In this final part from his series on the history of Labour's right wing, Steve Jones examines the Blair years and the abolition of Clause IV. Today, the battle in the Labour Party between the careerist Blairite wing and the Corbyn movement has reached fever pitch. The task ahead is to reclaim the Labour Party - to complete the Corbyn revolution!
The purpose of this series of articles has been to show how Labour’s right wing has constantly used its position over the years - and indeed decades - to organise and plot, and as a result undermine the democratic processes of the party for their own (and capitalism’s) benefit.
Certainly some of their number may well once have believed that they were acting in the general interests of the working class, and that through reformism there would indeed be a parliamentary road to socialism that would arrive at its destination at some point in the dim and very distant future.
However, in recent decades, as the system has stopped offering reforms and instead demanded counter-reforms, this slender and naive strand has all but disappeared, to be replaced by an army of blatant careerists who in essence are no different from the Tories. The rise of this capitalist cadre would be accelerated as never before under Tony Blair.
Having gained control of the Labour Party leadership in 1994 and having set about pulling all decision making in under its office, Tony Blair started looking around for a symbol which could prove in the eyes of the ruling class that he was loyal to capitalism and would be able to drag the party behind him. He found this in the decision to get rid of Clause IV of the party constitution. This historic commitment to public ownership and socialism had long been seen as a stone in the right wing’s shoe.
Using all the resources of the party machine – and by neglecting to allow any amendments to the new Blairite clause – the removal of Clause IV was pushed through in 1995. Even so, three-quarters of party members refused to vote in the ballot. There was huge opposition inside the ranks of the movement, despite the support for the new clause on the part of many MPs, trade union leaders and, of course, the Tory media.
A draft manifesto, reflecting Blairite Tory-lite policies, was then drawn up and presented to party conference without the chance to amend it or even vote for or against the document. It was then put to the party membership, again without the chance to amend. With no other choice, members voted in favour in what one journalist called a “take it or take it” ballot. The concept of Partnership In Power (as it was surreally called) would quickly be seen as rather one-sided. Under Blair the only partnership would be with capitalism.
After the 1997 Labour victory that put Blair in Number 10, the process of concentrating all power into the leader’s office was sped up. The NEC policy committee was formed, but never met even though the NEC had ceded power over policy to this body. The national conference was reduced from five to four days, in effect becoming a trade fair with a few speeches tacked on. Party structures began to be wound down, to be replaced with formless “all members” meetings. Above all else, all decisions were now to go through the leader’s office and reflect “what Tony wants”.
The Parliamentary Labour Party was also to be made more compliant. Firstly, by fast-tracking new, young apolitical careerists into safe and winnable seats (many of the most anti-Corbyn Labour MPs would gain their seats this way). Secondly, by working to get rid of or neutralise those Labour MPs who were seen as being too left or not “on board” with New Labour. Plans were laid to try and deselect Labour MPs who did not toe the line – an irony given recent events – or otherwise ensure that local parties would be “prompted” to put pressure on these troublemakers.
Of course, the question of breaking the party links with the trade unions – an obsession of many of the most ardent Blairites – would remain on the table, with Stephen Byers stating in 1996 that any industrial problems under a Labour government might well act as the trigger. Byers was already anticipating that New Labour and Blair’s close links with big business and various rich chums would create problems down the line with the unions.
By the time Blair was pushed out of office, to be replaced by his arch-enemy, Gordon Brown (who successfully manoeuvred as sole candidate to ensure that there was no challenge allowed to him in a leadership election – no moaning from right-wing Labour MPs here, it should be noted), the whole illusion of party democracy had fallen into total disrepair. So far as most party members were concerned, the establishment decided everything.
A crude attempt to stop Ken Livingstone from being the Labour candidate for London Mayor resulted in him standing as an independent and gaining the support of most London party activists and Labour voters, winning easily. Many Labour members, meanwhile, had openly opposed the Iraq war. However, other opportunities to show revolt were somewhat scarce.
Under Brown, and to a certain extent Ed Miliband also, the rigging of the parliamentary candidate selection system continued, with only a few local parties resisting the parachuting in of favoured faces. The main right-wing pressure group inside Labour – the misnamed “Progress” – had become a well-funded job centre for establishment careerists looking for advancement.
For Blair and Brown, the aim was to finally crush the opposition of the party activists by extending OMOV to create a system whereby members could be swamped by the media-controlled votes of wider supporters. It would be “red” Ed Miliband who would finally push the plan through at a special conference. The block votes of the unions would be downgraded, with individual union members having a direct vote for party leader along with registered supporters. Blairites like Mandelson were ecstatic.
As explained previously, however, things would take a very different path to that predicted by the Blairites, with the shock election of Corbyn to replace Miliband in the 2015 leadership contest following Labour’s defeat at the general election.
Complete the Corbyn revolution!
It is in this context that we see the current anger of the careerist Labour MPs, who have experienced a revolt of the membership against them, with the re-election of Corbyn as Labour leader.
For years the right wing has relied on crushing opposition and stopping real debate to ensure a smooth career path at Westminster and beyond. They are closer to their pals in the Tory Party than to the working class and will never be reconciled to having to fight for socialism – a system that is directly opposed to their world of privilege and class collaboration.
For the movement behind Corbyn, the task of clearing this layer out of their positions must now be a central demand. The party membership, which slumped under Blair, Brown and Miliband, leaving a party that was dead on its feet, has revived under Corbyn.
The barrier now facing the movement is the old Blairite wreckage seeking to reverse the Corbyn revolution. This barrier must be removed.