59. Workers fight back



The temper of the working class in Britain in 2004 was indicated by the series of strikes or threat of strikes in the previous year.

The firefighters inflicted a partial defeat on the government’s attempt to renege on the agreement which ended their dispute. Local government workers had been in action, embittered by what they were forced to accept in reduced wages and conditions.

One indication of the situation developing in Europe and on a world scale, to some extent, at this stage was an opinion poll in East Germany where 51% opted for ‘socialism’ as a better system. Germany was suffering at this stage from a calamitous economic and social situation.

This was the atmosphere in which the Labour Party conference took place in September where violent jockeying for positions ensued.

This had nothing to do with fighting for the interests of working people but was an opportunity to enhance the careerist credentials of different factions of the Labour leadership. So far to the right had New Labour travelled that even the witch-hunter Peter Kilfoyle, who viciously attacked Liverpool District Labour Party on behalf of Neil Kinnock, found himself part of the anti-Blair ‘rabble’. He advised that “Labour members should gaze around the room at your next meeting. Consider yourself lucky if the branch or constituency still meets… The party seems on its last legs in many areas.” Kevin Curran, general secretary of the GMB union, said: “Just imagine if a disaffected, disengaged trade union movement decided to identify independent candidates… to concentrate on 300 seats… The difference we could make in national politics would be enormous.”1 Yet to the intense frustration of thousands of GMB members and millions in the trade union movement as a whole neither Curran nor other leaders were prepared to take this step.

During this conference Blair announced that he intended to serve out a third term as prime minister. It became quite clear that the leaders of the ‘big four’ unions (TGWU, GMB, Unison and Amicus) had all been mollified by Blair and Brown’s vague promises of more ‘worker-friendly’ policies to keep their members in check in the run-up to the election. An indication of this was the evaporation of the threatened revolt on the Iraq war by the unions at the conference. Blair himself had a 30-minute meeting with the Amicus delegation. A member of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions – a stooge organisation at this stage – met the Transport and General Workers Union delegation to warn them that if troops were “pulled out too soon, trade unionists in Iraq could die in a civil war”. This individual also warned of the “‘Balkanisation’ of Iraq in urging British trade unions to allow the troops to stay”.2 Foreign policy is always a continuation of home policy.

New Labour was reactionary abroad and anti-democratic at home. The anti-terror bill scraped through the Commons by just 14 votes. This was a deeply draconian piece of legislation introduced under the guise of fighting terrorism. The same excuses were used about the 1974 legislation in the wake of the Birmingham pub bombings, which led to many innocent Irish people, including trade unionists, being harassed and imprisoned. Home Secretary Charles Clarke had been an opponent of Militant in the student field and, ineffectually, in the Labour Party Young Socialists as well. He was Neil Kinnock’s right-hand man when Liverpool Labour Party was completely undemocratically purged of socialists and therefore was well fitted for his role of trampling on long-held democratic rights. Until New Labour came to power, ‘Innocent until proven guilty’ remained the letter of the law.

The bill that was proposed by Clarke was designed specifically to be used to lock up people without even producing any evidence against them, never mind proving them guilty. Even the Labour peer Helena Kennedy expressed opposition: “Sugar-coating the unpalatable by suggesting all will be well if a judge makes the order is to forget that it may not feel significantly different if it is Mr Justice Floggem or the Home Secretary who issues an order if you still don’t know the nature of the allegation or the evidence on which it is based.”3 We called on all socialists to campaign for the repeal of this legislation and previous authoritarian legislation such as the Criminal Justice Act.

The idea of a new mass workers’ party came back forcefully onto the agenda, following a special conference of the RMT. This gathering voted by 42 votes to 8 to reject Labour Party intimidation and reconfirmed its decision to support political organisations other than Labour. This included affiliation to the Scottish Socialist Party. Even before the debate had taken place, the Labour Party held a gun to the head of the union, saying that if the conference took a decision to confirm their position on disaffiliation in Scotland, it would face automatic expulsion.

At this conference the total disillusionment with New Labour was quite evident. Opening the debate, union general secretary Bob Crow said that the only part of New Labour’s programme he agreed with were the bits that said ‘The’ and ‘End’! Steve Hedley, a delegate from Area 20, argued that if Labour was a new party coming to the RMT for support on the basis of its current programme, “there would be no way the union would consider affiliating to the party”. Craig Johnston, a Socialist Party member at the time, delegate from Area 5 and a conductor on Arriva Trains Northern, made a devastating case for the union breaking from Labour. He pointed out how this debate really started in 1997. He was then still a Labour Party member but soon realised it was no longer delivering for working-class people. Pete Skelly from Area 16 in South Wales said that the political fund issue had been debated in a well-attended special meeting. He said workers questioned why the RMT – like other unions – gave Labour a distinct advantage over other political parties when New Labour had shown such contempt for the unions.4

The issue was also raised and debated at Unison conference with Socialist Party members playing a leading role. A similar discussion took place at the FBU conference where Tony Maguire from the Northern Ireland Fire Brigade moved at its conference in Southport an historic proposal for the union to disaffiliate from the Labour Party. He declared: “Our choice is whether to stay in the Labour Party, docile and tame, or leave and fight like tigers for what these class traitors have denied us… The future starts here and the future starts now… You have the power – you can do it.”5 The composite motion proposing complete disaffiliation was passed by more than two to one.

