Thursday, September 14, 2006

After New Labour.

Having returned from his Great Statesman voyage to the Middle East, where he embraced the repellent Olmert, Blair has had to face to the near-certain knowledge that he is going before he wants to. He now knows for sure that he is not only less popular than Thatcher at her lowest ebb, but even less popular than Bush is in America, with a 66% disapproval rating. The rats continue to flee that vessel, termite-ridden, water-logged and coming apart at the seams. I don't know if Claire Short counts as a rat, but she has announced that she is standing down and will not be a Labour candidate at the next election. To be honest, I don't really trust Claire Short, but the case she makes is interesting, and rather similar to the one soft left Labour dissidents made at the last election: a serious punishment for the Labour Party and a diminution in its votes and seats to the extent of having a hung parliament would produce new policies from Labour. Short hopes that a wave of electoral reform will ensue and increase representation of the smaller parties. This isn't going to work and it isn't going to happen, but for a Labour MP to openly admit what many appear to have been thinking for some time is indicative of the depth of the crisis. Indeed, Short gets to the root of the problem: there is no discussion and the current leadership contest is going to be largely about personalities.

Those who remain aboard are either mutinous or are trying desperately to shore up the pop-eyed captain. Harriet Harman, the MP who enacted New Labour's vindictive cuts to single mother benefits and who co-drafted the government's statement that the invasion of Iraq would be legal, is now fretting that foreign policy has destroyed the electorate's trust in the government. She proposes a healthy "debate" at the Labour Party conference, which is rather sweet but too late. You've killed hundreds of thousands on the basis of lies: the time for debate was before that. Now is the time for show-trials and executions.

Besides which, New Labour is doing its best to avoid a real debate, as it usually does. Manchester's New Labour council has voted to ban a peace camp planned by Military Families Against the War during the Labour conference there: the families intend to defy the council. It is, of course, extremely important that as many people are there to support them as possible, and you can add that to the million and one other reasons you want to give New Labour the most punishing conference season it has had for years.

Of course, it's one thing to get Blair out. As we all know, his replacement is going to be a neoconservative Bush flunky and a rampant privatiser at home. The inequality and misery of Britain will increase, local councils enchained to these PFI schemes will become more and more indebted,the wars will continue to sap the Treasury, and the economy - well, that will be perfectly super because despite the fact that the ILO figures show an increase in unemployment to 1.7 million, the government's own figures for those claiming benefits (which it promised in 1997 it would not use) have declined. So, we won't notice a recession because all the government has to do is eliminate benefits, means-test everyone off the system, and the unemployment rate will be zero.

So it's not good enough to get rid of Blair, even if it will be a pleasurable start. Crucially, the unions will have to stop sitting on their complacent arses and act. On this matter, of some significance will be the upcoming Organising for Fighting Unions Conference, which has recently been supported by the striking firefighters in Merseyside, and is already backed by the RMT, as well as the general-secretaries of the PCS and UCU and John McDonnell MP. Why is this important? I suppose because there have been a number of fightbacks by the unions on crucial issues, which have frustrated the government on its various neoliberal initiatives. On cuts, the FBU and the UCU have fought the government. On pensions, the PCS and Unison have fought. On privatisation, the RMT have fought. Now, NHS workers are fighting privatisation. Unions and community activists have worked together in several towns and cities to deliver some hammering defeats to New Labour's attempt to privatise council housing. On the 'war on terror', trade union activists and leaders have been crucial in assisting and organising opposition. And yet, these fightbacks have usually been fragmentary, unsustained and have often led to only partial victories or sell-outs or losses. It isn't right to say that this is only because of the well-paid union bureacrats holding things back: there as an entire tradition of grassroots, rank and file militancy that needs to be rediscovered and reinvented. If union leaders are caught between the competing pressures of the demands of the workers they represent on the one hand and the need to make nice to the boss on the other, then it makes no sense to say it's a sell-out every time a strike ends with a shitty deal. It is the strength of working class self-organisation that is being tested in a strike, not the diplomatic skills of the leader or shop steward.

There is a real problem with union membership which, although it has been more resilient than in some countries, still saw a 27.1% decline in overall representation between 1990 and 2003. As the RMT has shown, a combative strategy can not only win gains for workers, but actually lead to dramatic increases in union membership. Many people won't see a point in becoming a union member if it doesn't appear to be doing anything to fight for their interests.

Rebuilding militancy in the unions will have to go hand in hand with realigning British politics. The Labour Party may find a way to shore up its shattering electoral base, but its days as a party capable of delivering reforms are over. We need an entirely new politics, and while electoral reform may make it easier for smaller parties to be represented, it can also provide deceptive gains that don't necessarily reflect long term potential. There is no legislative short-cut to grassroots activism and building in local communities (which, though it pains me to say it, involves such banal drudgery as standing in the middle of a street on a Saturday with leaflets or petitions or whatever, trying to talk to people and make connections and recruit). In short, we need to build Respect as the militant left-wing party that can represent the interests of working people in this country, and show solidarity with those of other countries. We need to build links between it and the unions too.

Getting rid of Blair isn't enough, and neither is relying on parliamentary tinkering or voting for - Lord save us - the Liberal Democrats. Only our own actions will bring about the changes that we need to see.