TUC Congress passed a resolution calling for the public ownership of the banking system — the first sign of politics at the otherwise consensual gathering.
The resolution, proposed by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), argued that the chaos created by the major banks and financial institutions “should be ended through full public ownership of the sector and the creation of a publicly owned banking service, democratically and accountably managed”.
Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary told Congress: “The failure of the banks is not simply about regulation, or lack of regulation. The problem is with ownership. Not just shareholder ownership, but private ownership of the banks. And we think the answer is for public ownership and democratic control of the banks. That’s the argument our movement needs to make in the period ahead.”
The resolution was supported by the big unions including Unite, which organises the most bank workers. It was opposed by some unions led by right-wingers such as Prospect, and a handful of others (although only Accord, a small finance union spoke in the debate against the resolution).
The TUC general council recommended voting for the resolution, although their significant reservations suggested they had only recommended acceptance for fear of not being able to carry the vote against. Outgoing TUC general secretary Brendan Barber spent most of his speech criticising the call for public ownership, firstly on the grounds that it would upset banks close to the unions like the Unity Bank and the Cooperative, and second because of the cost. A statement from the general council talked about the need for “diversity” in banking — TUC code for more competition and a profitable, capitalist banking system.
Wrack also argued that more regulation or a break-up of the banks would not make them operate in the interests of the wider economy, as their main objective would still be to make profits for their shareholders and bonuses for their top executives. He said the answer is public ownership and democratic control.
The labour movement has a big opportunity to raise the level of debate on the reasons for the crisis and what to do about it, putting basic socialist arguments for collectivism and democracy against neoliberal plans from both the Con-Dems and New Labourites.
The debate is clearly not finished within the labour movement and the passing of one resolution at TUC congress is a largely symbolic first step. But it could create an opening with the unions and the Labour Party to raise the idea of public ownership not just for banking, but for wider areas such as energy, transport and communications.
It is a debate socialists should join with relish.