Far from Labour

Print edition : October 10, 2003

Trade unions, which founded the Labour Party, find themselves increasingly alienated from New Labour even as the latter moves away from its original social agenda.

AUTUMN has long been the start of the British political year after the long summer recess of Parliament, a recess that has grown longer in recent years, adding to the widespread feeling that Parliament matters little nowadays as Premier Blair looks increasingly like President Blair.

Trade Union Congress general secretary Brendan Barber addresses delegates at the TUC's annual conference on September 8.-PETER MACDIARMID/REUTERS

The major parties, Labour, Conservative and the smaller Liberal Party, hold their conferences, traditionally at the seaside, which have usually been preceded by the annual conference of the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

With affectionate criticism, the brilliant cartoonist David Low used to portray the trade union movement as a carthorse, steady, dependable, strong, but not exactly quick of mind or movement.

Even today, many Britons, including many unionists themselves, would not dissent from that view. But the strong and steady union movement seems to have come to the end of the tether of its loyalty to the present Labour government.

Labour in power has often proven very different from Labour in Opposition and the trade union movement in Britain has a thickly layered shell of previous disappointments. However, no Labour leader has come to power with so little expectation or promise of fulfilling the trade unions' agenda for social reform, as did Tony Blair, first in 1997 and then again in 2001. However, Blair did make some gestures, most notably a commitment to reverse some of the anti-trade union legislation enacted by the Thatcher government. In addition, the Blair team made much of the issue of "fat cats' pay", that is, large rises for heads of companies, pay rises not only disproportionate to those for workers, but also at variance with the actual performance of the companies concerned. But Labour in office has shown no intention to move beyond rhetoric.

The TUC had grown used to the Tory governments of Thatcher and Major (1979-1997) exhorting workers to provide a competitive market economy often at the expense of their members' jobs and wages, but have had no respite from the New Labour government. Indeed, once again this week in the seaside town of Brighton, the TUC listened somewhat stonily to Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, extolling Britain's "enterprise society". Moreover, the Chancellor set his face against growing demands for increased rights for workers to bring the United Kingdom in line with the rest of the European Union (E.U.), by warning that there would be "no retreat from the pro-enterprise, pro-business agenda".

The extensive rights for European workers to be consulted on a wide range of issues, still regarded in Britain as the prerogative of management, are not on offer. Instead, the Blair government is offering a monthly "forum" where unions can discuss public service reform. Cold comfort indeed for the trade unions, which actually set up the Labour Party in the first place.

IT is the public sector workers unions who are most upset. There has been a steady erosion of public services, particularly in transport; yet the pace of privatisation of services continues and recent union elections have seen overwhelming victories for candidates from the Left. One of the interesting features of the decline of union power has been that the Left in the unions has gained from the lack of public attention, or more specifically, the lack of hostile campaigns in the media against Left candidates.

In the past any Left candidate for national union office could be sure of a virulent attack, particularly in the popular press. But, wrongly as it now appears, assuming that unions were a spent political force, such campaigning has abated, allowing some Left-wingers a more unhindered run than their predecessors ever had.

There is now a new generation of union leaders who simply cannot be cajoled into believing that any Labour government is ipso facto better than any Tory government.

The issue that has clarified this disenchantment more than any other is over so-called "foundation hospitals".

The National Health Service (NHS) is the holiest of all of Labour's holy cows and its remorseless decline, uninterrupted since Blair came to power, has first saddened, then angered the public sector unions.

The latest experiment for privatisation is to encourage individual hospitals to "opt out" of the NHS system and become independent, just as individual schools were allowed and encouraged by Tory governments to opt out of the national system. Foundation hospitals will be encouraged to compete with on another for government funding and, indeed, for patients.

The hospital building programme too is in deep trouble. Through the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) the Blair government has sought to raise money for new programmes in health. The PFI, in effect, seeks funding from the private sector and burdens the health service with repayments and the interest on the repayments, shifting the debt from the public to the private purse. Last year, the Labour Party conference voted with a two-thirds majority for an independent review of the PFI but the Labour government has yet to act on that resolution.

In the past, the unions' ultimate sanction against the party they established has been the threat of withdrawal of funds. The Blairites have sought to shift the revenue of the party towards single benefactors, who now make up the biggest source of income - but this has led only to more disenchantment from the unions for such benefactors can be the very "fat cats" Labour once railed against.

THE Hutton enquiry set up ostensibly to investigate the suicide of government weapons inspector David Kelly is revealing more and more dubious practices by the Blair government itself and friends become scarcer. In recent days, some previous supporters have been anxious to put some distance between themselves and Blair.

Tony Blair may rue the day when his government set its course so diametrically against the traditions and aspirations of its core supporters in the unions.

Michael Hindley was a Labour Party member of European Parliament from 1984 to 1999.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor