Why did union leaders vote to end Labour democracy? An open letter to Tony Woodley

Submitted by AWL on 30 September, 2007 - 4:08 Author: Solidarity

Dear Tony Woodley,

We hear that at a fringe meeting at Labour Party conference in Bournemouth (23-27 September), you invited a mild critic of your knee-bending before Gordon Brown to “come outside and say that!”

Your offer to punch your critic at least shows some fighting spirit — but, Tony, isn’t it the wrong sort of fight, and isn’t it misdirected? Evidently you have a bad political conscience? So you should!

Your decision, and that of the other “left” and not-so-left trade union leaders, not to oppose Gordon Brown’s moves to abolish Labour Party conference is astounding. Abolition is what it effectively is, Tony.

Motions on current political affairs from unions or local Labour Parties will be banned.

Your willingness to go along with Brown and his cronies in driving the trade unions, the organised working class, out of politics.

That is what the decision is, coming on top of all the changes of the last 13 years.

Future historians of the labour movement will rightly bracket you and the other trade union general secretary surrender-merchants with people such as Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour leader and prime minister who went over to the Tories; Jimmy Thomas, the ex trade union leader who went with him; and, earlier, John Burns, the once-Marxist “Labour” MP who stayed with the Liberals and refused to join Keir Hardie in standing alone in the Commons and building a union-based Labour Party.

That’s too harsh a thing to say about a man who is trying to do his best in an unfavourable situation? It is arguably too mild and charitable. You are letting the New Labour political careerists destroy the work of 100 years — the political labour movement.

You are letting the trade unions be reduced to a pressure group in the New Labour machine — and machine is what it is, not a party in any sense labour movement activists over the last hundred and more years, or you yourself all your political life so far, would describe as a political party.

You are letting the unions be reduced to broadly the same relationship that that United Auto Workers of the USA has with the Democratic Party, and the British unions had with the old Liberal Party before the foundation of the Labour Party.

It is worse, in fact, because your union and others continues to give large sums of trade unionists' money to the New Labour machine, to spend as it will, whereas before the creation of the Labour Party the unions financed only their own sponsored small block of Labour candidates and MPs who stood on the Liberal ticket — the so-called Lib-Labs.

IS that where you are leading the labour movement — to reducing labour representation to a small block of union-loyal New Labour MPs? The horrible truth, Tony, is that a solid group of union-loyal, working-class-loyal MPs in the New Labour machine might be an improvement on how things are now in “New Labour”, with its swarm of careerist MPs who have neither experience of, concern with, nor loyalty to the working class and its trade union movement.

Here too, things are worse than the old situation with the Liberals: they at least abolished the disabling legal consequences of the Taff Vale court judgement (which made the unions financially liable for employers' losses caused by strikes) soon after coming to power in 1906.

The great mystery is what you and the other union leaders think you gain.

On 12 September you told the Times that there was “not a chance” that the unions would support the banning of Labour conference motions. Paul Kenny of the GMB said: “No one in the GMB is up for changing the constitution”.

Derek Simpson, who serves alongside you as joint general secretary of the Amicus-TGWU amalgamation, Unite, had told BBC News on 9 September that, “proposals to reduce the union’s policy-making role would be resisted...”

Your idea of opposing Brown’s plan was, we understand, to persuade Brown to change his mind. He refused; you fell on your political knees in front of him, in abject surrender.

If Brown were determined, what else could you do? Campaign in the labour movement? Take it to a fight at Labour Party conference? Good god, no! Why not? You’d antagonise Brown!

YOUR entire approach here, Tony, and that of the other union leaders, has been that of the humble courtier, petitioning the all-powerful prince. Hasn’t it? Not for you and the others the ringing declaration of the Internationale — “No faith have we in prince or peer/ Our own right hand the chains must shiver/ Chains of hatred, greed and fear”.

It isn’t even that you have faith in Prince Gordon to serve your interests, is it? On vast swathes of issues, including the anti-union laws, legislation to protect workers from fly-by-night capitalists and make it harder to sack workers, or privatisation, you know very well that he won’t. You just don’t want to offend him?

Can the movement fall lower? Has it fallen lower than this in a hundred years?

Even the old right-wing trade union leaders, people with a deservedly bad reputation on the left, would have fought the Brown-Blair gang, and this, their latest outrage against the labour movement. Faced with the slice-by-slice destruction of the old working-class character of the Labour Party, faced with the effective disenfranchisement of the working class (for, without our own party, the vote is vastly diminished as a democratic instrument), even they would have fought back.

Your right-wing predecessors as general secretaries of the old TGWU — Ernie Bevin, Arthur Deakin — even they would have fought against the power of the unions in the Labour Party being reduced to that of one humble pressure group amongst others. Wouldn’t they? You know they would.

