The Labour Party conference was a demonstration of the unity of the party and its determination to win a third term rather than of its divisions over Iraq and the feud between Blair and Brown. The intervention of the unions to squash the debate on Iraq, the back-peddling of many 'anti-war' activists and the result of the Hartlepool bye-election strongly suggest that Labour is still backed by the British ruling class as the best party to defend its interests. At the same time, the real tensions between Blair and Brown, which don't seem to be based on any significant political differences, give an insight into life within the ruling class today.
The strength of the Labour Government
Before the start of the conference it was widely predicted that Iraq would dominate the week and that the leadership would be given a hard time by the branch activists. This seemed to be confirmed with the vote at the start of the conference to have an emergency debate on a motion demanding the withdrawal of British troops and with the direct attack on Blair at a fringe meeting by the family of the British hostage Ken Bigley. However, Blair's speech, with its softer, less confrontational tone, together with the semi-apology for not actually finding any weapons of mass destruction, began to neutralise this criticism and divert it onto the horrors of the situation, justifying the removal of Saddam Hussein and a humanitarian occupation of the country. In the end, the great debate was pushed off the front pages by news of Blair's operation and his declaration that he would remain for a full third term.
There are real differences within the Labour party over imperialist policy, in particular on the question of the nature of the relationship with the US. The 'anti-war' faction led by Cook and Short had significant backing within the party and by the wider anti-war movement outside. The concern that Blair was leaning too much towards the US was shared by a significant part of the British ruling class and led to pressure being put on him through the Hutton and Butler investigations, even though the published reports formally exonerated him. This pressure has also been applied through the steady exposure of the excesses, torture and abuse carried out by American forces in Iraq and in Guantanamo Bay and, above all, by the fact that no weapons of mass destruction have been found.
The defining feature of British imperialist policy is the increasing pressure that has resulted from its efforts to pursue an independent line between America and Europe. By working with the US in Afghanistan and Iraq it has been able to stay in the game but, while this may have reduced the pressure from the US, it has made things more difficult in Europe. In this context, despite Blair's tack towards Washington, Labour remains the better option for defending Britain's overall imperialist interests.
In other areas Labour has been a successful capitalist government. It has managed the economy effectively, using the achievements of the Tories in deregulating the market and increasing the exploitation of the working class to gain a relative advantage over its European rivals in terms of overall economic growth. This has allowed it to boast of having the best economic performance in 200 years! It has managed the class struggle effectively, maintaining a low-key strategy of manoeuvres and containment, despite presiding over an increase in poverty and a polarisation between rich and poor. And it has also reinforced the state effectively, through measures to increase the surveillance and control of the population in the name of 'law and order' . Here it has been adept at using the fear and anger that exists within a population faced with the growing crime and anti-social behaviour that results from the dog-eat-dog environment created by rotting capitalism.
Labour remains the most disciplined and effective political party of the ruling class. Its divisions are not comparable to those in the Tory Party before 1997 or even today, where it remains largely dominated by the remnants of a Thatcher faction still tied to the close alliance with the US. The Liberal Democrats have in turn benefited from the Tories' weaknesses. Their strengthened role may be a response to the relative eclipse of the Tories, ensuring that a 'democratic' alternative exists, and also, through their pro-European stance, helping to balance the tendency to cow-tow to the US. The UK Independence Party, in contrast, may express the tendency that has been seen in many countries - a weakening of control over the political situation by the ruling class: UKIP's central policy of withdrawal from Europe seem irrational both economically and strategically. However, its ability to take votes from the Tories may be integrated into an overall strategy of ensuring that Labour is re-elected.
The rivalry of Blair and Brown
Gordon Brown's speech to the conference was seen as a coded attack on Blair. He argued that economic stability rather than radical initiatives was the key to election victory and that the commitment of health staff was more important than "contracts, markets and exchange" - that is than the sort of reforms advocated by Blair and his allies.
Throughout the two Labour governments the supposed rivalry between Blair and Brown has been a frequent theme. In the recent cabinet reshuffle allies of Brown, like Douglas Alexander, were replaced by Blair loyalists like Alan Milburn. In his own speech to conference, Tony Blair went out of his way to praise Brown as the best chancellor the country has ever had. Two days later however, on the eve of his operation, when Brown was in Washington at an IMF meeting, he announced that he wanted to serve a full third term, a move which makes it much less likely that Brown will succeed him because by that time many new, younger rivals will have come forward. One of Brown's allies commented "Its like an African coup. They waited until he was out of the country" (The Guardian, 2/10/04).
This rivalry and intrigue seems real and is nothing new in bourgeois politics. What is new is the extent to which it intrudes into the open and the manner in which it is carried out through anonymous press briefings and asides. In this it is part of the general way in which Labour has ruled, developing a style that bypasses some of the traditional aspects of state functioning. Early on there was criticism of the number of 'special advisors', then of Blair's kitchen cabinet and more recently of the informal, unconstitutional way of governing. This last was taken up by the Butler Report: "We do not suggest that there is or should be an ideal or unchangeable system of collective Government, still less that procedures are in aggregate any less effective now than in earlier times. However, we are concerned that the informality and circumscribed character of the Government's procedures which we saw in the context of policy-making towards Iraq risks reducing the scope for informed collective political judgement. Such risks are particularly significant in a field like the subject of our Review, where hard facts are inherently difficult to come by and the quality of judgement is accordingly all the more important". (Paragraph 611, emphasis added). What this seems to express is the pressure under which the bourgeois political class functions today, with the consequent risk of a weakening of control and the prioritisation of personal and factional rivalry over the collective defence of ruling class interests.