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TUC papers over the cracks
THE FIRST gig on Tony Blair's farewell tour saw the old rocker receiving a less than ecstatic reception. In fact, only Margaret Thatcher during the miners' strike could have got more boos and heckles than Tony Blair at this year's TUC.
His less than seven seconds applause, even at the rarefied atmosphere of the Trade Union Congress (TUC) - where union leaders talked up the positive achievements of Labour in office - shows how difficult it will be for Blair to hold on and leave Downing Street on his terms.
However, while not exactly giving Blair the "warm welcome" TUC general secretary Brendan Barber had promised on the Sunday, conference let Blair off the hook and tolerated his evasive soft-soap approach.
As Guardian columnist Simon Hoggart commented, Blair would have got a rougher ride from the Women's Institute.
The day before Blair spoke, PCS civil servants' union general secretary Mark Serwotka said that Blair on his farewell tour should face "demonstrators outside every hospital, school, tax office, job centre, court, train stations, fire station, ambulance station etc all saying 'no' to privatisation and 'yes' to public services."
This will strike a chord with the millions suffering from New Labour's privatisation mania which is leading to cuts in jobs and services. They would not only be up for demonstrating against Blair but, if the trade union leaders worked to deliver Mark Serwotka's call, building up a movement that could remove Blair immediately - which most of the trade union leaders claim to want.
However, the same trade union leaders, while in public expressing scepticism about Gordon Brown as Blair's successor, in private were expressing their future loyalty to him at the TUC dinner. Immediately after, the most rightward-moving member of the awkward squad, Derek Simpson of Amicus, announced his union would be backing Brown.
Amicus is planning to merge with the TGWU next year and TGWU general secretary Tony Woodley had neither been consulted about this statement nor did he feel comfortable with it. There was a reported blazing row between them - such are the tensions at the top being created by the Labour leadership crisis.
Woodley's discomfort or anger did not, however, reflect a personal wish not to back Brown. The pressure is building up on union leaders from their members because of their acquiescence to the Blair/Brown neo-liberal agenda.
This was reflected even amongst the less than fully representative TUC delegates, who were backing left-wing leadership candidate John McDonnell by a margin of six to one. At press conferences at the TUC, general secretaries of all the major unions said they wanted to back a candidate supportive of the policies of their union.
Journalists present quickly and correctly pointed out that this would only mean John McDonnell amongst the so-far declared candidates. If the union leaders took the decision to back McDonnell, then this could ensure that the leadership contest is about the 'change of direction' the union leaders claim to want.
But for the unions, the idea of forcing a change of direction - whether through change in the Labour Party (an unlikely prospect) or otherwise - means they must move from mournful calls for Labour to be reasonable and instead campaign on a militant programme of action to defend working-class people which could begin to make real gains for the workers in all industries - unionised or unorganised - and increase the strength of the unions at the same time.
The aspirations of the trade union leaders on behalf of working people are imperceptibly low compared to their objective needs. Even on the repeal of the anti-union laws the conference resolution called on the TUC to lobby the government to ensure that no further anti-union laws are placed before Parliament.
This is a far cry from the response of trade unions 100 years ago to the Taff Vale judgement where militant industrial action and the forging of a political alternative in the form of the Labour Party saw the biggest surge forward in working-class organisation and struggle since its inception as a class.
The TUC and many union leaders last week revealed themselves as incapable of linking up the anger and potential firepower of the working class. A new generation of trade union activists will conclude the need to transform the unions from the bottom up, and at the same time to build a new mass working-class party that can once again begin to defend and advance the interests of working people against the capitalist system.
In The Socialist 21 September 2006:
War and occupation
Socialist Party NHS campaign
Youth and Education
Socialist Party workplace news
International socialist news and analysis