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Posts Tagged ‘Unite’

Has time run out for Labour socialists?

June 9, 2010 22 comments

I can’t express in words how utterly furious I am that John McDonnell has been forced to withdraw from the Labour leadership contest. After a few days of faux outrage over his comment that if he could, he’d go back to the 1980s and kill Thatcher, and Diane Abbott’s mealy-mouthed supporters saying they think he should be the one to withdraw, despite her pledge to do so if he got more nominations (which he had, at that point), John has rightly judged that her supporters won’t come to him, so he’ll have to give his to her.

Not good enough. Every campaign for the next five years – against library closures, against service cuts, against the attempt to further casualise the public sector – is going to be fought outside of Labour. Only historical revisionists and morons believe that the anti-poll tax campaign was a Labour campaign. And yet the Left has kept the life support switched on, firmly demanding that people exercise the great contradiction at the heart of our democracy: loyalty to a Party the leadership of which does not care about them.

Is it time to pull the plug? Since 1923, we’ve faced the same situation. Labour is elected with high hopes for its success, disappoints those hopes and is then swept from office, leaving the Conservatives to pick up where they left off. Since the end of the great depression, after the war, when the exhaustion of the capitalist system allowed for greater state controls (which had been utilised during the war anyway and rubbed off the red taint they previously had), the journey has been backwards – trying to find a way back before the post-war settlement.

This is the mission of the Conservative Party, and ‘big society‘ is just its latest cover. What has Labour’s leadership done? Nothing. We have been losing the battle, and all the while desperately clinging to what Labour has achieved – scarcely anything new without sacrificing something old. So, of the last three parliaments, we got the minimum wage and a long-overdue rise in benefits (for example) whilst Labour set course towards undermining teachers’ unions and education, through faster deregulation of schools.

Meanwhile, Labour socialists – an endangered breed that I’ll deal with in a moment – ask their comrades and friends to hang on in a party that has been swamped by vapid twits. Anyone who goes to all the events touted by the Fabians, has been to Oxford or hangs out online can’t fail to know who I’m talking about. The twits claiming the legacy of Nye Bevan whilst backing Ed Balls, for example, without seeing the incredible disparity between the politics of the two. Whatever Bevan’s deficiencies and later demoralisation, he was no Balls.

Bevan occupies, as one might notice, the strapline of this blog. His sentiment, that one should not stand in the middle of the road, that one should not be afraid to take a position has been my personal code all my life. It is far from the attitude of the Labour leadership and their coterie. It is a party rotten through and through, corrupt, full of patronage and seeking after patronage, unprincipled. It isn’t really socialist at all. In seeking after patronage, people learn to talk with a certain vocabulary, highly technocratic and bloodless. Totally removed from ordinary people.

Labour socialists of the Labour Representation Committee number somewhere below 1000 people – that’s less than one percent of the total party membership (excluding the trades unions). They are condemned by the Labour Right for being backwards. They are excoriated by those who exist as rootlessly as Labour’s London elite for being too provincial, too unwilling to work with other groups (whatever that means, as every Labour campaign I’ve ever seen has involved LRC members and parliamentarians). But they are the last remaining socialists in Labour.

The last election demonstrated that this clique will not exist forever. The Parliamentary group of the LRC was halved, to say nothing of the destruction wreaked about its bigger, less socialist sister, the Socialist Campaign Group. And even this doesn’t account for the wacky behaviour of a bunch of the members of these groups, like Michael Meacher, supposed Left veteran…who nominated Ed Miliband for leader, even though Ed had cleared the bar and with room to spare. So long as the fortunes of this group are tied to Labour, it exists within a contradiction – urging (critical) support for a leadership that will kick the poor when it’s opportune whilst claiming to represent them.

The leadership contest has demonstrated that no matter how well people like John McDonnell work, no matter how much support they gather, they’ll be outmanoeuvred by Labour’s Right, which can rely on the cowardice and (ironically) the uncooperative nature of Labour’s ‘soft’ Left. Harriet Harman and Ed Ball’s nominations for Diane Abbott play the diversity card but in reality are simply intended to prop her up into a slightly more credible candidate (still not very credible, from a political point of view) and force McDonnell out. All he has done is bow to the inevitable.

