Issue 201 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1996 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature article: Collision course?

Where the hell is Tony Blair taking Labour?

That was the question on the lips of millions of people as the divisions between New Labour and the bulk of trade unionists burst into the open during the week of the TUC. By the end of the week there had been three separate and increasingly strong attacks on the unions and the left within the party.

The first was David Blunkett's call for arbitration in strikes often a management demand in current disputes. The row which ensued on the Monday was followed later in the week by an explosion over junior shadow minister Stephen Byers' claim to journalists that Labour in government would be prepared to break the link with the unions. Hardly had the shock begun to subside when another shadow minister, Kim Howells who led the back to work movement in South Wales at the end of the miners' strike called on television for the abandonment by Labour of any reference to socialism.

The fact that these are the last TUC and Labour Party conferences before the election reinforced the feeling of many inside the labour movement that Tony Blair has abandoned even any pretence of dialogue with its institutions or interest in what it stands for. He is obviously much more comfortable when talking to businessmen about the importance of flexible labour markets than speaking to those people who have supported Labour throughout their years of opposition.

Whether or not all the interventions at the TUC and since have been planned by the Blairites, we have to assume that they are serious about their aims to separate the party from the unions. However, we should also be aware that they have little clue about the seriousness of the divisions which they are exacerbating, or what the eventual outcome will be.

The Blairites who are running the Labour Party at present have little organic connection with the roots of the party. They represent very little but themselves. They are completely isolated from the mood of bitterness which exists in Britain today. In so far as they recognise any such bitterness, they believe it is the exclusive preserve of trade union and labour activists those whom they deride as `old Labour'.

This certainly exists among very large sections of the union movement: witness the overwhelming vote for a 4.26 minimum wage at Blackpool; the dislike of Harriet Harman over her sending her son to a church grammar school; the support for those `old Labour' figures ranging from Roy Hattersley to Clare Short who speak up for any notion of `socialism' or for more fairness and equality.

However, this mood is not simply the preserve of union activists; it is also reflected in the views of millions of people through surveys and opinion polls.

A recent poll in the Guardian, for example, showed that 43 percent of all those asked thought that `more socialist planning would be the best way of solving Britain's economic problems' a figure which rose to 61 percent of Labour voters.

Another recent poll showed that 76 percent of people in Britain believe there is a class struggle. Surveys carried out by the unions themselves show repeatedly that large majorities support unions and think they are a good thing.

So Blair is well to the right of the majority of people in Britain, and especially of those who plan to vote Labour in the election. He and his acolytes can barely hide their intentions of engineering a break which would leave Labour looking increasingly like the Democratic Party in the US: a party with no formal links with the unions, and funded very largely by big business.

But he is still a very long way from achieving his aim. Whatever the breaches at national level, and however much Blair thinks he can rely on support other than from the trade union leaders, things look rather different at local level. The links between constituency Labour Parties and the local trade unions are deeply intertwined, with Labour relying heavily on union activists for canvassing, finance and other forms of support. There is little sign of real divisions between the two locally.

Finances at a national level still remain a headache for Labour. The majority of its funding still comes from the unions (54 percent) and although the proportion which it makes up as a total of Labour's funds has declined in recent years the real amount has risen substantially. Labour is even more reliant on the unions for its election fighting fund. There is no sign that business and individual rich donors are willing or able to replace this funding.

Perhaps most importantly, there is a fundamental relationship between the trade union bureaucracy and Labour. Labour was founded by the bureaucracy to represent its interests in parliament and this fact explains a great deal about the cautious and conservative nature of both organisations. The union leaders see their role as negotiating with capital to win improvements for workers. A Labour government facilitates this process, and brings the union leaders into the system of government. Labour sees its role as managing the system more humanely and efficiently for the capitalist class, and using its relationship with the unions to ensure that peace reigns between workers and capitalists.

