SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 88 - December-January 2004/05

Labour & the unions

TRADE UNION leaders leaving Labour’s conference in Brighton in October believed they had had a successful week in forcing the Labour leadership to change tack on certain key policies. Union leaders had gone to Brighton in a bullish mood after winning concessions at the Warwick policy summit in July. But as the months pass, the concessions won by union leaders begin to look less substantial than a deciduous tree in autumn.

While adopting a resolution calling for the renationalisation of the rail industry and opposing government plans to further privatise public-sector housing, the conference actually showed the limitations of the big four union leaders in their stated quest to reclaim the Labour Party from the Blairites.

Before the conference, UNISON leader, Dave Prentis, said in The Guardian: "The Labour Party has reached a critical point. Membership has been haemorrhaging by the tens of thousands, trade unionists are restive and the idealism of Labour Party activists is corroding" (28 September). This was no time for the unions to keep their heads down and "shut up and go away" as some ministers wanted.

Prentis, however, is typical of most union leaders who may occasionally sound off about New Labour but suspend their critical faculties at key times when dealing with the government. Whilst they can lay on the rhetoric off stage, when it comes to a serious challenge to the government – either at the Labour conference or through industrial action – the union leaders sell the pass.

At both this year’s TUC and Labour Party conference, Labour’s leadership was undoubtedly feeling more than a tweak of pressure from the union leaders, who in turn are coming under growing pressure from their members’ increasing anger at the government. Labour’s leadership appeared to have placated the union leaders by offering cosmetic changes and minimal election promises at Warwick in return for the union bosses delivering support up to the election and allowing Blair off the hook over the occupation of Iraq.

In reality, many of the proposed 56 agreements with the unions at the Warwick policy summit were conceded with minimal pressure from the union leaders, by a Blair leadership that was weakened and feeling under pressure from outside rather than from within the Labour Party. Jackie Ashley in the Guardian (30 September) said: "For the first time in ten years as Labour leader, Blair needs the party more than the party needs him".

But, as the Guardian commented about Blair’s conference speech: "Anyone reading the speech with care will notice that relatively little ground was conceded. But it was Mr Blair in a new voice". Even where the union leaders acted in a co-ordinated fashion to push the conference to adopt more radical policies – such as on rail renationalisation and housing – Labour cabinet ministers trampled over one another in the rush to say such policy decisions would not be acted upon. By doing so, particularly over the issue of rail renationalisation, the cabinet ministers were showing how they were prepared to defy union pressure and public opinion – with 75% of the public in favour – to uphold the interests of big business.

If the repudiation of the conference decisions was not enough of a snub for the union leaders, Blair immediately announced his Thatcherite wish to go on and on – or for at least four more years – within hours of the delegates leaving Brighton. This will force the union leaders to re-evaluate their hope of trying to push Blair aside within the next year and replace him with Gordon Brown.

At the 250-strong Labour Representation Committee (LRC) rally – the new umbrella group established with the aim of reclaiming the Labour Party – Tony Woodley, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU), said that the ‘unity’ of the trade union movement over the last year had been "a huge step forward". And Prentis warned the Labour government to abandon its flirtation with the markets and competition in the public sector.

But even then the union leaders had to realise the limitations of their impact. Tony Woodley said at the LRC meeting: "We have a lot more to do to reclaim our party and its values", and Derek Simpson, general secretary of Amicus, warned that working together to get government support was not a substitute for trade union action. However, the union leaders felt they had got something from the Warwick policy forum and the conference that they could just about sell to their members. Simpson said of Warwick: "We now have the weapons to reactivate activists fallen by the wayside".

Even though it is doubtful whether the Warwick concessions or even the ‘bogeyman’ threat of a Howard-led Tory government would inspire many trade unionists and working-class people to campaign or even vote for Labour, events have undermined the concessions won at Warwick.

On pensions, for example, the government has signalled it will continue with its attacks and force workers to work longer. And on the crucial issue of job losses – both in the private and public sector – Labour has refused to intervene in Jaguar or elsewhere and has signalled its determination to proceed with the jobs cull in the civil service: a prelude to a much wider jobs massacre in the public sector if the government gets away with it.

GMB leader, Kevin Curran, commenting on the jobs losses at Bird’s Eye, said it was "confirmation that the government’s manufacturing strategy is full of holes". Of more concern, however, was the specific attitude of the main union leaders on the civil service job cuts where their promises at the TUC appeared to have been forgotten by the time of the Labour conference. Although the conference rightly heard about the plight facing the Jaguar workers there was, unfortunately, not one mention from any union leader about the plans to axe 104,000 civil service jobs.

Since the conference, the impact of market pressures in the public sector have been all too apparent. The decision to axe up to half of crown post offices and the increasing privatisation of services in health and education has made a mockery of Prentis’s warning at the Labour conference. Along with the UNISON leadership’s acceptance of the ‘Agenda for Change’ in the NHS, which will make a significant section of health workers worse off, these issues could see Prentis put under pressure in the current general secretary contest in UNISON – where he is facing a challenge from Socialist Party member, Roger Bannister.

Clearly, the Labour government has been looking over to Germany and seeing the big defeats the Schröder government has suffered. Wanting to avoid a meltdown before the election, the tone of Blair, in particular, has changed in order to bring the union leaders on board and allow them to subsidise the general election campaign. But what are the union leaders getting in return for their members’ money other than a change of language?

Union leaders hope that the concessions at Warwick and the change in mood music emanating from Labour’s leadership will do enough to keep a critical membership off their backs – until the election at least. But the big four union leaders, and other union bosses who have hitched their wagon to them, are as distant as ever from the prospect of reclaiming the Labour Party. The conference itself showed that the composition of the Labour Party is less and less working class. Constituency delegates voted overwhelmingly with the Blairite leadership on issue after issue. Over 70% of Labour voters support the renationalisation of rail, for example, but over two-thirds of the constituency delegates at the conference voted against it.

Certainly, they will claim they had an effect in getting policy concessions on working hours, holidays and agency workers. At the same time, Blair’s conference speech and his ten-point programme talked about cuts in incapacity benefit, more ‘choice’ in education and health (ie, more of the market and privatisation), along with hard-line policies on crime and a ‘crackdown’ on immigration.

Moreover, all Blair’s promises to the conference and union leaders lack specific detail. Labour conference has shown that the unions acting in concert can give the appearance of change and concessions from Labour, but the union leaders are storing up even further anger amongst their members after the election, when Blair’s promises will be quickly jettisoned.

In the public sector especially, union leaders will discover, if Labour is re-elected, that their inability to influence or reclaim the Labour Party will find their members pushing them much further down the road of demanding generalised industrial action in order to take on the bosses and the Labour government.

Ken Smith


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