The National Union of Teachers has followed up the 30 June strike against pension cuts with a proclamation that it is fighting for Fair Pensions For All, including a fair deal on the state pension and levelling-up for private-sector workers.
It’s a good move. The Government’s planned changes to public sector pensions go hand-in-hand with changes to state pensions (raising the pension age, freezing Pension Credit), and interweave in a more complicated way in the process, already well advanced, of trashing private-sector pension schemes.
The Government will be defeated, and civilised pension provision for all established, only by a campaign which combines three elements:
• “demonstration strikes” like 30 June;
• selective and rolling strikes by strategically-chosen groups of workers whose action can have maximum economic impact, sustained by strike levies;
• lively, vigorous political campaigning.
Mehdi Hasan of the New Statesman (no left-winger: why did the union leaders leave it to him?) has recently confirmed what Solidarity has long argued: that the big “pensions divide” “is not between private sector and public sector — as usual, it’s between the rich and the rest of us”.
A recent Incomes Data Services report shows that directors in Britain’s top 100 companies average a pension pot of £2.8 million — enough to buy each one an annuity of £170,000 a year.
Many directors can earn their full pension after only 20 years service, while it takes MPs just 26 years. Most workers take between 35 and 40 years to accrue a full pension (and the Government wants to make accrual rates even worse).
The Government pays tax relief on pension contributions of £37 billion. 60 per cent of that goes to the very well-off (higher rate taxpayers), and 25 per cent to the rich (the top one per cent).
The unions should launch a political campaign demanding decent pensions for all, funded by taxing the rich and big business. They should tie it together with defence of the Health Service against the Government’s marketisation plans, and defence of welfare benefits.
And the unions should be demanding that the Labour Party help them. The Labour-affiliated unions should be insisting that the Labour Party help them.
Labour Party leader Ed Miliband denounced the 30 June strike by using the same learned-by-heart soundbite again and again. The small print of his statements criticised the Government. But his headline message was — and he knew it would be — opposition to the strike.
Even Miliband’s small-print criticisms of the Government included absolutely no commitment that the next Labour administration will reverse its measures and restore rights.
We have a government making cuts which even its own ministers nervously label “Maoist” and sure to make them unpopular — and the Labour leader spends his time denouncing resistance to the Government...
The Welsh Labour Party leaders, no more left-wing than Ed Miliband, could see that was stupid, and backed the strike. But Ed Miliband has diehard-Blairite apparatchiks twisting his arm.
Using their positions in the wonkosphere of New Labour, they have bullied the feeble Miliband into such stances, all the better to discredit him and in due course to evict him and replace him by one of their own.
Behind the scenes, Ed Miliband has also gone along with having “the Leader’s office” back old-style Blairite hatchet-man Chris Lennie for new Labour general secretary, against the union nominee Iain McNicol.
All this tells us is that Miliband is under far less pressure from the unions than from the wonkosphere.
The unions need to change things. Threats about the withdrawal of funding can help shake up the debate, but mostly the unions need to use their weight within the Labour Party structures to demand that those structures are opened out to democracy and Labour Party leaders support the labour movement in its basic campaigns.
They should start delivering on that in the next few months, as we move towards the Labour Party conference (25-29 September) which will decide on a review of party structure and policy.
“Unions Together”/ TULO, the umbrella body for Labour-affiliated unions, should campaign positively, actively and openly for the democratic reforms it has included in its submission to the Labour Party’s structural review, and back other democratic rule changes coming up for a vote in September.
As yet it hasn’t even made its proposals public to union activists on its website, let alone started campaigning for them!
The Labour Representation Committee should invite its affiliated unions, and PCS, NUT, UCU and ATL, to back a labour-movement conference to discuss an across-the-board union political fightback not only on pensions but also on NHS and welfare reform.
These proposals are part of a drive to rally, reinvigorate, and transform the trade union movement so that it raises itself to the level advocated by Karl Marx almost 150 years ago:
“If the Trades Unions are required for the guerrilla fights between capital and labour, they are still more important as organised agencies for superseding the very system of wages labour and capital rule... They must now learn to act deliberately as organising centres of the working class in the broad interest of its complete emancipation.
“They must aid every social and political movement tending in that direction, considering themselves and acting as the champions and representatives of the whole working class...”
A concerted drive by the unions and the left to reshape the Labour Party — and, once it became a vigorous drive, it could not shrink from split with the New-Labour loyalists — would be nothing other than a drive to create the possibility of a workers’ government as an alternative to the coalition.
Otherwise the only visible governmental alternative to the Tories, for workers, is an Ed-Miliband-type Labour government (or Lib-Lab coalition regime) which would moderate the coalition's measures, if the coalition hadn’t already moderated them itself, as it might well have done by 2015, but basically carry on from where they left off, as Blair carried on from where Thatcher left off.
Instead, we should organise in the unions and the left for a government accountable to the labour movement, a government which imposes working-class interests on society in the same way that the current government imposes the interests of the rich.
What matters most now is that the unions assert themselves politically using every channel and avenue possible, inside and outside the Labour Party.