TONY WOODLEY, the newly elected general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), laid into New Labour at the union’s conference in Brighton this week. He accused the government of surrendering to big business. He made a devastating criticism of Alan Johnson, former leader of the CWU union, who is now a New Labour minister.
He accused Johnson of surrendering ‘to the fat cats on every issue going’. The tone of his speech contrasted with that of retiring TGWU general secretary Bill Morris. Although Morris called for a review of the union’s links to the Labour Party, the core of his speech was an argument against those who say unions should cut their funds if the government flies in the face of union policies. The response to Morris from delegates was muted, with limited applause and no standing ovation.
Like Morris, Woodley also argues for the need to reclaim the Labour Party. He has declared his intention to help shape a new campaign by key centre left unions to reclaim Labour and head off attempts to argue for union support for political parties to the left of Labour.
But on the conference floor delegates repeatedly pointed to the government’s failure to measure up to the expectations of working class people. Motions critical of the government on issues from tuition fees to council housing sell-offs, from foundation hospitals to anti trade union laws were passed unanimously.
Delegate after delegate described the reality of Blair’s ‘flexible labour’ Britain – insecurity, long hours and miserable low pay.
John Childs said, ‘We used to talk about the campaign to repeal the Tories’ anti trade union laws. Now we have to talk about Labour’s anti-union laws.’ John Cashman from London told delegates, ‘The Labour government of 1964 brought in anti-union legislation. It was actually supposed to be a left wing government. But the difference between that government and this one is really the response of the trade unions. In the 1960s the TGWU led a hard struggle against the anti-union laws. Today, the union is not playing the role we expect it to in campaigning to repeal this legislation.’
In a debate about the privatisation of public services, a delegate pointed out that Labour was ‘restoring the worst Thatcherism of the 1980s, forcing workers to fight a never-ending battle against privatisation.’
Annie Brenton told the conference, ‘Foundation hospitals are a great threat to the health service. This is a hugely flawed scheme which will mean a two-tier healthcare system.’ And some delegates were clearly out of patience with waiting for Labour to deliver. Ian Bruce told delegates, ‘If the government won’t listen, we should squeeze them by their tender bits until they do.’
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