Left challenges Blair at British Labor Party conference

By William Pomeroy, People's Weekly World, 25 October 1997

The first annual conference of the British Labor Party since the sweeping Labor electoral victory on May 1, meeting in the seaside town of Brighton Sept. 29-Oct. 3, has been the first major testing of the direction being taken by Prime Minister Tony Blair's government and of his leadership over the party.

It showed the right-wing Blair in command and in control but with the left wing of the party still intact and capable of winning strong support for left-inclined positions.

Labor came to power on a wave of national discontent with Tory Party rule after 19 years of Thatcher-Major policies of shifting the country's wealth increasingly to the already rich and of dismantling the welfare state structures and worker rights that post-war Labor governments had once erected.

There was no doubt that those who voted Labor did so primarily to throw the Tories off their backs and in expectation that a Labor regime would be more responsive to people's needs.

However, the Labor leadership that led the party to victory has been far different from even the mildest social- democratic leaders of the past. The Tony Blair, who gained the leadership in 1995, had roots in neither the labor movement nor the traditions of the Labor Party. His line was that the party could only gain power and keep it by changing its character.

What he proclaimed was a new Labor Party, committed to modernization. The precise meaning of those terms has never been defined up to now but their content was made plain in Blair's step by step use of his leadership: the scrapping of socialist-oriented provisions in the party constitution, the downgrading and severing of the party's basic ties with the trade unions, the projection of the whole nation concepts instead of recognition of class divisions, a comprehensive reform of the welfare state, and, along with these, moves to reduce democracy and dissent in the party.

The course of Blair in the Labor Party has not been wholly smooth. He has been opposed by the left minority (which he has tried to isolate and to put under his thumb), by the more progressive trade unions, and by many of the local (constituency) party organizations.

These differences were kept muted in the name of unity in the run-up to the May election but they have increasingly come to the fore as the Blair government and its predominantly right-wing cabinet have begun to implement modernization.

Among such steps are a wholesale review of all welfare benefits with a view toward reduction, a shifting of state pensions to private pension systems especially via the insurance companies, the abolition of payment by the state of university student tuition fees, which students must now pay themselves (which hits poor working class youth). A central concept promoted by Blair and the New Labor group he has built around himself, is the Private Finance Initiative, which would bring private funds in the finance services and the welfare system while state spending is reduced. It is a part of the Blair program for the cooperation of government and business, to which he has given the maximum attention while cold-shouldering the trade unions, many of which have assailed pvi as a sell- out to big business.

Blair attended the Brighton conference with the undismissable charisma of having led the party to victory. He has had massively favorable treatment in all the media on a par with that given to Princess Diana. With such status he had little difficulty in even swinging the majority of delegates behind his key programmatic document, Partnership Into Power, which curtails the powers of conference itself and tightens the Blair grip on the party.

Nevertheless, the discontent of the left wing and other sections of the party had its expression through out the conference. It opened with a mass demonstration outside the conference hall by trade unionists, mainly from numerous branches of the big union of public sector workers, UNISON, which carried a forest of placards denouncing pvi, urging higher taxes instead to pay for better public service, attacking the ending of tuition on fees for students, demanding higher pay for teachers and health workers and for defense of Labor ties with the trade unions.

The most open display of the undercurrent of opposition to Blairism occurred on the conference floor, in the election of members of the national executive committee, especially in the section representing constituency parties. Blair had strongly backed the electing of his right-hand man, Peter Mandelson, the spin-doctor strategist behind the modernization whom Blair has made a Minister Without Portfolio in his cabinet.

Mandelson's bid for the executive was contested by Ken Livingston, one of the leading left-wing MPs, an open and active opponent of Blair, Livingston won, by a large margin, along with two other left-wingers for the seven constituency posts.

When Blair, in his heavily rhetorical keynote speech, declared that for business this will be a government on your side, not in your way, and that there was no place for militant trade unionism or uncaring management today, it was greeted with stony silence, as was his assertion that hard choices were necessary, implying the cutting of spending on welfare.

That sentiment opposing this line extends beyond the Labor Party to the country as a whole was exhibited in a letter published in the Financial Times in the course of the conference. Signed by 50 leading academics, professors of social science and sociology, it came out against the social policy of the labor government so far, condemning its attitude of erasing from the map a policy of redistributing the nation's wealth to favor the living standards of those experiencing poverty, and of failing to reverse the massive redistribution from poor to rich achieved by the Tories.

The building of a broad movement within the Labor Party for the return to true Labor values, for which a mood and potential exist, will require a shift in the tendency of trade union leadership to seek deals and agreements with the Blair government rather than to mobilize determined resistance to its policies.