Socialist Worker

Who led who up the garden path?

Issue No. 1912

WHO IS right? Trade union leaders emerged from last weekend’s Labour Policy Forum with broad smiles. They claimed to have achieved a “significant shift” in Labour’s stand over pensions, employment rights and jobs.

Derek Simpson of the Amicus union called it a “radical agenda”. Tony Woodley of the Transport and General Workers Union told us it was “a manifesto the whole party can unite behind”.

Yet the Financial Times ran an editorial asking, “Has Labour been getting back into bed with the unions, or are the unions simply being led on?” Their answer was rather different to Woodley and Simpson’s.

“Labour’s friends in business can be assured that, for now, the answer appears to be the latter. Labour’s commitment to maintain the trade union legislation of the Thatcher governments remains unsullied.”

New Labour’s media machine had earlier assured the paper that “none of the red lines has been crossed”.

So who is right? The unions scored two minor victories over New Labour—a promise to tighten up statutory holiday regulations and an extension to restrictions on sacking striking workers.

Children of Thatcher

The Financial Times rightly dismissed these measures as “symbolic concessions”.

The real message to those in Labour’s ranks wanting radical change came with Blair’s appointment of Peter Mandelson to the European Commission. Blair was putting two fingers up to his critics.

His strategy is simple. The Tories cannot recover in time to win the next election, nor can the Liberal Democrats take away enough Labour seats.

Labour backbenchers have swallowed war on Iraq, the introduction of tuition fees and much more—they can be discounted.

Now Woodley, Simpson and the “less than awkward squad” have fallen into line.

Blair and his circle do not even care that Labour’s membership is at its lowest level since the 1930s. If Labour’s traditional base dissolves it will make it easier to move to a US political system where “choice” is between two parties bankrolled by big business.

Carry on regardless is how Downing Street sees it. Carry on with full-blooded free market policies, support for Bush and more authoritarian measures aimed at those who New Labour labels “yobs”. These are the children of Thatcher and Blair’s Britain. Let them binge on alcohol and then serve them with Anti-Social Behaviour Orders.

While trade union leaders were asking us to unite to re-elect Blair, New Labour was preparing to take on the PCS civil service union. Some union leaders might calculate that, if they allow Blair to gorge on the PCS, he will be satisfied. But as we explain on page 16, this is the prelude to a full-scale assault on all public sector workers and the pension rights of all.

Blair believes he has faced down his opponents. Judged on the performance of Labour MPs and the outcome of the Policy Forum he might be right. But that is not the only arithmetic at work.

Opposition to the occupation of Iraq and the lies we were fed is growing. That opposition was built from the grassroots up. Over the coming weeks and months we have to do the same to ensure the PCS do not stand alone. We need to connect that with opposition to the occupation of Iraq.

All of that points to building a radical political alternative to Labour. Across Britain millions of people feel no one speaks for them. They want representation. That is the task facing Respect.

We have to carry the spirit of resistance into the working class communities Blair and New Labour write off.

The tinder is there for rebellion to catch fire across British society. We need to spark the flames of resistance—on the streets, electorally and on the shopfloor.

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What We Think
Sat 31 Jul 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1912
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