30. Contrasting methods of work



Contrary to what Blair, Brown and their circle argued, the class struggle had not been conjured away by their accession to office. Indeed, the whole period of the first New Labour government from 1997 to 2001 was marked by industrial struggles, some of them extremely intense and bitter. They were also matched, at times, by ferocious clashes between left and right for support from union members. Unison, of course, was a major battleground between the left on one side, including members of the Socialist Party, and an entrenched right-wing officialdom on the other.

In early 1998 over 350 delegates attended a lay members’ democracy conference in Newcastle called by the Northern and London regions of Unison. This indicated the willingness of Unison members to confront the leadership and its continual witch-hunting of the left. The attendance would have been higher but for the obstructive measures taken by right-wing officials to stop more workers attending. At this conference, while the main intention was to confront the right, tactical differences inevitably arose between us and others on the left such as the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP). This organisation, as will be seen from their record over a long period of time, tended to mix crude ultra-leftism with gross opportunism on occasions. We produced a small book Socialism and Left Unity as a criticism of the methods and programme of the SWP.

The refusal of the SWP to bloc in a principled fashion with others on the left was a continual source of division and rancour within the broad forces of the Unison left. This came to the fore during elections when they invariably sought to support others against better placed candidates particularly from the Socialist Party. This had been the case in 1995 when Roger Bannister, the only credible left candidate, was opposed by some other left-wingers supported by the SWP for the position of general secretary. Despite this he got a very good 60,000 votes. In 1998 he was the sole candidate of the left. The position had become vacant with the early retirement of Bickerstaffe. Roger explained why it was so vital to stand: “Unison members are continually under attack, with jobs and pay threatened. In the NHS  and local government, there’s privatisation through the extension of PFI and best value. I believe that we need to speak out strongly and organise action against these attacks, irrespective of the political complexion of the government or of the local authority.”

He attacked the current policy of the union leadership which undermined democracy and was “bowing down to the fact that we have to ‘co-operate’ with the Labour government rather than take it on when it attacks our members”. He again said he was “standing as a workers’ representative on a worker’s wage”. This was appreciated by ordinary members and seen as a sign that they were voting for ‘somebody different’. He pledged to forego much of the general secretary’s £74,000 salary. He added the crucial point that the CFDU called for Unison’s political fund to be used “so that, if necessary, candidates who aren’t Labour Party candidates but whose policies and actions are more in line with those of Unison and its members, could be supported”.

He summed up his and the Socialist Party’s approach to Unison’s leaders which was maintained right up to Labour’s general election defeat in 2010: “I suspect [right-wing opponent] Dave Prentis’s attitude, however, will be based on using pressure behind the scenes in the Labour Party to try and influence government policy. Anything that’s been achieved that way, that’s beneficial for Unison members, could be written on the back of a postage stamp.” This was vindicated later. He answered the charge that this would isolate him: “‘I’m  set to fight for Unison members on jobs, pay and conditions of service’ while the Blair government is ‘carrying out and continuing the policies of their Tory predecessors, including attacks on public services and workers’ rights’.”1 He would fight on Trotsky’s advice to workers involved in the battle against capitalism and sell-out trade union leaders: “Say what needs to be said, do what needs to be done.” Tony Benn, in his diaries, was coming to a similar conclusion.

It did not take long to underline the importance of the left challenge for the general secretaryship. Left activists were under attack by dictatorial management in local government but Unison’s leadership did little or nothing to defend them. They have been consistent in their shameful refusal to effectively defend union members’ conditions right up to the present time. While the members have been under siege in the NHS  and local government rotten rightwing leaders effectively comply with management. Even minimal action, such as indicative ballots to measure the preparedness of union members to fight, has been continually blocked by Prentis and his acolytes. Only when the pressure reaches boiling point do they reluctantly sanction action.

