SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today No 80 - February 2004

How awkward are the ‘awkward squad’?

KEN SMITH reviews A New Labour Nightmare – The Return of the Awkward Squad (Verso, 2003, Ł13 hardback), a new book by leading Communist Party member – and chair of the Stop the War Coalition – Andrew Murray.

"AFTER A GENERATION of retreat and decline", suggests Andrew Murray in his new book, the trade unions "are emerging from a long period of slumber". A fresh radical, political agenda is being shaped through bitter industrial struggles and the election of a new generation of union leaders challenging Blair and New Labour.

It’s a proposition most on the left would like to believe but the truth is more complex. As Murray himself asks: "Is the revival in union power real? Is the political shift to the left in union elections matched by a resurgence in [the unions’] industrial influence?" (p5) This big central question, however, is essentially unanswered.

A New Labour Nightmare clearly reveals that the election of the left union leaders – collectively known as the ‘awkward squad’ – is only the first stage of a process of a regeneration and rebuilding of the trade unions as instruments of working-class struggle. The number of days lost in strikes show an upward curve in militancy, but also indicate that the union movement is still recovering its confidence. At 1.3 million, the 2002 total number of days lost was almost treble that in the previous year, but still a long way short of the yearly average of 12.9 million days in the 1970s and 7.2 million in the 1980s. In contrast, but as another indicator of the intense exploitation of the working class today, over 30 million days were lost in 2002 with workers ill through stress.

The book takes the form of commentary from Andrew Murray himself along with interviews with many of the leading lights of the ‘awkward squad’. (This is an apt description in many ways owing to the awkward coming together of individuals with quite a wide degree of political divergence – the thing they have in common is that they were anti-Blair to some degree.) There are also some revealing interviews with leading trade unionists of previous generations like Jack Jones, the former general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU), and Ken Gill, former general secretary of the AUEW-TASS.

The book is a worthwhile read for trade union activists, but it should come with a political health warning. Murray is very much of the unreconstructed school of Stalinist Communists who are still effectively in denial about the malign influence of the Communist Party (CP) in the workers’ movement. Indeed, in his own comments in the book, Murray uses his witty and clever writing style to slip in laments about the decline of the Soviet Union, and of the CP’s influence inside the unions, which deftly avoid the real issue of the role of Stalinism in the trade union movement. On page 22, for example, we are told without elaboration that, "in the 1970s the Soviet Union, the ‘socialist superpower’, was a formidable counterweight to capitalism worldwide. No one could argue that there were no systemic alternatives to capitalism". The subsequent "degeneration of Michael Gorbachev’s perestroika into the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union and the overturning of the socialist system in Eastern Europe", Murray states, was partly responsible for the declining influence of the unions in the 1980s and 1990s.

It is true that the collapse of the Stalinist states had a marked ideological impact in the labour movement and throughout society at large. While these totalitarian regimes were a grotesque caricature of socialism, the destruction of the centrally planned economies on which they rested did allow the capitalists to launch an ideological offensive – that ‘socialism was unworkable’ and that the capitalist market was the only viable way of managing society – which had its effect. It underpinned, for example, the transformation of the Labour Party into a thoroughly capitalist party, which has abandoned any idea of fighting for fundamental change in the capitalist system or even for reforms in favour of working class people. But this broad process, part of an international trend, took place almost wholly independently of the fortunes of the British Communist Party, historically one of the weakest and smallest CPs in Europe.

In reality, the influence of the Communist Party was already well in decline throughout the 1970s and 1980s – long before the collapse of the Stalinist states. By then a younger generation of trade union militants were looking more to the ideas of Trotskyism for their ideological and strategic training. Even although it retained some strong power bases, Stalinism was generally viewed as an outdated, ossified force in the trade unions in Britain by the end of the 1970s.

Murray, moreover, makes no attempt to analyse or explain why the ideology and strategy of those union leaders who remained heavily influenced by the Communist Party and Stalinism, like Arthur Scargill, failed to readjust strategically and tactically from the 1970s to the very different character of the struggles of the 1980s and 1990s. He does attempt an historical analysis of the union movement from its highpoints of the 1950s-1970s to the setbacks and dog days of the 1980s and 1990s. But he does it in a similar way to a TV documentary, fundamentally superficial, lacking the depth of analysis that could assist a new generation of trade union activists to learn the lessons from these periods. Presumably, this makes it easier to gloss over the misuse of the allegedly powerful influence of the CP in the unions.