Abbott has the nominations – she’s on the ballot – but she’s not going to change the Party. Forgive my cynicism, but I’ve met too many soft Lefts. Despite her feminist credentials, she doesn’t have the detailed critique of the Party that is the remit of the LRC – and that would set free the feminist and radical energies that people were quick to impute to her. Indeed when she does her media appearances – the last I heard in-depth was on a Radio 4 discussion programme on Friday about two months ago – she can even be quite conservative. So good luck to her and her supporters – she’ll be better than the other four, but I don’t have any faith in her, and am rather sickened by how heavily she has stressed the fact that she’s black and female – like these are somehow politically relevant, except as tokenism.

John’s letter to Labour members, in which he announces his decision to stand down, acknowledges that despite enormous grassroots pressure – e.g. Tom Harris’ admission that he and other Labour MPs were deluged with letters and emails to demand McDonnell get on the ballot – the Labour bureaucracy and PLP were unmoved. His final appeal is to the strength of the Labour Left, that the fight against the cuts should be continued and that a Conservative government be denied the chance to have everything its own way.

With this, every socialist will agree – but I will not use my energies to electrify the zombified party that Labour has become, and I am one among many. Campaigns dominated by socialists will come together, and as last time, Labour’s leadership will do what it can to hinder them, so long as they aren’t tied to the apron strings of mother Parliament. They will face no backlash from their members, as the membership have nowhere else to turn. The odd constituency party might endorse the LRC, but even these constituencies can’t seem to get their MPs in line. And this is before the vast and reactionary weight of the trade union bureaucracy is employed by said leadership.

Are we simply to say that time has run out for socialism in the Labour Party? My anger at McDonnell’s withdrawl howls Khrushchev’s famous retort at the PLP and its groupies, “History is on our side. We will bury you!” And yet…

Marxism is not an exact science. Having shaken my socialist eight-ball, the answer comes back “Indeterminate”. This is the truth. The struggle for socialism in Labour is indeterminate. Socialism within Labour may be buried beneath the avalanche of bureaucratic indifference and then made irrelevant by the emergence of an organisation outside Labour that can combine within itself all the loose strings from every campaign the Left fights. The failure to do this after the poll tax campaigns, and after the anti-war campaigns has been the life-support of Labour’s Left.

These failures are contingent – failures of tactics, rather than of principle – and a success in this field will remove that last remaining leg. On the other hand, the failure of Labour’s Left to conquer the Labour Party (whilst a rather taller order than the first) is equally contingent, one of tactics and not of principle. Everything flows, and there will be more mass campaigns thrown up by the intrinsic processes of capitalism meeting the contradiction of the indestructible basic solidarities of the working class. These tactics will have longer to test themselves out until the impulse either to utterly change Labour or to leave it will move even the conservative behemoths of UNISON and Unite.

Sitting-in against ACAS and socialist tactics

May 24, 2010 10 comments

Well now. Half the blogosphere has been discussing the latest outing of the Socialist Workers’ Party. Having concluded a Right to Work conference, SWP members decided to take advantage of what providence offered: an open door into the ACAS building, where BA managers and Unite union negotiators were sitting down for a cosy chat.

This throws up a few questions on the role of direct action in struggle. Was it right to occupy this building? What is the relationship between the Right to Work activists and the BA Cabin Crew? With what group of people should initiative lie?

In this instance, I don’t think occupying the building will have achieved much. Though we can only judge the negotiations as outsiders, it seems that the leaders of Unite already appreciate the depths of their members feelings. They have acquired some measure of a deal on the reasons for the strike, and are now holding out for Walsh to recant on perks and suspensions.

If this happens, it will be a personal defeat for Walsh and a psychological victory for the union, bearing in mind Walsh’s public determination that there shall be no concessions in this regard. If it doesn’t happen, and the union looks solid on defending the interests of members – as they did in this instance – then there’s no harm in negotiations.

Either way, the intervention of groups unrelated to the strike – despite their inclusion of some Unite members and other trades unionists who were at the Right to Work Conference – won’t really help matters.

Moreover, upsetting the negotiations gives the opposition an opportunity to blame the collapse on the intervention of a group that is external to the dispute, and thus blame the strike on those outsiders. Add this to Willie Walsh’s usual verbal diarrhoea when it comes to ‘militants’ and who knows what propaganda will be rained on BA workers.