It is this relationship which Blair has put under threat and which has created the political polarisation we have seen in past weeks. It would have been unthinkable just a couple of months ago that the last TUC Congress before an election would have erupted in such a public row. Indeed, up to the moment it happened the union leaders themselves were doing their utmost to smooth over differences and win a compromise on the minimum wage. It would have seemed even more unthinkable that Labour's own conference due after Socialist Review goes to press should have been anything more than a show of public unity and confidence of an election victory. Now it is hard to see how some rows can be avoided for example over pensions. This is in stark contrast to last year, where the leadership was able to hold the line over every single issue and did not lose a vote on the conference floor.

There is little sign that the rows will diminish after the conference. Blair is determined to press on with his `radical' agenda and so will launch further attacks on strikes, unions and anything else which annoys the employers. Despite the timidity of the union leaders and Labour MPs, such attacks will provoke a response. And Blair will remain under scrutiny from the media most of whom would prefer another Tory government and who now repeatedly question whether Blair can hold back the demands of workers for higher wages, more jobs and better welfare. In both senses, Blair's honeymoon is over.

All this leads to a much more volatile and politically interesting pre-election period than might have been expected. Many of those who called for unity and backing for Blair are now prepared to rock the boat themselves, fearing that unless they voice at least some opposition there will be no stopping him.

The new Labour ideologues have thus unleashed forces which are likely to get out of their control. They have no way of determining the argument or knowing where it will end up. The political debate can only be good for genuine socialists, however. Every turn Blair makes raises the question of what sort of society we want, how we gain more equality, what real socialism stands for. Thinking about these questions may well lead people to quite different conclusions from those that Blair himself wants: conclusions which point to a need for socialist alternatives to the market.

Lindsey German


Blackpool rocked

Union leaders have gone to such extraordinary lengths to indulge every whim of the Labour leadership over the past few years, it came as a bit of a surprise to see so many of them lining up to give Tony Blair and his sidekicks a good clip round the earhole at this year's TUC.

Twice in the space of a few days TUC general secretary John Monks publicly denounced the interventions of David Blunkett and Stephen Byers over new plans to limit strike action and unburden Labour of its union links. Jimmy Knapp of the RMT, Lew Adams of ASLEF and Alan Johnson of the UCW all had a go at Blunkett's proposals for binding arbitration and repeat ballots during a dispute when management made any new offer.

By the end of the week even the most heavyweight and consistent supporters of New Labour within the TUC, like John Edmonds of the GMB, clearly felt enough was enough and called for Byers' sacking at the earliest convenient opportunity.

Was the whole episode a craftily planned provocation, designed to emphasise New Labour's ascendancy over the unions? If so, it was about as well thought out as Labour's policy on Scottish devolution, which had just ended up a total fiasco the weekend the TUC Congress began.

Quite unlike the union bosses' response to the abolition of Clause Four, which the vast majority supported, the latest brainstorm simply raised their hackles. Both Blunkett and Byers left Blackpool with their tails between their legs and seemed unable to make up their minds whether to stand by what they had said or claim a total misunderstanding.

For some pundits, the vehemence of the TUC response is difficult to square with their own conviction that the unions are all but finished. According to them, union bosses would be wiser to simply play along with every half baked scheme that Blair's whizzo team of PR geniuses foists upon them.

Blair himself appears to think that he can treat his own bedrock support with contempt but makes the same mistake of confusing suffrance with impotence. Union bosses like Edmonds, Morris, Knapp and Bickerstaffe are still in command of some pretty big battalions and have been prepared to put up with a lot of hard knocks in the attempt to get Labour back in power. But none of them are walkovers, nor are their members quite so helpless or powerless as is often made out.

In fact, it is one of the great ironies of most discussion about the role of unions in the past few weeks that neither the Labour leadership nor the Tories seem to be able to decide whether the unions are finished, as they like to tell us, or whether even more legislation is needed to shackle the beast.

What does need a bit of explaining is why the bit of needle which has crept into relations between the Labour leadership and the TUC should have broken out at this particular time. One important element, still only mentioned in a whisper, is that, despite all the concessions already made to New Labour, Blair might still manage to blow it at the next election.

