Workers' Liberty #68


The unions begin to stir

The last three months have seen two unusual and notable revolts against the Blair government from the labour movement.

By Emma Parsons.

At the biennial Greater London Labour Party Conference in November, the platform had to allow a debate on two emergency motions calling for a halt to the Government's plans for part-privatising the Tube, and they were overwhelmingly passed.

And the national Labour Party conference, in September, openly revolted on a major policy issue that is central to new Labour's welfare plans - pensions. The Government was forced to make amends with an increase to the basic state pension announced in November.

However, it would be wrong to think that the Blairite grip on the Party is broken. The constituency delegates voted two to one with the leadership on pensions. To the unions, voting for the earnings-linked pensions was a safe Old Labour marker to express their discontent.

A compromise was offered by UNISON and the GMB, but the platform rejected it and instead suffered defeat. It was a miscalculation, due to New Labour ignorance of the unions, that promises well for future incompetent stitch ups.

The influence of New Labour within the unions should not however be underestimated. When there is a straightforward partnership of the new right and the old right in union politics, the left can be heavily marginalised. The AEEU (soon to merge with MSF) is a shining example. The democratisation of the Labour-union link is still a vital battleground for left activists in the unions.

Labour's annual conference has become a profoundly depressing political event. This year, it was attended by 1,800 constituency and union delegates - and 18,000 lobbyists and trade exhibitors.

The Party events, and many of the unofficial fringe events, are financed by companies. Barclays did the Stonewall event (guest speaker: Peter Mandelson), and British Aerospace sponsored the Department for Education and Employment ministerial questions-and-answers. Labour's 1998 and 1999 accounts showed an income to the party from big business donations equal to that from the unions.

The intervention of all the politicians is stage-managed. Almost all delegates called to speak are pre-picked. A good half have their speech written for them (often by the same person, or committee, it seems, from the repetition of soundbites).

Party staff cynically manipulate delegates' briefings in order to detach delegates from their constituency parties and make them think they are the privileged participants in a media jamboree. Union delegates are kept in order in the same old way they always have been, by appeals to pragmatism and deference and threats from their hierarchy.

There were still several left fringe meetings, each hundreds strong - an RMT rally against Tube privatisation, the Tribune rally, the Socialist Campaign Group meetings and the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy rally.

But the votes at annual conference for places on the National Policy Forum showed that the left had not organised, and the right had. Many regional places were taken by Blairites unopposed. Even when the left stands, we are so marginalised that we are often unable to differentiate ourselves from candidates who are just not true-blue Blairites.

The consistent percentage vote for the Grassroots Alliance candidates in the postal ballots for constituency places on the National Executive Committee (though total turnout for these ballots has fallen sharply) shows that there are left votes to be fought for. The left in the Party should be more upfront about how far short the Government's policies fall from the needs of those who still vote Labour. Alliances that have been formed on the left of the Party on the basis of upholding democracy are fine but have increasing irrelevance as fewer and fewer members and activists remember how the Old Labour structures worked. It may be better to build on the discontent that arises from those who engage with the current policy making structures in good faith, or deal with the Party organisation and find that they and their views have been totally sidelined and cheated on.

On the whole, though, there has been a massive political vacuum on the Labour left, in terms of organisation and ideology, since the early eighties. Since Labour's fourth election defeat in 1992, the Blairites, with their contempt for Party traditions and structures, have made a very successful coup.

Large numbers of Labour members and supporters view the present Government policies as a criminal waste of a Parliamentary majority. Yet there is little effective resistance within the Party. The party organisation in the constituencies is in a pitiable state; the affiliated trade unions are on the whole tamed for now.

Left wing and 'Old Labour' activists treat the Blairites in the Party as an occupying force. But because it is more usual to collabourate with people in power than not, the Blairites are able to maintain control without winning the case for their ideas. This leads to strange happenings. Policies that are totally unacceptable to most Party members meet little internal resistance even in cases where the structures are still in place to express that opposition.

But when they can see a stark a choice - which side you are on, for the fat cats or the ordinary worker? - there is still a gut class instinct in many in the Labour Party. The pensions issue epitomised that, and a perception that it was both about vulnerable older people and about restoring the link as atonement for years of burgeoning inequality increased the appeal.

The fact that it was largely a symbolic vote does not mean it was insignificant or it won't happen again.

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