How should Scotland's unions respond to Labour's Right shift?
Tuesday, 25 June 2013 21:38
"THINGS fall apart; the centre cannot hold..."
We might not yet have reached the stage where the words quoted above can be applied to "the great alliance" that once existed between the Labour Party and the Trade Unions in Britain.
Yet it is difficult to remember a time during the past century when that relationship has been under greater strain than now. There are a number of reasons for this.
The Labour Party was brought into existence to be the political voice of the organised labour movement across Britain. They were in parliament to defend the interests of that movement and the working class the movement represented.
Somewhere between 1979 and 1997 the Labour Party gave up any pretence of being that kind of party. In the words of the recently deceased author Iain Banks: "Labour gave up being Labour."
The embrace of the harshest anti-trade union laws in Europe by the Blair and Brown governments was the most obvious signal of New Labour’s change of direction. There were many others.
Illegal wars, privatisation, deregulation, welfare cuts and attacks on civil liberties are some examples of Labour’s drift to the centre right ground of politics; and of its drift away from the socialist and collectivist principles that had traditionally defined the labour and trade union movement.
Labour’s affiliated trade unions were powerless in the face of this betrayal. Within the parameters of the British state they had nowhere else to go. Bad as Labour had become, the Lib Dems and the Tories were even worse.
The unions may have hated what Labour Governments were doing. They were more frightened of what Lib Dem or Tory Governments might do if given the chance. Events were to prove them right.
The onset of the financial crisis in 2008 first ended 13 years of New Labour Government and then ushered in a ConDem Coalition committed to a programme of austerity that threatens to destroy everything "the great alliance" had ever stood for. In particular, it threatens the one part of the economy where the unions remain relatively strong - the public sector.
One senior union official recently told a pensioners’ conference that more than 50,000 public sector jobs in Scotland had disappeared in the last four years and another 250.000 were set to go over the next four years.
The trade unions’ key role in electing "Red Ed" Miliband as Labour leader was meant to signal the beginning of fight-back against austerity, a break with New Labour and the hope of a steady return to the collectivist and egalitarian ideals of "the great alliance".
This flight of fancy was soon brought crashing to earth as Miliband and Balls, in true New Labour style, announced that they would honour the Tory inspired spending cuts, cap social security spending and erode universal benefits through further means testing.
Anyone looking for an end to austerity under a Labour Government would look in vain.
So where do trade unions turn now?
The argument for trade unions to have political funds rests on them being able to use the money to campaign politically on issues of social justice that affect their members - full employment, rights at work, decent public services, the eradication of poverty and inequality and so on.
How then can any union continue to fund and support a Labour party that is committed to austerity policies that threaten all of these socially just ends? The only credible answer to that question is that within the British state there is no electable alternative to Labour. Scotland, of course, is different.
We now have an historic opportunity to break with a British state that has remoulded what was supposed to be a party of labour into just another prop for a deeply conservative political culture. The challenge facing the leadership of the Scottish trade union movement now is to face up to that uncomfortable reality.
The STUC and its Labour affiliated unions claim that social change and not constitutional change should be at the heart of the referendum debate.
If they mean what they say they must recognise that the social change their members need cannot be achieved through a Labour party thirled to the British state but only through the break-up of that British state.
It really is time to think again.