Abiding delusions

Alan Stevens comments on the TUC conference

Tony Blair came over all tough at the dinner for TUC tops. Though he strayed from the published text of his speech, the message was clear enough. There is no going back on the government’s neoliberal programme. However, perhaps the most significant passage in Blair’s speech was not used: a frontal attack on left reformism. According to the text of Blair’s speech, the “idea of a leftwing Labour government as the alternative to a moderate and progressive one is the abiding delusion of 100 years of our party. We aren’t going to fall for it again.”

There is little doubt that Blair is deeply worried by the revival of the Labour left, especially as it has been powered by a string of stunning leftwing victories in the trade unions. Blair certainly had the harsh words of Tony Woodley, TGWU general secretary-elect, ringing in his ears: he had called on him to resign over Iraq. Blair and New Labour also faced the certain prospect of defeat on a whole range of issues - everything from rail renationalisation to foundation hospitals, and from the occupation of Iraq to the handling of the nine-month fire dispute.

Of course, in one sense Blair is right. The idea of a leftwing Labour government is an “abiding delusion”.

The Labour Party is what Lenin called a bourgeois workers’ party. The openly pro-capitalist, right wing exists solely to carry out the serious business of government or, failing that, responsible opposition. Meanwhile the left keeps militant sections of the working class firmly attached to the Labour Party machine by holding out the hope, the promise, that next time things will not end in betrayal and disappointment. Why? Because next time the left will get itself into the driving seat. The future, however, is never present: it is always deferred. The left peddles illusions, but can never deliver. In that sense the Labour left always turns to the right when faced with the bigger evil of a Tory or Liberal government. Through this symbiotic relationship the two poles of Labourism are kept in contact and militants diverted away from following the epoch-making example of the Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution.

In that light Blair’s “abiding delusion” is a necessary feature of Labourism. And the fact that workers “fall for it” again and again gives it a wide social base and therefore opens the way to “moderate and progressive” - ie, rightwing - Labour governments such as Blair’s.

This explains why for communists the renewed centrality of left-right conflict at the TUC and in the Labour Party itself is considered a two-sided phenomenon. On the one hand it is good news indeed that the despicable and overtly pro-business wing of the labour bureaucracy is being rejected by the rank and file in one trade union election after another. On the other hand, while this gives us greater room for manoeuvre, the election of left reformists undoubtedly fosters “abiding delusions” and diverts from the historic necessity of workers organising themselves into a mass revolutionary party.

This year’s TUC surely proves the point. A rightwing Labour government and its remaining trade union barons is pitted against what is now a left moving trade union bureaucracy. The Financial Times assessed the picture as follows: “Britain’s trades unions are in the midst of one of their occasional debates over the future of the movement. Modernisers want the TUC to become a more effective lobbyist, to strengthen its influence in government. A new generation of militant union leaders prefers confrontation - using strike action to win disputes” (September 6).

Life, however, is far more complex. Though the trade union lefts huff and puff a great deal, they have no intention of splitting from the right, let alone expelling it. Their socialism is for resolutions and platform speeches. In the last analysis the new generation of trade union lefts is just like the old generation seen in the 1960s and 70s - at the end of the day they are merchants in the commodity of labour-power, not revolutionaries with a programme for socialism.

Tony Woodley told The Observer that the TUC is the “launch pad” for the “conflict to come”. He also said that we “have a government that is too close to business, and is not listening to us. We need a change in policies” (September 7).

Those who wish to ‘reclaim’ Labour like Woodley (and most of the so-called ‘awkward squad’) are attempting to cohere a coalition of unions, disaffected backbenchers and constituency parties around ‘core values’ and against the rampantly pro-business policies of the Blair government. They want to open up the closed doorways of Labour Party policy formation. Although more democratic control and union rights would be welcome, the fundamental aim is clear - re-establish the “abiding delusion” of left reformism. Either that or the danger exists of Labour’s traditional core deserting for elsewhere.

