[Book] In the Cause of Labour - A History of British Trade Unionism

Blairism and the Unions

In May 1994 Labour leader John Smith died. Before his body was cold, the capitalist media launched a concerted drive to select Tony Blair, a man the bourgeois could “do business with”, as leader of the Labour Party. With the full backing of the Establishment and the right-wing trade union leaders, Blair captured the Labour leadership, with John Prescott as his willing deputy.

This was the commencement of the Blairite “counter-revolution” within the Labour Party, which would trample underfoot every one of the fundamental principles upon which the Party had stood for the past century. Overnight Labour became “New Labour”, and the image of the Party was systematically transformed on the lines of the US Democratic Party, with which the Blairites had close links. As a first step, those traitors who had split away to form the SDP and whose actions kept the Tories in power for 18 years were welcomed back with open arms. These renegades helped staff the Blair machine and joined the bandwagon to purge the Party of all those who refused to endorse the openly pro-capitalist line of New Labour.

The New Labour apparatchiks were used to root out all those public representatives not totally loyal to the Blairite “revolution” (in reality, counter-revolution). It was really a kind of bourgeois “entrism”, whereby the capitalist class attempted to hijack the Labour Party and empty it of its class content utilising the services of an army of middle class careerists and carpetbaggers who infiltrated the Party in considerable numbers, elbowing the workers to one side and occupying all the key positions.

An absolutely fundamental plank in this conspiracy was to break the working class basis of the Party, the link between the Labour Party and the trade unions. Without this, the strategy of turning the Labour Party into a British version of the American Democrats could never succeed. Therefore from the very beginning Blair deliberately distanced himself from the trade unions, stating that the rank and file could expect “no favours” from a Labour government. Many union leaders, including even some right-wingers like John Monks, were clearly upset by their marginalisation by Blair. This is not what they understood by “partnership”. They had hoped for a return to the good old days of tripartite agreements and cosy deals done in smoke-filled rooms. Instead, the Blairites, following in the footsteps of Thatcher, treated the trade unions with absolute contempt and planned to dump them at the earliest possible opportunity.

The first person to openly blurt out this objective was the Blairite high-flyer Stephen Byers over lunch with journalists at the TUC. It created a stir throughout the movement. Nevertheless, while grumbling under their breath, the union leaders put up no serious opposition to the Blairites, who were allowed to ride roughshod over both the Labour Party and the unions. This was the logical result of decades of “New Realism” (read: class collaborationist policies) and the failure to fight for the interests of the working class. In the moment of truth, the New Realists stood exposed as the least realistic people of all: they understood nothing, foresaw nothing and did nothing.

In the autumn of 1994, a dispute on the railways involving low paid RMT signalworkers was, according to The Financial Times, quickly “turning into one of the most serious industrial conflicts for a long time.”[1] In fact, it represented one of the longest industrial disputes since the miners’ strike ten years earlier. True to form, New Labour’s front bench categorically refused to pledge its support to the strikers. It was a sign of the new Blairite times, and a harbinger of what workers were to expect under a New Labour government. Nevertheless, given the total absence of leadership, the mood within the labour movement remained generally subdued. “Despite the rail workers’ dispute, the mood of anger and frustration on the shop floor was totally absent from this year’s TUC Congress”, wrote Pat Kenny, the AEEU delegate to the 1994 TUC Congress.

“Even compared to last year, when Congress took place during a rash of small strikes, the mood was flat. There were no card votes, which was indicative of this. The votes of union delegations were sown up even before the Congress began; those who set the tone were union general secretaries.”[2]

As an indication of how low the leadership had sunk, in July, David Hunt, the then Tory Employment minister, and Howard Davies, Director General of the CBI, were invited to address a TUC conference on full employment held at Congress House. The class enemy was invited in for a cosy chat – and of all things about employment! This little detail showed just how obsessed the trade union leaders were with class collaborationism and how completely out of touch from the real problems of ordinary working people.

As if in answer to the leaders’ hobnobbing with the bosses, throughout 1994 a rash of unofficial and illegal strikes were sweeping the post office. Swindon, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Milton Keynes, Reading, Northampton and Mount Pleasant and other areas took action as postal bosses attempted to bring in new management methods of “flexibility”, especially the despised “team working”. The increasing workload on the shoulders of postal workers resulted in a whole series of walkouts amongst sections that were not known previously for their militancy.

