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British Unions shift to the Left

by Rob Sewell Thursday, Jun. 05, 2003 at 1:59 PM

Labor on the March to the Left

In Defense of Marxism-

Workers International League-

As British Unions shift to the Left

Don't get angry, get even!

By Rob Sewell

The victory of Tony Woodley as general secretary of the powerful Transport and General Workers' Union, Britain's third biggest union, is a further confirmation of the continuing swing to the left in the British trade unions. In the process, Jack Dromey, the candidate favoured by Downing Street and husband of the solicitor general, Harriet Harman, was trounced, as has happened in all other union elections. This is a clear indication of the discontent within the union rank and file with right wing trade union leaders and the policies of the Blair government.

Woodley won the election with 66,958 votes, beating Dromey into second place on 45,136. Another left-winger Barry Camfield gained 28,346 with Jimmy Elsby, another right-winger, on 13,336. If you add the left vote together, this gives the left within the union a commanding lead.

Woodley stated that the union would be "spelling out to ministers that our loyalty to Labour does not mean the abandonment of our socialist ideals or a willingness to acquiesce in policies that damage the interests of working people". He also announced that "we are putting employers on notice that the days of phoney partnership are over - of thousands of jobs being exported, and of British workers having the fewest rights in Europe". Woodley is to create a central office "disputes team" to help run strikes. He has also given notice that he intends to hold a summit with other left wing union leaders hostile to New Labour to "put the Labour in the party".

"I'll fulfil my promise to call a summit of affiliated unions to discuss how to get Labour back representing working-class people", said Woodley. "The T&G knows better than most that the Labour party is a broad coalition whose destiny has been guided since its beginning by the trade unions. If the progressive ideas of the unions appear now to be ignored, the solution is not to withdraw and sulk in our tents.

"It means representing members rather than ministers as we take the arguments for progressive policies into every area of the Labour party to which we are affiliated."

This could provide the catalyst, as Socialist Appeal has argued, for such a transformation of the Labour Party. Together with the other left union leaders, the TGWU can set the agenda for the labour movement, both in the TUC and the Labour Party.

Without any doubt, there is massive dissatisfaction in the trade union movement with the pro-business stance of the Blair government. Public sector unions in particular are bitter at the government's continuation of Tory policies in the form of 'Best Value' and PFI, resulting in further attacks and cuts against workers.

High hopes in 1997 have turned to disillusionment. This is reflected by the tumbling turnouts in elections, most recently in the local, Welsh and Scottish elections.

Interestingly in Wales, where the Welsh Labour Party distanced itself from Blair they scored a great success. Promising free bus passes for the elderly, free school meals for pupils, abolition of prescription charges, no to tuition fees and no to foundation hospitals, Old-style Labour, trounced the nationalists and won back Llanelli, Islwyn and the Rhondda. In Scotland a small party standing to the left of Labour, the SSP, won six seats and the Green party also picked up seven seats in the parliament.

Opposition to Blair's policies has also come from within the Labour Party. Even within the parliamentary party there have been a series of backbench revolts over tuition fees, the Iraq war, foundation hospitals, restrictions on trial by jury, and legislation against the firefighters, the last three in the space of two weeks. The resignations of Robin Cook and Clare Short over the issue of Iraq were a massive blow to the government. Short's attack on Blairism was especially to the point, as we have analyse in a previous article, and will have far-reaching consequences as the groundswell of opposition builds up.

The trade unions, however, have always been the key to the Labour Party. It was the right wing trade union leaders, such as Sir Ken Jackson, who supported Blair and his cronies to the hilt. With their help, Blair was preparing to break the union links. Now the project has started to unravel. His props within the trade union movement have fallen by the wayside, one after another.

Over the past few years, in a string of union elections, the Blairite candidates have been resoundingly defeated. Leaving aside Woodley's victory in the TGWU, the biggest setback for Blair was in fact the defeat of his erstwhile supporter Ken Jackson of the AEEU (now known as Amicus). The executive elections in September could see a further victory for the left. Again, the recent election of Kevin Curran in the GMB, a powerful industrial union, also served to reinforce this shift to the left in the trade unions.

Again, there has been the recent defeat of Blair supporter, John Keggie, deputy general secretary of the CWU, by left-winger Dave Ward. "The result is a further setback for Downing Street, which is losing its grip on the TUC and Labour Party machinery", states The Guardian newspaper. (23 May 2003)

With the union conference season in full swing, discussions about the Labour-union links have once again resurfaced. Last month, Bectu, the 26,000-strong broadcasting and entertainment workers' union, overwhelmingly agreed to ballot its membership over its links with the party. It is possible others, such as the FBU, may follow suit. However, the attempt to carry a motion for the Communication Workers' Union to disaffiliate from the Labour Party was resoundingly defeated.

With Blair on the run, is it time for the trade unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party? We say ABSOLUTELY NOT! Such a move would simply play into Blair's hands. It is exactly what the Blairites want. They want to eliminate the trade union (i.e. working class) base of the party, so as to transform it into a capitalist party. Up until now, they have completely failed in this 'project', as they call it.

The task facing the trade unions, which created the Labour Party, must be to kick out the Blairites and take back the party for the working class. There has been a lot of talk, but now we have to transform words into deeds. We support Woodley's initiative to call a summit of leaders to reclaim the party. To begin with, the 12 trade union representatives on Labour's NEC must represent union policy or be removed. Secondly, if the unions were to send 50 members into every constituency party, they could take it over. It would be sufficient to trigger the full reselection process of sitting MPs. Thirdly, the unions should give full backing to a '300 Club', aimed at signing up 300 trade unionists to each Constituency Labour Party. Lastly, they should draw up a list of potential replacement candidates who will consistently fight for union policies.

The unions have the resources to help its members join the Labour Party. In the past trade unionists were given a special rate of £3 to join, which has now increased to £12 a year. The unions should reinstitute the original scheme. The members' political levy should be used to subsidise members to join the Labour Party. This is not to cut the finances to the party, only that they will get this money through membership fees instead of donations, sponsorships, etc.

The FBU has just donated £12,000 to the Labour Party. This could have been used to help hundreds of FBU members join the party, a number of whom could have joined say, John Prescott's party in Hull East, or maybe Nick Raynsford's party in Greenwich and Woolwich. On the basis of the rules, which stipulate 'One Member One Vote', every potential Labour candidate would be judged by the policies they support. Obviously, the trade unionists would caste their vote for those most closely associated with union policies. Together with other trade union members, they could decide, at the snap of their fingers, the best candidate to represent Hull East and Greenwich and Woolwich at the next election! Think about it.

The victory of Tony Woodley has witnessed a decisive shift to the left in the unions. The unions have the power to change the Labour Party. Now is the time to act.

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