If, as seems probable, Gordon Brown is crowned as the next leader of New Labour without a contest, much of the responsibility will lie with the leaders of the major trade unions. They have deliberately cold-shouldered the challenge of MP John McDonnell in favour of Brown, who is the principal architect of New Labour’s reactionary policies. Even the fact that the New Labour ship is clearly holed below the water line has not moved people like Derek Prentis, leader of Unison, Tony Woodley of the Transport and General Workers Union or Derek Simpson of Amicus, who represent most of the trade union movement. Prentis has watched while the government has carved up the National Health Service in favour of the private sector. Jobs have gone in their thousands and conditions eroded. Woodley and Simpson have turned their back on McDonnell to concentrate instead on merging their two organisations into Unite. Unfortunately, the unity they propose is with New Labour and not the aspirations of working people who have become the victims of a decade of Blair/Brown policies.
McDonnell has the support of unions representing firefighters and rail workers, whose leaders have been most critical of New Labour and who have led their members in strike action to defend jobs and conditions. They, however, are not affiliated to New Labour and have little influence on the process to choose a successor to Blair. The moral of this story is that the unions in Britain are led by privileged, bureaucratic donkeys who are more interested in hanging on to the coat-tails of the government than tackling the issues confronting their members. The merger mania that has produced Unite has not come from any aspiration to confront the employers or the state. Instead, it is, as Simpson once told a meeting, an attempt to "manage the decline" of the trade unions as a force in a period of globalisation. McDonnell himself has written Another World is Possible, which he describes as a manifesto for 21st century socialism. Unlike the union leaders, McDonnell accepts the challenges posed by globalisation and the market economy. His proposals for extending democracy into the workplace and communities as an alternative to the domination of market forces deserve consideration. The manifesto merits the widest discussion possible amongst the millions who are affiliated to New Labour through their unions. So Woodley and company have a real choice when Blair announces his resignation as prime minister later this week. They can line up behind Brown and a continuation of pro-capitalist policies. Or they can put pressure on MPs to endorse McDonnell so that he gets the opportunity to present his proposals in the process to replace Blair as leader.
Paul Feldman, communications editor