“In the last few weeks, after a meeting which called for industrial action, branch officers have been visiting offices throughout the branch area; all of whom have said no more backing down”, wrote Charlie Balch, Royal Mail Letters Section Secretary.[3]

Despite decisions to the contrary taken at UCW conference, the right-wing union leadership chased after “productivity” deals as some kind of panacea. Unofficial action throughout the Nineties, including a fight against privatisation, eventually resulted in a sharp shift to a left within the union. Right-wing postal leader Alan Johnson left the union to become a minister in the Blair government, and today frequently launches into vitriolic tirades against the left-moving unions. However, the tide was already beginning to move to the left in the unions. With the retirement of Derek Hodgson as UCW general secretary, came the stunning victory of the left candidate Billy Hayes. He managed to defeat John Keggie, the right-wing candidate, who was considered the official favourite to win. Clearly the mood of discontent from below was now reflecting itself with changes at the top of the union. It was a pointer of what was to come in all unions.

“Downsizing has become a euphemistic term of the 1990s”, noted Noeleen Doherty of the Cranfield School of Management. It was a nice term for sackings. One of the bitterest disputes of the Nineties broke out on the Mersey docks, when the Merseyside Docks and Harbour Company (MDHC) sacked nearly 500 dockers. The dispute originally arose from the actions of the Torside Company on Merseyside, which had sacked 80 dockers after a row over over-time payments. When other dockers refused to cross the Torside picket lines, MDHC issued notices dismissing over 400 workers for “breach of contract”. Then the bosses used the issue to do away with previous terms and conditions. Those at MDHC sent 200 of the sacked men new contracts, denying union recognition, and expecting dockers to work alongside casual and temporary labour. The men correctly regarded this provocation as the thin end of the wedge. Consequently, only 18 of them signed the new contracts, the rest refusing to do so point blank. Picketing of the docks was consequently stepped up.

The port employers then tried another ploy. A new deal was offered to about 150 workers, giving them re-employment on worse pay and conditions by another agency Drake Distribution International, which incidentally was used to scab on the 1989 dock strike. The rest of the men were urged to form a “co-operative”, which the company would approach for labour as and when required – in return, they would receive a golden handshake of £10,000, an insult after a lifetime of work on the docks. The “offer” was rejected unanimously and the dispute continued. As with the miners, the dockers were supported whole-heartedly by their wives through the organisation Women on the Waterfront. This support group engaged in all kinds of solidarity work, picketing, addressing meetings, raising money and spreading the message from one end of the country to the other.

“If somebody had said to me two years ago that I would be shutting down dock gates in half a foot of snow, I would have said NEVER!” said Francis Jones of Women on the Waterfront. “The dispute has changed my life. I have become much more politically aware. I realise that the same problems are affecting a whole lot of other people all over the world. After the defeat of the 1989 strike, things got very bad on the docks. New contracts were issued about two years ago. The conditions not only affected the dockers, but the women and families too.”[4]

The brutal attacks of the port owners were now being used to root out any lasting remnants of collective organisation on the docks. They wanted to neuter the union organisation, the Transport and General Workers Union. The question of casualisation of dock labour was once again on the order of the day. Lined up against the dockers were the bosses, the Tory government and the Liverpool Echo. However, the dockers received tremendous solidarity from fellow dockers all over the world, from Holland, Israel, the East Coast of the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In January 1997, the West Coast ports from Seattle to Los Angeles/Long Beach were shut down as thousands of dockers took strike action as part of a week of international protest and solidarity. In all some 105 ports were affected worldwide.

The leaders of the Transport and General Workers Union promised them support:

“But we need to understand that the Rubicon has been crossed, there is no turning back, this is a straightforward one single road to victory, there can be turning back and no backsliding until victory is won, and you know what the agenda is, it’s your jobs”, stated Bill Morris to the Liverpool dockers on 14 March 1996. “And I tell you why we’re gonna win this dispute (from the audience: ‘God’s on our side’), because we have got something, God’s on our side, (‘God’s on our side’), we have got something that they don’t understand, they can’t cope with, they can’t deal with, because it’s the qualities and the values that makes our movement what it is. I tell you what it is in a word, it’s called solidarity (cheer, applause).”

