The Labour Party has never had democratic centralism so Labour leaderships have never been obliged to abide by conference decisions they didn't like. But today's leadership wants more -- it seeks compliance and agreement all round. Rank and file members have never had so little say.
That is why the election to the party's national executive (NEC) of four centre-left candidates, opposed by the Blair clique, is significant.
The vote hasn't changed the balance of power on the NEC and will not tie Blair's hands. But it is a measure of growing discontent inside the Party -- the votes for the four unfavoured candidates were cast in the teeth of the leadership machine and were one way of recording a protest at a conference in which opposition had been effectively organised off the agenda.
The leadership know this and they know too that discontent will increase as the economic crisis becomes worse. No front bench speaker would admit that the NEC election result worried them, but they nevertheless went to a lot of trouble to pour scorn on the left and the leadership's critics and to talk tough about their determination to stay on their present course.
This desire to manage the Labour Party into nothing more than a mute electoral machine does not arise because the new leaders are control freaks. It is a strategy of battening down the party's hatches in readiness for the economic storms on the horizon and the rising tide of unemployment, hardship and insecurity the crisis will bring.
Job losses have already begun to bite. When Blair's own constituency was recently affected by the closure of the Fujitsu plant he told the local people that he could do nothing about it -- it was part of a global problem beyond his control.
He didn't explain that this is a crisis of capitalism and that the system is itself to blame. Nor did he tell us that the governments of the capitalist world have about as much chance of stopping the relentless cycles of boom and slump inherent in the system as King Canute had of stopping the tide from coming in.
He didn't say any of this because he is anxious to maintain the big lie that capitalism, so long as it is well managed, is the best and only option. It's a lie that is repeated in every country of the capitalist world despite all the evidence that capitalism has the blood of countless millions on its hands and holds most of the world's people in the grip of poverty, disease and degradation.
But, whether he spells it out or not, Blair's intention to follow the time-honoured policies for riding out a capitalist crisis is clear in what he and Chancellor Brown said at last week's conference.
They declared there would be no going back on present policies of letting the rich off the hook by keeping top income tax levels at the low rate set by Thatcher. There would continue to be a tight rein on public spending and no measures to address the recession that has already hit the manufacturing sector of the economy.
In other words, as jobs disappear and productivity declines, the working class, middle strata and small business people will be made to shoulder the burden in order that a tiny minority -- the leading sector of the capitalist class -- not only survive the crisis but, having bought out the smaller competition along the way, will emerge bigger and stronger.
Socialism, which is the answer and which can fulfil the needs of people and rid them of oppression, can only replace capitalism as a result of revolutionary change -- it will not be achieved by just voting in elections for a parliament set up by the rich to serve the interests of the rich.
It is an illusion to think that if only more left wing candidates, or communists, were elected the change to socialism could be gradually achieved. The capitalist class, which holds state power, would not sit back and let their own creation rob them of the power and privilege they now enjoy.
Even small advances by the working class and the left in Parliament are likely to be met with a moving of the goalposts. One shift under consideration is the introduction ofa proportional voting system to ensure a permanent government of the centre-right -- a move we do not support.
But we can fight and increase the already growing pressure on the Labour leadership and force reforms in the interest of the working class. Blair may say he's not going to be turned -- that is a matter for the working class and the organised workers in the labour movement.
THE LABOUR leadership and its spin-doctors worked overtime to stage manage its annual conference in Blackpool last week, to ensure a public face of complete unity in support of "New Labour" ideals.
But "Old Labour" kept breaking through -- far more so than at last Year's conference -- reflecting a growing backlash against "Blairism" and its denial of traditional Labour values.
First came the leak of a blacklist of delegates with remarks by their names -- some of them very insulting -- indicating who might be "difficult", argumentative or a "Trot" and therefore should not be called to speak.
It was not much of a surprise to the old hands but it made it just that much harder for Tony Blair and his followers to try to pretend the conference aspired to real internal democracy. It helped to underline the hypocrisy of the leadership when invoking all seas of high-minded but vague principles.
The party was forced to apologise for the document and say it really did value all its members.
And the election of four members of the centre-left Grass Roots Alliance to the party's national executive committee, and only two from Blair's camp, reflected the mounting discontent.
It was all the more significant bearing in mind the party had changed its rules and moved the goalposts after Ken Livingstone's election to the NEC last year, to make it harder for left and centre candidates to win.
