TUC demo: Boost to confidence

Looking to a Labour government for salvation is a hopeless perspective, argues Peter Manson

The large numbers attending the Trades Union Congress’s ‘Britain needs a pay rise’ demonstration in London, along with similar marches in Glasgow and Belfast, came as a pleasant surprise to this writer at least. The figure claimed for the October 18 London event was 90,000, and the total mobilised across the UK was something approaching 100,000.

The high turnout will have given a much-needed boost to the morale of thousands of militants belonging to the various participating unions, mostly representing public-sector workers, across the country. True, many branches and regions were unable to persuade anything more than a small minority to take part - there are stories of coaches having to be cancelled - and just as many will have been disappointed by the less than total support given to last week’s strikes. But the effort that those militants, including local full-timers, put into the mobilisation did pay off. The whole event was uplifting.

There was certainly a positive spirit: chants, slogans, whistling and honking, plus the banners, balloons and general paraphernalia provided by the trade unions. Then there was the music - most noteworthy was the 20-strong Rail, Maritime and Transport union brass band along the route. It is reassuring that such aspects of working class culture and organisation are still going strong within at least some parts of our movement.


So you can say that, while the numbers could have been many times more, the demonstrations did succeed in their main aim of raising morale. But what about the other purpose of such events - to put on a show of strength aimed at the ruling class? Well, at least this time the media took notice, with all the national newspapers reporting the marches. But, while the mobilisation certainly demonstrated the potential for concerted working class opposition to the current assault on our wages, conditions and collective rights, unfortunately the bourgeoisie will not exactly be trembling in its boots, given the majority of the platform speeches in Hyde Park.

Take outgoing TUC president Lesley Mercer, who told us that Britain is “the eighth richest country in the world, in a growing economy”, where corporate profits are increasing. So, although we should all be better off as a result, regretfully Britain is “becoming an increasingly divided society”. Ed Miliband’s ‘one nation’ is not being realised. But “it does not have to be this way,” said Mercer, and we can “change things for the better”. Exactly how and by what means was left unspoken, however.

University and College Union president Sally Hunt, in similar vein, said that we need “not just a pay rise”, but “real change”. Such “real change” would give us a “country which loves everyone, irrespective of their colour or sexuality”. She added: “That’s why we’re in trade unions.” Of the court action that prevented last week’s UCU strike, she said it was a “crying shame” - not exactly the most accurate expression to describe such an outrageous attack on our ability to resist attacks.

After these less than inspiring speeches, we were treated to a couple of videos which demonstrated the trade union bureaucracy’s interpretation of proletarian internationalism. First Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, and then Bernadette Ségol, who holds the same post in the European Trade Union Confederation, proclaimed their solidarity by respectively announcing: “The world needs a pay rise” and “Europe needs a pay rise”.

Following this interlude, however, leaders of the big battalions came to the microphone. At least Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, and Billy Hayes of the Communication Workers Union proposed an alternative politics - of sorts. Brother McCluskey said it was wrong to blame workers for the “collapse caused by casino capitalism”. There was no excuse for the Conservative-led attacks: “Another five years of Tory government would eradicate every social gain”.

But “there is an alternative to the Tory misery,” he went on. Britain needs “a Labour Party that offers a socialist alternative.” In answer to his own question, “Where’s the money coming from?”, he answered: “Pay your taxes, you greedy bastards!” He did end by saying that the answer lies in “people’s power and the working class movement”, but clearly this is a mere platitudinous phrase. Delivery can only come from on high, in the shape of a Labour government. Hopefully one that delivers McCluskey’s version of “a socialist alternative”, but I am sure that, for all his noises about the possibility of withdrawing support, in May 2015 the Unite leader will still call for a vote for a Labour leadership that will promise rather less than that. Nevertheless, his speech was greeted by huge applause from the thousands gathered around the stage.

Continuing in this vein, brother Hayes reiterated that, yes, we want the coalition out, but we “don’t want austerity-lite”. Labour must “break with austerity”, he said. He also held up last week’s strikes, especially those of healthworkers, as an example and proudly declared: “Not one postal or telecommunication worker crossed your picket line.” Once again this display of militancy produced great cheers.