Important industrial battles unfolded in the run-up to the general election, none more so than the bitter battle against Hackney Council, which intended to make over £22 million worth of cuts, including slashing £650,000 from education services. It was seriously considering privatising every school! This was not just an industrial battle but involved the whole of the community in what was at the time one of the poorest boroughs in London. A community conference was called in December 2000 where a strategy to fight the cuts was worked out. In a report of the conference carried in the Socialist, party stalwart Chris Newby pointed out: “Good initiatives came from this conference (many of which were raised by the Socialist Party), particularly about supporting the union’s one-day strike planned for 18 December.” However, because the employer, the council, was using a wrecking ball against its services, this would have both industrial and political dimensions. This would involve selecting candidates to challenge those councillors who were not prepared to oppose the cuts in the upcoming council elections.

One of the aims of the conference was precisely to bring unions and service users together in a coordinated campaign against cuts and to democratically elect a committee with representatives of all the participating organisations. This would lay the basis for a mass campaign. However, Chris pointed out: “Incredibly, some people at the conference, most notably the Socialist Workers’ Party (Swp), seemed determined to undemocratically prevent this issue being discussed and to stop a vote being taken on it. They argued that the Fightback organisation initiated and dominated by the SWP should be the only community organisation to fight this campaign.”2

This was another illustration of the sectarian policies of the SWP which sought on all occasions to promote their party over the general interests of the working class. Despite similar charges levelled against Socialist Party members for pursuing ‘sectarian’ policies, our opponents could not instance when we pursued this kind of policy where crucial issues for the working class were at stake. Of course, the Socialist Party sought to extend its support and strength but we linked this to strengthening the broader campaign involving others, even if this meant that we were in a minority. This approach is now generally accepted on the left even by the SWP, although they are inconsistent, and partly because of the weakening of their position through splits in their organisation. For instance, they have been compelled to participate in broader campaigns like the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), in which they were one of a number of organisations. However, before they arrived at this position their activities and policies weakened and seriously undermined the effectiveness of the left in a number of struggles.

At the Hackney conference Socialist Party members were shouted down by SWP members when they tried to raise the idea of community candidates. We pointed out that while our members in the London Socialist Alliance (LSA) – which we were part of – would obviously contest elections, it would be wrong to insist that genuine activists from tenants’ associations and community  groups need to stand under the LSA banner. Even the Bolsheviks at the beginning of the 1905 revolution, before Lenin had arrived back from exile and was able to correct them, incorrectly demanded that the newly created ‘soviets’ – workers’ councils which embraced broad swathes of the working class – should dissolve and put themselves under the authority of the party! On a much smaller scale and without ever at any time enjoying mass influence, the same haughty approach was systematically adopted by the SWP and others on the petty bourgeois left. Indeed, as we will see, their activities seriously weakened for a time the urgent task of creating the basis for a new mass workers’ party, the need for which had been demonstrated again and again because of New Labour’s adherence to the programme of big business.

In Hackney a one-day strike was called on 20 December, with 5,000 council workers across dozens of separate workplaces coming out on strike. The councillors and council chief ‘Mad Max’ Caller were completely isolated, demonstrating the power of workers once they move. Grounds maintenance workers, estate workers, white collar workers in the Town Hall and other workplaces maintained pickets from the early morning with hardly anyone crossing them, apart from a handful of managers.

The Socialist Party advocated an escalation of the strike, if the council did not retreat, to five days the following January, then possibly an all-out strike. Unfortunately, the shop stewards committee amended the resolution merely to “an escalation of the action”. We pointed out that the new contracts would be based on the lowest possible national terms and conditions. Local agreements would be wiped out including the Hackney low pay supplement of £40 per week. What was at stake in Hackney were workers’ cherished rights and conditions and whether they would have a job or not. What followed was the biggest strike movement in 20 years for thousands of Hackney Council workers, including a three-day strike.

