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Weapons for Blair’s destruction

Natasha Grzincic reports on discontent within the Labour Party
April 2003

Calling all anti-war Labour Party members: Furious with the poodle's 'moral crusade'? Sickened by the government ignoring you? Check out www.cutitup.co.uk, a website set up by anti-war Labour supporters that declares: 'If you are ... really angry about this war you could take the ultimate plunge and commit yourself to "cut it up"' - cut up your Labour Party membership card, that is. So get your scissors poised and sign up now!

Fortunately for Labour Party HQ, the site (launched in the week leading up to the 15 February anti-war demonstrations) has received hundreds of hits but only dozens of pledges. Creator John Sargent, an IT consultant from Haworth, West Yorkshire, admits that the goal is not to get everyone to leave Labour. 'My aim was to put pressure on the government from within the party in a coordinated way rather than by an individual gesture which doesn't add up to a lot.'

Whether or not Sargent gets more pledges, he is ready to cut it up. 'I'm 48, and I've been a Labour Party member for 20-odd years. I can't remember anything that the Labour Party has done that has made me so incensed. This is a real matter of conscience for me.'

Sargent is just one of a growing number of disaffected Labour supporters who feel that war is the last straw. Richy Carrothers, a trade union official in Manchester, says that the majority of Labour Party members are against any war in Iraq. 'They fully understand that many innocent people will die as a result. Any such action will ensure that a new layer of Bin Ladens and young extremists will present themselves as the foot soldiers of the future. We should be supporting the people of Iraq by non-violent means to over-throw their murderous dictator, to bring about democracy and stability to their country.'

Carrothers is hesitant to leave, and makes a distinction between the party and its leaders. 'The Labour Party is not the war party, but the leadership are now as thirsty and hawkish as some of the more extreme elements in Washington.'

Leading anti-war MP, Alice Mahon, says she's been losing one or two members a week in her Halifax, West Yorkshire constituency - and that was before war had even started. One of the latest to go is her treasurer and former agent, Jack Oade. The retired firefighter was an active Labour Party member for over 40 years, and has held 'every position' from chair of the district party to chair of the regional TUC. At 57, he says he's done with politics. 'It's not just the war,' Oade is quick to point out. 'Nor is it the way Blair has discounted unions. It's not just PFI. It's everything about New Labour. You may as well have a Tory government.'

When I asked the Labour Party press office if many people were leaving the party because of the war, it dutifully referred me to Labour's latest annual report (released at the party conference last October). Membership has plummeted from a high of 405,000 following the 1997 election, to just over 272,000. Anecdotal evidence suggests that since then, resignations have been trickling in, while a whole lot more subs haven't been renewed. But the press office refused to acknowledge this, although a party insider informs us that figures are looked at on a weekly basis.

With disillusion running rampant, it may look like the party's over. But for some, the battle has just begun. Many of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, fearing the haemorrhaging of members over the government's stance on Iraq, have urged supporters to reclaim the Labour Party as the party for peace. Organising under the banner Labour Against the War (LATW), the group is currently comprised of 19 MPs, 23 constituencies, 29 branches, 700 individuals and several branches of trade unions.

Socialist Campaign Group chair, John McDonnell MP, says: 'It is now time for party members to take back control of our party from the New Labour clique that has hijacked it. If the leadership is not prepared to listen to the people of Britain in their clear opposition to war, then it will be swept aside.' The group is demanding an emergency recall of the Labour Party conference at which Blair's leadership could be challenged. The call for action has galvanised members in a Brighton ward, which has just passed a resolution calling for the PM who is so 'estranged from popular opinion' to tender his resignation.

Geoff Martin, London convenor of UNISON and LATW member, acknowledges that his local Battersea CLP is 'a rump organisation, down to the bare bones'. But he believes that those who have walked away 'have missed the boat. We still have far more impact than the Socialist Alliance or the SWP. The real fight is left back inside the Labour Party.'

The battle to reclaim the party has already started in England and Wales through the Labour candidate reselection process for the next general election, a process that will last until the autumn. Martin has been involved in a coordinated campaign to deselect his MP, Martin Linton, who did not vote against the government on Iraq in the unprecedented Commons' revolt in February. Pressure from the grassroots has made Linton re-evaluate his position, Martin insists. Following the Commons' revolt, 'Mr Linton told us that he would vote "no" if there isn't a second resolution. We will hold him to that. Blairites against Blair is the new cause,' he says. Other London MPs, such as Oona King, Bridget Prentice and Jim Fitzpatrick, have also been targeted.

