Article from the June 2005 issue of the Socialist
newspaper of the Socialist Party, Irish section of the CWI
As Blair declares war on workers
by Ciaran Mulholland, Amicus Rep, Homefirst Community Trust
Unions must launch new party
EIGHT YEARS into a New Labour administration no mass workers' party has emerged to challenge Blair. This is despite the clearly anti-working class and anti-labour movement character of Blair's regime. He has introduced student fees, attacked those on benefits and lined up with Bush to invade Iraq.
Blair won the general election but with a much decreased majority and the smallest share of the vote at any time since 1832! The Greens, and especially the Liberal Democrats, gained votes on the back of an anti-war mood but the biggest winner was the "abstention" party. Working class people in particular feel forgotten, ignored by the party that they once hoped would deliver for them.
Disillusionment in itself will not deliver a new mass party ready to challenge New Labour from the left. At some point, however, the question of the need for a new party will be seriously posed and developments in the trade unions will be key to this development.
At the present time the majority of active trade unionists, whilst they do not see Tony Blair's regime as in any way "their" government, do not feel that there is any credible alternative. In the general election, many voted New Labour holding their noses, in the main to keep out the still despised Tories.
Anger with New Labour has been reflected in a whole series of union elections over recent years however, in which the so-called "awkward squad" have come to prominence. Unfortunately for their members, and fortunately for Tony Blair, most of the awkward squad have proved to be not very awkward at all.
The leaders of the "big four" unions- UNISON, the TGWU, GMB and Amicus-have declared their intention to "reclaim" Labour and claim that the "Warwick agreement" with the Labour leadership has saved the day, despite the very meagre concessions contained in the agreement.
This is not the whole picture and developments in some of the smaller unions may ultimately prove to be of decisive importance.
In recent weeks, the general pattern of left victories in the unions has continued with Matt Wrack winning the vote to become General Secretary of the FBU. The left are now expected to challenge strongly for the Assistant General Secretary position Wrack is vacating. The FBU have already disaffiliated from Labour.
The main civil service union in Britain, the PCS, which is firmly under left control, is balloting its membership in order to create a political fund. If the ballot is carried, the question of what to do with the political fund is then immediately posed.
Bob Crow, General Secretary of the railworkers' union the RMT, which is now outside the Labour Party and, in Scotland, has affiliated to the Scottish Socialist Party, has publicly declared that the Labour Party is beyond "reclaiming".
In the big four, the question of Labour affiliation has not gone away. In the recent election to the National Executive of UNISON, the Socialist Party, standing on a clear platform of breaking with New Labour, increased its representation from three to five. Unfortunately, the "United Left" in UNISON, does not call for a clear break (some of its candidates are Labour Party members) and it lost ground in the Executive elections.
The recent Amicus Conference voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Labour link but, in a vote which more accurately reflects the mood of the delegates, also voted by a narrow margin (51% to 49%) for the election of all union officials. The right fought against this elemental democratic demand-it was the only issue on which they produced a Conference leaflet.
We can't say for certain, how a new genuine mass workers party will come into being. It is possible that anger on a single issue could overspill into political action and be the beginning of the process of setting up a new party. The government's plans to savage pension rights could be such an issue.
If the RMT and the FBU (possibly joined by the PCS if it votes to become "political") were to convene a conference on the question of the need for a new party at a time of increased struggle, the on-going quagmire of Iraq and possibly a weakening economy, it would represent a huge leap forward.
A new party, backed even by a few unions, provided it spelt out a clear socialist message, could take on flesh and put real pressure on the bigger unions to break their ties with New Labour.
Clearly there is a huge responsibility on the shoulders of the best new left trade union leaders and also on left activists in all unions. The same basic message applies to Northern Ireland. Here, one or two unions could play a key role in developing a class alternative to the nightmare of sectarian politics. Left activists in the unions must push for a local initiative in this direction.