By Chris Bambery
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Labour and the Unions: United We Stand?

This article is over 22 years, 5 months old
There is a growing radicalisation amongst workers in Britain.
Issue 260

‘Socialism was meant to have been consigned to the dustbin of history…Yet today in Britain the far left is on the march again…’ This is the voice of the ‘Daily Mail’. In an article headlined ‘March of the hard-left: The comrade, the cockney and the revolutionary–how the return of the militants threatens to bring back the crippling days of strike chaos’, Leo McKinstry argues, ‘Strikes and protests are back. Anti-capitalist voices are continually heard on the airwaves and in print. Many of the trade unions in our biggest public services, including the railways, the post office and the fire brigade are led by dogmatic socialists…This reawakening of the left has also occurred because of growing disillusion with both the rightward shift of Blair and the failure of his government to deliver on its promises.

‘It is telling that the Socialist Alliance, an umbrella organisation of disparate extremist groups, has taken over from Old Labour as the authentic voice of the far left. And rising unemployment, corporate excesses in the boardroom and the privatisation agenda-highlighted again this week by the announcement that commercial firms are to take over failing NHS hospitals–have given the hard left the perfect issues on which to make their noisy protests.’

It would be easy to dismiss this as the frenzied ravings of the Tory press but this article is one in a series that has appeared in the news in recent weeks. Part of this is an attempt by New Labour, in conjunction with TUC leaders, to launch a witch-hunt to prevent the left winning any further leadership positions in the unions, in particular to stop Bob Crow’s election to general secretary of the railworkers’ union, the RMT.

The media’s attempts to dust off scare stories about the 1979 Winter of Discontent and the menace trade unions pose to British civilisation have cut little ice. Inside the unions, and particularly the RMT, members are livid that New Labour and sections of the TUC are trying to fix elections.

At a regional meeting for RMT delegates from across south west England and south Wales with Bob Crow and his Blairite-supported rival, Phil Bialyk, the branch secretary of Swansea RMT demanded to know if Bialyk had been involved in preparing the document smearing Bob Crow which had emanated from the TUC. Bialyk refused to reply. The Swansea rep then said he would be moving a motion demanding an official union investigation and that, if it found Bialyk was involved, he would be arguing for his expulsion or a five-year suspension. The meeting endorsed this call.

Exciting times

Through years of defeat and retreat we have become used to seeing Britain as a backwater in comparison to European countries like France and Italy. It is now time to pinch ourselves and to realise that outside these shores Britain suddenly looks a very exciting place.

Last November the Italian papers ‘Il Manifesto’ and ‘Liberazione’ (the daily paper of Rifondazione, the Refounded Communist Party) devoted two pages and a page respectively to the Stop the War Coalition demonstration of 100,000 people in London. Following his visit to London in the wake of that, during which he addressed a 650-strong Globalise Resistance meeting, Fausto Bertinotti, the general secretary of Rifondazione explained to Liberazione readers that, as in Italy, he found, ‘You can understand things are changing because you find the same desire to discuss, the same themes, the very same worries, both among the Labour left in a room in the House of Commons, and in a meeting of young people at Camden Town Hall.’ He talked positively of the 100,000 anti-war demonstration, defining it as: ‘A success both because it broke through the pall of Blairite greyness, totally concentrated on Anglo-American action in the war effort, and because it represented the meeting of historic English pacifism…some elements of the Labour Party, the organisations of the far left, and the new anti-capitalist pacifism… It seems obvious to me that there is a new desire to communicate both within the movement itself–the organisations of the radical, anti-capitalist and pacifist left and the Labour left–which are all represented in the coalition against the war. When I spoke at Camden Town Hall to hundreds of young people and activists of the left, the loudest applause during my speech occurred when I stressed plurality within unity. Different viewpoints are criticising the war together, this war–the current state of the world–not on the basis of ideological categories but through awareness of how lives have been devastated.’

From Paris, Christophe Aguiton, writing in the Attac bulletin, argues that the development of Globalise Resistance is comparable to the development of the Genoa Social Forum in Italy and Attac itself in France.

Andy Beckett, in a recent article in the ‘Guardian’ was obviously commissioned to do a demolition job on the left in the wake of 11 September. But when he quoted Tariq Ali as saying Britain has the biggest anti-war movement outside Italy he was forced to conclude ‘And, puzzingly for those who have been celebrating the demise of the left since September, this appears to be the case.’

