Tony Benn’s last straw?


Tony Benn, writing in The Guardian yesterday, expressed his fears about New Labour’s plans to exclude the membership from proposing policy debates at the party’s conference.

You would think that a protest vote on this or that issue, with no outcome in terms of party policy, would not be enough to keep people in the Labour party. I kind of hope that the leadership succeeds in its intentions – then at least those genuine socialists in the party might consider challenging New Labour from the outside…

Bob Wareing had to be ousted before he would admit there is no future in Labour. Perhaps it will take this year’s conference to get Tony Benn to admit there is no way that the party can be “reclaimed”.

Here’s the body of his article:

Next week’s may be the last real Labour conference I shall attend after 65 years membership of the party. For if constitutional amendments put forward by the leadership are accepted, delegates will no longer be permitted to pass any resolutions on any policy questions.

The argument put forward is that when there is a Labour government it is unacceptable for members of the party, at conference, to be able to vote for policies that are in conflict with government policy. This process began in the 90s, when New Labour came to power and most proposals were referred to the national policy forum in which the government had a permanent majority.

But it was agreed that eight resolutions could be put to the conference every year – four from constituency parties and four from the unions. The conference was able, for instance, to vote for a restoration of the link between pensions and earnings. The government did, however, succeed in preventing discussion on other sensitive issues like Iraq and its decision to go ahead with Trident.
If the new proposals – now endorsed by the NEC and apparently some major trade unions – are accepted, delegates will only be allowed to identify issues they want looked at by the policy forums, and the manifesto that emerges will be put to a referendum of party members to accept or reject in full, with no possibility of amendment. This would complete the New Labour project under which the conference becomes a platform for ministers and a few handpicked delegates – and, of course, a big trade fair. There would be no point in joining the party locally or affiliating as a union in the hope of discussing policy.

In short, party members will only have one campaigning function – to get councillors and a government elected with policies which they have played no part whatsoever in formulating. If this divorce happens, policy campaigning will revert to those outside the party and parliament. This would be a tragedy, but it would indicate clearly that the New Labour leadership’s attitude to the party and the movement is not only that they don’t want certain policies passed but also that they don’t want any decisions reached they do not control.

Of course this would also affect MPs, who would become elected “civil servants”. I very much hope conference rejects the change, and makes clear that it intends to strengthen its role in policymaking; this the delegates in Bournemouth will have the power to do. But those who want to deal with issues not on the government’s agenda will have to campaign vigorously outside parliament and build a body of opinion so strong no political party would be able to ignore it. Since I left parliament, all my work has been along those lines – against the Iraq war, privatisation, student loans; and for comprehensive education, union and workers’ rights, civil liberties and public housing. The focus of these campaigns has hitherto been the conference, but if that opportunity is removed, the party will deprive itself of the support of activists when polling day comes.

Conference will then be an annual meeting for the fan club of the parliamentary bigwigs and their business friends. Even the fringe meetings which are now so vibrant could disappear, because those who attend them will know the issues they are interested in will never get on to the conference floor.

That is the choice that has to be made in Bournemouth – and it is the biggest decision since the party was founded, for it could also end the role of parliament as the buckle that links the demonstrations on the street to the legislation on the statute book upon which democracy itself depends.

An excellent article from this week’s issue of The Socialist, offers the way forward:

Time for a new party

The new merged union ‘Unite’ is leading a lobby of Labour Party conference on Sunday 23 September. A whole list of grievances will be presented to the Labour leadership in defence of the rights of working people. But millions of trade union members will be asking, how can the big unions still remain handcuffed to New Labour, in the face of its pro-business agenda?

Rob Williams, Unite convenor, Swansea Visteon plant, personal capacity

These union general secretaries correctly denounced Brown for his ‘meet and greet’ session with Thatcher. Aware of the disgust that workers will have felt looking at the pictures, they embarrassingly rushed out statements attacking Brown.

Yet the very same leaders refuse to carry those sentiments through to their logical conclusion – stop giving millions of our union subs to New Labour and launch a new mass workers’ party. Thatcher called the miners “the enemy within” and is now paraded by a Labour prime minister in front of No.10.

Of course, New Labour prime ministers, like Thatcher herself, are war leaders as well. Millions live in poverty but billions are spent in the illegal war and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tens of thousands of miners and steelworkers were sacked by Thatcher, just as Brown announced over 100,000 civil servants losing their jobs live on TV when he was chancellor. Yet the union leaders have been doing their best to try and persuade us that Brown is different to Blair. But he is an architect of the New Labour regime.

He is planning to remove the last vestiges of democracy and trade union representation from the already neutered Labour Party conference. Why do we need to waste more time and money? We need to cut the links with Labour now.

The trade unions are campaigning to get the Trade Union Freedom Bill passed. The anti-trade union laws were used to defeat the miners and the printers at Wapping. Yet these laws remain today, even after ten years of a Labour government.

Surely, if Labour MPs don’t deliver yet again, the penny needs to drop, lets cut the links and launch a new party that can link together the millions that have opposed this government, from the anti-war protestors to the anti-NHS cuts campaigners.

One Response to “Tony Benn’s last straw?”

  1. Gerard Mulholland Says:

    The Delegates to this year’s Labour Party Conference have one last service to render to their great predecessors from 1900 to 1994, to the century of hope created by the first nine Labour Governments, to today’s British workers by hand and by brain and to the generations of the ever more re-oppressed working class to come.
    And that is to wind up the Labour Party, replacing it with the nothing-at-all that Labour’s modern leaders have come to represent..

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