But words are cheap. When it came to the crunch, the strikers were denied official recognition for their dispute, as this would mean defying the anti-union laws – something Bill Morris, the general secretary, was unfortunately not prepared to contemplate. Once again, the threat of Tory laws was used as an excuse to prevent union action in defence of sacked trade unionists. All motions for solidarity action from TGWU branches in line with the International Transport Federation were ruled out of order by the union’s president for fear of sequestration of the union assets. It was a pathetic stance from such a potentially invincible union. In June 1997, for instance, the main discussion of the 21 month old dispute centred on the wording of an Executive Statement to be presented to the union’s Biennial Delegate Conference the following month, where no less than 8 motions were submitted from around the country including 4 from Liverpool dockers’ branches. The proposed Executive Statement echoed previous official accounts and stressed, “the General Executive Council of the Union has an obligation to preserve the fabric of the TGWU and not engage in activities for which it has no immunity or legal protection.”

Also scandalously, the Blair government that came to power in mid-1997 refused to intervene. Ian McCartney, the then Industry Minister and so-called “friend” of the unions, told Bill Morris he had no intention of bringing in pressure from the government, despite the fact that it held 13.87 per cent shares in Mersey Docks.

In February 1998, after two years and four months of struggle, and after one of the longest disputes in recent British history, some 300-sacked Liverpool dockers were forced to accept the company’s terms. Many dockers were left in considerable debt after such a long dispute. They agreed at a mass meeting by a majority of 4-1 to accept payoffs of £28,000 from the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company. Sadly, the 80 dockers employed by Torside were left with nothing. This was another unnecessary defeat in a string of defeats for the working class. The TGWU alone, given its size and organisation, had the power to sweep away the anti-union laws. But, the leadership lacked the necessary confidence in their own membership to respond, as they should have done. They had retreated too many times before the threats of the Tories. Scandalously, the New Labour government carried on where the Tories left off. The choice facing the union was either to fight with everything at their disposal, or capitulate to the employers.

Jimmy Nolan, the leader of the sacked dockers wrote:

“It is with a great sadness in our hearts that we write to all our magnificent supporters and express our deepest gratitude. We have to build upon our internationalism, upon the experiences of all our struggles. Let the words of a great Irish trade unionist capture our thoughts: ‘who is it speaks of defeat? I tell you a cause like ours is greater than defeat can know. It is the power of powers.’ James Larkin.”

Despite these brave words, the dockers’ defeat painted a very bleak picture for the labour movement, and again revealed the importance of leadership in the trade unions.

The dockers’ only “crime” was to refuse to cross a picket line, a key principle of trade unionism. Yet their union leaders, who allowed them to go down to defeat, left them in the lurch. This seriously damaged the unions. When the dockers accepted the employers’ offer, the TGWU was once again invited back into the docks, but with its tail between its legs. There was much bitterness, but the damage had been done. It showed how much in the trade union movement had lost contact with its real roots and traditions. Previously, when dockers were under attack, especially in the 1970s, but also in 1984 and 1989, the national union leaders had put up a fight. Even the TUC threatened to act in 1972 over the Pentonville Five. Now, they simply capitulated with hardly a whimper, and little show of a struggle. Yet again the policies of class collaboration led to a serious setback for the union movement.

General Ebb

In the mid-1990s, excepting this or that struggle, there was a general ebb on the industrial front. In 1994, a record low of 280,000 days were lost through strike action, and one fifth of those were accounted for by the signal workers’ dispute. It was the lowest figure since records began 100 years previous. On the surface, it appeared that things could not get much worse. However these figures, which were triumphantly brandished by the faint-hearts as conclusive “proof that the working class had lost its will to fight, gave a one-sided and misleading picture of the real position. What they failed to show was the growing anger, bitterness and frustration that were steadily accumulating on the shop floor.

In general terms, it is true the class struggle remained subdued. But the reason for this was not that the workers were satisfied, but that they were being constantly frustrated and held back by those who ought to have given a lead. Lacking any viable alternative, the workers were keeping their heads down. A layer even took early voluntary redundancy to get out before matters got any worse. Nevertheless, by early 1995, the mood had already started to pick up. In March and April the figures were registering twice as many days lost through strikes as in the same period of 1994. But even this only tells us part of the story. Out of the 494 strike ballots recorded by the TUC in the first six months of the year, 324 produced a “yes” vote, but most fell short of industrial action. Either a deal had been struck or the ballot was subject to a legal challenge or bogged down in legal difficulties.