Caller told his staff that he was “ready to bash the unions”. He seriously miscalculated the strikers’ mood at mass meetings, angering workers when he bragged that, while he would be with the council for years to come, they might not! Noticeable in the strike was the issuing of 90-day redundancy notices by this “Labour, yes Labour, Council”,3 which recalled the sheer hypocrisy of Neil Kinnock and the Labour leaders in 1985. Kinnock had condemned Liverpool City Council for allegedly taking a similar measure when it issued redundancy notices as a tactical move. This had been a mistake, which we criticised at the time, but it did not result in any worker losing their job. Now the heirs of Kinnock, the Blairites to a man and woman, were carrying this out for real in Hackney and elsewhere.

This dispute dragged on for months and led at one stage to the occupation of the Town Hall by hundreds of council workers. This was in protest against the dismissal of a leading steward and chief negotiator for the workers. Management retreated on this occasion in order to continue a war of attrition against the representatives of the workforce. Singled out for special treatment were members of the Socialist Party, with Brian Debus, chairperson of the Unison branch, being told the job that had been offered to him in the council stores had been withdrawn “because of reorganisation”.4 At the same time, those affected within the local community began to fight back. This was followed by a ‘mass burning’ of the 90-day notices, with the Fire Brigade on standby just in case the workers took the occupation a stage further! The mood was building for more decisive strike action, involving a possible five-day strike.

At the same time others began to take action. London Underground workers had been engaged in almost continual guerrilla strikes against deteriorating health and safety standards and conditions, with management bullying rife: “If we want to go for a piss we have to put our hand up!” commented a striking electrician on the Jubilee Line extension.5 After strikes in 2000 and 2001, we wrote: “Management now aim to smash the tube unions.”6 Just a couple of months before the election, under the headline, ‘Get Organised Strike Back’, the Socialist wrote: “This week tube workers brought London to a standstill and showed the power of organised labour. The courts, the press and London Underground  management could not stop the first political strike against New Labour’s ‘privatise everything’ ideology.” We pointed out that a High Court judge, Lord Justice Gibbs, granted an injunction to the bosses but a 90% ‘Yes’ vote for strike action could not be overruled and the tube network was brought to a standstill.7 On 29 March 2001 London Underground was brought to a halt by striking workers organised by the train drivers’ union ASLEF and the RMT.

This was part of the process of workers rising to their feet and striking back: in Hackney, air traffic controllers, union members balloting against privatisation and Vauxhall workers being balloted for industrial action to defend their jobs. We warned that a new downturn in the world economy would bring further attacks from the bosses. Ingrained sceptics scoffed at warnings of the possibility of an economic crisis. Yet within a matter of months there appeared to be a real possibility of a serious crisis, with the looming collapse of the ‘dotcom bubble’. Such a collapse was on the cards but, in panic, the central banks of the major capitalist powers, particularly the US Federal Reserve, managed to put off the crisis through a massive injection of ‘liquidity’: what was referred to later in the next crisis as ‘quantitative easing’. This was only at the cost of storing up a further financial bubble which crashed in 2007-08.

Teachers were up in arms at their deteriorating conditions but the leaders of the NUT in the middle of 2000 decided to postpone the ballot for a one-day strike, which had been democratically agreed at the union’s recent annual conference. There was outrage at the introduction of performance related pay for teachers. Yet the right-wing majority on the NEC came up with excuses to defer the ballot, as a means of ‘helping out’ the New Labour government. Distrust grew amongst the ranks. The councils were proposing a £2,000 pay rise, but only for those who showed they were performing well enough to make the grade! This was just sowing further divisions amongst teachers and Socialist Party members in the NUT predicted it would enhance the confidence of the government and their council representatives, while at the same time disheartening teachers.

The bosses’ representatives, typified by Chris Woodhouse, the Ofsted Chief Inspector, went on the offensive. He criticised Waltham Forest Local Education Authority (LEA), which he claimed had developed “an ingrained culture of failure”. Linda Taaffe, who had been prominent both at a national level, as a member of the NUT’s NEC and in the Waltham Forest NUT branch in the battle against the introduction of performance related pay, warned: “Once the LEA was the authority, with each school a part of an LEA. Then the Tories let schools have their own budgets (LMS), making head teachers a very powerful force, in individual competitive institutions, almost like small businesses. The LEAwas undermined.”

