The Unions after Bournemouth

Submitted by Anon on 3 October, 2007 - 3:24

Even in 2005, Tony Blair’s Labour must have seemed to most voters at least marginally less illiberal and less rigidly attached to inequality than the Tory party of the old Thatcher minister Michael Howard.

But what about now? Younger people, looking at the parties afresh, have nothing presented to them which makes Labour seem even demagogically more on the side of the “common people” than the Tories. Sometimes, indeed, the opposite.

It has not always been so. The 1959 Labour Party manifesto was issued at a high point of “Butskellism” (the term was coined in 1954) and of the drive by the then Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell to push Labour right. Yet it was free with the words “socialism” and “socialist”, gave over its first sentences to a promise to end “the division between the Haves and the Have-Nots”, and pledged to introduce a “Workers’ Charter, designed to raise the status of the wage-earner”.

Until 1987 Labour manifestos regularly included some sort of wording, however anodyne, which suggested special attention to the disadvantage suffered by “workers” or “working people” or “have-nots”. Until 1992 they included the words “socialist” or “socialism”. No longer.

Anyone under 40 now would first have paid attention to the parties’ rival pitches in an era when Labour no longer presented itself as socialistic even in the loosest sense.

Elderly voters will of course tend to continue to identify “Labour” and “Conservative” with stereotypes of those parties formed when they were younger. Some of that will be passed on to their children. But what we think of as the traditional working-class perception of Labour is a fading quantity. According to a report done for the Electoral Commission, by 2005 the percentage of the electorate identifying “very strongly” with a party had dropped from 45% (in the late 60s) to just 9%.

In 2005, only 45% of voters aged 18 to 24 voted. Only 49% of people on incomes less than £15,000 a year voted.

In short, with the evolution of “New Labour” that culminated in the Bournemouth conference decision to ban all motions from unions or local Labour Parties on current political issues, the “Americanisation” of British politics has been ratcheted along another few notches.

This is not as simple as a general decline in class-consciousness or in political interest. The proportion of people identifying as “working class” remains steady — remarkably so, when the term has disappeared from mainstream political discourse. The percentage professing themselves as have “some” or much interest in politics has increased from 62% (in 1974, first year there are figures for) to 71%. The percentage identifying themselves as having participated in political activity (a demonstration, an argument to convince someone else how to vote, etc.) has also remained steady or increased.

Bournemouth showed the trade unions’ structures to be clogged and unresponsive to rank-and-file political input, as well as New Labour’s. There is a difference. No union leader could get branch delegates at his union conference to vote to ban themselves from putting any branch motions to conference in future!

But the Bournemouth debacle was not just a matter of right-wing union leaders pulling a fast one. It was the unions collapsing when, in formal broad-left/ broad-right terms, they are about as “left-wing” as they have been in living memory. This was not primarily an affair of the old-style right-wingers like USDAW General Secretary John Hannett, but of the left-wingers like Billy Hayes, Tony Woodley, Derek Simpson, and Paul Kenny, who had been denouncing Gordon Brown’s rule changes only days before Bournemouth.

It was the unions renouncing their political voice at Labour Party conference at a time when they have more to say at Labour Party conference — in the sense of clear public disagreements with Labour’s direction — than ever before in the history of the party. In recent years, the unions have submitted and voted through motions at odds with the Labour leadership’s direction with a frequency previously unknown.

In many unions now, the “right wing” in the old sense scarcely exists any more. In the TGWU, for example, there is no force that would be recognised by the members as an organised “right wing”. In Amicus, the great bastion of the old trade-union right-wing, left-winger Derek Simpson was elected general secretary in 2002, and the left won a near-majority of the Executive in 2003. The result? Not a convulsive change of direction, or a big battle, but a virtual merger of left and right.

In PCS (not Labour-affiliated) the official “left” now, electorally merged with the softer segment of the previous right wing, dominates a union previously hard-right-controlled. How much difference did it make to the union on the issue of pensions, or does it make now on pay, that it now has a supposedly “Marxist leadership” in place of an avowedly right-wing one? Remarkably little.

In other words, Bournemouth also shows that the broadly-defined “trade union left” has suffered an epochal collapse. It crosses the t’s and dots the i’s on the story told by the union lefts’ collapse on public sector pensions and their feebleness this year on the McDonnell campaign and the 2% pay limit.

Bournemouth proves that this is not even a matter of the “left-wingers” being cautious (perhaps properly, perhaps excessively) as regards economic militancy, in an adverse climate. All the union delegations had to do at Bournemouth was cast a vote. There was no question of making a gamble on the union members’ willingness to mobilise, or taking a risk on the bosses’ reaction. (And in any case, as these things go, the economic conditions are not that adverse for union militancy on economic issues. Since 2000 the unemployment rate — measured on ILO criteria — has been around 5%, consistently lower than any of the years 1980-1999).

Some insight into this epochal collapse can be got from a survey of its shop stewards that Unison did in 2002. “The typical steward was male, working full-time and had been a member of the union for 17 years, nine of those years as a steward. He was most likely the only candidate for the post... The average age of a steward was 47 years old”.

The picture varies from union to union, of course, but there is no reason to suppose than Unison is grossly untypical.

That average shop steward will have been “formed” in her (or more likely his) political and social views in the late 70s and early 80s. That was a period when the general temper of the labour movement, at grass-roots level, was leftish. The traditional right wing was not recruiting new cadres then.

Many leftists of the late 70s and early 80s have become right-wing, of course. The ones who have soldiered on as shop stewards mostly have not. But they have been trained and “educated” by over twenty years of disappointments and defeats, over twenty years of trade-unionism as damage limitation.

The official union “lefts” have — pretty much without exception — become primarily electoral machines; and electoral machines of such a type that, when they win electoral victories, it makes only a small difference to what the union does (as distinct, maybe, from leadership rhetoric).

In 1938 Trotsky wrote: “Even among the workers who had at one time risen to the first ranks, there are not a few tired and disillusioned ones... When a programme or an organisation wears out the generation which carried it on its shoulders wears out with it... Only the fresh enthusiasm and aggressive spirit of the youth can guarantee the preliminary successes in the struggle; only these successes can return the best elements of the older generation to the road of revolution. Thus it was, thus it will be”.

Trotsky there was writing about the weariness and demoralisation caused by the setbacks of the 1930s. We have a generation shaped by a much longer, though less dramatic, period of setbacks.

None of this means, of course, that the older generation of union activists are universally hopeless, still less that socialists should renounce trade-union activity. It does mean that in that activity we must always be looking for opportunities to “dig down” to fresh activists below the “official” left; that we must have a sharper, clearer political profile in the unions as socialists, quite distinct from any image of being just the “best builders” of the official “left”.

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