Labour with the Coalition, Unite in Opposition
IS Labour angling to become the third partner in the Con-Dem coalition?
The reason I ask is that on two important issues in the last two weeks we have seen the Labour leadership and MPs - with some honourable exceptions - hastening to help the government. Add this to the way they suddenly reached agreement over the Leveson inquiry conclusions, and you have to ask "What use is an Opposition that does not oppose?"
On March 13 the Commons debated the Crime and Courts Bill. Labour MP John McDonnell tried to amend the Bill to counter clauses which would take away the rights of civil servants working for the National Crime Agency, leaving them unable to strike, and replacing collective bargaining with imposed wages and conditions. John McDonnell was supported by Plaid Cymru and other MPs. But not by Labour. They abstained.
Here is John McDonnell:
Let me say to my hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench that I am extremely shocked by what has been said—that they are not willing to support my amendments. This is the first time in the history of the labour movement—the first time ever in the history of the Labour party—that this party has supported in Parliament the removal of trade union rights from trade unionists. That is a significant step and marks a historic change in attitude. I urge those on the Front Bench to use these moments in this debate to think about what they are doing.and others—anyone who is in the Chamber and anyone watching this debate outside—to understand what is happening here today, because this is significant. This is not a minor matter; this is about taking away a basic human right from a group of workers. It has never been done before in the history of our party."
That surprise may be a bit exagerrated, if we recall the last Labour government's record in keeping Tory union laws, or the record of Labour in the past taking part in coalitions. But McDonnell has a point. Labour was founded as a party to protect trade union rights, in case we have forgotten - as they evidently have. And John isn't the only one concerned about this new bill.
"The TUC has today (Monday) called upon the House of Lords to reject plans in the Crime and Courts Bill which would prevent over 3,000 civil servants working for the National Crime Agency from taking strike action in the future.
The TUC said the new legislation was the beginning of another attack on public sector workers' right to strike. TUC General Secretary Frances O'Grady said: 'The TUC is opposed to this Bill in its entirety and in particular the clauses that seek to ban civil servants in the National Crime Agency from taking industrial action.
'The right to strike is a fundamental human right. To remove it from a group of civil servants is draconian and unnecessary. We fear that it is the beginning of an attack on the rights of those working in the public sector to take industrial action.
'Unions will always work very hard to reach a negotiated settlement during a dispute with their employer. However as a last resort, and where their members vote for strike action in a ballot, they must be free to defend their position by withdrawing their labour.'
Thousands of civil servants to lose trade union rights
So Labour is making such a job of opposition that the TUC has to appeal to the Lords to make a fight!
From the rights of those in work to those of people out of it. Paid work that is. Last month, two people -Birmingham geology graduate Cait Reilly and haulage driver Jamie Wilson won a court case ruling that the government had acted illegally in forcing them into unpaid, dead end work, in order to receive their benefits.
What do you do if a court rules that you have broken the law? If your name is Ian Duncan Smith, the minister responsible, you have the law changed to suit. But surely Labour would not stand for that? They did, though.
Here is a report by Hugh Muir and Shiv Malik:
Senior members of the shadow cabinet were obliged to follow the instruction to abstain from the Commons vote. Following a briefing from Ed Miliband at Monday’s meeting of the parliamentary Labour party, they had been warned that anyone who stepped out of line would be sacked.
Byrne wrote on the Labour List website on Thursday: “People are very angry about the jobseekers bill currently before parliament. Labour MPs are furious. Labour councillors and activists are angry. And they are right to be. This bill is an emergency fix to almighty incompetence at Iain Duncan Smith’s DWP. Our decision not to support the bill in the Commons but to abstain was very, very difficult.”
He defended the policy of abstention by saying Labour had won two concessions including the establishment of a independent review of the benefit sanctions regime.
But critics within his party accuse Byrne of failing to mount any significant opposition to the government’s bill. “The problem is that Liam basically agrees with them,” said one. “There is a lot of anger. This is a very important issue. He has missed an opportunity and put us on the wrong side of the argument.”
Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite union, said: “Those Labour MPs who voted against the government saved the party’s honour. Abstention in the vote risks being seen as tacit acceptance of forced labour.
“Labour needs to understand that it is the opposition to a disastrous government waging class war against the poor. Labour failed to provide that opposition, with the honourable exception of the 44 MPs who stood up for core Labour values of decency and justice.”
And Michael Meacher MP, one of those who did oppose the government:
Labour in secret deal with Iain Duncan Smith on benefit sanctions
By Michael Meacher March 23rd, 2013
It now emerges that Labour did a secret deal with the DWP that the latter would set up an independent inquiry into the use of sanctions against job-seekers in return for Labour supporting emergency legislation – the Jobseekers (Back-to-Work Schemes) Bill which passed all its stages in the Commons last Tuesday – which established the government’s right to re-impose mandatory work activity (forcing someone to work for no pay on pain of otherwise having their benefits withdrawn) which had been struck down in the High Court a few weeks earlier.
If this is true, it is a despicable deal: Labour should never have supported the re-imposition of such legislation whatever the quid pro quo.
Worse still, Labour has already sold the pass in exchange for a nebulous offer which remains entirely within the gift of the government.
