Last Saturday six of us from Swindon joined the Stop the War Coalition protest outside the Labour Party deputy leadership hustings in Bristol. We were expecting Gordon Brown to be there, but I don’t think he turned up. It is always nice for me to go to Bristol and meet up with comrades who I worked with in the past.
There were about 40 people present outside, and unfortunately the policing was unnecessarily heavy (Peter Hain is Northern Ireland secretary). Although, I estimate only half were members of the SWP, the fact that there were too many Socialist Worker placards and paper sellers gave the impression that it was a SWP protest, which is a bit of a counter productive image to project if trying to have a relationship with the Labour Party, and more than one non-SWP member expressed discomfort about it to me.
The logic of standing against Labour in elections has also seemingly undermined the strategic understanding that SWP comrades had about the Labour Party. As one Asian labour councillor drove past he was castigated in hostile terms for the fact that he had stood on an anti-war ticket to get elected, but was not active in the anti-war movement. This seems exactly the wrong tack to take: he should be encouraged for standing as an anti-war candidate, which is in itself a form of participation in the peace movement, even if he doesn’t go on demonstrations.
According to the report in the Morning Star 250 trade unionists attended the hustings. This seems unlikely to me, I had a chat with one of the stewards from Amicus and had a look at his list, and from that I estimate attendance nearer the 100 mark.
The most unequivocally right-wing candidates, Alan Johnson and Hazel Blears, are both stressing their links with the trade unions, but not calling for any change in policy. Bizarrely, the Shop workers union, USDAW is backing Hazel Blears, seemingly simply on the basis that she is an USDAW member. But USADW also claims that: “Gordon Brown’s … brilliant management of the economy and undoubted leadership skills [show he] is the right choice to build on Labour's achievements since 1997 continuing to build a prosperous Britain and secure a fourth term Labour Government”. Britain’s fifth biggest union, with 360000 members, USDAW is clearly sending a message by backing Blears that there needs be no change of direction. Privatisation and PFI, growing inequality, no repeal of Tory anti trade-union laws, deregulation, attacks on civil liberties, wars of aggression, a housing crisis, and Labour’s vote falling to its lowest ever level are all signs of success for USDAW.
The other deputy leadership candidates are all to one degree or another wooing the activist vote. Hilary Benn has called for new legislation to bridge the pay gap, and improve flexible working rights, and has on that basis been backed by the tiny ceramics union, Unity, which has only 9000 members mainly in Stoke on Trent.
Peter Hain is being backed by ASLEF, BFAWU and UCATT. Hain himself is playing a funny game, both backing and opposing privatisation of the NHS for example. “As a very general principle I believe public services should be publicly provided unless there is a very good reason why not. For instance in Northern Ireland I used the private sector to clear a massive waiting list backlog, and that was absolutely the right thing to do”
Dagenham MP Jon Cruddas is backed by UNITE, the newly amalgamated T&G and Amicus. Unite joint general secretary, Derek Simpson said: "Jon Cruddas' stated policies mirror our members' desire for better job security, decent pensions, affordable housing and public services provided by the public sector. Jon is unlike any other candidate standing for the deputy leadership - he alone is calling for a change of direction in order to reconnect with the Labour party's core supporters."
There has been some criticism of UNITE for backing Gordon Brown, and interestingly I seems to have been a decision of only the GEC of the T&G and not Amicus who agreed to do so: “The Unite amicus section's political committee agreed .. that they would back Mr Cruddas, while the Unite T&G section's decision to nominate Cruddas and Brown was taken by its General Executive Council.”
Too much can be read into union leaderships supporting Brown, as I wrote back in February : “The union leaders want influence, and also want a change of direction. They will reason that backing Brown keeps them close to him, and they could maximise pressure on the new PM by backing a deputy leader closer to the unions’ agenda. As has been shown at the last two party conferences, the union leaders are very disciplined (or spineless, depending on your perspective) at sticking to their own agenda, and not supporting left initiatives over Iraq, etc. Cruddas himself has a good prospect of being not the “left candidate” but the “unions’ candidate”, in the same way that Callaghan was for leader. I think those union leaders wanting to pull Labour towards their own agenda may back Brown and Cruddas.”