This lack of open struggle by the workers inevitably reflected itself within the Labour Party. The Party had emptied out and the right-wing trade union leaders, especially Sir Ken Jackson, gave their whole-hearted support to Tony Blair. But Blair wanted to go much further than his right-wing predecessors. He had a special “Project” aimed at abolishing Clause Four (the Party’s commitment to socialism) and ultimately to transform the Labour Party into a capitalist Party – a Tory Party mark two. This “Project” had the complete backing of the ruling class, which had long detested the potentially dangerous socialist aims of the Labour Party. Although Clause Four was turned into a dead letter by Labour’s right wing, it remained a source of attraction and a point of reference for the rank and file especially in times of capitalist crisis.

The collapse of Stalinism in Eastern Europe and Russia further complicated matters, acting as the signal for an unprecedented ideological offensive by the representatives of capital against the ideas of socialism, Marxism, revolution and any trace of opposition to the “market economy”. The Stalinists and Left reformists, who had had illusions in the Soviet Bureaucracy, were demoralised and disoriented. On the other hand, the right-wingers were jubilant. Further encouraged by the bourgeois offensive against the ideas of socialism, Blair was determined to destroy the original class basis and socialist ideology of the Labour Party. However, despite everything, his plans to abolish Clause Four provoked upheavals within the labour movement. In a speech strikingly reminiscent of that of Hugh Gaitskell’s, the right-wing Labour leader who attempted unsuccessfully to abolish Clause Four in the late 1950s, Blair threw down the gauntlet to the movement:

“This is a modern Party living in an age of change,” he told the October 1994 Labour Party Conference. “It requires a modern constitution that says what we are in terms the public cannot misunderstand and the Tories cannot misrepresent,” “Parties that do not change die, and this Party is a living movement not a historical monument.”

When Blair consulted Prescott, who had in the past boasted of his socialist and trade union roots, the latter acquiesced without a whimper. Arthur Scargill correctly described Blair’s intention to scrap Clause Four as a “declaration of war.” But instead of mobilising the Left to resist the Blairite offensive, he walked out of the Party in a fit of pique the following year. This action was most welcome to the leadership, since it facilitated their task while simultaneously reducing Arthur Scargill to a position of complete political impotence. His attempt to form an alternative to Labour (the Socialist Labour Party) ended in ignominious shipwreck, like all the other efforts of the sectarian groups outside the Labour Party.

Despite his haste to “reform” the Labour Party out of existence, Blair met with unexpectedly stiff resistance. He was forced to tack and manoeuvre, talking of the need to “modernise” the “old-fashioned” Clause Four, and bring its language “up to date”, rather than abolish it directly. He argued that Labour needed to place “our old principles in a modern context”. How “reasonable” this all sounded! Who could possibly object? Many supposed Lefts even went along with this insidious nonsense, falling into the trap set by the leadership by accepting that Clause Four really was out of date and should be changed. They failed to understand that Blair’s real intention was not the modernisation of Clause Four, but its abolition. The idea of socialism, the challenge to the market economy, had to be buried once and for all.

Tony Blair’s arguments were not new. Every revisionist trend in the history of the movement, starting with Eduard Bernstein, always couched their revisionist ideas in terms of “modernisation”. But to the horror of the “modernisers”, wherever debates were held within the Labour Party, it was clear that the overwhelming majority of active Party members favoured the retention of Clause Four as originally set out. Whereas the middle class “trendy lefts” were prepared to capitulate on Clause Four, the working class members and especially the trade unionists stood firm. As a matter of fact, there was precious little support for the Blairite position in the Labour movement. Clause Four had appeared on everyone’s membership card since 1959, after Gaitskell’s abortive attack. It expressed the basic historic aims of the Party, and the workers instinctively understood the need to defend it. One of the few unions to carry out a consultation in every one of its regions was the public sector union Unison. The results found that “there is widespread support for the continued principle of common or public ownership to be retained. A number of regions feel that the current Clause Four best expresses that commitment…” It also revealed that the attack on Clause Four “was also felt to be a diversion from the more important task of campaigning and taking on the Tories.” This reflected the real feelings of the rank and file.

