67. Post-2005 general election


Barely six months after the election that gave Blair a third term, the knives were out for him. Steve Richards wrote: “A Prime Minister re-elected six months ago faces the prospect of humiliating defeats on the pivotal elements of his entire domestic agenda … defeat in relation to NHS policies, education, welfare reform, the introduction of ID cards, smoking bans… The leader of a parish council will have a bigger influence on events in the coming months.”1 There was talk in the Guardian of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) “disintegrating”. More than a fifth of the PLP did not support the government’s so-called ‘anti-terror’ Bill, resulting in defeat by 31 votes in the Commons. We wrote: “Blair, in every speech he now makes, shows he is an unalloyed capitalist politician, refusing to make even the slightest genuflexion in words, as he did earlier, on the need for a state sector. There is not even the smallest concession to social democratic ideas, the ‘mixed economy’.”2

He was the high priest of unreconstructed neo-liberalism. Some of his supporters took this to its logical conclusion and ended up supporting the right-wing uS neo-conservatives. Jonathan Freedland wrote in the Guardian that a New Labour MP had actually supported George Bush in the previous US presidential election! Brown, in the expectation that he would soon replace Blair, defended and extolled the neo-liberal mantra.

At the annual Trade Union Congress, Blair was faced with a rebellion of the trade union leaders, as he opposed the TUC’s demand for the EU limit of a 48-hours maximum working week to be applied in Britain. This came after the government had been compelled to partially retreat over its proposals to increase the retirement age for public sector workers. The reaction of the capitalist press, however, from the Daily Telegraph to the Guardian reflected the explosion of anger of the capitalists over the pensions’ agreement: “government surrender”, “loss of nerve”.

They were even posing the question of the usefulness of the government itself. Martin Wolf, prominent Financial Times columnist, expressed this: “Let me be frank; the public-sector unions have used their monopoly power to demand money with menaces from the taxpaying public.”3 We commented: “This is the language of war; the mere threat of strike action from the working class results in them being compared to robbers and thugs! Similar noises were made by German capitalist commentators before the 2005 general election. [Chancellor Gerhard] Schröder [leader of the ‘Social Democrats’] had done the bidding of the capitalists but it was not enough; they demanded even more of their pound of flesh and concluded that only an openly capitalist government led by the CDU could carry out their wishes. However, they miscalculated and ended up with a weak, unstable coalition.”

The government put forward education proposals which would clearly worsen the lot of the most disadvantaged. This signified a complete somersault from Labour’s historic goals – when it was at bottom a workers’ party – of education being one of the tools to end inequality in society. We never believed that without altering the economic and social foundations of inequality in society as a whole, that is by abolishing capitalism, that these goals could be achieved. Nevertheless, we generally supported comprehensive education and opposed selection. But now Blair and his Education Secretary Ruth Kelly, who left parliament and politics later, wanted to remove the ‘historical consensus’ which underpinned Labour’s previous education aims. We predicted: “Schools will be run by businesses, middle-class schools will expand and those in working-class areas will become even more sink schools.” Is this not what is taking place in 2017 with academies and free schools, and the alienation of teachers, parents and pupils alike?

Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt wanted to ‘privatise’ 250,000 nurses and other medical staff in one ‘big bang’. Even Blairite MPs, it seemed, were alarmed at the details, which emerged when Hewitt was ‘roughed up’ in a meeting of the PLP. She was then compelled to withdraw this proposal. The class character of New Labour, now completely in thrall to the propertied classes, was revealed in Hewitt’s interview with the Independent. She drew on historical parallels to put a case for the privatisation of healthcare. She described the defeat of Harold Wilson’s anti-union proposals ‘In Place of Strife’ in 1969 as an ‘historic mistake”, as was Labour’s opposition to Thatcher’s policy on council house sales! As we pointed out earlier, Wilson was defeated by a mass revolt of the trade unions and Labour’s rank and file but the Tories capitalised on his efforts in the vicious anti-union legislation which Thatcher introduced. Now Labour was carrying out Thatcher’s ‘legacy’ and the fact that it had been able to get away with it said everything about the character of the Labour Party, then and now.

