SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 104 - October 2006

Blair’s last TUC

THE 2006 TUC conference was notable for the final speech by Tony Blair to the ‘parliament’ of the labour movement.

The reception to his speech was overwhelmingly hostile, even through the prism of a conference that barely ever voices, with one or two exceptions, the massive anger felt by working people against the government. Despite the best efforts of many of the union leaders to keep a lid on any outright expressions of opposition from within their own delegations, the thousand or so delegates gave Blair no more than seven seconds of polite applause when he had finished.

Simon Hoggart wrote in The Guardian that the Women’s Institute would have expressed more forcefully the opposition to Blair. Nevertheless, the delegates, by their muted opposition to a clearly nervous Blair, made it clear that he should not only leave them to get on with normal business but also leave the stage of politics completely. There were some walkouts but there were many other expressions of opposition when delegates held up placards of various types: from PCS civil service union delegates who called for opposition to privatisation, to other delegates who held up anti-war messages.

The Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) delegates did walk, following a collective decision taken at their delegation meeting. The PCS decided to stay because the union president, Janice Godrich, had been delegated to confront Blair in a question-and-answer session after he had finished speaking. In a scandalous follow up, three of Unison’s delegates who walked out as individuals were suspended from the conference and sent home by Unison leaders, even though there had been no decision for or against the union delegation walking out.

In an opinion poll of delegates, commented on by the Financial Times, only one in ten delegates supported Gordon Brown as Blair’s successor while six out of every ten supported John McDonnell MP, the candidate of the left in the unions. Of course, this does not mean that the union leaders will throw their weight behind McDonnell. As the FT pointed out, the last time the leadership election took place, in 1994, many of the union leaders nominated John Prescott but he got only 28% of the individual trade union members’ votes while Blair got 52%. Only the Amicus union leaders so far have clearly come out for Brown (and this resulted in a major public row between Tony Woodley of the TGWU and Derek Simpson of Amicus who are due soon to merge into one union). The TGWU, Unison and GMBU have not yet declared who they will support until they ‘hear the policies of the candidates’.

The conference was stage managed to ensure there was as little controversy as possible. In the pre-conference period, the PCS was criticised by other unions for daring to propose that the TUC organises action in defence of the public sector. The PCS resolution calling for a national demonstration and day of action in opposition to privatisation was met with derision at various compositing meetings behind closed doors. The right-wing union leaders were alleged to have said ‘no one wants to go on demos’, ignoring the fact that millions have been on demonstrations in the last few years. These have not just been anti-war, but demonstrations to defend the NHS. What has been significant is that they have been mainly organised without or with very little union input, so it is no surprise that the right-wing union leaders are running scared of giving a lead to workers on this vital issue.

The health service is in the midst of a massive crisis, with trust after trust declaring budget deficits resulting in ward closures, job losses and other measures to cut costs. Yet the union leaders have sat back and watched this happen. In its resolution to TUC conference, Unison (the biggest health union) demanded an end to NHS cuts and privatisation, but did not put any policy forward for the TUC to take action. Only belatedly have the unions been forced to move, calling a lobby of parliament for November 1 and a national demo in February 2007 "if it proves necessary".

The main reason they are beginning to act is because of the huge pressure from below. At the TUC, Unison leader Dave Prentis announced the result of a strike ballot in NHS Logistics (NHSL). NHSL has been under threat of privatisation for the last 18 months but only now has the union begun to act. Unfortunately, despite the undoubted willingness of the members to fight, it could be too late. DHL is due to take over the contract from NHSL on 1 October. This could mean that any action by the workers after this date could be halted by the union leaders using the excuse that under the anti-union laws another ballot might have to be held because NHSL workers have a new employer.

It is not the members’ fault that this has come about, but a cynical manoeuvre by the union leadership to organise a couple of days of strike action to ‘let off steam’ and then declare it all over once the contracts are changed. What that indicates above all is the role of the right-wing union leaders in acting as a block upon the working class.

Brendan Barber, TUC general secretary, and the majority of the General Council want the TUC to continue to play the role of would-be ‘partners’ with the bosses. It is not an accident that the right-wing union leaders act this way. They are ideologically committed to the capitalist system. They do not have any perspective of a socialist society so they are convinced that if the system cannot afford reforms for their members then they will act to stop any movement from below, to act as the police of the rank and file, in effect, until ‘times get better’. At the TUC it was only the left leaders who gave any voice to demands from the working class for the unions to fight back.

Unfortunately, the left is a small minority on the General Council. In the elections, Bob Crow of the RMT, Brian Caton of the Prison Officers Association, and Matt Wrack from the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) were elected in the smaller unions section. Mark Serwotka and Janice Godrich of the PCS were also re-elected without opposition. The election of Bob Crow and Matt Wrack came after last year’s TUC where Bob Crow was voted off the General Council – the first time ever that the rail union did not have a place on that body – and Matt Wrack found himself stabbed in the back by his fellow FBU leaders – who, behind the scenes, told other smaller unions not to vote for him. They did this because he had recently won a union election to replace Andy Gilchrist as the FBU general secretary when most of its leadership was backing Gilchrist.

Differences rarely surface at the TUC. Its bureaucracy ensures that is the case in pre-conference meetings. The final agenda that surfaces from these deliberations reflects this, with many of the resolutions watered down to the lowest common denominator, with any call for action removed.

The PCS call for a national demonstration and a national day of action in opposition to privatisation was finally composited so that it now calls on the General Council to "debate proposals for the organisation of a national demonstration and campaign day to promote public services". The PCS delegation had to decide whether to allow this to go forward with its name attached as a promoting union or to put its own resolution in opposition to it. In the end, it kept its powder dry and will now give the TUC a chance to organise it, but with the proviso that, if it does not, then the PCS and other unions will.

The Socialist Party had 15 delegates at this year’s TUC, eight of whom spoke at the conference to articulate the voice of the oppressed, as well as point out the shortcomings of the leadership. The era of ‘partnership’ with the bosses, as expressed by Brendan Barber, is coming to an end. But it will not reflect itself in the corridors of the TUC without a massive struggle from below that, undoubtedly, will come about and leave the rightwing behind in its wake.

Bill Mullins


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