Chris Harman

Politics in Britain

Message to those who say ‘reclaim Labour’

(6 September 2003)

From Socialist Worker, No.1867, 6 September 2003.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Worker Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Socialist Worker editor Chris Harman says that there are urgent challenges for the left to take up – and delay could be dangerous

TONY BLAIR is in deep trouble. He has rested his hopes on Lord Hutton excusing his behaviour over the Kelly affair. But the tribunal has inadvertently uncovered mountains of evidence showing the scale of the government lies about the war.

The inquiry has also revealed just how much our opposition worried Blair and his acolytes. And the resistance in Iraq has shown how vulnerable US imperialism still is.

Blair was already deeply unpopular with many traditional Labour voters before the build-up to war. Remember, the turnout at the general election two years ago was just 59 percent.

The bitterness over low pay, privatisation and the failings of the health service goes back a long way.

Motions for the TUC and Labour Party conference give a sense of the simmering discontent over issues like foundation hospitals, top-up fees, pensions, the lack of workers’ rights and much more.

For many people the lies over the war have been the last straw, the final evidence that New Labour in general and Blair in particular are not to be trusted over anything.

The knives are already out within the cabinet to try to replace Blair with someone supposedly less tainted than he is. But they have neither the principles nor the courage to make the necessary moves.

The situation is to some degree eerily similar to that during the Wilson government of the late 1960s and the Callaghan government of the late 1970s.

On both occasions, disillusionment with the performance of Labour in office led to millions of votes haemorrhaging away. In the late 1960s the Tories were able to take control of major cities like Sheffield and Birmingham. In the late 1970s the Tories won by-election after by-election in formerly solid Labour areas.

Liberals: a fake alternative

Fortunately, this time the Tories are in no condition to gain in that way. They are ineptly led and cut off from important sections of big business by their line over Europe.

In the cities of the Midlands and south of England, the Liberals are often the beneficiaries of disillusion with Labour. They, for instance, expect to do well in the Brent by-election in two weeks time.

But the Liberals are a fake alternative. When they run councils they follow the same polices of privatisation and cuts as New Labour and the Tories. They attacked the striking firefighters.

Meanwhile, disillusionment with New Labour and Liberals alike is allowing the BNP Nazis to gain electorally in some areas.

Yet there is one great difference with the late 1960s and, even more, the late 1970s. That is the sheer scale of potential support for the forces to the left of Labour.

A central reason for the crisis of the Blair government is that just over six months ago two million people marched in London against the war, the biggest demonstration Britain has ever seen.

That is at least five times more than the combined forces of the soft and hard right could mobilise last summer through the Countryside Alliance, despite having the full support of most of the national press.

A year ago we used to compare the left wing movement against the war with that against the Vietnam War in 1968. Since then the movement has grown to ten or even 20 times larger than that movement.

It represents the entry into political activity of a whole new generation of young people – and with that the reactivation of many of the older generation.

The movement has been enormously effective in resisting the war. The demonstration on 27 September is another opportunity to show how widespread is the opposition to the occupation of Iraq-and to attempts at new imperialist adventures elsewhere.

But there is another essential task to be undertaken. That is to fill the vacuum on the left when it comes to politics over other issues.

The left was central to the anti-war demonstrations. It would be a terrible missed opportunity if disillusionment with New Labour leads very many people to put their hopes in a party like the Liberal Democrats, or, much more dangerous, in the BNP.

We have to show there is a focus to the left to millions of people who are sick to death of the government’s record and the erosion of their own lives. If we do not, the gutter press will continue to try to deflect that bitterness onto asylum seekers and other minorities. This will allow the warmongers to regroup and the big business interests to continue as before.

The situation could become really dangerous if, as seems possible, the economy slides into a full crisis in the next couple of years. We would see again the mass unemployment and house repossessions that we suffered in the early 1990s.

Filling the vacuum on the left is not just a nice idea. It is a necessity if we are to guarantee avoiding the gravest consequences.

Yet wide sections of the left are not rising to the challenge. They are refusing to measure up to the possibilities the movement offers us.

This is absolutely clear as we approach the TUC and Labour Party conferences. Instead of saying clearly and boldly that we need a left alternative to Labour, most of the recently elected left wing union leaders are doing their utmost to persuade activists to cling on to the Labour Party.

They are telling people that pressure can bring change at the top of the Labour Party and within the government. Yet the only change realistically on offer within the party at the moment is the replacement of Blair by Brown.

That would mean the replacement of the man who waged the war by the man who bankrolled it!

It would involve pushing into Downing Street the man whose insistence on holding back public expenditure to Tory levels created the decaying conditions and low wages that blight the public services, the man who drew up a list of every last item which might be privatised.

Socialist Worker has worked with some other forces on the left to try to provide the national left focus that is so desperately needed. We have been hamstrung by an electoral system which makes it seem that even if you get a good result in a council election it can often appear that those votes were wasted.

But we have been even more hamstrung by those people who continue to tell us we have to put our faith in some miraculous change at the top of the Labour Party.

They say the left can never present a viable alternative to Labour for millions of people-and then act in such a way as to make it much more difficult to present that alternative.

By their actions they are contributing to the situation which allows the BNP to pick up council seats as Labour voters stay at home. They are facilitating the attempt by the Liberals to appear as the alternative in a solidly working class area like Brent.

We hope that events will make them see how mistaken their approach is. But we cannot simply wait for them to change their minds.

That is why the Socialist Alliance has been using what forces it has to try to intervene in elections like that in Brent. If we can make a breakthrough the whole left and the whole movement will benefit.

If we cannot then everyone will suffer, including those who are making the terrible mistake of not breaking with Labour.

As part of the wider effort to raise the level of socialist activity to the level of the movement, the growth of the Socialist Workers Party is also vital. Our paper sales, our attempts to build activist groups in each locality and workplace, our Marxist forums, our encouragement of rank and file grouping in the unions are all crucial.

If we are successful we could, for the first time ever in Britain, see disillusionment with Labour in government lead to a massive swing to the left. If we neglect the task, we are helping to prepare the ground for the same bitter experiences suffered after Labour governments in the past.

Last updated on 13 December 2009