There are others, like Mark Serwotka of the PCS union, who say they want to see a new, socialist alternative to the Labour Party. But what sort of alternative? The Scottish Socialist Party is becoming ever more mired in the nationalist swamp and the Socialist Alliance remains, under the misleadership of the Socialist Workers Party, an embryo cryogenically frozen.

So-called ‘modernisers’, such as new TUC leader Brendan Barber, are more inclined merely to try and tone down the excesses of Blairism and attempt to build bridges to maintain ‘partnerships’ with government and business: that is, straightforward class collaboration. Six years of New Labour arrogance and intransigence have added insults to injuries and increasingly exposed this limited aim of winning the government’s ear as pretty fruitless.

But the balance of forces at the top of the TUC has shifted - the normally restraining influence of the big union leaderships has flipped to one of sullen rebellion. The election of the ‘awkward squad’ has, despite the recent unexpected defeat of Aslef’s Mick Rix, achieved a ‘critical mass’. The four biggest unions can now determine TUC policy - but they are far from isolated. Indeed so extensive and unwavering are the pro-business and anti-working class policies of Blair that even moderate loyalists such as Barber are forced to raise critical voices. There is - at least on the surface - a high degree of unanimity on many key issues across the unions (an important exception being the euro).

All this makes the TUC an unusually threatening pre-fight warm-up for the Labour Party conference. The extent to which tensions will break out into open conflict remains to be seen. New Labour ministers have made a number of very minor concessions: for example, looking at extending the legal protections against two-tier workforces in privatised services. Tony Blair also accepted a Brendan Barber initiative for dialogue with the unions - in the form of a forum to discuss plans for public sector ‘reform’ (ie, privatisation).

However, many union leaders remain sceptical - partly no doubt because of the recent furore caused by the fast track given to foundation hospitals without the slightest hint of consultation, and also because it has been made clear that nothing will deflect the government from its Thatcherite course.

The flurry of activity from the New Labour camp - disingenuously portrayed by arse-wipes like The Sun as Blair “running up the white flag” - in reality represents a series of manoeuvres designed to blunt the edges of drawn daggers and soften or deflect the blows to come, as the Blairites continue unabashed to serve their capitalist masters.

On the first day of congress the TUC voted unanimously for the right to take secondary action and for better protection against the sack for strikers as part of a package of new employment rights. Bob Crow of the RMT even urged workers to organise street protests against anti-trade union laws.

In the second debate Tony Woodley called for restoring the link between the state pension and earnings. He went on to accuse companies of stealing £19 billion from pensions funds and proposed a national demonstration to launch a campaign to make employer contributions to occupational pensions compulsory. Day two kicked off with unanimous opposition to the government’s university top-up fees.

The much awaited Gordon Brown speech was a combination of deeply patronising soft soap and putting the unions in their place. Despite constant sycophantic references to “friends”, “working together” and “equity”, it was clearly a bosses’ agenda with little in it for the unions except one other pathetic concession - a pension protection fund. It was yet again emphasised that the government will press ahead regardless.

The reception for the speech was much cooler than Brown is used to. Crow’s opinion of it was a dismissive “It’s the same meat but with different gravy”. Tony Woodley on the other hand was more generous and thought that it showed “the unions are no longer considered as the enemies within”. A strange view, given the government’s intransigent adherence to the most important elements of Europe’s most restrictive anti-union laws. Dave Prentis, leader of Unison, suggested that, if Brown has an eye on becoming Labour leader, “he will need the support of the trade unions”.

Although Brown carefully defended Blair and New Labour on this occasion, he is to have meetings with the leaders of the bigger unions: he and they know the unions still control 30% of votes in the Labour leadership electoral colleges. It has to be said that the lack of any significant upwards rank and file pressure and the virtual absence of any revolutionary left influence leaves the field wide open to temptation for backroom deals and wheeler-dealing between bureaucrats and would-be Blair replacements.