TGWU elections: Awkward squad at union helm

In a four-way contest Blair's preferred candidate, Jack Dromey, was defeated by a large margin. Alan Steven analyses the situation

In a bad week for Tony Blair the Transport and General Workers Union delivered more bad news by electing self-confessed “fully paid-up member of the awkward squad” Tony Woodley as its general secretary. In a four-way contest Blair’s preferred candidate, Jack Dromey, was defeated by a large margin.

There has been a flurry of commentary and analysis in the media and this election is widely perceived as a significant event. It is. Blair has been seeking to spike the rise of the left amongst union leaders. Their increased willingness to publicly criticise the government and its policies, to contemplate industrial action, their success in attracting more union members because of a more militant and leftwing stance - all this has given Blair a headache.

Having mercilessly engineered a head-on confrontation with the firefighters, Blair sought to emasculate Andy Gilchrist, a leading ‘awkward squad’ member, and teach the rank and file a lesson. This has not quite worked in the way Blair hoped. Although Gilchrist (and the Fire Brigades Union executive) can be criticised for poor strategy and tactics, the vicious role of the government helped to maintain sympathy for the firefighters and generate tremendous bitterness and resentment towards Blair’s gang across the whole labour movement. Thus the TGWU poll was now of particular importance - “an election is underway that will determine both the future direction of organised labour and, as the more prescient in No10 privately acknowledge, to some extent that of political Labour too” (Kevin Maguire, The Guardian May 16).

The last thing Blair needed was the election of another opponent of New Labour - especially not in the 850,000-strong TGWU, the union that sponsors Gordon Brown and Blair himself. The TGWU has always been an important union in the Labour Party and has a significant block vote. A left general secretary in such an influential union would also tilt the balance at the TUC and pull some of the more moderate union functionaries leftwards. In fact the big four - Unison, TGWU, GMB and Amicus - could between them determine TUC policy. There is talk of a potential merger between a financially strapped GMB and the TGWU. This would push a TGWU-GMB union to the top slot ahead of Unison and concentrate power within a big three.

Tony Woodley, the favourite in the TGWU election, had been making statements that were worrying from New Labour’s point of view. Despite declaring his loyalty to the Labour Party, Woodley is hardly a Blairite and announced he wanted to “put labour back into the Labour Party” and rescue it from the “hijackers”. To this end he promised to convene a “council of war” with other left union bosses. He opposed privatisation, questioned social partnerships, opposed the war in Iraq (and continues to oppose the occupation), wanted the minimum wage raised to £6 and demanded the repeal of anti-trade union laws. However, he has also said he is likely to have more contact with Downing Street than other members of the awkward squad - and is known to have worked closely with ministers in the past. Perhaps he is more like a 70s-style union baron, determined to collaborate and negotiate to get the best deal on offer - more wheeler-dealer than class fighter.

A candidate viewed by many as more leftwing than Woodley was Barry Camfield. A Eurosceptic, he called for constituency Labour Parties to be won over away from Blair. He had the support of the Broad Left but was dumped by his natural allies, the Communist Party of Britain (Morning Star), in favour of Woodley (although this appears to have caused internal problems for the CPB). Leading CPBer Andrew Murray, chair of the Stop the War Coalition, was Woodley’s press agent. Traditionally, the Broad Left was bureaucratically dominated by the ‘official’ CPGB - it was very successful at ‘doing the business’. This type of union activity was carried over into the CPB, but obviously on a much smaller scale. Nevertheless one wonders if some deal was done with Woodley, perhaps involving a boost for the Morning Star.

Blair’s hope lay in Jack Dromey, husband of ex-solicitor general Harriet Harman. When Dromey challenged Bill Morris and lost in 1995, he was an aggressively pro-Blair moderniser. This time round he employed former Labour Party press officer Don Brind to head his campaign. As an astute union bureaucrat, Dromey could see which way the wind was blowing and sought to resuscitate his long-lost left image and distance himself from Blair and Blairism. His only real chance of getting elected was coming through the middle of a split left vote between Woodley and Camfield.

It is possible that Dromey’s votes were squeezed somewhat by the fourth contender, Jimmy Elsby. Although Woodley achieved a clear victory and the overall ‘left’ vote was about double Dromey’s, it is worth noting that Dromey picked up support from a substantial number of branches and apparently did well in the Midlands. This may reveal a weakness in the organisation of the TGWU Broad Left alluded to above - among other things. The also-ran Elsby, favoured by outgoing Bill Morris and a fellow ally of Gordon Brown, came in last.

To look at the election addresses anyone not in the know would have found it difficult to distinguish between the four candidates - all talked left to some extent. But I suspect that a large proportion of those who voted (turnout - 21%) would, to some extent, be in the know. If you disregard the functionaries and activists, those who would have known at least one contender through their union activity; if you disregard those small numbers of regular branch attendees who would have asked their local officials who they should vote for - how many voting members would be left? Not many, I would guess. I would also guess that their decision would have been mainly influenced by (a) the number of branch nominations for each candidate; and (b) their own branch’s nomination.

In the TGWU - and it is fairly typical - we have the rise of left bureaucrats who are driven by a whole range of positive and negative motivations. Below them is a layer of activists and local bureaucrats. These interrelated layers act as top-down organisers of a relatively passive membership - you could call them voting fodder except that most do not bother. A lot of business can be done out of sight of most members, but when action is needed, the bureaucracy is not up to the task of relating to and organising the rank and file. The left groups are particularly poor in this regard.

Although we must be highly critical of the old ‘official’ CPGB, it had the resources and knew how to mobilise the membership. The vacuum left by its demise has not been filled by today’s left groups - they have fewer resources and, as a result of many years of very little militant activity, insufficient experience: in fact their experience is one of (imposed) bad habits. We need to develop a democratic and vibrant rank and file movement that can assert class independence and exert pressure upwards to ensure that left-talking union bosses do the business the rank and file want.

As the old slogan runs, ‘Support leaders while they fight; oppose them if they don’t’.