The four were Tribune editor Mark Seddon, Liz Davies, Cathy Jamieson and Pete Willsman.
Gordon Brown began the conference on Monday by vowing to stand by his economic policies -- inherited largely unchanged from the Tories, of continuing to limit public spending and keep down taxes for the rich.
Public sector workers have now had not just years but decades of being told their pay is to be capped today in the interests of a "better tomorrow" which never comes.
In the meantime the value of their pay has steadily declined in real terms to the point where the nursing and teaching professions are in the middle of a recruitment crisis.
But Brown insisted there must be "no short-termism" and that his policies had the long-term perspectives of the economy in mind.
Then Unison general secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe asked him if that was so, why was the government running up a massive long-term national debt by seeking funding through the Private Finance Initiative for new hospitals, roads and so on.
And Bickerstaffe continued: "Why on earth was it necessary for a Labour government -- a Labour government -- to claw back from the nurses and midwives £150 million of their independently-awarded pay rise?"
He demanded: "Don'tjust give us a vision of the promised land, give us a place in it."
Blair himself. on Tuesday, spoke of creating social harmony through "zero tolerance" of crime and called on everyone to collaborate to stamp out even minor crime.
This sounds a little too much like a society where everyone is
encouraged to grass on their neighbours -- little more than a cheap publicity
stunt to divert attention from the real problems of society.
Blair spoke of "a society where every parent treasures their children when young and every child cherishes their parents when old".
It sounds good, but taken in combination with his declared determination to forge ahead with welfare "reforms", the implications are that if your family don't cherish you in time of need, no one else is likely to.
Blair also warned his cohorts of the criticisms they are likely to meet -- charges of destroying the "welfare state" and undermining education and the welfare system.
In other words the leadership are fully aware of exactly the damage they are doing.
But as left-wing confidence, activity and expectations grow, the leadership will be less and less able to get away with such policies.
In the meantime Blair is doing something useful -- his Cabinet
remains determined to do away with the unelected House of Lords -- a long-overdue
The Audit Commission -- the government financial watchdog -- last week called for ambulance services to be "freed" from their obligations to respond to every call.
It published a report, Life in the Fast Lane, which reveals that ambulance services in England and Wales cost about £470 million a year.
The number of 999 calls has risen by 40 per cent since 1990, when the Tory government made drastic cuts in the service and provoked a strike by ambulance crews.
Union leaders at the time predicted the cuts would lead to a fall in quality of the service and since then many services have been struggling to meet target response times.
In 1997/98, the services in England and Wales responded to more than three million calls and one million urgent calls from family doctors for their patients.
The report's author, Geoffrey Rendle, says: "Nothing seems to explain the rising demand but it is putting services under more pressure.
Obviously he has not considered the impact of longer hospital waiting lists, especially for serious complaints. Many people who are suspected of having heart complaints have to wait even to see a consultant before they get on a waiting list for treatment.
It is hardly surprising that the number of these patients whose conditions reach crisis point before they get treatment, is rising steadily.
In big cities there has been a steady increase in the number of homeless people who need emergency attention because they have little or no access to any other kind of healthcare until their situation deteriorates to emergency level.
And living on the streets, in itself, drastically undermines health. The homeless are very vulnerable to lung diseases, foot problems and assault.
The care in the community policies -- fine in principle but woefully underfunded and poorly implemented -- have led to a steady increase in the number of crises For mental health patients and others with chronic conditions.
All this has thrown increasing demands on the ambulance services.
The Audit Commission is recommending that ambulance services assess calls coming in and do not necessarily send an emergency vehicle to "trivial" cases.
But ambulance service chiefs say the idea could be dangerous. Roger Thayne, chief executive of the Staffordshire ambulance service -- which was singled out as a model of good service -- said: "We don't know for sure that someone doesn't need an ambulance until we get there and look at all aspects of their case."
And the public sector union Unison has also voiced concern. National officer Kevin Greene said: "The proposal to prioritise 999 calls and downgrade response times to less urgent calls is fraught with practical difficulties.
"The only sure solution to improving response times is an urgent injection of crews, ambulances and emergency equipment into Britain's cash-strapped ambulance services."
The idea of "priority dispatch" was floated before, in 1996, and rejected.
