Standing up for the members
New General Secretary Paul Kenny, in a speech to the GMB Congress said that politicians were like babies nappies; “they need changing regularly, and for the same reason.” It was a pity that the GMB Congress didn’t act according to this unusual dictum when Blair was invited to speak to the delegates on Tuesday. He was treated like a good friend with whom we have some minor differences. There were plenty of hostile questions from the delegates, in the question and answer session; on Iraq, ‘reform’ of the public sector, pensions etc. But he wasn’t barracked or heckled. He was apparently treated with ‘respect’ instead of the contempt which he has earned.
Blair gave a robust defence of his right wing neo-liberal policies of course. When the session was over some delegates (I was told by somebody present less than half, but nevertheless a significant number) gave him a standing ovation. These are the same people who passed a document, GMB at Work, which abandons the idea of partnership with the employers, which Blair’s government considers to be the mark of a ‘modern’ trade union. These were the same delegates who have voted against privatisation of public services, and to affiliate to the Keep Our NHS Public campaign.
Perhaps some of them are Labour loyalists who can only smile as the government kicks them. Probably most of them did not want to give the impression of hostility or ‘splits’ between the unions and government in front of the media. In giving a standing ovation to Blair they were failing to do what they should be doing, standing up for the members. How can anyone give a standing ovation to the man responsible for introducing ‘reforms’ which are destroying the very foundations of the NHS?
In the Congress the top table ruled out a resolution which called for the right of branches to support candidates other than Labour ones, on the ground that this would lead to the union’s expulsion from the Labour Party. If you hold the position that it is necessary for the trades unions to ‘stay in and fight’ or ‘win back the party’, then isn’t it necessary to break with the political programme and methods of the Blairites? Isn’t it necessary to recognise that Blair and all those who support his politics are enemies of the trades unions?
If the unions stay in the party that is their choice, but they cannot defend the interests of their members without demanding a fundamental change of political direction. It matters not a jot if the party is headed by Blair or Brown, or anybody else for that matter, if the policy is the same; ‘free market’ neo-liberalism.
It is time for the abandonment of an approach which says, on the one hand the government has done some positive things, on the other some negative, as if they balance each other out.
Blair is not the devil incarnate, of course. He did not move the party into the neo-liberal camp without support of others. Indeed, it was largely the trade union leaders who delivered the party to him so easily.
It is the collaboration with the government which the union leaders have for the most part carried out, which has allowed it to get away with a programme of abandonment of the welfare state, privatisation of public services, and support for a right wing republican administration in the USA. An unequivocal break with the politics of Blairism is necessary if the unions are to be taken seriously. They can’t stand up for the members and for Blair.