Shifts in ‘union power’

IN THE 1960s and 1970s trade union membership and influence reached a point in Britain that even the Russian revolutionary Lenin, writing in the early part of the 20th century, had not believed possible. This union density in the working population and workers’ influence over their jobs had mainly arisen in a gradual way from the prolonged economic upswing after the second world war.

Whilst there were the big set-piece struggles and strikes – especially so in the 1970s – it was predominantly the prolonged economic boom that gave workers confidence to demand more and to threaten action if the management didn’t give it. In the 1950s and 1960s the strategy and tactics of the union leaders became a process of negotiation and compromise with management, using the threat of calling the workers out if management tried it on too much.

The 1950s and 1960s was a period of steadily increasing union influence, with many shorter strikes on the shopfloor over local conditions, but without many big or bitter strikes. Militant, the Socialist Party’s forerunner, made the point many times in that period that Britain’s bosses were buying industrial peace at the cost of future economic and social ruin, with their failure to invest and modernise British capitalism. This was a period of the continued economic decline of British capitalism, relative to its main rivals, which inevitably would lead to bitter clashes between bosses and workers as the capitalists were eventually compelled to attempt to increase their profitability by reducing the share of wealth going to the working class.

In this period, the union leaders identified with the CP in the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) allowed the continued underinvestment and rundown of the industry to proceed with little challenge or alternative being posed by them. Similarly, in other industries the CP and left leaders in the unions primarily saw their role as getting reasonable deals for their members, without presenting a wider socialist alternative to British capitalism’s inglorious decline.

However, even during the 1960s, the Labour government, spurred on by the capitalist class, was trying to tame ‘union power’. Yet, its attempt to bring in the first anti-union legislation in the form of the In Place of Strife white paper failed after it provoked splits in the Labour government when union leaders threatened action.

During the 1970s, unemployment rose dramatically – particularly after the simultaneous world economic downturn of 1974-75 – and the capitalist class began to attack workers’ conditions won in the post-war period; both on the shopfloor and the social gains won through the welfare state. The struggles of the early 1970s – particularly the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974 – exerted a form of workers’ control or dual power over management decisions unsurpassed since. But later in the 1970s, the tactics that had proved effective earlier such as mass picketing and secondary, solidarity action, were being put more to the test and winning fewer victories.

Grunwick – the year-long struggle for union recognition of predominantly Asian women workers – proved a pivotal point in hindsight. Despite mass pickets of tens of thousands, including the presence of right-wing Labour cabinet ministers, the action was ultimately defeated.

The election of Thatcher in 1979 ushered in an era of class battles not seen since the 1920s as British capitalism attempted to recover its right to manage free from any union influence. Thatcher and her cabinet were, however, not as powerful as the history books portray. Their ultimate success in beating the miners ushered in a reign of economic and social terror. But this was not easily accomplished, achieved only with the class collaboration of the right-wing union leaders and the inability of the left leaders to mobilise the latent power of the working class at key times like the Warrington NGA print workers dispute in 1983, and the miners’ strike itself.

Another big factor in the miners’ defeat was the inability of Scargill and the left leadership of the NUM to realise that the tactic of mass picketing was proving unsuccessful and that other forms of solidarity action would have to be built from below amongst the working class. Unfortunately, despite the growing influence of Militant at that time, our forces were not sufficient to push the NUM and other left union leaders into effectively organising the necessary action.

Ready for a revival?

THE MINERS’ DEFEAT, combined with the neo-liberal Thatcherite policies that led to the wholesale devastation of manufacturing industry in many parts of Britain, saw a marked decline in union membership and combativity. This in turn allowed the right wing in the unions to usher in a period of new realism, social partnership and sweetheart deals, which the union movement is only beginning to slowly overcome. However, Murray’s analysis (and the interviews of his participants) tends to oversimplify this period and he seems to believe that, having licked its wounds, the union movement is now ready to reassert itself.

Murray does not claim that a period like the 1970s could develop again, and indeed he correctly says that much of the talk about union power in the 1970s was overplayed. And he has a fair grasp of the reasons why the awkward squad have gained leading positions in the unions. But missing from the book is a coherent understanding of the weaknesses of these new union leaders, and of the union structures they lead at present.

In particular it does not address the sort of leadership that most of the ‘awkward squad’ have given so far where, industrially and politically, they have shown themselves limited and unable to develop the right programme and organisation to take the union movement forward. Nor does it address what lies ahead for them.

