'A DEFINING moment in the history of the labour movement.' That is how the bosses' Financial Times described the shock defeat of Tony Blair's closest trade union ally, Sir Ken Jackson of Amicus. Jackson was finally forced to concede victory to his left wing opponent Derek Simpson last week.
That wasn't the only setback Blair suffered last week as the discontent brewing against New Labour's pro-business policies burst into the open. Hundreds of thousands of low paid council workers showed their strength and unity in the biggest national strike for decades.
Picket lines and protests erupted in cities and towns, both big and small, across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The strike brought together black and white, women and men, manual and white collar workers, in an angry and united display of solidarity. In London the council workers' strike was followed by a 24-hour stoppage, bringing the London Underground to a halt in a solid strike against privatisation.
The events of the last week have rattled the New Labour establishment in a way not seen since Labour came to office in 1997. The question now is what our response should be. It is clear all these struggles are about much more than the immediate issues of pay and working conditions. They are also a sign of a political shift and a much wider mood against the whole direction of the New Labour government.
Millions of workers in Britain have had enough of the way New Labour sucks up to big business, while workers face low pay and increased workloads. They are sick of Blair's worship of market capitalism, as rents and mortgage repayments soar sky high, and pensions are gambled away on the stockmarkets. The worst thing we could do in this situation is to go quiet. We need to keep up the pressure on Blair and New Labour.
We need more strikes and protests, and we need to strengthen and deepen the resistance to Blair. That means building the maximum possible unity with everyone who supports the strikes and is opposed to government policies. But within that movement there also needs to be an argument about the best way forward.
Some on the Labour left argued at a conference last weekend (see report on page 13) that the shift to the left means the trade unions need to strengthen their links with the Labour Party.
Meanwhile Blair met union leaders hoping to get more money to offset the Labour Party's huge financial crisis. With the stockmarkets slumping, New Labour's business cronies are not so keen to stump up donations. Yet it would be wrong to give Labour more money at the very same time as it is attacking council workers and pushing ahead with more privatisation.
We need to keep up the fight to democratise the trade unions' political funds. Union members should be able to decide to give money not only to Labour, but to a range of parties which genuinely reflect their unions' policies.
We also need to keep up pressure on trade union leaders to call more action. That means building links between workers on a rank and file level everywhere there has been council workers on strike, and where engineers and electricians have voted for Derek Simpson.
We don't know how things will pan out over the next few months. But we do know that in unprecedented numbers people are beginning to challenge not only Tony Blair but the priorities of the capitalist system he defends. The challenge is to link up these people, and to build the biggest possible left wing alternative to New Labour.
This means working together to:
Make the next council workers' strike on Wednesday 14 August as big and militant as possible.
Start preparing for the demonstration on 28 September against Bush and Blair's war on Iraq.
Mobilise support for the anti-capitalist European Social Forum in Florence from 7 to 10 November.