Union Leaders On The Wrong Track

After Labour Party conference

Union Leaders On The Wrong Track

ACCORDING TO The Guardian on 2 October: “Labour’s major trade unions showed their muscle at Bournemouth” and duly “duffed up” the party leadership of Tony Blair.

But did they?

Certainly, the four major unions affiliated to the Labour Party all focused their fire on the party leadership in a more co-ordinated way than had been evident in recent years.

They forced defeats on the leadership over foundation hospitals and pensions.

But their hope that this would signal a sea change in the Labour Party and see it reclaimed from the Blairites to turn it into a ‘genuine’ Labour party proved forlorn.

Even before the conference, anticipating a tough time, Blair made it clear he wasn’t for listening or turning on issues.

In The Observer on 28 September he clearly spelt out that the reason why his clique changed the party’s rules was to ensure that any votes against the leadership could be ignored and rendered meaningless.

While Labour’s conference last year passed a resolution critical of the Private Finance Initiative, that hasn’t stopped New Labour’s drive for privatisation in public services.

And, although this year the unions got a rule change passed so the conference will now take eight contemporary motions (rather than the current four), it will only result in four more motions being ignored by the party leadership.

No alternative

UNION LEADERS, despite their real anger at Blair, were only muted in reflecting their members’ anger against New Labour at Bournemouth.

And they proved incapable of offering any real alternative that could reclaim the Labour Party, democratise it and ensure it adopts a programme to genuinely advance working people’s interests.

The reasons why they could not do so were twofold. Firstly, the Constituency Labour Parties have become hollow shells of what they were 20 or 30 years ago, when the Left controlled many of them.

On vote after vote, in contrast to their role 20 years ago, the CLP delegates overwhelmingly backed the leadership.

In the debate on foundation hospitals CLPs backed the pro-government line by a margin of nearly two to one.

A recent study by academics Paul Whiteley and Patrick Seyd shows that Labour Party membership is emptying out rapidly; down by nearly 200,000 since 1997.

Moreover, new rules mean that many delegates (most are not from working-class backgrounds anyway) are generally new members who prove very compliant in backing the party leadership.

But the biggest limitation on the union leaders is that they have neither a coherent strategy nor a programme to remove Blair and re-establish Labour as a healthy democratic, workers’ party.

Although they are to present a programme of pledges to change Labour, in reality their main strategy appears to be waiting for events or a palace coup to force Blair out and replace him with Brown.

Neo-liberal project

BUT EVEN if Brown were to topple Blair and claim the throne, where would this leave the union leaders? Brown made it clear in his TUC speech that in most respects he would continue with the Blairite neo-liberal agenda.

After bombing at the TUC, Brown altered the tone of his speech to Labour Party conference but reading between the lines you see that Brown would continue the New Labour project, whether he portrays himself as old Labour or not.

The union leaders may have won a vote on foundation hospitals at the conference but the Labour leadership are determined to go ahead with them.

How then are they planning to stop their implementation?

Clearly, if they are serious they will have to conduct a real struggle involving mass demonstrations and action against the Labour government.

If they were to do that they could tap into the real widespread opposition to New Labour. But immediately they would face the question of why bother trying to transform the rotten Labour Party, why not instead create a new mass party based on the unions that can represent working people?

Indeed the question, much as the union leaders bury their heads in the sand on the issue, may be forced on them sooner than they think.

Sources close to the Labour leadership have highlighted the “obstructive” role of the unions and are again tentatively raising the idea of breaking the link with the unions and bringing in a manifesto commitment to introduce state funding of political parties.

Billy Hayes, leader of the CWU communication workers’ union, raised the prospect after the conference that it took the Blairites ten years to gain control of the Labour Party and that those who wanted to reclaim it had to have ‘patience’.

But for the millions of working-class and middle class people who have had enough of longer hours, greater insecurity over pensions, tuition fees and a two-tier health service, waiting ten years will prove unpalatable.

During the Thatcher years, workers were told by union leaders to be ‘patient’ and a Labour government would come along.

Little did they anticipate that a Labour leader would continue Thatcher’s policies and, like Thatcher, promise to go “on and on”.

Clearly, Labour conference showed that the best efforts of the union leaders will have to be focused on creating a new democratic, mass workers’ party to defend workers’ interests.