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Why the unions need to steer the political mainstream to the left, not abandon it

Like thousands of Labour activists I have been busy in last few weeks campaigning in the county council elections. I have been out leafleting in the small towns of Chippenham, Corsham and Devizes, where the party is seeking to consolidate the good progress made in last year’s Police and Crime Commissioner elections.

At the grassroots, Labour Party members and supporters know that a good performance in these County Council elections is essential in maintaining momentum towards a general election victory in 2015. That is why the flurry of stores in the press seeking to destabilize Ed Miliband coming from Tony Blair and his supporters have beenseen as disloyal.

Unfortunately, Len McCluskey’s comments in an interview in the New Statesman were also ill-considered:

The contempt with which McCluskey utters the name “Blair” prompts me to ask him about the recent return of the former prime minister to the domestic fray and his warning in the New Statesman that Ed Miliband must not “tack left on tax and spending”. “My message to Ed is to take no notice of the siren voices from the boardrooms of JP Morgan or wherever else he is at the moment,” he tells me. Blair and the other New Labour grandees who have urged Miliband to pursue a centrist strategy are “locked in the past,” he says, describing them as “deniers of what happened in 2008”.

It may be easy for these people, who are sitting with the huge sums of money that they’ve amassed now – they’ve done pretty well out of it. Remember it was Mandelson who said he was comfortable about the filthy rich – presumably that’s because he wanted to be one of the filthy rich. But the fact is that under Labour the gap between rich and poor increased . . . that’s a stain on what Labour stands for”.

In a sharp warning to Miliband, he predicts that Labour will lose the general election if it adopts a policy of “austerity-lite” and supports cuts in public spending. “We believe that Ed should try to create a radical alternative. My personal fear, and that of my union, is that if he goes to the electorate with an austerity-lite programme, then he will get defeated.” Drawing a comparison with Barack Obama’s successful re-election campaign, he suggests that David Cameron’s call to “stick with me” will win over the voters if Labour fails to run on a distinctive anti-cuts and pro-investment platform.

I largely agree with Len’s sentiment, but who was the audience he was addressing? As leader of Britain’s biggest union, and the Labour Party’s biggest funder, then if Len wants to express his concerns to Ed Miliband, then he can ring him on the telephone and arrange a private meeting to discuss it.

Instead, the interview has started a hare running about excessive union influence, and has possibly reduced Ed Miliband’s room for manouvre: after all, Miliband can hardly demote Jim Murphy or Douglas Alexander in the next reshuffle without it looking like McCluskey is calling the tune.

Len McCluskey has just seen off a challenger from the far left in the General Secretary election, and UNITE is still discussing merger with the far-left led PCS. It is also true that the coalition which saw McCluskey elected in UNITE includes a sizeable constituency of activists who are impatient with the Labour Party. Within the politics of the trade union movement therefore, Len is not only by conviction and temperament a man of the left, but probably also sees the interests of his union as being best served by tacking to the left.

There are a number of issues to consider here. Firstly, it is necessary to say that Len McCluskey has clearly done a good job as General Secretary, in seeking to overcome the divisions between TGWU and AMICUS heritages in UNITE, in a rational branch reorganization that has involved lay member activists, and with an unacknowledged lesson learned from GMB, UNITE has set up its “leverage” strategy to augment industrial action by imaginative campaigning.

UNITE has also sought to reinvigorate its political work, through the successful Community branches, through engagement with the Labour Party, through the CLASS think tank, and now supporting the Peoples’ Assembly.

However, for UNITE to be successful in their political strategy of facilitating a paradigm shift towards a new more centre-left and interventionist consensus, they need to understand the terrain.

The election of a Labour government is an indispensible precondition for the left to advance. The damage caused by this Conservative led government to the economy and to the social infrastructure cannot be defeated and reversed by protest marches, it cannot be defeated on the picket lines, and we need government power.

What is more, although trade unions with their around 6 million members are the largest voluntary membership organizations in society, organized labour is still too narrow a social constituency to win a general election, even were we to assume that union members would broadly follow the political advice of their union, which is itself a bold assumption.

The larger context therefore is for the left and the unions to seek to build a sufficiently inclusive electoral coalition to win a general election, which means convincing broad social layers, including many who see themselves as middle class, and who do not identify with the rhetoric and iconography of the left, that an economically interventionist and socially egalitarian, reforming government serves not only the sectional interests of the unions and the traditional working class, but is in the national interest. Specifically, this means building upon the community of shared interest between the majority of the population who work for a living, whether as manual workers, as skilled crafts and trades workers, or as part of the professional and managerial classes.

The left can only grow and maintain influence in the Labour Party itself as long as we are unconditionally supportive of the need to win the next general election; and that we acknowledge the coalitional approach necessary. The left cannot succeed in isolation, but only by convincing the centre and even centre-right in the party that the left’s strategy is the right one to achieve success in both elections and in government. If the left represents itself as a one way ticket to electoral oblivion then we are irrelevant, and deserve to be.

There are a number of areas of concern for me in UNITE’s current approach.

The rhetoric about a general strike is at best misguided. I have written before about the practicalities, and although coming from a position generally less sympathetic to the idea of political industrial action than me, Hopi Sen also has a strong grasp of most of the issues. However, it is worth exploring this argument that Hopi raises:

I think explicitly political industrial action is anti-democratic and mistaken in principle, so would be against it even if it were practical.

The issue of practicality and democratic legitimacy are actually linked. Democracy is not just about elections, but also in having a vibrant civil society where ideas are generated from diverse sources, and promoted and refined through a variety of institutions and interest groups, so that the political choices available for government are debated and contested.

Part of a healthy democracy is the right of civil society institutions to promote their ideas, and to seek to use social activism to mould the debate. A consumer boycott may be a coordinated expression of individual choices to influence a company or government, and similarly industrial action seeks to allow a collective group to democratically decide to withdraw their labour in order to seek to influence their employer to change tack. Street demonstrations and protests, like petitions, seek to provide a manifestation of strength and depth of opinion.

Demonstrative strikes, (even demonstrative general strikes as are common in many European countries), do not seek to challenge the sovereignty of the state, but only to exhibit the depth of opposition. In the case of public sector workers, while their immediate contract of employment may be with a council, a school or a government department, in many meaningful ways their employer of last resort is the government. So really even coordinated industrial action by public sector workers is within the remit of normal (but obviously conflicted) industrial relations.

The current advocates of a general strike seem a little vague about whether they are referring to such a demonstrative strike (though the nature of one day strikes are clearly demonstrative), or whether they are challenging the legitimacy of the government. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this vagueness is partly deliberate, as various leftist trade union leaders play to gallery. It would also be disingenuous to believe that any “general strike” remotely within the realm of contemplation would involve the private sector. This is where practicality and legitimacy intersect.

It is of course possible for a government, even one democratically elected, to undermine its own legitimacy due to it pursuing such a narrow and partisan sectional interest that it no longer seeks to represent the broader national community, and where it fails to consult more broadly than its narrow clique of advisors and self-interested lobbyists. In such circumstances, the crisis of legitimacy might become so acute that there could be majority support for civic activism to force a general election, including a general strike. Such a scenario would actually be democratic.

To even pose such a scenario is to clearly show in contrast that the current government is constitutionally and democratically legitimate; it not only has the sovereign authority to follow its current policies, but it enjoys significant support for them. Because there is no widespread belief that the government is illegitimate then there could not be widespread support for a general strike that really challenged its sovereign authority.

The coordinated industrial action on 30th November 2011 over public sector pensions was a success because, contrary to the expectations of the government, the unions won the public argument, and limited but real concessions were won. This is the correct model, and where there are legitimate industrial issues, then the public sector unions can unite their campaigns, and win over public opinion. Talk of general strikes is counter-productive.

