A New Labour Nightmare: the return of the awkward squad

Submitted by on 6 February, 2004 - 12:00

by Andrew Murray, Verso

This book is in two parts. The first is an analysis of the trade union movement past and present, and the second a series of interviews with "awkward squad" members who are asked to explain their politics and their own understanding of their role. Both sections were interesting, but the comments of Jack Jones and Ken Gill in the first section seemed more pertinent to a broad understanding of the current situation in the trade union movement and its relationship to the Labour Party than those in the second section.

Jack Jones stresses that the trade unions need to be stronger and more militant at their base - "get the unions back closer to the factories and rebuild the shop stewards' movement. It is one of the areas the left of the movement should be looking at. General Secretaries think they are the cat's whiskers, but if you pay attention to the localities, there is the possibility of achieving victories". He also comments on the need to build real European and international links that have meaning to the rank and file.

Ken Gill believes that the psychological damage done to the working class in recent decades because of the mass unemployment of the early eighties still lingers on, particularly in regions where unemployment or underemployment are still high.

Unemployment weakened the unions in the 1930s, too, and they revived in the 1940s. He thinks that higher employment levels today should be conducive to strengthening the movement, but: "People will only come back if they think there is power in the unions." The current revival in the movement is more fragile than the media suggest.

"You have a Labour Government which is more reactionary than any Tory Government, with the possible exception of Mrs Thatcher's. It confuses people."

Several of the "awkward squad" comment on the unions' relationship with the Labour Party. Billy Hayes says that even if the Labour Party link was abandoned, progressive trade unionists would still have to fight the right wing trade unionists and the TUC General Council. Andy Gilchrist argues that the Labour Party would become a rudderless organisation totally controlled by the professional political classes if it were to abandon its trade union link.

"It is Labour's direct link to the factory floor, to the housing estate, to the experiences of millions of workers in the public sector ..." that can pull it back.

Several others believe that the Labour Party is already controlled by the professional political classes. Both Mark Serwotka and Bob Crow dismiss any idea of "reclaiming" the Labour Party. Serwotka says that we are drifting towards US-style politics. He wants new initiatives, with unity, but is open about the inherent contradictions in supporting other political parties. Crow calls New Labour "old fashioned class collaboration".

Ken Gill says: "If you cannot win back the Party you've subsidised for socialism of some kind, then you are certainly not going to be able to start another mass party. I would not say carry on regardless. But unless unions have an involvement with any challenge, you are not going to get anywhere."

Andrew Murray concludes his book by musing on the different aims of trade unionism - what he calls the respectable or radical. I am not sure that is the right formulation, for there have been many respectable revolutionaries and many radical sell outs in the trade union movement.

However, he is right to point out the contradiction at the heart of trade unionism ever since the very first TUC, between those who see their job as representing the working class within a system where our needs are subordinate to the employing class, and those who believe there is a world to win. He quotes Marx's address to delegates of the Geneva Congress of the International Working Men's Association, where they were urged to "convince the world at large that their efforts, far from being narrow and selfish, aim at the emancipation of the downtrodden millions if the trade 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 capital rule."

Score: 7/10
Reviewer: Maria Exall

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.