Gordon Brown’s Budget, with its redistribution of wealth from the poor to the well-off, plus reductions in company taxes and spending cuts, is the firmest indication that he will continue down the path carved by New Labour under Blair. This will surprise few observers except, perhaps, the leaders of two of Britain’s largest trade unions. Derek Simpson of Amicus and Tony Woodley, leader of the Transport and General Workers Union, had hoped beyond hope that the planned merger of their two organisations would force Brown to break from Blairism. Members of both unions voted strongly in favour of the merger, which officially comes into being on May Day, and both leaders have expressed lofty aims for the two million-strong new union. Woodley said: "The new union will be a progressive, organising, fighting back industrial giant focussed above all on winning for our members in the workplace, and taking trade unionism to the millions who need it." And Simpson added: "The new union will be the greatest campaigning force on behalf of ordinary people that has ever existed. It is a precursor to the creation of a single global trade union movement capable of challenging the might of multinationals who seek to play workforces and governments off against each other to reduce jobs and hard-won pay and conditions."
Strong words which, if carried into practice, would surely bring the new union into direct conflict with New Labour, which is effectively sponsored by the very same corporations Simpson refers to. But a few days after the announcement of the overwhelming votes by both sets of members for the merger, Simpson was already on the retreat. He acknowledged that you couldn’t "get a cigarette paper on policy" between Brown and Blair, but added: "Gordon Brown has to be so naïve and stupid if he does not realise he must do something to address the drift away from Labour by both the electorate and by the party membership, or else he will not be prime minister after the next election. He cannot be immune to that fact since we as a union have put warnings to him over and over again. The concern is that Brown is just going to be another Blair, and God, don’t we want a change after 10 years". He went on to say, according to The Guardian, that his only hope was that Brown will adapt to pressure from the party and the union movement. In other words the leadership of the new union is hoping to pressure Brown to break from Blairism — despite Brown having been the main architect of its policies. He is just Blair Mark II
Yet Simpson and Woodley must know very well that there will be no return under Brown to the Old Labour days of intervention and compromise. Since New Labour came to power, the trade unions have been almost invisible on the political scene. The leaders of the unions have mostly swallowed this bitter pill, while protesting meekly. A few like the rail union RMT and the firefighters have withheld the political levy and attacked New Labour’s business policies. But Woodley and Simpson, along with the leaders of the health union Unison, have sat on their hands. They have sought to keep their members tied in behind New Labour on the grounds that there is no alternative. Whole areas of industry have gone without a fight while business has ravaged the public sector, with the official leaders restricting their opposition to words of anguish. No wonder that they have lost members as a result. To defend jobs, services and wages today is a revolutionary challenge and demands a political leadership that is not afraid of new ideas and that will not compromise with New Labour or any other capitalist government. If there is one thing that the recent dispute at BA showed, it is that the cabin crew, all 11,000 of them, were ready for a fight. Even when they had won many of their demands, a lot of them they wanted to go on strike to teach BA a lesson. TGWU officials only just held them in check. They may not be so lucky next time.
Peter Arkell, industrial editor