By Judith OrrMichael Bradley
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Can Things Only Get Better?

This article is over 14 years, 7 months old
The decision by Labour MPs to deny party members the chance to choose their new leader means Gordon Brown will take office at the end of June. Judith Orr looks at the problems he will face and the state of the Labour left, while Michael Bradley examines the response from the unions.
Issue 315

Gordon Brown’s time has finally come. On 24 June he will take on the post he has coveted for over a decade. Brown quickly received some good press. The Mirror‘s headline was “A Leader Born to Serve Us”, and there was a three point boost in the polls. The fact that there is a bit of a “Brown bounce” is not surprising. It could hardly be otherwise – he is replacing one of Britain’s most unpopular prime ministers. There is a palpable relief that Tony Blair is finally going, and for some a desperate hope that “things can only get better”.

A section of the trade union movement has long harboured a soft spot for Gordon Brown. He liked to play up to an image of being down to earth Old Labour, someone who understood the party, in contrast to Blair. For example, at last year’s TUC congress in Brighton, Brown addressed the congress dinner, which is by tradition private and off the record. Tony Woodley, the joint general secretary of the newly formed Unite union, told BBC News afterwards that he was stunned. “I have just seen a speech that I have not seen equalled from a trade union leader in our country for a number of years, a guy who has put out a vision of his ideas for our country.”

This is a view that seems to be shared by a section of the general population. A recent Guardian/ICM poll showed that 25 percent of voters believed that Brown is very or fairly left wing, while only 13 percent said the same about Blair. Early announcements on clearing the spin doctors out of Downing Street and renouncing Chequers as his weekend retreat are no more than cosmetic changes but are read as a rejection of Blair’s obsession with spin over substance.

But his welcome is countered by unease about the big issues facing him. Brown bankrolled the war in Iraq and has never at any stage spoken out against it, and he is also the architect of the public sector pay freeze.

Derek Simpson, the other general secretary of Unite, expressed his expectations of Brown. “[Brown] has to be so naive and stupid if he does not realise he must do something to address the drift away from Labour by both the electorate and by the party membership, or else he will not be prime minister after the next election,” said Simpson. “He cannot be immune to that fact since we as a union have put warnings to him over and over again. The concern is that Brown is just going to be another Blair and, God, don’t we want a change after ten years.”

Opposing pressures

Brown is visibly caught between two opposing pressures. He has to acknowledge he represents continuity with Blair – he can hardly denounce him as the enemy, having financed his policies for the last ten years – but he also has to put forward the idea that he will be different.

He carries a large inheritance from Blair. Along with the unpopular and bloody war in Iraq, and rising anger over pay and public services, are the May election results. Labour was driven out of office in the Scottish Parliament, a body it created, and in Wales it received its lowest vote since 1918.

The morale of the Labour membership in general is regularly described as being at an all time low. Membership has dropped by 50 percent since its highpoint in 1997 to under 190,000 today. This is the lowest since Ramsay MacDonald split the party in the 1930s, and a drop of 25,000 in the past six months. But the numbers alone don’t convey the anger and hurt that so many feel when they finally tear up their membership cards – or the effect on the political culture of trade unionists who have for generations looked to the party for representation in government.

The recruitment drive planned for when Brown takes office will attempt to win back some of the activists – vital to local campaigning and electioneering – who have left over the past ten years. How successful they will be remains to be seen, and those who have left in disgust in the past few weeks will not be won back easily.

Within days of the announcement that he would become party leader without an election he showed how much he represents more of the same. He raised no objection to attempts by MPs to block Freedom of Information Act enquiries into their activities until ten days after the vote, and approved the extension of the nuclear power station building programme. But the war in Iraq is the issue hanging over Brown like no other. Media coverage of his first hustings – which should have been a celebration of his coronation – was dominated by the presence of an anti-war protest outside and an anti-war heckler inside. This was certainly not the first impression Brown would have wanted to make, and anti-war activists have continued to follow him wherever he goes.

His stitching up of the leadership election was deeply unpopular. Explaining why he thought John McDonnell did not get enough names to even get on the ballot paper Brown claimed that the party was “unwilling to give candidates of the far left any space to put forward their views, because they simply don’t have support for their views in the Labour Party”.

