The anti-climax of Gordon Brown’s uncontested capture of the Labour leadership has shown just how disastrous it is for the organised working class to persist with its links to Labour and social democracy at the very moment when full attention should be focused on the class struggle ahead.
At a Bristol rally in support of the civil servants’ May Day strike, the comment was made that those now preparing to resist Brown’s public service pay freeze are today’s equivalent of the Triple Alliance of 1926. And if, as PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka suggested to his union conference at Brighton on 16 May, over a million civil servants, NHS staff, posties and other public sector workers are gearing up to take strike action over pay, privatisation and job cuts, then such historical parallels might not seem so far-fetched.
The problem is, however, that there is not a shred of evidence that the lessons of the General Strike have even begun to be learned. The same class-collaborating opportunism which sank that strike, funded by the same crumbs from the superexploitation banquet, still rules the roost across the majority of the labour movement, systematically striving to undermine honest class struggle wherever it rouses itself for the fight.
Take the battle to defend the NHS. There is every evidence right now that there are many hundreds of thousands of health workers who would be ready to take a stand for decent pay, job security and an end to the privatisation of the NHS – if only they were offered the necessary political leadership.
Health workers are justifiably outraged by the pay cut the government plans to impose: a 1.9 percent increase dressed up as 2.5 percent by Brown’s ‘two-stage’ trick, at a time when the cost of living is rising by nigh-on 5 percent a year. And they can see with their own eyes the connection between this attack on wages and the privatisation of the NHS. Yet when it comes to spelling out how it comes about that all these disasters are the handiwork of the Labour party in power, you cannot see the union bigwigs for dust.
In a letter to the PCS, Unison’s Dave Prentis correctly noted that “Unions cannot fight these battles alone, and the PCS and Unison should be working together to maximise our impact in responding to the attacks on us.” The letter spoke of the need to coordinate industrial action in hospitals, health centres, Whitehall departments, job centres, courts, museums, art galleries and the coastguard service.
Yet in the same week the letter was released, this same ‘firebrand’ Prentis issued a joint statement with the GMB’s Paul Kenny, gushing that Unison and the GMB would together “push for a new direction to enable the Labour party to reconnect with the electorate to ensure that it can win a fourth successive general election victory” !
What sense are health workers supposed to make of this? On one hand they are urged to start making concrete plans for a struggle coordinated across the working class. On the other, they are persuaded to “reconnect” with the very social-democratic leadership that keeps the working class divided, impotent and tied to the apron strings of imperialism.
So far from pointing out to the working class the indelible class treachery of an imperialist Labour party that continues to leech upon the subs of union members even as it orders pay cuts, privatisation and the retention of union-bashing laws, such trade-union leaders did all they could to keep everyone mesmerised with the phoney Labour ‘leadership challenge’. For weeks, the hot political issue for the labour aristocrats running T&G, Amicus and UNISON was not how to break the link with Labour, but how best to use their block votes to help revive Labour’s fortunes, by backing one or other of the opportunists vying for the leadership.
Whilst Prentis was talking about coordinating working-class struggles, Unison’s Labour Link Committee agreed on 16 May that Unison would “encourage maximum member participation in the hustings planned for around the country where key issues for the union would be raised” . The plan then was for the Link Committee to meet again on 31 May to decide who to back for the leadership. However, it turns out that this august committee will have had to think of something else to discuss instead!
The moment when the penny dropped that the Labour MPs had proven too spineless even to nominate a token ‘left’ social-democrat ‘challenge’ offered a golden opportunity to learn some belated lessons about the utter uselessness of even the ‘leftist’ reformism. Needless to say, the leadership of the ‘big battalions’ squandered this opportunity, preferring to endorse Gordon Brown whilst salving their consciences by launching a ‘Cruddas for Deputy’ campaign.
Gushed Derek Simpson from the Amicus wing of Unite: “We have the pleasure of being able to announce that our political committee have taken the decision to support Gordon Brown as leader of the Labour party and Jon Cruddas as deputy leader. With the support of our National Executive Committee we look forward to working with them to deliver a successful economy, high quality jobs and to win the next general election.” Not to be outdone, Tony Woodley from the T&G wing claimed that getting Cruddas into Prescott’s old job “would be a tremendous step forward in terms of reconnecting the government with core voters, rebuilding the party at the grass roots and forging the strong relationship between unions and party which is essential to a fourth Labour victory.”
The election ‘hustings’ planned as a ‘democratic’ prelude to Brown’s investiture pointlessly rolled out across the country, provoking well-deserved protests from the anti-war movement but eliciting nothing more useful from the trade unions than a knee-jerk ‘Vote Cruddas’.
All the boasts about millions of ordinary trade unionists having the power to influence the future direction of the Labour party must by now be ringing pretty hollow in the ears of health workers looking for a sound lead in the struggles ahead. They can derive little comfort from a letter to the Guardian from the McDonnell camp, in which they console themselves with the consideration that his failed leadership campaign “has succeeded in winning large numbers of people back to the Labour Party” !
Despite the pervasive influence of such class collaboration, despite the diversionary ‘John 4 Leader’ and ‘Trade Union Freedom Bill’ campaigns, and despite the half-a-loaf tactics of one-day strikes and ‘industrial action short of a strike’ etc thrown as a sop to militancy, there could yet be a summer of discontent in the offing, so intense and widespread is the anger provoked by the wholesale undermining of public services. If and when that anger boils over, the key question that will impose itself is: how does the proletariat rid itself of the burden of social-democratic misleadership?
Of no use whatever in answering this question will be the representatives of ‘left’ social democracy holed up in Respect and the like, whose formal detachment from Labour cannot conceal their shared hostility towards any sign of the re-emergence in Britain of revolutionary communist leadership. Such types can be counted on to invade every political nook and cranny wherever working-class resistance gathers strength, seeking to keep the labour movement corralled within social democracy. The upcoming Founding Conference of the Shop Stewards Network, called by the RMT (itself disaffiliated from Labour – for the moment at least) will doubtless prove no exception.
All the more reason, then, for comrades to join in the fray at every opportunity, armed with the clear watchword: Break the link with Labour!
The Founding Conference of the Shop Stewards Network takes place on Saturday 7 July, from 11.00am to 5.00pm. The venue is South Camden Community School, Charrington Street, London (near Kings Cross). If you send a cheque for £5.00, made out to National Shop Stewards Network, to NSN c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London NW1 1JD, giving your name and union affiliation, you can go as a delegate.