Faced with this groundswell of opposition to Blair, the Labour leader used every dirty trick in the book to get his way. Firstly, the Blairites, these great “democrats”, rigged the so-called debate by refusing to allow amendments to their proposed changes. Members were faced with the choice: take it or leave it. Secondly, Blair made the Clause Four issue a vote of confidence in his leadership, and threatened to resign as leader if he was defeated. Again, the Party machine went into full swing behind Blair. Of course, in this attack on the basic socialist principles of the Party, he had the unanimous support of the capitalist media. In ordinary Party meetings where an open debate over the issue was held, members voted conclusively to keep Clause Four, but in the national ballot of members, where the issues were not discussed, a majority were cajoled into voting for Blair’s changes. Given the weakness of the Lefts, many of whom were confused on the issue, the massive press campaign and the full use of the Party’s national machine, this result was not a total surprise. In addition, the special spring Conference was held before the trade union conference season to prevent the union rank and file discussing the question and mandating their delegations. The whole episode constituted a gigantic manoeuvre by the Blairites.

Gradually, by a combination of chicanery, manoeuvres and misrepresentation, the leadership overcame the initial resistance of the rank and file. At the special Conference in the Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, where, ironically, the original Clause Four had been adopted in February 1918, a significant minority, above all in the trade unions, defended the socialist Constitution of the Party. Although Blair managed to get a 65 per cent vote in favour of his proposals, his support in the trade union delegations was very weak. While 90 per cent of constituency delegates voted for the NEC proposals (after their arms had been twisted), they only attracted 54.6 per cent of the union votes. This would have fallen below 50 per cent had the MSF delegation voted in line with its conference mandate.

After the Blairites’ victory, the capitalist press crowed loudly that “Old Labour is dead” gloated The Independent, “Blair buries socialism”, trumpeted The Sunday Times, and Blair “buries the past” chipped in The Observer. The Independent described the new text as “the boldest attempt undertaken by the post war Labour Party to embrace a dynamic market economy.” Keir Hardie must have been turning in his grave. This was a victory for the middle class Blairite carpetbaggers who had infiltrated the Party, as well as the right-wing apparatus. It was a setback for the rank and file, but what could be changed by a conference, could be also be reversed by a conference. Those who spoke of the death of Old Labour spoke too soon.

The “project”

The right wing were puffed up with their success. Blair immediately promised that following this victory “change and modernisation” would continue unabated. The abolition of Clause Four was just the beginning. In his eagerness to press on with his hidden agenda, Blair went a bit to far and blurted out what his real intentions were: “My vision for New Labour”, Blair stated, “is to become as the Liberal Party was in the nineteenth century.” The cat was out of the bag: Blair’s plan was to destroy the Labour Party and turn it into an openly capitalist Party, like the Liberals. The elimination of its trade union base would prepare the way for a fusion with the Liberal Democrats and “left” Tories to create something on the model of the US Democratic Party:

“I want a situation more like the Democrats and the Republicans in the US”, stated Tony Blair openly. “People don’t even question for a single moment that the Democrats are a pro-business Party. They should not be asking the question about New Labour.”[5]

In other words, Blair wanted to liquidate the Labour Party and turn the clock back more than one hundred years. While the bosses were busy destroying and undermining workers’ rights, wages, hours, pensions, trade union rights, Blair wanted to return to Victorian times where there was no independent mass Party of labour, only the Tories and Liberals. Tony Blair thus has the dubious privilege of being the only leader of the Labour Party in history who believes that the Party should not have been created! So indistinguishable had he become from the Tories that even the capitalist press referred to him as “Tory Blair”. More recently he was accused of being “more Thatcherite than Thatcher” by the TGWU after his decision to privatise the defence yards at Faslane, Rosyth and Devonport.

This Blair “Project” to destroy the Labour Party has gone quite far. Clause Four was ditched. All left policies were jettisoned. The structures of the Party were changed, downgrading the annual conference and National Executive, and undermining the accountability of the leadership. The warriors of New Labour did not attempt to conceal their contempt for democracy and the rank and file. There must be “the systematic move away from resolution-based conferences…” stated Tom Sawyer.[6] “The Party conference no longer has the role it played in the past as a vehicle for making policy… the old notion that the conference should be sovereign was already out of date when Labour leaders regularly ignored defeats from the floor”, concurred former “Left” Margaret Hodge MP, soon to become a loyal education minister in the Blair government.[7] In place of Party democracy a semi-Stalinist centralised regime of “control freakery” was introduced. In order to sideline the Conference, so-called Policy Forums were established which were subject to manipulation by the Blair machine and dominated by Cabinet ministers. The Blairites set about purging the Party of left elements from all spheres of influence.

