Issue 278 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review


Learning lessons

Tony Blair said he was willing to pay the 'blood price' of war in Iraq. He is unlikely to have to do so personally. He is already paying a political price--but as yet he is only on the first instalment.

He faces a ruling class in deep disarray over the decision to go to war -- this, above all, is what the Hutton inquiry demonstrates. He presides over a party bitterly opposed to the war and desperate for a sign that he will make some concession to 'Old Labour' values. He is prime minister of a country in which the war is threatening to destabilise everything else the government tries to do.

Can he recover from the depths of unpopularity? He faces major difficulties. Blair and his advisers--an increasingly fanatical and cliquish group of people with no real roots in the Labour Party--convinced themselves that going to war would silence criticism and raise his popularity. War equals patriotism equals popularity is a lesson Blair learnt from the Falklands War. He never learnt the lessons of Suez or of Vietnam, which showed that wars could wreck governments and leaders.

The same process is also now affecting George Bush. There is serious talk that Bush may lose next year's election--almost unthinkable a few months ago. Attempts to bring the UN on board with the Iraqi occupation show that even Bush is worried that he cannot win this war.

The anti-war movement internationally has been vindicated, although it gives no one any pleasure to say so with the Iraqi dead running into tens of thousands and the world now a much more dangerous place. War and globalisation have also opened up calls for a new politics embracing anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism, equality and social justice. It needs to be harnessed to the strength of the working class movement--the largest and most powerful base for challenging globalisation, privatisation and war. There is a great deal of support for a radical alternative in the unions--witness the unanimous vote at this year's TUC congress for an anti-war resolution calling for the end of the occupation.

A number of unions have elected left wing militant leaders--the so called 'awkward squad'--reflecting this growing radicalisation. But the awkward squad have received a number of setbacks in recent months, with the defeat of the firefighters, Mick Rix's failure in Aslef, and now the narrow loss of the Communication Workers Union strike ballot. Two problems stand out. The union has to win and win again the support of its members by constant discussion and campaigning, otherwise management, government and media will do so over their heads. And the union will be weakened if it allows its links with Labour to hamper its fight, as clearly happened with the firefighters.

The debate emerging from the war--whether to reclaim the Labour Party or to build an alternative to its left--is of crucial importance. It affects the confidence of working people to fight in the future. The result in Brent East, where Labour received a bloody nose at the hands of the Liberal Democrats, demonstrates the point. The Lib Dems are surfing the wave of anti-war sentiment despite having been pro-war while it took place. The plethora of left and anti-war candidates--despite the best attempts of the Socialist Alliance to get a unity candidate--did no service to the movement by weakening the left of Labour vote.

We can see the disaffection with Labour at every turn. It is now urgent to build an alternative which can help to shape a successful industrial challenge, and provide a political voice to the left.

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