Sunday 3 September 2006

End the Blair and Brown Faction Fighting and Start the Leadership Debate

The Sunday Papers are saturated with the sparring between Blair's outriders, Byers and Milburn, versus Brown's appointees, Ed Balls and others. New Labour politics is looking more like an episode of "The Sopranos" than a political party seeking to repesent its members and govern the country.

On the one hand we have Byers and Milburn calling for a debate on the future of New Labour. This is clearly just a transparent attempt to play for time, keeping Tony Blair in power for as long as possible and in the hope that events may come to pass which either allow him to stay or facilitate the emergence of an annointed Blairite successor such as John Reid or anyone who is basically not Gordon Brown.

On the other hand we have Balls et al desperately arguing for "a stable and orderly transition" and denouncing any debate within the party as either "internal navel gazing" or a dangerous process when "factions" take hold. The Balls' logic is that there are "no fundamental divides" in the Labour Party and therefore there is no need for a debate within the party because we are all so united behind Gordon Brown's New Labour policies.

It seems almost inpolite to intrude on this internal infighting between the factions of New Labour but most of us Labour Party members are looking on aghast at these antics. The very people who are excluded from this critical debate on the future of the Labour Party appear to be its members. The "poor bloody infantry" of the Labour party who deliver the leaflets, sustain us with their contributions through their party and trade union subs and who undeservedly lose their seats on councils because of the unpopular policies of the New Labour leadership are all being prevented from having any realistic say.

The political argument between the militant tendencies of Blair and Brown also fails to address the real life issues the vast majority of our members are facing and the ideals which motivated them to become part of our movement.

When the Blair and Brown factions trade blows over issues like employment, globalisation, taxation, pensions, reform of public services, the environment and foreign policy, they speak in terms which are totally unrelated to the real life experiences or aims of the vast proportion of our members and supporters.

Employment for the many is increasingly insecure, unrewarding and stressful. Ministers' speeches extolling the virtues of globalisation and exhorting workers to embrace flexibile employment whilst refusing to address rights at work just ring hollow.

Policies which increase the retirement age and fail to protect workers' pensions whilst at the same time turning a blind eye to allowing company bosses walk off with massive pension pots prompt questions about the links between New Labour and big business.

Most see through New Labour calls for reform and modernisation and have come to understand that public service reform for both Blair and Brown means public service privatisation in all its different guises of sell offs, PFI, and the latest laughable euphemism of "contestablility."

Labour Party supporters also experience the consequences of our grotesquely unequal society, where cumulative disadvantage produces communities where life expectancy itself can differ by as much as 15 years beween rich and poor and educational opportunities increasingly under New Labour are accessed by fee paying.

Many New Labour ministers would do well to read Professor Richard Wlkinson's insightful work "The Impact of Inequality" which sets out in detail the wide ranging research linking many of the malaises of our society to inequality.

Labour Party members will not tolerate for much longer the unseemly public rucking between the Blair and Brown factions which puts next year's elections at risk and gives such an open goal to Cameron. In addition they will not accept being sidelined in any debate about the future leadership of the party and its future political direction.

Both Blair and Brown courtiers need to be reminded that this party belongs to its members not some New Labour Westminster elite.

Party members and supporters must have the opportunity to participate fully in the future of Labour debate. Neither the argument by Brown supporters against any debate nor the call by Blair supporters for a debate to delay change are sustainable.

I have consistently called for Blair to go. I announced that I would stand for leader of the party so that members and supporters would be given the chance of debating and having a choice over the future of the party. So my position on Blair is clear. But if we have to find a way forward before the Blair and Brown factions plunge our party into a civil war at a minimum it is critical that a timetable is set for this debate to take place with an assurance that if Blair will not go now then either the election for a new leader commences before the Scottish and Welsh elections next year or a clear announcement of a timetable is made before those elections. This should be the minimum demand of Labour MPs, trade union representatives and party bodies.

The New Labour and journalistic elite are undertaking their usual exercise of arrogantly and complacently dismissing any challenge from outside their coterie as hopeless. I believe that their inability to look beyond their inner London dinner party circuit leads them to completely underestimate the scale of support amongst rank and file Labour party members and trade unionists for a challenge to the New Labour narrow consensus.

Let's surprise them.