Britain - Blair's "lesser of two evils" blackmail

sept/oct 1999

The beginning of the conference season saw Blair and his ministers taking the initiative to try to address the dissatisfaction in the ranks of the Labour and trade union machineries. This dissatisfaction has its main origin the fact that Labour has lost support amongst its traditional electorate after two years of anti- working class policies in government.

Labour's loss of ground among this traditional working class base of support was highlighted in May and June when its candidates fared so badly in the local and European election. The huge abstention by Labour's traditional electorate resulted in worse results than those of the previous Conservative government when its popularity was at its lowest ebb. Clearly, the months of high- profile gun-boat policies against Serbia, during the war over Kosovo, failed to produce the "Falklands effect" that Blair was, perhaps, hoping for.

As a result some Labour MPs are obviously beginning to worry about retaining their seats. So an increasing number, including loyal Blairites, are proving to be prepared to risk the wrath of the party machinery by adding their names to petitions (and even voting) against various government policies. In May, backbenchers opposed Social Security Secretary Alistair Darling's cuts in benefits for disabled people, part of Darling's so-called "modernisation" of the welfare system. More recently an even larger number called publicly for a substantial increase in pensions despite Gordon Brown's strong opposition. Of course these petitions and the minority of votes that these MPs represent do not change the government's policies - but nor are they really meant to. They do, however, allow those MPs who are involved to record their opposition to Blair's most unpopular "reforms" and claim that there is more to the Labour party and its MPs than just the unpopular policies of the government.

Significant too, is the fact that "left" maverick MP, Dennis Skinner (an old timer with working class credentials) has just made a comeback to the Party's National Executive Committee after being voted in by the parliamentary party. Not that this means a "shift to the left" among Labour MPs, of course. But, as well as being the result of wheelings and dealings between parliamentary factions, it must reflect the wishes of many MPs, if not Blair himself, to ensure that there is at least one visible figure in the leadership of the Labour party with whom its traditional supporters in the working class might be able to identify. Of course, not only is the presence of Skinner in the National Executive merely symbolic, but in addition, as a representative of the Labour "Left" he has nothing to offer workers, other than to reform Labour in order to reform capitalism - neither of which are credible perspectives.

The union leadership has also shown its concern about the fall of the Labour vote. Shortly after the Euro election, a number of union leaders already warned the government publicly that it should not forget Labour's traditional supporters. They complained that they needed to be able to "sell" government policies to their members and that they were getting little help to do that. Understandably they are worried that if they are seen supporting policies which are too unpopular among the working class, this may affect not only recruitment to their unions but also their own leadership positions.

In addition, there are still old bones of contention between Blair and the union leaders, who have been begging ministers to give them more of a role in and around the machinery of government. But so far they have had only limited success. The union machineries have been invited to nominate representatives in some of the many commissions and quangos set up by Blair, but mostly low-profiles ones and in any case much fewer than company directors, for instance. Likewise, union leaders have been pushing for some kind of high-profile national "partnership" with the government and the employers' organisation, of the type that exists in the Republic of Ireland, for instance, where representatives from the union leadership, the government and the bosses meet every year for national negotiations on wages (or to be more accurate, to decide how wage increases should be capped). But again, so far, there has been no sign of Blair wanting to go down that road. In that context the union leadership can only hope for some change if Blair decides that he needs to make some symbolic gestures towards working class voters by giving union leaders a higher profile alongside his government. But if not, the odds are that the government will continue to keep union leaders at arms length, as much as they do now, if not more, and this is a prospect that the union leadership cannot bear to think about.

At this year's TUC conference, the frustration of some trade union leaders was reflected by the Fire Brigade Union leader Ken Cameron, who argued at a poorly-attended fringe meeting, that the time may have come for the unions to sever their links with the Labour party. This outburst, unusual for a union leader, would certainly be justified by the FBU's particular circumstances - the fact that for the past two years, the FBU has been systematically by-passed by large Labour-controlled local authorities seeking to cut jobs and wages, while ministers were supporting the cuts and threatening to make strikes illegal in the Fire Brigade. But whether Cameron's proposition is a real or an empty threat is anybody's guess. And it is not possible to say to what extent the opinion he expressed is shared by others in the union machineries and whether it may spread in the future as Blair's policies carry on along the same lines.

