Alan Johnson, the Blairites’ favourite ex union leader, has made a call for the unions’ influence in the Labour Party to be curtailed.
Johnson, once general secretary of the post and telecom union CWU, and now Industry Minister, has proposed that the union vote at Labour Party Conference be cut from 50% to 15% (Times, 14 November).
As Tony Woodley, general secretary of the TGWU, put it: “It is no coincidence that the Blairites want to change the make-up of the conference and party since they’ve been losing votes.”
Labour’s affiliated unions should rise to the challenge. Ideological arguments should be met with ideological arguments. It is time for the unions to assert themselves and make the case for their political role within the party. Instead of accepting the role of party donors or footsoldiers at election time, the unions should claim a place at the centre of policy making. They should launch a counter-attack, by demanding that Blair step down now as Labour leader.
Working-class political representation is as much needed now as when the unions founded the original Labour Representation Committee to organise working-class candidates for Parliament at the beginning of the 20th century.
Political trade unionism should be about putting this idea of working-class representation into action. It is not about re-establishing “old Labour” with its culture of political conservatism, deference to the leadership, and acceptance of a division of labour between the industrial and political wings of the movement.
As socialists we should not accept a division between the industrial and political work within the trade unions. The industrial is political. In order to build up political trade unionism, we also need to rebuild the industrial movement. We need effective union organisation in all sectors of industry, and an end to company and business unionism
Government officials have “denied there [is] any plan to change the voting arrangements” in the Labour Party (Financial Times, 15 November), and possibly the 15% proposal is just kite-flying. But back in October Tony Blair himself, in a speech to the right wing Labour organisation Progress, hinted at rule changes to restrict the influence of the unions.
A Blairite campaign will soon be underway to sell such rule changes to Labour Party members and the bourgeois press before the September 2006 Labour Party Conference.
At that conference, all the union leaders need block such changes is to use their block vote to say no. However the unions have voted to take away their own influence within the party before - in the 1993 OMOV (one member one vote) changes from John Smith, and the Partnership in Power scheme brought in just as the Labour Party took power in 1997. Large parts of the trade union movement bought in to the ideological argument that they had to give up power within the Party for the sake of Labour’s electoral success or government effectiveness.
After eight years of Blair government, enthusiasm for such arguments has drained away. Ministers will still claim that if the unions do not hold back they risk tearing the Labour Party apart.
In fact it is Blair who is upping the stakes. He is pushing proposals for the health service and for education system which have very little support within the Parliamentary Labour Party or the constituency Labour Parties, let alone in the trade unions or in the working class generally.
The unions used their block vote at 2005 Labour Conference to defeat the leadership five times, on trade union rights and public sector issues which mark a faultline between the mainstream of the Labour Party and the Blairites. The unions’ support for defence of the NHS, Royal Mail and council housing chime with what the vast majority of Labour Party members and supporters want.
The unions are the main obstacle for Blair in his attempt to "marketise" public services. And he has pushed the "hard" and "soft" left of the Labour Party into alliance against him.
David Cameron, the Tories’ likely new leader, has already indicated that he will support Blair’s education proposals — and why not, given that they are remarkably similar to Tory thinking? There Even a large scale rebellion of Labour MPs will not stop Blair on that issue.
Thats makes it all the more important for union leaders to speak out now and say Blair must resign. The circumstances in which Blair is ousted will set the tone for any future leadership.
In the past Blair has managed to do deals with union leaders for concessions, “reviews”, or delays, in order to avert defeat at Labour Party Conference, but in 2005 the differences were too stark. Maybe the end of that line has been reached.
The conflict between the unions and Blair centres on two areas - the growth of the two-tier workforce, with a lower tier on low pay and and minimal employment rights, and the expansion of the private sector into the delivery of public services.
What is at stake is the voice of organised labour in party politics. We must argue for the unions to assert themselves within the Labour Party.
The Labour Representation Committee was set up in 2003 to bring together rank and file trade unionists and Labour Party grassroots activists, not only to fight for socialist policies in the Labour Party but also to bring together Labour and non Labour Party members to organise for working-class political representation. It has the support of four national unions: the rail union RMT, the firefighters’ FBU, the Bakers, and the CWU.
Trade unionists and socialists should build the LRC to push the case for working class political representation and fight to stop Blair silencing the voice of organised labour in British politics.