Make the unions and Labour fight this new Tory government!

Cameron

Author: 

Martin Thomas

On 11 May David Cameron took office as Tory prime minister, leading a Tory/ Lib Dem coalition government.

Whatever the detailed concessions the Tories have given the Lib Dems, the new government will be no less harsh about cutting and union-bashing than a straight Tory administration would have been.

The labour movement has to gear up for a fight. The unions have to break from their culture of recent years, in which a "campaign" would mean at most one or a few one-day strikes, followed by a face-saving deal. And socialists have to build a force of clear political opposition to the cuts and to the capitalist system behind them.

The unions are not ready yet. Nor are the socialists.

Unite put a lot of effort into the general election campaign. In practical terms, it was valuable, for example in helping to push back the BNP in Barking.

But it was accompanied by no effort at all to push a distinctive political message, even on issues where Unite has clear union policy. Mailings to Unite members appealed to them to vote Labour on such grounds as trusting in the "experience" of the government as against the untried Tories.

On 11 May Unite joint general secretaries Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson put out a statement supporting a Labour/ Lib Dem coalition. If that had come off - and it now looks as if it was never really on the cards - it would have meant giving the New Labour right wing a huge counterweight to union and working-class demands in the shape of Lib Dem coalition partners whose policies include new legislation to allow the government to ban strikes in public services.

Unison was more dignified, implicitly criticising the coalition talks, saying that the election result did not mean a popular mandate for cuts, and promising that the union will organise to fight those cuts.

The record of the Unison leadership, however, makes that promise untrustworthy - unless left-wing challenger Paul Holmes can oust sitting general secretary Dave Prentis in the current Unison leadership election.

GMB supported Labour in the election campaign, but quietly, except in support for the anti-fascist campaign Hope Not Hate. It has made no statement since 6 May.

The post and telecom union CWU was also quiet, putting out an edition of its union newspaper in early May which said... nothing about the election. It has made no comment since 6 May, though the Tory/ Lib Dem government is sure to go for privatising Royal Mail.

The rail union RMT contributed actively to winning re-election for left Labour MP John McDonnell, but said almost nothing about the election on its website.

The civil service workers' union PCS put out a statement on 7 May which quoted general secretary Mark Serwotka presenting his chief concern after the election as... pushing for proportional representation! As if Nick Clegg needed more boosting...

Presumably drafted or approved by the Socialist Party, which has a controlling influence in PCS, the statement claimed, surreally, that the "outcome [of the election] shows the public have rejected the main Westminster parties".

Unison had commented, accurately, that the 6 May result could not be taken as showing any popular mandate for cuts. PCS "improved" that comment into the idiotic claim: "Election result is a rejection of cuts agenda".

It went on, fatuously, to propose as the PCS alternative to cuts... stricter tax collection.

"The public have rejected the main parties"? The three biggest parties got 88.1% of the vote. That share was down 1.4% on 2005. UKIP and the BNP increased their share by 2.1% (mostly by standing more candidates than in 2005).

Votes for parties that could even arguably be reckoned to the left of the three biggest parties went down, not up.

TUSC, the electoral front run by the SP (with some participation from SWP), got 0.04% of the vote.

For socialists to use elections as a sounding-board even when they can win only a small vote may make sense. For them to claim that their 0.04% of the vote shows that the public has rallied to them and rejected the parties that got 88.1% of the vote is stupid.

Evidently the big majority of working-class people who want a fight against cuts voted Labour. That will not have been because they trusted Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling to stop cuts - they are not stupid - but because they thought they would have more leverage against cuts with a Labour government than with a Tory or Tory-led government.

Activists in the unions need to organise now to use that potential for leverage which comes from Labour's links with the unions. More: we need to organise to make the anti-cuts majority shown by opinion polls into an effective industrial and political force.

The unions should map out a programme of agitation, rallies, demonstrations, and escalating industrial action now, rather than "waiting and seeing".

And the Labour Party will now be in flux - with a leadership election, with a review of its structures already promised to begin in October 2010, and with debates beginning about the debacle of New Labour. A new Labour leader will want to smother that flux, but the unions cannot afford to allow him or her to do that.

The unions should intervene to reclaim a working-class voice in the Labour Party, and to turn the Labour Party - or at least sections of it - into a political force for the anti-cuts fight.

Socialists must organise, first to argue boldly for socialist alternatives to the cuts and to capitalism, secondly to pull the unions into politics.