Tony, Why Don't You Back John McDonnell? An open letter to Tony Woodley

Submitted by sm on 16 March, 2007 - 5:15

To Tony Woodley, Joint General Secretary of TGWU-AMICUS

Dear Bro Woodley,

"Should [Labour] party policy be put into practice by [Labour] government, and if not, why not?", you asked in your article in the Guardian on 5 March.
"For example, it is Labour’s policy to return the railways to public ownership... The party conference has repeatedly voted for limits on the use of the private finance initiative...
"Labour delegates voted for a radical reform of employment law... Labour has voted for equal funding treatment for council housing".
As you well know, the Blair-Brown government does just the opposite. It pushes further privatisation. It chops up the Health Service. It forces councils to raise rents and sell off council housing. It upholds what Blair proudly calls "the most restrictive trade union laws anywhere in the western world."
You have identified the central dilemma of the British labour movement today.
A government called Labour pursues anti-labour policies in proud and direct defiance of the labour movement, and in particular of the trade unions which still provide much of the funding for, and nominally have a major say in, the party which that government supposedly represents.
Blair is what he is. Brown is what he is. There can be no doubt about that, after a decade in government. The question is, what will the labour movement do about it?
You were among the first of the union leaders to say openly that Blair must go. On 9 September 2005, you declared: "The sooner he steps aside", the better.
It could have been said much earlier, but it was good to say it then. After 13 years of Blair, it is plain that the trade unions and the labour movement can get nowhere in politics without shoving him — and the other Blair-Brownites — out of the way.
Now, within the next few months, we have a chance to shove Blair aside and to put forward, as the new Labour leader, a candidate who stands for labour-movement policies: for public ownership, for public services, for trade-union rights, for council housing.
Better: there is a candidate in the field who does just that, John McDonnell. And the majority faction on your union’s Executive, the TGWU Broad Left, has voted unanimously to support McDonnell.
Yet that Executive met last week (5-9 March), and you did not put to it a proposal to support McDonnell. From timidity or whatever other reason, the Broad Left faction on the Executive — the majority! — put no such proposal, either.
On 9 March, Derek Simpson, speaking on behalf of the merged TGWU-Amicus, of which you are now joint general secretary along with him — the merger vote having just gone through — declared that "he had no enthusiasm for anyone to stand against Mr Brown..." "No one would have enjoyed Muhammad Ali in a boxing ring fighting some local market scrapper.." For Ali read Brown, for local market scrapper read McDonnell.
Simpson also declared: "Despite the personal hostility between Mr Brown and Mr Blair, I don’t think you can get a cigarette paper on policy between the two men".
What sense does it make? You indict the policies and the leadership of the government, you counterpose to it the ideas put through Labour Party conference by the unions — and then you say that the continuation of those policies should go unchallenged!
Your Guardian article is full of half-suggestions that Brown is, at least, more responsive to working-class opinion than Blair.
For example, after reciting the Labour Party conference policies, you write: "the Milburn-Clarke tendency ignores all this". Brown ignores it just as much!
You urge Milburn or Clarke to stand, on the argument that a big defeat for them would be a weighty repudiation of "undiluted Blairism". The Brown majority, even against Milburn or Clarke, would be a weightier boost for "undiluted Blairism"!
Simpson is right: "you can’t get a cigarette paper on policy" between Blair and Brown.
In the coming Labour Party contest, you tacitly accept Brown for leader and exert "criticism" only by backing Jon Cruddas for deputy. Cruddas’s campaign has been financed by £15,000 from TGWU and £15,000 from Amicus.
What Cruddas says about reconnecting Labour with its base sounds good? Yes, but where does Cruddas stand on the class issues which you yourself put down as markers?
The monitoring website lists how he has voted on key issues since 2001:
"Very strongly for introducing foundation hospitals;
"Quite strongly for Labour’s anti-terrorism laws;
"Very strongly for the Iraq war".
Not only the "Milburn-Clarke tendency" and Brown, but also Cruddas, "ignore all this" of labour movement accountability
Worse, Cruddas wants to remove even the possibility of that accountability. He proposes that the union say at Labour Party conference be reduced further, from almost 50% at present down to 33%. In the current condition of the Labour Party, that reduction would ensure the leadership a conference majority on all the class issues you emphasise, and for the foreseeable future.
But McDonnell can’t win? The labour movement is in such a feeble state that it is not even worth trying muster a decent number of its own members to stand up for the movement’s own policies, even to the extent of a cross on a ballot-paper, against the Blair-Brown machine?
To be sure, the TGWU backing McDonnell would not, at one stroke, enable the labour movement to make this "Labour" government accountable.
TGWU support for McDonnell — with a vigorous campaign to rouse TGWU members, and to encourage other unions to back McDonnell — would only be the start of a fight to break the union movement from its de facto political subservience to Blair and Brown, and re-establish the labour movement as an independent force in politics.
It would only be the beginning of a fight which would use every Labour Party conference, and every Labour Party forum, as an arena to mobilise the maximum working-class forces against Blair and Brown, to demand accountability of the Labour MPs, not to shrink from an open split with Blair and Brown and the re-establishment of a working-class party in open opposition to New Labour.
But it would be a fine and good beginning.
John McDonnell told a "TGWU for McDonnell" meeting in London on 6 March that he reckoned he had 30 probable nominations from MPs. Explicit support from the TGWU, an open appeal to TGWU-sponsored MPs, could push him over the threshold of 44 nominations necessary to be on the ballot paper.
The active and interested union members who vote in union ballots generally vote left. That is how you yourself got elected. The problem about McDonnell getting their votes, if he gets on the ballot paper, is not that the union members fail to agree with McDonnell’s policies against Brown’s and Blair’s. It is that they have not heard of McDonnell.
A vigorous endorsement of McDonnell by yourself and other union leaders — or even by yourself alone — would change that. It would establish McDonnell as a credible candidate, worth support, with hundreds of thousands of trade unionists.
With probable big Brown majorities among the MPs and in the Constituency Labour Parties, that union vote would probably not be enough to win the leadership for McDonnell. It would be enough to send an electric shock through the whole body of New Labour.
It would be enough to start a serious fight to reverse the demoralising pattern of the last twenty years, of continued union and labour movement subservience to "Labour" leaders openly rejecting and disdaining labour movement democracy.
It would be enough to re-establish the labour movement as an independent force in politics.
We, the supporters of Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty will continue to support McDonnell’s challenge, and to fight to re-establish independent working-class political representation and to reinstate the aim of a workers’ government, come what may. Whatever you do, that fight will go on.
You have recognised that fight as necessary. If the opening paragraphs of your article of 5 March mean anything at all, they mean that. The question is, will you take it up?

Yours for socialism,

Martin Thomas

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