We know what the Tories are going to do about politics in the wake of Alistair Darling’s Budget of 22 April, announcing huge cuts to come in public services.
They will build on those cuts. The Tories are already promising to beat down public-sector pay and to rip up the agreements on public-sector pensions.
We know what the Liberal-Democrats will do. For some years now they have favoured laws to enable the Government to ban all industrial action in “essential services”.
The Tories, if re-elected, may take up that Lib-Dem idea; New Labour, if re-elected, may take up further Tory ideas in addition to the Tory ideas, from Thatcher, it has been pushing through for the last twelve years.
We know what the bosses will do, too. Already they are cutting jobs, wages, and conditions across the economy. They will condemn a whole generation to the desolation which gutted many communities when Thatcher’s Tories ruled over mass unemployment in the 1980s. They will push the government, of whatever party, towards harsher and harsher attacks.
We know what the BNP fascists will do. They will denounce cuts, demagogically trying to pin the blame on migrant workers.
We know all that. But what will the unions do? What will the unions do about politics?
The unions helped set up the Labour Party over a hundred years ago to give working-class people a channel for action on issues which could not be dealt with by piecemeal workplace or industry-by-industry activity, but required government action, like legal rights and restrictions for strikes, or pensions, for example.
The middle-class politicians and stodgy trade-union officials who managed to keep dominion in the Labour Party never delivered adequately on that aim. But when a Labour prime minister, Ramsay McDonald, moved to cut the dole in a crisis like today’s, in 1931, the unions moved decisively against him, forcing him to hive off with a small group of MPs into coalition with the Tories.
The union’s move to keep a Labour Party tied to at least some loose loyalty to the labour movement first brought electoral setbacks, in the wake of McDonald’s splintering-off; but in the longer term laid the basis for the large reforms won by the labour movement through the Labour Government of 1945-51.
What will the unions do now about politics, and about the “new McDonalds”, Brown, Darling, and the rest?
What are they doing already about the Government’s plan to part-privatise Royal Mail at the same time as it quasi-nationalises the banks in order to bail out the bankers? The postal workers’ union CWU, comparatively speaking one of the more politically assertive unions still affiliated to the Labour Party, has “contracted out” the political campaign against Royal Mail privatisation to the soft-Blairite lobby group Compass. None of the other unions is saying much about it.
In September 2007 the affiliated unions — after much declaring that they would never accept such a thing, but then without a murmur — agreed on Gordon Brown’s request to ban themselves from ever again putting motions on current political issues to Labour Party conference. They closed off the last remnants of the old channels through which working-class political demands could get political traction in the Labour Party.
That decision is due to be “reviewed” at Labour Party conference this year (27 September to 1 October). There is no sign yet of any big union demanding a restoration of its political rights.
What should the union leaders do? The leaders of the unions affiliated to the Labour Party should break from cajoling and lobbying Brown and Darling, demand restoration of their political rights. They should work to restore something like the old Labour Party — in the sense of open channels for policies coming from the unions and from active local Labour Parties — from within the shell of “Labour” labels, formalities, and legacies which is today’s New Labour.
Many of the more politically active unions — RMT, FBU, PCS — have been expelled from the Labour Party, have quit, or have not affiliated. It looks probable that CWU, too, will disaffiliate soon.
Those unions should not wait for the very slow-moving and bureaucratic big unions to move. They should launch a movement for working-class representation, rousing their own members and all other labour movement and left activists, so that in wards and constituencies the politicians who want to shred public services are confronted by candidates based on local Trades Councils and unions. (These candidates could probably also in some areas get the support of the local Labour Party).
What should rank-and-file activists across the unions do? They should demand their unions move. They should say that the working class cannot deal with the crisis with one arm tied behind its back — with no political arm of its own.
They should say that the working class needs its own workers’ party — needs it all the time, and needs it now more than ever.
While we can’t yet move the union leaders, even of the more politically-alive unions, what should rank-and-file activists do? (We know that the RMT leadership has wandered off to put money behind a dud “No2EU” enterprise in the Euro-elections).
We should work to build the groundwork of a workers’ representation movement, and for a workers’ party, from every local opportunity we can seize or make, through Trades Councils in particular.
And we should also get thinking and talking under way, in the labour movement, about what the aim of a workers’ representation movement, and a workers’ party, need to be: a workers’ government.
That means, in the first place, a government accountable to and serving the labour movement. Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty believe that such a government cannot really be a workers’ government unless it pursues serious anti-capitalist policies, of the sort we’ve sketched in our “workers’ plan for the crisis”, but we want to unite with all working-class activists keen to ensure that the working class can develop a party of its own and a government serving its interests.
We have had nearly twenty years of capitalist triumphalism. Much of the activity of the labour movement has been reduced to damage-limitation exercises. Even when the new generation of trade-union leaders, the so-called “awkward squad”, arrived, they stayed on that path.
In the back of their heads, probably, and in the backs of the heads of many rank and file activists too, was the thought that political conditions made serious improvements difficult; that those political conditions seemed hard to change; that damage-limitation was therefore the best option; and, anyway, that if damage could be limited, things wouldn’t be too bad. Despite everything, unemployment was fairly low, new jobs were arriving, real wages were creeping upwards.
The times of “not so bad” are ending! More and more workers face situations where there is no “damage-limitation” option. Their workplace is shut down, and that is that. Their house is repossessed, and that is that. In the coming years, the service they depended on is shut down, and that is that.
The unions can no longer leave politics in the “too difficult” basket. Rebuilding a party based on and accountable to the organisations of the working class will be difficult; but much, much less difficult than living through the crisis without any working-class say in politics.