In March this year, just as British and US troops were launching their illegal and barbarous invasion of Iraq, BECTU, the Broadcast, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union, passed a resolution at its annual conference calling for a vote on continued affiliation to the Labour Party.
This month (November 2003), the union will finally ballot its members as promised, but not before spending a considerable amount of its members’ money on trying to persuade them to keep the Labour link.
The following article was written by a member of the union as an answer to the many one-sided letters and articles published by the BECTU head office. To date, neither the union magazine nor any of the letters sent out by the NEC has left any space for anti-Labour opinion, despite the prevalence of such opinion among ordinary members.
The past six years of Labour government have been characterised by war abroad and attacks on living standards at home. In the interests of defending the profits of multinational corporations, especially oil and arms profits, this government has sent military aid to fascistic regimes in Colombia, Israel and Nepal and unleashed unprovoked aggression against Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq.
The lies about ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ with which the illegal war on Iraq was launched have been exposed by the reality of indiscriminate cluster bombing and use of depleted uranium, followed by brutal occupation at gunpoint, torture, collective punishment, internment, criminalisation of POWs and random killings, all accompanied by a desperate scramble for oil and ‘reconstruction’ contracts.
The Daily Mirror carried a headline during the war which showed a picture of Tony Blair next to the words: ‘Blood on his hands’. That indictment must surely extend to all those who support and fund the Labour Party – if we continue with our affiliation, then the blood is on our hands too. Those who try to deny this fact can do so only on the basis that Iraqi lives are of less value than British lives; that the export of fascism is acceptable if it secures the continued flow of profits.
At home in Britain, far from lifting the anti-trade union legislation and reversing privatisations enacted by the Tories, Labour has actually stepped up attacks on working people since it came to office. The gap between the rich and poor is still getting wider and the numbers of people living in poverty is increasing every day – a third of Britain’s 12 million children currently live in poverty and the present system allows the vast majority of them no way out of that trap.
In order to create profits for big business, our remaining services are bring privatised or run down in preparation for privatisation, while wages in the public sector have gone down dramatically in relation to the cost of living. Public housing is being abolished through the back door and private rents are rocketing; the NHS is subject to creeping privatisation and, like our schools, is now operating under a two-tier, selection by postcode system.
Meanwhile, private contractors like Group 4 (the prison operators), Jarvis (the building contractor of Hatfield rail crash notoriety) and Vosper Thorneycroft (an arms manufacturer) have been put in charge of a number of our schools, while the state subsidy for boarders in private schools is actually 60 percent more than the treasury pays per secondary school pupil in state schools.
And while talking hypocritically about the need to eradicate racism from our society, Labour are doing everything to whip up racist hysteria by blaming ‘asylum seekers’ for the problems they have created, and using that hysteria as a cover for building concentration camps and passing ‘anti-terror’ legislation that gives the police powers to arrest anyone and detain them indefinitely without charge or evidence of any crime.
Support for the Labour Party means support for all the above, it means sacrificing the right of the many to jobs, housing, healthcare, education and pensions – all the things which make a decent life – at the altar of private profit.
Those who defend Labour’s record in office point to legislation on work-life balance and the introduction of the minimum wage, but the minimum wage is set well below the minimum for any kind of decent existence and is actually used as an excuse by many employers for keeping wages down, and no amount of legislation will make the work-life balance any better while responsibility for looking after children, the elderly, the sick and the infirm is once more falling back onto private individuals, especially women, in families that cannot afford private care.
So if the current Labour government are so thoroughly anti-worker, what of the other argument that says it is New Labour and Blair who are the problem, and if we could only get rid of the right wing leadership we might ‘reclaim’ the Labour Party for working people and a progressive political programme?
This argument stands on the basis of a myth, propagated in newspapers and schoolrooms, which states that Labour was founded as a party of socialism and has its roots in the working class. In fact, the Labour Party was founded by trade unions that represented only 10 percent of British workers – a labour elite who wanted to protect their privileged position, a privilege that relied (and still relies) entirely on the enormous profits brought in by British exploitation and oppression around the world.
In a short article there is no room to really examine the history of the Labour Party, but even a few examples of Labour’s record in government can show the truth of their racist, imperialist history.
In 1924, the first ever Labour administration, which lasted for a mere nine months, shot down demonstrators in India and jailed those fighting for independence; it bombed Iraqi villages, and supported the Chinese merchant rebellion against the new nationalist government. In its final week in office, just nine months after coming to power, the Labour government introduced internment without trial in India and arrested all the major nationalist leaders of Bengal.
At home, too, Ramsay MacDonald set the pattern for all future Labour leaders, using the army, Emergency Powers Act and secret police to break strikes; evicting the unemployed from their homes; arresting and spying on activists and strengthening the armed forces in preparation for more of the same at home and abroad.
In 1924, JH Thomas, a member of the first Labour government, spoke for the whole cabinet when he said that they “intended above all else to hand to their successors one thing when they gave up the seals of office and that was the general recognition of the fact that they were proud and jealous of, and were prepared to maintain the Empire.” (The Times, 16 May 1924)
Since 1945, Labour’s record in office has been no better. In order to pay off debts from the war and rebuild the British economy, the Attlee government intensified exploitation of colonies such as Ghana (formerly Gold Coast), Kenya and Malaya – tens of thousands of people in Africa and Asia were killed in ruthless suppression of revolts against British colonialism.
