Wednesday 5 August 2015

Alan Johnson's Amnesia

Where does political radicalism come from? There are many, but I would humbly suggest one of them is being blocked from participating in/being integrated into established political processes. And that brings us onto the minor farrago over Alan Johnson's polemic against the "madness" of a Labour leadership contest dominated by Jeremy Corbyn. Alan is particularly concerned about the comments of CWU General Secretary, Dave Ward, who at the weekend likened Blairism to a "virus" in the Labour Party. While he might find such language "drivel", there's little sign he was similarly concerned about John McTernan's moron comments, or John Mann's desperate attempt to smear Jeremy as a paedophile enabler.

Now, of course, Alan is an intelligent man. Yet he cannot fathom why such rhetoric "should come from trade union leaders whose members benefited so much under the last Labour government." After wheeling off the pig iron production figures and endorsing Yvette Cooper's tepid campaign along the way, the only reasonable inference that can be drawn is that leading trade unionists haven't got the foggiest. As he says of Dave, "I’ve known Ward for 25 years, during which he has never been a political activist. His interest was always firmly on the industrial side of the CWU." Ouch.

Why have so many trade union executives nominated Jeremy's campaign? I think we need to cast our mind back a bit and revisit the relationship between affiliated trade unions and the Labour Party when His Blairness was in charge. Let's focus on the Communication Workers' Union first. Why might the CWU be ill-disposed to Tony Blair and co? Let's not beat about the bush. Both Blair and Brown were gearing Royal Mail up for privatisation, a move Thatcher considered unthinkable and an eventuality that was only arrived at thanks to their spadework. On their watch we saw Royal Mail management trying to break the union. We saw a hiring freeze on full-time posties in favour of part-time workers. We saw the sudden discovery that the pension pot was unsustainable after management had taken advantage of a substantial pensions' holiday. Shocking. We saw a ramping up of victimisation and bullying. We saw the introduction of disadvantageous contracts allowing competitor postal companies use of Royal Mail's universal service. We saw the government undermine Royal Mail by giving its post contract to other private providers, such as UK Mail. And all the while we saw the government bang on about EU competition rules against Royal Mail's virtual monopoly, rules it played a leading role in introducing. As the work force fought running battles with management, at best the government was tin eared, at worst it was actively conniving with the bosses. Alan was in government at the time and, apparently, did nothing to help the workforce and the union that launched him into politics - hence why they (embarrassingly for him) did not endorse Alan at the 2007 deputy leadership election. What a bunch of ingrates.

What about the other trade unions? Should the industrial wing of the labour movement be thankful for the largesse showered upon them? Again, let's have a think here. During the last five years that saw us - apparently - put a wild eyed leftist manifesto to the British public, we had the greatest diminution of institutionalised trade union influence in the party's history. Using a badly executed attempt at packing a selection meeting as a pretext for restructuring the party; the reputation of my union, of the comrades involved, and of trade union involvement in politics generally took a battering. As if to underscore the 'embarrassed relatives' status unions had been reduced to in the eyes of the PLP leadership, trade unions merited a single mention in the party manifesto. Presumably affiliates should be happy with this state of affairs.

Or let us go back in time even further. Long-term politicos may recall the Warwick Agreement, the pact made between the unions and a cash-strapped Labour Party a year before the 2005 general election. The deal was in return for a load of money the party would enact more measures beneficial to trade union members and, therefore, working people generally. Some of it was enacted subsequently, such as the expansion of Sure Start centres, four weeks paid holiday, tackling unequal pay in local government, and so on. But a lot of it didn't happen. The aforementioned Royal Mail nonsense appeared to cut against the leaderships commitment to retaining public ownership. Action to protect pensions disappeared down the back of the Downing Street sofa. Pledges to tackle exorbitant interest rates on credit and oversight of PFI schemes were also forgotten about. Not massive betrayals. After all, the government did become somewhat preoccupied after Northern Rock tanked and the rest of the world's economy sunk not long after. But again, it left a somewhat bitter taste in the mouth.

And then there are the other industrial disputes of the period. The disgraceful way Number 10 attacked the integrity of the fire service because they had the temerity to ask for a pay rise in a period of economic growth, a dispute that led to the FBU disaffiliation. The constant chip, chip, chipping away at public sector pensions generally - particularly those of the civil service. The strengthening of the internal market at the NHS, and the wave of cuts and closures in 2006-7 that saw hospital beds gone and nurses' jobs lost. And the barely concealed contempt New Labour minister after New Labour minister showed trade unions more broadly. Happy to take the cash, yes. Not so happy to listen to what they have to say.

Alan is right, five years after Labour vacated office the Blair-Brown years do look positively balmy compared to the distaste the Tories have for anything that represents the collective interests of working people. But let's not pretend things were fine and dandy either. They weren't. Perhaps Alan is suffering from memory loss, as one wouldn't want to suggest the onset of bad faith. Yet since Blair assumed office as the party leader a lot of trade unionists have felt locked out of their party and, in some cases, have experienced attacks with Labour resident in Number 10. If Alan or anyone wants to know why so many unions are backing Jeremy Corbyn, it's because they're fed up. To all three post-1994 leaders, unions were occasionally useful skivvies, but never partners. Jeremy is the only candidate this time round who firmly believes that relationship has to change. And whatever you think of his policy platform - he's right. It does.

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