Organise the union rank and file. Ditch Blair!

Submitted by Anon on 2 October, 2003 - 10:48

Support Iraqi workers; end the occupation
Rebuild the health service; no two-tier NHS
Scrap anti-union laws
Free education

Things are changing for the better in the labour movement. The election of new trade union leaders is beginning to impact on the Blair Labour Party, to which most of those unions with new leaders are affiliated, though the left-led civil service union PCS is a notable exception.

New Labour's party conference, due to start on 29 September, is a very much reduced shadow of the old Labour conference.

For nearly a decade it has been no more than a showcase for the Labour leadership, tightly controlled and managed by the 'leader's office' and hordes of officials accountable only to Blair.

There is no longer even the pretence that Conference influences, let alone controls, what Blair and his cronies will do.

Nevertheless, as Solidarity has pointed out again and again, the unions have great latent power, both as financiers of the party and at conference, where they still have 50 per cent of the vote.

This year the 'awkward squad' unions are making a coordinated effort to assert themselves in the shrunken and gutted Labour Party. They have combined with not-so-'awkward' unions to ensure that there are four motions critical of government policy on the conference agenda. These are likely to be passed - if the unions do not do a deal with the Blair machinery.

The public services union Unison has a motion opposing foundation hospitals. It calls for guarantees against a two-tier workforce in the NHS.

The GMB demands commitments on securing pensions. The Blairites want to wait for the report of the Commission on pensions, whose chair is a former Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry.

The TGWU motion calls for protection against dismissal for workers who take legal strike action. They can now legally be dismissed after eight weeks on strike. The Government refused to change this in its recent review of the Employment Protection Act.

Amicus calls for greater government action to protect British industry.

Union leaders opposed the Iraq war, but they are not pressing for a vote on it. Though the leaders of the big unions could ensure Iraq gets on to the agenda if they wanted, it is not even certain that it will be discussed.

All the union-sponsored motions cut against government policy, though only the opposition to foundation hospitals, and, less so, the demand for legislation to protect striking workers, have an obvious potential for escalating government/union conflict.

It is significant that the newly 'militant' union leaders do not demand a root-and-branch repeal of the anti-union laws which New Labour inherited from the Tories.

These motions are politically disappointing. And yet, they are very significant. How significant, depends on what the unions do when Blair shrugs off the resolutions.

That the unions are beginning to coordinate opposition to the Government - that is what is important at the upcoming Labour Party conference.

With the new trade union leaders, what is important is not so much that some of them are politically on the left, as that they are committed to elementary trade unionism - to the idea that the unions should try to defend and better the wages and conditions of their members.

Timidly, inadequately, they are trying to assert a union agenda, union priorities, against the blatantly bourgeois-serving Blair Labour Party.

If they do not organise to fight, and to rouse the union members to fight, for their demands, then they have no hope of overcoming Blairite resistance. But even limited opposition will be significant for the re-emergence of serious trade union pressure inside the Labour Party.

Defeats for Blair at his own heavily stage-managed conference have occasionally happened, on pensions for example. What is new is the scale and coordination of union opposition to the Government.

Coordinated support by the union leaders installed Blair in the Labour Party. Can the new union leaders reverse that process and - as some on the left in the unions put it - 'reclaim the Labour Party'?

It will take a great deal more than what we see developing now, welcome and encouraging though that is. All the old structures and relationships of the Labour Party have been changed radically. The Conference and the National Executive are not what they used to be.

Blair rules the Party from the top down. The Blair machine controls the MPs, including those with trade union links, with occasional revolts on issues like the Iraq war but very few on direct class issues. The unions pay much of the Labour Party's bills, but they have neither control nor influence over what happens.

There are only two possible scenarios on this question. In the first, the unions bind themselves together and conduct a determined fight to re-open the channels of the old Labour Party - to restore the powers of Conference, to reconstitute a democratic National Executive with effective powers, and so on.

Doing that against the Blairite machine might require such things as the unions calling a "Labour" conference in their own name, outside the existing structures, and organising Labour MPs who backed them into a tight fighting caucus in the House of Commons.

Two hundred MPs have nominal trade union connections, but it is unlikely that most of them would back the unions in a fight to recreate the old union-based Labour Party.

Such a determined fight by the unions would most likely split the Labour Party. The Blairite majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and the New Labour army of spin-doctors and 'advisers', would hive off.

The second possible scenario would be a direct secession by the unions as a block from the New Labour Party, setting up a new working-class party, inviting sympathetic MPs to support a refounding of the Labour Representation Committee that set up the Labour Party 103 years ago.

Whether or not either of those scenarios will develop is impossible to guess. The initiative would have to come from the trade union leaders. It is by no means certain they could ever act in such a united, concerted way as to make for a smooth transition from now to one form or another of refounding a union-based Labour Party.

It is not even certain that deals will not be made with the Blair machine in the next few days on the four critical motions at this year's Labour Party conference. Already the union leaders are holding fire on the issue where they could do maximum damage to Blair, the Iraq war.

Even the 'awkward squad' are not all in step with each other. The rail union RMT in some respects is far in advance of, say, Amicus, on what to do about the hijacking of the old Labour Party. A ragged, uneven movement is more likely than not, which may include the RMT disaffiliating itself or being disaffiliated.

The TGWU's Tony Woodley says, philosophically, that the Labour Party will be the unions' long after Blair has gone his way. (Perhaps, rejected at home, to try for the Presidency of the USA?) But he came up with a good idea at a TUC fringe meeting.

He said that the Rank and File Mobilising Committee for Labour Democracy, which - on the initiative of Socialist Organiser - organised a wide coalition to fight for Labour democracy in 1979 and after, could be the model for the fight by the unions to settle with Blairism.

The situation is not now what it was in 1979, but an organised attempt by the union rank and file (and what is left of a Labour rank and file) to mobilise against both Blairism and those in the trade unions who will accommodate to Blairism, is what we need now.

The brute fact is that Blair's Labour is now an anti-Labour Party. The unions should fight within Blair's party, but they should not be bound by its rules. It is necessary where appropriate to stand anti-Blair-Labour candidates and for the unions to back moves in local areas to secure the working class representation of which New Labour deprives the working class.

They should not go on accepting that the Blairites have a monopoly on 'Labour' candidacies, that Blair's rotten cabal has a right to veto the standing of candidates who want to restore the labour representation of which Blair's coup deprived the labour movement and the working class.

Take note and take advantage of what the union leaders are doing. But don't rely on wishful thinking. Organise the rank and file!

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