As to our arguments and those of others about the need to create a new mass party, Tony Benn wrote in the Guardian at this time that he witnessed, as a child, the betrayal of Ramsay MacDonald. However, he wrote that the Labour Party then recovered… in 1945! It took 14 years to overcome this betrayal! There was, however, a fundamental difference between the Labour Party of 1931 and now. Labour then was still a workers’ party at bottom, even after the defection of MacDonald, although it had been reduced to 52 MPs. It remained a viable instrument within which workers could work and have an effect.

We said that even if Brown replaced Blair, as was likely, it would not make a fundamental difference to its political character. We also gave a very clear warning to the labour movement for the next election: “Although he is dismissed as a lightweight, [David] Cameron could yet lead the Tory party to an electoral victory…  Labour’s victory was down to just three points.” We were more correct than New Labour supporters and our critics in charting the decline of Labour, which prepared the way for Cameron’s victory in 2010, albeit leading to the coalition with the Liberal Democrats. We wrote just after the 2005 election: “The proponents of the ‘Orange Book’ in the Liberal Democrats – which enshrines their neo-liberal programme – like Vincent Cable, their treasury spokesman and a former top oil executive, could easily sit in a Liberal Democrat/ Tory cabinet.”4

Rumblings came from the direction of the trade unions soon after New Labour won its third term. Derek Simpson, leader of one of Britain’s biggest unions Amicus (now part of Unite), told his conference after the election that it was increasingly difficult to get his members to “keep faith with the Labour government”. Many Amicus members, he added, voted Labour against their better judgement. But they hoped that the delivery of ‘Warwick’, a reference to the previous year’s agreement on 57 issues between the government and the unions, would be implemented. We pointed out: “Naively, the union leaders believe that – with Blair’s reduced majority and their ‘negotiating’ skills – they can force a third-term Labour government to drop its neo-liberal privatisation mania.”5

There was the fond hope that it would return to a more traditional social-democratic programme. This was linked to the expectation of an early replacement of Blair by Brown. The union leadership grossly underestimated the effort that would be needed to defeat Labour’s pro-capitalist agenda. On pensions, the unions had forced the temporary retreat of the government with the threat of coordinated strike action in March 2005. However, the new minister responsible for pensions, David Blunkett, declared that nothing was ruled out after the report of the Turner Commission on pensions to be published the following autumn. Most unions therefore adopted a wait-and-see passive position. The exceptions were unions like the PCS and the RMT– both led by militant left-wing leaders – who had conducted successful strikes and consequently had increased their membership by tens of thousands.

There was a growing angry mood amongst trade unionists on a range of issues from ‘fat cat’ pay to pensions, to changes in working practices, lengthening working hours and worsening working conditions. Trade union leaders had become aware of the weakness of union organisation, particularly in the private sector after decades of Thatcherite attacks carried out under both Tory and Labour governments. Their answer to this was to propose ‘super-union’ mergers and hire teams of union organisers, many on temporary contracts with little say in how the union could develop. We urged the leaders of left unions to consider calling a council of union members, going beyond the current narrow layer of activists, to discuss a programme of action to defend working class people, strengthen the unions and link their struggles together more effectively.

A clear sign of growing militancy and anger was the success of the Socialist Party in Unison, where we increased our representation on the national executive to five. Our existing NEC members – Roger Bannister, Raph Parkinson and Jean Thorpe – all held their seats and were joined by Glenn Kelly and Diane Shepherd, who sadly passed away during her term of office. Glenn’s victory was particularly welcomed by activists because he defeated Nigel Flanagan, someone they had seen shifting from the SWP to the right-wing. The overall left presence on the NEC would have been greater but for the divisive tactics, once more, by the Unison United Left (UUL) with a heavy presence of the SWP who split the left vote. The SWP had seen two of their members knocked off the NEC. Despite the antics of the UUL, Socialist Party members pledged to work effectively with all on the left to defeat the right wing in the union.

