We are entering potentially the most momentous period in the history of the labour and trade union movement for at least a generation. Within weeks there is every likelihood of over two million workers coming out on strike, followed by a lengthy campaign of sporadic industrial action with further street mobilisations.
Mounting unemployment and the Government’s cuts in public services and benefits, combined with price inflation, are rapidly degrading the standard of living of the vast majority of the population. Resentment is building against the Government as its economic strategy is penalising everybody but the super-rich.
Society is actually dividing before our eyes on class lines. Every poll is demonstrating that increasingly people have not just had enough, they are also willing to support taking action against the Government’s policies and to protect themselves.
These are the ideal conditions for Labour to take the lead in mobilising to bring this Government down and promoting the election of a Labour Government with an alternative programme for change. The question is “Where is the Labour Party leadership just at the very time it is needed?” The answer is: nowhere.
Just at the time when we need Labour to give a lead, the Labour Party leadership has refused to back industrial action and appears to think that the main means of leading the attack on the Government is the parliamentary pantomine of Prime Minister’s question time. This leadership strategy is straight out of the Mandelson textbook of “How to be a New Labour leader.”
According to the Mandelson doctrine, lesson one of being a New Labour leader is that you must demonstrate to the right wing media, including Guardian liberals, that you are a strong leader not by taking on the Tories, but by manufacturing a dispute with your own party and inflicting a spurious defeat on the left or the unions.
Lesson two is that – whatever happens – avoid backing a strike, no matter how just the cause, because you mustn’t be associated with trade unions. The Daily Mail just won’t like it.
Lesson three is that if you have lost an election, admit to a few mistakes, blame most of the problems on others (even if you did vote for most of the policies that lost us the election) and make a few policy adjustments – but mainly carry on with the same old New Labour neo-liberal ideology, because that is what New Labour was founded to implement.
This is the road to electoral disaster – and, even more importantly, to political impotence.
Increasingly people are making up their minds to fight back against the Government, and they are expecting the Labour Party to decide whose side it is on – not to stand on the sidelines wringing its hands and spectating.
This is the time when real leadership is needed: the type of leadership that doesn’t just denounce the brutality of the Government’s policies, but also leads the mobilisation of our community against them. A real Labour leader would now be touring the country speaking at rally after rally alongside trade union leaders, urging support in the ballot for industrial action. When that action takes place, a real Labour leader would be on the picket lines in solidarity with the strikers.
When Tony Blair stood down, some, even on the left, argued that having Brown as leader would be a transformation in comparison with Blair, because Brown was supposed to be a real Labour person, with roots in the Party and an understanding of the trade union movement. It didn’t take long after his election as leader for many to realise that there was to be no change in political direction.
Similarly, in the last leadership election the argument was not just that backing Ed Miliband would stop his Blairite brother but also that Ed was really on the left. As he relied on backing from the unions to be elected, he would have some sympathy for their cause.
It didn’t take him long to play the same old New Labour anti-union cards in various speeches and comments on trade union rights and industrial action. Refusing to back the legislation we proposed on basic trade union rights in the first weeks of the new Parliament should have given people an indication of what was to come. Nevertheless, even now some on the left are excusing recent statements from him against industrial action and his failure to oppose the Tories’ reactionary attacks on welfare benefit claimants, on the basis that he is either surrounded by Blairites or is receiving poor advice.
This is patent sophistry. If the Labour leadership does not have the courage or the determination to fight this Government in the bitterest struggle of our class for decades, then it renders itself irrelevant.
The real leadership is now coming from the rank and file of our movement. Every demonstrator and every striker is becoming a leader. If the Labour leader won’t lead in this struggle, then rank and file Labour Party members must become the leaders – leading by example in joining picket lines and getting out onto the streets in protest.
John McDonnell is MP for Hayes & Harlington and Chair of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs and the Labour Representation Committee.