Issue 225 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review
So much for democratic control and accountability. In the last month we have seen exactly what this means to the Labour government. Devolution for Scotland and Wales and the election of a mayor for London were supposed to give local people more say. Now Tony Blair is doing his best to prevent any contest for leader of the Welsh Assembly or for mayor of London which could possibly result in even someone mildly critical of his policies being elected. A respected Westminster MP, Dennis Canavan, announced that he was standing as an independent for the Scottish parliament, having been denied an official Labour candidacy. All this has led to a new crisis of Labourism.
The eruption in Wales followed the resignation of Ron Davies, only weeks after he had won the nomination for leader of the Welsh Assembly from fellow MP Rhodri Morgan. This was on the basis of an electoral college where a third of votes were controlled by a handful of union leaders, who delivered them to Blair's candidate. This time the Blairite minister Alun Michael - known to be at best lukewarm over devolution - has been parachuted in. But this time it is much harder for Blair to use the same trick, although all the major Welsh union leaders have declared support for Michael. There is great bitterness and anger in Wales, with large constituency meetings and much support for Morgan. The arguments come against a background of growing job losses, including at the major Welsh steel works.
The announcement by the London Labour Party that it is creating a shortlist system to choose its candidate as mayor, and the perception that this is designed to keep out Ken Livingstone, has also created anger. A poll by the television programme London Tonight showed that 91 percent supported his right to stand as mayor--23,339 said yes and just 2,336 no.
Attempts at decentralisation have hit Blair in the face. He pushed through one member, one vote in the Labour Party nationally as a supposed improvement in democracy--although its real purpose was to weaken the influence of the unions and the left. But when his power is threatened, he wheels in the union block vote to flout the wishes of ordinary party members. This is why the demand of Morgan's supporters is for one member, one vote--to defeat Blair.
This is a no win situation for Blair: if Michael wins, the civil war inside Labour will continue, with Welsh Assembly elections only six months away. If Morgan wins, then most Labour Party activists will rightly see it as a major defeat for Blair. The same is true with Livingstone. Although he and Morgan are both standing on not particularly left wing programmes and are prepared to come to an accommodation with Blair, they are clearly seen as mounting a challenge from the left. Blair even floated the idea of a businessman for mayor.
This, along with Blair's proud proclamation of closer links with the Liberal Democrats, shows how out of touch he is with the values and ideas of the mass of Labour members. The row over elections coincides with the dramatic worsening of public services under Labour. Councils such as Lambeth and Islington are pushing through huge cuts and school closures. Council housing is being sold off. What is being forced through in many areas is effectively the end of 100 years of municipal socialism.
Moves against Livingstone have to be seen in this context. Blair knows these policies are unpopular and does not want a figure head who will criticise him. If Livingstone is prevented from standing, then Paul Foot is putting himself forward as a socialist candidate for mayor of London, in an attempt to present an alternative to these policies.
Many old Labour supporters are questioning the devotion of Blair to the market; some are beginning to wonder whether now is the time to give up on Labour altogether (see pages 12-13). The ideas put forward in the Action Programme, which try to pose a concrete alternative to the crisis, are being taken up by increasing numbers of people and working class organisations. The failings of Blairism underline the need and the urgency of building a socialist alternative.