Anyone who doubted the wider implication for civil liberties of Blair’s ‘anti-terror’ legislation need look no further than the Labour Party Conference in Brighton. 82-year-old Walter Wolfgang, who fled Nazi Germany in 1937, was roughly manhandled out of the hall by a pair of heavies because he had the barefaced temerity to shout out “nonsense” when Foreign Secretary Jack Straw defended the continued criminal occupation of Iraq.
The violent scene, pictured on the front page of the morning papers and TV news programmes, has caused widespread revulsion and anger around the country. Labour left activist Steve Forrest was also ejected for the crime of trying to defend Mr Wolfgang from the thugs who had grabbed him by the shirt collar.
When the pop music and the glitz of the stage and the fancy lighting are stripped away we see the real, ugly face of Blairism. Even the music has turned and slapped them in the face. Blair chose Sham 69’s The Kids are United as the theme for his ‘entrance’ this year. The band later made a surprise appearance on BBC’s Newsnight to perform a specially written version of the song, dedicated to Mr Wolfgang, including the refrain “bring them home, don’t leave them there…” clearly referring to the troops in Iraq. No doubt, they can expect a visit from the authorities soon.
For the Blairite control freaks, conferences are an annoyance, barely tolerated, which must be stage-managed from beginning to end. No dissent must be allowed. The tiny clique around Blair and co, who like to think they hold the Labour Party in a vice-like grip are, in reality, completely isolated. They have no support in the ranks of the party or the trade unions. While Blair and Brown have been stealing the headlines with pledges to abolish public sector pensions and privatise the NHS, conference delegates have been defeating them, voting against each reactionary pledge, not to mention overwhelmingly voting to restore the right to take secondary strike action. ‘No matter,’ the arrogant leaders and their entourages assure their friends in the City of London and the boardrooms, ‘we have no intention of listening to conference decisions!’
Resolutions? Votes? Blair and co take no notice; they brush aside these democratic trivialities. As for hecklers, you have been warned, you will be grabbed by the scruff of your neck, thrown from the hall, and have your credentials withdrawn.
Mr Wolfgang is a lifelong party member who joined before Blair was born. It is scandalous enough that not even this level of dissent can be tolerated by the Blairites. Even more outrageous is the fact that when Mr Wolfgang attempted to re-enter the conference he was prevented from doing so – under section 44 of the Prevention of Terrorism Act! So, if we were in any doubt exactly what Charles Clarke and co mean by ‘fomenting hatred’ now we know, it extends to pensioners politely heckling a government minister in order to express a view held by the majority of the population.
However the Blairites have been shocked to discover that they cannot behave in this way and then try to hide behind ‘anti-terrorism’ laws. Following days after 73-year-old Sylvia Hardy was jailed for refusing to pay her council tax, this looks more and more like a war on pensioners than on terrorists. Their repressive legislation is in reality a war on the population, it is a threat to even the limited democracy we currently enjoy, and it is a threat to the labour movement.
When Blair was forced to apologise for this outrage he said more than he intended:
"I think it is a bit of a leap [to evoke a wider civil liberties debate]," he told the BBC's Today programme. "I have just been through an election campaign when people had the chance to criticise me.” The implication is clear – you had your chance to ‘criticise’ in the election – and millions did, Labour only secured 35 percent of the vote – but now you should shut up and do as you are told. What arrogance! This is not the first time we have seen Blair’s Bonapartist tendencies. He is completely divorced from the real world; he inhabits a cocoon stuffed with yes-men and sycophants.
Despicably, defending his anti-terrorism legislation, he continued, "when people do something like go onto the tube or a bus and kill innocent people then the public expects me to act on that". How must the family of Jean Charles de Menezes, making an emotional visit to the scene of his brutal execution in Stockwell tube station in south London, have felt hearing this? They will rightly demand ‘action’ against those responsible; action like stopping shoot-to-kill, and scrapping their repressive laws that have done nothing to prevent terrorism, but have already killed an innocent man.
Now anti-terrorism is even used as an excuse to bully an old age pensioner. The threat posed by this so-called ‘war on terror’ to our democratic rights is clear. The entire labour movement needs to take the struggle for civil liberties in general, and for democracy inside the labour movement, seriously. Neither is safe in the hands of the arrogant bullies we saw in Brighton.
Blair has reached the end of the road. He might like to go on and on, just as his heroine Thatcher wanted to. His project to transform the Labour Party into another Liberal or US Democrat Party, whilst it went a long way, ultimately failed. Now all he has to lean on for support inside the party are thugs and bureaucrats. New Labour is old hat. The struggle for socialist policies inside the British labour movement must include a struggle inside the Labour Party in the next period. Battles are being prepared on the industrial front and the political. The attacks being prepared on pensions and the health service will not go unanswered. Linked to the fight against the erosion of our civil liberties, a new period is being prepared in British society and inside the labour movement. Blair and co think they have the Labour Party all sewn up. It is already beginning to burst at the seams.