Socialist Worker

Scottish TUC conference marks growing tensions between unions and Labour

by Neil Davidson
Issue No. 2099

This year's Scottish TUC annual conference was a showcase for the debates taking place within the trade union movement over political representation.

Gordon Brown was invited to address the opening session. His appearance was only made public the day before in order to prevent demonstrations.

Nevertheless he was greeted by a protest from the PCS civil service workers' union delegation, which held up placards calling for fair pay for public sector workers at the start of his speech.

The speech was the usual collection of empty platitudes ('better together than apart') and illogical scaremongering that now characterise his performances in front of labour movement audiences.

Although at least some of the delegates had been primed to give him a fake standing ovation at the end, there was virtually no response to anything in the speech itself.

Another leading Labour figure, Wendy Alexander, was also wheeled out to address the conference.

In a truly surreal speech, the leader of Labour's Scottish MSPs reaffirmed Labour's left wing credentials against the supposedly right wing policies of the Scottish National Party (SNP) administration.

Most of us had previously failed to notice the socialist convictions burning below the surface of a politician best known as the embodiment of neoliberalism.

Alexander's speech is an indication of Labour's desperation. The fact is that although the SNP is working within the same neoliberal economic consensus, in social terms they have introduced more reforms in the last 12 months than Labour did in the previous eight years.

Opposition

The SNP was not invited to address Congress while they were in opposition, of course, but the general council could scarcely refuse Alex Salmond the chance to do so as first minister.

Salmond is as consummate a performer as Brown is inept, reflecting his political self-confidence and the accurate perception that Labour is in disarray.

He was able to announce that the hospital complex currently being built in Govan in Glasgow – the biggest in the entire history of the NHS – will be built entirely with public funds, rather than PFI or any compromise with private capital.

In marked contrast to Brown's reception, Salmond drew applause for this and for his condemnation of the 'illegal and immoral war in Iraq' and 'weapons of mass destruction' – Trident.

The STUC general council still has no strategy for putting demands on the SNP government. The reason for this refusal is what might be called the dangers of success.

If the SNP introduced reforms supported by the STUC, the former could plausibly claim to be more radical than Labour in Scotland. But it would also raise the question of why it is so difficult for Labour across Britain – with access to far greater resources and powers – to do similar.

The STUC's fear of putting pressure on Labour is at the root of their reluctance to put pressure on the SNP, whatever the cost to members of affiliated trade unions.

The STUC is split into a still-dominant wing of diehard Labour supporters apparently prepared to cling to the wreckage of Labourism no matter what, and a more pragmatic or – in a small minority of cases – principled socialist wing who are prepared to put the interests of their members first.

In Scotland, the contradictions thrown up by the SNP government are likely to become more intense, allowing the opportunities for socialists to argue for both a break with Labour and a strategy to put pressure on the SNP, to test the limits of its radicalism.

Neil Davidson was a PCS union delegate to the STUC. He writes here in a personal capacity.


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Tue 29 Apr 2008, 18:01 BST
Issue No. 2099
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