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
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
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