Labour Party activists talk about their anger at Blair's drive to war.
A war on Iraq could plunge the Labour Party into its biggest crisis ever, with the possibility of mass resignations and the certainty that tens of thousands of Labour Party members will be marching against the government on 15 February. This is a prospect that, you would think, would worry the Blairites at head office, but that's not the feeling I got when I telephoned Labour's headquarters to ask for a response: 'We're not aware of anyone leaving the Labour Party because of the war on Iraq. Nor are we aware of any feeling of discontent. It won't be until the Labour Party conference later in the year when we publish the annual report on membership that it will be apparent what effect Labour's policies are having on our members.'
It was a rather banal response, but then I guess Labour's press office is used to dealing with awkward questions. I was trying to find out if they had any sense of the depth of feeling among their own membership about the impending war.
'What about a recent poll in the "Independent on Sunday",' I asked, 'the one that showed that only two out of 35 Constituency Labour Party (CLP) officials felt that their members would support British involvement in a military strike without UN backing?' 'No comment,' was the rather frosty response. 'You'll have to talk to those who conducted the research. But different people will say different things according to what they're asked.'
The 'Independent on Sunday' poll was also supported by one in the 'Sunday Telegraph' which showed that thousands of Labour Party members would resign if war took place without a UN resolution. It also showed that 89 percent of 74 local Labour Party chairs opposed the war. Blair, Prescott, Straw and the rest of the Labour leadership are effectively putting two fingers up to many of their own members. Many of these people were there in 1997 when Blair was elected on a tide of euphoria and anti-Tory anger. But the overwhelming feeling you get today is that this latest military adventure is the final straw.
Pre-emptive war is wrong
Valerie Smalley is a member of Westcotes CLP in Leicester West. She's been a Labour Party member for 16 years and is also a member of the General Council in Leicester. Her local MP is the trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt. Valerie recently questioned her about Labour's stance on Iraq: 'The most diplomatic way to put this is to say Patricia Hewitt's response was "measured",' she said. 'It was that of a minister. She told me that she didn't believe in breaking ranks with the government as she thought it was improper. Basically she was very Blairite and she'll probably back whatever Tony Blair tells her to back.
'I'd say that most Labour Party members are against the war and many are strongly against the war. Some of these are bound to leave if war takes place. You have to bear in mind that when we first joined the Labour Party in this ward there were in excess of 100 members--that was 16 years ago. Today there are now about 30 members. A lot have left recently because of Blair's policies. I stayed in because I felt that I had some influence, but I will resign from the Labour Party if they go to war--there is no question about that. I may also stand in opposition to them, although I'm still considering that. Even if the UN backs the war I will still leave. I may make less fuss but I will still go because I think pre-emptive war is wrong.'
It's not simply that Blair ignores the wishes of his own party members, but he seems hellbent on ignoring the wishes of the majority of people in this country. And the more he tries to make the case for war, the more the opposition against it hardens. This was a view expressed by Hugh McCaw, a Rossendale Labour councillor in the north west: 'The Labour Party has said that they are against war--and he ignores them; the public are saying that they are against it--and he ignores them; the trade unions say they are against it--and he ignores them. So who exactly is he taking his lead from?
'I'm sickened to the bottom of my gut that the Labour Party is leading a coalition of the ultra-right into a war that is unjust and unfounded. Blair talks about the need for a democratic process yet he is riding on the coat-tails of a president who is undemocratically elected. Blair singularly imposes his philosophical thinking on the Labour Party and everybody is supposed to follow suit. There is no debate, no democracy, no intellectual thought and no philosophical thinking.
'The feeling against the war goes very deep inside the Labour Party. Anyone who voices a feeling against the party line is seen as a traitor. There is no debate taking place within the party, particularly over the war. I have yet to meet a Labour councillor who agrees this is a just war. In fact I have yet to meet a single individual who supports this war.'
Labour Party members in Moseley ward, Birmingham, were so angry about the war they decided to pass a resolution condemning the leadership's position. The motion pointed out that the war was essentially about the control of oil. They also decided to affiliate to the local Stop the War Coalition group as Henry Miller, a local Labour Party member, explains: 'I have been a member of the Labour Party since I was 17 and I'm now 62. I saw this resolution was down for the branch meeting so I went along to support it. I have got increasingly disillusioned with Blair's stance on Iraq. His statements are ambiguous to say the least, and are in effect supporting Bush's position. It's true to say that most people in my Labour Party branch are very disillusioned, upset and disturbed with that position. The motion went through with minimum fuss with only a few people opposed. As a result a similar motion will go to the CLP. My guess is that this is happening across the country at local Labour Party wards. Talking to a lot of my friends, many of whom are in the Labour Party, there is a high degree of disillusionment, disgust and frustration with the Labour Party leadership. A lot of people are wondering if it is worthwhile staying in the Labour Party. This, I believe, is a widespread feeling and it's a crisis much more acute than before.
'There will be some resignations from the Labour Party over the war. There has been a trickle of resignations over the last few weeks anyway. Even if the war gets a UN go-ahead, it seems that opinions are polarising. A few weeks ago a lot of people took the view, both within the Labour Party and elsewhere, that we should insist on a UN resolution to get intervention. Now I think a lot of the so called middle ground is being eroded and increasingly there are more and more people saying that we are not going to support a war at any price--whether there is a UN resolution or not.
