Bob Gould, 2002

British Labour and the Iraq war

Source: Marxmail, October 2-3, 2002
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

When discussing the British Labour Party conference or any other political event, it’s useful to have the facts.

Nigel Irritable is a member of a group that, as the Militant tendency, spent several decades of effective agitation inside the Labour Party, linked to an external group as well. Since leaving the Labour Party, the former Militant groups have become like the reformed drunk of the left on the Labour Party question, defining it as a bourgeois party from the time of their break with it.

This leads Nigel to put a spin on events at the BLP conference that have an unreal quality.

For Nigel, and others who share similar views, it’s now original sin for socialists to have anything to do with Labourism. If the British bourgeois media are any guide, the British ruling class might wish more people held this view, as the papers are full of commentary on the reverses suffered by Blair at the BLP conference, particularly the 40 per cent vote against the imperialist drive to war in Iraq and the near 50 per cent vote from the trade union bloc against Blair’s war plans.

From the point of view of the bloodthirsty British ruling class, such massive opposition within the official structures of the British Labour movement to the war plans of British imperialism is an enormous obstacle.

Tariq Ali’s piece on the London protest, posted on this list a few days ago, crisply, succintly and entertainingly illustrates the case for a united front involving the labour movement and Labour Party forces to build a mass movement against Blair’s war plans. I attach a few paragraphs describing what actually happened at the BLP conference on the Iraq war. It’s from an article by Kris Lawrie and Fred Weston.

The second controversial motion was the one on Iraq. It was clear that the Labour leadership were panicking about they way things might go. They withdrew their own motion before it went to discussion and vote because they thought it would be defeated. Instead they put forward a watered down alternative, which implied that any action would first have to seek UN approval. This was eventually adopted by 60 per cent to 40 per cent. The press have characterised this as a tactical withdrawal. It in fact shows their weakness when the Blairite leadership cannot get support for its own motion on the war.

A motion unconditionally opposing the war was put forward and discussed. This argued that military action would increase the suffering of the Iraqi people and worsen the instability in the Middle East. Alice Mahon, MP of the left Campaign Group, made the point that “this isn’t going to be a war about weapons of mass destruction. It will be the first war waged about oil, waged by the world’s biggest oil consumer”.

Conference delegate Eileen Sinclair (Cunningham South), said that the US would go in and bomb everything, creating more misery, and she pointed out that “the Iraqi people themselves, with the pressure of the world behind them, must depose Saddam Hussein — not us with bombs”.

Despite the fact that this motion was defeated 40.2 per cent to 59.8 per cent the Blairites can draw little consolation from such a narrow vote. Forty per cent in favour of the motion shows that there is widespread opposition to the war in the British labour and trade union movements.

However, the vote against the war was even higher among trade union delegates, 48 per cent of whom voted against. This compared to 32 per cent among party delegates. This is no accident, and is fully understandable. In the past the right wing of the Labour Party could count on their friends at the top of the major trade unions for support. An example of this was Sir Ken Jackson, the recently ousted general secretary of the AEEU (now called Amicus, the engineering workers’ union).

One by one these old right-wingers are being ousted. A new, more militant layer is coming to the fore and this is being reflected at every level of the trade union movement. As we predicted, this is now having an effect within the Labour Party itself. It is in the workplaces that workers are feeling the pinch. The process of radicalisation inevitably starts in the trade unions. But this inevitably had to spill over into the Labour Party itself. There is an organic link between the trade unions and the Labour Party. The party could not remain immune to this process.

Already there is opposition in the party branches. As trade union activists draw the conclusion from their struggles that they must get involved politically they will start to fill out the party branches and on this basis opposition will also be strengthened in the constituencies.

Dinosaurs versus sectarians, and the political use of Gaelic

October 3, 2002

Now I’m on first-name terms with my new mate, Brian Cahill (Nigel Irritable), I’d like to ask him what the Gaelic greeting means. I have no Gaelic. When many thousands of Irish convicts were deported to Botany Bay around the start of the 19th century, the first wave were almost all Gaelic speakers. The British military masters of the colony deported the first couple of Catholic priests who tried to minister to their flock, and then when they finally let some priests stay, they introduced brutal military regulations preventing the Irish gathering after mass to talk in Gaelic, which was considered a device for plotting insurrection, and indeed that was sometimes true, as in the Irish convict uprising at Castle Hill in 1804.

Later in the 19th century, when mass migration from Ireland became a powerful demographic force in Australian society, most Irish migrants from places like Clare and Tipperary were still Gaelic speakers. My grandfather, a Fenian Land Leaguer and follower of Michael Davitt, who came to the colony of NSW in the 1880s (one jump ahead of the constabulary after a typical Land League incident in his home village), was a Gaelic speaker from Tipperary.

Unfortunately, Gaelic in Australia, while it influenced the development of the Australian variant of the English language, has now died out.

These days, well-educated computer programmers and nurses from Ireland, here on one-year work-permits, etc, pass through my bookshop in droves, and I take considerable tribal pleasure in the fact that, due to the conquests of the working class in Ireland, they are far better educated than my struggling Irish peasant ancestors.

