Prescott and Monks at the TUC: no need to look left

TUC on its knees

Blair may have sent a batch of his ministers to last week’s TUC. But his plans for the realignment of British politics include the complete marginalisation of the unions

Last week’s Trades Union Congress clearly demonstrated that the TUC has for the moment transformed itself into a useless talking shop.

The bureaucrats listened politely not only to Eddie George, governor of the Bank of England, and George Bain, head of the government’s Low Pay Commission, but also to a whole array of New Labour ministers. Peter Mandelson, the trade and industry secretary, patronisingly conceded that the unions were “a force for good” and welcomed their “huge efforts to modernise”. But, in an attempt to reassure the establishment that this recognition of the TUC’s ‘positive’ development did not mean a return to the previous close relationship, he emphasised that the Labour government would “never be a soft touch”. Nevertheless Mandelson dangled the carrot of increased TUC input - a “voice of direct workplace experience” in public policy-making - if the unions continued to toe the line. The choice before them, wheedled Mandelson, was “opposition or legitimate influence”.

The determining factor, as far as Mandelson was concerned, was the necessity for the unions to “actively work for and welcome profits”. By way of contrast, they should show “moderation in wage demands and flexibility in pay levels”. Here he was expressing his desire that the militancy of the 70s and 80s would remain a thing of the past, and that a tamed union movement would in effect become first and foremost an arm of capital.

That might have appeared a forlorn hope in view of John Edmonds’ much reported “greedy bastards” comments. But Mandelson was not taken in by the GMB leader’s populist remarks. He knows that complaints of pay disparity are intended for union members’ consumption and are most unlikely to be backed up by action.

This was well illustrated by the bureaucrats’ muted criticisms of the pathetically low level of Labour’s minimum wage. As The Guardian reported, “A succession of union leaders and delegates admitted they were torn between delight and dismay at the initial £3.60 hourly rate” (September 16). Bill Morris of the Transport and General Workers Union exemplified this with his remark, “Thank you for the principle; shame about the rate.” And the ‘leftwing’ leader of Unison, Rodney Bickerstaffe, confessed to being “cock-a-hoop” that the state was to set a legal minimum, but whinged that the rate was “not enough” and “cannot be fair”. TUC general secretary John Monks merely rebuked Labour for being “over-cautious”.

These misleaders seem totally unable to grasp that a “principle” that leaves millions mired in poverty is worse than useless. The only principled demand is one which lays down a minimum based on what workers need. The fact that it is claimed that two million workers will have their poverty slightly alleviated by Blair’s legislation, as George Bain shamefacedly admitted to the congress, is hardly a cause for celebration. The Communist Party has calculated that workers need a minimum of £285 a week in order to reproduce themselves physically and culturally in 1998 Britain. That translates into an hourly rate of £8.14, based on a 35-hour working week. The TUC’s ‘reasonable’ call for £4.61, backed up by most of the left, is in fact equivalent to a declaration that their members are not entitled to any sort of a decent standard of life.

No wonder the TUC won praise from bourgeois liberals. Writing in The Guardian, Hugo Young was fulsome in his admiration:

“... they have acquired their own modernity. This has been a sober, polite and passionately serious gathering. In fact, as political partners for Labour, the unions in their present state must seem, to anyone with an open mind, to have a few things to be said for them that business cannot match” (September 17).

Monks’ talk of “partnership” and “new unionism” certainly marks the unions’ transformation, and with it a distinct shift in the attitude of large sections of the bourgeoisie. Over the last two decades the change has been dramatic. In the 70s even the most rightwing of union leaders, whatever their talk of cooperation with business, were obliged to speak out for workers’ pay, conditions and workplace rights in the context of interests separate and distinct from those of the employers. Today any expression of working class independence - even in the form of totally unpolitical workplace antagonisms - has been smothered by the most blatant class collaborationism.

What has caused this change? Undoubtedly the Thatcherite offensive, culminating with the breaking of the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-5. This was a strategic defeat for our class. The shift in the balance of power was enshrined by the battery of anti-union legislation that all but outlawed effective trade unionism. It resulted over time in a belief amongst individual workers that their interests were not being advanced through trade union organisation.

Membership began to drop from its peak of around 12 million (50% of the workforce) in 1980 to below seven million (about 30%) today. Despite rising employment over recent years, this decline has not been reversed. It has resulted not so much from mass resignations as from a failure to recruit. Only 18% of workers under the age of 30 belong to a union, and the newest sectors of industry are the ones where union membership is most sparse. Militancy is almost exclusively limited to long, defensive actions by tiny groups. Working days lost through strike action have dropped from their peak of around 30 million a year in the late 70s to a stage where they hardly register at all.

The effects of this historic defeat were not restricted to the workplace, but were also reflected in a shift to the right in the Labour Party and in the whole of society. Over the last decade this rightward shift has been accentuated following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The apparent elimination of any kind of ideological alternative to capitalism has ushered in a period of reaction, where the notion of working class independence - in the sphere of trade unionism, let alone in the political field - has been totally discredited.

In 1998 the only ‘campaigns’ the union tops can contemplate are those such as the demand to cut interest rates. Even this is conducted almost by proxy. The TUC delegation to Downing Street before congress called on the Bank of England committee which determines the rate to be broadened, to include “representatives of industry” - ie, of industrial capital. Gone are the days when the union bureaucrats aimed to influence the state directly; now they hope that big business will do the job for them.

What is unspoken in the TUC’s criticisms of Labour’s policy on interest rates is any acknowledgement of Blair’s anti-working class reasoning on the question. The government’s priority of vanquishing inflation carries with it the underlying assumption that unemployment is ‘too low’. Fewer people at work means lower demand, the achievement of which can also be aided by holding down workers’ pay. If prices are lower as a result, the competitiveness of British capital will be enhanced. A spate of bankruptcies, along with higher unemployment, is a small price to pay - or so the argument goes. Nevertheless Monks, Morris and co cling to ‘their’ party.

The stoicism of the union bureaucrats has clearly impressed Hugo Young. Having witnessed “the sobriety and long-termism of the unions” in TUC week, he has changed his mind on what he previously considered to be the “high priority of progressive politics” - the necessity of ending Labour’s links with the trade unions. He contrasts the TUC with “the gimcrack opportunism and fly-by-night donations of corporate sponsors who think they know a good thing while it briefly stares them in the face” (The Guardian September 17).

This misses the point. Blair is well aware that governing in the interest of capital as a whole often requires taking action in direct opposition to the short-term approach of individual capitalist concerns. His proposal for the state funding of political parties envisages the freedom to act, independent not only of residual union influence, but of the whims of “corporate sponsors” too.

Sure, it would be useful to retain the loyalty of the TUC leaders, just as Clinton’s Democrats still have the main US unions in tow. But Blair is looking at the bigger picture. The introduction of proportional representation will change the face of British politics. Last June’s joint declaration on constitutional matters by the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats opened the way for a future realignment, where the support of the unions will be a marginal concern.

Jim Blackstock