Closer to the Tipping Point

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The only way to win a union election is to berate New Labour.

Like his heroine, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair is clearly so taken with himself that it might not be long before he also finds himself bundled into the limo of obscurity. Since the start of the occupation of Iraq, the government spin machine has desperately tried to convince the rest of us that a month or so of wanton destruction has done the PM's popularity no end of good. Which may true among New Labour lickspittles and Tory MPs. But you would be hard pressed to find much evidence for this claim outside of parliament.

It was certainly not reflected in the outcome of the
1 May elections, with the Labour vote falling apart in key areas of the country and the election of six SSP candidates causing a real stir in Scotland. Nor is it apparent among backbench MPs, who have now launched three of the biggest rebellions ever seen against their own leadership - over Iraq, foundation hospitals and the firefighters' dispute - and it's anybody's guess at the mayhem which might unfold when the next big dust-up over the euro kicks off proper.

Although the revolt over foundation hospitals turned out to be a bit less spectacular than we might have hoped for, it took the 'Financial Times' to point out, 'If it were not for the enormous Commons rebellion on Iraq, Tony Blair would have felt the roof falling in last night. The backbench revolt by 63 government MPs ...was the second biggest rebellion over a domestic issue since Labour came to power in 1997.'

Blair's alleged popularity is not exactly confirmed by the result of the voting for Channel 4's '100 Worst Britons' either - not only did the cheesy one effortlessly top the poll, he is rumoured to have stacked up more votes than all the other 99 horrors put together. Which takes some doing, since the full list included Thatcher herself (in third place) and Martin Bashir (in fifth).

When it comes to the unions, the antagonism towards Blair has become so intense that the first job for anybody thinking of standing for a top post is to obliterate any hint of association with New Labour. The prime example of this has to be Jack Dromey, the only-too-obviously Blairite candidate in the TGWU general secretary election, who has apparently been spotted hurling incriminating evidence of his New Labour loyalties onto a skip, while his partner, Harriet Harman, looks on from behind the curtains.

Snake-oil at the ready, Dromey's pitch now is that 'big business has the ear of Downing Street, while millions are treated shamefully in the twilight world of work'. A tear in each eye - and both faces - Dromey distanced himself from the 'awkward squad' who, he says, 'will never deliver for the vulnerable who most need strong unions'. The reason for this being, 'They will simply play into the hands of the ultra-modernisers in Downing Street who would write off trade unions as irrelevant.'

And, in a self promotional puff which rather strangely appeared in the 'Morning Star', Dromey went further, summoning up the spirit of his immigrant father from Cork, the Grunwick strike of the 1970s (in which he played a key role) and the New Unionism in the late 19th century, when the TGWU was founded as 'the voice of workers that craft and guild unions ignored' and 'we became the champions of millions hidden from history in stinking slums'. Now, the task for the TGWU was to 'grow in the new areas of the economy where the twilight workers toil ... I want Canary Wharf and the stock exchange to meet the challenge of today's twilight world of work, with the benefits not going to the newspaper magnates or stockbrokers but instead, T&G cleaners and cooks.'

You would need to have a heart of stone not to burst out laughing when a hitherto unreconstucted Blairite gets out his violin and starts going on about the working class in this fashion. But it is one more important indicator of just how deep the hostility to Blair has become within the trade union movement. The other two main candidates in the TGWU poll, Tony Woodley and Barry Camfield, have a much more convincing claim to be outright opponents of New Labour.

In a no-nonsense response to Polly Toynbee's attack on the 'awkward squad', just before the TGWU election, Woodley rejected her conclusion that the poor deserve justice, 'but only if they ask for it nicely'. As one of those who had helped to save the Rover Longbridge plant from closure, and thousands of jobs with it, Woodley proposed a more direct approach, 'combining political and industrial campaigning, not by meekly submitting to ministerial edicts'. So none of the candidates in the TGWU want anything to do with Blair and this is in the second largest union in the country!

It was much the same story in the recent GMB ballot, about which many reams of pure flannel have been rolled out in the press. According to the 'Guardian', the success of the union's regional secretary for the North East, Kevin Curran, in winning this poll would have been welcomed by Downing Street because he could not be regarded as part of the 'awkward squad'.

An interesting interpretation, for - although Curran is clearly of a more pragmatic bent - he has also predicted a 'huge fight' with the government over a range of issues, including PFI, foundation hospitals and pensions, argues that the war on Iraq was 'fundamentally wrong in international law' and a 'huge mistake', and criticised the Labour cabinet for being full of individuals who are over-privileged and out of touch with the most vulnerable in society.

Both Kevin Curran and his only credible opponent, Paul Kenny from London, had to do everything they could to distance themselves from New Labour if they were to have any chance of winning. For example, during the election campaign, Curran blasted the health secretary, Alan Milburn, for being 'in the pockets' of private healthcare firms. And, in a press release on Milburn's proposals for foundation hospitals, headed 'Mad, Bad and Dangerous', he said he found it incredible that a Labour minister could seriously be putting these proposals forward, which would lead to 'the decimation of the NHS as we know it'.

If, as seems likely, Tony Woodley does win the vote in the TGWU, it would mark another highly significant shift in the TUC line-up and yet another notch leftwards in its centre of gravity. It would also complete a transformation which has been taking place over the last few years, starting with the election of Mick Rix in Aslef and climaxing in the splendid removal of Ken Jackson in the AEEU. It could just provide the 'tipping point' which shifts the really big battalions into action alongside the 'awkward squad' which has, up to now, had most of its success in the smaller unions.