Either way, the unions are not only expected to watch their levels of membership continue to dwindle but must leave their defences wide open in the face of a new offensive on pay and jobs, especially in the public sector, the minute the election is over. All the signs are that this is not exactly the scenario the union leaders have been setting out for themselves over the last few years. They want a say in what happens if Labour gets back in, and have no intention of being reduced to the role of whipping boys.

One thing which has reinforced this attitude in the last few weeks is the growing realisation that what the Blair camp does not lack in terms of political rhetoric it can more than make up for in sheer blundering incompetence. The public gaffes of Harriet Harman and Jack Straw are one thing, and quite humiliating enough, but when you get frontbench spokesmen putting a jinx on just about everything they handle, the alarm bells start ringing.

All around Blackpool during TUC week, top union leaders could be seen holding their heads in despair and wondering, if this is the best the Labour leadership can do in opposition, what on earth will they be like in government? If David Blunkett, for example, really thinks that tabloid journalists adding a bit of extra emphasis to extracts from his speeches is the worst he is ever going have to deal with, he must be living in a dream world.

No wonder John Edmonds recommended that the next time Stephen Byers goes to dinner with four lobby journalists, maybe he should take a black box voice recorder along, and thereby make a proper record of every accident.

The real reason for Blunkett and Byers' `initiative' on further moves to limit strikes was not, as they like to make out, months of careful thought and discussion. It came as a direct result of constant sniping from the Tory press over Labour's attitude towards the strikes on the railways, at London Underground and in the Post Office. Did Labour support the strikers, or not? Why didn't Blair and Blunkett come out loud and clear demanding an end to the action?

It was exactly the same story over Scottish devolution, where the Tories first made the running with their accusation of a `tartan tax', and the Blair leadership immediately capitulated. If they can cave in so readily when there is absolutely no need to be on the defensive, what can be expected if and when they do get in?

This combination of political naivety, policy somersaults and amateurism creates the convincing impression that this lot wouldn't know how to punch their way out of a paper bag. And it is this which is making the union bureacracy increasingly jumpy.

Another factor is that, over recent months, most of the big unions have ever so quietly been dumping many of the most important ingredients of their old policy of `new realism'. The idea that the unions would only be able to survive in the 1990s if they thought less about basic issues like pay and jobs, and more about offering members cheap finance and credit cards, it is now admitted, was a complete waste of time.

It had become abundantly clear, from a whole series of surveys undertaken by the TUC itself and other polling organisations, that the main reason people join unions is for protection in the workplace, and the main reason that many workers are not in unions is that they have never been asked to join. It is nothing to do with structural changes in the workforce, or ingrained anti-union attitudes.

As a result, virtually every major union has now set targets for recruitment over the next few years, with plans for the appointment of full time membership organisers and the pinpointing of industries and firms where either the level of membership has been allowed to slip or no attempts have yet been made to build union organisation.

The TUC still wants a Blair government and will do almost anything to get one, but at the same time it has been putting a fair bit of effort into this change of tack. The success of the `Respect' carnival held in Finsbury Park is only the most prominent example of a raft of new policies adopted at the top level in every major union to try and win new layers of membership and build up a new cadre of activists who know how to recruit and set targets for membership growth.

The big public sector union, Unison, has set a target of increasing its membership by about 20 percent by the year 2000. Similar schemes have been drawn up by the TGWU, AEEU, RMT and others. This emphasis on recruitment is not a purely cosmetic exercise. The latest issue of the RMT journal, for instance, has a major editorial by Jimmy Knapp on the importance of this effort and a series of success stories from different districts on how the job can be done. In one depot in Leeds a couple of activists have managed to double the membership from 400 to 800 in less than a year.

