Why won’t the unions fight for a workers’ party?

Submitted by AWL on 6 June, 2008 - 10:48 Author: Sean Matgamna

Dear Brother Woodley,

Those made numb or demoralised by living through disasters are likely to have difficulty facing up to other immediately looming consequential disasters. You, for instance, now. And make no mistake about it, Brother Woodley, if you and the other leftish trade union leaders do not face up to the implications of the New Labour disaster at the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, even greater political disasters loom now for the labour movement. A Tory government? Yes, but a great deal worse than that.

The trade unions may be driving out of politics entirely. A Cameron Tory government may legislate to forbid the unions to donate money to a political party. Immediately that would mean, to the Brown Labour Party. It would also outlaw the creation of any future trade union based, political party.

The Tories may follow through on what Blair and Brown have done in destroying most of the working class roots and structures of the old Labour Party and outlaw trade union funding of parties altogether.

If you and your trade union colleagues don’t act now — if the rank and file of the unions don’t compel you to act — the very possibility of the trade unions legally organising a working class party like the old Labour Party once was may cease to be an option.

It would reduce New Labour to a rump.

The big business financing that enabled Blair to run his “office” has dried up. Without trade union funds New Labour would (unless the Tories were simultaneously to bring in state funding for political parties) shrivel.

But you know all this. Therefore? What should the trade unions do? Work might and main, pour more money into Brown’s party in an effort to defeat the Tories in the next General Election?

That is what trade union leaders like yourself will most likely choose to do. It is the age-old, reflex, response: defeat the Tories, fight the old enemy! If the Tories present a threat — “fight the Tories, and return a Labour, or a New Labour government. Brown may be bad, but Cameron will be worse!” That is your response now.

But there are now two big problems with that. The first is that things have gone so far with “New Labour” — it is such a blatantly right-wing, rich-serving, neo-Thatcherite government that it is absurd for the union to go on financing it. For the union to go on ignoring that, to go on giving millions of pounds to Brown’s party makes no sort of political sense.

It is the “Max Mosley option” — the unions paying working-class money to the Blair-Brown gang as wages for relentlessly beating the stuffing out of them! Except that Mr Mosley will have got enjoyment, or anyway emotional satisfaction, out of the ill-treatment he pays for. What exactly do you get?

The unions should step up their support for New Labour out of fear that a Tory government would deprive them of the possibility of continuing to give Labour millions of pounds? That is more than absurd it is the politics of the lunatic asylum! Isn’t it?

Still, that’s how you and the other trade union leaders will probably choose to respond to the threat of Tory victory. They may be right win bastards, but as President FD Roosveldt once said of a Central American dictator — they are, you feel, “our bastards”. Are they? No, they’re not — you are their stooges in the labour movement!

Trade union addiction to the eternal search for the lesser evil is as hard to break as addiction to crack cocaine: it is the political crack cocaine of people like yourself, who might be expected to want to do better than your predecessor trade union leaders who helped create New Labour 15 and more years ago.

The second reason is that, by all appearances, that simply won’t work. New Labour will lose the next general election, and the other neo-Thatcherite party will from a government and, may then go on to destroy the legal possibility of any future trade union financed Labour party.

That would only be the next step on from what the Blair-Brown gang have already done to the old Labour Party.

There is still a trade-union financed party — New Labour — but, Brother Woodley, a Labour Party very pointedly is what it now is not.

Think for a moment about what happened in Crewe and Nantwich. Gwyneth Dunwoody dies. She was an Old Labour traditionalist, daughter of a General Secretary of the party when that job counted for something, Morgan Philips.

In no Old Labour sense was Dunwoody on the left. She was decidedly on the left in the Blair-Brown party. So, for god’s sake, is Roy Hattersley, Neil Kinnock’s one time Deputy! Faced with a by-election in which Labour’s local working-class base has been seriously alienated from New Labour, the Brown gang, servants of the profiteers and revolted people with by idea of money being taken away from very low-paid workers to give to middle income people.