After WWII, Labour set up puppet regimes all over the Middle East, handed over Palestine to the Zionists and helped restore French imperialist control over Indo-China, condemning the Vietnamese people to another three decades of war, with the consequent loss of several million lives.
Attlee also sent 12,000 soldiers to fight the genocidal war against Korea, a war which cost the Korean people three million lives and left the country tragically partitioned. Not a single African country obtained independence from Britain under Attlee’s Labour government.
In 1964, the Wilson government maintained full trade links with Apartheid South Africa, supplying the Pretoria regime with fighter bombers for use in Namibia and Angola. Labour did its best to secure white rule in Rhodesia and gave full diplomatic support to the US aggression in Vietnam.
Labour’s racism abroad has always been matched by equally racist behaviour at home. In 1974-79, Labour presided over mass deportation of black workers (an average of 200 a day) and introduced virginity tests on Asian women coming in to Heathrow.
In 1979 the Callaghan government sent 5,000 police to protect a National Front meeting, held in the middle of Southall’s Asian community, to which black people were not allowed. The resulting police carnage left one dead (Blair Peach) and 1,000 injured. 800 protestors were arrested and 342 tried on trumped-up charges.
In fact, in its drive to defend imperialism at all costs, there has never been any crime that the Labour Party, in or out of government, has not been prepared to commit.
It may well be the case that many working class people are still members of the Labour Party, but the same can be said of the Tories and Lib Dems. A political party cannot be judged by its membership alone, it must be judged by its policies and by its actions – and by the class those policies and actions actually represent. Labour has always been as much a capitalist party as the Tories and the Liberals, the only difference is that for a time it used socialist-sounding phrases to mask its real nature, while the other parties were always openly capitalist.
One has only to look at the electoral turn-out in urban areas to see that the working class long ago realised this and stopped supporting Labour, or any of the capitalist parties. The turn-out in the recent Brent by-election was a mere 34 percent of the electoral register, and there are plenty more residents not registered to vote at all.
So if Labour does not now, and didn’t in the past, represent the interests of working people, what other reason can there be for affiliation? The BECTU leadership tells us that while we may of course ‘disapprove’ of the actions of Labour in power now, remaining affiliated is simply a pragmatic decision about getting ‘representation’ in Parliament, that we are paying to get the ear of the government on issues affecting the membership.
But this argument falls down on two points. First, the idea that our members’ interests start and finish at work is clearly wrong. Is it in our members’ interests to be engaged in illegal wars all over the world which make us a target for those fighting against British occupation? Is it in our interests for the treasury to be spending all our taxes on arms or subsidies for failing privatised services? Is it in our interests to see rents and property prices rocket and to have to pay through the nose for inadequate health provision, pensions, childcare and education?
Clearly all the wider issues affect us – we do not live or work in isolation. Even if we are relatively well paid at the moment, the poverty of others affects us; the general insecurity and spiralling costs of living affect us; the collapse of pension funds affects us; crashes on the disintegrating rail and tube services affect us. Why would we give funding and support to a party that is perpetuating all this? What is a small advantage in negotiations for the Communications Bill compared to the prospect of unending war and economic crisis?
Second, the ‘pragmatic’ argument falls down because in return for being allowed to have tea with the minister of culture every now and again, our leadership are tying themselves, and us, to the Labour Party, and thereby actually hampering the ability of the union to take independent action.
1,323,000 working days were lost through strikes in 2002, the highest figure in twelve years and double the number in 2001. This is not because the British workforce has suddenly become unreasonable, but because steady erosion of pay and conditions is forcing them to fight for what little they have left.
The economy is in crisis and the treasury is paying through the nose for the occupation of Iraq, which means that the government is finding it more and more difficult to ensure the living standards of even the more privileged workers like us. We cannot disregard the possibility that after the firefighters, postal workers, health workers, transport workers and teachers, we could be next in the firing line.
Workers gain rights only through the strength of their organisation and its ability to fight for their rights. The firefighters had excellent organisation, a just cause and massive public support. What’s more, they were in a position to really hamper the government’s ability wage war in Iraq, and to simultaneously expose the hypocrisy of the government line that decent pay for workers is ‘unaffordable’ although billions can be always be found for funding wars.
What defeated the FBU, and will continue to defeat other workers in struggle, is that the union was affiliated to, and the leadership were members of, the very party that was attacking them. The government they were supposed to be fighting was in control of the party machinery and was able, by a combination of bribery, cajolery and threats, to bring the leadership into line, leaving the membership high and dry.
We need to be able to act independently of the government and the class it represents if we are to defend ourselves when the time comes. Is it not clear that as far as members’ interests go, remaining affiliated to the Labour Party is like preparing for a fight by tying one hand behind our back?
Since there is no alternative representation in Parliament then it is clear that the union must investigate parties outside of Parliament. The tide is turning. People are waking up to the necessity of breaking finally and completely with the Labour Party. If we blaze the trail we can be sure that others will take heart and follow our example.
Break the link: vote NO!