UK labour movement struggles

Michael Keaney michael.keaney at
Thu Jul 3 02:13:10 MDT 2003

Milne has done some excellent work in the past, not least his book "The
Enemy Within" about the stitch up of Arthur Scargill and the NUM by Robert
Maxwell and MI5. But this is absolutely woeful. Nevertheless, it perhaps
explains why it should have taken Bob Crow so long to effect policy changes
at the RMT, since this is exactly the sort of argument he would have faced
within the executive and elsewhere...

It makes no sense to break with Labour without a fight

The rail union's move to back anti-Labour candidates risks backfiring

Seumas Milne
Thursday July 3, 2003
The Guardian

It would be easy to dismiss the decision by the RMT rail union to back
candidates against Labour and risk a schism with the party it helped found
as an emotional spasm of little wider political significance. Bob Crow, the
union's Millwall-supporting leader, has long been singled out by Downing
Street, its friends in the media and the TUC hierarchy as the unacceptable
face of the new union militancy. Every effort will be made in the weeks
ahead to isolate the union and play down the risk of a wider rupture between
the trade unions and the government.

But that would be a serious misreading of the scale of discontent running
throughout the trade union movement. There are special factors which have
driven the RMT, a growing union which has won some impressive deals for its
members, to breaking point. Tony Blair's government has after all just
handed over 6,000 RMT members on the London Underground to private
contractors, paid millions to compensate train operators for RMT strikes and
refused to renationalise the chaotic disaster that is Britain's privatised
railway system.

But the bitterness against New Labour goes far beyond one recalcitrant
affiliated union. If the firefighters had had an annual conference this
year, it's widely believed they would have voted to leave the Labour party
altogether. The traindrivers' union Aslef has, meanwhile, already decided to
back Ken Livingstone against Labour's candidate for London mayor and the
broadcast union Bectu is balloting its members on whether to pull out of the

And if the mood in the big unions is clearly still against an organisational
break with Labour, the revulsion at this summer's union conferences has also
been unmistakeable. Most are reviewing their links with Labour, planning to
cut funding to hostile MPs' constituencies and slashing overall cash support
for a party activists simply don't see as working for their members - who
are, of course, largely core Labour voters. The leaders sought to reflect
the anger. Unison's Dave Prentis mockingly branded Blair a Tory, while even
the retiring Bill Morris, who has stayed close to Gordon Brown and accepted
a knighthood, declared that the benefit of the Labour-union link to his
members was now between "very little and none", because No 10 was determined
to put private corporate interests first.

All this would have been music to the ears of the Blairite ultras in the
early days of the New Labour project, when a determination to break with the
trade unions was a touchstone of the true believer. No longer. Not only does
the party badly need union money, it also has to rely on the unions to
offset the volatility of its individual membership and as a link to an
increasingly alienated working-class electorate.

But the election of a string of younger radical union leaders has put such
calculations in doubt. The balance of power in the unions has shifted
decisively to the left since Labour returned to office and the capture of
the transport union leadership by Tony Woodley in May has set the seal on
that change.

Those who look for an explanation in the relatively low turnouts in union
elections (usually about a fifth of those eligible) are deluding themselves.
Not only are we talking about hundreds of thousands of voters far beyond the
ranks of activists, but similar turnouts previously generated very different
results. Union radicalisation is clearly the product of the sense that the
government consistently favours big business and the wealthy at the expense
of its own core electorate; that "social partnership" - roughly, trading
flexibility for jobs - simply hasn't delivered for most workforces; and that
far from offering better protection at work in its second term, New Labour
has blocked new rights at every turn, while pressing ahead with the
privatisation of public services at the expense of jobs and conditions.

Why are trade unionists not more grateful for the minimum wage, recognition
rights and higher public spending (all products of the first term), New
Labour supporters complain. Perhaps, among other reasons, because a million
manufacturing jobs have been lost since 1997, while the government has
resisted information and consultation rights that might have helped staunch
the haemorrhage, refused to rein in corporate greed and presided over
greater inequality even than under Thatcher and Major.

For many union activists, this is now a government of privatisers and
warmongers, which has turned its back on the most modest social democratic
reforms, such as an increase in the top rate of tax for the highest earners.
At the same time, New Labour has made little attempt to broaden its base or
woo disaffected supporters - on the contrary, it has even suspended the MP
George Galloway for speaking out too strongly against the invasion of Iraq.
The result has been to heighten the crisis of political representation,
opening the way to the first significant electoral challenges from the left,
in Scotland and London. Warnings about a Tory revival now cut little ice,
when Blair and his policies themselves are seen as having eroded the party's

But there are clearly dangers for the labour movement - and the prospects
for changing the direction of the government - in the RMT's position. It's
certainly difficult to see how a pick'n'mix political strategy, with a
handful of small unions offering support to competing nationalist, green and
leftist parties, can be expected to make much impact on national politics or
achieve concrete results for union members. In current circumstances, any
union breakaway from Labour would inevitably be small-scale and messy and
risk the disintegration of the trade union movement as a coherent political

The only immediate way to avoid such fragmentation is for the big unions to
use their leverage within the Labour party to help create a political
alternative. The potential is clearly there. Blair and his supporters have
been weakened and the sense of expectation of change within the party and
government is palpable. Over the past decade or more, union leaders have
grumbled about New Labour policies, but consistently failed to use the
limited power they still have - in the national executive, conference,
policy forums and constituencies - to fight for their own agenda. With the
most radical union leadership for a generation, that should now change.

Tony Woodley, who takes over the TGWU in the autumn, has already called a
summit of the new union leaders to hammer out a strategy to "reclaim the
Labour party for working class people" - on pensions and privatisation,
foundation hospitals and the minimum wage, anti-union laws, redistribution
and peace. Yesterday, he promised that the "days of New Labour are now
numbered". The strategy may fail, and if it does, trade unionists and others
will inevitably look elsewhere. But it would now be bizarre to walk away
without a fight.

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