Issue 212 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1997 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature article: New Labour fraying at the edges

Judith Orr

'The dark age is over' said Tony Dubbins in the opening speech to this year's TUC conference in Brighton, claiming that after 18 years of Tory rule the unions were finally being acknowledged by the new Labour government. Much had been made in the press about Liam Gallagher of Oasis getting invited to Number Ten before the trade union leaders, but TUC general secretary John Monks was keen to point to the 15 government ministers on show during the conference to prove that Labour still took them seriously.

'Partnership for progress' was the main slogan, and the themes of partnership, new unionism and modernisation were proclaimed by the leadership at every opportunity. Yet despite the soundbites about a new era of cooperation with the government and bosses, and the commitment from Blair of a white paper on 'Fairness at Work', the mood of the conference reflected the suspicion and anxiety that many workers feel about the New Labour agenda. As Anne Gibson of MSF told conference, 'The government too often seems wary of us.' This is despite the fact that, as several delegates pointed out, the unions played a very large part in putting Labour into power, both financially and in campaigning.

That such tensions are appearing only four months after the election and at a conference which is largely made up of various levels of the trade union bureaucracy, many of whom are full time officials, shows the depth of the discontent with Blair. The role of such people in the labour movement is to broker agreements, negotiate and often compromise. They are not by and large rank and file militants. So they might have been expected to give the new government and its new deal an easier ride.

The leadership went to great lengths to make sure that no serious or public rows erupted this year. The knitwear union, KFAT, was persuaded to remit its motion on the minimum wage in order that an amendment from Unison reaffirming last year's conference policy (calling for a minimum wage based on half male median earnings, giving 4.42 an hour) was not heard. However, throughout the week every mention of the minimum wage received applause.

The compositing process weeded out other views not in line with the theme of partnership. And on the surface ruthless stage management ensured the impression of peaceful unity was maintained. But the reaction to Blair's speech to conference showed up the faultlines between the expectations of the government and the reality of what's on offer.

Delegates had been told by Monks on the first day that Blair, 'after the biggest election victory this century...will deserve a very warm welcome'. The fact that he felt the need to prod delegates about the reception they were going to give Blair shows that he realised that a warm welcome could not necessarily be taken for granted. Nor in the event was it offered. The standing ovation was as short as was politely possible and one third of the floor stayed in their seats with much of Blair's speech listened to in an uncomfortable and stony silence. Such was the coolness of the welcome that a Mirror editorial the next day lambasted the conference delegates for their ungratefulness in giving a Labour prime minister, with an unprecedented majority after 18 years of Tory rule, anything less than adulation.

There was little in Blair's speech to raise any enthusiasm. Talk of modernising the welfare state included the claim that 'the role of government is not necessarily to provide all social provision but to organise and regulate it most efficiently and fairly.' Other statements included the assertion that 'mass production has ended' because of 'technology and the mobility of capital'. He said that 'we must recognise that we will change jobs often, change the nature of jobs even if we keep them', though presumably he didn't mean himself as he made a point of asking for support for a second term. And in an unveiled attack on an earlier comment by John Edmonds he proclaimed, 'We will keep the flexibility of the present labour market. And it may make some shiver, but I tell you in the end it's warmer in the real world.' He ended by saying, 'We've got nothing to lose but our dogmas.'

The bitterness at the whole tone of the speech was summarised by three women TGWU delegates - with decades of experience in the labour movement between them. One, a bus driver, said, 'He treated us like school kids.' They were dismissive about the merits of flexibility and Blair's plea 'not to treat flexibility and fairness as if they were opposites'. They pointed out that women do the majority of 'flexible' part time work but individual women sometimes have to do as many as three different part time jobs to survive. They would benefit from secure permanent work, a decent wage and proper childcare.

Chris Murphy from Ucatt told conference, during one of the most heated debates on the Private Finance Initiative, that he was 'astounded to come to TUC conference and be lectured about the real world... I live in the real world. I work in the real world.' Later he told Socialist Review, 'Labour seems to be saying we can do Tory policies better than they can. We seem to be falling over ourselves to create a good image and slogans. Monks' and Blair's comments are always putting people down. People want to see a future - an end to unemployment, a decent wage. I don't expect miracles but there is lots of money spent on arms... I'm convinced the money is there for schools, hospitals and the transport system.'

