By Mark Serwotka
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Building an alternative to New Labour

This article is over 14 years, 5 months old
As Gordon Brown's neoliberal attacks on workers intensify, Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS civil servants' union, outlines his vision for a fighting left in Britain today
Issue 321

The Tories, once thought by many to have been consigned to opposition for at least a generation, are gaining in the polls. The genuine hope that Labour would begin the long overdue process of reversing the effects of 18 years of Tory rule brought their 1997 landslide victory. But ten years on there is widespread disappointment and, arguably, we have a government in crisis. Gordon Brown has replaced Tony Blair – but with little evident effect or result in terms of government direction. Attacks on low paid public servants, massive inequality between rich and poor, privatisation, war and sleaze all continue.

This sense of disappointment has led to a real debate within the trade unions and those on the left about how to defend ourselves industrially from the effects of Labour’s policies and, secondly, what can be done in the political arena to challenge the new pro-business, anti welfare state consensus that all three main parties are now signed up to.

When this debate takes place, the question quickly turns to the existing political choices that we have. Every time I meet government ministers and raise the problems trade unionists and public sector workers (particularly civil servants) face, the response is the same. I’ve heard it from two of the most senior figures in the government and from some in the TUC general council – that, no matter how bad it is for workers under this Labour government, the Tories would be worse.

This contradiction – that we have to accept pay cuts, privatisation and the running down of the welfare state, because otherwise we’ll get a Tory government that will cut pay, privatise and destroy the welfare state – must be confronted. It hamstrings our opposition to the attacks upon us. My experience is that more and more workers are rejecting it.

When I look at the problems facing PCS members this is not surprising. Day to day we are coming under increasing pressure in the workplace. The recent Comprehensive Spending Review announced cuts of £30 billion across Whitehall departmental budgets. This comes on top of a so-called “efficiency programme” that has seen tens of thousands of jobs lost in job centres, benefit offices, pension centres, local tax offices and other service delivery points. These cuts are seriously damaging the basic provision of public services.

Churches in Stirling recently gave out 134 food vouchers to people who were entitled to social security payments, but couldn’t get them because there weren’t enough staff working in the Department for Work and Pensions. Crisis loans, by definition the most urgent social security payment, should be dealt with urgently. But they were taking five weeks because of 40,000 civil service job cuts.

Those job cuts mean the government cannot deliver new programmes for the long term unemployed and lone parents. So contracts are given to charities and private sector companies, who will be paid by results. Profit will be made delivering welfare to the most vulnerable and needy people in our society.

This is not George Bush’s America. It’s not even the Tory Britain of the 1980s. This is a Labour government, a decade into power, asking charities to deliver the welfare state. It is the reality faced by PCS members who want to deliver a better service but are not permitted to.

It is replicated across health, education and local government. People are dying of infections in hospitals because they’re not clean, due to privatisation and lack of investment. In Belfast a school built under a Private Finance Initiative contract lasting 25 years will soon shut because of low pupil numbers. But, because the education authority has signed a contract lasting 25 years, it will continue to pay up to £400,000 every year to a contractor to operate a school that will not actually exist.

After criticising privatisation and outsourcing in central government as a waste of taxpayers’ money, Labour has now privatised and outsourced more work from central government to the private sector than the previous 18 years of Tory government.

At the same time, Labour tells public sector workers that they are the cause of inflation. Many PCS members need to take a second job, never have a holiday, and worry at night about which bill to pay. Yet they are expected to take pay cuts while billions are paid in City bonuses, and the average pay of the FTSE top 100 directors has risen from £2 million to £3 million in a year.

The only honest conclusion that can be reached from a consideration of these examples is that they represent a commitment to neoliberal ideology, and are not just isolated acts of political expediency designed to keep the Tories from regaining the initiative. It is not surprising that people are rejecting the notion that New Labour is as good as politics can get. Our task is, first, to map out a strategy to defend ourselves from the immediate attacks and, secondly, to articulate something better which is politically achievable.

It is clear to any activist that we need industrial unity to fight the attacks that union members face. When I speak at rallies of public sector trade unionists, many of them – lecturers, health workers, teachers, civil servants, local government workers or firefighters from across the range of unions – say to me that if the government attacks us all we should collectively stand up and defend ourselves.

For example, the government’s public sector pay policy of limiting increases to 2 percent applies across the board. The public sector unions of the TUC have agreed to launch a campaign involving documents and leaflets to say that the pay limits are not fair. But we need more than that. The response must be one of united, joint action. In 2005 such a response successfully stopped cuts in public sector workers’ pensions. We need that approach again over pay.

Unfortunately, some unions focus on the barriers to joint action, like a supposed need for agreement on action among unions in each part of the public sector, such as health or education, before coordinated action across the whole public sector should be contemplated. But we don’t just want to hear about the problems; we need to find the solutions. The impact of all public sector workers on the picket line on the same day would be huge. If they can do it in France, we can do it in Britain.