But the truth is rather different. Brown’s ability to bludgeon himself into office without being challenged did not reflect mass support for his policies throughout the party, let alone in the wider population, which is much to the left of the government on most issues.

Brown’s crushing of the possibility of facing an opponent was not a sign of confidence. He could have encouraged some of his supporters to nominate a challenger in the interests of democracy, opening up the chance for a debate about the future of Labour and a proper election. There was no danger of him losing. But had there been even a 10 or 20 percent vote against him his authority would have been undermined and the left given a platform.

John McDonnell has had to put on a brave face over the result. He declares on his website: “We’re now in a stronger position to fight for socialist policies than we have been for years.” But no one looking at the Brown juggernaut will feel that this is a credible assessment, especially as an unprecedented 13 left Labour MPs are standing down at the next election. Even the election for deputy leader could not muster up a candidate who didn’t vote for the war. The left within the Labour Party has suffered a bitter blow and a serious setback. It now has no base from which to organise against Brown’s future attacks. This is the first time that a resurgence in trade union militancy coupled with increasingly widespread discontent with a Labour government in its final years is not being matched by a corresponding rise in support for the left of the party.

Labour is not the political home for people who want to fight injustice, stop the war or defend union rights. For many, Labour represents the cause, not the solution, to their problems. This is causing ongoing debate and division in the trade union movement.

In the week that Brown’s coronation was confirmed one major trade union voted to reopen the debate about whether to be affiliated to Labour. Jane Loftus of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) national executive explained why her union is returning to the debate about whether to give funds to the Labour Party: “This isn’t only because of the Labour government’s attacks on postal workers, and their failure to support the Trade Union Freedom Bill, but also because of their constant attacks on public services, their privatisation agenda, and their plan for post office closures. All this, and the war in Iraq, will continue to test any relationship our union has with Labour.”

Many of the trade union leaders Brown should have been able to rely on as allies are openly expressing their doubts about him, despite their hope that he will be different.

Gordon Brown’s new-look smile hides the fact that he faces serious problems over the coming months.

There May be Trouble Ahead

The battles over pay, and Gordon Brown’s pay limit for the public sector are producing turmoil for trade union leaders.

Everyone should welcome signs that the feeling for a united workers’ response to the attacks at the bottom of the unions is also reflected at the top.

In a letter of solidarity read to the PCS civil service workers’ union conference in May, Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said the government’s “relentless drive to privatise” and the imposition of a 2 percent pay limit, were the two issues that had to be challenged by both unions.

He said, “Unions cannot fight these battles alone and the PCS and Unison should be working together to maximise our impact in responding to the attacks on us.”

He proposed meeting to discuss how the two unions could “coordinate campaigns against privatisation and work together to promote public services” and, even more surprisingly to many, called on the unions to “liaise on pay developments, so any industrial action could be coordinated.”

Yet, exactly a week before his call for unity against the government’s Blairite attacks, Prentis was praising Blair. He paid tribute to Tony Blair’s “remarkable and historic achievement” in being the longest-serving Labour prime minister, leading the party to three general election victories.

“His government delivered many positive changes, including record investment in our public services, reduced unemployment, a minimum wage, maternity rights, moves to end the two tier workforce, anti-discrimination laws and a strong economy.

“And we should never forget his personal involvement in helping to achieve a framework for peace and a fresh start in Northern Ireland.”

Unison members had apparently begun to have doubts only after 2005 when they had “become increasingly concerned about the direction of reform in this third term”.

How can we explain such contradictions? Dave Prentis, along with most other union leaders, desperately tries to maintain close links with Labour Party ministers. They certainly want to insist that Labour is the only serious game in town. This leads them at crucial points (such as the great pensions dispute of 2006) to back away from struggle in favour of poor compromises with ministers.

But this is by no means the end of the story. There are pressures that push the other way.

Many union leaders feel personally angry that they have been abused and sidelined by a Labour government. Heather Wakefield, head of Unison’s local government section, spoke recently about her feeling of betrayal when minister Phil Woolas failed to deliver on pension promises which she believed he had made. Wakefield – a strong supporter of Prentis – added that this had made her question the way the union and the party operated.