How did the Brown gang tackle the problem in Crewe and Nantwich? The shameless little scoundrels ran a demagogic campaign denouncing the Tory candidate, Timpson, as… “a toff”!

Stooges went around the constituency dressed in “toff” uniform, top hats, morning suits!

This mix sums up New Labour: robbing the poor and giving to the rich and well off and then the foulest populist demagogy!

Of course many Old Labour voters turned away in disgust and many who voted New Labour will have gritted their teeth while doing so. All the signs point to a decisive defeat in the General Election. Some of the consequences have been explored above.

So, why and how is New Labour the lesser evil? Only in the sense that New Labour is unlikely to cut its own throat by making it illegal for the unions to go on giving them money!

But at least, so you and others will say, that keeps open the option that the unions can “reclaim” the Labour Party.

The choice is between one gang of Thatcher’s children, who will continue to rob you of union political money and give nothing or next to nothing in return and the other gang of Thatcher’s children who will stop you doing that!

Some rank-and-file trade unionists and the odd Old Labour type who still survive in Brown’s party— like Japanese soldiers lost in the jungle, decades after the Second World War ended, who thought the war could still be won! — will say that too. That is now increasingly obvious nonsense. But they can, Brother Woodley say it with less absurdity than you and the other leftish trade union leaders can.

You could, even now, launch a fight to kick out the Brown gang. Very probably, if not certainly, that would mean a split in the Labour Party, a break with the big majority of New Labour MPs — a lot of whom won’t be New Labour MPS after the General Election! — and a regrouping of the trade unions who want to have a real Labour Party in British politics. A useful model here — as we have suggested before — might be the way the American labour movement went about creating the industrial unions in the 1930s. Unions that want to fight to either reclaim the Labour Party, or begin to build replacement, trade-union based party should organise themselves as a centre to reorganise the labour movement. Within that movement for a real Labour Party, and within a new party socialists would of course argue and fight for better politics than those of Old Labour — socialist politics, Marxist politics, serious working-class politics.

The unions need to act: if not the unions, no force in the labour movement can do it. Raise the banner of revolt against the Blair-Brown gang, Brother Woodley and then things now scarcely thinkable will become possible.

Essentially, the mechanics, how it is done, doesn’t matter. There are many ways the unions could act — if they want to.

You talked big against Brown’s proposal to abolish Labour Party conference — the logical culmination of everything the Brown-Blair gang had done already. And then you caved in.

You might until recently have said — “union revolt now and disagreements in the Labour Party are the sure and certain way to lose the next General Election.” They will most likely lose anyway. Trade union revolt now when there are two years before the General Election, is the only way to stop the New Labour episode, turning into an even bigger catastrophe than it is already.

The unions can’t look to Brown and his gang of conscienceless careerists to defeat the Tories. By starting the fight against Brown and New Labour now the unions could in the next couple of years rally the force of a politically renewed labour movement. There is still time!

We are now going further into an economic recession of unknown scale and proportions. The prosperity on which Brown-Blair rode is collapsing. The consequence of the sameness of the big political parties is cynicism and mass estrangement from politics. A trade union campaign could reverse that. There is much combustible material in British society — vast layers of workersnot in trade unions. There are large areas of poverty. Large numbers of people who felt prosperous, that they were doing well, now face house-foreclosures and have large debts.

Remember the line from Woody Guthries’ song about the Great Depression era bandit, “Pretty Boy Floyd”: “I’ve seen lots of funny men/some will rob you with a six-gun/And some with a fountain pen/…I never saw an outlaw drive a family from their home.”

Conditions are ripe for hordes of bandits with “fountain pens” to wreak social havoc in the wake of economic slump.

A trade union based reconstructed Labour Party could organise a progressive political force able to rally such people, workers and lower middle class people alike, to a crusade against both tribes of Margaret Thatcher’s political children — the New Labour and the Cameron Tory gangs.

Is it risky? Doing nothing except hoping for the best is even more risky. The rise — less than they hoped for in the local elections, but the rise, nonetheless — of the BNP is a grim warning of a possible alternative.

