The rebirth of trade unionism!

Submitted by on 9 August, 2002 - 10:12

It is a slight but permissible exaggeration to describe what is happening in Britain now as a rebirth of trade unionism. There is an echoing wave of grassroots trade union militancy and more strikes than for a very long time.
New trade union leaders have been elected by Amicus (engineers, electricians, manufacturing union), by the PCS (civil servants), by Unison (public sector workers), by the RMT and ASLEF (rail workers). One of these, Mark Serwotka of the PCS, is a Marxist. Some, Bob Crow and Mick Rix (RMT and ASLEF) have a - sort of - left wing past. One, Derek Simpson (Amicus) was a member of the old CPGB, drifted out before the Berlin Wall fell and in 1992 joined the Labour Party.

But, immediately of greater importance than their place in the political left-right spectrum is the fact that these are people committed to real trade unionism and to a renewal of the labour movement.

Real trade unionism demands trade unions that assertively defend and try to improve the wages and conditions of their members and trade union leaders who are loyal to traditional labour movement values. That trade unionism has been eclipsed in Britain for many years.

John Edmonds of the GMB has spoken up against the government on behalf of the labour movement, but he has been notably the exception. Industrial militancy has been at an all-time low. The trade union leaders have been so much under the heel of the New Labour Government that Blair and his cronies could spurn and abuse the labour movement knowing that the miserable worms leading the trade unions would not turn.

There are many ways of measuring the class alignment of the Blair Government elected five years ago, but the clearest and simplest indication of what they are is their attitude to the anti-trade union laws which Blair inherited from 18 years of Tory rule: they have left these laws on the statute book.

Before the 1997 election Blair, the leader of a party founded and still mainly financed by the trade unions, solemnly promised the rich and their press, whose good opinion he was courting - he was talking to the implacably Tory Daily Mail - that under the Labour Government he hoped to see elected, "Britain will remain with the most restrictive trade union laws anywhere in the western world".

No unction, no hypocrisy, nothing two-faced - blunt, brutal and clear-headed: "the most restrictive trade union laws anywhere in the western world." He meant it; the unions stood for it; most of what remains of the old Parliamentary Labour Party left has been silent about it. One-time leftists in the Parliamentary Labour Party, such as Dennis Skinner, have turned themselves into toy poodles decorated with duck-egg blue ribbon, who fawn on Tony Blair.

Five years after the election of the Labour Government, British trade unionism still exists within a legal framework which outlaws everything, in the first place solidarity strikes, that makes for effective trade unions.

It is a measure of the state of the labour movement that it is only now that some of the new trade union leaders - notably Mark Serwotka - are beginning to campaign for the removal from working class life of the shackles riveted on the labour movement two decades ago by the Thatcherite Tories.

What happened to the labour movement? How did it get into the conditions from which it is only now beginning to recover? On an understanding of that will depend the future of the left - and of the labour movement.

The trade unions were powerful enough in 1974 to take on and drive from office the Tory Government of Edward Heath. Tremendous industrial militancy in which large numbers of workers acted as if they wanted to "tear the head off capitalism" was itself politically headless - a large, amorphous movement that could not realise its potential because of its own political limitations. Having forced the Tories into a General election which they lost (February 1974) the working class movement could only replace it with a treacherous Labour Government, led by Harold Wilson.

Compared to Blair's, Wilson's was a left wing government, over which the left wing trade union leaders of that time - Jack Jones of the TGWU and Hugh Scanlon of the AEUW (now part of Amicus) - exercised considerable influence. That government and those trade union leaders demobilised industrial militancy; the Labour government timidly began - in 1976 - to introduce IMF-dictated cuts in social expenditure; they disillusioned those who put them in power; and finally, they went down before the Thatcher Tories in the General Election of 1979.

An industrial slump soon afterwards led to mass unemployment - up to four million workers - which undermined the preconditions of industrial militancy. The Tory Government deliberately smashed up whole industries and the working class communities around them - steel for example. They brought in the first of a long series of measures to restrict what trade unions could legally do. It was clear - a predecessor of Solidarity, Socialist Organiser, spelled it out week after week - that if the labour movement did not rouse itself for concerted counter-attack, it would experience a historic defeat.

The trade union leaders did not rise to the challenge: they slunk away. That surprised nobody who knew these people for what they were. The trade union militancy that had marked the British working class for the previous 25 years had largely been an affair of unofficial strikes, "wild cat" action, against the will of the trade union leaders. It fell to the revolutionary left to organise a rank and file movement in the unions to oppose the leaders, elect better leaders when the chance offered itself, and in periods of class struggle contest with the trade union bureaucracy, for the leadership of the embattled workers. No such movement existed in 1980.

The Communist Party of Great Britain (Morning Star) had a "rank and file" movement that was in the pockets of incumbent trade union leaders. The IS/SWP had made a promising start with a rank and file movement in 1974, but quickly suppressed it as a distraction from "building the revolutionary party".

They had picked up a self-paralysing defeatism from the right wing of the CPGB - from people such as the academic Eric Hobsbawn - which they expressed in "the theory of the downturn". Prematurely accepting defeat without a fight, they concluded that nothing was possible except the odd local struggle and propaganda for "the revolutionary party" - a "revolutionary party" preaching retreat, surrender and passivity at the crux of the greatest crisis the British working class had faced since the 1920s!

