Trade unionists debate how organised working class can have a political voice
Asked by a member of the public when he would "bring back socialism" Labour leader Ed Miliband replied: "that is what we are doing, Sir". Unfortunately, even for those wearing red-tinted spectacles, it would be impossible to spot corresponding socialist policies at this year’s Labour Party conference.Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls seemed to agree with Miliband: "I’ve always used the word socialism, I’ve no problem about that." But he then clarified that it isn’t a word to "apply to an economic programme"!
In fact, Balls confirmed that Labour will stick with Tory spending limits for its first year in office, brutally declaring: "We won’t be able to reverse all the spending cuts and tax rises the Tories have pushed through. And we will have to govern with less money around. The next Labour government will have to make cuts, too."
So Labour will inherit a wasteland and continue to try to make further cuts to the few public services that remain. Incredibly Ed Balls has even appealed to the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) – a quango set up by the Con-Dems – to vet its spending plans!
Of course, one or two crowd-pleasers were pulled from the hat; notably the long-awaited pledge that a Labour government would abolish the iniquitous bedroom tax. This is to be welcomed, but meanwhile those affected by the tax face nearly two years of the misery of mounting rent arrears and threats of eviction. Most of those suffering the tax live in Labour-controlled local authorities that are dutifully implementing it.
Council housing needed
But if Miliband had called on Labour councils to refuse to implement the tax, promising that a Labour government would refund the money spent, the bedroom tax would have been made unworkable virtually overnight.
With five million people on waiting lists for social housing it would be enormously popular if Labour was to announce plans of a mass building programme of high-quality, affordable council housing. Unfortunately, however, while some welcome moves to encourage councils to build housing have been intimated, it seems that the house-building programme that has been trailed is primarily trying to encourage the private sector to ’close the gap’.
But the giant construction companies will only expand the supply of housing if it is profitable for them to do so; they have no interest in providing high-quality affordable housing. Measures to encourage them to build, such as further relaxing planning laws, are unlikely to succeed. More substandard housing at prices well beyond the pockets of the majority is a more probable outcome.
Similarly, as Tom Watson has correctly said, Miliband has talked about ’strengthening’ the minimum wage, but has not committed to increasing it to a living wage.
Unfortunately most of the conference announcements seem to blend in with the Tory blue conference backdrop rather than giving substance to any claims of standing for socialism. Labour, just as under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, is a party that accepts the logic of capitalism.
Miliband’s adoption of the Tory slogan ’one nation’ reflects Labour’s belief that the interests of the 1% and those of the 99% are one and the same. It is only a question, claims Miliband, of encouraging ’responsible’ rather than ’predatory’ capitalism. But no amount of pleading will create a caring, sharing version of capitalism.
Worldwide the super-rich have £20 trillion stashed away in the world’s tax havens, around half of which is owned by a mere 100,000 people. This is greater than the national debts of all the OECD countries added together. No tax is being paid on this vast wealth. In Britain alone it is estimated that £120 billion of tax is avoided or evaded mainly by the rich every year.
Both Eds speak favourably of the 1945 Labour government. Yet the Labour leadership has done everything it can to prevent the conference discussing how the NHS – the greatest single achievement of that Labour government – can be saved from destruction. All resolutions on the NHS which go beyond promising to repeal the Health and Social Care Act have been ruled out of order. As a result the Labour Party conference will have no opportunity to vote to reverse all NHS cuts or to kick out private finance.
On 29 September tens of thousands of trade unionists will be demonstrating outside the Tory Party conference to save the NHS. This week the leaders of the main trade unions organising that demonstration have been at the Labour Party conference. However, the voice of the trade union movement – organising over seven million workers – has barely been heard at the event.
The discussion on Miliband’s threat to break the link with the trade unions – thereby destroying the last vestiges of the collective voice of the working class within the Labour Party – was disgracefully given a measly 15 minutes on the agenda. How far the democratic rights of the trade union movement within Labour have already been destroyed was shown by the fact that just one trade union leader – Paul Kenny of the GMB – spoke in the discussion. It seems the trade union leaders accept this travesty of a debate. Len McCluskey, leader of the biggest trade union in Britain, Unite, only gave his views at the Daily Mirror fringe meeting!
Miliband and Co have made it clear they intend to go ahead and finally break the link between the trade unions and the Labour Party, even if the process is not completed until after the special spring conference. Trade unionists are debating the question of how the organised working class can have a political voice.
The Socialist Party argues for the trade union movement to found a new mass workers’ party. Alongside the RMT and others, we take part in the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) which is doing important preparatory work for the creation of such a party.
This year’s Labour Party conference once again shows that Labour is no longer a party that stands up for the working class, and is likely to convince more trade unionists that the time has come to found a new party.
Others still hope that Labour can be ’reclaimed’ by the working class. A serious attempt to do so would require a massive campaign; accepting one token speech on the most essential issue for trade unionists being discussed at the Labour Party conference is not a good beginning!
If, however, the trade union leaders who think that the Labour Party can be reclaimed were to go to the special conference and vote en masse against these proposals it would be the first significant rebellion against the Labour leadership’s destruction of working class political representation.
For Labour to be reclaimed by the working class would require far more; the trade unions would have to struggle for the adoption of a fighting programme – including ending austerity and public sector cuts, of a mass council house building programme, a living wage, and repeal of the anti-trade union laws; the expulsion of pro-big business elements, and the recreation of the party’s democratic structures.
Given the grip those wedded to capitalism have on the party such a campaign is unlikely to succeed. Nonetheless, the result of fighting to defend the collective political voice of the working class could be the emergence of a powerful new mass workers’ party from within the shell of pro-capitalist Labour.
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