That such blame is false is not the point. Willie Walsh is clearly out to break the union by any means necessary, as evidenced by his pretence at outrage over a union leader twittering on the progress of the talks, and by the cycle of suspensions and withholding of benefits from those members of BASSA who went on strike.

This is a point that can be made, along with all arguments for direct action, on the picket lines this morning. The final decision would then be with the BA workers themselves.

Socialists might suggest what could be achieved by such action – but the final decision should be taken through the democracy of union branches, or at least by the picket as a whole. It’s no use a committed and unrepresentative core turning up alone.

It is, as the Socialist Party article on the issue states, the responsibility of already-convinced socialists to raise the confidence of the rest our class to engage in struggle.

This cannot be done by activists alone. The key thing is to convince others and then act in solidarity – by taking part in an agreed-upon action. A good analogy is the action of socialists regarding strikes; we can argue that our workplaces should go on strike and then go on strike with them, and man the pickets, but it makes no sense for a socialist to go on strike on their own, and to hope that their colleagues will follow.

Judging by the interview above, the purpose of the occupation was to show solidarity – and again, the place to do that would be the picket lines during this week, to turn up and support pickets, make them lively and, crucially, make a political argument about the significance of this strike.

Some people have said they thought Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson were capitulating to Walsh, thus justifying intervention to stop the negotiations. But it is the political arguments made on the picket lines that are the best defence against the surrender of union bureaucrats – and in this regard, with each strike resulting in the cancellation of higher percentages of BA flights, the BA cabin crews have given every impression of being solidly behind the strike, despite Walsh’s campaign of victimisation.

How should the left approach the Union Modernisation Fund?

March 20, 2010 5 comments

On the surface, the Telegraph reports of £18 million in state funds going to Unite, and its predecessors Amicus and TGWU, from the Labour government seem pretty damning. I was outraged; unions are not there to be funded by the State, and taking such funding compromises unions. Their bureaucracies could thence rely on State aid as insulation from having to fight for and fight to keep members’ dues.

There is also the question as to whether or not the unions like Unite have been feeding this money back into the Labour Party. If that could be proved to be the case, then it’s all the more reason to get rid of the current morons at the top of the Labour Party; first the scandal of private donations from millionaires, and cash for peerages, now this.

Lest people forget, if any of this were true, the government was not just using State money to stay in government through a funded political machine. They were using it to retain control of the Labour Party, which is a much greater offence, so far as I and many other socialists would be concerned.

Reality is not so simple, however. There are several funds which have channelled money to the unions, (e.g. Partnership at Work, the Union Modernisation Fund and the Union Learning Fund) and none of them are to do with political donations. The amount gathered from each member for a political fund must be stipulated, only money from the political fund may be used for political activities and money from other accounts may not be used.

That is the law. No one has said that the law has been broken, and the Guardian’s disingenuous chart (shown right, courtesy of Iain Dale) is simply a case of attempting to secure a guilty verdict by very dodgy inferences. All the accusations of money laundering – of this money passing through Unite or the other unions en route to Labour – are silly.

A fair contention, however, is that there is a moral case to answer. A Labour government is channelling money directly to the unions – for admittedly benevolent, non-political purposes. But presumably – as well as reaching difficult to organise workers, and coaching people to get qualifications and training – this bolsters the prestige and attraction of the trades unions. Union Learning Fund projects, for example, seem open only to union members.

Higher union membership means more money for the Labour Party. Or does it?

Actually I don’t think this moral case holds up. Since every member of a union chooses whether or not to pay into the political fund, people who don’t want to support Labour can benefit from these programmes. There’s also the numerous cases of unions which have political funds that don’t contribute to Labour – such as the National Union of Teachers, the RMT, University and Colleges Union or the Fire Brigades Union.

The actual programmes involved, through which all this money is channelled, break down the moral case further still.

On a political level, programmes like Partnership at Work were not designed as vehicles for left-wing policy – they were the opposite. Their whole purpose was to suppress open conflict in the workplace. It’s my view that this type of thing directly led to a harmful increase in the pressure put on staff, in an environment free of the danger of industrial unrest.

