Brendan Barber, general secretary of the Trade Unions Congress, is warning of riots on the streets if public spending is slashed by the next government. Coming from the TUC, however, that kind of language is unlikely to scare either New Labour or the Tories because the organisation is long on warnings and extremely short on action.
For over a decade, TUC leaders have in the main sat back and watched while New Labour carved up state services for the benefit of the corporate sector. The value of private sector contracts within the public sector is now an estimated £80 billion a year. Union leaders have made no attempt to defy anti-union laws that Blair once boasted were the most draconian in Europe.
During the past year, as the financial crisis precipitated a deep recession, the TUC bigwigs have negotiated pay freezes, job cuts, short-time working and not lifted a finger to oppose a single workplace closure. For this they have earned the admiration of business. As the Financial Times remarks today: “The economic downturn has brought rare harmony between employers and unions as workforces agree pay freezes to save jobs.”
So what should make of Barber’s statement on the eve of the TUC conference that “last time we suffered slash and burn economics we had riots on the streets here in Liverpool” and that “prolonged mass unemployment will have terrible effects on social cohesion, family break-up and the nation’s health” and lead to a dole queue of more than four million?
Not a lot, quite frankly, because to reject spending cuts is to challenge the government and the madhouse economics of capitalism and there is no sign whatsoever that this will happen under the leadership of the TUC anytime soon.
Nor is there any prospect that the TUC is going to “rock the boat” and attack New Labour in the run-up to the general election (contrast the supine nature of this generation of union leaders with those who fought the Callaghan Labour government in 1978-9 in defence of jobs and wages). Instead, they will be urging their members to go out and vote for Brown because the Tories could be “much worse”. What a perspective!
As to a challenge to the foundations of economic orthodoxy, that’s simply not going to happen. Yet taking on the government, and answering the global capitalist crisis with policies that do not involve “slash and burn” to pay for the bail-out of the bankers (which has done nothing to halt the slide to slump) is the only realistic way forward. Failure to take this path, as TUC figures themselves show, is too dire to contemplate.
The potential cuts are so huge – the public spending deficit is estimated at £175 billion – that a radical reorganisation of the economy as well as the financial system is demanded because in practice, the British capitalist state is bankrupt and is printing money galore in order to postpone an inevitable slump.
A year ago this week, Lehman Brothers went to the wall in the largest bankruptcy in world history. Corporate, debt-driven globalisation ended with a bang that resounded around the planet. Capitalism is weaker than at any time in recent history and a planned, sustainable, not-for-profit alternative is what the TUC should be discussing this week if it were at all serious about the jobs crisis facing trade unionists.