Breaking the link?
Last year closed with an extraordinary and sustained wave of strikes, demos and uprisings in Greece. These political develpments, threatening to swamp the boundaries of social democracy, should set a new benchmark for workers everywhere.
In Britain, new signs of discontent over Labour’s reactionary influence over the unions are surfacing, with one very sizeable union – the CWU – appearing to give serious consideration to breaking the link with Labour.
In the run-up to Christmas, the government revealed its latest move in the campaign to privatise the Royal Mail by stealth: plans to invite an infusion of private capital from the Dutch postal company TNT. To sweeten the brew still further, former Communications Workers Union (CWU) general secretary Alan Johnson, now reincarnated as the Health Secretary, defended these back-door privatisation plans in Cabinet, insisting that they represented the postal service’s only hope of survival.
This put the CWU on a collision course with Labour, given that the union’s annual conference had already reaffirmed its opposition to any kind of privatisation, including “outright privatisation, joint ventures, splitting the business and allowing private companies to take over parts of it or infusions of private capital”.
The union is committed to ballot its quarter of a million membership to disaffiliate from Labour if Business Secretary Mandelson does not back down.
Labour’s loss of support from the RMT and the FBU in 2004 was bad enough. To lose the CWU in 2009, representing many more workers, would be much worse. Thanks to the subs of its long-suffering membership, the CWU has poured over £5m into party coffers since 2001, including half a million in the last 12 months alone.
Meanwhile the ‘super-union’ Unite, which has the dubious privilege of being the single largest union donor to Labour, has an impending leadership election of its own, with two out of the four hopefuls contending to replace Derek Simpson as joint general secretary pledging to ‘reconsider’ their financial support for Labour.
Barber’s New Year message
One year on from his last New Year message (telling everyone not to panic about the credit crunch because it wasn’t really anything to do with the ‘real’ economy), Brendan Barber conceded in his latest papal bull that 2009 will be “a grim year” with unemployment set to rise every month.
In truth, he could do little else given the crisis erupting under all our feet. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), whose dire predictions a year ago were more than justified by subsequent events, have already warned that at least 600,000 jobs could go in the UK in 2009, and every day brings news of more business collapses, redundancies and short-time working.
So what New Year’s resolutions were on offer to workers facing unemployment, mortgage foreclosures, pensions insecurity, and deteriorating public services? What plan did he offer whereby organised labour might use its collective strength to make capitalism pay for its own crisis instead of imposing a crushing burden on the backs of the working class?
None whatever, despite the rhetoric demanding “a decisive turning point away from the neo-liberal market-always-knows-best conventional wisdom that brought our economy to the brink of a catastrophic collapse”.
In reality, despite some vague talk about the need for “bringing forward planned infrastructure projects” and “fast tracking new projects to ensure that further work can start when these finish”, Barber’s latest encyclical was a good many cards short of a New Deal.
The fact is that Barber’s advice didn’t even amount to a state capitalist ‘solution’ to the capitalist crisis. Sooner than call for failing businesses to be nationalised and funded and controlled by the state, he wanted to see yet more public money poured into the private sector.
And sooner than demand guarantees that such public largesse will be accompanied by a corresponding degree of public control and accountability, he attached only the empty proviso that there must be no “return to picking winners and easy hand-outs, but strategic support to the sectors where we are already strong but could do better. Some will be in manufacturing, but others will be in services and parts of the economy often neglected in such discussions such as the creative sectors.”
Finally, whilst administering the routine slap on the wrist for the bankers and regulators for their lax behaviour, Barber lavished praise on the government for “setting the international pace on the bail-out of banks” and foresees the need for yet more funds to be pumped into the banking system!
No capitalist ‘solution’ for capitalist crisis
In truth, even if Barber got off the fence and put down a clear marker for a neo-Keynesian solution, complete with nationalisation of strategic sectors of the economy and an ambitious range of government-funded public works, he would still richly deserve the contempt of union members.
Any capitalist ‘solution’ of the capitalist crisis will necessarily rely upon the working class carrying the heaviest burdens, leaving the rich to hunker down in the hope that ‘something will turn up’ further along in the business cycle.
Yet the underlying message from Barber throughout is: wait and see what the capitalists do next. After all, what can we do, we who “have little experience of a recession driven by a financial collapse” (doesn’t 1929 count then)? And for the moment “we do not know how bold our government – and as importantly, other governments meeting together as the G20 in April in London – will be”.
So we are all supposed to wait and see how the great and good propose to sort things out in the spring!
The emancipation of labour, however, remains the work of the working class itself. Workers are better advised to make a close study of current developments in Greece than to hearken to Barber’s witterings.