Unions oppose Blair as revolt develops

Blackpool rumblings show potential

Two debates at the Labour Party conference in Blackpool saw a flexing of muscles by the trade unions for the first time in more than a few years. First there was the defeat for the government on the private finance initiative by 67% to 33%, followed by a fairly narrow victory for Blair on the question of the war drive against Iraq. In the latter case, around 40% of the conference voted for complete rejection of the planned war. Though the motion passed was the standard social democratic fare insisting on the alleged authority of the UN in military action, which succeeded in mollifying enough trade union officials and delegates not to go the same way as the vote on PFI, nevertheless the results are a reflection of the growth of discontent, particularly in the trade unions, with the Blair government's aggressive warmongering and plans for semi-privatisation of large elements of public services in the guise of 'investment' and 'renewal'. Indeed, particularly on the PFI vote, what was notable was that the majority against the government was to a considerable extent based on the trade unions - most constituency delegates voted for the government's position. This somewhat reverses what was often the situation in the past, where in the days of 'old Labour' union officialdom would use its block vote to defeat motions from leftwing constituency parties. Nowadays, thanks to the prolonged purging of the Labour left under Kinnock and Blair, and the pronounced shift in Labour's formal policies away from such nostrums as strong trade unions and public ownership, the unions' political centre of gravity has shifted well to the left of the constituency Labour Parties. However, this should not be overstated. For instance, the trade union PFI motion, put in place after last-minute horse-trading and compositing on the urging of John Edmonds, centrist leader of the GMB, did not even explicitly condemn PFI. It merely called for an independent inquiry into whether it gave 'good value' for government money handed over to the various firms involved. Thus, while the defeat for the government on this was an important symptom of a shift in the trade unions away from complete prostration before Blair, it is also important to note that we really have a long way to go before the unions act even as an effective force for defending their members against Blair's attacks. Certainly within the framework of New Labour, as 'modernised' by Blair and co, the leadership really has little to worry about in terms of any threat to its hegemony. Thus Brown was able to immediately make clear that he would simply ignore the vote on the proposed PFI inquiry. What the government does have to worry about somewhat, though, is rising hostility to its activities among the ranks of the trade unions themselves. The fact that such a normally servile rightwing bureaucrat as Edmonds, though in reality gutting the motion of any real principled position, nevertheless feels compelled to make serious-sounding noises against the government, is a sign of something shifting at the base of the trade unions. The fact that pro-Blair union leaders have proved virtually unelectable in union elections over the last couple of years have put people like Edmonds on notice that if they do not try to adapt to this new mood among ordinary union members, they will be ousted by them. The election of Bob Crow in the RMT, Mark Serwotka in PCS and, most shockingly for Blair, the defeat of arch-rightwinger Ken Jackson in the newly merged Amicus union, whose dominant component is the former AEEU, bear witness to the new mood. The AEEU was at the heart of the rightwing bureaucratic forces that assisted Thatcher in inflicting a strategic defeat on militant trade unionism in the 1980s - a defeat which paved the way for the major shift to the right in the unions and Labour Party, and which eventually brought Blair to power. Unseating Jackson from the top position in the Blairites' most important union stronghold is a key indicator of the beginning of a new fluidity in British trade unionism and the politics that interacts with it: a real potential starting point for the recovery of the fighting capacity of the British working class if the correct political and organisational lessons can be learned. Indeed, a certain fear was palpable in the running of the conference. For the first time since Blair came to power in 1997 he has faced something like an effective revolt against his government. The PFI defeat was not unexpected, of course, though in fact the victory was purely symbolic - even if implemented, Edmonds' 'inquiry' would probably have been rigged by the government. But defeat on Iraq would have been pretty damaging, in the lead-up to what is quite a big political risk. Blair is enthusiastically promoting a military venture with a US president whose support from his 'own' ruling class is far from unanimous - all kinds of leading US political figures, from Brent Scowcroft to Al Gore, have questioned Bush's wisdom in pursuing war with Iraq in current conditions. As some were reportedly asking in the lead-up to the debate, 'How did we manage to end up on Bush's side in an argument between him and Al Gore?' Thus the Iraq debate was blatantly rigged by the platform - speaker after speaker got up to spout forth gushing praise for the government line on Iraq, while those who wished to speak against the war were deliberately not called, to the point where the bias looked simply ridiculous. The reaction to this control-freakery may in fact have fuelled the somewhat surprisingly high vote for the motion against the war. But Blair is right to be nervous - knowing the high level of popular opposition to the war and the likelihood of that forcing its way though Labour's mass base, creating a catastrophically split party. The leadership has, for the moment, averted this, but last weekend's huge, 300,000-strong demonstration shows that there is enormous potential for the building of a movement capable of throwing Blair's whole project into the waste bin of history. Ian Donovan