If nothing else, instincts of pure self preservation have forced the union bosses to think seriously about ways of reversing a fairly drastic rate of membership decline and forget about the pie in the sky schemes dreamt up for them by media pundits in the late 1980s. This is clear, not only from the invitation to one of the leaders of the American AFL

CIO to speak to the TUC Congress on the success of some recent recruitment drives in the US, but also in John Monks's genuine anger that Blunkett and Blair threatened to wreck the entire strategy of `New Unionism' launched at this year's Congress.

The feeling that there has been an important shift at the top is reinforced by the rail disputes and postal strikes, in the strength of feeling shown by TUC delegates for a national minimum wage, and in the vitality of the 3,000 strong lobby for the 4.26 minimum wage held at this year's Congress.

Also, when even the boss of TNT admits there is no way his company would either want to take over the Post Office monopoly or be capable of doing so, people sense a weakness on the other side which has not been quite so obvious for some time.

And, even in the wake of privatisation, railway workers have shown that they still have terrific industrial strength, a damn sight more than Labour was ever able to muster in its abysmal lack of opposition to rail privatisation.

Even if all of this still amounts to not much more than a glimmer of hope, it is hardly any surprise that the Blair leadership should want to stamp on it the first chance they get. Perhaps the most interesting and downright nasty aspect of Blunkett's line of argument during TUC week was his attack on `armchair revolutionaries' in the rail and postal disputes.

Of more concern to most union leaders is not that Labour should want to limit strike action, but that it should be talking in terms of robbing the trade union bureaucracy of weapons which, for them, have become extremely important.

Foremost amongst these are the use of ballots in order to contain strike action, but at the same time to provide a powerful bargaining tool in negotiations with management.

One of the paradoxical effects of some of the Tories' anti-union legislation, originally intended to encourage moderation amongst rank and file trade unionists at a time of all out retreat, is that it has actually put the union bosses back in the driving seat. With Blunkett's speech, in particular, the devil was in the detail. His plans for repeat ballots would threaten to remove this particularly useful mechanism and put the initative right back with management every time.

Similarly, Blunkett's proposals for binding arbitration are anathema to any self respecting union leader whose whole purpose in life is to display his or her negotiating skills, not have a verdict handed down from some third party (in this case, it would most likely be John Hougham, the new chairman of ACAS, and formerly personnel director at Ford).

The truth be told, not many employers are in favour of binding arbitration either, for much the same reason. But, thinking ahead to after the election, it might be just the kind of thing that a Labour government, as the main employer in the public sector, might find necessary to dampen down expectations and sideline any looming unrest.

At least we have the consolation that, as a result of the utter incompetence of Blair's emissaries, it gives us an inkling of the kind of tactics they are likely to want to adopt after the election is over.

Watch out, all you armchair revolutionaries and ordinary trade unionists, who, at one and the same time apparently, represent nothing and yet are seen to pose the greatest threat of all to a Labour government in office.

Robert Jackson


The mssing link

If you're outside the Labour Party, aren't you simply arguing from the sidelines? That is the question which many Labour Party members raise even when they agree wholeheartedly with socialist criticism of Blair's attempt to sever the trade union link.

Socialists, who are organised in a party which sees change coming when working class people organise from below, are active in the trade unions because they represent the most elemental form of self organisation. For socialists there is no contradiction between rank and file activity, which is at the heart of successful trade union organisation, and their political aim: the creation of a socialist society.

Members of the Labour Party, on the other hand, come up against that contradiction all the time. Their work inside the trade union movement is stifled by the political organisation they belong to.

Socialists organised in a socialist party independent of the Labour Party have no such inhibitions and can fight for working class demands without being attacked by the leadership. This means they are more effective when involved in disputes. This has been evident in recent campaigns to stop hospital closures, to prevent victimisation of union militants and in the agitation to win the campaign in the TUC for a 4.26 minimum wage.

Because socialists are rooted in their workplace, they have been central to the movement to fight fascism and in other political campaigns, like stopping the poll tax. Though individual Labour Party members have been prominent in all these campaigns, the Labour Party as an organisation has not, and the leadership has criticised those fighting back.

