Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/356/5880
Labour and the unions: Heading For A Split
TEN YEARS of cohabiting with Tony Blair as Labour Party leader seems to have got to some trade union leaders. It appears the unions are at least in the first stages of heading for a messy divorce after a decade with an unsympathetic, uncaring and abusive partner.
Last week both the GMB and TGWU unions announced they are withholding millions from Labour's general election fund. This follows the Fire Brigades Union's (FBU) disaffiliation from the Labour Party and the threat of postal workers in the CWU union to immediately stop paying money to Labour if it did not commit to keeping Royal Mail as a public enterprise.
Earlier this year, Labour expelled the RMT rail union after last year's RMT conference decided to start supporting other political parties - notably the Scottish Socialist Party.
All these developments have added impetus to the process of breakdown of the relationship between the unions and Labour. GMB union leader Kevin Curran talks of a "watershed moment approaching" in the unions' relationship with Labour.
But as with many break-ups the injured party appears to be in denial that total separation is on the cards. Indeed, leaders of the major unions all argue for one last try at reconciliation - a final push to 'reclaim' or 'refound' the party.
Yet, those who hope that there's a chance to get rid of Blair and take Labour back to its roots, look increasingly desperate in their arguments to stay inside a party that so openly attacks working-class people.
Derek Simpson, general secretary of AMICUS, proclaimed at the TUC pensions demo on 19 June that trade unionists had a duty to fight to return 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.
Dave Prentis, general secretary of UNISON, constantly raised the threat of a possible return of a Tory government at that union's annual conference as a warning against loosening or breaking the Labour link. But even there a motion calling for the removal of Blair had to be debated; although the motion's movers were heavily defeated because they personalised the issue around removing one individual rather than taking up the character of the Labour Party as a whole and calling for an alternative to be built.
On the eve of the CWU conference the union's general secretary Billy Hayes and, unfortunately, the union's Broad Left argued for staying in the Labour Party. Then, almost out of a clear blue sky, came an emergency resolution from the postal side of the CWU saying that if Labour didn't make a manifesto commitment to retain Royal Mail as a public enterprise then the union would immediately disaffiliate.
This resolution, overwhelmingly passed, reflected postal workers' anger at the way they were vilified by Labour leaders in last year's postal disputes and the continual hints in the press by Labour minister Patricia Hewitt that the Post Office will be privatised.
RMT rail union activists were bitter towards New Labour after the union's expulsion; they are now incandescent after Ken Livingstone urged London Underground staff to cross tube workers' picket lines.
The union which has gone the furthest in making the break is the FBU whose members were dubbed 'wreckers' and 'traitors' by the Labour government and employers during last year's industrial dispute. These vicious attacks were followed by the Labour employers' attempts to smash the union. This set the seal on a rupture with Labour that had been growing for years.
Earlier discussion in the union about its relationship with Labour talked about the democratisation of its political fund - a process allowing unions to back other political candidates as well as Labour - but the firefighters' bitter experience convinced them a clean break was needed.
Political trade unionism
THERE HAVE been many signs of the break-up of the unions' 100-year relationship with the Labour Party. The union leaders, however, have not put forward a clear alternative of a representative electoral and campaigning voice for working-class people.
Even railworkers' leader Bob Crow, who has never been a member of the Labour Party, has signed up to the Labour Representation Committee project to reclaim Labour and still sends the union's affiliation cheque to the Labour Party.
So, effectively facing both ways on the issue of the Labour Party, the RMT leadership are demobilising their activists and members from creating a working-class political alternative.
FBU activists acknowledge that, although passing a resolution that ensured disaffiliation in the simplest way possible was the best way of achieving that result, they have to prepare a political alternative and not go down the road of non-political trade unionism (something that is implicit in the postal workers' resolution to CWU conference and is raised as a 'bogeyman' by union leaders and some activists).
But, as Tony Maguire, the FBU delegate who moved the successful resolution to disaffiliate, told Socialist Voice (the socialist's sister paper in Ireland): "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.