The re-emergence of the left is not just about the election of union leaders – some of whose tenure could unfortunately be short-lived, as the experience of Mick Rix in the ASLEF railworkers’ union shows – but is also about rebuilding the unions from top to bottom and creating a mass political alternative to represent workers’ interests.

There is a wealth of anecdotal information here about the current state of the unions and their new leaders, with facts and figures about the state of union organisation at shopfloor level and revealing insights into the mood at work and the level of combativity of the working class. But, ultimately, the book only does what new AMICUS leader Derek Simpson sees as being the job of the awkward squad – "to ask the awkward questions" – rather than answer the big ‘awkward questions’ that their elections have raised. That is, how do they tap into the mood of growing anger in the workplace and win big victories for working-class people, which can successfully rebuild the unions and also be translated into the ‘new radical agenda’ of a new mass party of the working class?

These issues are an ever-present subtext in this book, but not clearly drawn out. This in itself speaks volumes about the lack of clarity there is amongst the awkward squad on the burning issues facing working-class people. Behind this lies a lack of confidence in leading working-class struggle and a mentality shaped more by the defeats of the Thatcher years and right-wing dominance of the unions, rather than the increasing militancy in the workplace. This has been revealed in both the fire-fighters’ and postal workers’ action, where the general secretaries of these unions lagged well behind the determined stance adopted by their members.

Indeed, it is a representative of a pre-Thatcherite generation of union leaders, Jack Jones, who comes closer than any current union leader to spelling out a more coherent and effective way forward for the union movement. "If we are to have a real revival, the major thing that is essential is an effective shop stewards movement. The trade union movement at base is not sufficiently strong and militant... get the unions back to the factories and rebuild the shop stewards movement".

When asked how the unions had got to this point Jones makes it clear that "the spirit was hounded out of us by Thatcherism… and we reacted in a rather constitutional way". When Murray interjects that "the law made it difficult", Jones sharply replies: "The law has always been against us".

Jones is fairly scathing about the arguments utilised by right-wing union leaders over the last 20 years to justify their class conciliation with the bosses’ interests. "There are many people today in the trade union movement who have divorced themselves from any convictions. They fell into the trap of wanting big cars, big houses and living the lives of the ultra-rich. They have got this idea that because they are trade union leaders they deserve a big car and a big house. You should live as trade unionists live. That is what I have always done". He adds that these temptations have always been put before union leaders where "in the end the trade union official becomes an arm of the industrial relations department".

And, for good measure, he says financial and member services offered by the right wing union leaders are the "biggest waste of money ever by unions. You do not recruit or consolidate on that basis at all... We don’t want better business operators but better activists and agitators" (pp34-37).

Testing the rhetoric

BUT IS THAT straightforward message about the basics of trade unionism being taken on board by the new generation of union leaders?

The Socialist Party welcomes the victory of the new left union leaders and will offer every assistance and advice possible in order to forward working-class struggles. The jury is still out, however, about the ability of the ‘awkward squad’ as a collective trend to shape a new agenda in the heat of bitter anti-worker attacks by the bosses.

Although Murray’s book correctly outlines the new difficulties facing union organisers today that were not present in the 1950s and 1960s, it does not deal with the one big test that the awkward squad faced before the book was published – the fire-fighters’ strike.

This was the first acid test of a new left leader and it found the Fire Brigade Union (FBU) general secretary Andy Gilchrist severely lacking. The media vilification of Gilchrist and the fire-fighters is well outlined in the book, but the mistaken tactics pursued by Gilchrist and the FBU executive during that dispute are not dealt with at all. This is not accidental. It has always been the method of the CP to avoid criticising (even constructively as the Socialist Party does) the left leaders in any way. Nowhere do we find an in depth account of the on-off strike tactics of the dispute, or the effects of Gilchrist’s excessive expense-account meal and his salary (nearly four times the average fire-fighters’ wage) or how it was used to undermine strikers’ morale. At the strike’s start, fire-fighters were confidently told their high vote for action, combined with huge public support, would quickly bring the government to its knees. This line also emanated from the other left leaders. However, the FBU leadership were not prepared for the Labour government’s dogged determination to face down the strike, employing every dirty propaganda trick in the book. Rather than escalate the action in the face of government threats, the FBU leaders retreated and gave propaganda victories to the government.

