This week, former General Secretary of the CWU Alan Johnson has issued an unabashed attack on trade union influence within the Labour Party in an interview with Progress, part of an increasingly confrontational and destructive approach to dictating Labour Party policy from the Blairite wing. Jacqui Smith’s now regular articles, including hers on Osborne’s welfare trap before the recent benefit cap vote, follow in a similar vein and indicate a growing unrest amongst the Labour right as the next election grows closer and they increasingly try to assert their influence.
Ed Miliband’s decision to challenge the Tories on benefit cuts offered a glimpse of the political leadership necessary for an economic alternative to the cuts. That broke with the strategy advocated by Progress and the neo-liberal right of the party and he was vindicated in subsequent polling. Despite the shrewd victory over the Tories that Miliband secured, with favourable coverage in most mainstream media the ‘Surrender Tendency’ claim would never be reported over resisting cuts, figures like Johnson continue to rewrite history and predict electoral disaster unless the Labour Party hugs close to the Tory strategy of slash-and-burn austerity.
Ed Miliband should be reassured that whenever he has challenged the status quo, often defying the basic tenets of the Labour right’s dogma in the process, he has been successful and won plaudits, strengthening both his leadership and his position in the polls. The commitment to market orthodoxy and political triangulation of the Labour right cannot win back those voters it lost.
Building on the momentum and genuine outrage over regressive measures such as the benefit cap and the bedroom tax, as the human effects of Tory barbarism comes to be more widely felt, Miliband should carve out a pro-growth platform of state intervention using resources horded by banks and private business, and tucked away in offshore tax havens.
Miliband must offer significantly more than Balls’ five point plan, by resurrecting schools building programmes, tackling the legacy of hospital PFI payments, and by challenging the market failure of privatised industries. The Fair Fares campaign is exposing the exorbitant cost of privatised rail transport failure, which has consistently failed to provide better service, while the planned 24% fare increase between 2011 and 2015 is harming both business and the environment. Maria Eagle has made encouraging noises as to rethinking rail transport policy, and Miliband can afford to be bold in offering a transport alternative based on public ownership and putting rail users before shareholders.
Similarly, Miliband’s emphasis on fair energy costs is moving in the right direction, and the very least he should do is increase regulation in energy provision to cut tariffs and enforce an investment fund in renewable energy.
With standards of living falling drastically since the Coalition took power, Miliband needs to improve people’s spending powers, and he has recognised this in his discussions about ‘predistribution’. He should commit to legislating for a statutory living wage and use his existing powers to increase the national minimum wage, end Labour’s support for the public sector pay freeze, oppose the coalition’s policies on council tax benefit and the market rates of social housing, and introduce regulation in private renting. All of these policies go hand in hand in increasing the money in people’s pockets necessary to get consumer society growing again, and can all be achieved legislatively, while guaranteeing an increase in both consumer spending and tax coffers.
Where Johnson is wrong is that that all of these kinds of policies are advocated by the TUC, and are not simply the diktats of Unite’s leadership. Johnson attempts to draw a false distinction between the Frances O’Grady and Len McCluskey, as to draw a line between ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ forms of trade unionism, but the division he points to does not exist.
He also tries to claim that trade unions are ungrateful for the 13 years of Labour government (‘it’s the Blairites wot won it’) and claims that unions’ short memories have led them to replicate a ‘What did the Romans ever do for us?’ mentality. He also fails to acknowledge that the regressive anti-union legislation instituted by the Thatcher government was left in place under New Labour, with the UK possessing some of the most restrictive trade union legislation in all of Europe.
At a time when workers’ rights and trade unions are under perpetual assault by a rabidly anti-union Coalition government, figures like Johnson and Progress are engaging in a nakedly anti-working class agenda intent on preserving their old outdated ideology. Johnson claims that the trade unions are antiquated, out-of-touch and that they need to ‘get out into the communities’ (and get out of Labour politics, one presumes), yet it is Johnson who appears to think the political landscape has not changed since 1997.
When the Labour Party can only boast around 250,000 members as opposed to the 6 million trade unionists, perhaps it is Labour who should learn from the unions about how to get out into the communities and engage ordinary people. One successful way to do this would be to make sure politicians look more like the people they represent, and this includes the promotion of working-class MPs which Johnson calls ‘inverted snobbery’.
Johnson says the unions are increasingly irrelevant, but despite the oxygen he is afforded by political journalists, it is the politics of Progress that are a danger to a Labour Party seeking to win back support from working class voters and win in 2015. There is a positive agenda that challenges the Tories, let’s take it.
This article first appeared at Next Generation Labour