"I believe that the time has come for a new working-class party to be formed, one that is really based on solidarity and socialism."
New workers' party
THAT CONCLUSION is not shared by most union leaders and, it must be said, by many Left activists in the unions at present. However, it is a conclusion that most trade union members are probably now drawing.
The fact that union leaders like Kevin Curran of the GMB and Derek Simpson of Amicus have gone as far as they have in distancing themselves from Labour, shows how much pressure they are under from members who are sick of Blair's government. However, these union leaders will try any desperate measure to show they can rap Blair over the knuckles without ending the unions' link with Labour.
In the case of the GMB, which has a huge financial crisis, there is an element of financial expediency being dressed up as political principle. Nevertheless, the union leaders are under huge pressure on this issue and can only swim against the incoming tide for so long, as witnessed by Kevin Curran's statements.
In a Guardian article (9 July 2004) he said:
"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.
"... Should we get mid-way through a third-term Labour government and there is no change of direction in terms of policy then in all conscience I could not ask GMB members to continue affiliating to the Labour Party"
But many union members would ask why give the Blair (or even Brown) government another two years or so to keep up its attacks on public services, education and workers' pay and conditions. Clearly, the shifts in the tectonic plates opening up between Labour and the unions has become an unbridgeable chasm.
Socialist Party members in the unions have played a key, even pivotal, role on this issue of unions breaking from Labour and forming an alternative.
They will continue to articulate clearly the best way to achieve this and push for it in the unions. One argument the union leaders, even the better ones like Bob Crow, use is that even if a break with Labour were made, there is no ready-made working-class political party there as an alternative - perhaps with the exception of the Scottish Socialist Party and the Socialist Party in some areas of England there is no credibly established electoral grouping.
However, the most important demand in unions like the FBU and RMT over the next year or so will be for the unions themselves to call a conference with a view to beginning the process of building a new mass working-class party.
The opening of the rupture between unions and Labour has been of huge significance this year. Whatever the confusions in the minds of the trade union leaders, the working class's conclusion that Labour is no longer their party will intensify the pressures on the union leaders, especially as more and workers come into conflict with the Labour government and begin to look for an alternative.
The time to 'reclaim' Labour has gone
THE RMT union's Annual General Meeting (AGM) in 2003 decided to allow branches and regions to support parties other than the Labour Party if they support the aims of the union. As a result the Scottish region and several branches affiliated to the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP).
Bill Johnston, RMT London Underground
The Labour Party tried to threaten us with isolation by expelling RMT and ending our party affiliation. However, the members have not been questioning the break with Labour; what they do question is why on earth we were still supporting them after rail privatisation and PPP.
But where do we go from here? In some ways this discussion is a repeat of the situation facing trade unions in 1899 when our forerunners, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (later to become the National Union of Railwaymen), moved a resolution at the TUC to set up the Labour Party.
Many at that time argued it couldn't be done. They wanted the unions to support the Liberal Party. But while success did not come overnight, the establishment of the Labour Party was fundamental in winning welfare and workplace reforms later on and gave trade unions an important political voice.
Sadly the battle within Labour to stop Blair, Brown and the big business tendency has been lost. The time for fighting to reclaim the Labour Party has passed. New Labour is now just as committed to privatisation and a flexible (low-wage and insecure) labour market as the Tories.
But at this year's RMT AGM a resolution calling for a conference to discuss building a new workers' party was amended, with the support of Bob Crow, to give support to a campaign to reclaim New Labour.
In the past Bob Crow has recognised the futility of this approach. During the union's fight to evict John Prescott from a union-owned flat, he ridiculed the notion: "Reclaim the Labour Party? We can't even reclaim our flat!" Following the FBU's decision to leave the Labour Party, what is needed is a clean break by RMT and a call to other unions to come together to form something new.
There are calls within RMT to support the Respect Unity Coalition. Respect, with a strong anti-war position and fronted by George Galloway, did very well in some areas with large Muslim populations and picked up support from many former Labour voters.