What followed was a gradual erosion of teachers’ terms and conditions. We further commented: “This nonsensical situation became worse in Waltham Forest after New Labour Blairites regained a majority on the council. No-one wanted to make a decision unless it came directly from the councillors, who were so arrogant that LeA officers were left in a state of limbo… All this in an inner-city borough with huge problems such as a transitory population and a third of children being eligible for free school meals.”8 These events took place more than a decade and a half ago yet they laid the seeds for the present catastrophic situation with the systematic privatisation of schools and education as a whole.

The national trade union leaders were completely complicit in this process. Their policies of prevarication and inaction only encouraged further attacks on teachers and education generally. They had the full backing of the national press, with the Daily Mail attacking “The dinosaurs behind Britain’s new class war”, singling out opposition from the left from people like Christine Blower, Bob Sulatycki, Bernard Regan and others.9 Since then, these ‘dinosaurs’ and NUT members have defeated the right-wing leadership, symbolised by Doug McAvoy who subsequently retired. In the next election he was replaced by Steve Sinnott, who died in 2008, followed by Christine Blower. Unfortunately, she and her supporters on the ‘left’, once they assumed power, reverted to the same policies of prevarication as McAvoy himself.

A series of other strikes took place in general opposition to the  policies of the Labour government and the inaction of many trade union leaders. This disillusionment was summed up by Craig Johnston, at that time a Socialist Party member in Carlisle, who wrote: “A hundred years ago, rail workers were playing a key role in the establishment of the Labour Party. Now, as delegates to the conference of the biggest rail union, the National Union of Rail and Maritime Transport Workers (RMT) gather in Great Yarmouth for their AGM, the mood is very different.” He pointed out that the RMT “has profoundly socialist roots. Rule 1 Clause 4 states one of the objects of the union shall be ‘to work for the supercession of the capitalist system by a Socialistic order of society’.” He continued: “As Labour moves more and more to the right, many RMT members have quit the party and joined other Left parties, including the Socialist Party… I was in the Labour Party for 21 years, eleven of them as a local councillor. I’ve campaigned for them in every election since I was 15, not any more.”

This was fairly typical of an advanced layer of workers who were moving in the direction of supporting the Socialist Party and our demand for a new mass party. He explained why he had a profound change of heart: “On a recent clear out, I found some things that I would never need again – a couple of sheets of stickers proclaiming ‘Stop the Sell-Off, Save Our Railways!’ And then the word ‘Labour’ and a picture of a rose. I will not need them again because this Labour government totally supported rail privatisation, indeed they are proposing its long-term extension. [They] are currently offering rail franchises to private companies for up to 20 years – extending rail privatisation further than the Tories ever dared.”10

A similar process was developing within Unison. The union’s members in Knowsley Council on Merseyside had won a major victory in defending the 35-hour working week and extending it within the council workforce. Socialist Party member Roger Bannister was the branch secretary and led the campaign. A total of six days of strike action were taken before the council conceded the union’s demands. Similar progress was recorded for Socialist Party members in the shop workers’ union USDAW, where the late, heroic Robbie Segal confounded her right-wing opponents by winning election to its NEC.

In fact, there was clear evidence that industrial action helped to radicalise council workforces. At the AGM of Hackney Unison there was a big shift towards the left. Delegates voted unanimously to refuse to pay into the union’s Affiliated Political Fund (APF) as individual members, instead contributing to its General Political Fund (GPF). Unlike most unions, Unison had two political funds: the APF funded the Labour Party, while the GPF was for broad political campaigning. In this way the Unison leadership blunted the growing hostility to the link with Labour. However, the future would show that it was not possible to maintain this position indefinitely. There was a clear opposition growing to the left of Labour at this stage which was revealed in the ballot for the London Mayor selection contest. Around 80% of union members voted for Ken Livingstone, who was not in the Labour Party at this stage. Labour Party membership was dropping – from 405,000 in 1997 to 378,000 in May 2000.