The BNP now have a member in the Greater London Assembly.

The politics of xenophobia and the scapegoating of immigrants on which the BNP subsists have already been given a tremendous boost by New Labour demagogy against immigrant workers. It is a primed bomb that the BNP and others may explode in slump conditions.

You need only look back at labour movement history to understand that the inaction of yourself and your colleagues in face of all this is criminal dereliction of your duty as labour movement leaders. Think of “1931”.

A right wing Labour government under Ramsay MacDonald, in the grip of the sort of market economics that Blair and Brown are slaves to, proposed to cut the dole for the millions of unemployed. Why? To “balance the state’s books”. They like Brown served the rich. The labour movement — led by your predecessor as General Secretary of the TGWU (now Unite), Ernest Bevin, revolted.

Bevin was no left-winger — just a responsible trade union leader, with a real loyalty, according to his political lights, to the working class. The Labour Party split. MacDonald and some of his minions formed a National Labour Party. MacDonald remained Prime Minister (until 1935) at the head of a coalition dominated by the Tory party. The Labour Party? They were “massacred” in the ensuing General Election —Labour’s seats were reduced to 52 in 1931 (from 287 in 1929). Catastrophe? In the short term, yes. In the larger term, it was salvation.

Without what Bevin, Lansbury, Attlee, Nye Bevan and the others did, the Labour Party would have been destroyed. There would have been no 1945 victory out of which came the welfare state.

But, you will insist: the defeat of the Tories in the next General Election is the most important thing. Is it? Anti-Toryism was used in the labour movement at the beginning of the 20th century against those who organised the Labour Party – as an argument for sticking with the old Liberal Party! In almost all circumstances it is possible to argue for one existing party as “the lesser evil”. “Lesser evilism” is a profoundly conservative, regressive, anti-progressive doctrine.

And consider the role “anti-Toryism” played in the labour movement over the last 25 years, the part it played in the rise of the Blair-Brown gang and their New Labour party. The Thatcher Tories operated a radical class-struggle policy aiming to cripple and destroy the labour movement, shackling the trade unions with anti-union laws undermining the NHS and the welfare state. “Smashing the Tories” had a powerful working-class meaning then.

But, as the Tories, over 17 years carried out their counter-revolution against the achievements of the 1945 Labour government something strange happened: the Labour Party leaders in the course of “fighting the Tories” moved slowly, inch by political inch onto Tory ground. It was a slow incremental movement.

Even in 1987 Neil Kinnock still made radical speeches, with some elements in them of labour movement feeling. A decade later, by the 1997 Labour victory, the Labour Party had become politically almost indistinguishable from the Tories.

In the holy cause of “fighting the Tories” the Labour Party became New Labour, which in all essentials came to be almost indistinguishable from the Tories.

Anti-Toryism is as anti-Toryism does: and Tory policy by any other name is … Tory policy.

You don’t need us to tell you this? No probably not: but what do you propose to do about it? Vegetate politically in a swathe of passive hope and delude yourself that “something will turn up”? Political activity is necessary now to make anything good “turn up” for the labour movement!

You are daunted by the prospect of having to tear down New Labour and build again? It is indeed a daunting task. The alternatives are far, far worse — the continuation of New Labour and a Tory victory with the possible consequences outlined above.

We are now passing through the 40th anniversary of the General Strike in France. Recall what happened there. After years of passivity and setback workers, following the example of students who stood up to the police on 9-10 May, seized the factories.

Tremendous discontent existed in French society. That’s what exploded so unexepectedly. A social revolution was possible, but, with the Stalinist and reformist socialist led working-class movement, that proved impossible. Very big wage concessions were won and other reforms.

In France 40 years ago the students dared to make a stand and fight. The workers were inspired to do the same.

Great things are possible in Britain if we — the labour movement, including those of its leaders who remain loyal to our class — dare to fight.

But the time for seizing the time is short. Brother Woodley, dare to fight!

Sean Matgamna

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