Tories: Unite in the crosshairs
The rights crusade against Britains biggest union continues, reports Paul Demarty
What the Conservative Party lacks in unity, direction and big ideas it more than makes up for in sheer brass neck.
Readers will be aware of the broad outline of events concerning the Grangemouth petrochemical plant. To any remotely sensible observer, the story is straightforward - a large industrial operation was held to ransom by a cynical asset-stripper, determined to break union power. By witch-hunting local Unite activist Stevie Deans, repeatedly threatening to close the plant and ultimately announcing that half of it would close, the chairman of Ineos, Jim Ratcliffe, got what he wanted. Unite rolled over. Workers signed up to drastically reduced conditions and a no-strike deal.
Whether this is, as many have it, a ‘sell-out’ depends on how willing the embattled workforce was to take serious and sustained action. The general drift in industrial relations - in this country especially, but in most of the developed world - suggests that maybe they were not up for a fight on the necessary scale: as, indeed, would the general jubilation observed when the deal was done and the jobs ‘saved’. The nutshell version: Ratcliffe and his cronies bullied the workforce into submission.
So good, then, to hear the oleaginous Francis Maude - a man who looks like an owner of a provincial budget furniture warehouse - so enraged about “intimidation”! How gratifying to hear tirades against those holding the Scottish economy to ransom. Except, somehow both unbelievably and predictably, it is Unite who is supposed to have been intimidating Ratcliffe, and its “intransigence” responsible for bringing Grangemouth to the brink.
More flagrant nonsense would be difficult to imagine. The “intimidation” of the beleaguered billionaire owner of the largest private company in Britain seems to boil down to a small protest, with a clutch of pickets, the so-called’ leverage team’, turning up at the house of one of his managers with a giant inflatable rat. We are not exactly talking Godfather-type antics here. We may assume that, given that he cowed the mighty demon that is the Grangemouth Unite branch, Ratcliffe was not himself intimidated by this small, peaceful protest.
The Tories - goaded on by the Murdoch press and their new election guru, sociopathic lobbyist Lynton Crosby - have decided that all this amounts to a campaign of intimidation by the unions, into which there must be an inquiry. Playing his usual role of pretending to moderate the Tories’ ‘excesses’, Nick Clegg has ensured that blacklisting will also be on the agenda. How hollow a gesture this is can be measured in the fact that the chair of the inquiry is to be Bruce Carr QC, who has lived a rich and profitable life representing employers against trade unions.1
Those of us further left than Frances O’Grady might wonder, in fact, whether things might have turned out better if there had been some serious intimidation on the union side. With a boss as venal as Ratcliffe threatening the livelihoods of thousands, only a hypocrite could rule out a proportionate response from angry workers. On some occasions in history where laws concerning unions were highly restrictive, it has been for fear of workers combining to do something worse; in the days of embryonic industrial action, a more common tactic than the withdrawal of labour was razing factory buildings to the ground. That is intimidation.
In this case, however, it is scarcely believable that the unions are the real target. We are not talking Maggie versus the miners here. The industrial organisations of the working class are battered and cowed. If you discount the two big union days of action in recent years, strike action has barely risen since the start of the crisis and the latest onslaught on living standards. If Francis Maude - who is so successfully battering the Public and Commercial Services union in his spare time - is genuinely frightened of the unions, then he needs to be committed.
The exercise is even more shabby, more cynical than that. It is purely an electoral calculation. The Times and the Tories have woven the Grangemouth affair expertly into trifling and manifestly untrue allegations of electoral impropriety in Falkirk with the sole purpose of doing over ‘Red’ Ed Miliband. David Cameron has used this latest farrago to accuse Miliband of - wait for it - “behaving like the mayor of a Sicilian town towards the mafia”. (So mafia-like of Unite to make Jim Ratcliffe an offer he was perfectly well able to refuse!)
It is possible that poll ratings have them rattled. Labour does enjoy a 10-point or so lead over the Tories (one poll puts the Liberal Democrats in fourth place, behind Ukip, and this writer must confess a morbid excitement at the possibility that the creature Clegg will be turfed out by the students who make up a not insignificant whack of his constituents.)2
These are hardly in themselves bad ratings in the middle of a term of government, if historical precedent is anything to go by. No opposition party has, in living memory, ever won without a dramatically better rating at this point in the parliament. The trouble is that neither has any party ever won with an increased majority. The Tories, last time out, did not even get a majority. We are into unknown territory; and Ukip stubbornly continues to make inroads into the Tories’ core vote. If this were to be a close-run thing, a handful of seats lost through the intervention of the Ukip could matter.
All the more important, then, to go hard after Labour. How better to bring the die-hard Thatcherites of Ukip’s core support back into the Tory fold than to rustle up an imaginary winter of discontent? Exposing the shadowy union boss behind the Labour leader is a banker for Tory strategists, even if it does not appear to be working just now. It is a cliché of character assassination, and every utterly manufactured scandal involving those same shadowy union officials makes it stick a little more.
Outside the direct electoral interests of the Tories, there is, of course, the unending bourgeois campaign to finally and irrevocably deLabourise Labour - transform it into an unproblematically bourgeois social-liberal party on the model of the US Democrats. Quite apart from backing the Tories, this is the game that has been played by The Times and the like: the completion of Blair’s project, the severing of the union link and the departure of the organised working class from electoral politics, save as a tame appendage.
It is in this light that recent statements by Jerry Hicks, the left challenger to Unite boss Len McCluskey in the last two general secretary elections, are regrettable. He has attempted to broaden out the furore around Falkirk to include allegations of funny business on the part of the McCluskey campaign in the last Unite poll. He has also complained of his union’s “infantile, unfunny comic capers of infiltration through recruiting members to the Labour Party”, citing that as a contributing factor to the defeat in Grangemouth.
Comrade Hicks simply does not get the big picture here at all. In the first place, Unite is not ‘infiltrating’ anything. It is in the Labour Party, through the union link. Its predecessor, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, was affiliated since Labour’s birth. It is not McCluskey who is suddenly imposing some dubious ‘entrist’ strategy on a recalcitrant union (as much as Blairites and rightists like to remind us all of his background in Militant).
The larger immediate political context should not be discounted either. As the Falkirk controversy flared up again last week, Hicks carried a rather gnomic statement on his website noting The Sunday Times front page’s interest in his complaints against McCluskey (which had already been covered by The Guardian and Private Eye), republishing the quoted statement for effect.3
This has left him open to accusations that he is abetting a rightwing, union-busting campaign - while his statements are naive, they are hardly malicious, but in a situation where the guns are out for the union link yet again, his insouciance as to its fate is unhelpful in the extreme. It is one thing to wonder exactly what Unite’s members are getting from Labour in return for all those millions (pace Cameron, not a lot). It is quite another to imagine that, certainly in the absence of a better alternative waiting in the wings, union detachment from Labour will lead to anything other than the strengthening of the bourgeoisie’s hand.
If comrade Hicks lacks answers, however, so does McCluskey. What went on in Falkirk, it is now clear, was hardly ballot-rigging on a Putinesque scale. It was, however, a bureaucratic attempt to parachute a Westminster staffer into a Scottish parliamentary seat, straight out of the Blairite playbook. The organisations of the working class need to do better than simply being less underhanded in their operations and internal norms than the corrupt networks of official bourgeois politics. What is needed is a political fight to democratise the labour movement - from the Labour Party down to the smallest unions.
Len McCluskey is as much an obstacle to that fight as Ed Miliband.
1. The Guardian November 18.
2. The Observer November 16.