Gordon Brown announced that he will cut public services and jobs at the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in Liverpool this week.
“Labour will cut costs, cut inefficiencies, cut unnecessary programmes and cut lower priority budgets,” Brown said. But it is workers who will really suffer the brunt of his assault on public services and jobs.
Business secretary Lord Mandelson set out the plans on Monday, deploying anti-Tory rhetoric while laying the ground for the cuts.
Yes, it is the case that the Tories are looking forward to slashing and burning services and jobs.
But Mandelson, while attacking the Tories, seemed to forget who has been in power, managing the economy and attacking public services for the past dozen years.
New Labour has pushed through more privatisation and outsourcing than Margaret Thatcher ever dared dream of.
Brown was speaking to the union leaders because he wants them to get on board with his plans and calm the emerging rebellion over cuts until after the election at the very least.
So the threat of the Tories on the way is used to stall any criticisms of the government.
Derek Simpson, the joint general secretary of Unite said, “We are eight months away from a Tory government with probably a landslide facing us and all the havoc they will wreak on our movement.”
He said Labour could still win but that it needed a change of attitude and approach, because “unless we reconnect with those people that have turned away that’s not going to happen”.
But Simpson attacked those who wanted to withdraw union funding from Labour or create new parties, saying that they would only increase the likelihood of a Tory victory.
GMB general secretary Paul Kenny took a similar attitude.
He said the unions had told Brown, “If you follow this toe-rag [Tory leader David Cameron] down the path of trying the jingoism of attacking public sector spending, you are finished.
“Frankly, you are finished not only as a political force, you are finished as a human being.”
Kenny also urged union members to stick with Labour, on the basis that “a poor Labour government is a hell of a lot better than a poor Tory government”.
The tension between the union leaders’ loyalty to Brown and the stark reality of the anger over the attacks on their members’ livelihoods was summed up by Dave Prentis, the general secretary of the Unison public sector union.
He said, “It’s not just about a Labour government warning us that the Tories will cut spending.
“We know that. It’s about Labour convincing us that it will not do the same.
“It’s not just about warning us that the Tories will privatise all our public services. We know that. It’s about convincing us that Labour will not.”
Prentis said he would “not allow our public service members to pay the price for bailing out the banks”.
The question is, what are the union leaders going to do?
Resolutions at the TUC come and go. Unanimous votes to defend pensions and public services are all for the good. The question is, what action is going to take place to carry out that defence?
Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the PCS civil service workers’ union, said, “Yes, a Tory government would be disastrous. Yes, a Tory government would deliver an onslaught on the public sector. But the reality is, so would a Labour government.”
Serwotka urged unions to unite and fight for an alternative, which was “not to cut public spending, but to collect taxes. It’s about making the rich pay their share.”
The growing pressure inside the CWU postal and telecom workers union over Labour funding led it to table a motion at the TUC conference to be discussed towards the end of the conference.
The motion calls on the TUC general council “to convene a conference of all affiliated unions to consider how to achieve effective political representation for our members”.
The union leaders cannot keep avoiding the issue of Labour.
But the question is whether the scale of resistance is enough to stop the attacks now – and the ones both the Tories and Labour are planning.
In the public sector, councils are pushing ahead with cuts. They aren’t waiting until after the election. So the resistance to the government can’t wait either.
Tower Hamlets College workers, and Leeds refuse workers and street cleaners are taking indefinite strike action to defend their jobs. These struggles are where the union movement needs to look for inspiration.
Then there is the huge battle over the future of the post office and the emerging wave of occupations to stop job cuts.
We need to encourage, support and provide real solidarity for every struggle.
But, as the post workers are discovering, we also need to make a break from loyalty to Labour.
The first step is to take the message of no cuts now or in the future to the protest at Labour Party conference in Brighton on 27 September.