However, overall its vote was not significantly better than the Socialist Alliance that went before it and many questions remain about the programme and accountability of its leadership.
The Socialist Party has managed to build a strong base of support in some local areas, with councillors in Coventry and Lewisham.
But at present there is no existing political party or organisation that can match the authority, within the movement, of a trade union like the RMT. This is why we argue that the unions must take the lead in convening a new party.
With the resources that trade unions are still wasting on Blair's Labour Party a new workers' party could have an even bigger impact than the right-wing UK Independence Party managed at the Euro elections.
A programme of reversing privatisation, revoking the anti-union laws, expanding public services and using the wealth in society to provide for people's needs would find massive support from trade unionists and working-class communities.
Ten years since Blair's coronation
What socialists said in 1994
TONY BLAIR became leader of the Labour party ten years ago, in July 1994. Blair's right-wing politics immediately won the plaudits of the press. The Tory Daily Telegraph hailed him as sounding "like a proper Tory Prime Minister-in-waiting."
Militant (the socialist's predecessor) warned, both before and immediately after Blair's 'coronation', that he was forming a totally new party. "Blair seeks to model himself on Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party.... But the Democrats have always been an openly capitalist party. Half the US population don't vote because they feel no party really speaks for them."
Other articles stressed that "The link with the trade unions will be weakened still further under Blair. The voice of the working class, already considerably muted inside the Labour Party, will be silenced even more."
Blair got high opinion poll ratings because the Tories were more hated than ever. So Blair won the vote from Labour Party members who, after years of Thatcherite Tory governments, were desperate for anyone who could win over middle-class voters, particularly in the south of England.
But we pointed out that for New Labour, as Blair later renamed his 'new' party, "the best way to win over middle-class support" was with "policies for the better management of the market economy (that is capitalism) ...
"Workers will vote Labour to get rid of the Tories. But such policies will not mobilise strong positive support among working people and youth. Nor will they satisfy the growing demand for real change of the middle strata who are now bitter at the price they are having to pay for Thatcherism."
Labour's leadership had been moving rightwards since the witch-hunt against Militant supporters in the 1980s. By 1994 the media, we said, had "already chosen Blair, who has gone furthest in embracing the market economy, distancing himself from the unions and preaching moral values rather than socialism."
We reminded our readers that: "When Blair was Labour's employment spokesman in 1989, he was the first shadow cabinet minister to back the ending of the closed shop" (an agreement where everyone in a workplace had to be a member of a specified union). This, we said, was the "means by which workers express their collective interests against the bosses' interests."
The Tories removed the closed shop as "to them, workers controlling workplace decisions interfered with the bosses' right to manage". "Today", we said in 1994: "Labour leaders accept hook, line and sinker the Tory government's belief in the 'bosses' right to manage' "
Within nine months of his 'coronation' as Labour leader, this "Tory Prime Minister-in-waiting" had lived up to his name by throwing Clause Four out of the party's constitution.
The dropping of this clause was a counter-revolution against the party's socialist ideals. Meanwhile, Blair and Co were eating away at the link with the unions which allowed workers through their union and constituency Labour Party branches to try to influence policy.
Blair wanted no 'interference' from the working class while he carried out capitalist policies. After ten years of New Labour's cuts, privatisation and an ever-growing wealth gap, isn't it time workers started building a new party?
Socialist Party national trade union meeting
21 August 2004
11.30am-1.30pm: The unions and Labour - how far will the awkward squad go?
2.30-4pm: The role of Marxists in the trade unions
This discussion will look at the following aspects, amongst others, of our work in the trade unions today:
a) When should Marxists take official positions in the unions?
b) How do we contest elections in the unions?
c) The role of party caucuses
d) Will the Broad Lefts develop?
e) What role do they play in the workplace?
d) Marxist trade union campaigns
f) A worker's wage - how do we formulate it?
For further details contact Ken Smith 020 8988 8778 or Bill Mullins 020 8988 8764.
In The Socialist 17 July 2004:
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