Speaking of those strikes, Dave Prentis of Unison - which was among the unions that called off the October 14 walkout by local government workers on the eve of the action, following a last-minute ‘new proposal’ from the employer - said that the latest pay offer was “not good”. If his union members voted to reject it, “we will take sustained action”.

This begged the question: why was the strike abandoned if Prentis thinks the offer is so bad? Was he outvoted on Unison’s leadership or persuaded by McCluskey and the GMB’s Paul Kenny (who are clearly to his left)? Or did he feel there was no alternative for legal reasons? The latter possibilities do not seem very convincing. And neither was Prentis’s conclusion: if, however, “we don’t win a pay rise this year, we know what we’ve got to do next year: get this government out.” Not even the pretence of making demands on Labour from him.

For her part, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady felt it was her duty to gee up the assembled thousands: “What do we want?” she shouted and they dutifully responded to her prompt: “A pay rise!” That led her to conclude: “This is what solidarity feels like!” We have to “tell the politicians and the bosses, we’ve had enough!” she continued. “I’ll tell you what: they’ve picked on the wrong ones here.” Nice noises, Frances, but once again I found the threatened retaliation in response to coalition attacks rather lacking: “They’ll pay the price in the ballot box!”

What vehicle?

The final batch of platform speeches included those from the two most leftwing union general secretaries: Matt Wrack of the Fire Brigades Union and Mark Serwotka of the Public and Commercial Services union. Comrade Wrack spoke of the “ruling class agenda”, part of which was to “transfer resources from the majority to the minority”. Those resources are “in the wrong hands” and “the blame lies with big business, the billionaires and their system”. We should “take over the railways and run them as a public service”. He repeated the sentence twice, but inserting first “banks” and then “utilities” instead of “railways”. He ended with a call to “build a movement you’ve never seen before”.

All well and good, but the question comrade Wrack never publicly addresses is, what is the vehicle necessary to produce such a majority-led transformation? Should the FBU join with other unions in a fight within the Labour Party to make it fit for purpose? Perhaps the unions should set up an alternative workers’ party - a Labour Party mark two? Or do we need a single organisation of Marxists to lead our class?

Comrade Serwotka insisted the unions should make it clear to Labour politicians that “we won’t accept pay cuts”, whoever is wielding the axe. In fact, “We want a £10 minimum wage” now, not £8 in 2020. But he then asked a very pertinent question: “How are we going to realise these demands?” But his solution was confined within the trade union/direct action template: “Unless we take militant action, they won’t give us what we need.” However, “if we all went on strike together …” In other words, we should “join up all the struggles - the occupations, the marches, the demonstrations”. He concluded: “Let’s march together, let’s strike together.”

Yet again there was an enthusiastic and noisy response.

It was gratifying that so many people remained to listen to all the speeches: together with two musical interludes, the rally lasted around two hours, but I would say that a good half of those on the demonstration remained to the end.

But what did they get from the experience? On the tube afterwards I got chatting to half a dozen members of the Royal College of Midwives, which had taken part in its first ever strike on October 13 - “RCM official picket” was stamped on their placards. The whole strike/demonstration experience had obviously been a new one for all of them. When I asked what they thought of the day, they said, “Very good”, but in response to my question about the quality of the platform speeches, one said, “I didn’t really listen.” She added: “I don’t think we’ll get the one percent.”

In other words, as you might expect, a confused and uncertain response to their first participation in a working class action. But who can help dissipate the confusion and provide some clarity, some basic understanding of the predicament we find ourselves in, and the means of escaping from it?

It was interesting that the speakers were almost entirely union representatives. There was nobody from the Labour Party on the platform and, although the Green Party had people on the demonstration handing out anti-austerity leaflets, there was no discernible Labour presence. Unlike in July 2012, Miliband decided to stay away.

Hardly surprising really. The Labour leader thinks his best course of action is to do nothing and watch the Tories dig themselves further into a hole over the European Union. He will certainly not blow his claim to ‘responsible government’ by committing himself to anything more than a gesture or two in the direction of “working people”.

So, yes, October 18 was a display of unity, but can it be built upon?