More widely, most union leaders are angry that for a decade Labour has trampled on the central tenets of social democracy such as comprehensive education, council housing, and public being better than private. And above all there are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which have torn Labour and its supporters apart.

The union leaders can also feel the increasing pressure from their members. This is particularly strong around pay. In the last year mortgage payments have risen 21.9 percent, and the average household is now paying £20 a week on gas and electricity, up £9 in four years.

The overall mid-point for pay deals in the three months to April this year is 3.5 percent across the whole economy, while inflation is 1 percent higher. In the public sector the average rise is 3 percent and Brown wants to force this down to around 2 percent.


Pay has become a lightning rod for the bitterness over the lack of affordable housing, the profiteering of the privatised utilities, the underfunding of public services and public service workers at a time when billions can be spent on war and a replacement for Trident.

The result is intense pressure on union leaders to act. It is virtually impossible for Prentis to go before his union conference in June and say that a million Unison members in the NHS and local government should accept big cuts in living standards as a result of a 2 percent pay deal.

The combination of these factors produces initiatives like Prentis’s letter, and we should welcome it as a very hopeful development.

It matters that union leaders call for unity. It makes it far easier for the rank and file members to call for solidarity with postal workers and civil service workers, to press for joint protests and campaigns, to demand that their own union joins the battle and launches its own industrial action.

We have to remember this no matter what the temptation is to dismiss moves from the likes of Prentis. Many on the left are happy to simply denounce trade union leaders and stand back to wait for them to “sell out”. In the present circumstances we must use their backing, however limited it may be, to give confidence to members and help make the case for widening action across other unions.

However, activists should not rely on union leaders to organise such action. Some union leaders may hope that by calling for unity they can indefinitely postpone action by claiming that no one section can fight unless everyone is ready to.

That means that the left has to be prepared to respond at every level of the union. Left NEC members have to push for joint action with other unions, to get speakers like Mark Serwotka invited to union conferences and to use their positions to get into workplaces and meetings to stir up the pay campaign.


At a regional level we must be prepared to take initiatives like we saw in a few areas on 1 May. The London UCU lecturers’ union has called a series of protests in support of the PCS action at colleges around the capital. They were also involved in supporting the living wage demonstration led by School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) cleaners and supported by Unison and UCU members at SOAS and other central London colleges on 1 May.

At one point the pressure from below may be stronger. At another the private phone call from Gordon Brown promising concessions in the future, or arguing “you’ll only help the Tories”, or the unwillingness to give an opening to the left may win out.

That is why activists need to develop their own strength in the workplace and politically. Local unity initiatives, recruitment drives, and widespread use of the petition in defence of public services launched by the PCS are examples of what can be done, as is the crucial solidarity work of supporting local picket lines and bringing activists together for Organising For Fighting Unions events.

Such work will provide solid ground to shape what happens at the top of the union and to prepare for independent activity.

But it cannot be separated from political agitation. The more powerful Respect becomes, the more activists will be able to stand up to those who say that we must make sacrifices to keep Labour in office.

The more we raise issues like the Iraq war at work, the more people we’ll discover – people who will fight over other class issues and against other attacks from the Labour government.

The pay revolt against Brown puts us in a situation where we cannot simply sit back and see how events develop. Everybody, whether they are on a union NEC, a regional union body, or an activist at work, can play a part in trying to push the movement forward.

Trade Unions at a Glance

    General secretary Dave Prentis has written to the PCS to coordinate public sector action over pay freeze. Additionally, UNISON Health Section voted for industrial action to be coordinated with other unions.
  • NUT
    Members are to be balloted for strike action over pay.
    Voted at conference to ballot members over pay.
  • PCS
    Conference voted to continue their national dispute and aim to strike alongside other public sector unions in fight against pay freeze.
  • CWU
    130,000 works being balloted for strike action over pay freeze and job losses.
  • RMT
    Likely to enter into a dispute with Metronet over plans to sack 290 London Underground workers.
  • RCN
    Conference voted to clear the way for members to strike over pay freeze for the first time in its history. An indicative ballot of members is currently underway.
  • Prospect
    Workers at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency currently striking indefinitely over low pay.

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