We plebeian Irish, both in the old country, and here in the countries of the Irish diaspora, have come a long way. However, judging by these young Irish, they don’t speak Gaelic at all, although they learn a little of it in school in the republic. I seem to remember from various times when I’ve been active in campaigns in support of the H-Block prisoners and the struggle of Sinn Fein and other republicans in Northern Ireland, that the brave republican volunteers interned in the Maze Prison of British imperialism studied Gaelic and communicated in it, as both a political statement and a means of communicating in private (a device a bit like the Irish convicts using Gaelic after mass in Australia in 1804 to plot insurrection).

But, comrade Brian, I’m a bit puzzled by your use of Gaelic in the context of contemporary Dublin, where it’s by no means a spoken language. Is it a kind of political fashion statement, an indirect political compensation for the very long period during which the Militant Group opposed the, entirely defensible, military aspect of the struggle of the oppressed Catholics in Northern Ireland?

Given our common cultural heritage, I hope you’ll acquit me of being anti-Catholic when I assert that your formulation about the membership of the British Labour Party is a bit on the Jesuitical side, and thoroughly non-dialectical, philosophically and practically speaking. You say: “similarly a majority of delegates voted against even reviewing the British government’s privatisation schemes”.

Stating it that way is being a bit cute. Seventy per cent of the total vote, including affiliated unions, was against privatisation.

You’re probably right that a majority of the delegates physically present voted in support of privatisation because a large proportion of the delegates from the constituency parties are members of the right-wing Blair levy, who poured into the Labour Party in the 1990s.

The point about the current moment is that the dramatic shift to the left in the unions has taken place before its reflection, which will very probably take place, in the constituency parties. You speak with contempt of the “dinosaurs” who have hung on in the British Labour Party, or still advocate an orientation towards it.

I wish it were the case that we had a few more dinosaurs in Australia of the stubbornness, weight and gravitas of a George Galloway, a Jeremy Corbyn or a Dennis Skinner or any one of the six or seven major union leaders of the left who are beginning to beat the drum against Blair.

The dogged 30 per cent left in the constituency parties who have survived the Blairite blizzard, and who on my understanding include a large number of people who have been around various parts of the Trotskyist movement at some stage, don’t deserve to be lightly dismissed as dinosaurs either.

They will shortly be joined by many other baby dinosaurs in the coming battles in the Labour Party, I think, drawn into it by the gravitational pull of the really big dinosaurs of British politics, the lumbering, bureaucratised, rather centralised trade unions of the working class, which are so explosively and seismically shifting to the left again.

I don’t think it’s very smart of you, Brian, to write off your old political mentor, Ted Grant, as a dinosaur. (I’ve never met him, but some people who have say he looks a bit like a dinosaur, but his physical appearance is not the issue). He and his group, whose political writings I have just discovered on the web, seem to have a quite coherent political orientation, with which I find myself in general agreement.

It’s interesting that other people, such as Bob Pitt and Richard Price, whose writings I have also just discovered, who come from a different political tradition — that of Gerry Healy — have arrived at a similar orientation to the Grant group and myself. I would describe this as an orientation towards the coming battles in the Australian and British labour movements and the British and Australian labour parties.

One strategic question that I would pose very sharply to the Militant tendency and others of a similar orientation: please drop your politically misguided campaign to get unions to disaffiliate from the labour parties in Britain and Australia. This campaign coincides with massive public pressure from the bourgeoisie directed towards achieving the same end.

You won’t succeed in this agitation anyway, except possibly in some white-collar unions, where it meshes with traditional anti-political backwardness. This is because of the clear gravitational pull of struggles inside the labour parties for unionists who want to actually influence events.

Study carefully Hillary Wainwright’s interview in Red Pepper with the officials of the “Awkward Squad” unions. The appropriate strategy concerning the political levy, expressed by one responsible left union official, is the one that should prevail: pay the full political levy to the Labour Party and get your full political representation, which you use to defend left-wing policies, but make no additional donations until the Labour Party changes its policy on the major questions.

What could be simpler or more direct than that proposition, from a socialist viewpoint?

Please, comrade Brian, and others of your point of view, drop the union disaffiliation question. In that matter you are in a small way assisting the immediate tactical aims of the ruling class.

Perspectives and the united front

I have no objection at all to the comrades who want to build organisations primarily outside and in opposition to labourism, proceeding in the way they wish. Go to it! I and others have a different socialist political perspective.

The two streams on this aren’t going to convince each other in the short term. Let the old saw misused by the Stalinists, “life itself”, enlighten us as we proceed in pursuit of our different perspectives. Let us persist in parallel with our various activities without lightly dismissing each other as “dinosaurs” or “sectarians”.

Let’s concentrate in a practical way on the united front against Bush, Blair and Howard, for the overthrow of the right-wing bureaucracies in the unions, etc, etc. Let us co-operate in our activities where we agree. Let us argue where we must, and let our arguments focus in a rational and intelligent way on serious strategic questions without too much abuse, although in my mind the occasional joke, if not too personal, can liven things up a bit.

Your new mate, “Dinosaur” Bob