And you and the other union leaders? Why in the name of common sense not?

At most you buy off the extra hostility Brown would perhaps feel against you if you fought him. But if Brown is judged by what he does and does not do, he is a bitter enemy of the labour movement already.

You didn’t want to cause ructions in the Labour Party on what may be the eve of a general election? But New Labour is indistinguishable from the Tories! Brown’s invitation to Thatcher — the most execrable creature in modern British history from any working-class point of view — was maybe calculated to win over old Tories to New Labour, but there was nothing false in the symbolism of the visit. Gordon Brown, like Tony Blair, is one of Margaret Thatcher’s political children.

He knows it. Obviously she knows it. Anybody with an ounce of political awareness knows it! And you? You don’t? (Incidentally, when was the last time a trade union leader was invited to Downing Street?)

THE traditional anti-Toryism of the labour movement was always, even when there were real differences between Labour and the Tories, an inadequate and poverty-stricken political outlook. It was anti-Toryism that led the labour movement, from the 1980s — long before the Blair-Brown coup — into allowing the Labour Party to be inched slowly on to Tory ground, until today the Labour Party is arguably to the right not only of the Liberal-Democrats (that’s old news) but even of Cameron’s Tories. Today Labour minister John Hutton attacks the Tories for “downplaying the importance of business” and says: “we want to be the natural party of business” (Financial Times, 3 July). That too was symbolised by Thatcher and Brown at the door of 10 Downing Street.

Of course, Cameron is a politically flimsy blatherskite and demagogue on whom no one can rely. Solidarity will in the next general election call for a vote for New Labour where there is no socialist candidate, because it will still be backed by the unions. Even so, it is difficult to see how the Tories in power would, on any level, be worse for the labour movement and the working class than Brown’s New Labour. The distinctions are more and more meaningless.

You, Tony Woodley, whatever you tell yourself you are doing, are selling out the trade unions and the working class. Yes, that’s what you are doing! You.

But more. You and your colleagues in positions of trade union leadership are selling out democracy. Marxists call what we have bourgeois democracy, because at its best it is only shallow, one-dimensional, political democracy. Even bourgeois democracy is important; but without effective political parties, democracy cannot be exercised by working-class people.

Without political parties, there is no system through which we can decide what we want and hope to act within the political system to achieve it. Even powerful trade unions, financiers of the Labour Party like your own, are reduced to the role of humble advisers and lobbyists to an incumbent all-powerful Prince.

Isn’t that true? By letting the New Labour careerists destroy the Labour Party, you are surrendering a great part of the political power that the vote supposedly gives to workers. It is part of an atrophying, a bureaucratisation, of politics that is not at all confined to the Labour Party.

Careerist-driven political machines are replacing the living political parties at the centre of British politics. British politics is being Americanised. Politics becomes a career, like lawyering or huckstering. Careerists view for control of the state; political parties are election-winning mechanisms, saying what the leaders think will win; rich people buy influence openly or covertly; “personality” and “image”, projected by expensive advertising techniques, replace concern with policy. Politics becomes almost a brand of show business. Democracy is gutted, most of the time, of much of its substance.

YOU yourself, and the other union leaders, did the same sort of thing in refusing even to consult the union rank and file on your support for Brown’s rule changes. Up until a few days before, you told your members there was “no chance” that the union would accept the rule changes; then, without any vote or mandate, you decided to back Brown.

The Labour Party was founded to give the trade unions and the working class a direct voice in Parliament. Today, what are you settling for? The trade unions as a pressure group, roped to a New Labour election-winning machine whose policies, in government and out, are decided by a few people at the top on the basis of focus groups and opinion polls, and handed down to “the party”; a system where you dare not offend the Prince by opposing him, even when he is robbing you of your political birthright, as with the abolition of Labour conference.

You think the changes don’t matter, because the Labour Party conference has been a sham for a decade? Why fight over an explicit, formal, proclaimed version of what Labour conference has been de facto for a decade, something that has no say in Labour decision-making?

But the unions have been able at least to proclaim, and even to pass, their favoured policies at the conference. You think that counted for nothing? If so, only because you and the other leaders made it count for nothing by making no complaint when Blair and Brown ignored the conference decisions.

Finally, Brother Woodley, where do you and the other trade union leaders get the right to let Brown abolish Labour Party conference? Where do you get the right to deprive your members of the right to have their say and decide what their union will do?

As incumbents, you evidently can do what you have done — but morally, as well as politically and democratically, you have no right to do it. You should be, and will be, called to account at the union conferences next year. The decision to abolish the trade-union voice in politics can still be reversed, and we will fight to reverse it!


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