Many workers are prepared to fight. All around I see inspiration, people in small and large disputes prepared to struggle and vote for action. CWU members in our postal services showed that they were not cowed, taking days of strike action, and not just official action. It was heroic for workers to take unofficial strike action in Liverpool, saying: we will not be bullied by the boss and we don’t care what people say; we are on the picket line.

But united industrial resistance, though critically important, is not enough.

Political change

As well as industrial unity, we need political unity which breaks the consensus around the failed, tired old politics of the main parties. Without ending that consensus we may win industrial victories but that won’t stop employers coming back year after year. To make our advances stick, we need political change and we need to inspire people to believe that is possible.

Gordon Brown recently told Labour’s National Policy Forum, “None of us in any party should want a politics increasingly defined as a chase for money instead of a contest of ideas.” It was probably the only audience who would not respond with a gale of cynical laughter. All three main parties agree on handing over more public services to private profiteers. All three have taken large sums from wealthy individuals with dubious pasts. And all seem to agree that breaking the link between unions and the Labour Party is a necessary part of any reform of political funding – despite the fact that, as the prime minister admits, union political funds are unique in being free of abuse.

In the unions there is a need to tackle those who say that loyalty to Labour must be our absolute and overriding priority. That is at the heart of everything we are up against. We must make it clear that acceptance of the Labour leadership’s arrogant belief that they can tell us that, no matter what, every five years we will have to vote Labour, because otherwise we’ll get the Tories, invites them to become more right wing, more neoliberal, to make more and more cuts.

My overriding priority is defending PCS members who are being kicked from pillar to post, regardless of which party is attacking them. I am in no doubt that the 2005 PCS ballot on setting up a political fund was won, in part, because we would not donate or affiliate to any political party – including Labour.

We are using the political fund in the PCS Make Your Vote Count campaign. This is truly radical because it treats all parties (except the fascists) the same. It gives everybody equal access and allows local candidates to tell their constituents where they stand – on public services, on pay, on privatisation. We then publish the answers, let them speak for themselves and let our members decide where their vote should go. In the run up to the council, GLA and mayoral elections in May, we have written to other non-affiliated public sector unions asking them to join us in this. I hope that at least some of them do.

We should be arguing more vocally for proportional representation. A few years ago the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) gave us proof that with a fairer electoral system people will vote for radical policies. Six SSP MSPs were elected in the Scottish Parliament, as well as five Greens – meaning 10 percent of the parliament in Scotland was made up of people who were on the left. If it can happen in Scotland, then it can elsewhere. Proportional representation would break the stranglehold of the three main parties on political life and give a voice to the millions who want something better.

Even under the existing electoral system we have seen the election of George Galloway as an MP, of Respect councillors in Preston and east London, and other socialist and independent candidates elsewhere. That has given people hope and inspiration.

But these advances are limited in scope. We need to move on and build a stronger, unified approach, based on tolerance, on accepting difference, and on a core programme that addresses working class issues.

We have to confront the split nature of the left. On 17 November last year I found myself asked to speak to four competing left events in London. I spoke at three of them – the Labour Representation Committee, the Socialist Party and the Respect conference.

In doing so we must recognise that the current organisations on the left are not strong enough to challenge the prevailing political consensus. Crucially, we need the trade unions to be involved to give us a bedrock on which to build.

We have to confront the ridiculous contradiction of members striking one minute because they are attacked and the next minute funding the party that attacks them. We have to raise the argument that members’ political affiliation should be democratic and decided by members. Support should go to those candidates they think best represent their interests, whichever party they belong to.

Already we see the FBU and the RMT, no longer affiliated to Labour, looking around to see how they can take issues forward politically, possibly even standing and supporting candidates. In Liverpool there is the fantastic prospect of 15 FBU members standing in elections to the fire service authority.

The left in the Labour Party have an important role. Some people say that because their position in the Labour Party has been weakened – to the extent that John McDonnell could not get on the ballot paper for the leadership contest – they can be dismissed or simply told to leave the party. I believe that is wrong. We must work together.

But we have to understand the barriers that must be overcome. For those outside the Labour Party this means confronting the narrow mindedness which fails to recognise that candidates such as John McDonnell, consistent opponents of the policies of privatisation and cuts, must be supported. However, those on the Labour left must deal with the situation whereby they are expected to vote for every Labour candidate regardless of their politics or face expulsion. For example, we see Bob Wareing, a principled Liverpool MP who stood against the war, being prepared to stand as an independent after having Stephen Twigg, of all people, imposed as New Labour candidate in a working class constituency. Every socialist must surely know who to vote for in that contest. Our loyalty must be to our class, not to our party card.

Now is the time to take the debate in the trade union movement a step forward. We must reject the idea of blind support for New Labour regardless of the consequences for workers and the general public. We must organise industrial resistance to job losses, pay cuts and privatisation which unites workers in different unions. And we must ask how we can seriously address the political question of building an alternative to the false choices offered by the main parties. What unites us is far greater than what divides us. The task for those who share this analysis is to make it a reality.

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