On a practical level, programmes like Dignity at Work had the support of employers, employees, unions and the State – and these channelled large sums to educate on and prevent workplace bullying and other issues which are not just Left issues, since bullying affects productivity. Similarly with the Union Learning and Union Modernisation Funds.

Far from being bungs to union allies, this money was to serve a purpose that was not so crassly ‘political’ as is being made out and which gave little succour to “the Left”, unless we’re to recycle and adjust Harold Wilson, “Socialism is what unions do”, regardless of what they actually do.

By all means, people should object to unions being used as the vehicle for such policies – and I haven’t made up my mind yet, though I’m leaning towards a separation of unions as agitational bodies of workers from educative and training bodies paid for by the State. They can object to the specific policies as being inefficient or poor uses of money. But they can’t reasonably object that this money is a bung to union allies of a Labour Party.

The last refuge for such an accusation is whether all the money allocated for these purposes was spent on what it was supposed to have been spent on. The suggestive comments in the media – and the near-hysterical comments in the Right-blogosphere – betray ignorance over just this. So audits should be done, and we should see how it was spent.

None of it will have found its way into the political funds; I take that as a given. If it has, an offence has been committed and the guilty individuals responsible should be punished – but I doubt union officials are so stupid.

It is more believable that money left over may have been spent on more general concerns or union administration not necessarily relating to the projects mandated by the specific aims of these funds. To allay concerns, turn over the books. Open government is our friend. What is not acceptable is the high pitched screeching before any facts are known.

Is Len McCluskey the right man to lead Unite?

(Though Cowards Flinch has been running a series of commentaries and interviews on the Left candidates for Union positions. We’ve already interviewed Paul Holmes, one of the two Left candidates for UNISON. An interview is forthcoming with Len McCluskey, conducted by Adam, who thinks he’s a good choice – Ed).

There has been some debate recently about whether Unite Deputy General Secretary Len McCluskey, is the right man to be the Left’s candidate in the upcoming contest to elect the Unions first sole General Secretary. After a conversation with Dave yesterday, in which he shared his own concerns over Len’s credibility, I thought I’d try to detail why I think he certainly is a good choice.

The murmurs about his candidacy started as soon as he was chosen as the United Left (a recently formed broad Left caucus in Unite) candidate in September.

As Jim explained over at Shiraz, supporters of Respect member Jerry Hicks were concerned about the way the selection was organised. Hicks and his supporters walked out of the meeting, in what many have rumoured was a coordinated and premeditated stunt, and launch Hicks’ campaign as the independent left candidate. I advise you read Jim’s piece and this post from Kevin Parslow on the Socialist Party website.

As a member of the Labour left, my main attraction to Len is his calls for “21st Century Socialism” within the Labour Party, and a re-assertion of Labour as the genuine Party of the organised Labour movement. As many people are probably coming into contact with Len for the first time, due to his prominent role in the BA dispute, I thought I’d share is speech to the last Labour Party conference. I feel it gives a pretty encouraging evaluation of his position.

“We have a fight on our hands.

“In fact, we have two. The conference season makes it clear that the left faces twin challenges.

“First of all, to ensure that Labour is re-elected at next year’s general election and the Tories sent crashing to a well-merited fourth defeat.

“Second, there is a need to push Labour to finally make a complete break with its neo-liberal hangover and got into that election fighting on policies which will really make a difference to working people.

“In the light of the opinion polls, there is no doubt that the first task is difficult. And some might look at the experience of the last twelve years and argue that the second task is more like a dream utterly divorced from reality.

“But I would argue that both can be achieved. What is for certain is that both must be attempted. Come polling day, it will be a stark choice – a Labour government or a return of the Tories.

“Anyone ducking that hard choice is really retreating into a fantasy world. The great mass of our movement is not going to follow them there.

“The fact is that we have six months to stop a Tory government which will slash and burn our public services, freeze public sector pay and make us all work longer – just in order to bail out their friends in the City, for whom it would swiftly be back to business-as-usual under Cameron and Osborne.

“Of course, that hard fact does not on its own make Labour’s record look any better.

“There is no doubt that gains for working people have been many during Labour’s time in office. And there have been many disappointments too.

“It’s not so much a matter of “is the glass half full or half empty?” but more of “is the glass filling up or draining away?” I believe that recent months, including Labour conference, have shown a modest move away from neo-liberalism towards a more social democratic and interventionist strategy.

