Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, on 17 January condemned the Labour Party leaders’ move to endorse the Government’s continued pay freeze (real-wage cut) for public sector workers, and to stress that they will not commit to reverse the coalition cuts, or indeed to make any social-spending promises at all for a new Labour government.
Paul Kenny, general secretary of another big union affiliated to Labour, has also condemned the move, and threatened talk of his union withdrawing support from Labour.
Union activists should make these statements by McCluskey and Kenny a signal for a concerted drive by the unions to reassert themselves in the Labour Party.
The unions have 50% of the vote at Labour Party conference. Despite all the anti-democratic changes in the Labour Party since the mid-90s, and despite the affiliated unions’ subservience to the Labour Party leadership all those years, they still have 50%. On an issue like this, they will have a lot of support from local Labour Party members, including from the tens of thousands who have joined Labour since May 2010 wanting at least some resistance to the Tories.
The unions were able to get Ed Miliband, their preferred candidate, elected as Labour leader in 2010, although the more right-wing David Miliband had more support among Labour MPs and much more support among ex-ministers.
They were able to get Iain McNicol, their preferred candidate, elected as Labour Party general secretary, although Ed Miliband backed arch-Blairite hatchetman Chris Lennie for the post.
But so far the union leaders have not broken from the long years of subservience. They have been content to put preferred candidates into post and hope they’ll do the right thing, or at least the not-too-wrong thing, with a bit of nudging.
At Labour Party conference 2011, despite more ferment than for years among rank-and-file delegates, the union leaders confined themselves to bland motions. They were complicit, through the union people on the Conference Arrangements Committee, in the ruling-out of most motions or rule-changes from local Labour Parties which had any bit.
They had written a submission to Ed Miliband’s and Peter Hain’s “Refounding Labour” exercise which advocated some democratic reforms, but they dropped those and quietly voted for Hain’s stitch-up when it was dropped on the conference at the last minute and without debate.
Now the Guardian reports that “the unions and left are going to fight what they regard as a Blairite policy coup”. Let's hope it’s right. It has to be proved right, by the action of activists within the labour movement, if we are to save the fabric of the labour movement and the working class from the devastation planned by the Tories.
McCluskey says: “The view that deficit reduction through spending cuts must be a priority to keep the financial speculators onside has been the road to ruin for Labour chancellors from Philip Snowden [who imposed cuts in 1929-31, and ended by breaking with Labour to go into coalition with the Tories] to Denis Healey [who imposed cuts in 1977-9, paving the way for Thatcher]...
“Even the ratings agencies acknowledge that austerity is damaging the economy in Europe...
“No effort was made by Labour to consult with trade unions before making the shift... It is hard to imagine the City being treated in such a cavalier way...
“Where does this leave the half-a-million people who joined the TUC's march for an alternative last year, and the half of the country at least who are against the cuts? Disenfranchised”.
He is correct. The task is to make the union leaders go beyond press releases and columns in the Guardian. They must be made to use their leverage in the Labour Party, and to rally their activists to change things in the local Labour Parties.
They should put a stop now to “phase two” of the “Refounding Labour” exercise, for which “submissions” are due by 31 January, and in which the diehard Blairites are still pressing for a cut in the union vote at Labour conference. They should put a stop to the moves now afoot to sidestep democratic selection procedures for Labour parliamentary candidates.
They should formulate now democratic rule changes and clear anti-cuts motions which they will insist on putting to Labour conference 2012. They should insist that they will no longer allow the wholesale ruling-out of critical motions and democratic rule changes submitted by local Labour Parties.
They should use their positions on Labour’s national executive to challenge the “Blairite coup” publicly and loudly, within the labour movement.
They should mobilise activists to go into local Labour Parties, fight for democracy, and insist that Labour councils defy Tory cuts rather than administering them.
Effective mobilisation on those political fronts depends on the unions also mobilising industrially. The timing of the “Blairite coup” in Labour’s top circles, and the ostentatious shift to the right by Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, is explained by the schedules of the public-sector pensions dispute.
When the unions were still mobilising on pensions, the balance was different. As soon as key union leaders moved to shut down the dispute, on 19 December, the diehard Blairites felt confident to push the scarcely-resistant Miliband and Balls.
McCluskey is right that the half-million people who joined the TUC anti-cuts demonstration on 26 March last year have been disenfranchised politically; but they have also been disenfranchised industrially, by the failure of the unions, for the most part, to fight those cuts.
The fight against disenfranchisement must proceed on both fronts.
And activists should set a clear aim. The aim is not just to push back Ed Miliband to a slightly-leftish variant of New Labourism in place of the new line. It is to re-equip the labour movement politically.
It is to set the labour movement on the path of fighting for a workers’ government, a government based on and accountable to the labour movement which serves the working class as loyally as the Tories and the Lib-Dems serve the capitalists.