At the same time, other groups of militant workers – particularly tube workers in London – were attempting to organise solidarity action on health and safety grounds. Again, the left leaders like Bob Crow in the RMT and Mick Rix in ASLEF, sold the pass. Rather than allowing unofficial solidarity action to develop, as was happening, they sidelined the growing action by insisting on going down the legalistic route of balloting on action.

Even despite this postponement of solidarity action, the Socialist Party argued that there was still the possibility of co-ordinated action on a ‘legal’ basis, which would have forced the government to reassess its hard line position. Again, unfortunately, the left leaders showed their lack of confidence in organising effective action and their unwillingness to defy the anti-union laws; something the rank-and-file postal workers subsequently showed no fear of, significantly brushing aside the anti-union laws in one decisive show of strength.

During the unofficial postal workers’ walkouts the general secretary of the Communications Workers Union (CWU), Billy Hayes, played a weak leadership role, attracting a lot of criticism from significant sections of postal workers in London. They realised that when faced with an arrogant, belligerent management determined to break the union, the only appropriate response was for everyone to come out and stay out until management backed down.

Even after management were forced into a humiliating retreat, the Socialist Party argued against the idea put about by other left groups (including Andrew Murray’s Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party) that this was a total victory. We warned that this was one skirmish won in a wider war which is ongoing, and warned postal workers to study the detail of any deal struck with management given the bitter experience of the fire-fighters.

Also, the FBU dispute showed a new generation of fire-fighters drawing more radical political and organisational conclusions than their leaders. Whilst Andy Gilchrist was defending the link with Labour, over 90% of them stopped paying the political levy to Labour in their union subs. The development of a younger, even more militant left in the FBU threatens to give Gilchrist and the current leadership a roasting at the FBU conference in May this year.

Regrettably, another weakness of the left was shown during the dispute by the lack of an organised Broad Left in the FBU, something the Socialist Party had argued for with leading lefts in the FBU for some time.

Struggle and socialism

TODAY’S UNION ACTIVISTS, it is true, certainly need training in the basics outlined by Jack Jones to have the confidence to reassert militancy at shopfloor level. As well as consolidating new members into the unions, however, and developing a confident leadership at all levels by effectively winning the big battles, the new left leadership also need to develop political ideas and a socialist consciousness in the unions, something again highlighted by Jack Jones: "Not so many people link trade unions with a socialist outlook. Union education has become divorced from the political angle. Trade unions cannot exist without political action". (p36)

Here the political rhetoric of the new union leaders in Murray’s book is nowhere backed up by a concrete strategy or programme to take class struggle forward in the 21st century.

For instance, none of the trade union leaders interviewed – with the exception of Mark Serwotka – take on Jack Jones’ point about living like trade unionists. All of the current general secretaries are generally on salaries three or four times that of their average member. Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the PCS civil service union, was elected with the organised backing of the Left Unity broad left in the union, where the Socialist Party has a strong influence, which has a policy that any member elected to a union official’s post should donate a large part of their salary back into the union, to ensure they do not become out of touch with the members they are there to represent.

It is not solely a question of the salaries or lifestyles of these new union leaders, however, as important as it will be to ensure they are held accountable over these issues. It is also the strategy and tactics they pursue and who will they be accountable to.

It is possible, as has happened on many occasions in the past, that even right-wing union leaders, as well as the current left, can be pushed quite far to the left – in words at least – on the basis of events. All the new left union leaders have been very vocal in their opposition to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, for example, and will get support from activists for that. But union members will back their union leaders on issues like Iraq more vigorously if the leaders also show that they are prepared to be as militant and unyielding in defence of their members’ economic and social interests – particularly being uncompromising in industrial struggles over wages, pensions and working conditions. Again, the new union leaders have shown that they are still lagging behind their members in their willingness to embark down the road of militant struggle in these areas.

One issue that does come out more clearly in the interviews, although in a negative way, is the relationship of the unions with the Labour Party. Here, with the exception of Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka, the new left leaders tie themselves in knots trying to justify continued affiliation to the Labour Party, despite their acknowledgement that it is now a bosses’, capitalist party. Even Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka, whilst arguing that there is no prospect of the left regaining any influence or degree of control in the Labour Party, fall short in arguing for a clear alternative in the form of a new mass party of the working class.

The issues covered by A New Labour Nightmare pose the sort of questions useful to the development of a new layer of left union activists. But, unfortunately, the answers union activists are searching for are not clearly there in Murray’s book.


Home About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page