair was wrong, but they have a strong suspicion that he may be right about the big questions or at least that he is not wholly wrong.

The debate on tuition fees for university students showed this. Much of the pre-conference comment centred on how the motion opposing fees could be passed and how Blair faced an embarrassing defeat.

In fact a motion supporting the government's action over fees was passed by about three to one and, much worse, education secretary David Blunkett went on the offensive over the issue. Those opposing fees came over as demoralised, isolated and disorganised. They seemed unable to pose an alternative which could cut with delegates.

But in the world outside the conference hall nobody can deny the widespread political anger over the fees. That will be an example that will be repeated, whatever formal victories Blair wins inside the party.


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