Of course, the right-wing trade union leaders, particularly in the AEEU, supported the Blairite counter-revolution every inch of the way, even voting to reduce the trade union vote at conference from ninety to fifty per cent. Tom Sawyer, the former “Left” and deputy general secretary of NUPE, quickly shifted his allegiances to become a Blairite loyalist and the general secretary of the Labour Party. He was instrumental in carrying through the destruction of Party democracy, and was suitably rewarded with a seat in the House of Lords, becoming Lord Sawyer, to join such other worthies as Lords Murray, Scanlon, Chapple and others of that ilk who deserted the Labour movement to rub shoulders with the ermine-clad Lords and Ladies of the Realm. One of the biggest frauds perpetrated by Blair and co. was the so-called reform of the House of Lords, which he hopes to staff with his cronies. The first task of a genuine socialist Labour government would be to immediately abolish this reactionary institution, along with the monarchy and the other rubbish left over from feudalism.

Blair in effect has stolen the Tories’ clothes. He has dragged the Labour Party politically far to the right – something that the present leadership is very proud of:

“The Labour Party is more pro-business, pro-wealth creation, pro-competition than ever before,” bragged Chancellor Gordon Brown. “I want to be quite blunt with you about the modern relationship between today’s Labour Party and the trade unions”, stated Blair to the TGWU conference in July 1995. “There was a time when a large trade union would pass a policy and then it was assumed Labour would follow suit. Demands were made. Labour responded and negotiated. Those days are over. Gone. They are not coming back… Persuasion is in. Demands are out.”[8]

The commitment to capitalism of these people could not be more slavish.

Ever since “Black Wednesday” in October 1992, the Tories had been trailing badly in the opinion polls. The whole Tory government was teetering on the edge, buffeted along from one crisis to another. Consumed by scandals and rocked by sleaze and corruption, John Major was like a drowning man clutching at straws. He had already become the most unpopular Prime Minister since records began. The Tory Party was facing the worse crisis in living memory. By 1997, after a string of electoral defeats, the government was struggling to survive. After 18 years of Conservative rule, the bulk of the population were overwhelmingly opposed to the Tories and all they stood for: the privatisations, the cuts, the support of the rich and the all the corruption that went with it. Thus, the political pendulum had swung back towards Labour. The working class had turned their attention en mass towards the political field as a solution to their problems. Those who had written off the Labour Party as unable to win another election, so vocal in the past, were shown to be completely wrong.

At the general election in May 1997, Labour scored a historic landslide victory gaining a majority of 179 seats – the biggest in the history of the Party. It was a fundamental turning point. It represented the end of an era, where the Tory Party had dominated the political landscape for 18 long years, and had four successive general election victories under their belt. Now all that was finished. The house of cards had come crashing down. The Tories experienced their greatest defeat since 1832, and the birth of modern Conservatism. They had been cast out into the political wilderness. Such was the extent of the blow that they have not fully recovered even to this day. It was a just reward for the crimes of Thatcherism.

The size of Labour’s majority was a graphic expression of the fundamental change of mood throughout British society, and especially in the working class. Contrary to the myth that has been assiduously peddled by New Labour with the active connivance of the press, the election was not won by Blair, but rather in spite of him. Under John Smith Labour would have won just as big a majority, if not bigger. The explanation is not to be found in the “cleverness” of the Labour leaders (they are really not so clever) but in a change in the mood of society.

Coalition Government

Blair’s priority was not to secure a big majority for Labour. In fact, he did not want such a majority, because it would have harmed his plans for a link-up with the Liberals. Prior to the general election, Blair had made secret plans to form a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. The Ashdown Diaries reveal that as early as December 1993, while John Smith was still leader, Blair had entered into secret discussions with Ashdown. On the day of the 1997 general election, Blair telephoned Ashdown:

“I do want you to know that I am determined to end the schism that occurred in the progressive forces in British politics at the start of this century. It is just a question of finding a workable framework. But we are now in a position of strength and I intend to use that.”

Incredibly, at a time when the Labour Party was sweeping the board, the Party leader was planning to unite with the Liberals! He stubbornly stuck to this hidden agenda even after Labour had won an immense majority at the polls. Only the pressure from below scuttled his plans. Robin Cook, feeling these pressures, explained to Ashdown:

“The Party won’t accept winning a majority in an election and then having a coalition with you. Tony has vastly over extended what he can do with the Party already. I never cease to be amazed at just how far he has been able to go. But after a general election in which we won a clear a majority, he could not have a coalition with you without breaking the Party up.” (25 April 1997).

