It’s Monday at the GMB union’s annual conference in Brighton – and the air is thick with calls from senior Labour Party figures to strengthen workers’ rights and build more council housing.
The occasion is a hustings meeting for the Labour deputy leadership contest. All the candidates are worried about the Tories getting back into power. All are opposed to the fascist BNP. All are remarkably keen on trade unions.
Hazel Blears wants “fairness” and to unite the Labour Party. Harriet Harman wants to “win back the trust of the British public and rebuild the party”.
Peter Hain – who deftly mentions nearly every motion on the agenda of the GMB conference – wants to “reconnect the government to the grassroots and listen to trade union members more – listen, not lecture”.
Hilary Benn says he wants to champion “straightforward politics” and be proud of Labour and trade union campaigning. Alan Johnson says he believes that “long periods in government transform society” and he wants another term for Labour.
Jon Cruddas – the only deputy contender who isn’t currently in the cabinet – said the Labour Party has to change: “We have lost 200,000 members – that’s almost 500 a week. We need to rebuild the party.”
The candidates’ working class credentials and ties to the union movement are proudly displayed. Johnson was sacked from Tesco aged 16, Hain has been a member of the GMB for over three decades – and Blears met some shop workers once.
Everyone is against the unions having to ballot their members every ten years on the political fund. All the candidates came out in favour of the “fourth option” to directly fund council housing. Each candidate promises legislation to protect unions and help them organise more effectively.
Cruddas called for a rise in taxes on “the very rich” and promised to implement the Trade Union Freedom Bill. Harman put forward a new proposal for a law to give unions the automatic right to organise in firms – at present they have to win a ballot of more than half the workforce.
Hain promised a review of union laws, including a wider definition of the right to picket. Even Blears thinks the unions should have “a bit more of a say”. For Benn “the challenge is persuading people who are not in unions to join them”.
Bad old days
Johnson, however, warned that there could no going back to “the bad old days”. He warned, “I’m not here to tell you what you want to hear.” So he didn’t, adding, “We will not support secondary picketing and we told you that at the Warwick agreement.” But gone are the references to unions coming from “planet Zog”.
Cruddas won’t rule out renationalising utility companies. Not that radical – but everyone else does rule it out. Benn namedrops Nye Bevan as he explains why he is against nationalising utilities but for giving more aid to the Third World.
Asked if they supported the full implementation of the Corporate Manslaughter Bill, all the candidates say yes. But only Cruddas and Hain are in favour of the law including prosecution of company directors.
To loud applause Cruddas called for an end to the minimum wage youth rate so that workers were paid the same amount.
“A worker is a worker regardless of how old they are,” he declared. Hain acknowledged that “Jon Cruddas makes a powerful point”, but couldn’t quite manage to commit to it himself.
The war in Iraq is not high on the agenda of any of the candidates. Cruddas – who is now against the war – said that he wanted to “reconnect the party and rebuild confidence in the party over issue of Iraq”.
After the hustings the GMB executive met to pick their favourite. Some wanted Cruddas the left winger, others wanted Blears on the right. In the end, they picked Hain, who was neither and both.