The GMB and the TGWU announced they were withholding millions of pounds from Labour’s general election fund. Derek Simpson, general secretary of Amicus, claimed at the TUC pensions demo in 2004 that trade unionists had a duty to fight to retain Labour at the next election. However, within a week he admitted in a Guardian article that he had been deluged with mail, questioning his judgement and saying how rotten Labour was. This then forced him to openly call for Blair’s removal.

Unfortunately, the communications union CWU, its general secretary Billy Hayes and the union’s broad left argued for staying in the Labour Party. An emergency resolution from the postal side of CWU warned that if Labour didn’t make a manifesto commitment to retain Royal Mail as a public enterprise then the union should immediately disaffiliate. This was just used to screen the retreat of the leadership.

Tony Maguire of the FBU also stated at this time: “The FBU has not rejected the ideas of political trade unionism but we do believe we should be supporting a political party that represents the interests of unions, communities and young people not a party that has clearly been hijacked by big business.” Furthermore and significantly, Kevin Curran of the GMB stated in the Guardian: “We now spend a lot of effort in trying to persuade our members not only  that the Labour Party is worth fighting for but that we should not contemplate a relationship with any other political organisation.”6 These lines were written more than 10 years ago! They are an indication once more of how the right-wing trade union leaders have held back the political evolution of organised workers and, through them, the mass of the working class.

It compelled us at this stage to go once more over the early history of the Labour Party and to draw comparisons with the current situation. There were many similarities of both an economic and political character. We pointed out that the Liberals at the turn of the twentieth century, as the party of so-called laissez faire capitalism, were much like New Labour. Trade unionists and workers came up against Liberal employers, particularly in the industrial centres, in the struggles for a living wage and improving rights and conditions. This fuelled the opposition to the Liberal Party in the movements for the creation of an independent party of the trade unions and the working class.

The pioneers for this demand battled over two decades for the realisation of this goal. The struggle did not proceed in a straight line but was full of zigzags, steps forward and sometimes two steps back. Keir Hardie, the miners’ leader from Scotland and the ‘father of the Labour Party’, was originally a Liberal who tried to ‘reform’ the party but concluded that it was impossible. He first of all established the Scottish Labour Party and in 1893 founded the Independent Labour Party when 120 delegates met in Bradford. The ILP incorporated a number of different trends, including the Fabians and representatives of Engels himself, the continuator of Marx’s ideas in this period. Five delegates from the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) also attended; this organisation was nominally Marxist but neither Marx in his lifetime or Engels supported its politics and methods.

Some trade unionists also attended but Hardie and the ILP conducted a protracted battle to break the trade unions from the Liberal Party’s coat-tails. He was elected by South Wales miners in Merthyr as an MP in 1900 after his defeat in his previous seat of West Ham. However, the South Wales miners as a whole were not free from illusions in the Liberal Party, even when they set up their own political fund in 1899. Yet Hardie and others hammered away each year at the Trade Union Congress for ‘independent Labour representation’. This was eventually successful at the conference to form the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) in 1900, attended by trade union delegates, the Cooperative Movement and socialists of various kinds. The miners’ union, however, abstained due to their connections with local Liberal associations.

This lasted almost a decade. In fact, there was limited trade union membership of the LRC at the beginning with only 353,000 out of nearly 2,000,000 trade unionists in all affiliated to this body. The ‘new unions’ joined but the longer-established skilled workers’ unions initially stayed aloof. The turning point was the Taff Vale judgement, which awarded heavy financial damages against the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants for alleged loss of profits to the Taff Vale Railway Company during a strike.

By 1903 the affiliated membership of the LRC had risen to 873,000 but the LRC, known as the ‘Labour Party’ from 1906, was still a long way from constituting a party. It didn’t even have a programme – only an affirmation of willingness “to co-operate with any party which, for the time being, may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interest of Labour’”. Nor was there much organisation under the party’s control. Although local Labour representation committees and Labour parties existed in a number of areas, they were not admitted to affiliation to the national party or represented at its conferences. One of the reasons for this was the trade union leadership fearing that “local LRCs would more easily pass on to socialist control”. Only during the First World War did Arthur Henderson, who was originally a Liberal Party agent, as Labour Party treasurer reorganise the party. Formal recognition was granted to local Labour parties as an integral part of the party’s constitution. We commented: “This step forward for independent political representation of the working class was not at all ideal, was not neat and tidy but reflected the reality of the situation at the time.”  It would be a mistake to base the programme and structures of a new party on an identical ‘repetition’ of what happened over a century ago. However, the method of moving forward cautiously at the beginning with the creation of broad structures is something to learn from. We commented: “It is one of the reasons why the Socialist Party supports in the initial period a loose federation in which genuine forces can collaborate, by gradually building confidence between the constituent parts possibly leading later to a rounded-out party. Absolutely essential in this era is that it should be open and democratic, with the right of platforms.” The Socialist Party, together with other forces such as in the RMT, have consistently argued, in the same way as the pioneers, that this could produce similar results in the development of a new mass party at a later stage.7