Britain - The election, "New Labour" and the trade- union link

Oct/Nov 1996

The vote-hunting season is already in full swing. It opened in the summer in the form of a second-rate poster-size comic "strip", that of Saatchi & Saatchi's "demon eyes", and it is bound to unfold as an even greater farce over the next months - a farce which has already taken the form of a media- generated charade around that old bogeyman: the issue of the trade- union link.

And how could it be otherwise? The contending parties have nothing to offer working people, except the grim perspective of being told to tighten their belts in the name of "market forces" and competitiveness, or, with even more hypocrisy, for the sake of "creating jobs" and "protecting the welfare state" - but in reality only to allow capitalist profit to keep filling the fat bank accounts of the bourgeoisie. Having nothing to offer, not even their ritual, soon-forgotten election promises, politicians can only do their best (or their worst) to attract voters' attention and catch their votes.

Particularly prominent, and revolting, is the on-going competition, and over-bidding, between the Labour and Tory parties for what they call the "middle ground". The result is a ragbag of reactionary themes and policies, pointing to the poorest, the unemployed, the homeless, the youth, etc.. as being out of place, out of order, somehow guilty. While the super rich, who are responsible for the millions of jobs which have disappeared in the past 17 years, are praised for their "contribution" to the country's wealth and told obsequiously that they should be just a little more discreet about their affluence, the unemployed youth are told contemptuously that they should work for their dole money, when they are not singled out as being responsible for urban insecurity.

Major and Blair, Clarke and Brown, Lang and Blunkett, may have different tones at times, they may use different words (although it is increasing hard to notice it), but they definitely have the same policies.

The bourgeoisie and the prospect of a Labour government

When such an expert in bourgeois politics - and Tory stalwart - as the business journal, The Economist says in its "survey of Britain's new politics" dated September 21st, that the only choice for voters will be "between five more years of conservatism under John Major and five more years of conservatism under Tony Blair", one can take their word for it. Should they have the slightest doubts or misgivings about **[Labour's] goodwill or ability to deliver, it would be spread all over their frontpage, as it was so many times in the past. But why should they have any?

For it is not just Blair's "New Labour" rhetoric which makes Labour acceptable for the capitalists. It is primarily something much deeper, which is rooted in Labour's long-standing record as a loyal manager of capitalist affairs, whenever it has been in office.

The "New Labour" course is nothing but the packaging dictated to Labour politicians by their fundamental loyalty to capital, given the constraints of today's particular context - a packaging which they have only completed recently but has been in the making long before Blair's time, as Labour's machinery was gearing up for a return to power.

But if Labour returns to office, as is likely now, the bourgeoisie will expect it to be something other than just glossy "New Labour". They will expect to get the old Labour Party that they know and have learnt to trust - within certain limits, of course. After all, they don't trust blindly their Tory auxiliaries either - nor any other, untested party.

The capitalists can see the benefits for their own interests of the old Labour Party dressed up as it is in "New Labour" clothes, as a possible solution to a number of their present problems, particularly the wear and tear of the political institutions after so many years of Tory rule. But they can only see such benefits in so far as Labour retains its instruments of control over society, whether it be the machinery of Labour-controlled local government or that of the trade union apparatuses. Without Labour having solid control over these instruments, the capitalist class would have much less incentive to accept even the mild inconvenience attached to having to deal with a Labour government.

Labour remains tied to its past

This is why the possibility that "New Labour" might decide at this stage, or in the near future, to break the trade-union link seems extremely unlikely, despite all the noises made in the media during the recent TUC conference.

Contrary to what is often implied, the trade-union link is not limited to the constitutional arrangements which Labour inherited from its distant origins, including the block vote at Labour party conference - because these arrangements have long been more formal than real. Due to the absence of democracy in the actual running of the party and the lack of accountability of the structures which exercise any real power, these constitutional arrangements have long been mostly confined to producing a flow of motions and resolutions which were never implemented. Whereas, on the other hand, the intimate bureaucratic intertwining between the union and Labour apparatuses, with individual bureaucrats often playing a role in both and the fact that the union machineries still supply the Labour party with many of its activists and cadres and a very significant part of its resources (despite Blair's boasting otherwise), constitute an organic link, which has no democratic content whatsoever, but is quite real and vital for the Labour Party.

That there is a layer of Labour politicians, and an increasingly large one at that, who would rather integrate fully into the fold of "normal" bourgeois politics and do away with the trade- union link - i.e. cease to have to depend in any way, even if it is more limited these days, on the union bureaucracy - is obvious. But this is not new.

