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New Labour Witch-Hunt in Liverpool

Jim Dye

LAST MAY the Liberal Democrats gained control of Liverpool City Council. By any standards this was a serious defeat for the Labour Party in a city that had for many years been rock solid Labour territory. Since then we have not only seen the Lib-Dems claim Liverpool as their most important local authority nationally (it is their only Metropolitan council), but also a witch-hunt by the Labour Party NEC against the Liverpool party leadership.

Readers may be asking themselves what the news is here. After all, the purge of the left in Liverpool started a long time ago, in the aftermath of the Militant-dominated City Council Labour Group of 1983-1987. Ah, but this is something different. This time the members getting attacked by the NEC are not left-wingers by any stretch of the imagination. In fact most of them are long standing right-wing Labourites who have spent years attacking the left in general, and Militant in particular, while at the same time pushing through relentless cuts and redundancies in the council chamber. Model Blairites? Well no, far from it. You see despite their fine right-wing credentials there remains a slight problem beyond their control. They happen to be working-class right-wingers or, in todayís language, Old Labour. So what we are witnessing in Liverpool is an important battle by New Labour to rid itself of Old Labour, a battle where Old Labourís past attacks on the left count for nothing.

There is a certain irony here. But, in a party where principles and policies are dirty words, a purge of the old right is perhaps not so strange. When Labour lost Liverpool, it came as no surprise to most activists. The local CLPs had been decimated by a combination of the earlier purge of the left, together with the desertion of Militant and the demoralised exit of an important layer of activists. The council Labour Group itself was purged of the left and dominated by political nonentities. Debates within the Labour Group centred not on politics, but on personalities (somewhat strange given the distinct lack of personality shown by leading councillors). The Labour Group made cuts and redundancies their main priority, but still ended up setting the highest council tax in the country.

In these circumstances it was hardly surprising that their support fell away so drastically at the polls. Some right-wing candidates dutifully put out leaflets during the campaign that contained virtually nothing apart from a big picture of St Tony. But the naive hope that the Blair factor would make up for years of attacks by these councillors on workers living in some of the poorest areas of Europe was predictably shot down. Interestingly, in most wards the Lib Dem vote did not increase, rather Labour supporters stayed at home in massive numbers.

It is also significant to note that this electoral massacre for the Labour Party did not benefit any of the left candidates standing against the party. Both the SLP and the Socialist Party got derisory votes, even in the case of well known candidates such as Lesley Mahmood (who only managed 63 votes). So although there has been a great deal of alienation from Labour on the part of workers, there has been no split away from it.

Labourís defeat was the opportunity for the Blairites to launch their attack on the local party. Led by the majority of local MPs, they have set about destroying the old party and replacing it with a bright shiny New Labour model. To that end the NEC will now select all future candidates for the City Council, which is a massive attack on party democracy. At the same time local wards and CLPs will be even more tightly controlled by a Regional Director, who is also appointed without consultation by the NEC. It is made clear that Old Labour will be weeded out, to be replaced by Blairite clones. Predictably, the CLPs are to become nothing more than support groups for the Blairite MPs. All accountability is to be ended.

So, should socialists care? Most certainly. These attacks are an important test for Blairís hope to turn the Labour Party into a British version of the US Democrats. Socialists should have no hesitation in blocking with those now under attack against this New Labour purge. This battle is one that could be repeated across the country, but an important lesson is already clear from recent events in Liverpool. The abandonment of any serious Labour Party work by the majority of the left has meant that they are merely passive bystanders to what is going on. The Socialist Party/Militant, far from gaining anything from abandoning the Labour Party, have declined to an insignificant rump locally of perhaps two dozen members. Their failure, like most of the left, to understand that workers do not break from Labour reformism simply because the left says so, has meant that there has been no principled socialist pole in the Liverpool Labour Party that could have organised against the attacks of the NEC, and in the process gained hegemony and a powerful voice in the local movement.

The struggle against the right wing is not won by deserting the battlefield. Socialists need to be fighting on three interconnected fronts at this time: in the unions, the local communities, and in the Labour Party. It is only by bringing the demands of the movement into the party, and linking the struggles against the Blairites that are arising both inside and outside the Labour Party, that we will take things forward.

In these struggles it will be the case that, as in Liverpool, we will find ourselves making alliances with former enemies. So long as we maintain our own separate identity as socialists, there is nothing unprincipled about this. Those ultra-lefts who by implication welcome Blairís attacks on Labourism show how far removed they are from the method of Marxism. In a period such as this, when Labourism is being destroyed from the right and from above, and not from the left and from below, we should not hesitate to resist this. Not to do so is to turn your back on the lessons of the USA, where the absence of a Labourist tradition based upon the unions has meant that the revolutionary left has been in a position many times worse than our own. It is also to turn your back on the method of Marxism, and in particular the struggle of Engels against leftist ultimatism in the British labour movement. With most of the left having rejected a principled Labour Party orientation in the vain attempt to bypass reformism, or to find the holy grail of "recomposition", it is surely now an urgent task to rediscover Engels!