Will the unions call Blair to account?

Submitted by Anon on 12 August, 2004 - 2:58

Seven years after Blair's New Labour Party formed its ostentatiously anti-Labour "Labour" government, there are signs at last that the trade unions are beginning to call the Blairites to account.

It is not, in all conscience, before time.
The most astonishing fact about the last seven years in British politics is that this viciously anti-working class government - whose ministers, for example, proudly bray that they have stopped EU trade union and social rights being extended to British workers - has in all that time been financially backed by the trade unions!

Like the masochist paying somebody to beat him, the trade unions have dutifully handed over very large sums of workers' money to Blair and his party.

Now, as the government declares war on the civil service unions by announcing 100,000 job losses, the GMB, one of the trade union movement's "big four", has finally turned on the Blairite party, responding to a request for £744,000 for the party's central electoral fund with a spirited refusal. The TGWU is threatening to do the same.

Is this the beginning of a recognition by the unions that Blair's party no longer minimally fulfils the function of being a "Labour" Party of any sort?

The GMB will continue to pay its regular affiliation fees. But instead of pouring money into the central funds for the Blairites to spend as they like, it will finance individual Labour candidates who share the union's concerns and policies.

It will confine itself to candidates approved by the Labour Party, but not to MPs and candidates who are already on the list of GMB-backed MPs. It will finance any Labour candidate it chooses and only those of which it approves. If the union is serious, it will cut its ties to most of the present GMB-sponsored MPs.

It remains to be seen exactly how this policy will be implemented, but already there are echoes here of the trade unions' relationship to the Liberal Party at the end of the 19th century, when unions would finance their own "Lib-Lab" MPs, who stood under the Liberal Party flag.

For a union still affiliated to the Labour Party to decide which Labour candidates are worthy of help and, even more significantly, which are not, has enormous possible implications.

The GMB will select from the existing Labour lists; but the implication is that it will set up one-to-one relationships between the union and individual MPs, bypassing the Blair party machine. It begins to counterpose trade union financing of candidates - to the finances of the central Labour Party. The ramifications could be tremendously important.

One of the most interesting questions is, if the GMB begins to organise "its own" MPs, which it finances directly, what will the Blair machine try to do about it?

Already what is being outlined here is the pattern of a possible future union break with the Blairite Labour Party. If the conflict between the unions and the Blairites continues and escalates, then the logic of things will be for the union to try more actively than in the past to influence which candidates go on the Labour Party list.

And if New Labour continues to be what it has been in the last seven years and the big trade unions decide to fight, at a certain stage, would be for the union to support election candidates who are not on the Labour Party list. First its own, and then, perhaps, others.

The outlines of a new trade union party are thus beginning to appear within the old Labour-trade union formal relations. The big question, of course, is how far will this develop?

How far could it develop without a full-scale rupturing of relations between the unions involved and the Blair Party?

Kevin Curran, the General Secretary of the GMB, in an article in the Guardian warns:

"I could not ask GMB members to maintain their relationship with the Labour Party if midway through the term of a Labour government there was still no sign of the party addressing the concerns of GMB members."

He says of himself and other trade union leaders:

"We now spend a lot of effort in trying to persuade our members not only that the Labour Party is worth fighting for but that we should not contemplate a relationship with any other political organisation."

Given the character of the last seven years of Labour government, the only surprising thing here is that Curran needs three more years before deciding.

If the "big four" were to adopt and coordinate around the GMB policy - the unions deciding which MPs they recognise and will finance as real Labour candidates, and which they refuse to finance - then the political fragmentation of the trade unions that threatens us if the unions break with Blair one by one, raggedly and uncoordinatedly - like the RMT and the FBU - can be avoided.

Something like the best development from a working class socialist point of view may be possible - a co-ordinated attempt by the unions, or the main unions, to break the Blairite grip on the party, and, if they fail in that, as they most likely will, to found a new trade union-based Labour Party.

It would be something like the labour movement's break in 1931 with the treacherous MacDonaldite leadership of the party.