It is one of the functions of bourgeois political institutions, such as the Commons, to lure those who do not belong yet to the regular political personnel of the bourgeoisie, to join it, if not formally, at least morally. This is achieved first through the material benefits granted to MPs, the way of life this allows them to have, the social status they enjoy, the clubs they are allowed into, etc.., and then through the career prospects which are offered to them. There is nothing surprising, given the careerism which exists in the Labour Party, in the fact that a number of Labour MPs should prefer to stay away from union conferences and committees and instead be invited to business diners and media functions where they can brush shoulders with the powers-that-be; or that they should wish to enjoy the same career prospects as many of their counterparts on Tory benches, who are head-hunted by City firms for lucrative jobs after just a few terms in the Commons.

This attraction has always been the cause of a steady trickle of Labour MPs crossing over to one of the other two main parties. But many of those who have refused to go down that road, certainly wish they could get the same benefits without leaving Labour. And they contemplate with envy the comfortable and often flash lives of their counterparts in the US Democratic Party, who are able to get the financial and political support of the union machineries without having to give up anything in return, in particular without enjoying a lesser social status than that of their colleagues in the rival Republican Party.

But British society has had a different history. The two main American parties were both formed as bourgeois parties in the last century, with the Democratic Party forming an alliance with the union bureaucracy in the 1930s due to the circumstances created by the Depression and the needs of Roosevelt's New Deal policy. Whereas the links between the Tory party and the British bourgeoisie predate the emergence of the Labour Party. Labour itself was formed, not by the bourgeoisie, but by the union bureaucracy. Neither the relationship between the British bourgeoisie and the politicians on the one hand, nor that between the union bureaucracy and the Labour Party on the other hand, which are both the result of a long evolution over many decades, can easily be entirely reshaped over just a few years.

But beyond this, one can conceive of the possibility that the Labour Party, having been in office for a long period of time and having used this period to consolidate solid positions across society, in the machinery of the state as well as in the economic and social machinery of the capitalist class, should decide to loosen its ties with the union bureaucracy, or even to sever them altogether, in the context of a crisis situation for instance.

However, the example of Ramsay MacDonald, who chose to break with the union bureaucracy in the 30s in order to be able to form the National Government and force drastic benefit cuts on the unemployed, shows that this is more easily said than done. The fact is that, MacDonald failed to pull a sizeable section of the party behind him in the National government coalition, while the union bureaucracy, having chosen to return to opposition rather than risk weakening its control over the working class, succeeded in keeping the party together. And although MacDonald's attempt took place over sixty years ago, some of the obstacles he came up against are still there.

For the time being, regardless of individual ambitions expressed more or less vocally by Labour politicians, the Labour Party, as a whole, can only remain tied to the union bureaucracy, in any case as long as a whole number of conditions are not met - and the advent of "New Labour" has not brought any fundamental change to these constraints.

After 17 years in opposition and the loss of many of the social, economic and political positions which it had secured in the days of the previous Labour government, it would be foolish for Labour politicians to take the risk of allowing their future careers and social status to depend entirely on the goodwill of the bourgeoisie. Yet, this is what would happen should Blair decide, really, to sever the trade-union link today.

The trade-union link as a bargaining advantage for Labour

Besides, the trade-union link still plays a vital role in the attraction that a Labour government has for the bourgeoisie. It is one thing for the media to adapt to social prejudices which are widespread among the middle- class electorate - the very prejudices on which the Tories play themselves - and to pester the Labour leadership about their links with the unions. It is quite another thing for the bourgeoisie to disregard the advantages that these links may have once Labour is in office. And while the Labour leadership makes some allowances to middle-class public opinion, it is not stupid enough to itself fall for the prejudices that it flatters.

Of course, the bourgeoisie does not want the trade-union link to involve any additional cost, and even less so today when the union bureaucracy is in a position of relative weakness as a result of the severe drop in their membership figures and the higher level of confidence displayed by the employers in the class struggle. And it is in response to this that "New Labour" has put a big emphasis on saying that the unions would not have privileged access to a Labour government.

But on the other hand, awarding to the union bureaucracy a few thousand positions in quangos and other regulatory and administrative bodies, plus, for instance, full implementation of the European Union works councils system, and a few other bits and bobs of this kind, would be a very reasonable price to pay. Because this could yield additional profits for companies, thanks to a closer "collaboration" with the union machineries in implementing restructuring and other profit-boosting changes. After all, the bourgeoisie did not have to grant much more than that under the past Labour governments.