Now the report is recommending that instead of an ambulance: "An experienced ambulance person working solo could attend appropriate minor emergencies and assess the situation."
The control room could then "refer selected calls directly to
an agreed alternative agency, such as community nursing or a social services
mental health team."
It has also revived the idea that ambulances should be stationed on the streets between calls, rather than in ambulance stations, so they could in theory he nearer to where they are likely to be called to.
This idea was fist floated at the time of the cuts, when many ambulance stations were closed.
The arguments for operating a priority vetting system for emergency calls all basically boil down to further funding cuts.
People taking 999 calls over the phone cannot see the patients or make a proper assessment. Those making the calls are not necessarily going to be expert at describing and reporting signs and symptoms over the phone, especially if they are suffering from some shock themselves.
Geoffrey Rendle complains that fully equipped ambulances are sometimes called to nose bleeds, flu symptoms and sore throats.
Yet certain kinds of nose bleed can indicate a skull fracture. And the early stages of some serious illness, like meningitis, can mimic flu symptoms. Indeed flu itself can be a killer of vulnerable patients like the very old and very young. Ambulance crews cannot make a judgement until they see the patient.
Reducing the service inevitably risks failing to respond properly to someone in real need.
* Some police forces are also considering a vetting service for
emergency calls to weed out "trivial" calls.
For the first time since 1949 the Christian Democrat vote dipped below 40 per cent. The Social Democrats scored 40.9 pet cent. The east German-based Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) polled 5.1 per cent. Together they amount to the biggest vote for traditional workers' parties in any German parliamentary election -- 46 per cent bigger than the 1919 vote or the 1972 West German election won by the Social Democrats under the leadership of Willi Brandt.
The Christian Democrats lost support in all the 16 states that make up the Federal Republic with the sole exception of Bavaria and their overall tally was just 35 per cent. It left the Christian Democrats and their Bavarian CSU partners with 245 seats in the 669-strong parliament, the Bundestag. Their liberal Free Democrat allies held 44. The Social Democrats won 298 seats, the Greens 47 and the PDS 35.
None of the neo-nazi parties were able to get past the 5 per cent threshold despite the best efforts of their rich backers who spent millions on their violent hate campaigns. In the poverty stricken east they hoped to make a break-through but the extreme right vote crashed to 3 per cent in Sachsen-Anhalt while the neo-fascist NPD gotjust one per cent in Mecklenburg-Vorpommem.
Social Democrat leader Gerhard Schroeder, who had talks with the Greens before the poll, is expected to form a coalition with the Greens giving him an overall majority of 21.But he ruled out any deal with the PDS, the main heirs of the former communist party in the old German Democratic Republic.
Before the election Schroeder repeatedly declared he would not become Chancellor with the votes of the "former communists" and would rather opt for a "grand coalition" with the Christian Democrats if the result was too close for comfort.
In fact the PDS is no more communist tha n Schroeder's own party, though its left social-democratic programme and its defence of east German workers rights, is an embarrassment to the mainstream SPD.
PDS leader Gregor Gysi says he will judge the new SPD-Green government, dubbed the "Red-Green alliance" in the German press, by its actions -- supporting reforms which help the people and opposing those which do not. He will be pleased at the PDS vote, particularly in the west, which gives them five more seats than they had before.
Schroeder, dubbed Germany's "Blair" is a "moderniser" in a party which dumped public ownership back in the Fifties. But he owes his victory to the massive vote of working people sick of Kohl and his attacks on the welfare state and education. Unemployment officially stands at four million though the real figure is put at between six and seven million and the voters who rallied to the SPD banner want to see the new government move quickly to redress the balance.
In Britain Blair's camp welcomed Schroeder's victory and some were quick to predict an Anglo-German re-alignment within the European Union at France's expense. This reflects the thinking of the British ruling class who want the pace of European integration slowed-down to meet their own political and economic needs.
They've been seeking someone to back them since 1979. But it seems
that they'll have to keep on looking. Just this week Chancellor-elect Schroeder
went to Paris to assure the French government of his full support for the
France-German axis within the European Union.
He was speaking to several hundred people at the Labour Party Conference's Tribune rally, traditionally the highlight of the conference fringe.
Adams said that the history of relations between Britain and Ireland had been a tragic one and we must start to write a new chapter of history. The Good Friday Agreement is the beginning of building an inclusive society of peace, justice and equality for all the Irish people.
