I doubt if it was a coincidence that in the week Dave Prentis from UNISON demonstrated he would grovellingly accept the Government’s attack on the pensions of his union’s members, Ed Balls and Ed Miliband seized the opportunity to announce their support for pay freezes and public sector cuts. Their assessment was that union resistance to the austerity programme had crumbled, and any reaction to this sellout would easily be brushed off.
Using the twisted logic of New Labour, they calculated that even if there was a union backlash, it would only serve to bolster the image of a courageous leader taking on the unions, playing well to the Daily Mail, et al.
However, they underestimated the anger of both Labour Party members and trade unionists at this capitulation to the economic and political agenda of Cameron’s coalition. There has been some faux sabre rattling by Prentis and others about party affiliation, but there has also been an expression of real frustration by Unite’s Len McLuskey. This reflects the growing unease among the unions which backed Miliband for the leadership that started with his failure to support them in the pensions dispute and was exacerbated when he agreed to the Balls’ line of pay freezes and cuts.
It is no secret that many in Unite view the Miliband leadership as the last chance for the Labour Party to demonstrate why the union is justified in supporting the Party. To alienate this support at such an early stage in his leadership is a potentially catastrophic strategic mistake both for him personally and for the Party overall.
He will need friends in the unions and on the left as the vultures circle if election results don’t go well this spring. When it comes to judging the value of affiliation to Labour, some trade unions may consider that the argument that at least Ed is not David has begun to wear thin – given that we have been left with a political platform based upon an appeal to support Labour as the party of responsible capitalism competing with Cameron’s Conservative Party of… yes, responsible capitalism!
Labour supporters have looked on in bafflement as in every policy area Labour’s shadow ministers have accepted the main tenets of Coalition policy. On some issues, this is not surprising, as Cameron is building on the foundations laid by New Labour in office.
Labour now accepts Gove’s drive for academies and has moved towards support for free schools.
The Coalition’s welfare reform policy of using ruthless assessments to force people off benefits started with New Labour’s contract with ATOS and is now being extended by this Government to DLA recipients. When the Coalition’s proposal for a benefit cap was voted through in the House of Commons, the Labour front bench insisted on abstention.
Even on the recent decision to privatise our prisons, the Coalition didn’t need any new legislative powers and simply used the legislation passed on to them by New Labour.
The much repeated critique of Coalition economic policy – that they were cutting “too far and too fast” – inherently accepted cuts and led to the refusal to commit Labour to reinstating the Coalition’s cutbacks and reversing pay freezes.
If resistance and an alternative is not coming from the Labour leadership, it will have to come from the Party’s rank and file.
The grievances that mobilised the student march last November, the half a million on the “March for the Alternative” in March 2011 and the mass strikes in June and November last year have not gone away. They have grown, as unemployment rises towards three million, the cuts deepen and standards of living are falling as pay freezes and benefit cuts bite.
The same questions about the causes of and remedies for this economic crisis are being asked, and the questioners are becoming much more streetwise in assessing the answers offered to them.
This all means that the opportunity to mobilise resistance to the cuts remains and the opportunity to advance an analysis of and alternative to our corrupt, incompetent, crisis ridden system is even greater. We must throw every mobilising resource we have behind every form of resistance.
The sellout by the TUC and some crony unions will make mass co-ordinated action on the scale we saw on 30th November harder to organise, but a campaign of industrial action will continue, combining large scale action wherever possible with regular smaller scale tactical hard hitting disruption. The UCATT and Unite pickets of building sites in the sparks’ dispute (see page 25) also demonstrate the strength of rank and file activity in defiance of anti-trade union laws.
Whatever the action, we have to be there in support. If the call comes out to defend OccupyLSX, we have to be there. For every cut there is a victim: we also have to be a part of every campaign to expose and oppose the cuts. We also need to move rapidly beyond just opposition and undertake detailed work on the alternative society we seek to create to replace capitalism. There is the potential of a new era opening before us. We have to seize the day.
John McDonnell is MP for Hayes & Harlington and Chair of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs and the Labour Representation Committee.