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Billy Hayes: A fruitful time ahead

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Billy Hayes, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union (CWU), spoke to Socialist Worker as part of our series on the future for the left.
Issue 1857

How do you assess the growth of the anti-war movement and the opportunities for the left?

‘History is not dead. It’s very much alive. The anti-war movement changed British politics and produced a new generation of activists. It’s issues like this that make people want to get involved in socialist and campaigning activity.

‘I could see that the members of our union who came on those protests were certainly not just the seasoned activists. There’s a new level of activity in both the anti-war movement and the anti-globalisation movement. The movement for peace and the movement for global social justice have become almost interchangeable.

‘The level of trade union involvement in the anti-war movement was at a much higher level compared to even the Vietnam War, let alone the other wars under Thatcher and the present government.’

How can we build on those successes?

‘We should now be deepening and developing the structures of the movement that were built during the war. One task is to work to end the occupation of Iraq and to achieve just peace in the Middle East. Certainly there’s a possibility of further linking up to an anti-globalisation and anti-imperialist movement.

‘We need some kind of political programme that we can all agree on. The proposals in George Monbiot’s new book are interesting because they raise the sort of debates we need about a programme that a broad range of people are happy to sign up to. We need imagination and flexibility.

‘It is possible to hold together a broad movement but the left has traditionally been expert in not holding things together. That’s true whether it is the Socialist Alliance or the left inside the Labour Party. We have our high points but then we fracture and split.

‘I’m quite happy to work with people inside and outside the Labour Party on specific projects. That’s practical and good politics and we’ve done that in the past, even if only for short periods. It’s possible in the future. All of this is urgent because there is now a real fragility about Blair. This can be a very fruitful time for the left.

‘The issue of weapons of mass destruction will haunt this government. There is perhaps a bit of a parallel with Suez in 1956. Prime minister Eden didn’t go immediately after Suez, but the issue became a fault line which defined everything else.

‘New Labour now also seems to be at the stage where once one thing goes wrong then everything seems to go wrong.’

Some people think that it’s the time to create a left alternative outside the Labour Party. What’s your view?

‘I am strongly of the belief that the job of socialists is to reclaim the Labour Party and to win it back to policies that reflect the agenda of trade unions and working people. I don’t believe that anything else is viable.

‘We’ve seen in Wales that Labour can have a more left wing set of policies and that this ‘clear red water’ – no foundation hospitals, no SATs tests, free prescriptions, free travel for pensioners and the disabled – is popular with the voters.

‘Of course I recognise the limitations of what Rhodri Morgan has done, but it’s certainly an improvement on what has come from the government. The CWU has been directly involved in helping that to come about in Wales. Why can’t we win these policies more widely?

‘The weakness of Blairism today shows there is the chance for change if trade unionists play their part in shaping the sort of Labour Party we need. I can understand people like George Galloway feeling political and personal frustration about the way they have been treated. The CWU conference called for his suspension to be lifted.

‘But none of these issues are a reason to walk away from Labour. You have to recognise that most working class people, at least those who are politically interested, see Labour as in some sense their party. With all due respect, the successes of people outside Labour have been limited, very limited. It is not easy to create a mass party.

‘People who are outside the Labour Party on the left should take note that the pressure to break the link is coming very strongly from the other side through the issue of state funding.

‘That would shatter the link between the unions and Labour and snuff out the very important idea of linking together the economic issues with the political voice. It’s not tenable to think that the unions can simply disaffiliate from Labour and then affiliate to another social democratic or socialist party. Instead of questioning the link I think the real issue is to defend the link but also to make it work much better.

‘We can win democratic changes within the Labour Party. The Unison union have said the present way inner-party democracy is organised is not workable and they want to change it. I imagine that will also be the view of the CWU and other important unions. If you listen to Dave Prentis and Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson then you can see the chance for the unions to get involved in some coordination to press their policy agenda.

‘We want joined-up thinking so that the trade union group on the NEC reflect trade unionists’ views. If the unions had been at one pressing for George Galloway’s readmission then they could have caused a real stir.

‘It is true that a lot of constituency parties are virtually shells so there’s the opportunity for trade unionists to become involved and play a part. The left in the party is going through a hard time. But we’ve been here before in terms of the party. Remember when Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald formed a government with the Tories in 1931. At that time the unions played a key role in winning the party back to being a successful Labour Party that was capable of delivering the reforms of 1945. There’s no reason why we can’t get it back again.

‘But I recognise that not everyone is of my view and I want to stress that both in the union movement and the wider political arena it is central to work together on initiatives in a non-sectarian way, in a united front.’

What is happening in the unions at the moment?

‘The election of left wing leaders in the unions is part of a wider process. The members of the political class are more and more out of touch. So are sections of the trade union movement.

‘Workers are reacting against what Larry Elliott calls the ‘age of insecurity’. They want more job security, more regulations to limit what companies can do. No candidate for office now says they support the Blair project – it would be the kiss of death. That really tells you about the mood in the unions.’

One of the tests for the ‘awkward squad’ and, in particular, for Andy Gilchrist, was the firefighters’ strike. How do you assess the outcome?

‘I think it shows the need for an overall political agenda and united action. I haven’t yet been able to study the full details of the settlement, but I’d say it’s not a defeat. There is a significant wage rise, although there are clearly issues about ‘modernisation’. The battle is not yet over. There is a further round to come over local station closures, jobs and cutbacks in the service.

‘The TUC must be part of those battles to defend the fire service. Certainly the CWU is prepared to take part in alliances at a local level to defend stations and services.

‘The strike showed it’s not enough just to rely on Labour ministers to deliver a fair settlement. You have to know who your friends are. I’d like to see the TUC play a much more active and mobilising role. Remember the TUC unanimously backed the firefighters and unanimously, twice, found the case for war unproven.

‘But it didn’t lead to action. It was a mistake for the TUC not to take part in the anti-war protests. Perhaps TUC leaders feared cutting themselves off from union members. In fact they were cutting themselves off by NOT taking part. If 65 percent or so of the population were against the war then at least that percentage of union members, perhaps more, were against.

‘I was in Germany just before the start of the war during the European TUC action and Deutsche Post workers stopped for 15 minutes as part of a protest against war. We could have done that here. Sections of the TUC are on yesterday’s agenda. As trade unionists from the left we have to raise political issues but also deliver on what might be called the day to day questions.

‘I think we’ve done that by, for example, stopping the outsourcing of cash handling in the Post Office after a strike vote by our members. We can also show the connections between the general issue of globalisation and what neo-liberalism means for the workforce in telecoms and the Post Office. The issue of BT jobs going to India is one example. Another is the way regulators are being introduced in the public sector.

‘We have to both fight the BNP and address an issue like the way broadband connection has been left to the market. We can win sometimes. We should not be downhearted. The war took place but, as US forces are finding to their cost, Iraq is more and more unstable.

‘The people in power are not as strong as they look. I remember the scene in the film of The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy at the end discovers the wizard is not such a frightening figure. There are powerful enemies we face but they are not unbeatable. We can make a difference, but we have to keep up the pressure.

Billy Hayes will be joining a forum at Marxism 2003 on Life after capitalism Friday 11 July at 10.30am

Where do you think the movement goes from here? Let us know at [email protected]

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