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From The Socialist newspaper, 19 July 2007

Trade unions - break with New Labour

Build a new workers' party

Bob Crow, RMT General Secretary, addresses the National Shop Stewards Network conference July 2007, photo Dave Carr

Bob Crow, RMT General Secretary, addresses the National Shop Stewards Network conference July 2007, photo Dave Carr

Rail workers' union (RMT) general secretary Bob Crow broadened the debate about the need for a new workers' party when he addressed the National Shop Stewards Network recently. He said the Labour Party was 'finished', and indicated that the RMT may field candidates in the Greater London Assembly and Mayoral elections next year.

Roger Bannister, National Secretary, Campaign for a New Workers' Party

His welcome remarks were featured in an article by George Monbiot in the guardian a few days later, which criticised the majority of trade union leaders for continuing to support New Labour despite the fact that they get virtually nothing in return for their millions.

Highlighting prime minister Gordon Brown's decision to put former CBI boss Digby Jones in his cabinet ("the most Neanderthal boss the CBI has ever had"), Monbiot portrays this as a deliberate act of provocation, of calling the bluff of the union leaders. Coupled with Brown's appointment of Damon Buffini to key government quangos, (Buffini's private equity company made a third of the Automobile Association's workforce redundant), it is difficult not to go along with Monbiot's provocation theory!

But it also has to be recognised that Brown has more serious aims. He is sending messages to big business that New Labour is safe in his hands, that he does not herald any shift to the left. The privatisation of public services will continue and the draconian anti-union laws will remain on the statute book.

Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of trade union Unite, responded to Monbiot's article citing the fact that his union conference had recently endorsed affiliation to the Labour Party as evidence that Unite members "believe it is the best hope for the future". It is doubtful whether most Unite members were even aware that this debate was taking place at their conference, let alone endorsed its outcome.

PCS on strike 1 May 2007, photo Paul Mattsson

PCS on strike 1 May 2007, photo Paul Mattsson

Given the turning away from New Labour by working-class voters it would be extremely difficult for any union to demonstrate that its members were not part of that process.

Woodley plays down the issue of trade union finance for New Labour, posing "strength of argument" as the union's "real power", and cites promises of council house building to show trade union influence in New Labour. This approach ignores the massive imbalance in New Labour's policies as far as working class people are concerned, and uses minor, untypical examples to suggest that more is to follow.

This is a pipedream. Democracy in the Labour Party is largely a thing of the past, ex-Tory MPs are imposed on safe Labour seats and the Labour left could not even muster the 45 MPs necessary to mount a challenge to Gordon Brown.

Workers on low pay, suffering attacks on pensions and jobs, striking to defend themselves and anxious to defend the NHS from further privatisation, will respond more positively to Bob Crow's comments than Tony Woodley's.

It is not enough to threaten the return of the Tories as the main justification for backing New Labour, not least because Brown is clearly moving towards a cross party, 'national government' approach.

If trade union leaders want their members to have an opportunity to vote for a party that will defend their interests, they should take a leaf out of Bob Crow's book. They should break the link with Labour and look to funding candidates that back ordinary working people, not those who attack them on behalf of big business.

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In The Socialist 19 July 2007:

Build a new workers' party


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