I’m at the TUC this week. There have been some real highlights – the prospect for co-ordinated industrial action on public sector pay being one of them. I’ll do a fuller report on this another time.
There have also been some real lows. Alistair Darling came to speak to Congress this afternoon. A question and answer session was astonishingly stage managed, with a very clear intention of giving Darling an easy ride. Questions had to be submitted in advance. There were a good few reports – likely to be well-founded – of ‘difficult’ questions (or unwelcome questioners) simply being struck off the list. Darling had a few tired little phrases that were repeated many times, with some limited variation. ‘Times are tough’. ‘We’ll get through it together’. ‘Our priority is economic stability’. ‘Our purpose is fairness’.
His message on public sector pay (and most other questions) was essentially ‘Get stuffed’. But we’re not to worry, because we’ll get through it together, and the Government is apparently ‘on the side of families and businesses’. Some delegates applauded. Many, though, were disgusted by a man who was so far out of touch with the real poverty and desperation facing far too many workers. It’s a shame that the session was set up to make it almost impossible for that anger and frustration to be expressed.
The best fringe meeting I’ve attended, by a very long way, was the launch meeting of the ‘Trade Union Co-ordinating Group’. This was convened by John McDonnell – one of the very few decent socialist MPs left in the Labour Party – with Bob Crow (RMT), Jeremy Dear (NUJ), Mark Serwotka (PCS) and Matt Wrack (FBU) on the platform.
There were around 150 Congress delegates in the room. There was a real buzz and vibrancy and optimism to the meeting. The speakers didn’t do the mealy mouthed nonsense of praising Labour for all the wonderful achievements and then adding as an afterthought that they were just a teeny weeny bit concerned about public sector pay being slashed, or public services being taken apart. They told the truth – and it was refreshing.
A few soundbites from a good meeting:
Bob Crow talked about the danger of unity in support of the Labour Government being the ‘unity of the graveyard’. He predicted a mass wipe out for Labour at the next general election unless there were fundamental policy changes.
Jeremy Dear said there were a couple of words that summed up why we had to have a new direction. There were actually a few combinations of ‘a couple of words’: ‘Gordon Brown’, ‘Alistair Darling’, ‘John Hutton’ and ‘New Labour’.
Matt Wrack talked about the complete disconnection of the rich, and the absurdly low tax rates of the rich. He used the example of Catherine Zeta Jones. The poor woman has a really terrible time. She thinks of a pair of shoes that would be absolutely wonderful with an outfit, but then realises they’re in Bermuda. She has to buy duplicates of everything, apparently. He wholeheartedly condemned New Labour’s commitment to neoliberalism – an absolute worship of the market.
Mark Serwotka attacked Alistair Darling’s hypocrisy. Darling had claimed the Government was creating jobs – but they’d cut 100,000 civil service jobs, and privatised more jobs than Margaret Thatcher and John Major put together. If he said to his members, ‘Keep your head down and vote Labour in 2010 because David Cameron’s even worse’, they’d say ‘I don’t pay my subs to listen to that sort of crap’.
So what’s this project all about? It’s real progress that a number of unions are starting to work together industrially. The Executives of the RMT, PCS, NUJ and FBU want to extend that to political work. They want political representation in Parliament that is accountable to unions and prepared to abide by union policies. They’ve out together a very basic ‘common sense’ set of political priorities that are likely to be part of the policies of every TUC-affiliated union. The priorities are around an end to privatisation, trade union rights, the eradication of low pay, equalities legislation that will end pay discrimination, better health and safety legislation, and the promotion of global justice. What is there in this package to disagree with? And how shocking, when you think about it, that this straightforward set of objectives is so totally at odds with what Labour is now doing.
We’ll be looking at unions that are part of the Trade Union Co-ordinating Group working together politically. They’ll expect union-backed MPs to sign up these basic principles. They’ll try and end the false separation of industrial work and political work. They’ll try and make sure that the interests of their members are never subordinated to the interests of any political party.
In the meeting, senior representatives of the POA, the Bakers Union and NAPO also indicated that their Executives would be discussing support for this new group.
It makes sense to me. We need something far better than the truly rotten political representation we’ve got just now. This is a sound idea, and a good time to launch this kind of initiative. There’ll be unions that don’t sign up for this, or not for a good long while anyway – but the existence of this Group will help members of unions like Unite and Unison call to account the political representatives who treat trade unionists with contempt.
This was a step in the right direction. There are no guarantees that this initiative will take off – but it could do. This should be wholeheartedly supported.