But what about the question of political influence? Simply to be in a socialist party independent of the Labour Party is insufficient if the political orientation of that party is essentially the same seeing change brought about through parliament.

To split from the Labour Party and join a party which continues to put the emphasis on fighting elections is to gain no advantage. It is to swap a smaller for a larger version of the same thing. But if the key strategy is strengthening workers' ability to fight back in the workplace, then clear socialist politics even when confined to a minority provides a cutting edge which the membership of a much larger organisation, like the Labour Party, does not have. The muddle and treachery of its leadership blunts the ability of its most active supporters to fight back.

The main reason why socialists support trade union affiliation to the Labour Party is because it expresses the recognition by workers that their economic interests have to be pursued politically. However, it does so in a way which preserves a false division between economics and politics, reserving economic interests (better wages, conditions, etc) for the industrial struggle and politics for the parliamentary `struggle'. This division means the subordination of workers' class interests to the `national' interest, ie the interests of the bosses.

The working class movement can be organised in two ways. One is to organise as the Labour Party does subordinating the needs of workers to the needs of capital taking office within the capitalist state and arguing that the labour movement has to operate within the confines of electoralism. The other is to organise in a way which allows the working class to use its strength to win economic battles and to set up forms of organisation which truly express its political views. This, in periods of intense revolutionary struggle, means the building of workers' councils, democratically accountable to the mass of the working class.

There is a link between this political goal and the day to day activity of socialists in the workplace. They must strive to develop every scrap of rank and file activity to give workers confidence in their own power a confidence which the trade union and Labour Party leaders serve to discourage. This requires not just militancy but also politics a revolutionary party with a socialist paper.

As the attacks by Blair deepen, the choice is not staying in the Labour Party, hoping for a miracle, on the grounds that leaving is to be condemned to being on the margins. It is to recognise that an alternative exists the SWP whose members far from being confined to the margins, make a difference in the many struggles that take place. Only by building such an organisation can the tradition of socialism a tradition which Blair has resolved to eliminate be effective.

Gareth Jenkins


An evening with Tony Blair

In what could only be described as an American style rally Tony Blair entered with his hands upstretched in the air like the scorer of a winning goal in the world Cup final. half the audience clapped half laughed.

Blair opened with a pun: `As you can see my eyes are blue not red.' Just like your politics, we thought.

In front of what was a rather restrained conservative audience Blair was not really tested or made uneasy. His patronising, superior attitude showed through and any question he deemed unwelcome was simply body swerved and answered with what he thought was a witty analogy.

Around 600 people attended but union activists were disappointed that no questions were taken on the minimum wage, trade union law or support for workers in struggle Liverpool dockers, postal workers.

Blair on taxation

`There will be no return to the penal rates of taxation set in the 1970s. The only people who paid were the ones with bad accountants. A 10p rate is achievable.'

Blair on the NHS

`We will abolish the internal market and create a health service based on need. However, there will be no return to the top down structures of the past.'

Blair on nuclear weapons

`I am not a unilateralist. I could be described as a multilateralist. It is more important to discuss how to stop the proliferation of weapons and ensure that no dictator has access to them.'

Blair on communism

`Communism in the Eastern bloc has collapsed. We must bring these countries into the EC.'

Blair on unemployment

`Long term unemployment is a bad thing, especially for the young.'

Blair on the abolition of the monarchy:

`People know my position on the monarchy. There will be no return to the suicide policies of the 1980s.'

Blair on the abolition of private education and health care

Avoided giving answer.

Blair on class

`I have never said class divisions do not exist. We'll just go around in circles discussing class.'

Blair on the Asylum and Immigration Act

`We will look at some particular sections of the act.'

Blair on the level of the business rate

`Oh yes, I am concerned about that! I've had discussions with businesses in my own constituency about that.'

Blair on the welfare state

`We will ensure the survival of the welfare state but it will require modernisation along with everything else.'

Scott Sutherland


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