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The party's over

Labour people are in despair, the grassroots organisation in a state of collapse and it's all Blair's fault

Monday August 2, 2004
The Guardian

Reflecting on the dimming days of Labour's most difficult parliamentary year since 1997, I remain amazed at Tony Blair's survival. Chained to the rock of Iraq, our own latter-day Prometheus was released from his torment, not by Hercules, but by Howard.

The double whammy of the Butler report and disastrous byelection figures should have put the prime minister on the ropes. Instead, thanks largely to the ineptitude of the leader of the opposition, our hero can relax in Sir Cliff Richard's holiday hideaway without an apparent political care in the world.

Yet I would counsel a less sanguine view of the political landscape in the run-up to the conference season. While the government presentation remains slick, the labour movement appears either mesmerised by the seemingly omnipotent government machine, or wholly turned off by it. As a result, once mandatory accountability has been replaced with carte blanche for government - and the prime minister particularly - to do as they want.

Remember this occurs at a time when Labour party membership has hit a new low of below 215,000. The last time membership was at this level was when Ramsay MacDonald split the party more than 70 years ago. Paradoxically, donations have doubled to more than 9m, thanks to rich businessmen. Just two of them were responsible for 3.5m of "high-value" donations.

What, if anything, does this tell us about the state of the labour movement, and, in particular, the Labour party? Well, it is blindingly obvious that we are haemorrhaging members at the same time as the unions are doing likewise. We can also see that rich individuals are dining at the table where trade unionists used to eat.

This is entirely consistent with the "New Labour project" and its avowed intention to break party-union links, and to remould our party into theirs - modelled on the anodyne Democratic party of the United States, with all that entails.

Many will say that this is a pessimistic view, that we have had two landslide victories, that the Tories are a shambles, that organs like the national policy forum are successful. All of this is true in parts; but, as Blair is fond of reminding us, we need to look at the big picture. What exactly does that portray?

First, it shows a leader who, as he says, is not a Tory. After all, he carries a Labour party membership card. Yet the policies he advocates - on the public sector, on trade unions, on the allegedly feckless poor - are without doubt neo-Thatcherite. His foreign policy bias, and particularly his closeness to Bush, put the Thatcher-Reagan alliance in the shade.

Second, we have a cabinet which has followed its leader in contempt for the party and its organs. We should remember that on the big issues of the last parliamentary year, the national policy forum, the national executive committee and annual conference were all overridden - on Iraq, foundation hospitals and top-up fees.

Third, look at your local council, with Labour representation often decimated, and policies dictated from Whitehall. When, for example, did a local council have any real leeway on its housing stock? What role does it now have in education? Does local government have a role at all in the eyes of the government?

Fourth, Labour members should gaze around the room at your next branch or constituency meeting. Consider yourself lucky if the branch or constituency still meets. Take in the dwindling number of attendees, and the lack of what was once described as "political" activity.

Next, consider the personality cult that surrounds the prime minister. He is often described as "presidential" but that is euphemistic. His power is personal, and wielded whimsically; his support is sycophantic.

Finally, talk to your friends, neighbours, workmates. Ask them for an opinion on Labour, and do not be astonished by the vituperation in some of the replies. We are truly, for many people, akin to the Tories in the depths of their sleaze period. That of itself is both repugnant and dangerous. Tie it to the loss of councillors in many areas (our key workers), and we risk the same downward spiral which the Tories faced.

Of course, Labour appears untouchable to many. The prime minister seems to believe that he will go on and on. However, the prime minister and the Labour party are not the same thing. While he cruises on undeterred by controversy, the party seems to be on its last legs in many areas.

Ironically, in the grim opposition years of the 1980s, with the party crushed between Tory government and Militant entrists, activity, attendance and optimism were all at a high. I never imagined today's sense of despair among many Labour people - but then I never imagined a Labour government applying Thatcherite policies through democratic centralist methods.

Peter Kilfoyle is Labour MP for Liverpool Walton and a former defence minister