NUT delegate Vince Burton commented, 'I think it's always harder under a Labour government. There's a lot of people who have been fighting for 18 years and they think now a Labour government has got in they can sit back and it's all going to be fine. But it's not. I think people will gradually realise they've got to fight like hell. Quite often it brings out the best in the labour movement, there are better fights and more people get involved.'

Some of the union leaders had to reflect some of these tensions. Rodney Bickerstaffe, general secretary of Britain's largest union, Unison, has attacked rank and file opposition to Blair, but even he had to articulate some of the fears of his members. He told conference that 'old dogmas will have to go, for instance the one that says if it's public it's always bad and if it's private it's almost always good... It can't be the modern way to have patients on trolleys...or for children not to have nutritious meals.' John Foster, NUJ general secretary, spoke at a fringe meeting about the attacks on his union members saying, 'We've got to get off our knees and stop apologising... social partnership is not to be based on a master servant relationship.' Many speakers referred to the fear workers had about the growth of 'Martini' jobs - any place, any time, anywhere - the true image of flexibility.

The cynicism about the possibility of social partnership in the face of such demands goes to the heart of the problem the union leaders face. Workers have faced decades of increased flexibility, higher productivity, wage control and downsizing, all in the name of making British business more competitive, yet they have gained nothing in return. Many are dismayed to see a Labour prime minister parrot the same message, with the apparent collusion of their leaders. For some the sight of Adair Turner, the director general of the CBI, lecturing union members at the conference about the need for them to be flexible, to accept lay offs and not to question management, was a step too far.

It was left to another invited speaker, the archbishop of Canterbury of all people, to attack the idea of capitulation to the market. 'Some people...may wish to argue that the merits of restraining taxation and public spending are greater than the merits of reducing unemployment. But please let no one pretend there is no choice in these matters because we are helpless before the laws of economics.'

But this is exactly what Blair is saying, and he isn't mincing his words. This makes the union leadership squirm because they are worried about how they are going to carry this message with their members. It was no coincidence that the TUC conference ended both with the announcement of partnership deals, for example between unions and management at the millennium dome site, and a campaign for building unions in non-union workplaces. The TUC has to be seen to be doing more than talking partnership with management. It has got to remember the basics of recruitment and building organisation.

The promised white paper on union recognition for workplaces with more than 50 percent membership was Blair's spoonful of sugar for the rest of his message. But Joanne Brewster, a worker from Critchley Labels currently on strike, asked, 'What will the penalties be if management illegally refuse to recognise the union? Tony Blair doesn't want to offend employers but he has to remember that the trade unions fund his party and there are more workers than employers.'

The experience of the US shows up the weaknesses of relying on legislation alone to build unions. Of the private sector workers covered by legislation similar to that proposed in Britain only 11 percent are unionised. This figure is actually lower than in 1935 when the legislation was introduced, and lower than unionisation rates in Britain and other parts of Europe today.

AFL-CIO leader Douglas H Dority told the conference, to much applause, that 'real power comes from workers, not politicians, not the law'. He argued that trade unions must not follow the US example and 'wait for favourable laws before we organise'. He talked of how money had to be invested into recruitment. This is a point that needs to be taken on board by unions who often budget ten times as much on their conference as on recruitment.

The setting up of a TUC academy to train young people to go out and unionise workers is a welcome step, but history has shown that workers join unions in the biggest numbers when they fight back, when they organise opposition to management attacks, and when they go on the offensive. Unfortunately there was little sign from the TUC leadership that this is part of their strategy.

But there is no doubt that the election of Labour has created a mood of expectation. For example, in contrast to Blair's blunt message, foreign secretary Robin Cook made a fraternal and well received speech at the conference in which he referred to the 'legitimate aspirations' of trade unionists. Such talk can increase workers' confidence to fight for what is rightfully theirs. The applause that greeted any speaker who talked of the old values of the trade union movement, of defending jobs, of supporting workers in struggle like the Liverpool dockers (who were refused permission to speak to conference) shows the potential is there.

It is up to socialists to offer an alternative to the talk of partnership and harness opposition to the welfare to work programme, the public spending limits, the Private Finance Initiative and the abolition of the student grant. Blair's high ratings in the opinion polls do not tell the whole story. The rumblings of discontent already visible are not about to go away.

Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page