Socialist Worker

Is Labour still the only game in town?

A debate is raging in the trade unions about what sort of relationship to have with Labour. Key figures took up the debate at a fringe meeting at last week’s TUC conference on whether the Labour Party can be reclaimed

Issue No. 1920

Tony Woodley, general secretary of the TGWU union

A COUPLE of years ago I’d have said it would be difficult or unlikely that we could make the kind of gains we are beginning to see.

A year ago you saw people like me being vilified for raising policies like a pension protection scheme to defend workers from losing their pensions when companies go bust.

Twelve months on and it is now Labour Party policy. We have seen some really important changes and victories.

The big task now is not to decry the fightback that’s started.

It’s an important time to realise that everyone is working as hard as possible to win a change of direction in the Labour Party.

That’s true of organisations like the Labour Representation Committee or the leaders of the big four unions, which decided not to get involved in it directly.

For the first time we have seen every union affiliated to Labour stick together.

We haven’t made enough or sufficient progress. But we should not underestimate what we achieved at Labour’s National Policy Forum in Warwick in July.

There were real gains that can go some way to reinvigorating party members.

Let’s not forget the party and the unions are like the church running out of parishioners.

But we cannot lose sight of one crucial thing—we have to be in power to make a difference.

When you look at things like the sacking of 100,000 civil servants it’s unbelievable. Other policies are just unbelievable.

But it’s nothing compared with the disaster of the Tories getting back.

The Warwick agreement wasn’t just about the unions. It was about our party.

We have been accused of selling out at Warwick—what a load of rubbish.

Warwick will go down as being a watershed because it showed they had no choice but to treat us with respect.

A lot of the demoralisation among party members is associated with this illegal, immoral war that this lunatic has led us into. But there is also the whole issue of rights at work.

We are going to see our government in the European courts over that issue.

We need changes to the law to allow my Jaguar workers to fight back.

Ford is announcing the closure of the Coventry plant with not one word of consultation with any union in this country.

But this is not a time to be dispirited. It’s a time to be vibrant about what we have started to achieve in the Labour Party.

If someone had said a year ago we would make this kind of progress, I’d have told them they need a brain scan.

Mark Serwotka general secretary of the PCS civil service union

MY starting point is that there is more that unites us than divides us.

That is true for those pursuing the campaign to reclaim the Labour Party and those of us who are not. We need to unite around all the issues and fights we face.

We can all here agree on what is wrong with this Labour government. But it is worth reminding ourselves of two of the worst things.

The anti-union laws remain fundamentally in place, and this government has taken us to war seven times since 1997.

Of course, presented with a choice between a Labour government and a Tory government, we do not want the Tories. But if you are, for example, a PCS member at the moment you are asking fundamental questions.

The Tories want to axe 200,000 jobs. Labour is cutting 104,500 jobs.

It does not feel like there is much of a difference if you are about to be sacked.

The question is whether we always want to be restricted to that choice. That’s what I ask when I look at my kids, aged nine and seven.

And here there is a debate. Yesterday the TUC unanimously backed the fight to defend civil service jobs.

But at the general council dinner last night Labour Party chairman Ian McCartney did not even mention the job cuts—yet, with some exceptions, he received a standing ovation.

I would have no problem supporting John McDonnell and the other left wing MPs who have spoken out.

But if I lived in east London and George Galloway of Respect was standing, I do not see why people should vote for Labour’s Oona King.

I hope the Labour Representation Committee does well. In return I ask others to accept there are those of us who are following another way.

We will all back left MPs standing, but I hope you will accept that where credible alternatives to New Labour candidates are emerging they should get support. Not accepting that will lead to the politics of sectarianism and lead us down blind alleys.

It was depressing that after the Millwall by-election there were attacks from the left on those who stood against Labour —and beat it to come second.

People used to say in Scotland there could never be an alternative to Labour. But after the success of the Scottish Socialist Party it is inconceivable to go to Glasgow and say, “Support Labour against Tommy Sheridan.”

If we don’t manage to take the debate forward we face the danger of being in the same position in five years time with the same limited choice.

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Sat 25 Sep 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1920
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