The horror of splits still works to help the Blairites cow their opponents. But if the alternative to split is the final consolidation of a Blairite-Tory New Labour Party, then split is plainly the only serious option for socialists and trade unionists who understand the need for labour movement politics and a labour movement party.

Without the split in 1931, there would have been no trade union party to bring in the welfare state after 1945.

Some of the things the "big four" leaders say suggest that they may now understandd this and be facing the fact that letting the Blairites and their alter-egos the Brownites continue in control of the old trade union party, while the unions patiently bow their heads, is the worst of all possible options.

Kevin Curran is concerned that:

"If we in the trade union movement are unable to hold the line of loyalty to Labour then the risk is that the trade union movement will become apolitical and our potential influence will become so diverse and diluted as to be of no consequence. In that event British democracy will have no bulwark against a far-right government…"

Loyalty to which "Labour", exactly? The old masochistic "loyalty" to Blair's "Labour"? Like his declaration that he will give the Blair (or Brown) party three or four more years to change its ways towards the working class and the trade unions, this nonsense indicates Curran's uncertainty and indecision.

But he does point to the tremendous danger of trade union political fragmentation.

Curran himself and other trade union leaders can stop it happening - not by making peace with Blair - or Brown - but by waging a co-ordinated political war on them - all the way to a break, and the foundation of a new Labour Party.

Rejecting the Blairite request for money, the GMB put things with a new sharpness.

"The entirely bogus 'choice' debate and recent ministerial bragging about flexible labour markets and the denial of equal treatment at work with other European citizens, are disturbing examples of growing discontent between the aspirations of working people and 10 Downing Street.

"GMB members have made it abundantly clear that they expect the Government to address their concerns on a wide range of issues such as the two-tier workforce, compulsory pensions and manufacturing job losses.

"GMB members want to work to deliver a third term Labour Government - but only [and this in itself is quite startling in a trade union text] one that is elected on a radical manifesto that will deliver social justice to every citizen in the UK [emphasis added].

"The GMB is concerned that unless Labour brings about policies that can re-energise Labour's core support and connect with Labour votes in the heartlands, then the Party's support will continue to erode and we will reach a watershed moment in our relationship."

To an important extent the union leaders are driven by rank and file pressure. According to Kevin Macguire in the Guardian, when Amicus General Secretary Derek Simpson wrote to his union's members urging them to back New Labour in the recent local elections he stirred up a hornet's nest of angry responses from union members.

The unions are speaking a new language to the Blairites.

The "big four" trade unions' leaders - Prentis (Unison's leader), Simpson, Woodley and Curran - now meet regularly to co-ordinate what they do. They will coordinate a Big Four intervention at this month's Labour Party Policy Forum and prepare for the Party Conference in October.

At the Policy Forum they will put down proposals embodying their demands on New Labour and, when these are defeated, take them on to Labour Party conference.

Labour Party conference these days is just a tightly controlled Blair-cult rally. But the unions still have 50% of the votes there. They say they will fight there and bring things to a head.

They did not fight very vigorously at last year's conference; will they fight in October, with the general election probably less than a year away? It is not ruled out that they will.

Their central complaint is that Labour victory has ceased to have any value for them other than keeping the Tories out.

Apolitical "anti-Toryism" played an enormous role in creating the conditions that allowed the "peaceful" Blair coup in the Labour Party. It may still play a role now and give Woodley and the others an excuse for rallying to the electoral standard of Blair, the effective Tory, true heir to Margaret Thatcher, out of fear of the inept Tories who sit in opposition to them across the floor of the House of Commons.

Or what the GMB is doing could be the blueprint for an effective strategy to put an end, one way or the other, to Blairite rule in the political labour movement, ending a shameful decade of political paralysis.

Rank and file militants can pick up that policy and run with it- that is, fight for it across the unions.

An important role here in organising the fightback at rank and file and other trade union levels falls to the Labour Representation Committee, which is finally getting itself organised.

We urge comrades to support and join the Labour Representation Committee.

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