Make unions and Labour fight this Tory government!

Submitted by martin on 12 May, 2010 - 9:40 Author: Editorial

The new Tory/ Lib Dem coalition government is committed to cut brutally and deeply into the living standards of the working class - into our wages and into social spending.

The Tory commitment to reduce the national debt in the shortest possible time, and to do so while also cutting taxes, implied the most severe cuts. Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has also promised "bold and savage cuts".

The Tories as the leading party in government are now in a position to carry out their threats. There will be cuts as savage as the working class will let them get away with. Cuts as in Greece, if they can.

We already face a now-established judges' interpretation of the anti-union laws which means that employers like BA or Network Rail can halt almost any big strike by going to court and saying there has been this or that blemish in the ballot.

We may face new anti-union laws, giving the government power to ban any strike in public services and impose binding arbitration instead. (Such laws are Lib Dem policy, and Vince Cable repeated the message during the election campaign).

The big question of politics in the period ahead is what the labour movement and the working class will do about it. That depends to a serious extent on what the socialists will do.

Even a year ago it looked possible that the Labour Party would become a focus of working-class political and trade-union opposition to Tory government policy once Labour was out of office, and perhaps after some time had passed and the Labour Party leadership had changed.

The surprising thing now is the extent to which, even before the election, Labour could become the political focus for working-class fear of the Tories. Even prime minister Gordon Brown, Tony Blair's Chancellor of the Exchequer for a decade, could articulate that fear and tap into working-class memories of the Thatcher Tories in the 1980s.

Gordon Brown seems to have struck a chord of awareness among traditional Labour working-class voters by beating the alarm drum against what the Tories will do to working-class people given the chance. He could do that even while he was insisting that Labour, if re-elected, would itself make severe cuts.

In any case the Labour vote held up surprisingly well for a party which had been in government for 13 years and and which six months or a year ago looked as if it would face meltdown in the general election.

Labour did well in the local government elections held on 6 May. In the parliamentary election, the Tories, who had seemed to be heading for a crushing victory over Labour, failed even to get a majority. Despite briefly rising high in the opinion polls, the Lib Dems did no better than in 2005. The BNP suffered severe losses and the disappointment of its expectations. Smaller left parties all did poorly.

Any coalition government has a built-in fault-line. That said, this Tory/ Lib Dem government is likely to be a stable government that will last for years and maybe for the duration of this parliament. Once "bloodied" by their initial wave of cuts, the coalition partners will want to stick together.

We have seen in Greece the social turmoil into which the country has been plunged by a government determined to carry through the will of the international bankers and a labour movement determined to resist.

The British working class too will resist!

The cuts will come in a situation where capitalist profits and revenues are soaring again, and prices may be rising rapidly. If it is not like that, they will be cuts in a "double-dip" recession, and people's patience about "sitting out" the first "dip" will wear thinner by the second "dip". The prospects for resistance are greater than in the dull semi-boom period of 1992-2007, or the stunned financial-collapse period of 2008-9.

When Nick Clegg warned of a Tory government provoking "Greek-style unrest" or "serious social strife", he was right about what will face the government in which he is now deputy prime minister.

If it were a Labour or Lib/ Lab government attempting to impose cuts, in the interests of placating the bankers, the working class movement would be inhibited and open to the blackmailing Labour government argument: "tolerate what we do, or let the Tories come to power and impose worse". This Tory/ Lib Dem government is more likely to evoke serious resistance.

The unions face a challenge, both industrially and politically. Ten years of "new realism" in the last period of the last Tory government and the early Blair years; another ten years of supposed "awkward-squadism" which produced not much more than occasional protest strikes and demoralised clutching at small concessions from a boomtime, public-spending-increasing New Labour government; and two years of being stunned by the crisis, have left us with a big hill to climb in order to regroup and reorient.

The trade union leaders are only too likely to continue to play a wretched role. But the political context is now changed radically.

The warnings against the Tories from the unlikely, and to a large extent hypocritical, figure of Brown - warnings which did, it seems, rally a lot of working-class Labour support at the end of the election campaign - will still echo in the labour movement and may, whatever Brown intended, help prepare resistance. They struck a keynote of Labour Party and labour movement opposition to what the Tories and Lib Dems will do. It is not our keynote but it is a note of opposition to the new regime.

