Socialist Worker

Unions demand change, but Blair’s not for turning

by Matthew Cookson
Issue No. 1970

Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown

When Labour chairman Ian McCartney has to shut down a party national executive meeting in order to prevent it endorsing a conference motion backing union rights, you know Tony Blair’s grip is loosening.

The motion was then passed by 69 percent to 31 percent at the conference — one of Blair’s biggest ever conference defeats.

But the arrogance of New Labour, whether in the shape of Brown or Blair, has no limits.

Alan Johnson, the trade and industry secretary, made it clear the government would ignore the decision.

“We could not go through the 1980s and 1990s only to emerge in the 1970s,” he said.

“Back then, this party supported secondary action and opposed the minimum wage. Now it’s the other way round, and that’s how it needs to stay.”

He also made it clear that the government would not abandon its opt-out from the European Union working time directive, which means that British workers work longer hours than European workers.

The vote on secondary action and union rights was not the only embarrassing moment for New Labour at their Brighton conference. Blair has never lost so many votes at one conference.

The four big trade unions affiliated to Labour — Unison, Amicus, the GMB and the T&G—united at the conference to attempt to stop New Labour’s pro-privatisation policies.

But New Labour leaders have made it clear that they will ignore these “misguided” conference votes, just as they have ignored decisions at previous conferences opposing NHS foundation trusts and supporting direct investment in council housing.

Many union leaders, such as Amicus’s Derek Simpson, have put their faith in chancellor Gordon Brown taking over from Tony Blair to bring about policies favouring Britain’s working people.

Brown, however, has different ideas. He spent his speech on Monday setting out his commitment to the free market and to continuing Blair’s legacy of “reform” when he becomes leader of the party.

Brown said, “The only future of the Labour Party is as the party of reform. We will not just inhabit the centre ground but dominate it.”

The media and the watering holes of Brighton were full of talk of a rift between Brown and Blair.

But what is at stake is little more than a difference in a turn of phrase and a few ministerial careers.

Blair has made it clear he wants to cement his pro-market legacy by extending the private sector’s grip deeper into health, education and other public services.

Brown may spit with anger for the next two years waiting for his neighbour to quit Number 10 but he will slavishly support Blair’s “unremittingly New Labour” agenda just as he does now over the Iraq war.

The fact that Blair looks more and more like yesterday’s man is down to the unremitting opposition to the Iraq war and the relentless campaigning of the Stop the War movement.

If we had waited on Gordon Brown or Labour backbenchers to act over Iraq Blair would not be in the mess he is today over his war alongside Bush.

There is a lesson there but it is not one of waiting for Gordon or holding to pipe dreams about reclaiming a party whose grassroots are simply discounted.

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Sat 1 Oct 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1970
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