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Peter Hadden

Do we want New Labour to organise in Northern Ireland?

(October 2004)

From Socialist Voice, Dublin, October 2004.
Transcribed by Ciaran Crossey & marked up by Pat Lawlor.

A fringe meeting at the Labour Party Conference heard a call for the party to set up constituency organisations in Northern Ireland

The call was made by a local official of the GMB, Andy McGivern, who said that the party was receiving money from 13,500 trade union members in Northern Ireland, but was offering them no services in return.

Andy McGivern went on to argue that these people “have made a conscious choice to give funds to the party”. This is stretching the point more than a little.

A better measure of the local support for New Labour is the fact that, since the ban on people in Northern Ireland joining was lifted, less than 100 people have signed up.

The 13,500 workers pay money to Labour only because they are members of unions that are affiliated. Many are unaware they are paying into the union’s political levy, never mind that this money, £175,500 a year according to Andy McGivern, is being used by their union leaderships to prop up Tony Blair.

There is no clamour among working class people for New Labour to organise here. Rather there is a growing outrage at New Labour’s right wing policies. This is the government which is trying to impose water charges. It is the government of privatisation, of cuts in services, of crippling tuition fees and of a minimum wage set at a poverty rate. It is the government which has lied its way into a disastrous war against the Iraqi people in order to help George Bush and western oil companies get their hands on Iraqi oil.

Labour governments in the past also implemented right wing policies, but none swallowed the doctrines of neo liberalism or became leading evangels of a right wing offensive against the working class with the gung ho enthusiasm of Tony Blair. Despite the failures of past Labour governments, the party maintained a connection with the working class. Millions of working class people saw it as “their” party and felt they could influence or change it.

This is no longer so. The millions who at one time would have looked to Labour now recognise that its class character has changed. While the party retains trade union affiliation, these links are now at the top only, between the trade union bureaucracy and the Labour leadership. It still gets money from the unions but these sums are increasingly dwarfed by the huge amounts it receives from big business.

Last year it received £9.1 million in handouts from businesses, including huge donations like the £2.5 million given by Lord Sainsbury.

The instinctive understanding of workers that this is no longer “our” party is decisive in determining Labour’s future. The instinct to join Labour in order to “reclaim” it has gone. Instead workers are voting with their feet and leaving the party.

Party membership has halved since Blair became Prime Minister. The present official, and inflated, figure of 208,000 is the lowest for 70 years.

The real question is not why Labour does not organise in Northern Ireland, but why trade union leaders are still paying money, including money from members in Northern Ireland, to this party.

Some of the so-called “awkward” squad of “left” union leaders like Tony Woodley of the T&GWU are still arguing in favour of affiliation, and are preparing to give more money to Labour’s election fund, claiming they can get more influence in return.

Some privately back Gordon Brown, seeing his accession to Number Ten as a return to “Old Labour”. They forget that Gordon Brown has been the architect of the right wing economic agenda of this government. He has pioneered tax cuts to the rich, PFI schemes to sell off public services and is currently swinging his axe to cut 108,000 jobs from the civil service.

All these leaders are out of touch with the mood of the vast majority of trade union members who want to see all links with Labour broken. The firefighter’s union have given a lead with their conference decision, moved by Northern Ireland Socialist Party member, Tony Maguire, to disaffiliate.

Let New Labour organise in Northern Ireland if it wants. A Blairite organisation will have even less impact than the failed attempt by the Tories to transplant their Thatcherite organisation here.

In Britain the key now is to build a working class party to replace New Labour. In Northern Ireland the key task is to build a genuine socialist alternative to the failed sectarian and right wing parties. New Labour can never be a vehicle for this. Instead of calling for New Labour to organise, the 13,500 trade union members who are unwillingly paying money to Blair should demand that this £175,500 be put to proper use – building a new mass party to represent working class people here.

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