NEW LABOUR loyalist Angela Eagle MP tried to launch a standing ovation from the observers’ gallery when Gordon Brown finished his TUC speech. She had to sit down in embarrassment. Not one other person rose to their feet. Polite applause petered out after 14 seconds. It was the worst-received speech by a Labour minister to the TUC since Blair became party leader.
Nothing could hide the disappointment among those union leaders who argue for ‘reclaiming Labour’. That strategy amounts to, at least initially, replacing Tony Blair, the man who took us to war, with Gordon Brown, the man who paid for it.
Derek Simpson, the left wing general secretary of manufacturing union Amicus, said immediately after Brown’s speech, ‘He mentioned the ‘pro-business, pro-enterprise agenda’ three times. ‘That means no end to the haemorrhage of manufacturing jobs, no end to the widening gap between rich and poor, no comfort for manufacturing workers and communities.’
Later Simpson moderated that criticism. Most union leaders, including most of the new generation from the left, are clinging to the idea that their link to the Labour Party is the way to get a Labour government that meets the aspirations of working people. For them, Gordon Brown is at least a staging post to ending the reign of New Labour. But Brown’s speech revealed the flaw in focusing on him as an alternative to New Labour.
‘There’s now a raft of left wing union policies,’ a GMB union delegate told Socialist Worker. ‘But are the unions going to fight at the Labour Party conference for them? I’m sure there’ll be speeches and votes, and we may even win some. But when I listen to my members we should really be talking about humiliating Blair. No one should applaud him. We should protest.’ The biggest fringe meeting at the TUC was organised by the Stop the War Coalition.
Tony Woodley, general secretary of the TGWU, called on Blair to resign. He also pledged his union’s continuing support for anti-war MP George Galloway, who faces expulsion from the Labour Party in four weeks time. Galloway, speaking immediately after Woodley, described the latest swathe of absurd charges levelled against him by the Labour Party, and how he faces a kangaroo court on 22 October.
He said, ‘I am deeply committed to the ‘Reclaim the Labour Party’ campaign. ‘But if we cannot defend from expulsion one MP for speaking their mind, then the chances of reclaiming the party are slim indeed.’
THE SOCIALIST Alliance, which is campaigning for a left wing alternative to Labour, held its first fringe meeting at a TUC congress. There were 42 people in the audience, 32 of them TUC delegates, including a significant delegation of regional CWU union officers. Their members in the Post Office face a sharp confrontation with the government over pay.
‘This is a real step forward,’ said Paul Russell from the lecturers’ union Natfhe. ‘The effort we have thrown into the Stop the War movement has created a space to build a serious alternative to Labour even though the Liberals are opportunistically trying to corner the anti-war vote.’
Brian Munro, secretary of the RMT in London, outlined his union’s decision to allow backing for socialist candidates standing against New Labour. ‘We need a political voice,’ he said. ‘And I don’t see it coming from the bulk of Labour MPs.’
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the 300,000-strong PCS union, addressed the meeting. ‘We’ve got no problem supporting socialists like Labour MP John McDonnell,’ he said. ‘What we are asking of those who argue to reclaim the Labour Party is that they back us when we stand against the likes of defence secretary Geoff Hoon. The success of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) shows we can build a left alternative to Labour. Proportional representation is an issue. Without that the SSP would not have won six seats in the Scottish Parliament.’
In response to the majority of union leaders he added, ‘Saying we have to stick with Labour because there is no alternative is a self fulfilling prophecy. You will only get an alternative if you seriously build one.’
An earlier meeting to reclaim the Labour Party had attracted 72 people. Speakers included Mick Rix of Aslef, CWU general secretary Billy Hayes and TGWU assistant general secretary Barry Camfield. They argued that a political alternative to Blair could only come through the Labour Party, and rejected any move to democratise unions’ political funds to allow backing for socialists outside as well as within Labour. Speakers welcomed the successes of the left in the conference.
But what was on offer politically was a ‘long hard slog, taking years’ inside the Labour Party. RMT general secretary Bob Crow issued a challenge that went unanswered: ‘How can anyone tell my members who have just been privatised by Labour on London Underground that they should vote for the New Labour candidate in the London mayor election next year instead of Ken Livingstone?’
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