We need a political crusade on public services
By Alison Brown
(written before Labour conference, in defiance of the leadership, voted for an independent review of PFI)
At the TUC's conference last month several of the new left-wing union leaders and many other union members besides made unusually outspoken criticisms of New Labour in government. Now the unions look set to repeat their challenge to New Labour at the Party's conference which starts on Sunday 29 September.
As we go to press we know that Unison has put down a motion calling for a moratorium on any new Private Finance Initiative schemes and an investigation into the effectiveness of PFI. The motion will be backed by most, if not all, the trade unions. That motion - though it is nowhere near as comprehensive as we would like - will be fiercely opposed by New Labour's leaders. For that reason alone socialists should welcome this challenge from within Labour's ranks - for the trouble it will cause.
However, there are more substantial reasons for socialists to support and publicise Unison's move. The motion shows, once again, that trade union combativity is beginning to revive, that the dogma according to which the trade unions should not 'rock the boat' for the New Labour government has been shown to be not worth the pain and sacrifice. New Labour has delivered virtually nothing for the unions and union members. Therefore Unison's motion is part and parcel of the union revival. It is different to, but just as much a part of, the revival of the strike action that is now taking place.
It will, of course, take a bigger fight than the one implied or engendered by UNISON's moratorium idea to have any impact on New Labour's programme of attacks on the working class. Nonetheless the challenge is significant.
Unison's motion could be the start of a serious fight within Labour's ranks. We cannot tell right now if that will be the case - there is plenty of time and scope for the unions to strike more shoddy deals with New Labour - but if it is, that will be a fight that no socialist should not ignore.
Any vigorous challenge from the unions within the Labour Party will reshape the labour movement for years to come. In the first place Blair will try to ditch the unions altogether - he could find a way to do without their support.
Even so, such a fight will mobilise and prepare the trade union's ranks - many of whom have not yet broken from New Labour - to restore working-class political representation and create a new workers' party.
The issue of PFI and privatisation is the key battleground for the trade unions in the next period. The battle over privatisation cannot be limited to narrow trade-union self-defence in the particular hospital, school or other enterprise being privatised. Self-defence, bedrock organisation, is necessary but our fight must also be political - challenging capitalism, which has used privatisation as a way of breaking up trade union organisation.
Bringing that fight into the Labour Party - to challenge the Government which is implementing the capitalists' programme via privatisation - will help in the long run to politicise the fight.
And the unions do need to organise a political crusade over the issue of public services. Strikes, even big, important and potentially explosive strikes such as the one shaping up in the fire service can only go so far in winning our demands on this issue. The demand for adequately funded public services in which the workers are paid decent wages needs to be taken out into working class communities. That is a job that the Socialist Alliance can help to do.
Much is wrong with the trade unions' dealings with New Labour - for instance, the deal Unison has done with the Government over rights of workers transferred under PFI schemes falls far short of what most health workers wanted. But the key fact here is that Unison leaders ignored the wishes of their members when they did that deal with the Government.
So the battle that the left faces is to make the union leaders accountable to the rank and file, to fight for the union's own policies. The job that the left must do over the coming months and years is to build rank and file organisations that can make the leaders accountable. The strategy that the left must adopt in the unions is argue for a fight on all fronts - the economic, pushing for strike action, but also the political front, both without and within the Labour Party. And the key issues we need to be fighting on are certainly going to be privatisation and public services.