The decisive struggle for the future of the British working class came to express itself in the Labour Party. That Party was then, unlike now, a functioning democratic organisation in which the unions had decisive weight. The Labour Party had been bitterly at odds with the Labour Government that fell in 1979. Now there was an upsurge of the left, led by Tony Benn. The soft left Michael Foot was elected as leader.

Most important here was the fact that though the Thatcherites had control of the state, Labour was moving towards control of the key centres of local government - in London, Manchester, Sheffield etc. Thatcher was very unpopular - she only achieved security and political dominance after the Falklands War in mid-1982 - and could have been brought down as Edward Heath had been, by a combination of industrial action and mobilisation to resist government cuts by left wing led local councils.

Left wing leaders talked a big anti-Tory fight, they promised to make Labour local government fortresses against Thatcherism once they were in office. But everywhere leaders like Ken Livingstone (at the Greater London Council), Margaret Hodge (in Islington) and David Blunkett (in Sheffield) buckled.

And the self-proclaimed "revolutionary left"? The bulk of the revolutionary left stood on the sidelines during the fight in the Labour Party. The SWP denounced the Bennite left for refusing to understand that nothing could be done.
Thus the Thatcherites were allowed to entrench themselves in power without an adequate fight by a labour movement that at the beginning, with a different leadership, could have fought and might have defeated Thatcher. We suffered defeat without a fight - the worst and most demoralising of all possible sorts of defeats.

The Great Miners Strike of 1984-5 came very late in the day. There was much demoralisation in the movement, mass unemployment still blighted working class lives and hopes, and a network of anti-union laws was in place, outlawing solidarity strike action. The much-compromised ex-lefts still in control of some local governments stood idly by and left the miners to fight alone.

The "revolutionary left"? For the first six months of the Great Strike, the SWP denounced the Miners Support Committees as "left wing Oxfam". They could not quite believe what was happening. SWP leader Tony Cliff thought it a lost cause. In April 1984 he wrote in Socialist Worker that the strike was "an extreme example of what we in the SWP have called the 'downturn' of the movement." Black is only an "extreme example" of white!

Even where "Marxists" controlled a council - the Socialist Party (then Militant) in Merseyside - and were in conflict with the Tory government, they made a separate deal with the government and left the miners in the lurch.

After the defeat of the miners the Tories were riding high. They systematically set about undoing as much as they could of such achievement of the labour movement as the welfare state which Labour had set up in 1945. The state of the NHS today is one consequence of this.

Whole areas of working-class militancy were destroyed when the Tories destroyed industries such as coal. Trade union membership fell by millions. The trade union leaders became even more docile and housebroken.

The soft left - Neil Kinnock - allied with the right to take over the Labour Party. The goal of defeating the Tory Party in "the next election" came to dominate and shape labour movement political life.

At first, Labour counterposed to the Tories old-style reformism. Then, as the Tories worked through their social and political agenda, the Labour Party leaders, backed by the trade union leaders, came more and more to mimic Thatcherism, to let themselves be hegemonised by it, to accept its premises and most of its conclusions.

After 1945, for three decades, Labour had hegemonised the Tories, who accepted the welfare state and other measures which Labour had forced through. Something like that now happened in reverse when Labour accepted Thatcherism. By the early 90s Labour would not even commit itself to the restoration of the welfare state and the NHS.

Blairism was the culmination of this process: outright Toryism in policies and a radical reshaping of the Labour Party. The power of Labour Party Conference and of the National Executive Committee were radically cut down; the power of the unions in the party greatly reduced. Labour took a long step away from being any sort of working class party. "New Labour" was born.

There was reason to think that the return of a Labour government in 1997 would lead the labour movement to take a cold look at where the blows and the social and political hegemony of Thatcherism had landed us.

It has taken a lot longer than we hoped.
Nonetheless, it is beginning to happen. The incumbent trade union leaders who have for five years betrayed the labour movement by belly-crawling to Blair, who seemed to have forgotten what trade unionism is for, and what the unions had in mind when they founded the Labour Party a hundred years ago, have now been replaced by people who may have learned something from the bitter five years of Tory Blair government.

In any case, those who have elected new trade union leaders - the unions rank and file - have learned. The defeat of Sir Ken Jackson by Derek Simpson in Amicus was an intended slap in the face not only for Tony Blair's "favourite trade unionist" but for Blair and his government. Those who elected Derek Simpson have not forgotten what trade unions are for! Despite the structural changes that have more or less gutted the old Labour Party, the trade unions still have a great deal of power in the Labour Party. They should begin to use it.

Many things that were up to now unthinkable are again possible. The trade unions can recompose a working class presence in politics by concertedly demanding that the Government begins to do things like repeal the Tory anti-union laws which New Labour has made its own. They can organise to fight this government when it refuses.
The unions are opposed to privatisations and to the public-private partnerships the Government promotes. The rank and file of the unions are militant on wages and conditions. The trade unions need a political voice on such issues. New Labour is not and cannot possible be such a voice. Blair's is the voice of second-string Toryism and, indeed, of sublimated Thatcherism.

It is scarcely conceivable even in the most favourable course of events that the unions could simply run the film of the last decade in the Labour Party backwards and root out Blairism. Probably the best that could be hoped for would be a concerted trade union break with Blair and the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party, backed by a minority of the PLP.

That, it should be stressed, is a long way off. But now it is an objective possibility. It raises for the left fundamental questions of strategy and perspective - for example, it puts the question of the trade unions' political funds in a new light.

. We will be discussing these questions in future issues of Solidarity. We invite contributions.

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