In the summer of 2010, some union leaders met together and decided that they could buy their way to happiness by backing Ed Miliband’s campaign to become the new leader of the Labour Party.
With the help of the three major union bureaucracies of the GMB, Unite and Unison, Miliband squeaked home ahead of his brother David, who enjoyed most of the support from constituency parties.
Money down the drain, throwing good money after bad, a bad investment, a gamble that went wrong. All these phrases describe what has happened since. Miliband, to no-one’s surprise except that of the union leaders’, has become little more than Blair Mark II.
In fact, Miliband’s speech speech to the Trades Union Congress today was uncannily Blair-like in its content. “You know the new economy that emerges from this crisis must be built on foundations of co-operation, not conflict, in the workplace,” he said.
Co-operation? Trade unionists are being sacked in their thousands and/or losing hard-won rights and working conditions. Many are victims of cuts imposed by Labour-led local authorities.
If delegates were expecting some support for their upcoming struggles, they were soon disabused. Miliband acknowledged that Labour backed public spending cuts in the order of 12% (rather than the Tories’ 20%), defended opted-out academy schools and the Coalition’s new free schools.
And, naturally, Miliband repeated his assertion that strikes by civil servants and teachers in June against government attacks on their pensions were wrong and indicated he would take the same position in the event of more industrial action
Some delegates heckled during Miliband’s speech and Paul Kenny, leader of the GMB, struggled to find words of comfort for his hard-pressed members. In one of this week’s more vacuous statements, Kenny said:
"As Labour Leader he is not embarrassed by his association with trade unions and trade unionists. His engagement with trade unionists on the ground will bring to the fore what needs to be done to get the economy moving and to bring fairness to our communities."
Thank you and good night is all you say after reading that!
Even Bob Crow, general secretary of the Rail Maritime and Transport union, appeared to pull his punches, saying afterwards that "Ed Miliband needs to decide just whose side he is on” and warning the Labour leader that he was on “political suicide mission”.
The stark truth is that Miliband knows which side he is on – and it isn’t that of trade unionists and workers in struggle. Labour became a full partner of globalised capitalism back in the 1990s and stands by that position.
For the Milibands of this world, there is no alternative to rescuing the broken market economy to create the “prosperous capitalism” that the Labour leader called for in a speech earlier this year.
Were Labour in power now, you would hardly notice the difference between their policies and those of the ConDem government. In fact, many of the Coalition’s policies are a development of what New Labour did to the NHS and the welfare state.
Labour is happy taking the money from the trade unions to finance the party - and then doing a runner with it. Union leaders from Unite, Unison and GMB know this. But they are in denial mode.
Their members don’t have that luxury, however. Their jobs and pensions are on the line and they are waiting to see if, behind all the militant speeches, their leaders are actually prepared to do battle with the government.
Not having Miliband on their side is excellent news for the rank and file. The fact is that the alternative to the Coalition is not Labour (or any other combination of parliamentary parties). What is demanded is a democratic political system that responds to people’s needs. Achieving that goal will require independence of thought and action.