On Saturday, I decided to brave the weather (which turned out not as bad as forecast) and chance my public transport (which was running fine) to attend the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom rally at which Len McCluskey was sharing top billing with Ricky Tomlinson, the jailed Shrewsbury picket become TV star, and Bob Crow of the RMT. I was glad I made it.
Len McCluskey, who is standing for re-election as general secretary of Unite, the country's biggest union, spoke not just about trade union rights but about those other things we had come to expect and were now being attacked, the National Health Service and comprehensive Education. He spoke about how the Con Dems had a constant strategy to divide us - employed from unemployed, fit from disabled, and so on. Len also took the opportunity of presenting a "Docker's Tanner" award to a hero of past struggles, Bernie Steer, who was one of the 'Pentonville five' along with Vic Turner who died in January.
Speaking of today's struggles, Bro.McCluskey did not hesitate to remind us, if we needed it, how Labour in thirteen years of government had not rescinded Tory anti-union laws. He said there were two things to do with unjust laws. One, to change them, Two, to render them ineffective. While calling on Labour to change the laws, his union would also work to make them ineffective. And if Labour did not pledge to change what the Tories had done, Unite would have to reconsider its support for Labour.
The Unite leader has pursued this line in a Guardian interview this week:
McCluskey said the UK was going through "genuinely extraordinary times" and warned that if Miliband failed to offer a radical alternative, the party could become irrelevant and he would be consigned to the "electoral dustbin".
"If Labour fail to grasp the moment then I think that the political landscape is likely to change dramatically. I think the relevance of Labour as a party would be brought into sharp contrast," McCluskey told the Guardian.
He said that unless Labour set out a clear economic vision that "rejected the failed neo-liberal experiment of the past 30 years" and focused on growth and jobs, Unite and other unions would be forced to re-examine their relationship with the party.
"In many respects Labour is at the crossroads of its future, of its purpose … if it doesn't stand up for the aspirations of ordinary people – the 99%, if you like – then what is its purpose? If we don't win the next election, that will be critically examined and the political landscape could change dramatically."
Unite, which has about 1.5 million members, backed Miliband's leadership bid in 2010 and has since donated £6m to the party through membership fees. Any withdrawal of financial support would be financially crippling for Labour.
McCluskey expressed his anger over the Labour leaderships's failure to oppose the coalition's emergency welfare bill this week. Forty-four Labour MPs rebelled during the Commons vote and McCluskey has written to them to offer Unite's support, saying they "saved the party's honour".
Unite has put forward detailed alternatives to the government's austerity measures, including the creation of a British investment bank, a house building programme and an increase in the minimum wage. McCluskey said he was hopeful that Labour would take notice and begin to flesh out a more radical programme over the next 18 months, giving confidence to those struggling under coalition policy.
"The reality is we need the Labour party to put forward what looks like hope, what looks like a vision of hope, because at the moment there is nothing but fear and despair by this government."
McCluskey, who is engaged in a leadership election at Unite, added: "If it doesn't, if we fail, then it won't only be Unite, it will be other unions as well that will have to seriously consider that relationship … there may be another workers' party, another party of labour may emerge."
Len McCluskey's perspective falls well short of what I would call a socialist programme. He has nevertheless placed the 1.5 million member Unite on the side of the Left in the TUC calling for union rights and consideration of a general strike. Unite has backed members in construction and the NHS, and been prepared to link with UK Uncut and Pensiners campaigns, encouraging both workplace and community branches to become a political force, while as he made clear on Saturday, he is not giving a blank checque to Labour.
There is more to be done in making Unite fit for purpose, as well as sorting wheat from chaff with Labour. If Len McCluskey wants more time to do the job, then I am prepared to give him a chance.
That is why as well as being glad I went to the weekend rally, I'm glad I cast my vote for him to continue as general secretary.
Last time around I voted for Jerry Hicks, the former Rolls Royce convenor who started his fight against bureaucracy taking on the old Amicus union leadership, and is battling on, as the sole contender against Len McCluskey. I don't doubt Jerry's sincerity, and I admire his dogged determination. But as well as being impressed by what I've seen of Bro. McCluskey since he took over, I just don't think Jerry's battlecries of "rank and file"-ism and electing all officers really meet the needs of the broader struggle.
There is a much stronger and thorough rejoinder to Jerry and his supporters from Jim Kelly of Unite on the Workers International site:
'Jerry Hicks -Wrong Era, Wrong Politics'
It is certainly worth reading.
But before we go, let us regret that Len McCluskey's new broom has not yet reached some of the bad old habits in the union, which have infected some in his own camp. Seizing on the Socialist Workers' Party's recent troubles and the fact that it rather belatedly decided to back Jerry Hicks (with whom its relations in the past have been checkered), some people have been smearing Jerry by false assocation with the scandals..
Len McCluskey himself, at the end of an otherwise impressive election address, descends to an attack on hs opponent as "a political opportunist relying on the support of the discredited Socialist Workers Party". This is untrue, as well as unnecessary, and besides exagerrating the importance of the SWP in the union's affairs, it takes us back to the bad old days of smear campaigns and witch hunts. Let's hope we hear no more of it.