“The 50p tax rate for high earners, the action to help the motor industry – limited though it is – the commitment to resume council house building and the resolve to keep spending to protect health and education all point in that direction.

“However, most working people still remain to be convinced that the government is on their side . They see unemployment rising and factories closing, with the dreadful prospect of a ‘lost generation’ for young people, just like in the 1980s, hanging over families and communities.

“Gordon Brown has said that laissez-faire is dead. He is right – or at least he ought to be right. But there are too many signs of the City going back to its old tricks, with obscene bonuses being handed out and regulation being watered down under pressure from the fat cats.

“But the biggest problem is that we are now having the wrong economic debate. Instead of talking about market failure and how to put the excesses of neo-liberalism behind us for good we have let ourselves get dragged into a false debate about public spending.

“Does anyone seriously believe that the public sector was the cause of the economic crisis last year? Or that it was nurses and paramedics, dinner ladies and refuse collectors, rather than greedy bankers who pushed the world economy to the brink of collapse

“The Tories and their media allies have pulled off a masterstroke in diverting debate away from what they, their class, and their ideology is responsible for and making the issue public sector debt instead.

“That in turn has been used as a gateway for the parties to outbid each other in their virility in slashing public spending.

“We must say loud and clear that if there is a public debt problem that can’t be coped with through economic growth – and that is very much open to argument – then the blame lies with the bankers and the cost to the taxpayer of bailing them out.

“It is not just economically wrong, it is politically immoral that we should be talking of public spending cuts because of the burden of solving capitalism’s excesses.

“If we let this argument go unchecked, we will see the obscenity of teachers and doctors being sacked to pay for the crisis made in the City while the villains go back to paying themselves mega-bonuses.

“We should say “no cuts to jobs; no pay freezes; no cuts to pensions and no cuts to services.”

“If we want to cut debt, then there is another way to do it. Dump the Identity Card Scheme completely, tax the spivs and speculators and the rich elite, close the loopholes that cost £35 billion per year in tax avoidance and stop the wars of intervention and get out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The economic debate should now be returned to two themes: How we save jobs in the here and now; and how we develop an economic plan to make sure the crisis of last year is never repeated.

“On the first point, I have a few concrete suggestions:

“Use Government Procurement – £175 billion annually – to boost British industry and in particular guarantee apprenticeships as a condition of public sector contracts.

“Work out a real strategy backed by cash – as the French and German governments are doing – to protect skilled jobs in key industries like motors and construction.

“Place a windfall tax on the energy companies, which are ripping off the consumers.

“Turn the house-building plan into action now. Let people see the new homes going up around them before polling day.

“The movement also needs a narrative for the future. If laissez-faire is indeed dead, what is Labour putting in its place?

“I think we need to be proud of our values once more – of the State intervening through control and where necessary ownership to ensure a balanced economy, of action to curb the inequality which is the inevitable result of the free market, of putting peoples interests before those of the City, of saying that making the goods and services we need is more important than making money for a few.

“Those policies and values are the policies and values which can still produce a Labour victory.

“Let’s use every day of the next six months to get that message first to the Government and then to working people that there is nothing inevitable about a Tory victory, if our Party can find the courage to change.

As Britain’s biggest Labour-affiliated Trade Union, Unite could be a powerful force for progressive change within the Labour Party, and indeed society in general, if it had the right leadership.

Looking at this speech I see most of the demands common of the broad left in Britain today, and if these demands can be made from such a prominent position, I feel confident this could be of great benefit to the Left. Clamping down on the city, an end to the wars in the middle east,  opposition to cuts in Public Spending, defence of wages and a reaffirmed commitment to Public Ownership. What’ss not to like!?

Mark Pritchard on the Unite strike: who is the hypocrite?

March 18, 2010 15 comments

Mark Pritchard spoke out in Parliament on Tuesday to attack the Unite union:

Does the Minister believe that the union leaders behind the BA strike should set an example and forgo some of their £150,000-a-year pay packets? Is not that another example of the arch hypocrisy at the very top of the Unite union?”

Most of the Labourites reading this just mentally yawned. Union leaders are not “behind” the BA strike; thanks to Tory legislation we now have not one but two polls reinforcing the extent to which BASSA members support a strike. Both established an easy majority with room to spare.

