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The albatross around Labour’s neck

Peter Kenyon asks was I-R-A-Q the shortest political suicide note in history?

Labour’s so-called radical 3rd term hangs on a cold, cynical, unscrupulous calculation by the Blairites and their coterie – that enough votes will be cast for Labour to ensure a majority of seats in the British Parliament at the next General Election.

How else can the outcome of the 2004 Labour Party Conference and its immediate aftermath be understood?

The trade unions were squared off at the National Policy Forum in Warwick with a lengthy, but modest programme of workplace reforms. Some members of the awkward squad wanted to be more radical in Brighton. The response from No.10 was blunt – “Rock the boat and you can forget Warwick”. Efforts to mobilise delegates by the disparate and growing number of ginger groups on the centre-left of the Party working under the Umbrella project got I-R-A-Q on the agenda, just. In the Priorities ballot CLP delegates were advised by Labour Party staff to vote for the Trade Union priorities. Those four subjects were guaranteed Agenda time under a Rule change promoted by CLPD last year to give CLPs an opportunity to add four subjects for debate to the Conference agenda. That abuse of party democracy is just one of the subjects of official complaints to the NEC in the aftermath of the 2004 Conference. Defiance over Iraq was sufficient to get the issue debated.

That aside, there was no space anywhere that might matter in Brighton for a considered discussion about Labour’s electoral strategy.

To make the point without further ado, Tony Blair announced his intention to serve a full 3rd term the day after Conference ended. His audacity can only be applauded. At least it has helped sharpen debate.

To realise his personal ambition, the Labour leader can call a General Election any time in the next 18 months. No checks and balances have been proposed to introduce a trigger ballot mechanism for the re-election of Leader and Deputy Leader while Labour is in government. So what are the likely dates? If the proposed elections in Iraq take place in relative peace and calm, and the legitimacy of the interim Iraqi government is enhanced, then an early British general election in 2005 cannot be ruled out. Matthew d’Ancona writing in the Sunday Telegraph on 24 October concludes that the assignment of a battalion of the Black Watch regiment to the so-called triangle of death is nothing more than a stunt to improve Labour’s electoral chances after the vote in Iraq.

Political commentators, betting services and most people in the street remain fixed on a May 2005 election. But if stuff happens, the British electorate could be denied its opportunity until as late as early summer 2006. In the meantime the Labour Party continues to lose activists, even if membership has stabilised at around 200,000. That process has been aggravated by the Labour leader’s determination to stay in office for a full 3rd term if the British electorate so decide. This in itself has still failed to register with the vast majority of members of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Even those whose chances of retaining their seats are non-existent, let alone marginal, seem ready to remain loyal.

The national Labour Party faces a financial squeeze from both declining membership, and more selective backing from trade union affiliates. Its ability to fight the next election with armies of willing volunteers will be more constrained than at any time since 1997. The current leadership has squandered the goodwill of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Labour supporters willing to work in election campaigns.

Democratic socialists organising under the Umbrella are the only group within the Labour Party willing and able to tackle this issue head on.

First, there are doubts about what will actually be in the next Election manifesto. No sooner was Conference over than the government was acting as though the votes on rail nationalisation and council housing did not matter. Troops were being assigned to the US sector in Iraq. And the country was offered the prospect of Las Vegas-style casinos from Lands End to John O’Groats.

Second, even if the Election manifesto were to commit Labour to policies that reflected the Party’s core values, there would be no guarantee that the policies would either be implemented, and/or replaced by other policies the day after the next election. Is the risk of a repeat of the Foundation Hospitals and top-up fees sagas likely to encourage members to campaign? Members of the PLP might think that they have this issue under control. Maybe the Iraq troop redeployment issue has disabused them of that idea.

Thirdly, let’s suppose the current leader were to decide to spend more time with his family. Would the Labour Party be any better equipped as an organisation to ensure that the next leader did not extend the scope for patronage, personal preferment and the petty corruption of the political process to new and yet, unspecified extremes?

These are the sorts of issues which are coming to the forefront of the minds of anyone active in the Party starting to organise for a General Election. That’s in addition to the subject of I-R-A-Q.

The only way to tackle these issues is to organise a campaign starting now to make the 2005 Conference a defining moment by restoring party democracy. A consensus needs to be built among all sections of the party. Have vast improvements to the economy, the welfare state, and Britain’s commitment to developing countries been achieved under Labour? Yes. Is there a lot more to do? Yes. Do we want the Tories back? No.

So why have so many people left the Party? Why are so many of those remaining in membership unwilling to campaign, or are threatening to vote for one of the opposition parties?

The albatross around the Party’s neck is widely seen as the current leader. Save the Labour Party (STLP) takes the view that it is a lack of commitment to democratic practice within the Party that is the problem that has to be addressed. STLP is holding its Annual General Meeting on 13 November in London. The committee will be presenting its programme for 2005. This will include a comprehensive set of proposals to rebuild party democracy for a 3rd term. This is vital if rank-and-file morale both of members and the Trade Union movement is to be lifted enough to encourage more active campaigning in the next general election campaign. The idea that members are going to campaign to enable the present Leader to preside over another full term in government with unlimited powers of patronage is looking increasingly ridiculous. The shortest odds at the bookies suggest most punters expect him to be gone in 2006.

We have a choice.

We can run the risk of I-R-A-Q proving to be the shortest suicide note in history and do nothing. (Those active in the party in the early 1980s will recall an often quoted remark by Gerald Kaufman MP who, with the benefit of hindsight, described the 1983 election manifesto as ‘the longest suicide note in history’.) Or we can organise now and let the leader decide if he wishes to remain leader in the event of a restoration of democratic socialism. As far as the polls are concerned they tend to suggest that Labour will enhance its electoral prospects with a new Leader, providing the succession is managed well.

Peter Kenyon chair of Save the Labour Party writes in a personal capacity.