Left wing Labour MP John McDonnell has declared he will stand against Gordon Brown for Labour leader when Blair departs. You would imagine that given his record of campaigning for the trades unions and opposing the whole Blairite agenda that the affiliated unions would obiously support John McDonnell’s. Can they really support Brown who is driving the government’s neo-liberal agenda, privatising public services and destroying public sector jobs?
The experience of 9 years of a right wing Blair government has driven vast numbers of members out of the Labour Party. So much so that most local parties are empty shells. Having promised to create a party of one million members Blair has merely succeeded in halving the membership. Many socialists will view the question of who takes over from Blair with indifference, not least because either Brown or any candidate supported by Blair’s clique will continue with the neo-liberal ‘free market’ programme of the current government.
John is appealing to people to return to the party to take part in the campaign. It remains to be seen how many do, but it will probably not be that many since nobody believes that he stands a chance of getting anywhere near winning. However, it would be a mistake if socialists in the affiliated unions took the view that the change of leadership is of no consequence. So long as the unions remain affiliated to Labour then we should demand that instead of collaborating with the Blair/Brown leadership they should argue for a fundamental change of political direction. To support Brown (as ‘the only serious candidate’) or to sit on their hands and passively await his ‘coronation’ would be a grave disservice to union members who are daily being attacked by this government.The affiliated unions should oppose any attempt to rig a ‘smooth transition’ from Blair to Brown. In the first instance they should insist on a democratic process in which a discussion takes place on policy questions. Secondly, if any of the trade union critics of the government accept a ‘coronation’ of Brown then union members could only draw the conclusion that their criticism of government policy was mere hot air. Brown was one of the authors of PFI and is the main driver of privatisation throughout the public sector. John McDonnell’s campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party should be seen as a welcome (if somewhat belated) challenge against the whole political programme of ‘Blairism’. One does not have to be a Labour Party member to support the campaign. Any member of an affiliated union has the right to demand that their union declare its support for McDonnell. We should not watch with disinterest if the union leaders line up behind Brown.
Writing on the Labour Representation Committee conference which agreed to support his candidature John McDonnell talked of the choice which should be presented to party members in the leadership election:
• between promoting public services or continued privatisation.
• between free education or trust schools and tuition fees.
• between increasing the state pension and restoring the link with earnings or forcing more people onto the means test.
• between allowing councils to build council houses once again or high rents, escalating housing costs, homelessness and overcrowding.
• between energy from green power sources, conservation, and British clean coal or the costs and risks of nuclear power.
• between promoting civil liberties and trade union rights or reactionary incursions into the right of free speech, assembly and trial.
• between a government committed to peace, withdrawal from Iraq and nuclear disarmament or backing Bush’s wars and wasting £24 billion on Trident.
With the exception of the question of nuclear power the unions are fundamentally in conflict with this government’s policy. What sense would it make to support a candidate who would continue with the policies which the unions are opposed to and for which their members are paying a heavy price? Campaigning for the affiliated unions to support McDonnell is necessary to challenge the conciliators of New Labour at the top of the unions, who have given the Blair government an easy ride.
The latest example of union leaders facing both ways – criticising the policy of the government but acting as if they were friends of the working class – was the GMB Congress. The Congress took some positive decisions, including breaking with the ‘partnership’ agenda so beloved on New Labour. Yet when Blair spoke he was given a standing ovation by many delegates, whilst the top table uttered kind words about this reactionary ‘free market’ fanatic whose government is privatising across the public sector and supporting a right wing Republican President in the international arena. You cannot stand up for union members and stand up for Blair.
Many union leaders will no doubt say that John McDonnell is not a ‘serious candidate’. If they can find a more serious one then let them. But this is not the basis of their relectance to support him. They do not want to oppose the leadership of New Labour. Do they seriously believe that their powers of persuasion can miraculously transform New Labour into a union friendly party? This is self-delusion. Even Brendan Barber has said that a ‘fundamental change of direction’ from New Labour’s agenda is necessary. Pretending that the New Labour leaders are our friends is at complete variance with nine years experience. Year after year the unions have won policy at Labour’s conference, defeating the privatisation agenda. But, of course, the government has simply ignored those votes. Good arguments will not convince people who are ideologically committed to privatisation that they must abandon the entire rationale of their policy.
Perhaps the calculation of some union leaders is that if they support a candidate against Brown this will burn bridges with him and mean they have no ‘influence’ with him. Such ‘influence’ is nothing more than self-delusion. The government has given away a few crumbs, but it’s overall political direction is fundamentally opposed to the interests of union members and the working class in general. Union leaders may see such an approach as ‘realism’. In reality it is the worst opportunism.
It is the collaboration with the government which the union leaders have for the most part carried out, which has allowed it to get away with a programme of abandonment of the welfare state, privatisation of public services, and support for a right wing republican administration in the USA on the international level.
In return for the Warwick Agreement the major union leaders have effectively agreed to restrain their members in order not to ‘risk’ the prospects of a fourth term for Labour. That has meant compromise in the pension dispute, abandoning the new generation of workers who will be on worse terms and conditions of service than existing staff, and failing miserably to develop any serious campaign against the government’s fracturing of the NHS and opening up of it to big business.
Writing on his blog CWU leader Billy Hayes wrote:
“Problems of disengagement from Labour are linked to the Government’s support for Bush’s foreign policy, and the neo-liberal attacks on the welfare state. Change the policies and make our Party worth joining again.”
Billy has been one of the most vociferous proponents of the ‘stay in and fight’ line amongst the trade union leaders. It will be interesting to see, especially since the CWU is affiliated to the Labour Representation Committee, whether he seeks to win the CWU to supporting John McDonnell’s campaign. So far he has remained silent. But all of the union leaders are being put to the test now because the camapign for the leadership of the party puts them on the spot.
Of course, the campaign has a very difficult job on its hands for it has to win the support of 44 Labour MPs in order for John to become a candidate. It is questionable as to whether such a large number can be pressured to openly support a campaign for a break with the political direction of New Labour. If it fails to get John on the ballot then even those such as Labour Briefing, which hangs doggedly to work in the Labour Party, may well draw the conclusion they have resisted to draw for so long, the need to build a socialist alternative to New Labour. That is the expressed view of Graham Bash, one of its leading lights.
“If there were simply a coronation of Brown – without even an attempt to mount a left challenge – this would be yet another nail, possibly a final nail, in the coffin of not only the Labour left, but also the Labour Party as a class party. John’s brave attempt to raise the banner of core Labour and socialist values is either the beginning of the fightback or, if it makes little impact, the beginning of the end for the Labour Party itself.”
Whatever the outcome, socialists in the affiliated unions should not allow their union leaders to talk out of both sides of their mouths, criticising the government but failing to seriously organise a struggle against it.
Supporting John McDonnell’s campaign does not mean agreeing with the perspective of ‘winning back Labour’, it simply means that we do not allow the union leaders to go unchallenged should they propose to support Brown or some other creature of the Blairites. If they support the line of ‘staying in and fighting’ let them show us they are serious about fighting the government. If they were serious about overturning the politics of Blair they would have organised a candidate themselves. As it is John McDonnell offers the only chance within the Labour Party of challenging the political agenda for which our members are paying such a high cost. Brown is as much as enemy of the labour movement as Blair is.http://www.john4leader.org.uk