There’s also the fairly straightforward issue of Unite leaders criticising BA management’s salaries and bonuses – which have been paid despite the company facing significant losses of hundreds of millions of pounds. Unions aren’t seeking to pare down the wages of their employees  to cover a hole in finances caused by management.

Certainly there’s a point to be made that Union leaders are too insulated from their members – I am a firm supporter of the idea of an “average skilled workers’ wage” for MPs and leaders of the labour movement. This is not the point Mark Pritchard, a Conservative MP is going for and…oh, wait? What’s this?

In recent years Mark Pritchard has regularly enjoyed flight upgrades on his frequent Washington trips, up from economy plus to business class.  On one occasion BA’s generosity extended to include Mr Pritchard’s wife, who was also granted an upgrade to business class.  BA business class flights to Washington cost over £2,000 single.  Unite estimates then, that in the past few years Mr Pritchard has benefited to the tune of £15,000 in flights – more than a cabin crew member at Gatwick earns in a year.

Now the source for this a press release from Unite, so the amount is probably less than £15,000 – all I could find in the member’s register of interests was a 2008 flight upgrade worth about £2000, but the point is the same. Still, if one is prepared to level accusations of hypocrisy, especially when the Tories have been making a song and dance about Union money in the Labour Party, one really should make sure one is whiter than white.

Mark Pritchard isn’t.

Teamsters and Unite up their game?

March 17, 2010 5 comments

Today, the Teamsters and Unite are to meet to discuss the forthcoming Unite strike against British Airways. Bearing in mind the rhetoric BA management have been using about how terrible the union is, how unjustified the strike is and how much BA is one of Britain’s “iconic” brands, I find it hard to hide my own glee.

Before Christmas, when the strike was a limited action, Willie Walsh was already mouthing off about how “BA customers” didn’t want “70′s style trade union militancy”; I have to say there’s a little schadenfreude at work when as a result of this relentless PR campaign, Unite actually decide to act a little militant for a change.

Internationalising labour disputes is precisely what is needed, when it comes to our globalised economy. I admit, I’ll be surprised if the Teamsters actually get involved, but their willingness to talk is a kick in the groin to BA after yesterday’s smug assurances that 60% of flights would continue regardless of a strike.

According to some academic on Radio 4′s Today Programme this morning, the initiative comes from the Teamsters, who have been reaching out to build relationships with unions from other countries. As he said, the time to get allies is not when you need help, but when they do – and this is a positive change of attitude. If true, it’s also significant that the move comes from American workers; America is still the centre of the global economy.

It is the first step towards rebuilding the union armoury. The next step is to reinstitute secondary strikes; if baggage handlers can defend the terms and conditions of cabin crew, or of pilots, or of air traffic control crew, it will be much harder to ignore organised labour. There’s also the question of links between the same employment group within different companies, so employers can’t temporarily outsource their business to break a union.

This is what British Airways have already admitted that they intended to do, and in order to be taken seriously, unions must show the ability to stop them, even if the ability is held back for tactical reasons.

Unsurprisingly, shadow Transport secretary Theresa Villiers has continued the Tory offensive against Unite:

“The news that Unite are pulling out all the stops to frustrate the efforts BA is making to keep their passengers flying and save their holidays will be greeted with anger and frustration by all the unfortunate victims of this irresponsible strike.

“Unite should not be striking at all and trying to spread the dispute to other countries is even more irresponsible.”

“Labour’s union paymasters at Unite seem hell-bent on causing maximum disruption for passengers and maximum damage to BA.”

I’m not unconcerned about the fact that customers will lose out, through a strike. But this is always the case, whether or not a strike is considered justified. It is an unfortunate side effect of the continuing opposition between two elements of the service industry: worker and boss.

Villiers hammers Unite for this, but not BA bosses. Labour hammers Unite for it too, and not BA bosses – thus Lord Adonis and Gordon Brown.

So with all this talk of Unite funding the Labour Party, and “half the cabinet” and what has it purchased?

Tory hysteria and Thatcher’s anti-union crusade continued

I have been deeply troubled by the news as of late, much more so than usual. Industrial action at BA (which Dave has discussed here) and in the Civil Service, with promises of more to come, have got the Right and the media talking about the Unions again, in that wonderfully narrow-minded and ill-informed manner we’re all used to. I have come to the conclusion that my recently held suspicions of a resurgent Thatcherite tendency in the ranks of the Conservatives is becoming more and more obvious.