An important strike was that of the catering workers at Gate Gourmet at Heathrow Airport. Commenting to the Socialist, workers stated: “I was treated like a slave.” Over the previous few years British Airways (BA) had been taking on workers at lower rates of pay than those of existing workers. The workers’ union, the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), had a total of 30,000 members in Heathrow and amongst airport suppliers. By using its industrial muscle, it could have compelled the brutal Gate Gourmet bosses to reinstate sacked workers immediately. They had arrogantly assumed that the workers would be left in isolation after they were sacked and they had prepared the ground for months before to provoke workers into action. Gate Gourmet’s British operation was just one fifth of the total worldwide workforce of 21,400 of this US-owned company. The Heathrow workers’ action was ‘illegal’ not only because they did not ballot beforehand but also because the anti-union laws in Britain say workers in one company cannot go on strike in sympathy with workers in another.6

BA still had control over Gate Gourmet as its main supplier for airline meals. It had consistently squeezed suppliers over the years to reduce their costs and had cut the cash given to Gate Gourmet for the contracts to supply meals. This was common practice whether in a hospital that had put out cleaning to the lowest bidder or anywhere else where the scourge of privatisation was happening. So blatant and brutal were the employers that Tony Woodley threatened to bring out almost 20,000 members of the TGWU at Heathrow if Gate Gourmet workers were victimised. Unfortunately, he did not stick to this promise as the strike went on.

The High Court was then used to scandalously declare in a judgement that the pickets were not even allowed to speak to scabs when the latter tried to cross picket lines. We commented at the time: “Heathrow is one of Britain’s strongest trade union-organised workplaces. The TGWU has thousands more members across the hinterland of suppliers and services around the airport.”7 Those other workers from the union should have been called on to win this battle; anything less was an abdication of leadership. Unfortunately, the union did let down the Gate Gourmet workers who grudgingly accepted a deal cobbled together between the union leadership and management. It was a bad deal, which meant that 144 of the original workers sacked were made compulsorily redundant. It was, moreover, a warning of the way the bosses would behave in the new industrial climate in Britain. They were using unorganised migrant workers to divide the working class and drive down wages. If the TGWU had organised proper solidarity action it would have brought these bosses to their knees.

At the T&G’s 2007 Biennial Delegate Conference, Socialist Party member Rob Williams, who was the convenor of the former Ford plant in Swansea which was later sold to Linamar, moved a resolution attacking the anti-trade union laws and specifically calling on Tony Woodley not to write any more ‘repudiation letters’ to workers taking unofficial industrial action. Woodley spent 20 minutes explaining why the union could not support this motion, citing sequestration of its funds. The motion was defeated two to one. Yet Woodley’s successor Len McCluskey has refused to write any repudiation letters during his term of office without any threats to the union as a result! The trade union leaders should be much bolder in taking on the anti-union laws and defeating them, as happened in the 1970s.

The cowardly approach of most of the union leaders was growing as industrial militants were picked on and sacked; those who stood against these policies within the union were victimised. Three Amicus members of staff were suspended from their jobs, one of them while still on holiday and not knowing anything of his suspension until he returned to work. The other two were escorted off the head office premises without any explanation but were told they would be given reasons for this action in “due course”. This was in preparation, it was suspected by militants, for a possible merger with the TGWU, which was being bulldozed through Amicus by its general secretary Derek Simpson.

The TGWU was involved in other important struggles at this time. Andy Beadle, a TGWU shop steward at Peckham bus garage in South London and a longstanding member of the Socialist Party, was summarily dismissed by his employers, the ‘Go Ahead’ bus company running privatised services. This was symptomatic of the dictatorship of the bosses increasingly exercised in the workplaces. He had, it seems, produced an “unauthorised notice” calling on his members to vote against the pay deal being proposed by the local union official. His members had already voted against the deal once; this was the second ballot on the issue. Andy’s determination to oppose the deal obviously annoyed the bosses and the local union officialdom. Ordinary workers were outraged, began to organise themselves and formed a committee to campaign for Andy’s reinstatement.