'There is still a chance that opinion could be mobilised around the world and channelled through governments. Blair, Schröder and Chirac can be subjected to pressure. It's not cut and dried that Bush is going to go ahead--there is a big possibility that this can certainly be delayed, and any delay makes it more difficult for them to go ahead.'
Labour Party membership has been declining since 1997, when it was about 400,000 members. Today it is about 270,000. If the war breaks out then it is clear many members will leave. Patrick Seyd and Paul Whitley have conducted a number of surveys on Labour Party membership over the years. Ten years ago they conducted the only national survey on ex-members. This was just after the last Gulf War and their research showed that a substantial number left because of the war. This time round, however, they believe the opposition goes much deeper, as they stated in the 'Guardian' recently: 'It seems reasonable to conclude that opposition to the war in Labour's grassroots is now likely to be much greater than it was ten years ago. If the first Gulf War produced mass defections from the Labour Party, then the second is likely to produce a massive crisis in the grassroots... There is likely to be a significant haemorrhaging of the membership...This in turn will have both financial and electoral consequences. The party will lose significant amounts of money at a time when it is already in financial difficulties, and its electoral prospects will be greatly weakened in the future by the lack of campaign volunteers on the ground.'
Some are so angry at New Labour's policies that they have decided to quit even before war breaks out. Phil Bryce is a member of Devonport CLP in Plymouth. He was a longstanding member but recently decided that enough was enough: 'I decided this year that I was not going to rejoin the Labour Party. I'm a socialist and joined the Labour Party many years ago, but I am very angry about the war on Iraq. Also there has been all the privatisation that has taken place, whether it be public services or the tube. We should have learnt the lesson of the previous privatisations that have failed, but Labour hasn't. Also I don't agree with what Prescott and Blair say about the trade unions. The way they have run down the FBU is not right. They use the word "modernisation" when we all know it means cuts. Put simply, Labour is running down our public services at the same time that they want to launch a war--and that's not right.'
Many Labour Party members face an agonising decision about whether to leave or stay and fight. Most have spent years campaigning for policies they believe in and for the election of a Labour government. But as Labour increasingly shifts to the right many members are faced with only one option, as Hugh McCaw explains: 'I will listen to those around me who say stay and fight within the Labour Party, but there is a limit to how long I am willing to do that. Why am I paying money to a party that I am beginning to despise and despair about?'
One of the more persuasive arguments that many Labour members face is that to leave now means abandoning the party to the Blairites. But there are a number of things to say about this. Firstly, it is quite clear that Blair and the cronies around him already have a stranglehold on the party. They have reduced any democracy to a sham, constituency groups are often ignored and the leadership can ride roughshod over any resolution that is passed at the annual conference. Blair is clearly more concerned about the opinions of George Bush or Rupert Murdoch than he is of ordinary workers who voted him into office. If the Labour leadership is not even prepared to consider the views of their members on the most important issue the Blair government has faced--war on Iraq--then many must ask what point is there staying?
Secondly, it is clear that socialists can be more effective if they are outside the Labour Party than in it. The rise of the anti-capitalist and anti-war movement has been built largely by revolutionary socialists, trade unionists and other individuals who have not been hampered by the need to 'keep dissent to a minimum because we have spent years in opposition'. And they have recognised that the movement must be built in the face of hostile opposition from a Labour government. As Phil Bryce explains: 'The result of leaving the Labour Party is that I'm now entitled to say more than if I had a party card or if I had to maintain loyalty to the party. I can now speak out against everything Labour stands for.'
Finally, mass defections will come at a time when many trade unions are considering their links with Labour. Last year the GMB and the CWU both cut their donations to the Labour Party. The RMT is also considering its affiliation, and Blair's determination to try to smash the firefighters has greatly increased the tensions between New Labour and the unions. Literally thousands of firefighters have called for their affiliation fee to Labour to be cut. There is now a real and ongoing debate within the labour and trade union movement about where funding should go and what sort of alternative to Labour we need. Both the Socialist Alliance in England and Wales and the Scottish Socialist Party have made real and significant gains in local and national elections. While they still have a long way to go to be the national force capable of challenging New Labour, they clearly have policies that appeal to large numbers of working class people who are disaffected with the government and are looking for an alternative. To leave the Labour Party over the principled position of the war is not to be left in the wilderness, but is to be part of a growing movement that is increasingly powerful and influential.
Next month sees a major rally taking place in central London around the theme of 'Where is New Labour going?' Speakers include Labour MP George Galloway, a number of trade union leaders such as Bob Crow of the RMT and Mark Serwotka of the PCS civil servants' union, as well as John Rees from the Socialist Alliance. The meeting will be certain to raise questions about the future of the left and how we can most effectively fight Blair and channel opposition to the war. By tying himself to the warmongers in the White House it is Blair who has raised the stakes in this conflict and raised the possibility of a realignment of politics in Britain. Not since the formation of the Labour Party over a hundred years ago have socialists faced a more crucial and important period in the history of the labour movement in this country.