Even most on the left would accept that Margaret Thatcher was a woman of overwhelming conviction, and that she had a radical vision of how to change Britain. Though many on the left would not associate right-wing positions with radicalism, which is of course deeply flawed. The ideas of people like Thatcher, Milton Friedman and others on the fundamentalist right sought to change society, as they saw it, for the better, where we lefties tend to see them as changing it for the worse.

Whatever your views on the motivations of Thatcher and the consequences of her time in power, we can all agree that she made fairly significant alterations to our social and political landscape.

Her goal was to smash the post-war Keynesian consensus, and return to a more fundamentalist, laissez-faire, model of capitalism. She saw the changes of the post war period as limiting our opportunities in economic performance, and suffocating us with bloated and inefficient big government. As I like to often point out (with a somewhat smug tone), one of the major “successes” of this, as Thatcher herself put it, was New Labour. As she famously said, “we forced our opponents to change their minds”.

Despite the mountain of rubble under which the Tories buried themselves by 1997, Lady Thatcher could rest assure that certain elements of her cause would be safe in the hands of Blair and Brown.

Crucially, they supported her liberalisation of the financial markets. Despite manifesto promises, they supported continued marketisation of Public Services and never put an end to the Privatisation of essential services and national infrastructure.

They bought little or no reform to Local Government, essentially leaving Councils exactly as Thatcher had wanted them, spending agents of the Treasury. And virtually nothing was done to rebuild the skilled base of our once great, and highly Unionised, productive industries.

Our industrial sectors that were the backbone of numerous working class communities were decimated by an economic model that accepted un-unionised global competition as an immutable fact. Thatcher and her successors favoured a predominantly service based economy, where todays youngsters are more likely to be found working in jobs with little potential for advancement and less training in transferrable skills.

I tend to run through this list in my head and wonder, how much exactly did New Labour concede to Mrs Thatcher?  Of course massive changes have been made, not least of all to the funding of our Public Services and eradication of poverty, but I am focusing on the core objectives of Thatcherism, the ones that survived her, and more so on the one that slipped the net.

Despite the tremendous damage Mrs Thatcher inflicted upon the Trade Union movement, she never truly succeeded in crushing them as she so wished. More importantly in my opinion (and in the opinion of many Tories no doubt!), she never managed to break the link between the Unions and the Labour Party, a pet cause of many on the right since Labour’s inception.

The Tories know, as Keir Hardie et. al also understood, that the major strength of the Labour Party is its nominal position as representative of the millions of men and women who are expected to bear the cost of every capitalistic cock up without protest.

That’s what made the Labour Party so special, it was rooted in the organised sections of the class it sought to represent. It was what the ruling classes of Britain had feared since the English Revolution, the previously silent majority organising effectively enough to make their voices heard, and right the terrible wrongs that this country’s majority had endured for centuries.

Although many will argue that this principle has been shunned by the current Labour leadership, which has refused to enact a whole host of policies suggested by various Trade Unions, they are just as vital to the continued existence of the Party, as they were at the beginning of the 20th century.

Most of the Party’s money come from Trade Union member’s, who donate money voluntarily to their respective Affiliate Political Funds. Also, large swathes of our activists come from the Unions, notably USDAW and Unite, who both play a massive role in Labour general election campaigns, with Unite currently running a national phone bank campaign, contacting tens of thousands of voters around the country.

The recent industrial disputes yesterday prompted Conservative Chairman Eric Pickle’s to bring this all up, he whipped himself into the usual kind of hysteria that Tories seem to get themselves into when Trade Unionists try to stand up for their members – which is, ironically, what Thatcher sought to portray as her aim, when it came to supposedly “undemocratic” union bosses and practices.

Pickles demanded that The Labour Party immediately stop taking funds from the Unite Union.

I have become bored of trying to explain the relationship between the affiliated Unions and the Labour Party to excited Tories who have very little understanding of our internal workings. I don’t want to make the whole “The Unions are a Part of the Labour Party” argument again, I outlined it here and George Eaton also wrote a cracking article in the New Statesman, that sums it up pretty well. But its pretty clear that the Tories are now trying to turn the Ashcroft scandal round on us and at the same time revive their favoured boogeyman.

