Take the battle into Labour

Unions must reject the terms of debate established by government, media, and Labour opposition, argues Michael Copestake

So the June 30 strikes are upon us, with four teaching and civil service trade unions out on strike against the vicious class-war cuts programme of the coalition government. Although this initial action should be seen as more of a shot across the government’s bows – a prelude to more widespread strike action in the autumn – the national political situation is undoubtedly hotting up, as the labour movement begins to stir in a way not seen for two decades or more. What then is the reaction of the Labour Party?

Miliband: strikes a 'mistake'. O RLY?

First to pronounce publicly on the matter was shadow chancellor Ed Balls. Writing in the Sunday Mirror, he posed as the sympathetic friend of the trade unions – urging them not to go on strike, as to do so would be to fall into the Tory “trap”. Out of the other side of his mouth though comes the voice of the establishment: “Everyone agrees public sector pensions need to be reviewed, as people live longer. But the government should be getting round the table and talking changes through.”[1] Everyone agrees? Certainly we do not, and this is the stultifying and contrived consensus that the labour movement must shatter.

For Balls then, it is not what the coalition is doing that is the problem, but merely the methods being utilised. Taking the approach of Pontius Pilate, Balls washes his hands of the dispute and urges the trade unions to throw in the towel before the bell has even rung. This mealy-mouthed approach – claiming to take a neutral position between the two sides where none can possibly exist – characterises the whole approach of the Labour Party leadership today, and indeed historically.

Ed Miliband later found his voice, though he too has produced only banalities, as he flounders between the working class and the capitalist state – hoping to serve the interests of the latter without unnecessarily upsetting the former, upon whom he and his party ultimately depend. Though he has not condemned the strikes outright, it goes without saying that he has lent no support either. The unions are meant to fight alone and the Labour Party will do no more than refrain from denouncing them outright. In justification Miliband cites “public opinion” and “inconvenience”: “I don’t think the argument has yet been got across on public sector pensions as to some of the injustices contained in what the government is doing. Personally I don’t think actually strike action is going to help win that argument and I think it inconveniences the public.”[2]

During prime minister’s question time on June 29, the very eve of the strikes, Miliband refused to raise this major issue, preferring to try and catch David Cameron out over NHS quangoes. This gave Cameron, who only had to deal with ‘friendly questions’ on the industrial action, an easy target: Miliband was embarrassed to raise the subject, he said, because he is “in the pocket of the unions”. A strange way to behave in that case. In fact Cameron’s jibe ignores the little fact that none of the unions currently striking are affiliated to the Labour Party (some on the left say that with a leader such as Miliband it should stay that way). That aside, it is a disgrace that the hundreds of thousands of workers who are attempting to defend their living standards and hold on to their modest pensions do not have the Labour front bench speaking out for them in parliament.

For his part, shadow Welsh secretary Peter Hain commented: “I don’t think political leaders, in opposition or in government, should either applaud strikes or condemn strikes.”[3]
Thanks very much, Peter. A bloodless and technocratic view, yet one with a very slight difference in emphasis from the other senior Labour figures. One that has been pounced on by the bourgeois newspapers as a sign of treachery against the establishment. However differently the leading Labour figures put it though, we will call it what it is: vacillation, capitulation and cowardice.

It was not as though we were not warned. Miliband in his first keynote speech to Labour’s conference declared: “I have no truck, and you should have no truck, with overblown rhetoric about waves of irresponsible strikes. The public won’t support them. I won’t support them and you shouldn’t support them either.”[4] We do not expect him to change his tune on the matter any time soon.

Ultimately this behaviour derives not just from Labourism as an ideology, but from the history of the party as a parliamentary pressure group, and the privileged rights and powers held by its sponsors, the trade union bureaucracy. The members of the Labour Party are much more akin to mere ‘supporters’, as are trade unionists who pay the political levy. Under Blair this reached its logical conclusion with conference reduced to a mere rally, managerial control-freakery and a concerted attempt to establish a wide donation stream from capitalists and other rich individuals.

From this perspective the working class, as such, does not exist beyond its requirement to turn up at the ballot box every four or five years. It is always an unpleasant experience for the the Labour right when the class flexes its muscles and begins to act for itself. Such behaviour is an embarrassment for a Labour leader who wants to be seen as his ‘own man’ – in other words beholden to the Mirror, The Sun, Sky News and the Murdoch empire. To this end Miliband intends to reform Labour’s organisation – the union block vote once again being a prime target. There is talk of it being lowered from 50% to something “fit for the 21st century”. At the same time he wants to provide a platform, if not voting rights, for charities and (unspecified) ‘campaigning organisations’ at the annual conference.

Just three general secretaries wield 40% of the votes at Labour conference – and, it is true, in a highly undemocratic way, which does not even allow for the political balance of their delegations to be taken into account. Theoretically, the unions, with the support of a handful of allies, could win every vote and ensure that policies in the interests of their members, and of the working class, were adopted. The reality is, however, that the unions have more often than not been the mainstay of the Labour right. In the end this is because the bureaucracy, as a result of its role as intermediary between capital and labour, has no interest in encouraging working class self-activity.

A further planned reform is to allow public petitions gathered by constituency Labour Parties, if they reach a certain threshold, to win a debate at conference. Not as motions to be voted on, mind you. Instead this is a purely cosmetic measure arising out of anxieties expressed by Miliband that around a third of CLPs do not even bother to send delegates to conference: it is, after all, a mere talking shop, especially after the changes introduced under Tony Blair – though Miliband does not put it quite like that.

In tandem with this, Miliband wants to remove the right of the parliamentary Labour Party to elect a shadow cabinet when in opposition and transfer this role to a single individual, the leader: ie, himself. This would then mirror the power of prime ministerial patronage held over the party when in it is in government. This would bend Labour more firmly to the will of a single uncrowned monarch at all times.

What should the response of the trade union movement be? Rank and file pressure must be applied in all Labour-affiliated unions to force their leaders to point-blank refuse to vote for a further reduction of their own political influence within the party. The unions must demand that their sponsored MPs come out openly on the side of workers fighting to defend their jobs, pensions and services. Those who do not must be deselected and replaced. Far from demanding that the unions disaffiliate in order to go off and form a no-hope Labour Party mark two, we should launch a campaign to strengthen the fight against the right within Labour by winning left-led unions such as PCS, NUT, RMT and FBU to affiliate.

The unions must reject the terms of debate established by the government, the bourgeois media and the Labour opposition around the issue of pensions and the age of retirement. This affects the whole of the working class, not just those in the state sector. The poisonous notion that ‘everyone agrees’ the working class must pay because people are having the temerity to live longer disguises the fact that, firstly, gains in labour productivity far exceed the increase in life expectancy – we should be campaigning for retirement for all at 60 and a 35-hour week; and, secondly, the so-called ‘hole’ in public sector pensions is nothing but a myth.

The trade unions must be won away from the useless politics of ‘moderation’. Instead of telling us to wait for the next Labour government, the bureaucrats must be made to fight for what we need. Those unions not striking on June 30 must come out in the autumn. Militant-sounding general secretaries like Dave Prentis of Unison must be made to follow up words with action.


  1. Sunday Mirror June 19.
  2. The Guardian June 25.
  3. Ibid.
  4. The Independent September 28 2010.

First published in the Weekly Worker.

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