The Sinn Fein leader said that it was a pleasure to be in Blackpool and to make new friends in the Labour Party, but he paid an especially warm tribute to the "staunch and stalwart" old friends who had stood by his Party at a time when the Irish people's struggle had been presented simply as an issue of criminality.
Having listened in the conference hall to Prime Minister Tony Blair's speech earlier that afternoon, Adams felt that the Labour leader recognised the continuing challenges which had to be grasped.
He said that the first time that he had met Tony Blair he had told him that the biggest challenge he would face as Prime Minister was the question of Ireland.
Despite every conceivable form of repression over the centuries, the desire to be free had always lived in the hearts, minds and souls of the Irish people, since this was a part of the human condition.
Adams was sure that Tony Blair's political generation did not feel responsible for the history ofBritish crimes in Ireland, but the Labour government does have a responsibility to right wrongs.
He said that Tony Blair and Northern Ireland secretary Dr Mo Mowlem did deserve credit for their leadership role in the peace process. This stood in stark contrast to the record of the preceding Tory government which had made "an absolute mess ofa situation that had been handed to them on a plate."
But British government policy was still to uphold the Union and partition. He said people have to understand that that inevitably means repression -- whether in the form of intimidation of the residents of Garvaghy Road or the Catholic church goers of Harryville.
The Unionist community believed themselves to be more equal than their fellow citizens as a result of partition. Adams said "this won't change unless you tackle the problem, no matter how progressive your government is."
He called on the British government to change its policy from one of upholding the Union to one of ending it, and to work on this with the Unionists, the Irish government and all sections of the Irish people.
While listening to Tony Blair, Adams thought that he had spoken with "genuine horror and anger" about the murder of Stephen Lawrence. He said he shared the Prime Minister's view of that racist attack and the way it was handled.
But Adams pointed out that he could give examples of 400 Stephen Lawrence's who have been killed by Crown forces in Ireland. The families of these victims are not yet part of the peace process.
Addressing the needs of the Bloody Sunday victims is important as part of the overall healing process, of which much more has to be done.
And Adams warned that the peace process is not yet a democratic peace settlement. He said the Unionists cannot always be allowed to pass the buck and threaten to deny what belongs to Sinn Fein and the nationalist community by right.
He said that Sinn Fein had made one mistake recently: agreeing to the appointment of First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland while postponing the formation of a full executive. "If this is not a place for the representatives of Sinn Fein voters, this will become an ongoing grudge match, not the democratic and progressive process it should be."
The speaker immediately preceding Gerry Adams was the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) councillor Chris McGimpsey. He is also a founding member of the Unionist Labour Group -- a faction in the UUP which claims an orientation to the Labour movement.
Chris McGimpsey combined an eloquent and factual presentation of the poverty and social deprivation of the working class Protestant community in West Belfast with a continual anti-Republican and pro-British perspective on the national question.
In opening his speech Adams said he could identify with McGimpsey's "justifiable attack" on deprivation in Belfast, but he questioned how he could continue to belong to the UUP which had voted against the setting up of a "welfare state' by a previous British Labour government.
Neither could he understand Unionists who berate the social conditions faced by their working class communities, but who then continued to rely on those who had caused such problems in the first place, rather than uniting with the rest of the Irish people to build a new society.
McGimpsey was only invited to speak after GMB general secretary John Edmonds threatened to pull out of the rally if there was no Unionist speaker to counter balance Gerry Adams.
Besides Edmonds, other speakers at the rally included left Labour MPs Tony Benn, Alan Simpson and Ken Livingstone, Welsh office minister Peter Hain and former Cabinet minister Barbara Castle who delivered a powerful case on behalf of the pensioners' movement.
Foreign Secretary Robin Cook sent his apologies -- he was hosting a function for the diplomatic corps. And Sports minister Tony Banks MP was also on the platform next to Adams.
The previous day at a fringe meeting organised by the Labour Committee on Ireland, Sinn Fein joined the platform with representatives of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), Women's Coalition and the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) to debate the way forward following the Good Friday Agreement.
On Wednesday, as we go to press, Sinn Fein held a fringe meeting
under the slogan "A Future as Equals" with Gerry Adams, Alex Maskey, Francie
Molloy and Michelle Gildemew.