Trades Union Congress: Big Battalions Firing Blanks

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On the opening morning of this year‘s TUC conference at Brighton, a small group of demonstrators shouted slogans at delegates as they entered.

These ranged from demands for the TUC to block foundation hospitals to calls for an end to privatisation, racist asylum laws and tuition fees. Scattered among the slogans were, of course, demands for the end of the occupation in Iraq, and Bush and Blair‘s imperial adventures.

These worthy protesters could have saved their breath. The vast majority of delegates entering the hall agreed wholeheartedly. It also became increasingly obvious that the leaders of Britain‘s trade union movement needed no further convincing that these were positions that they too were happy to espouse - up to a point. Speech after speech, both from the leadership and the rank and file, denounced every aspect of the ’modernisation‘ agenda in all its manifestations - from airline pilots to nurses, from steel workers to caretakers.

That the general council of the TUC should so eagerly and publicly promote the fight against the BNP and the asylum laws is a genuinely welcome development. That the president, Nigel de Gruchy of the reactionary NASUWT, should have the confidence to denounce Bush and his motives in his opening address is truly remarkable. But for all of that, when it came to outlining any sort of concerted and purposeful strategy for taking Blair on, the cracks between the rhetoric and political reality began to show.

Of all of the ’debates‘ at TUC (with practically no dissent, the discussion of motions was almost never controversial), that over the rise of the BNP demonstrated this divide most clearly. There was no disputing the obvious repugnance felt by all who spoke but, despite the damning oratory, it was left to a rank and file delegate from the AUT lecturers‘ union to point out that we need to address the swamp from which Nazis emerge if we are to really tackle the problem.

The disillusionment of the vast majority of their members with Blair and his agenda leaves the leaders of the ’big battalions‘ - Woodley, Simpson, Prentis - with a problem. At the core of the way in which they operate lies the stubborn belief that they can change the Labour Party for the better. Hence they will dine at the Grand with Blair, and - despite the fact that he feeds a different story to the press than the one he gives to them - hope that they will shift him just a little closer to them. Hence they will listen to Brown - whose limp and lukewarm reception was one of the highlights of the week - despite his message that there will be no favours from the Treasury. And hence they have the confidence to invite along CBI boss Digby Jones, days after he had openly and deliberately insulted millions of their members, in the vain hope that workers and bosses can enter some dreamy partnership for their mutual benefit.

Nowhere was this problem for the trade union leaders illustrated more starkly than at two fringe meetings on the penultimate day. At the first, a platform of union leaders attempted to convince a largely sceptical audience that the Labour Party was worth reclaiming - and that the current wave of apathy and resignations meant that the time was ripe for jumping in and capturing the party machine. Later in the day, PCS leader Mark Serwotka gave a brilliantly analytical and realistic assessment of the possibilities of establishing a real alternative to Blair at a meeting organised by the Socialist Alliance. It is precisely this sort of hard-edged and sober debate that we currently need if we are to turn the anger of the delegates at TUC - and the millions they represent - into purposeful action.

Unfortunately, this debate won‘t take place in Millbank or Congress House. That the leaders of our trade unions are embracing a more radical set of positions than they have for decades is to be heartily welcomed. Now we‘ve got to find ways of making them act - and ’reclaiming‘ New Labour isn‘t going to make that happen.