Pro-government MPs who have successfully been reselected already are not off limits, either. Activists are storming their surgeries and demanding more consultation. 'Clare Short's announcement is helping to harness people, to get them focused and together,' Martin says. 'My advice is to keep pushing, put down motions, turn up at meetings, and urge all trade unions to send the maximum number of delegates to party meetings. We must use the full pressure that is at our disposal.'

Other constituencies are trying less hostile tactics, such as Manchester Labour Against the War. The high-profile network began with a weekly vigil outside the town hall initiated by some of the city's Labour councillors early this year. Manchester City Council has since passed a policy against war, and following on from the recent North West Regional Labour Party conference, a region-wide anti-war Labour network has started to take shape.

'We want to make the group very broad,' says Tony Dale, chair of Manchester Central Constituency Labour Party. 'We are open to any Labour MP who feels that the 'case for war has not been proven.' We give members a focus, and the party gives us an additional opportunity and base to campaign.' The group is planning to organise an emergency meeting in the North West on the first Friday after war breaks out to discuss how it should respond.

Wirral West is one of the constituencies to come on board. Constituency chair, Sylvia Hikins, explains the region's success: 'The general feeling in my constituency is to hold on to your party cards. The sleeping giant is waking up, and members are finding their voice and a sense of power over this. The North West has never been afraid of making coalitions with all kinds of bedfellows, across party, across beliefs. Solidarity is a wonderful thing.'

The reality remains, though, that the North West is the exception to the rule. Most Labour supporters are active in the anti-war movement as individuals and not as Labour Party members. Critics point to the undemocratic structures in the party - opaque policy forums, a toothless National Executive, trade union reps that don't use their muscle and powerless local governments.

In the North East, for example, canvassing your MP is seen as irrelevant. 'We've got Blair, Mandelson, the Blair babes... We don't look to them. They're loyalists and careerists,' says one member in Sunderland.

In Blair's constituency of Sedgefield, membership is a shadow of its 1997 heights. 'The mood within the membership is sombre and apprehensive,' a Sedgefield constituent told me. Most positions up for re-election have gone through unopposed - there just aren't enough candidates to fill the nominations. Several branches have decided not to carry out street canvassing for the coming local elections because Blair is so unpopular on a range of issues.

Many of Labour's branches and constituencies up and down the country are moribund or are not meeting quorums, a real problem for campaigners in what may be seen as the big test: the upcoming local elections. The opposition is cashing in. In a recent by-election in Camden, north London, the Lib Dems were able to ride the anti-war tide to victory in a traditional Labour stronghold.

There's also action outside the traditional parties. Damien Stone, a member of the Dorset Stop the War Coalition, is trying to get a full slate of (mainly paper) candidates to stand in the forthcoming local elections - to 'show the parties of war that we will eventually become an electoral threat.' Stone left the party last year 'in disgust at the Bush/Blair push for war'.

In Scotland, the Labour Party is weaker than in England and faces growing competition on the Left. Just three of the 10 constituencies in Glasgow - the only three that meet regularly - sent delegates to last year's party conference. In November, Renfrewshire councillor, Iain Hogg, a Labour member since he was 15, switched allegiance to the Scottish Socialist Party. Many firefighters are following suit. 'Labour has totally diverged from all they represent. The vacuum created on the ground has been filled by the SSP,' Hogg says.

The SSP claims it has been getting dozens of new recruits a day over the war, and hints of more Labour defectors. Similarly, the Plaid Cymru in Wales has been receiving offers of assistance on a daily basis because of their anti-war stance. 'There's been a very significant shift towards the party amongst Labour activists,' says the party's chief executive, Dafydd Trystan.

Back at Haworth, Sargent is unsure of his next move should he 'cut it up'. 'I'll remain politically active, but where do I go? That's the problem. I'll regret not being inside the party, but this is one of those defining moments. I definitely won't rejoin. I'll try and find other ways - like the Greens, the Socialist Alliance, pressure group politics...' His voice trails off. He's definitely not alone. Many Labour Party members are asking themselves the same question. Whether the accelerating decline in Labour membership will see a corresponding burgeoning of parties to the left of Labour is yet to be seen.




 

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