Thursday, September 28, 2006

Unions have to support McDonnell

Some trade union leaders are apparently, if reluctantly, coming to the conclusion that most of us reached some time ago - that there is no substantial differences between the politics of Tony Blair and those of his likely successor, Gordon Brown. Union leaders were given short shrift by Brown in New Labour’s national executive committee on Wednesday when they pressed for a commitment to end the corporate take over of the NHS and other public services. Brown defended the sell-off of NHS Logistics to the German firm DHL and the creation of markets inside the health service. He pointedly rejected the pressure from strike action organised by Unison against the privatisation and told them the transfer would go ahead on October 1. The national executive narrowly supported Brown’s position.

All this renders fairly irrelevant what happened on the conference floor later, when the angered union leaders used their votes to carry a resolution asking New Labour to "rethink the headlong rush to a competitive system" in the NHS. The terms of the resolution also show that the union bureaucrats have learned nothing after nine years of New Labour. Introducing the private sector into public services is a cornerstone of a government that puts the needs of the market economy first and goes back to New Labour’s early days. Asking them to "rethink" this policy is akin to demanding that the tide stops turning. Will this ever get through to the union leadership? There is some doubt.

It is all very well for Dave Prentis, the Unison general secretary, to talk of newly qualified healthcare staff struggling to find jobs in a system driven by "market madness" and to declare that "enough is enough". But what are Tony Woodley of the transport union and others going to do about it all? They are clinging on to New Labour for dear life while their membership is moving in another direction. At a fringe meeting, the unions warned that voters would abandon New Labour unless it put some "clear red water" between itself and the revitalised Tories under David Cameron. As this is clearly not going to happen under Brown or any other New Labourite, the unions are staring the end of New Labour in the face while offering no alternative.

There is another choice, however. They could denounce Brown and throw their weight behind the campaign launched by John McDonnell, chair of the Campaign Group of Socialist MPs. McDonnell is fighting on a clear platform of opposition to New Labour’s market capitalist polices. If the unions supported his bid for the leadership it would create the conditions for an open debate about alternatives to New Labour, both in policy and practical terms. The longer the union leaders sit on their hands, the more likely it is that the Tories will return unchallenged.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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