Friday, 23 April 2010


The political agenda & the unions

A LETTER yesterday from the joint general secretaries of the UNITE union, Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley, to their members states: 'This general election is the most important since 1997', but that it is 'not a referendum on 13 years of a Labour government.' They say: 'the only choice for the union at this election is to back Labour.' They claim: 'The Tories will attack the unions on our ability to organise, our right to take industrial action and our rights at work ...' Nowhere here is there any suggestion that a Labour government will reinstate the trade union rights and freedoms that existed before Thatcher removed them in the 1980s and 90s.

Yet, two months ago in the Feb/March issue of UNITE's 'workplace Reporter', these same joint general secretaries admitted that 'Gradually [under Labour governments], the right to strike is being eroded, removing from employees one of the few weapons they have to make the bad employers see sense.' They further speculate: 'We know the Tories will do nothing to change this.' They urge: 'With Labour back in office Unite will certainly be pushing to have industrial relations taken out of the hands of the judges, and for unions to have their rights restored.'

There is no promise of restoring trade union rights in the Labour manifesto and all Simpson and Woodley could say in February was 'We believe that Labour's manifesto will offer them [positive reasons to support Labour] and will make a shift towards the values of traditional social democracy.' Gosh! At least Tony Blair had the grace to offer us something 'New' in 'New Labour'; all these general secretaries are promising is something old and 'traditional'.

The biggest weakness of the British left today is its conservatism. They who stop while society moves on will be trampled. Trade union bosses, like Simpson and Woodley, and the left in general, display a kind of wishful thinking. A recent critic of the subservience of 15 trade unions, representing 4.45 million workers, who are still affiliated to Labour has written: 'rather than take the attitude of "better the devil you know", or supporting the party whose cuts will be least, the unions together could have influenced the entire political agenda by moving the centre of gravity away from neo-liberalism ...'

Where, in all this, is any serious program for change? Where's any vision? Or any alternative agenda?

Last night's debate between the main political leaders on SKY TV sounded like a squabble between bosses over how to run a firm. Today's political leaders no longer have an ideal to work for. They are merely living on the accomplishments of their ancestors, and all that raises our spirits now is a hatred of politics and politicians. Today's trade unions [and Unite is the biggest] have a membership of about 7 million, bigger than any other voluntary organisations, but what they have in quantity they lack in quality and intellectual gravitas. Consequently, all the likes of Simpson and Woodley and others in the trade union movement can do is to live in hopes.

No comments: