The Tory government is conducting an unremitting class war aimed at removing all the gains won by the labour and trade union movement over many generations, including the welfare state and national health service.
This means huge inequality, mass impoverishment and homelessness. Wholesale cuts and privatisation are resulting in the effective withdrawal of the state from major towns and cities, with the market establishing dominance in every aspect of life including education and health. Along with this is the destruction of civil and human rights including the rights to privacy, protest and self-organisation.
This is the context in which debate on the left of the trade union movement is taking place. The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) national executive committee has agreed a proposal by general secretary Mark Serwotka to endorse continued discussions with unions which actively oppose austerity, about setting up Trade Union Momentum.
The need for such an initiative was announced by Mark Serwotka and Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack at a Trade Union Coordinating Group (TUCG) rally last November. The TUCG is a coalition of left-led unions that has campaigned against austerity and most recently has actively opposed the Trade Union Bill.
’Pragmatism’ of TUC
The Tories have been able to press home these attacks because of a crisis of leadership in the trade union movement whereby the majority of union leaders and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) itself have failed to organise effective opposition to austerity.
The TUC’s response to austerity under the previous Coalition government and current Tory government, and also to the cuts and privatisation programme pursued under the Blair and Brown governments, has been characterised by the ’pragmatic’ policy of concession bargaining away workers’ jobs, rights and services and even open collaboration and betrayal, as with the pensions dispute in 2011.
This crisis is inextricably linked to the wider crisis in working class political representation brought about by Margaret Thatcher’s "greatest achievement" - the suborning of the Labour Party as an effective vehicle for working class interests, to be a solid component in a pro-corporate Westminster political consensus. This defeat was arguably the most significant inflicted on the British working class. This process began in earnest with witch-hunts against the Militant (forerunner of the socialist Party) through to the attempt to neuter union influence in the party with the Collins Review.
An extended period of retreat and collaboration by right-wing union leaders alongside the lack of effective working class political representation has emboldened the Tories, who now want to finish off the organised working class through their Trade Union Bill.
Incredibly, the TUC leadership has insisted on fighting this attack almost entirely as a civil and human rights issue and has attempted to de-couple the issue of defending trade union rights from the government’s austerity programme. But implementing austerity is the main rationale for the attacks.
Scarcely unable to believe their luck in meeting no coordinated resistance from the TUC, the Tories now want to ensure that no such resistance can be built by attempting to smash the trade union movement itself. TUC leaders argue that austerity has support in wider society, a self-serving lie that is consciously aimed at absolving them from implementing Congress policy of coordinating campaigns and industrial action to defeat policies like the pay freeze.
There must be no sense of fatalism about these laws, they will not prevent workers from struggling against austerity or taking strike action. Laws in themselves are not a decisive factor; it was not anti-union laws that defeated the miners in 1984-85 but the failure of the TUC and the Labour Party leadership to give the solidarity those workers deserved.
Solidarity, determined leadership and a clear no-cuts policy linked to coordinated campaigns of industrial action and building alliances in wider society - in communities as well as workplaces - could defeat austerity.
Blocked on the industrial front by union leaders who refuse to organise a collective, coordinated fightback against attacks that emanate from the same source, the Tory government, workers have begun to look for solutions on the political front.
In the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum the British state was shaken to its foundations by a massive Yes vote for independence delivered in the working class heartlands of Dundee and the West of Scotland. This did not primarily represent a turn towards nationalism but an anti-austerity revolt very effectively manipulated by the Scottish National Party (SNP) through the simple strategy of taking a few steps to the left of Labour, while remaining a pro-big business party.
The totally unexpected election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader in September 2015 was an extension of that anti-austerity surge albeit one that did not reach as deeply into the core of the working class as had the revolt in Scotland. It nevertheless historically represented an extremely significant event that has opened up tremendous potential for the anti-austerity movement, which now has a voice in the political mainstream.
The Labour Party now consists of two opposing and irreconcilable forces; on the one hand that represented by Jeremy and shadow chancellor John McDonnell and the anti-austerity forces that won the leadership, both outside and inside the party, and on the other hand the Blairites and fellow-travellers who are completely tied to the establishment.
Jeremy and John have faced shocking attacks from an unholy alliance of the Tories, media and the state, including the military, but none more bitter and destructive than those from the Blairite careerists who dominate the Parliamentary Labour Party. They also face advice from ’friends’, trade union leaders and unaccountable ’opinion-formers’ who urge them to be ’pragmatic’, barely disguised code pressing them to compromise in the interests of party ’unity’.
The idea that unity is possible with the Blairite careerists and bureaucrats is delusional. One side or the other will prevail. The battle within the Labour Party is an intense reflection of the class war being waged in wider society and ’compromise’ can only be at the expense of the anti-austerity forces.
Like all bullies whose behaviour is challenged the Blairites have cloaked themselves in the mantle of victimhood, cynically portraying the elementary democratic right of mandatory reselection of MPs as a "purge". Reassurances from Jeremy and John on mandatory reselection have not placated the Blairites but made them yell all the louder.
Rather than telling them their grubby little careers are safe it would have been far better to have defended the democratic right of Labour Party members to select who can best represent workers’ interests. Similarly, the decision to give a free vote to Labour MPs on bombing Syria was an error on a fundamental question of principle.