The breakup of London bus workers into separate companies had led to huge differences in the earnings of drivers from one part of London to another and nationally. The incompetent right-wing officials had signed a deal which would have still left £50 per week difference with other London bus workers. After a very well-organised campaign, Andy Beadle won his job back with full back pay! However, the company ensured that he should be transferred to a neighbouring garage, which meant he could no longer be shop steward at Peckham. TGWU officials were compliant in this scandalous concession to the bosses but Andy declared: “Even if I am no longer rep, I will continue to be an active member of the TGWU and help build the organised strength of bus workers.”8

It was against this background that the annual TUC conference took place. One of the major issues debated was the need to defend workers’ pension rights. Congress passed a resolution which would not have happened if the PCS had not campaigned amongst other public sector unions for united action. It had actually delivered strike ballots within the unions. This, in turn, forced the government to back down. Janice Godrich, Socialist Party member and president of PCS, explained in an interview with The Socialist: “The TUC has a potentially major role to play in ensuring that all the unions whose members are threatened by these proposals stay united.”

At Congress the PCS organised a fringe meeting on this issue attended by 13 general secretaries. Adair Turner, former chairman of the CBI, had been invited, quite scandalously, to address the TUC. Linda Taaffe, a delegate from the NUT, explained Turner had been made responsible for drawing up recommendations for the government on the future of pensions, arguing that pensioners’ benefits should be cut. Linda called for the government to cut the tax-avoiding scams of the super-rich amounting to £100bn a year. She also exposed the fact that the European average of GDP spent on pensions was 10%, whilst the figure for the UK was only 5.4%. All that Turner could say was “it was outside his remit”. Janice Godrich made the point that it “amazes me that our employer announced live on national television the cutting of over 100,000 jobs when the chancellor made his pre-budget speech last year. Since then PCS has worked hard to dispel the myth of civil servants as bowler-hatted bureaucrats”. These cuts, we have to remember, were proposed under a Labour government. The ‘ConDem’ coalition merely built on Labour’s work in cutting the public sector through their massive retrenchment programme. However, because of the left leadership given by the PCS, the union had “grown in membership”.9

These attacks provoked a mood within the unions for a TUC-led initiative culminating in coordinated strike action. This was despite the government’s partial retreat. This merely disguised their determination to still proceed with the introduction of a two-tier pension system throughout the public sector, with new entrants working until they were 65. Unison, the largest local government union, also took a decision to ballot for strike action. The pensions’ battle intensified in late 2005, with the government forced to concede its second major retreat over this issue within six months, by agreeing to maintain existing workers’ conditions.

The reaction of the capitalist commentators was universal condemnation of the Labour government for bowing down to the pressure of the unions. The Financial Times called it “abject surrender”. Digby Jones, head of the CBI, was apoplectic when debating with PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka on Channel 4 News. He declared: “We’re going back to the 1970s with the unions calling the shots.” The PCS was compared to the NUM of the past, suggesting the government would never concede on arrangements for all existing staff and would move to crush the unions. Yet ballots in a number of public sector unions defending pension rights came out in favour of strike action. Other unions made noises about possible strike action. We strongly urged the unions, particularly the PCS in which we had a certain weight, to recommend strike action amongst their members. Over 90,000 PCS members in the Department for Work and Pensions were mobilised for the ballot in December against the cuts in the Department, with a projected loss of 30,000 jobs.10

The pension struggle dominated everything. For the best part of two decades big business had slashed and burnt its way through the pension funds and entitlements of working people. This climb down forced on the British government over public sector occupational pensions began to swing the pendulum away from the bosses. The Socialist warned that a battle had been won but further struggle still loomed. CBI members were never reconciled to this – furious, on behalf of the bosses, that workers were still allowed to retire at 60! In reality, many workers were not retiring at 60 in the public sector at this stage.

An almighty tussle took place over a prolonged period on this issue between the working class and its organisations with the bosses and their government. Yet in the end the government, first of all Labour and then the coalition, were actually successful in pushing back the working class and establishing retirement ages of 67 and 68. This result was entirely down to the role of the leaders of the unions, particularly the right wing, who prevaricated and never called action in time on a vital issue – a past gain for the working class. This, in turn, prepared the ground for a revolt against these leaders and a shift towards the left.