Awkward Moment

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The defeat of Mick Rix has important lessons - but not those the Blairites would have us believe.

The unexpected departure of Mick Rix as leader of the train drivers' union, Aslef, is a bit of a one-off in that it goes against the broad trend which still dominates in union elections. A week before the upset in Aslef, left candidates virtually swept the board in votes on the PCS civil service union national executive. And not long after, a leading Blairite and member of Labour's national executive, John Keggie, was ousted as deputy general secretary of the Royal Mail section of the CWU. His replacement, Dave Ward, almost immediately promised a ballot for strike action over pay and the scrapping of the company's 'modernisation' plans.

The fact that enough of the Aslef membership wanted such a prominent member of the 'awkward squad' out cannot be swept under the carpet, though. Rix was the first of the new breed of union leaders to break through on a no-messing anti-Blair platform in 1998. And, although it would be stretching it to describe him (as the Financial Times did) as an 'intellectual driving force' or leap to the conclusion (as some on the left have done) that his removal is 'catastrophic', he was nevertheless an important figure who - much to his credit - made no attempt to disguise his views, not least in opposition to the war on Iraq.

Since the vote in Aslef, what stands out is the wide range of explanations given for the result. One undisputed element is that Rix's predecessor, Lew Adams, played a prominent role in the campaign to get him out. This is an extraordinary bit of neck - Adams is now a director of the government-appointed Strategic Rail Authority and an adviser to a number of train companies. We have ended up instead with a driver called Shaun Brady, who sounds as though he came off the evolutionary ladder alongside Bernard Manning.

Rix himself appears to favour the explanation that he had been defeated 'by rich and powerful people in the country and in the railway industry'. But this can surely only provide part of the answer, since exactly the same forces were around when Rix managed to get elected in the first place. Another, more pernicious explanation is that too much discussion of 'politics' is a dangerous thing. This very old and - especially in the current climate - thoroughly right wing view keeps re-appearing, in a spectrum that goes all the way from Polly Toynbee to parts of the Communist Party.

With this version, Rix's big mistake was being too up front about his views on privatisation and the war. The implication being that had he kept his trap shut, he might have been alright. And - handily, from the government's and the rail bosses' point of view - more or less indistinguishable from the union 'moderates'.

In fact, it could be equally well argued that things went askew over a much more bread and butter issue. This was when the leadership of Aslef pursued the restoration of national bargaining on terms and conditions on the railways. There might have been a certain logic to this, in that - had the campaign been successful - it would have put one more nail in the coffin of a privatised rail network.

The only trouble was that train drivers had actually been doing quite well out of company-level bargaining in the last few years. So it must have appeared a bit odd that national bargaining was now being put as a top priority. So there is no shortage of explanations for what happened in Aslef. And the truth is that Mick Rix's whole approach was forthright, but he might have taken a bit too much for granted - assuming that the wider membership would be behind him on key issues, but not doing enough of the donkey work to ensure their full backing. A little bit of complacency probably also crept in among rank and file activists that the threat from the right had been dealt with. But there is no convincing evidence that too much politics was the problem.

On the contrary, the force which propelled Mick Rix into the headlines five years ago (and which has since engulfed every major union) is rooted in a loathing of Tony Blair and everything he stands for. And this has not changed because of one election result, as New Labour will discover this autumn. Writing in the Guardian, the CWU leader, Billy Hayes, warned, 'Those who imagine that the turnaround in Aslef... marks an end to labour movement radicalisation are simply deluding themselves about the mood among trade unionists and the wider workforce.'

This is absolutely right, but the time has also come for this mood to be expressed much more emphatically, to match the hostility to Blair with real industrial clout and not just rhetoric. Over the summer, the most inspiring example of this came not from any members of the awkward squad but from a couple of hundred British Airways ticketing staff, who managed to bring an entire airline to a standstill in less than two days of unofficial action and sent the media into a total frenzy.

This is the second time in the space of a few years that grandiose 'modernisation' plans drawn up by the top management at BA have been completely scuppered by strike action. And, in just about every other sector of the economy, employers are gearing up for the implementation of similar plans, virtually all of them driven by Downing Street. In the NHS, it's introduction of foundation hospitals, in the Royal Mail 'more productivity strings than a philharmonic orchestra', and, in the civil service, an all-out government attack on pensions and privatisation of major departments. Flexibility on the employers' terms is the New Labour mantra.

In this situation, the last thing we need is to be dropping politics from the issue. For a government as weak as this one, keeping politics out of it is in fact their last hope of survival. This is what gave them the crucial leverage in the FBU strike, raising the stakes by accusing Andy Gilchrist of having an agenda of being out to topple the government. Instead of standing up to the bullying, Gilchrist blinked first and then buckled. The government continued to politicise the dispute at every opportunity, accusing the strikers of being wreckers and 'not fit to lace the boots of our boys in Iraq'.

The awkward squad has won hands down the general arguments against Blairism and New Labour. But it has yet to prove that it can turn this clear advantage into really decisive victories. Not flinching on the politics is the only way to win and the answer is not all that complicated. The general secretary of the PCS, Mark Serwotka, put it very well at this year's union conference, when he said, 'What kind of society do we have that cannot afford decent healthcare, pensions and education, but can still spend billions on an illegal war in the Middle East?'