The issue of compromise is most sharply highlighted on the question of local government cuts. The new party leaders have sent out a letter to all Labour councillors warning them against setting "illegal budgets" to oppose the next round of local authority cuts. This letter will be used to legitimise the implementation of Tory cuts by Labour councils. It represents a serious strategic error not least of all because it fails to set out what can be done in order to begin a coordinated fightback, including setting needs-based budgets.
Momentum was set up as a pro-Corbyn movement, as a counterweight to the Blairites and to build an anti-austerity movement capable of challenging the political consensus. The ruling class are worried about the potential of an anti-austerity movement and have launched a vicious campaign against Momentum itself.
The self-appointed leaders of Momentum have retreated under this pressure and have responded to calls from the Blairites and the media to neuter the movement by attempting to exclude socialists and activists who are not Labour Party members, rather than building unity around a clear anti-cuts programme. This is a disastrous strategy and its architects like Jon Lansman, a leader of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, exposes the fact that under the long years of Blairite control they accommodated themselves to that regime.
If Momentum is to secure the party leadership of Jeremy and John it must step away from the failed strategy of policing the movement on behalf of the Tories and Blairites and create a genuinely open, democratic, inclusive and campaigning force that will not just secure the Corbyn/McDonnell leadership but support and urge them to reject the ’pragmatists’ and build a movement based on uncompromising anti-austerity, socialist policies.
Trade Union Momentum
The idea for Trade Union Momentum sprang from the need to build a trade union based anti-austerity movement from outside as well as inside the Labour Party and autonomous from it, based on a clear no cuts, no privatisation anti-austerity programme, campaigning on concrete issues like cuts, the pay freeze, privatisation and the anti-union laws.
This would be by building in workplaces and communities around the country with affiliations from trade unions, trades councils and individual union members.
Providing a platform for socialists and anti-austerity activists, inclusive of the Socialist Party, the National Shop Stewards Network and others not members of the Labour Party, in a widely based alliance, could be an important, even critical factor in defending the Corbyn/McDonnell leadership and building the anti-austerity movement.
Although at early stages, the potential for such a force is obvious. The political environment has been transformed and there is a growing break with ’consensus’ politics. While enormous pressure is being exerted on the new Labour leadership the anti-austerity movement has an historic opportunity, especially so in the trade union movement where the battle to defeat austerity can be won, if the movement is galvanised on the basis of a clear no-cuts policy.
To be effective, Trade Union Momentum must avoid the errors of those in Momentum who have buckled to establishment pressure to turn inwards and adopt a mentality of exclusion rather than inclusiveness. The issue of inclusiveness is important across the UK, not least in Scotland where the Labour Party is such a toxic brand that it is likely to face a significant defeat in the 2016 Scottish parliamentary elections by the SNP, despite the fact that the SNP is implementing cuts and making it clear that worse is to come.
The key strategic aim for Trade Union Momentum is to build an anti-austerity force capable of defeating cuts and privatisation - this is the best way to defend the Corbyn leadership, by building a force that can act as a counterweight to the tremendous pressure being placed upon that leadership to abandon anti-austerity policies, and to defend the interests of our union members and class too.
PCS will be reviewing its political strategy in light of recent developments. During the Blair/Brown governments we carried out an unparalleled process of membership consultation including a ballot on political strategy. This was in response to the neoliberal political consensus that had developed amongst mainstream parties and along with other initiatives led to a decision to stand candidates in parliamentary elections in "exceptional circumstances" - which in practise would mean when a number of specific circumstances came together in which such an initiative could take place.
Affiliation to the Labour Party has become an issue and the FBU has already re-affiliated. The priority for the PCS leadership is building the anti-austerity alliance and although the question of affiliation to Labour will be part of the debate, within the context of a wider political strategy there are significant factors weighing against such a move, including the reaction of activists and members in Scotland but in Northern Ireland and Wales too.
There has been a longstanding debate on whether it is appropriate for a civil service union to ever affiliate to a political party. While this is an argument that was used by the right-wing in CPSA (predecessor of PCS) it is ingrained in the minds of many members and activists and would only be overcome on the basis of a major campaign of explanation and if political conditions were favourable – i.e. if the Labour Party was a genuine anti-austerity party.
There is also the fact that many members and activists believe that only by maintaining political independence can the union apply pressure without fear or favour in order to win concessions and make advances for members’ interests. Activists and members would be very wary of giving money to a Labour Party in which the Blairite bureaucracy still controls the party machine and finances. Many would much prefer to give such support by a method that would directly aid Jeremy and John’s anti-austerity campaign.
This indicates that the affiliation issue in PCS can only be resolved on the basis of a democratically conducted review of the type PCS has excelled at under its left leadership.
The potential is considerable for building an inclusive, anti-austerity trade union based movement with effective alliances in workplaces and communities, based on a clear no-cuts policy, that can challenge and defeat the Tories’ cuts and privatisation programme.
The Corbyn leadership can prevail. The critical factor will be whether it is ground down by ’pragmatic’ concession after concession and the Blairites achieve his removal because the surge that brought him to that leadership is dissipated and spent. The stakes for the working class in Britain have never been higher. Trade Union Momentum could be a critical factor in determining the outcome.