Thursday, June 21, 2007

Labour chooses a deputy leader

STILL PROUD with their banner on May Day, Ford workers from Dagenham. Numbers reduced, but then little is left of their once giant factory since the US company stopped car production at Dagenham. Can a change in Labour leadership halt industrial decline?
Can union leaders tied to New Labour and Gordon Brown's promises be trusted to lead our struggles?

SUPPOSE I might as well confess. I voted this week in the Labour Party's election for deputy leader. Thanks to my union's affiliation I was sent a ballot paper. My Number One went against Jon Cruddas' name, naturally. A former Downing Street political secretary, he has never been what you'd call a "left", but these things are relative.

As MP for Dagenham he has looked good standing by "Old Labour" values and working people's concerns, while millionaire's daughter and one-time "left" poseuse Margaret Hodge in neighbouring Barking seems to think the way to beat the British National Party is to echo its propaganda, blaming Labour's ill-winds on it caring too much for immigrants.

Interviewed in the May-June Transport and General Workers' Union Record, Jon Cruddas talks about the insecurity of traditional Labour voters and the exploitation of immigrants, and praises the union's work and historic role in organising and uniting workers. Talking about the way industries, like Ford in his own constituency, have been run down, he acknowledges the state could have done more.

Cruddas was at the Morning Star conference on the Left After Blair at the weekend, where he spoke about Old Labour stuff like Health and Housing, and promised to "bring class back into politics". After ten years of Blair telling us we're a "classless society", and Brown achieving a situation where city bosses with fabulous incomes pay less tax than their underpaid cleaners, that Cruddas pledge won our hearty applause, and my vote.

My second vote went to Harriet Harman, not because I was shaking hands with husband Jack Dromey the other week, but because she gave a prompt and decent response on a deportation issue I raised with her a while back. I did not give any vote to Alan Johnson, his own union the CWU has disowned him (despite support from genereal secretary Billy Hayes who surely should have known better?). Nor to Hazel Blears, notwithstanding my Salford patriotism. An MP who turns up on a hospital cuts protest and has to be reminded that she is the Health Minister responsible, has clearly got amnesia and identity problems.

In his election address John Cruddas says he is standing "because the party has lost its way". "From Iraq to Trident, from commercialisation on public services to workers' rights, I understand the concerns and frustrations of party members".

"Perhaps the biggest problem is that ordinary members do not feel they are listened to".

Cruddas says that he is determined to put that right. I wish him the best of luck.

Ordinary members might have felt there was more chance of being listened to, and effecting change through Labour Party democracy if they had been given the chance to vote for the Party leader of their choice, and not just the deputy leader. John McDonnell, the MP for Hayes and Harlington, announced that he was standing a year ago, and waged a lively barnstorming campaign with the slogan (unashamedly borrowed from the social forums movement) "Another World is Possible" .

Taking his message to the grassroots he aroused real enthusiasm among Labour Party members and trade unionists. McDonnell very nearly reversed the decline in Party membership. He faced a media blackout for much of the time, but his campaign revived the popularity of public meetings. His opposition to war and demand for withdrawal from Iraq won young people (and accorded with public opinion); and the fact that he is promoting a Trade Union Bill, restoring some of the rights taken away under the Tories, should have won him the support of the trade unions.

To get on the ballot paper for leader, John McDonnell needed to be nominated by 45 Labour MPs. By May 15, with brief rival Michael Meacher having stood down, he had 27. Enough has been said about the other MPs who should have supported John, but to a man or woman rallied to the Gordon Brown bandwagon and ensured there would be no contest. Hopefully, frustrated Labour Party members who wanted the chance to vote for John will have had words with their MPs by now, and one of these words ought to be "reselection".

But it was not just the MPs.

The day after Michael Meacher stood down to give John a clear field I was at a meeting discussing who should be invited to speak from the platform for the June 9 "Enough" rally on Palestine. Someone suggested George Galloway, others weren't happy at the suggestion. In the course of some placatory remarks I chanced to say I'd sooner hear John McDonnell but ... At this the person sitting beside me objected, saying his union was adamant, it could not support one of the candidates standing in the Labour leadership contest. "Well, we could invite both," I suggested (being as ever helpful), adding quietly "Gordon could always send his apologies"; but by then my remarks were lost as people calmed down the important union delegate. (I knew of course that Gordon Brown had already assured Zionists of Labour's continuing support for Israel).

It was the same in my own union. While there was enthusiastic support from rank and file activists for John McDonnell, the leadership kept things under wraps until Gordon Brown had the parliamentary party sewn up. The press which had kept quiet so long about John McDonnell had started carrying old anti-McDonnell trivia from the archives. Then out came the news that Gordon was the only candidate, and surprise, surprise, what do we find after the 380 nominations from MPs but the supporting nominations from Amicus, Unison, TGWU, CWU and so on.

We may wonder what this says about these unions' supposed willingness to challenge the Blair -and Brown -government on issues like Palestine, or Iraq. (Ironically, the Israeli union federation Histadrut, inseparable from Zionist political leaders, has threatened to answer British union boycotts by refusing to handle cargoes of British goods; a tactic British unions would find hard to use under the anti-union laws, and after the unions and Labour betrayed the workers on the Liverpool docks).

As for domestic policy, when the TGWU had an election banner on its headquarters saying "Keep Britain Working With Labour" I did not know whether this meant by resisting the EU's working hours directive or by raising the pension age. Perhaps the union leaders have already been promised a deal with Gordon. Next time New Labour kicks the unions in the teeth he won't wear steel toecaps? Well, you have got to be realistic.

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