A major theme of GMB congress has been the union’s relationship to Labour.
Outrage at the Tories and Lib Dems is immense. But there is still bitterness over the legacy of the last Labour government.
Some are angry at its record of privatisation. Others think Labour took the union movement for granted—and if it had listed to the unions more, the party may still be in office.
Some scars are raw.
Shadow chancellor Ed Balls spoke after Vince Cable’s car crash of an intervention, so it should have been easy. But while he received a polite enough reception, delegates were clearly wary.
Balls argued that George Osborne was creating a “vicious circle” by “cutting too far and too fast.”
He added, “That vicious circle is more people out of work, on benefits, making it harder to get the deficit down.”
It didn’t entirely inspire the audience. The prospect of shallow, slow cuts is less enticing to trade unionists than Balls thinks.
That Labour has hardly been inspiring in opposition may explain why, despite nominating Ed Miliband for Labour leader, some 90 percent of delegates thought he needed to do better.
Balls appealed for time. “I'm not saying ‘we’re getting it right and you guys just aren’t spotting we're getting it right’.
“We’ve got to be better. We’ve got to be the party of government that's currently in opposition but ready to get back. We’ve got to win the trust of people and that’s a really tough thing to do.
“If you look at the economy, where the Lib Dems support deep Conservative cuts, the voice against those deep cuts is me and the Labour Party.”
Balls’ attempts to re-engage with the grassroots were a little forced. Unable to say initially what part of the anti-union laws he would revoke, he stumbled towards cutting down on the over use of the courts in disputes.
There was probably too much defending the record of Labour rather than “listening” as “part of the mature relationship” that the current Labour spin describes.
And as is now compulsory for Labour politicians when talking about workers, “people’s worries about immigration” was dragged up yet again.
Balls argued, “We were too slow on the temporary and agency workers directive and we should have done more to manage the influx of labour from the EU.” Which is an unhelpful merging of issues to say the least.
So Labour’s re-engagement with the grassroots is a little halting. There is much New Labour and thinktank jargon—despite a consensus that New Labour is dead. Or as GMB general secretary Paul Kenny put it: “New Labour is as toxic a brand as Nick Clegg.”
But there’s confusion over what to replace it with.
At a fringe meeting, Labour MP Chuka Umunna insisted, “I want a good capitalism that works—not one where you are pitching worker against employer.”
Karen Buck MP emphasised what Labour had done right in office.
More interesting was Labour’s shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan. He did a better line—saying Labour wanted to listen and the unions had been ignored for too long.
But he always gave provisos in case there was any danger of a policy promise. Still, he said sorry a couple more times than he mentioned 'Blue Labour'.
GMB delegates, perhaps those most loyal to Labour, seem to want something more than listening. Mostly they want resistance to the government’s attacks.
Waiting five years for a vaguely different Labour government, while our public services are destroyed, is an unappetising prospect.
The anger of trade unionists is loud enough but the Labour leadership, for all the listening, just don’t seem to hear it.