Like turkeys voting for Christmas, the trade union leaders have given up their existing voting rights at Labour’s annual conference. Barely a voice was raised as they offered Gordon Brown what even Tony Blair could not achieve – total control of the party machine. In exchange for abandoning rights to have a say in the party they actually founded over 100 years ago the unions received precisely nothing. There was no undertaking to discuss their campaign for more legal rights, no concessions on public sector pay, no offer of a referendum on the new EU constitution. Nothing, absolutely nothing was given in return for what history will show was the final nail in the coffin of the party’s democracy.
Only last week at the TUC, union leaders were making all sorts of “threats” about how they would never accept Brown’s proposals to abolish the 50% vote that the unions commanded at annual conference. A week later and the white flag was run up by the same union bureaucrats. When Labour’s national executive met to consider Brown’s proposals, every single one of the union representatives present voted to abolish their voting power. In a 26-4 vote, the only opposition came from members representing the party’s rank-and-file sections. Trying to put a brave face on their abysmal surrender, Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB, said Brown had promised to review the changes in two years. Wow! They all know that Brown will move swiftly to impose his one-member one-vote system, whereby votes are taken to endorse what has already been decided at the top. Once abolished, the unions’ voting rights will never be restored.
Next week’s conference in Bournemouth will, therefore, be nothing more than a showpiece rally. There will be no votes on anything important and New Labour now looks – and behaves - exactly like the capitalist Democratic Party in the United States. This is consistent with Brown’s vision of a “new politics”, where dissent is considered as intolerable and old-fashioned. In its place comes the new one-party politics where Tories, military figures and big business are welcome in the government without having to be members of New Labour. No wonder that David Owen, one of the key figures in the split inside the Labour Party that helped sustain Thatcher in power, is considering Brown’s invitation to return. After all, Thatcher herself has been to tea at Downing Street to show her admiration for the new prime minister.
No one should underestimate the historic significance of the vote to reduce to zero the power of the trade unions to influence conference decisions. The severing of one of the most important links between trade unionists and Labour is a turning point. Blair always considered that the creation of Labour was an historic “mistake”. Now New Labour has effectively broken free of its own history, its formation by the labour and trade union movement. Its new sponsors are the City financiers and corporate bosses who call the shots on government policy. Yet the union leaders intend to continue to fund capitalist New Labour while it attacks their members’ jobs, wages and pensions. They would do well to remember what actually happens to turkeys at Christmas when their members get wind of this week’s horrific sell-out.
AWTW communications editor