George Osborne also had some words for us yesterday on the matter,

“Gordon Brown cannot have it both ways. He can’t condemn the strike whilst at the same time taking money from the strikers’ union and while at the same time allowing Charlie Whelan, the political director of that union, to have open access to 10 Downing Street.

“In the end it’s a question of leadership for Gordon Brown. He has to cut off the links with the Unite union which is a party within a party now for the Labour Party.”

It is clear from such comments that they are eager to get back to Thatcher’s unfinished business, and break the link between the Party and the Trade Unions for good.

David Cameron has been pretty open about his plans to reform the Union link, and Conservative sources have assured us that this is intended to be a first term priority if Cameron wins the election. If they succeed, they will pretty much destroy the last remnants of the Party’s links to the organised Labour movement, and certainly ensure it will no longer have any hope of serving its original purpose.

This shouldnt be of concern just to Labour Party members, but to all Trade Unionists, whatever their affiliations. This is an attack not on the Labour Party, but on the right of organised Labour to secure formalised political representation for our movement, and is an attempt to finish the work of their revered handbag brandishing leader. We should work to ensure they don’t get away with it.

When the time comes, the words “Taff Vale” will be on more lips than mine.

BA strikes and Philip Hammond’s hot air

March 14, 2010 40 comments

This blog is not noted for its respect for Philip Hammond, Tory shadow chief secretary to the Treasury. So forgive me if I flog a dead horse and note that Hammond’s recent remarks about the BA cabin crew strikes are exactly the sort of clichéd pigswill we’ve come to expect from the Conservatives.

“These strikes will cause misery for millions of travellers but the Government is looking the other way. Maybe it’s because Gordon Brown’s spin doctor is channelling millions from the striking union into Labour’s election coffers.

“Once again, the Prime Minister is putting his own narrow political interests of above those of the British people.” (Quoted in the Times)

I think I’ve been pretty clear where I stand on the issue of the strike: Unite have the right of it, BA are a bunch of greedy bastards who are bent on finding ways to continue stuffing their pockets (and more on that in a moment). Equally, it’s sort of expected that Conservatives will oppose strikes. Can’t be having with these uppity proles eh?

That’s not at issue here. What I take umbrage at is the cheap way in which Hammond has blamed this problem on the government. What is it, exactly, that he expects the government to do? Short of passing laws to ban the strike, the government have no part to play in the dispute, which is between an employer and an employees’ union.

Actually, bearing in mind the regulations the government imposed upon said employees with the explicit justification of making it harder to strike, the government already plays a role on the side of the employer. So how is it Gordon Brown’s fault that the Unite cabin crew have voted to go on strike, after more than a year’s negotiations?

How is the Prime Minister putting his ‘narrow political interests’ above those of the British people? All Hammond has done, d’yesee, is play on the lazy meme about how Labour is in hock to the unions. That meme may well have a point – though I’d dispute it – but in this case, Unite’s putative control of Labour has nothing to do with the situation.

Nice to know where Hammond stands on ‘big government’ though.

What  makes the whole thing much more amusing is the speed with which Labour’s Lord Adonis was catapulted on to the morning talk show circuit to nullify the Tory slur by condemning the strike, claiming all that’s needed is further negotiation. Because Unite and BA have just been sitting twiddling their thumbs since 2008. Pillock.

As a parting shot against lazy tropes, having already smacked the Tories and the government, I’d be remiss in not mentioning Willie Walsh, who wrote an article for the Daily Mail the other day. It contained the same spiel as William Hague recently gave about 70′s style trades unions as well as this pearl:

“[Unite] believes nothing changes. That economies go on growing for ever. That competition does not increase. That practices born in the cosy, nationalised industries of 40 years ago must be preserved in the global economic swirl of today.”

Is this the same Willie Walsh who, just a few years ago, was singing the praises of “consolidation” amongst the most massive airlines as a necessary requisite of financial stability? I believe it is. So cosy, anti-competitive practices are fine, so long as it is workers bearing the cost while management and stock owners are free to get as wealthy as they like.

Unite, Mr Walsh, is correct that nothing changes; when it comes to bosses like you, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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