Monday, September 10, 2007

Set fair for hot air in Brighton

The TUC Congress in Brighton this week will hear some angry words and even some heartfelt speeches on the themes of vulnerable workers, trade union rights (or the lack of them), poverty, social housing, casualisation, employment rights, globalisation and other issues. But everyone knows that the words spoken at Congress carry little weight and hardly any influence anywhere. The TUC, far from taking any action against globalisation (and its consequences of poverty, grotesque inequality and privatisation) has ended up as an accessory to the fact.

They have sat back and watched the organisation created by the unions over 100 years ago being transformed into the primary party of corporate interests in the UK. Yet still the union leaders go on pleading with Gordon Brown as if he simply had to be shown the right path. In fact, TUC leaders are pinning all their hopes on the Brown government, even though the prime minister is the main architect of the capitalist policies that they formally oppose.

So Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of Unite, can write in his union journal: “Gordon Brown has shown over the last couple of months that it is possible for Labour to leave behind the increasingly-dismal Blair years and start to forge a new course in office.” He claims to see signs of a new approach, of “a more independent foreign policy, the new commitment to house-building and the calm handling of the attempted bombings in early July”. Which planet does Woodley live on? Is he talking about the same Brown who has reinforced market-driven policies on every occasion, threatened more anti-terror laws, praised the Bush regime, imposed below-inflation pay awards on unions and brought Tories and others into the government?.

Brown, who is due to make a speech to Congress today, will be greatly encouraged by such a feeble, bankrupt perspective, shared by most of the TUC. He wants to reduce even further the influence of the unions and constituency members in the Labour Party, and won’t pay any attention to the lobby by the unions of Parliament in support of the Trade Union Freedom Bill next month. Brown is planning to abolish the right of conference to vote against the government on policy, and to refer controversial issues to the National Policy Forum. As Seamus Milne in a comment piece for The Guardian, put it, “Brown’s proposals would mean the final relegation of their [the unions] federal role to lobbyists-cum-cash cow”.

Brown’s government will also be working hard to head off the possibility that the TUC might vote for a referendum on the question of the new EU treaty. Brown, like Blair, does not want his plans challenged by decisions of his own party or even by results of referenda that could interfere with his vision of Britain as a driving force for the global market economy. That is what this government is about, and his fine phrases about a New Politics, citizens juries, dialogue with the people, participation politics, conviction politics etc, are simply a smokescreen for this agenda.

The class struggle, meanwhile, broke surface, spectacularly, last week, when London Underground workers held a strike in defence of jobs, pay and pensions after Metronet, the private company set up in the wake of Brown’s privatisation policies, collapsed. The workers, members of the RMT, and their leader Bob Crow came face to face with the wrath of the Tory media as well as Brown and Mayor Livingstone. The TUC, as usual, was silent. In truth, union leaders with some honourable exceptions, have nothing to say and no leadership to offer. By going cap-in-hand to Brown, they add insult to injury to their loyal, hard-working members who pay their subscriptions as well as the wages of the privileged bureaucrats whose hot air will dominate proceedings in Brighton.

Peter Arkell

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