The real question, rather, is what the union bureaucracy can deliver under Labour, through the trade-union link, that the bourgeoisie could not get under the Tories. In this respect, paradoxically, the appalling record of the union leadership in fighting mass redundancies in large- scale industries and, subsequently, the restructuring exercises throughout the economy and the privatisation drive in the public sector, is putting Blair in an uncomfortable position. Indeed, the union bureaucracy has made such an extensive use of Thatcher's anti-strike laws, in order to cover up their refusal to organise any fightback and stifle militancy among their membership, that it is difficult to see what more they could do in this respect under a Labour government.

Of course, this was the reason for Blair to stress very early on that there would be no turning back on Thatcher's employment laws under a Labour government. But, in addition, Blair has made a number of gestures and given further arguments to reinforce his case with the bosses.

The latest of these gestures is obviously Blunkett's "unwelcome" advocacy of compulsory binding arbitration to curb strikes in essential services, made at a fringe meeting during the recent TUC conference. Of course, this was blown totally out of proportion by the media. But so it was meant to be. The choice of where and when Blunkett's statement was made was obviously designed to give it maximum publicity. After the media furore, the fact that Blunkett made another statement toning down his previous one, did not really matter and went largely unnoticed, except among the activists. What was important in this exercise, was that it should be known, and emphasised as much as is practicable, that Labour is capable of considering curbing the right to strike even further - in a way that even Thatcher never dared to try. What was important too, was the attitude of the union leaders. Of course, they could not very easily come out in favour of Blunkett's suggestion from the platform of the TUC conference - although the ageing president of the engineering union, Ken Jackson, was drafted in to do just that. But on the other hand, Blunkett's statement did not come out of the blue, contrary to the impression given in the media. It came after a long series of statements in favour of "ending the culture of confrontation" which have been part of the union leadership's language for the past period, ever since the "relaunch" of the TUC after John Monks was elected.

The fact of the matter is that the Labour and union leaderships have many more tricks in their bags that they could use against workers, including outright attacks, which would have been dangerous for the Tories to try, but that Labour might be prepared to implement against the working class if it could serve a purpose for the capitalists. And this remains a major selling point for Labour in convincing the bourgeoisie that it could have something to gain from a Labour government.

But for the Labour leadership to be able to use such a trump card in their march to government, they need to retain the trade-union link intact to ensure the full cooperation of the union bureaucracy.

Another warning for the working class

In this context, all the noises about breaking the trade-union link are little more than a red-herring - and, at the same time, yet another exercise by the Labour leadership to show how ruthless they are prepared to be against the working class.

It would be a dangerous mistake to draw from Blair's posturing the conclusion, as many left groups and activists seem to have done, that the trade-union link needs to be defended against the Labour leadership. It would be dangerous, because it would only confuse the issue. It would fuel the idea that, after all, workers would somehow be more protected against a future Labour if they ensure that the trade-union link remains. And it would help in spreading illusions about the ability, or the willingness, of the union bureaucracy to defend the basic interests of the working class by putting pressure on the future Labour government.

The trade-union link exists and will remain. But whether it does or not is entirely beyond the control of union members anyway, just as much as most of what is decided and effectively done by their union leaders is beyond their control at the present time, due to the bureaucratic operation of the unions. And if it does remain, one can be certain that it will be put to use by the Labour party to serve the interests of capital, just as it has under the past Labour governments. It will not result in pressures on Blair to deliver changes favourable to working people, but in pressures on the working class to keep its head down when faced with further attacks by the capitalists.

And what is vital, and could prove decisive, is that the working class and the grassroot union activists are aware of the fact that, under a Labour government, they could very well be faced with much more drastic attacks, against the right to strike, for instance, but also against their jobs, wages and conditions, than they have experienced under Thatcher and Major, and that they are certain to have to face the backstabbing, if not overt betrayal, of the union leadership - and all the more so as this time the bureaucrats will have a few more crumbs to defend and their allies in government to protect.

There are still a few months left before the election. It is the responsibility of the revolutionary movement to make the best of this time; to use it as a matter of urgency in order to warn the working class against the dangers ahead, through discussions and propaganda, but also through its intervention in the day-to-day events of the class struggle - by helping workers to organise their own struggles so that they do not depend on the goodwill of the union bureaucracy, especially when, like during this summer's disputes, union leaders are openly taking workers around the garden path (see our article on the subject in this issue of Class Struggle).

Should revolutionaries fail to take this task seriously, no-one else will do it for them - and this would be turning their backs on the working class. The revolutionary movement may be weak, particularly in terms of its physical and political presence in the industrial strongholds of the working class. It may not have enough influence and credibility to ensure that workers will take its warnings seriously. But if it was to use all its resources to ensure that its warnings are heard, and more importantly that they are given a concrete form in the class struggle in the coming months, these efforts would not be wasted. They could even mark the beginning of a rebirth of revolutionary ideas in the working class.