Labour and mini-Labour

The Trade Union Congress saw a bit of prime ministerial honesty, a lot of hot air, but nothing in the way of concrete measures to protect workers from the effects of the ongoing economic crisis. Phil Ritchie reports

Gordon Brown has admitted it at last. Just like the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, his government is now openly committed to slashing public spending in order to pay for the crisis. That is what he told delegates gathered for the Liverpool TUC Congress: “Labour will cut costs, cut inefficiencies, cut unnecessary programmes and cut lower priority budgets,” Brown declared to much media crowing and delight. And, while he solemnly pledged to protect “frontline services”, political commentators are generally agreed that from 2011 government departments will face savage budget reductions, amounting to 10%-14% in real terms.

Like other leading capitalist countries Britain borrowed massively to stave off a 1930s-type slump and rescue the finance and banking system - the estimate is a cool trillion. They seem to have succeeded for the moment. But that does not mean that it is business as usual and a return to boom times.

Indeed economists are divided as to whether or not the worst is yet over. Some fear that the downturn could be ‘W’ shaped. That with unemployment steadily rising and global trade sluggish there will be a severe fall in consumer demand and thus another steep drop in economic activity next year. Hence the call for continued high levels of government debt and maintaining or even increasing spending levels. Others argue that unless government borrowing is driven down there could be a run on the pound, a sudden burst of inflation or a damaging series of industrial disputes, as workers fight to protect their living standards.

No-one knows exactly what Brown’s cuts will mean except that they will really only kick in after the 2010 general election. At the TUC he refused to supply details. Save one. The prime minister announced that he would save £500 million over three years by ending the early-retirement scheme for civil servants. “These high costs prevent us giving other people jobs and this is not the best way to spend public money,” he argued.

This brought an angry, swift and forthright condemnation from Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS. He accused Brown of “robbing his own workers”. Serwotka also promised that the PCS would take legal action against the planned move. For him Brown’s “lacklustre” speech “confirmed my worst fears”. Certainly no opportunity was taken to show that Labour “is different from the Tories”. So, while Serwotka readily admitted that a Tory government would be “disastrous”, “so would a Labour government.”

Serwotka urged the TUC to fight for an alternative, which was “not to cut public spending, but to collect taxes. It’s about making the rich pay their share.”

However, most general secretaries are scared witless by the forthcoming general election and the prospect of a Tory government. So, while resolutions were unanimously passed pledging to defend pensions and public services, they will in all probability amount to nothing in the way of action.

David Cameron and his shadow chancellor, George Osborne, have spearheaded a concerted campaign over recent months - backed by much of the print and electronic media - to make cuts appear inevitable and, equally to the point, urgent. As a result the Tories are seen, not unfairly, as enthusiastic cutters; Labour as reluctant cutters … and therefore by the trade union bureaucracy as the lesser evil.

So, although there was a significant degree of unhappiness about Brown’s speech, the overwhelming consensus at the TUC was to unite behind Labour in order to keep the Tories out. That was the clear and unmistakable message of Brendan Barber, Tony Woodley, Dave Prentis and co.

Not that there is unanimity over this. Pressure is building from the left. The Communication Workers Union tabled a motion which amongst other things called for the TUC general council “to convene, at the earliest opportunity, a conference of all affiliated unions to consider how to achieve effective political representation for our members” (www.tuc.org.uk/congress/tuc-16887-f7.cfm#tuc-16887-7). At the time of writing it has still not been debated; and it is quite possible that it will not be. Nevertheless, that it found its way onto the agenda of the TUC in the first place is significant in itself.

The carefully worded motion leaves the intended direction of the proposed conference, to be called by the TUC, ambiguous. In no small part this is because there is a coalition of forces behind the motion. Some want to harness the widespread frustration with the Brown government in order to pressurise the Labour Party before the general election campaign begins in earnest.

That is certainly the case with John McDonnell MP, who convenes the Trade Union Coordinating Group. Set up last year, it consists of eight leftwing unions, including RMT, PCS, POA and the FBU. Ditto, Maria Exhall, who seconded the motion at the CWU conference. She strenuously denied to The Guardian that the motion was “anti-Labour” or a call for unions to disaffiliate: “It is about the trade union voice being heard in the run-up to the general election to make sure trade union priorities are heard - issues around privatisation, employment rights and anti-trade union laws.” Comrade Exhall is a former member of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and was publicly critical over its stupid claim that the Labour Party was “dead” as a site of struggle.

However, there are undoubtedly those who long for the trade unions and the TUC to abandon their historic support for the Labour Party and dream of founding a Labour Party mark II. Failing that unlikely outcome, they envisage non-affiliated and disaffiliated unions creating a smaller, albeit leftwing, version of the real thing. The Socialist Party in England and Wales has two members on the CWU executive and has been doggedly proposing motions over recent years that would amount in effect to disaffiliation. Then there is the Socialist Workers Party, whose supporters have thought up various dodges and devices to open the CWU’s coffers for projects like Respect.

Billy Hayes, CWU general secretary, has till this year managed to soundly defeat such arguments, not least by citing the RMT’s disastrous backing for the Scottish Socialist Party. In effect Bob Crow exchanged a 100-year relationship with Labour for a left nationalist grouplet which debilitatingly split down the middle three years after gaining RMT affiliation.

Comrade Crow’s next big venture was, of course, ‘No to the EU, Yes to Democracy’ - surely an easy target for Hayes. The politics of No2EU had more than a whiff of red-brown about them, combining at they did routine trade unionism with little British chauvinism. Clearly the project was designed to capture the votes of those who could not quite stomach throwing in their lot with the BNP or UK Independence Party. Not that it worked. In the June 4 European elections No2EU gained a magnificent 1% of the poll for a withdrawal from the EU and a return to the sort of wonderful democracy Britain enjoyed before 1973.

Now, however, the CWU is embroiled in a bitter dispute, not only with the Royal Mail employers, but a Labour government that was bent on privatisation or part-privatisation. Anger against the government has built up amongst CWU members, with many cancelling their political levy to the Labour Party. Rank and file discontent became an unstoppable force at the last CWU conference and helped shifted opinion on the union’s executive to the left.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the CWU leadership is far from united over its attitude to Labour. Billy Hayes had urged his executive to quietly drop the union’s motion, but without success.

Still, as I have hinted, there is every chance of the CWU motion being buried by time constraints, sitting as it does at number 84 of the 85 scheduled motions. Either that or the motion will be fudged with some anodyne rewording after some rotten backroom deal. Apparently that was the fate of the controversial FBU motion on Israel, which had Unite’s Derek Simpson and Brendan Barber at each other’s throats. Backed by both the TUC’s ‘big beasts’, Unite and Unison, the motion urged a boycott of goods coming from illegal Israeli settlements, terminating arms exports to Israel and ending the TUC’s fraternal relations with Histadrut (Israel’s Zionist federation of trade unions).

A debate over these proposals on the floor of congress would have allowed a whole list of general secretaries to pose left. However, it would also have invited a storm of rightwing, pro-Zionist outrage, including from Labour government ministers. Hence the fudge.