Last week's National Policy Forum of the Labour Party saw some trade union leaders 'kiss and make up' with the government, criticises Patrick PreslandAnybody would think that a general election is on the way next year. After long months of half-heartedly mutinous and impotent rumblings from the bossocracy of the big unions on the one side, and the usual contemptuous arrogance from the government on the other, suddenly all is once more sweetness and light. Was it the bracing air of Warwick University’s campus clearing away the cobwebs of mutual misunderstanding, or was it just the free drinks? It seems that the fabled ‘awkward squad’ are not quite so awkward after all when it comes to the big guns of the trade union movement, but in relation to certain sectors that is not the whole truth.
Remember that in June the FBU took the historic decision to become the first trade union to disaffiliate from Labour since the 1930s. Leader Andy Gilchrist had a bad case of cold feet, which brought on a diplomatic illness, and in his absence the membership voted at their Southport conference that enough was enough. In this writer’s view it was the wrong move - better to stay affiliated and fight your corner, but who can blame the rank and file of an industry whose workers go out every day, often risking their lives, while at the same time struggling for decent pay and conditions? Labour Party apparatchiks poured shit on the FBU at the time of last year’s dispute, and now another strike is looming. The FBU’s action deprives Labour of some £50,000 per annum. Peanuts. The sort of money that a ‘real’ New Labour donor from the city or big business would spend on a prestigious drinks party.
Before that the RMT had got chucked out by Labour because some of its members chose to give money the Scottish Socialist Party as a protest against what they consider to be New Labour’s betrayal of the working class. The GMB, Britain’s fourth largest union, has talked about withholding its customary tribute to the centre and instead donating money only to Labour candidates who support the union’s aims and values in relation to public services and employment laws.
In any event, last weekend Tony Blair’s neoliberal, ultra-Thatcherite Labour Party - the party which Hillel Ticktin described recently as “the party of big capital” - met up with the top misleaders of organised labour and decided it was time to kiss and make up. The occasion was Labour’s National Policy Forum, where policies are discussed which might get debated at party conference and which, if they are debated, will (in this case) almost certainly be passed (given the bloc vote system) and could conceivably form part of Labour’s manifesto at the next election - but don’t hold your breath.
Even if all this weekend’s gains (welcome though they are) were to become law at this moment, they have no bearing on the strategic question of the relationship between the working class and capital, nor upon the question of what, in current concrete circumstances, trade unions should be doing.
It is in the nature of stitch-ups of this kind that all sides come out claiming to have won the day. Let us look at the weekend’s events first from the viewpoint of the unions, then from that of the Labour government and finally from that of the bosses before returning to these central questions of strategy.
TGWU general secretary Tony Woodley was decidedly upbeat: “We now have commitments to tackling inequality between men and women at work, addressing low pay in those sectors worst affected, better pensions protection and more support for manufacturing. We worked together with constituencies and other members to achieve these commitments and it is a manifesto that the whole of the party can unite behind” (Morning Star July 26). To The Times, he spoke of “a fantastic achievement. Finally the Labour manifesto is treating the unions seriously. Labour has listened to the grassroots and conceded sizeable ground. This is an agenda we can campaign on” (July 26). When it comes to hard cash, the TGWU will make a firm decision in September, but Woodley assured The Times: “We will be helpful to Labour for the election.” No problems there.
Likewise, Derek Simpson, general secretary of Amicus, was enthusiastic, telling the Morning Star that “the united stance of the unions on a number of policy areas has paid dividends that will pave the way for a third election victory for Labour” (ibid). Dave Prentis, the leader of Unison, expressed his delight that he had succeeded in “securing key commitments in Labour’s election manifesto ... a radical set of policies ... a range of commitments which, when implemented, will improve the lives of Unison members, particularly women and the lowest paid” (Unison website). And Billy Hayes, leader of the CWU, reportedly guaranteed Labour a £1 million cheque on the strength of a government commitment to keep Royal Mail in public ownership.
What were the commitments and concessions so weighty as to make these big guns abandon their ‘awkwardness’? The headlines concentrated on such ‘radical’ proposals as ensuring that employers do not count bank holidays as part of the statutory four-weeks holiday per year enjoyed by all workers. Most sizeable firms already operate on that basis. It tends to be small businesses and the cowboys who do not. There are also many other perfectly reasonable-sounding proposals, too many to enumerate, which, if implemented, will make life marginally better for workers.
From the point of view of Tony Blair, of course, the key thing was not to allow the slightest suggestion that, faced with rather more murmurings than has been the case hitherto, his New Labour is starting to go soft on the unions. An anonymous senior political source reassuringly put it this way: “Today is a significant moment, as it shows we can avoid the pitfalls previous Labour prime ministers have fallen into. Gone are the days when the trade unions called for something and the Labour prime minister rolled over.” Gone indeed. The era of ‘beer and sandwiches at No10’ - that metaphor so beloved by the right to describe the days when organised labour exercised real influence in this country - is not about to return. Far from it. The objective ‘concessions’ last weekend came not from the government but from the union bosses, for whom a few promised crumbs from the master’s table were enough to placate their ‘awkwardness’ and, they hoped, satisfy the bulk of their membership.
Labour Party chairman Ian McCartney (a real bruiser of the old school) was there to keep order and make sure everything went according to plan. As one activist put it, the Labour team (ministers from trade and industry and employment) were “immoveable on the big stuff” (The Times July 26). The “big stuff”, of course, comprises anything that might affect the dominance of capital over labour - especially in a period when there is such widespread disenchantment with parliamentary democracy and an increasing social dislocation which comes from a deepening alienation.
For the bosses, it need hardly be said, every concession is one too many - if it can be avoided without undue trouble. Bosses big and small have every reason to be grateful to Tony Blair, and they know it. But that does not prevent them moaning - for example, about the baleful consequences of giving some two to three million workers (currently denied it) a few extra days holiday a year. John Cridland, deputy director general of the CBI, says this could mean an increase of two whole percentage points in the costs of some small businesses. But his heart does not seem to be really in it. He calls the outcome of the National Policy Forum a “score draw” but that is really much too modest. For all the ‘concessions’ - most of them, it should be noted, in terms of policies that have to go through many layers of debate and discussion before finding their way into Labour’s manifesto - nothing substantial has changed. A more accurate assessment would actually be: Labour 1, the unions 0.
Ben Hall of the Financial Times has it about right when he writes that “In its first term the Labour government introduced a minimum wage, but has kept the rate fairly low. It brought in new union recognition rules, but with thresholds high enough to limit their impact. It signed the European Union social chapter, but has sided with the business community in negotiations on most directives” (July 27). The “business community”, as Hall coyly puts it, has every reason to be grateful to Blair and last weekend changed nothing in that regard.
So the question arises, what are trade unions for, what are they actually doing in the current period and what needs to be done to put things right? We need to have a debate about this. I think many readers would agree with the pretty obvious proposition that the struggle between capital and labour took a decisive turn with the miners’ Great Strike back in 1984-85. It was a strategic defeat not just for the miners themselves and their communities, now all but disappeared, but for our class as a whole. A significant part of the blame for that defeat must be attributed to the TUC and the big unions who were frightened not just by Thatcher but by their own cowardice from giving the miners the support they desperately needed. It was a watershed for our whole class.
Then came the implosion of the USSR, the collapse of ‘official communism’ and the discrediting in many myopic eyes of the whole socialist idea. Class struggle was off the agenda because capital had supposedly won. We had reached the ‘end of history’.
Fertile ground for Blair’s fundamentally anti-socialist project of transforming Labour into a neoliberal, Thatcherite party committed through and through to the requirements of the market. He succeeded, and in turn the big trade unions have followed suit.
Just on an anecdotal level, let us look briefly at the latest issue of the TGWU’s magazine Work and Leisure. This little tome is, we are told, “produced in partnership with Liverpool Victoria, the firm that offers financial products to T&G members through agreement with the union”. Of the 16 pages comprising this well produced glossy, only two and a bit have anything whatever to do with the activities of the union. The rest is adverts: legal services, loans, motor insurance, accident insurance, personal insurance and ‘family fun’. Were it not for a couple of sentences from Tony Woodley about real life (welcoming support for legislation against gangmasters in the light of the Morecambe Bay cockle-pickers’ tragedy) and a few paragraphs from deputy general secretary Jack Dromey about the union’s activities around the country, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Transport and General Workers Union was actually a wholly owned subsidiary of the Liverpool and Victoria Friendly Society - which “has been looking after people’s financial needs for over 150 years”.
Good for them. But the job of a union, as distinct from that of a surrogate, parasitic provider of financial products, is surely to fight for the interests of its members - not by marketing financial products to them, for god’s sake, but in the daily arena of class struggle, the perennial guerrilla warfare between labour and capital. Whether it is the demoralisation we all feel in this period, whether it is their fat cat salaries, grace and favour cars and what not, our union leaders have totally lost touch with the purpose for which they exist, the reason they were elected.
Finally, it was interesting in the Morning Star’s coverage of last weekend’s love-in to read columnist Daniel Coysh to the effect that union leaders had “claimed to have won a ‘significant shift’ in Labour Party policy” (my emphasis, July 26). A sign of some realism. Even more interesting was the article on the opposite page: “CPB urges labour movement to burst Blair’s bubble”, a report of the latest meeting of the political committee of the Star’s Communist Party of Britain. John Haylett, the paper’s editor, voices pretty obvious and deep scepticism about the actual outcome of the National Policy Forum. He says: “The unions have a responsibility to take account of the erosion of democratic opportunities for change within the Labour Party and to be frank with the party ... It should be told, ‘Remove him [Blair] or we may have to consider re-establishing a party of labour in Britain’.”
It is the last sentence which arouses one’s interest, particularly in terms of its contradictions. Are we supposed to think that if the Labour Party ‘removed’ Blair, or that if Blair fell under a bus, then all could somehow be well again; that the Labour Party (under Brown or whomever) could actually be ‘reclaimed’? Of course, “democratic opportunities for change within the Labour Party” do exist. I know of comrades - good Marxists and socialists - who are working sincerely and very hard in that direction. Life may prove them right, but I remain to be convinced. If comrade Haylett is himself sincere in suggesting that the labour and working class movement might have to consider creating a mass party of the working class, based on socialism, not rank opportunism (like the Respect/Socialist Workers Party experiment), then he is starting to talk our language and that is welcome indeed.
Only such a party presents the answer - in fact just the beginnings of an answer - to the current situation.