In the run up to the election, the line of the union leaders was as always: “Don’t do anything to rock the boat and spoil Labour’s election chances”. They hoped that Blair would get rid of the anti-union laws (or at least the ones they found objectionable) and collaborate with them as Labour governments had done in the past, when Labour prime ministers routinely invited the TUC to tea and sandwiches at Number Ten. But these would-be statesmen and women were sorely disappointed. Blair was quite unambiguous: “We won the election as New Labour, and we shall govern as New Labour.” He continued: “There is not going to be repeal of Tory trade union laws. It is not what the members want, it is not what the country wants”. For “country”, read the City of London and the boards of directors of the big monopolies: from the very start, the opinion of big business was Blair’s overriding concern, while the opinions of the unions and Labour voters were a matter of almost total indifference. The new prime minister fell over himself to win the plaudits of big business by “standing up” to the unions. He warned the trade union leaders:

“We will not be held to ransom by the unions… We will stand up to strikes. We will not cave in to unrealistic pay demands from anyone… they will get no special favours in a Labour government.”

Consequently, Blair retained the vast bulk of the most draconian anti-union legislation in the western world. The limited employment rights legislation introduced by Labour, did precious little to enhance workers’ rights and nothing to repeal any of the key Tory laws preventing workers from engaging in legitimate strike action. A few crumbs were given, such as restoring trade union rights at GCHQ and introducing a minimum wage. However, the minimum wage was introduced in April 1999 at the miserable level of £3.60 an hour, with an even lower level for eighteen to twenty one year olds, and no cover for under-eighteens. At 16 or 17 young people in Britain can go and fight and die for their country but they are still not entitled to a minimum wage! The minimum rate eventually rose to £4.20, and again in October 2003, to reach the dizzy heights of £4.50 per hour. But there is no escaping the fact that this remains poverty pay, far below the European Union Decency Threshold level of £7.32 an hour. Despite this, many tin-pot employers blatantly ignore these laws, paying well below the minimum wage and refusing to pay overtime or holiday pay. They cover up their violations by simply paying workers piece-work rates. That is the reality of work for millions of workers in Britain at the turn of the twenty-first century.

The New Labour government largely carried on from where the Tories left off. In some respects they went even further than the Tories. For example, Brown immediately announced that the Bank of England would be granted its independence to set interest rates. But the whole idea behind the Bank’s nationalisation by the Attlee government in 1948 was precisely to control monetary policy! To the dismay of Labour supporters, government spending was kept to the Tory spending limits. Frank Field, the minister for Welfare Reform, was told to “think the unthinkable” so as to cut the social security bill. Meanwhile, the benefits of single parents – one of the most vulnerable sections of society – were cut. At the same time, the Blairites wined and dined with the rich and powerful of society, the captains of industry and the City. While there would be “no favours” for the trade unions, plenty of favours were showered upon big business. Blair’s warm relations with the racing tycoon Bernie Ecclestone resulted in the postponement of the ban on tobacco advertising in Formula One racing. In a show of gratitude, Ecclestone donated a million pounds to the Labour Party.

Once this donation became public, the government was met with a barrage of accusations. Even Conservative newspapers like The Financial Times complained: “He [Blair] is over-impressed by successful business leaders.”[9] The problem, of course, was not the profitable relations between capitalists and government (a time-honoured tradition): it was that the leaders of New Labour were too crude and blatant in their dealings with big business. The Observer drew an interesting parallel with Ramsay MacDonald.

“He [MacDonald] was besotted with aristocrats, especially of the female variety. He wrote pornographic poetry and became infatuated with the Marchioness of Londonderry, the leading Tory hostess of the Thirties.” The article continued: “Obviously, the MacDonald-Blair parallel is not one we want to press too far. Mr Blair’s soft spot is for wealthy businessmen, especially formerly Tory-supporting tycoons in glamorous industries such as Formula One. It is men like Bernie Ecclestone who make Mr Blair go weak at the knees, not to say a little weak in the head.”[10]

Ecclestone was followed by many other businessmen who donated to the Labour Party. The pornographer Richard Desmond, another big donor, was welcomed with opened arms. He was given a clean bill of health to build his newspaper empire by Steven Byers. The Asian businessman Noon, who refused to recognise unions in his company, became a regular donor. Blair eventually knighted him in 2002. Others like Sainsbury, were given peerages and actually brought into the government.

