Rank and file pressure must be brought to bear not only within the unions, writes Michael Copestake, but on the Labour leadership too
The June 30 strikes involving up to 750,000 public sector workers may only have been for one day, and may only have involved unaffiliated unions, but they gave the Labour tops much pain – a condition that will be intensified if, as we are led to believe, the next round of mass strikes in the autumn goes ahead with affiliated unions included. That Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and the entire shadow cabinet distanced themselves from the strikes (a Tory “trap”, they argue) provoked anger amongst many trade union leaders and Labour members alike – once again highlighting the contradictory nature of the Labour Party.
The results of the strikes in terms of impact were generally good. The claims of government and sections of the press to the effect that ‘no-one will notice’ were shown to be false and the government could not credibly paint an overall picture of ‘business as usual’. There was an excellent media profile. Some 28% of both state and private schools were fully closed and another 5,000 or so were badly affected; emergency service call centres in London were left without staff and many benefits workers also took strike action. Court hearings and driving tests were postponed, though border controls and airports were not disrupted seriously. The Public and Commercial Services union and the government put the figures for PCS members on strike at 200,000 and 110,000 respectively. No matter what the truth, all picket lines across the country were said to have been in high spirits – and with good reason.
In London some 30,000 attended a strike day rally, 5,000 in Manchester, 2,000 in Sheffield, 3,000 in Brighton, 4,000 in Bristol, with many more all over the country. A feature of the day was the near universal expression of disapproval by workers at the rallies, including booing and jeering, whenever a speaker made mention of Ed Miliband and his slimy stance. Miliband, while not directly condemning them, said that the unions should get back round the negotiating table – even though it was clear that it has been more a case of the government demanding surrender over pensions: workers must work longer, pay more and receive less. Between the government axe and the neck of the public sector workers there is only thin air, and Miliband knows it.
One bizarre aspect of the media coverage was the now infamous and downright weird interview in which Miliband, assuming that he would be edited down to only a single sound bite, gave the exact same answer almost word for word to at least six different questions in order to get his precisely contrived ‘middle of the road’ position across.
The only union leader of any note to stand with Miliband against strike action has been Chris Keates, head of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, who claims to believe that the unions must be seen to have exhausted every available option in order to win the battle for public opinion. Given that every option short of striking has been exhausted, this view does not carry much weight at a grassroots level. What is interesting is the extent of support for the strikes not just from the labour movement, but from a good proportion of our class in the face of adverse propaganda.
The opinion polls are mixed, but make for an interesting snapshot of the state of play. The Economist has noted that strikes by teachers provoke an ambiguous response. On the one hand, people are broadly sympathetic when it comes to the reasons for the strike and believe in teachers’ right to withdraw their labour, but when they are asked about the inconvenience, support dips. And, of course, that is the quandary for public sector workers – it is, by and large, not the government that is inconvenienced when they strike, but the public. This dilemma gives the government some leeway in its attempts to create a division between workers in the state and private sectors – most of whom do not receive occupational pensions that match up to even the inadequate ones that teachers and civil servants have won. Private sector workers are affected by public sector cuts as users, not providers, and for them the question is not posed as a sectional or trade union matter, like a struggle over wages and conditions. They have a class interest, of course, but where is the party able to represent this?
Presently, 76% of Guardian readers polled online believed that Ed Miliband should have supported the strikes, but, as the right of the Labour Party will point out, the online readership of The Guardian ain’t going to swing a general election. Meanwhile, Progress, the reliably sickening, New Labour think-tank funded by Lord Sainsbury (who is presently withholding money from the party itself), went all nostalgic about the ‘good old days’, when there were ‘proper’ workers going on strike, not these overpaid, middle class ‘white collar’ workers.
Its website commends Miliband for having “got his betrayal in first”. Except of course, as the author points out, the unions involved last Thursday – PCS, NUT, ATL and UCU – are not affiliated to the Labour Party. Certainly the whole situation would be even more awkward for Miliband if the striking unions were affiliated. Unlike during the mid-90s to early 2000s, when Tony Blair managed to persuade sections of the capitalist class to stump up substantial sums of money for the New Labour project, today funding by the unions is vital. However, it will not be easy to force the Labour leaders to side with the workers and back their strikes – after all, they have never done so in the past.
It goes without saying that next to no influence can be exerted on Miliband and the Labour leadership by non-affiliated unions, which is why there should be no more talk of disaffiliation – quite the reverse in fact: RMT and FBU must rejoin, and PCS, NUT, UCU, etc must take their place alongside them. Strands on the left – not least the Socialist Party in England and Wales – oppose this on the grounds that Labour is now a bourgeois party and the unions would be better served to dump it and set up a mark two. This is completely off the beam. Miliband’s squirming over the strikes makes it perfectly obvious that Labour is not like the Tories and Liberal Democrats – no matter how much the Blairite right would like it to be. In addition, such comrades are missing the central point. Labour leaders have always betrayed workers because the union bureaucrats have allowed them to do so. It would be exactly the same if the unions under their current leadership started from scratch and set up a new party.
There are no neat little side steps to get round the problem of the Labour Party. The problem is actually one of working class organisation as a whole – not least that of unresponsive and unaccountable union leaders. Sectarian interventions to get leftwingers elected on the basis of social democratic ideas are not just insufficient, but positively toxic for the movement as a whole. Then there is the total absence of a single Marxist party, whose work both in the trade unions and in Labour around an alternative programme for the whole of society would immeasurably strengthen the fight for the democracy that the workers’ movement requires in order to control its own organisations and, eventually, take power. In that light the CPGB demands that trade union officials are recallable, that no union official receives more pay than the average for the workers in their union. We also demand that the bans and proscriptions in the Labour Party are lifted, that party conference is made sovereign, that MPs too be paid a worker’s wage.
The concentration of working class influence in the Labour Party that the affiliation of every union would bring must be matched by the corresponding concentration of Marxist forces in a genuine Communist Party. The independent interests of the working class must be posed in every area. The left is quite right to call for bigger, better and more coordinated strikes against the cuts. But it is wrong to neglect the parallel struggle to transform working class organisation, not least within the Labour Party.
Action of general strike proportions might well cause the collapse of the coalition government, but its replacement by a Labour administration overseeing gentler, more gradual cuts would not be much of a gain. It was rank-and-file pressure in the unions that got 500,000 onto the streets of London on March 26 and 750,000 out on strike on June 30. We need more of the same – not just to ensure that the autumn sees millions out on strike, but to force the union leaders to utilise their political and financial power within Labour and decisively defeat the openly pro-capitalist right wing.