Today the Blair government has been thrown into the biggest crisis since its election in 1997. The catalyst was limited action by relatively small numbers of railworkers. That suddenly threw the question of the state of Britain’s rail network post privatisation onto the front pages. Taking the railways back into public ownership has become common sense not just for working class people but for swathes of middle class opinion. When London’s ‘Evening Standard’ devotes two pages showing that the old nationalised British Rail was in every way superior to the current crop of private cowboys, it is expressing the opinions of thousands of London commuters swinging from a strap in an overcrowded carriage to and from work. New Labour’s plans to introduce private sector control of key sections of the health service have added fuel to the fire.

We are entering uncharted waters here. In terms of parallels, the most striking one is the crisis the Labour government of Harold Wilson found itself in five years into office in 1969. Following a wave of student unrest and massive demonstrations against the Vietnam War, a breach opened between the government and the unions over the attempt to push through anti-union legislation-described in the government white paper ‘In Place of Strife’. That created the space for a rank and file revolt over pay.

Today, on the back of major demonstrations against Bush’s ‘war on terrorism’ and the powerful anti-capitalist mobilisations we see a similar breach with the union leaders developing over privatisation and the attempts to smear left union leaders. There is also the possibility of the revolt over pay on the railways spreading.

What makes all this different from 1969 is that more than two decades of Thatcherite and Blairite rule have created a vast reservoir of bitterness at the base of British society; the anti-capitalist movement has created a high degree of politicisation, and, despite media claims to the contrary, the Tory Party is showing as much sign of life as the dead parrot in the Monty Python sketch. That means the mood is generally moving left.

It also means there is a heady cocktail of political radicalisation, an acceleration in the disintegration of Labour’s traditional base, social discontent and the possible beginnings of an upsurge in industrial struggle.

The anti-capitalist movement moved virtually seamlessly into the anti-war movement, which has moved naturally into support for the Palestinians (something that would not have happened so automatically in the past). Privatisation provides an obvious link between the anti-capitalist movement and the growing industrial insurgency. Now the question of the working class’s traditional allegiance to Labour is under the spotlight.

The general secretary of the GMB, John Edmonds, has announced the union will reduce its contribution to New Labour by £2 million over four years and will not support candidates who support the Private Finance Initiative. Edmonds told a 200-strong Keep Public Services Public conference in Merseyside, ‘There are limits to how much of our members’ money we are prepared to pass to this Labour government to put our members out of work.’ One leading housing activist who was there said Edmonds was responding to the mood of his members. Rank and file GMB members were far angrier in their denunciations of New Labour. Historically the GMB has been seen as a right wing union which was ultra loyal to the Labour leadership.

There already exists a hard minority of people who have made the break with New Labour. We have to ensure that they are not dismissive of others who are only beginning that process. Socialists played an acute role in helping shape the anti-war movement. We now have to do the same with the developing revolt against New Labour. A crucial step will be success of the Socialist Alliance conference on the political fund. The argument about the link between the unions and New Labour goes to the heart of the matter. The Socialist Alliance can become a new home for tens of thousands of dissatisfied Labour supporters.

There are also signs that rank and file organisation can quickly develop. Two tube workers sold 103 copies of the new rank and file paper, ‘Across the Tracks’, on the Piccadilly and Victoria Lines in just one afternoon. Virtually everyone on the shift bought a copy. Three others sold 58 at Kings Cross. The last issue of Postworker sold just under 5000 copies.

We need to build networks of activists in every workplace, college and community who can mobilise and deliver solidarity as well as addressing the daily arguments now taking place across Britain. Our ability to expand sales of ‘Socialist Worker’ and this magazine are a crucial part of that.

The media’s analogy between the incipient revolt over pay and the 1979 Winter of Discontent does not fit. In 1979 anger against a government exploded spontaneously. But it was also a product of the failure of the unions and the left to channel it leftwards. The Tories had regrouped under Thatcher and were able to exploit the apathy and confusion that spread in the working class as the disputes ground on. Today the revolt is generally being channelled leftwards.

But 1979 provides a warning. It came just five years after the working class had defeated a Tory government, the highpoint of postwar British working class history. But faced with a Labour government implementing wage controls and welfare cuts, the argument which raged was whether loyalty to Labour or loyalty to the class took priority. The same left leaders who had once been pilloried by the Tory press stuck with Labour. The small forces of the revolutionary left were not strong enough to win the argument. We have lived with the legacy of that for over 20 years.

Today we can win that argument hands down and then move forwards–if we heed the wake up call.

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