Workingmen’s blues

8 Sep 06
PETER HETHERINGTON | Around 25 years ago, when trade union power was a force to be reckoned with, the redoubtable miners’ leader, Mick McGahey, rallied comrades at the Scottish TUC with a typically robust attack on Thatcherism and its ills.

Around 25 years ago, when trade union power was a force to be reckoned with, the redoubtable miners’ leader, Mick McGahey, rallied comrades at the Scottish TUC with a typically robust attack on Thatcherism and its ills.

As a small-time labour correspondent, I remember it well for one reason. Such was the power of organised labour that the FTSE dipped. Investors took fright. Ministers drew up battle plans for a confrontation.

Union conferences were headline-grabbers and the barons — Jack Jones, Joe Gormley and, further back, Hugh Scanlon and Frank Cousins — wielded substantial power. Prime ministers — even Margaret Thatcher early on — knew that smooth government depended on keeping them sweet. Thatcher even saved a string of threatened collieries before launching a full-frontal onslaught on a tactically inept Arthur Scargill (and his deputy, a foolishly compliant McGahey).

But raw power could never disguise the fact that the labour movement, with few exceptions, was never progressive, reforming and radical. Overwhelmingly male and sexist — often with racist undertones — it was conservative, and its full-time officials enjoyed a privileged status and lifestyle. At times they seemed to live on a different planet from those they ostensibly represented.

But, much as they were doubtless despised by Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and the emerging New Labour reformers, they were such an essential part of the old Labour machine that aspiring political careerists knew their future depended on paying homage to the barons.

I well remember the late, lamented Joe Mills — former Transport and General Workers’ Union regional secretary (and regional Labour chair) in the Northeast — telling me with relish how the TGWU fixed it for Blair in the 1984 selection contest that delivered the rock-solid Labour seat of Sedgefield. The GMB general union later did the same for Mandelson in Hartlepool.

By 1997, however, all that was conveniently forgotten. Ministers did their best to distance New Labour from organised labour — the force that created the party in the first place — while insisting that the employment legislation of the Thatcher years (compulsory balloting before industrial action, a ban on secondary picketing, etc) would remain. New Labour went into self-denial, conveniently sidelining unions until election time, when their largesse was taken for granted.

Next week, 138 years after the TUC was founded, delegates will be assembling for their annual congress deeply uneasy about New Labour’s direction. They are far from convinced that a government led by Gordon Brown or anyone else will lead to more amicable relations. Alan Johnson, the education and skills secretary and former leader of the Communication Workers Union, is increasingly mentioned as a key challenger. Poacher turned gamekeeper? I put this to a fairly prominent, progressive trade union leader. ‘Good company, but an unknown quantity,’ came the reply.

So what future for the unions, and specifically for the TUC, as it briefly grabs the headlines next week? Talk around the movement, to those more progressive voices, and it’s clear the comrades are uneasy. True, the membership, at 6.5 million — a quarter of the workforce — is rising marginally, although it has halved since 1980. Now, in a largely service economy, it is overwhelmingly skewed towards the public sector.

But where are the prominent TUC voices? Tony Woodley, Bob Crow, Derek Simpson (of the T&G, railway workers, and engineers, respectively) sadly do not portray a bright new image for the movement. Frankly, they reinforce the old prejudices, although their influence is minimal. And what of TUC general secretary Brendan Barber? ‘Brendan who?’ you might ask.

As a trade union member myself, I speak more in sorrow than in anger. Where are the women eminently capable of leading the movement? Where are the progressive voices able to seize the higher social and economic ground, presenting unions as an important element in any democracy, and becoming essential voices on the Today programme and other media outlets? The movement, brothers and sisters, has gone to sleep.

I have a suggestion. Why should the TUC, or its affiliates, be led by a bureaucrat from within, affable as he — invariably ‘he’ — might be? Why not begin recruiting from outside the traditional ranks of organised labour, with the brief to run unions as bright new mutual organisations, attractive to the currently unorganised two-thirds of the workforce? The movement will become a force again only when it is reinvented and it finds a new pool of talent to drag it into the twenty-first century, kicking, screaming or otherwise.

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