In the past things which have entered into our history as great rank-and-file explosions, like for example the strike of a quarter of a million workers when five dockers were jailed for illegal picketing in July 1972, were in fact prepared for by the attitudes and gestures of less-than-adequate labour movement leaders.

The 1972 explosion was primed by a three-year campaign by the TUC against first Labour's failed attempt to bring in anti-union laws in 1969, and then the Tory laws that reached the statute books.

The sort of alarm-calling Brown did in the general election can resonate in the working class and the labour movement, irrespective of Brown despite Brown.

The New Labour era has come to an end. But is it the end of New Labour? Not necessarily.

Labour's unexpectedly good showing in the election (comparatively speaking) means that the New Labour gang are less discredited than they deserve to be.

Yet the prospect of a "radical" regroupment of Lib Dems and New Labour has been wrecked by the Lib Dem decision to participate in a Tory-dominated government. The invertebrate liberals of the Guardian and Observer fondly advocated a Lib Dem vote on the grounds that it would change British politics forever. The Lib Dem support for a Tory-led government shows how off-beam they were.

The Lib Dems are likely to emerge from this coalition government deflated and discredited. There is already talk of an exodus of Lib Dem activists towards Labour. In general, the Tory/ Lib Dem coalition is cutting the "moderate" ground from under the feet of the New Labour gang.

Now the labour movement is either going to roll over and take what the Tory/ Lib Dem coalition dishes out, or resist what even the New Labour prime minister Brown has described in advance as unjust and destructive cuts.

Much depends on what the union leaders do, and much also depends on what happens within the Labour Party in response to its defeat.

The Blair-Brown gang deliberately gutted the old Labour Party, changing its structures to block off all the channels which allowed working-class voices to be heard in it. In the election campaign, trade unions had to step in to compensate for the consequent weakness of local Labour Parties by sending activists and organisers to key constituencies across the country.

What is necessary, and what thinking labour movement people know is necessary, is fight to revive the Labour Party as, firstly, a real party with an active and power-wielding membership, and secondly, a working-class-based party.

There cannot but be calls and initiatives for the Labour Party to move that way in the period of conflict that will now open up. The Labour leaders have already conceded a commitment to restore the right of unions and local Labour Parties to send motions to Labour Party conference. What is needed is a full-scale restoration of Labour Party structures and the old "open valve" between the unions and the Labour Party.

Side by side with trade-union and community resistance to the Tory/ Lib Dem government must go the urgent work of restoring a viable Labour Party.

That is difficult. We will start from a very low base. The local Labour Parties are depleted and demoralised. The union leaders are wretched.

Is it possible? Yes it is, if the unions and the socialists organise and fight to make it so.

In the years to come, the New Labour years are likely to come to seem less objectionable than socialists know them to have been, if only because of the general prosperity that lightened them but came to an end with the banking crisis of 2008.

But people will become aware that a critical measure of the New Labour years is the condition in which they leave the labour movement now, faced by the onslaught of the Tory/ Lib Dem government.

The conditions demand the creation of a vigorous rank and file campaign for the political renewal of the whole labour movement, a renewal which could restore the working-class parliamentary representation that, in large part, the New Labour gang wiped out.

We can help develop a broad political mobilisation on the big issues of the coming years by building a united-front coalition on a limited platform, essentially:

- Oppose cuts, tax the rich, cut military spending;

- Repeal the anti-union laws, establish a right to organise, to strike, and to picket;

- For working-class political representation. For Labour Party conference to be able to make political decisions binding on the Labour leadership.

- For the right of unions to finance political parties, and against state funding of political parties.

In 1980 the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory organised for the 1979 general election was able to go forward to pull together a coalition called the Rank and File Mobilising Committee for Labour Democracy which eventually had affiliation, at least nominally, from every group of the Labour left. Today a united front could be sought of the Socialist Campaign to Stop the Tories and Fascists, the Labour Representation Committee, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, some existing union left groups or even one or two small unions, and maybe other groups.

Such a coalition would be especially valuable for organising politically in the unions (and not only Labour-affiliated unions) on a broad scale. The simple task of winning support and sponsorship for it from union branches and committees, and from Trades Councils, would provide great openings for political activity.

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