Tony Blair has agreed to a TUC proposal to set up a "public services forum"-regular meetings between the Government and the unions to discuss the New Labour "reform" agenda for the NHS and other public services. The unions have a right to "advise" the Government on things they oppose! Is this-as the Tories would have it-"a return to beer and sandwiches" politicking? To the days when union leaders and Labour Ministers had a close relationship? The days when Labour Ministers were nominally accountable to the labour movement?
The new forum is to be a matter of the unions "advising" the Blairites on the cuts and privatisations that are already in the pipeline. Indeed a Government spokesperson said, "This is a mechanism through which we will be explaining what we are doing."
Yet the fact that New Labour has sought to renegotiate the "contract" between the unions and Labour reflects the sudden real weakness of Blair's government, brought on by Blair's loss of standing even in the Parliamentary Labour Party as a result of the appearance of dirty-dealing over the war with Iraq. New Labour is under pressure to change.
Their style of policy-making-all targets, forums, working groups full of Blairite business leaders and all greased with media-spin-has been criticised for a long time. But where once the Blairites could shrug off criticism, they find they now have to pay attention.
They are mid-way through their second term and they are down in the polls. So there is a new sensitivity to "public opinion" in Downing Street. The Sultan of Spin Alistair Campbell has been "let go". (And the father of Blairite spinning, Peter Mandelson, has "spun" his going!)
But there is another way in which the Blairites are feeling the pressure-from within their own ranks and from the trade unions. Despite the public "hard face" they put up, the Blairites are shaken up by the back-bench revolts of the last year-over the Iraq war, over the setting up of a two tier NHS through foundation hospitals-and the looming revolt over New Labour plans to introduce graduate tax.
The unions have began to recover from the defeats of the 70s and 80s. The new trade union leaders are a reflection of what Solidarity has called "the rebirth of real trade unionism" (Solidarity 3/11). "Real trade unionism demands that trade unions assertively defend and try to improve the wages and conditions of their members, and trade union leaders who are loyal to traditional labour movement values." For the first time in many years they are seeking an alternative to the brutal neo-Thatcherite bourgeois class politics of New Labour.
How far the trade union leaders will fight for these labour movement values they claim to represent-including, crucially, the principles of free public services and free trade unions-depends on the left being willing and able to make sure that fight happens.
Our job is to ensure that the union leaders are not content with this forum as it exists or as an alternative to a fight on issues such as:
- decent pay for NHS staff
- no foundation hospitals
- an end to privatisation and PFI
- proper funding for schools
- free education for students.
At Labour conference this year the Blairites expect defeat over the Iraq war. This should be a signal for the trade unions to begin to use on every important issue the power they still have in the Labour Party to oppose and fight Blair and Blairism. Can they "reclaim" the Labour Party?
One defeat for Blair at Labour conference-such a thing has happened before-will not restore the old democratic structures of the Labour Party, which the Blairites have suppressed. For that the unions would have to mount and win a fight to restore the old Labour Party structures, democracy and relationships: fight among other things to make Labour Party conference the authoritative gathering of delegates from Constituency Parties and unions which it used to be and is not now.
Here it is worth noting that the "public service forum" would structure relations between the unions and the government not between the unions and the Labour Party.
One measure of the situation between the working class and the New Labour government is the fact that this "forum" is the first such "contact" between unions and Government in the six years of New Labour rule!
It is still necessary where appropriate to stand anti-Labour candidates and to demand that the unions back moves in local areas to win back the working class representation of which New Labour deprives the working class.
It is time for the unions to organise a militant campaign-including demonstrations and industrial action-for the repeal of the anti-union laws, against foundation hospitals, against privatisation.