Gordon Brown appears to have tested them. It is as if he wanted to discover how far he can go before the affiliated trade unions – which provide most of the Labour party’s funds – decide that they have had enough. The results must reassure him: they will tolerate any level of abuse. Turkeys led by chickens, they will never stop voting for Christmas.
His government of all the talents has room for no professional trade unionist. But it does contain their sworn enemy. The new minister for trade and investment, now responsible for much of the policy that will affect union members, was not just the head of the Confederation of British Industry; he was the most neanderthal boss the CBI has ever had. Digby Jones campaigned to freeze the minimum wage, neuter the EU’s working time directive, block corporate killing laws, promote privatisation, cripple environmental rules, curtail maternity leave. Of the unions he said, “they are an irrelevance. They are backward looking and not on today’s agenda.”(1) As if to show who the boss is, Comrade Digby refuses to join the Labour Party: he has been permitted to enter the government on his own terms.
To test the unions further, Brown has appointed Damon Buffini to two of the bodies which will help the government reshape the workforce: the Business Council and the National Council for Educational Excellence. Buffini is the target of the GMB union’s most vocal anti-corporate campaign: his private equity company sacked one third of the AA’s workforce(2).
The ragged trousered philanthropists who subsidise this bosses’ party mumble and fumble but they will not strike back. Desperate to believe, union leaders cling to broken promises. They refuse to utter the only threat which Brown will heed: disaffiliation.
It is true that some important victories have been won since 1997. We have a minimum wage, better pension protection, improvements in parental leave, better conditions for part-time workers. The list of defeats is much longer. There is the private finance initiative, doggedly promoted by Gordon Brown, which nows dominates the provision of most public services. There is the creeping marketisation of health and education. The government promised the unions that it would give employment protection to temporary and agency workers(3). Instead, it has obstructed the European directive which would have introduced it; when a backbencher proposed a private members’ bill, a government minister talked it out(4). Tony Blair preserved the opt-out clause in the EU’s working time directive, that allows bosses to blackmail their workers. The government has refused to repeal Thatcher’s draconian union laws. After ten years of broken promises we still don’t have a corporate killing act. Inequality has reached scarcely imaginable levels, tax evasion is rampant, the railways are still in private hands, council housing remains moribund, companies don’t have to publish operating and financial reviews, the minimum wage is far from being a living wage. And there is the small matter of an illegal war in which perhaps a million people have died.
Amicus, one half of Unite, the super-union it recently formed with the TGWU, dismisses such complaints as “the hard left … kick[ing] up a fuss over minor areas of difficulty”(5). What, I wonder, would be a major area of difficulty? When you challenge the unions, they rattle a yellowed parchment and proclaim “but we have the Warwick agreement!” This is the pact they signed with the government in 2004, which persuaded them not to break with the party. But it must now be obvious to anyone who isn’t singing loudly while stuffing his fingers in his ears that the government intends only to honour the easy bits. It has punted the more difficult promises – like fair conditions for agency workers – into the indeterminate future.
Of course there is the perpetual fear of something worse. No trade union, quite rightly, wants to let the Tories back in. But if the unions won’t use their power, the contest between the two parties will be scarcely worth fighting. Perhaps they don’t realise how much the government now needs them. The cash for honours scandal has frightened off almost all the major private donors, leaving the party largely dependent on union funds. So what do they intend to do with this power? To judge by their recent statements, nothing.
In his speech to the annual conference in June the leader of the GMB, Paul Kenny, begged, “Listen to us. Please listen to us. … I say to Gordon, please follow your instincts, not the spin doctors of the CBI.”(6) But he threatened nothing. Two weeks later, Dave Prentis, the leader of Unison, told the government that it was “drinking in the last chance saloon”. But he too imagines that Brown might be sweetly persuaded to “usher in a new era that sees the restoration of real Labour values”(7). Last week Tony Woodley, head of the TGWU, railed against the “outrage” and “disgrace” of Labour’s policies(8). But it was hot air, and the government knows it. I phoned the TGWU and asked its spokesman what might persuade the union to disaffiliate. “Nothing”, he told me. So if the Labour party adopted the swastika as its logo and started holding torchlit rallies in Parliament Square, it could still count on the TGWU’s support? “That’s an extreme example,” he replied. But he did not deny it(9).
Knowing that it can take the support of the affiliated unions for granted, the government can concentrate on appeasing the bosses. The unions’ involvement with the Labour Party is rather like the government’s special relationship with George Bush: their response to being used as a doormat is to become just a little more bristly.
The affiliated unions still rage about the class war, but keep funding their class enemies. When he crossed the floor and was given the safe seat of St Helen’s South, then took his butler on the campaign trail, the multimillionaire Shaun Woodward represented everything they hated about new Labour. But last year the philanthropists in Amicus helped to fund his constituency office(10). The GMB denounces Blair’s war crimes from the conference stage, but gives money to his office in Sedgefield(11). None of the bigger unions will contemplate forming or funding another party.
Two trade unions – the RMT and the FBU – walked out before the last election. Bob Crow, the leader of the RMT, recently told the other unions, “any hope of the Labour Party working for workers is dead, finished, over. I think all you who are staying in the Labour Party are just giving credibility to it”(12). In 2004, Kevin Curran, then the leader of the GMB, warned that if Labour did not change, “we would have to look for a political partner that would advance the interests of people we represent.”(13) His timing was bad: the Warwick agreement, gravid with promise, had just been signed. But as the agreement bursts, the necessary threats have not materialised.
Brown has called their bluff, and they have flinched. He now knows that, out of fear and out of sentiment, the unions will stick with him. He can do whatever it takes to keep big business, Rupert Murdoch and the Daily Mail onside. The way things are going, the unions might as well cut out the middleman and give their money to the CBI.
1. Larry Elliott, 26th June 2006. Sir Digby rides off with all guns blazing. The Guardian.
2. GMB, 11th July 2006. AA roadshow tackles Damon Buffini: Maidstone and Dover. http://www.labournet.net/ukunion/0607/aa1.html
3. Trade Union & Labour Party Liaison Organisation, 2004. Full Employment and Working in modern Britain
The TULO Guide to the Warwick Agreement, National Policy Forum 25 July 2004. http://www.unionstogether.org.uk/articles/employment.html
4. Hansard, 2nd March 2007.Temporary and Agency Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Bill. Second Reading. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmhansrd/cm070302/debtext/70302-0010.htm
5. Amicus, viewed 9th July 2007. The importance of the trade union link. http://www.amicustheunion.org/Default.aspx?page=1194
6. Paul Kenny, 3rd June 2007. Speech to the GMB conference.
7. Dave Prentis, 19th June 2007. Quoted by David Hencke, 19th June 2007. Change direction or lose election, Brown warned. The Guardian.
8. Tony Woodley, 2nd July 2007. Speech to the T&G section of Unite’s conference. http://www.tgwu.org.uk/Templates/Internal.asp?NodeID=93490&int1stParentNodeID=42438&int2ndParentNodeID=90594
9. Conversation with TGWU spokesman, 5th July 2007.
12. Dave Reid, 5th July 2007. RMT conference: Fighting a thousand cuts. http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/2007/494/index.html?id=pp1508.htm
13. Kevin Curran, 29th July 2004. Quoted by Christine Buckley and Helen Rumbelow, 30th July 2004. Go Left Labour, or face a new party, says union boss. The Times.
Published in the Guardian 10th July 2007