Issue 187 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
Bill Morris, general secretary of the TGWU, Britain's second biggest union, is standing for re-election. He faces a challenge from his right, in the shape of Jack Dromey, who has attacked Morris for daring to oppose Labour's 'modernisers' and for maintaining the union's independence from Blair on the question of Clause Four and the minimum wage.
The election will be decided by a postal ballot of all union members, which is taking place as we go to print. Balloting closes on 16 June and the result will be declared on 23 June.
This is the most important union election in years. The TGWU, with over 1 million members, is Britain's most powerful industrial trade union. The outcome of the ballot will have repercussions for all organised workers.
Jack Dromey, once a prominent figure on the trade union left, has long since abandoned the views which brought him to prominence as an organiser during the famous Grunwick recognition strike in north London in the late 1970s. Married to Labour shadow cabinet member, Harriet Harman, he is firmly wedded to 'New Labour', and stands for a union leadership that won't rock the boat under a future Labour government. That government will be committed to private enterprise and the market, with policies which are indistinguishable from the Tories. It is likely to be even tougher on trade unionists than the Wilson-Callaghan government of the 1970s.
Whether workers will be prepared to swallow Blair's medicine is another matter--but to some extent that will depend on how the opposition to Blair expresses itself now. The TGWU election presents real opportunities for socialists to strengthen that opposition.
In the wake of his victory at the special Labour conference last month Blair is spelling out his intentions. He is dazzled by Tory propaganda which claims a vote for Labour will put the union bosses into Downing Street. He is out to undercut these claims now by further curbing union influence on the Labour Party. Above all he wants it written in blood that Labour will grant no favours to workers and their trade unions. Defeating Bill Morris now will prove his point, 'There are times when the interests of a Labour government and the unions diverge. We are not going to be pushed around.'
Jack Dromey will run in the election with the full support of the slick 'New Labour' gang. Indeed the New Statesman recently reported that the very same team who campaigned against Clause Four on Blair's behalf have now moved over to campaigning for Dromey. He privately consulted Blair before deciding to challenge Morris, so he is the willing tool of a Labour leadership determined to weaken its formal links with the unions, while it sucks up to big business.
Speaking at the British Chamber of Commerce's Annual Conference in Aberdeen last month, Blair apologised to the bosses:
Blair is out to drive home this vision of 'New Labour' well in advance of October's Labour Party conference. He is determined to avoid a row over the minimum wage, and a defeat for Morris and a victory for Dromey would strengthen his hand.
Morris, under pressure from the TGWU executive, continues to demand that a future Labour government should introduce a minimum wage of £4.50 per hour. Neither unreasonable nor unpopular, this demand was supported by a majority of delegates to last month's MSF (the technical and white collar union) union conference in defiance of their own leadership. In response to Blair's argument, which amounts to the bosses deciding a figure, Morris commented that this 'would be like putting Dracula in charge of the Blood Transfusion Service'.
The question of wages will be central for an incoming Labour government--just as it was in 1974--and workers' expectations, after 16 years of Tory misery, will rise.
Morris has been prepared to give verbal encouragement to his members to reject wage controls and seek higher wage settlements. Last year he issued a circular to all branches and shop stewards in the TGWU, pointing out that rises of at least 6 percent were needed to combat the impact of inflation and tax increases on members' take home pay.
Dromey, on the other hand, was prepared to settle from the outset within Tory pay guidelines. Last year during negotiations, which he conducted on behalf of the TGWU local authority manual workers, he boasted that the settlement he was negotiating would 'make the employers choke on their cornflakes'. When the settlement turned out to be less than 2.5 percent it was his own members who were feeling choked.
If Dromey wins it will be a setback for those who want to fight the Tories now. It will weaken union influence inside the Labour Party and put pressure on the rank and file to accept whatever a Labour government will try to impose.
Socialists will have to campaign hard, in and around the union branches and workplaces, for a Morris victory. Already it is clear that many TGWU branches are recommending a vote for Morris; the majority of the union's regions are backing him, but it would be stupid to assume from this that Morris will win, for there are serious problems that need to be overcome. Two TGWU regions have backed Dromey, on the grounds that Morris has attacked the left. This is a mistake--a Dromey victory would mean a defeat for the left overall.
Firstly there is the problem of the postal ballot, and the media's interference in the election. It is widely assumed that democracy and balloting are the same thing. But the postal ballot was designed to allow the rich and powerful who own and control the media to determine how workers should act and who they should vote for.
In this election Dromey will have the unanimous support of the mainstream press and television. Already the bosses are delighted that Labour has dropped Clause Four. A victory for Dromey would help boost their hopes that the unions will cooperate under Labour.
While it is vital that Morris beats Dromey, it is important not to have any illusions about what he will deliver. Bill Morris was elected general secretary of the TGWU in 1991, with the backing of the left. He was Britain's first black trade union leader and his election helped knock on the head the notion that white workers are inherently racist. But Morris's election hasn't transformed the union. While on occasions he has been prepared to make worthy speeches against low pay or take a stand against Labour's modernisers, he has failed to call for, let alone lead, any real concerted action against the bosses--witness his recent refusal to spread the Badgerline strike. Consequently many ordinary TGWU members are unaware of any real difference between the two candidates.
Morris did oppose the Tory pay limits, but he has never lifted a finger to campaign seriously against them. Even his opposition to Blair is muted and half hearted and he has been forced onto the defensive over the failure to ballot TGWU members over Clause Four.
While Bill Morris was right in saying, 'If you voted "yes" to Blair without a ballot you are a hero, if you voted "no" you are a villain,' he is also on record as saying, 'The issue is now closed,' and argues that everyone must unite behind Blair.
So there is no guarantee that if Morris wins he will stand up to a Blair government. The lessons of the past suggest that, without the pressure of rank and file action coming from below, the opposite is more likely to be the case. In the 1970s Jack Jones, leader of the TGWU, was regarded by the ruling class as the bogeyman of the trade union left. But more than anyone else it was Jones who sold the Labour government's Social Contract to the labour movement in 1975, and the consequences were disastrous. It cut living standards where the previous Tory government had failed, and it seriously weakened shop floor organisation, paving the way for Thatcher in 1979.
But backing Morris against Dromey doesn't mean endorsing his politics. Like all trade union leaders, Bill Morris is more interested in negotiating compromises with the employers than in leading workers' struggles against them. That's how Morris has operated under a Tory government; under Labour the pressures upon him to compromise will be even greater.
Nonetheless, every TGWU activist should back him against Dromey. A Morris victory would be a boost to everyone who wants to fight for jobs, decent wages and better conditions, whether under this government or the next Labour one. A Morris victory would raise expectations, whereas if Dromey wins then it strengthens Blair. Socialists in every locality need to ensure that every TGWU branch, and every major workplace organised by the TGWU, is leafleted with the arguments about why we need to vote for Bill Morris.