Of course, whether severing links with the Labour party would be to the advantage of their members, and the working class in general, is another question. If the purpose of this was just to allow the union leadership to carry on with the same passive acceptance of the blows dealt to the working class and the same cosy co-operation with the bosses, without having to carry the can for the government's policy, there would be no benefit whatsoever for workers. Nor would there be any benefit for workers if the only purpose of this severance was to allow union leaders to "shop around" for political support among the three main parties, as Ken Jackson, the AEEU leader, once suggested. On the other hand, of course, if this severance took place under the pressure of a radicalisation among the membership and on the basis of an offensive policy against the bosses, there could be something in it for workers. But we are certainly not in that situation today.

On a more moderate level, the speech made by the T&G leader Bill Morris was also significant of the respectful dissatisfaction among trade union leaders. Thus Bill Morris highlighted the gaps in the government's new legislation on employment rights and the 48-hour Working Time Directive, while issuing a call for the total repeal of the Tory anti-union laws - something most unusual from the leader of one of the larger unions since Blair came to power - and of all restrictions limiting the right to take strike action.

Obviously, these are just conference speeches and one should certainly not read too much into them. After all, Bill Morris' strong-worded demand on the Working Time Directive did not prevent him from giving his backing, for instance, to a contract which introduces total flexibility of working hours on an annual basis at British Nuclear Fuels! But on the other hand, these speeches do reflect the message that unions leaders want to pass on to their audience, their members and to Blair's government.

The government, on its part, had sent Industry secretary Stephen Byers and Blair himself to address the conference. Their speeches were partly devoted to answering the union leaders' concerns. And no doubt, Blair will use the Labour party conference to reply to the uneasiness that exists within the party machinery itself.

Of course, both Byers and Blair went through the long list of what they call the "achievements" of their government - a collection of figures and clichés carefully prepared by Blair's PR men and endlessly repeated by all ministers.

Byers, who intervened first, played the role of the "bad guy", spelling out once again that there would be no favours for the union leaders; that they had to live with the fact that their relationship with the government was not "an overly close one that many felt existed under previous Labour governments"; and that, as far as legislation was concerned, he did not intend to close the many gaps of the new Employment law by means of compulsory regulations (as the unions have demanded) but to use voluntary codes of conduct (the Tories' traditional way of dealing with the bosses).

Blair, on the other hand, unlike last year (when he made his famous "modernise or die" speech), was there to play the role of the "good guy". First of all he had prepared sweeteners for the union machineries - £5 million for a new "trade-union Partnership Fund" and £2 million for a new "Union Training Fund". As for the rest, the gist of his long speech can be summarised in this way: the government does what it can despite the Tory legacy; "we need more than one term to succeed in doing the things our country needs"; therefore the unions should be careful not to rock the boat and besides, "the choice is between a New Labour government, trying our best to put right 20 years of Conservative government, and a Conservative Party that is worse than they were before and if they ever got the chance would reverse every bit of progress and change we have made in the last two years".

Therefore the only argument of any weight that Blair had to offer to the TUC conference to calm down dissatisfaction with the union machineries was just the good old "lesser of two evils" blackmail - i.e. if you don't like what we are doing, just think of how much worse a Tory government would be, so put up and shut up! This did not seem to have created much of a stir among the Brighton delegates. And there is no hint as to whether the union bureaucracy's mild dissatisfaction will go any further. After all time and again in the past, trade union leaders did put up and shut up under Labour governments.

But what about the working class? When addressing a larger audience, Blair uses exactly the same kind of argument. In a two- page interview entitled "My Moral Crusade for the 21st Century", which was published by The Observer on 5 September, Asked about the disaffection within the ranks of the party, Blair ignored the question and rather addressed the problem of the conspicuous discontent among Labour voters: "We have done more as a Labour government for, if you like, traditional Labour supporters than any Labour Government there has ever been." He cited the minimum wage, increases to child benefit and the £100 which will be given to pensioners for Winter fuel. As far as he was concerned, "The choice is between the Labour government you have and a Conservative government that is more extreme than ever before. You wait till people see that - and they will be out there."

Whether traditional Labour voters will be "out there" or not to support Labour, remains to be seen. Like so many times in the past when Labour was turning the screw on the working class while in office, Blair is banking on the fact that the working class will see no alternative to the Labour party. Perhaps he will be proved right, but perhaps not. It may be that, this time, workers will see another option. They might well be "out there", but long before the next election - "out there" in the streets marching against the government's anti-working class policies, and "out there" in the factories and offices, fighting against the bosses' profit drive in order to regain the ground lost under Blair and his Tory predecessors.

19 September 1999