For five years now, every autumn, at the Labour Party conference, the big unions have voted through policies reflecting their members’ wishes but clashing sharply with the Labour leadership.
Solidarity strikes and boycotts should be legal. The Health Service should not be privatised. Local councils should be enabled to renovate council housing and build more, instead of being forced by the Government to transfer it to private management and ownership.
Blair and Brown ignore those conference decisions. No way to overrride them — except to change the leadership.
This spring, Blair gave the unions a chance for free. He announced he would make way for a new leadership contest.
The big unions, between them, have hundreds of Labour MPs in their “parliamentary groups”. These “sponsored” MPs get money from the union, and sometimes the help of union officials, for their constituency campaigning.
Among those hundreds, there would surely be no problem for the big unions in finding Labour MPs competent to stand for leader and deputy leader on a platform of loyalty to the labour movement and respect for Labour Party conference decisions?
No. No such candidate. The big unions attempted nothing of the sort. Only one union — the railworkers’ RMT, shortly before the Labour Party expelled it — has done anything to ensure that its parliamentary group is actually loyal. It dumped previously sponsored MPs like John Prescott and made a new group out of MPs who showed a commitment to working-class policies.
Being in any of the other parliamentary groups is a sinecure. Spit on the unions as much as you like, and the unions won’t complain. The union money and help comes in just the same.
But there was a movement-loyal candidate after all: John McDonnell.
Surely, the union leaders who quailed at the thought of sorting out their parliamentary groups would at least do the minimal thing of giving their nominations and support to McDonnell? No, again. None of the Labour-affiliated unions, except the relatively small train drivers’ union ASLEF, did so.
Deputy leadership? TGWU and Amicus did promoted and financed a candidate. Someone movement-loyal? No: Jon Cruddas, a former bag-carrier for Blair, a supporter of the Iraq invasion and of foundation hospitals, a man who wanted to cut the union say at Labour conference from 50% to 33%, and who proposed himself as just as Brown-loyal a deputy as any of the other candidates.
The other main union leaders did not back Cruddas. They were dissatisfied with him? Fair enough. But then shouldn’t there be a union leaders’ equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath which commits doctors, if they can’t cure, at least not to harm?
If the union leaders were too weak to find, or push forward, movement-loyal candidates, they could at least keep a scrap of dignity for their organisations by refusing to lick any of the hands that beat them — refusing to endorse any of the candidates.
And surely the unions could say to Gordon Brown: if you want our nomination — which you don’t need anyway, since you have ensured no-one else is on the ballot — you must at least back off from imposing 3% real-terms pay cuts on our members in the public sector workers.
There, for once, was a case where the union leaders could do the right thing just by sitting on their hands, something they are proficient enough at doing in circumstances where action is called for.
They would not even do that. TGWU, Amicus, and Unison have endorsed Brown. Unison and the CWU Executive have backed Alan Johnson (who, outdoing Cruddas, is on record as wanting the union say down to 15%) as deputy leader.
Union leaders tell us that the members are lethargic? No wonder, when given such a model of not just lethargy, but positive servility, from their supposedly “left-wing” and “awkward” union leaderships.
We need to renew the leaderships of the unions.