This raises another question, which is why the austerity measures of the government not more unpopular. There are still significant numbers of people who believe the economic crisis was caused by the last Labour government. Indeed the Blairite response that the party needs to triangulate around this by aping the Tory austerity arguments is not entirely irrational, even though it is unimaginative, foolish and not based upon the real tasks required of goverment to get out of this recession.

Winning the argument in broader society for an alternative economic strategy based upon growth and state stimulation of the economy is therefore vital; and UNITE’s support for the Peoples’ Assembly is clearly well-intentioned and designed to promote that goal.

However, as I have written before, it is worth noting Hopi Sen’s questioning of the what the union’s seek to achieve through the People’s Assembly here; the dissecting of the politics of those left luminaries behind it by Dave Renton here; and the judgement of Freddy Gray from the Spectator, who makes the perhaps valid observation that

“The old guard – the Ken Loaches and Polly Toynbees – want a Ukip of the Left, a party that pushes Labour away from centre. Young radicals like Owen Jones want to bring back popular left-wing dissent, they are all muddling up their own anger at the failure of the left with the public’s hostility to the political and media class in general. They don’t see that they are part of the problem”.

Discussing the People’s Assembly, Dave Renton makes the interesting contrast between the inevitably choreographed and ultimately disempowering format, with the vibrancy of the Blacklist Support Group:

The choice of the venue [for the People’s Assmbly] determines the method: Westminster City Hall is a huge public forum seating 2500 people. There are not 50 separate halls there capable of hosting 50 separate conversations all then feeding back to a single, main event. The “conversation” has to be orchestrated, pre-scripted, and controlled. … … …[in contrast] I spent Saturday at a meeting of the Blacklist Support Group (BSG), where the word “rank and file” was used repeatedly, and in a way that chimed with the group’s authentic politics. There were two General Secretaries at the BSG, but they were repeatedly challenged and had at times to fight for their audience. … There was nothing cosy about the BSG meeting; the atmosphere was very different from the top-table love-in I expect of [the People’s Assembly]

Dave Renton points out not only that the cast assembled for the Peoples’ Assembly is almost identical to the Stop the War Coalition, but the organisational structure is the same. Ian Sinclair recently published an interesting collection of oral history about the STW Coalitionwhich documented that despite its initial dynamism the Stop the War Coalition swiftly became sclerotic, timid, London-centric and self-important. This analysis is further explored by Anna Chen.

The Peoples Assembly is likely to become either an irrelevant foible or an obstacle to developing a new centre left consensus, and in so far as it is supported by some unions this is a substitute for effective political action taking them down a cul-de-sac.

As the country’s biggest union, UNITE is a vital component in the ideological rearmament of the left. Indeed it was former TGWU general secrtery Ernie Bevin who first introduced  the Labour Party to the economics of Keynes, that is the tradition to build upon.

This post first appeared at Socialist Unity

One Comment

  1. Jon Purdom says:

    Ed Miliband has had ample opportunity to demonstrate his commitment to the principles on which Labour was founded. Instead he has taken a populist stance, which has allowed the political centre to drift even further to the right.

    We are witnessing the destruction of Clement Atlee’s legacy to the people of this country as the the public sector is reduced or privatised. The very least that Ed could do is promise to reverse the worst excesses of this cynical coalition.

    Instead there is silence. There is good reason to believe that Labour’s upper echelons have become so infested with career opportunists that the party no longer serves either its members or its core supporters.

    We have waited a long time for the Labour leadership to refute the rhetoric of the right wing press and to put the interests of the many before that of a fortunate few. Instead we see appeasement.

    To have credibility – Labour’s policies must be based on principles, not populism. And those principles must be broadly socialist. The vast gap between the richest and poorest must be reduced. The needs of the most vulnerable must be addressed before the deficit caused by the greediest and least responsible.

    Time is running out for Labour. If it doesn’t grow a backbone it will find its votes going elsewhere – even at the risk of letting the Tories back in. The recession has changed the game and Ed Miliband would be wrong to presume that Labour’s socialists (including MPs) will not defect to a party that genuinely represents the needs of the ordinary people.

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