Where’s the politics?
The TUC’s call for a ‘new deal’ is tellingly vague and lacking in detail, writes Peter Manson
An estimated 20,000 trade unionists and supporters came together in London on May 12 for the Trades Union Congress demonstration in favour of “a new deal for working people”.
According to the TUC website,
We’re marching for the alternative. For a growing economy with great jobs in every nation and region of the UK. For a £10ph minimum wage and the right to a voice at work. For public services that are brilliant, funded and free at the point of use. And for a society that roots out racism, sexism and discrimination.1
What stands out from this is the absence - apart from on the minimum wage - of any detail at all. A “growing economy”, the “right to a voice” and “a society that roots out racism, sexism and discrimination” are things that just about everyone will endorse nowadays. But what concrete measures should we be proposing?
And this absence of detail - not least in regard to political demands - was largely reflected from the platform in Hyde Park, where the march ended. And, to be fair, the apolitical nature of the occasion was not just confined to the organisers and the speakers - it was reflected in the attitude of the overwhelming majority of those on the demonstration. It was extremely difficult to sell copies of any left paper (as I am sure any honest member of other left groups will confirm). For example, I personally sold just a handful of copies of the Weekly Worker over several hours and the comrade from the Morning Star a couple of metres away was clearly doing little better - despite the fact that this issue of the Star was being issued free of charge, thanks to the sponsorship of three major unions.
So what was the purpose of the demonstration? Clearly the union movement is not exactly at its strongest right now, in terms of either membership numbers or, consequently, bargaining power. For instance back in 1979 there were 13 million union members, but by 2012 that figure had dipped to below six million - the lowest since World War II. This despite the fact that in January 2018 the number of employed workers had soared to 32.3 million - compared to a post-war low of 23.6 million in April 1983.
In other words, the proportion of union members to total workers has plummeted dramatically - and with it the ability of most unions to win much by way of improvements. For example, figures just released show that, for the first time in a year, wages rose (by 2.8%) faster than prices (2.7%), compared to 12 months earlier. I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies.
So, in these circumstances it is hardly surprising that the TUC leadership is keen to show that ‘We’re doing something’. And, of course, it does improve morale for activists to march alongside thousands of others - a good proportion of whom were sporting union T-shirts or other regalia. Mind you, I found the headline of the subsequent Morning Star editorial a little exaggerated: “A magnificent deployment of collective strength.”2
From our point of view, though, while we appreciate that the core membership remains committed to the idea of workers fighting collectively, the key is politics. Yes, militant action can lead to gains, but those gains can only be permanently defended and enhanced under working class rule.
And that is what was most noticeably missing on Saturday. Sure, Jeremy Corbyn got huge applause when he spoke from the platform, while John McDonnell was warmly received by hundreds of marchers, as he wandered amongst the crowds, but what they are actually proposing is modest in the extreme. For instance, Corbyn pledged to repeal only the 2016 Trade Union Act - leaving in place the rest of the anti-union legislation that dates back to the 1980s. Apart from that, a Labour government would guarantee workers “a say in their future”.
Amongst the union leaders the same modesty prevails. While Mark Serwotka of the Public and Commercial Services union made his usual call for coordinated strike action, that did not find much of an echo from other platform speakers.
Dave Ward, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, thinks the TUC demonstration could be “the catalyst for our movement to come together like never before to change the balance of forces in the world of work and reassert trade union values across society”. He hopes that this year’s TUC congress will end up agreeing “a day of action early in the new year and then working out what action is deliverable”. The CWU was one of the unions sponsoring the May 12-13 issue of the Morning Star in the form of a wrap-around extra four pages, in which comrade Ward states:
In the past, mounting a radical challenge to the government has focused on calls for a general strike, but too often that becomes an excuse to do nothing. So we should focus on what’s deliverable ... to create a menu of options that workers can choose from on a given date.
He also wants the unions to formulate common demands, but, as the Socialist Workers Party’s internal bulletinpoints out,
Unfortunately there was very little sign of the demonstration being followed up by action, and several speakers suggested the main thing those who hate the Tories can do is to wait until the next election. But this could be four years away.3
However, Party Notes adds: “Not only do we need more demonstrations to pile the pressure on May, but more strikes too”! Very political, comrades.
The same sentiment is expressed in Socialist Worker, which quotes one demonstrator as saying: “I only get the minimum wage. We’ve got to get it up to £10 an hour. This is how we do that - by marching.” And Socialist Worker agrees, it seems, concluding:
March today, organise and campaign for bigger demonstrations and strikes tomorrow. And a central part of pushing for that is to take issues into the workplace like anti-racism and opposition to Donald Trump’s visit to Britain on July 13.4
As for The Socialist, it argued that the TUC should have decided at its 2017 congress to “map out a strategy of using a mass demonstration in the autumn as a platform for coordinated strikes across the public sector”. But its political recommendations, like those of the TUC tops, are meagre indeed: “Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell and the trade union leaders must mobilise behind the banner of ‘May out! Tories out! General election now!’”5
It is, of course, interesting that this Labourite statement comes from a group that still opposes the affiliation of the PCS, as well as the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, to the Labour Party. How about helping to defeat the Labour right, comrades?
Well, at least Unite general secretary Len McCluskey did refer to Labour’s internal battle in his platform speech, when he said it was “an absolute disgrace” that there are “people within our own ranks” who “aid and abet” the attacks on Corbyn. He added ironically: “I don’t really like attacking rightwing Labour MPs - well, not much anyway - but sometimes you just can’t help it.”
And his advice to those same rightwing Labour MPs was: “Start fighting for the working people that give you the privilege of representing them in parliament,” concluding: “If you can’t do that, then do a Tristram Hunt and go and find another cushy job to do.”
Another appalling example of ‘abuse’!
2. Morning Star May 14.
3. Party Notes May 14.
4. Socialist Worker May 15.
5. The Socialist May 9.