Nevertheless, after eighteen nightmare years under the Tories, the working class was prepared to extend generous credit to the Labour government, at least for the time being. After all there was no apparent alternative. Although many Labour and trade union activists were very discontented at the direction of the government, and this bitterness surfaced at a number of union conferences, the general mood in the working class was to “give them a chance”. This was also partly as a result of the continuing economic boom that helped cushion the Labour government. But mostly it was out of deep-seated loyalty to Labour.

There were nonetheless some bitter industrial disputes at this time. At Critchley Label Technology in South Wales, the bosses sacked 31 members of the CWU in a struggle over union recognition and redundancies. Those affected were mainly women workers. A number of other disputes around this time also involved women, such as the hospital workers in Hillingdon in West London, the Middlebrook Mushrooms workers in Yorkshire, and the 350-strong Magnet workers in Darlington. Each of these disputes showed the tenacity of those doubly oppressed and exploited workers, who most keenly felt the brunt of the employers’ offensive.

On the issue of workers’ rights, Blair sided with the Confederation of British Industry’s interpretation of Labour’s Manifesto. The phrase “a majority of the relevant workforce” that would vote in a ballot over union recognition, was interpreted to mean 50 per cent of the workplace electorate, and not simply those actually voting. The TUC eventually accepted a 40 per cent threshold. Other rights were included, but five million workers in small firms were excluded from the legislation. A concession however was squeezed out of the government that recognition would normally be granted where unions recruited 50 per cent “plus one”. But this was not automatic. The Act does not apply where there are less than 21 employees. This legislation was nevertheless used over the coming years to force recognition deals upon employers, but such “recognition” only applies to pay, hours and holidays, and nothing more. By 2002, some 300 recognition agreements had been signed, a doubling in number on the previous year. But it was no panacea. Powerful employers could interpret the laws in different ways, further embroiling the unions in a legal quagmire for years.

Almighty row

Under Blair’s first term in office, there was a general mood of expectation that something would change for the better. But in fact, apart from a few minor reforms, Blair continued with Tory policies, including cuts in benefits for single mothers and the introduction of tuition fees. The privatisation programme also continued, as did Compulsory Competitive Tendering in the form of the so-called Best Value in local government. Again, Private Finance Initiative (PFI), originally inspired by the Tories, allowed private companies to squeeze massive profits out of the public sector. Throughout this period, there were continuous attacks on jobs, wages and conditions both in the public and the private sector, as workers were increasingly subjected to the “rigours of the market”. Despite the TUPE legislation, which was supposed to safeguard terms and conditions in any transfer of jobs to the private sector, privatisation brought in a two-tier workforce, as the new recruits were employed on poorer wages, terms and conditions.

“Unless these discussions are concluded soon there will be an almighty row within the Labour Party”, threatened Dave Prentis, the general secretary of Unison. The unions managed to squeeze some concessions from the government over this issue. Under a code of practice issued in the summer of 2002, new recruits were to be offered “broadly comparable” terms to previous public-sector workers, taking local labour-market conditions into account. The code, however, was amended further to state that the terms offered must be “no less favourable” than workers employed in local government.

As expected, the private sector bosses raised a howl of protest. “Our costs will go up and outsourcing will become more expensive to the public sector”, stated Norman Rose, head of the Business Services Association. Mandy Wright, of the local government employers’ organisation, said her members want to be fair to staff (of course, who would dream of anything less!), but were concerned that the new regime will lead to “rigidity” and slow down modernisation (meaning detrimental to their profits). As a result of this pressure, the Blair government once again retreated, blocking attempts to transfer this understanding from council workers to the public sector as a whole, thereby maintaining the two-tier labour market.

Ironically, such were the dreadful conditions in Britain that British workers benefited from the European Social Chapter, which served to provide a minimum protection for workers in the EU. Different directives, such as the Working –Time Directive, were welcomed by trade unionists as some kind of safety net. However, these rights were far from automatic or guaranteed in workplaces, and, even if conceded, needed to be underpinned by trade union organisation. While the Thatcher government refused point-blank to sign up to the Social Chapter, the Blair government, under pressure from the movement, had promised to do so. It was no real sacrifice as the rest of Europe had already signed up to the Chapter, even those with the right-wing governments. Nevertheless, under pressure from big business, Blair backtracked on a whole series of worker-friendly reforms, watering down or avoiding their implementation.

In the spring of 2003 for instance, the government blocked a European directive aimed at protecting the pay and rights of temporary staff. Alan Johnson, the then minister for workers’ rights and one-time general secretary of the CWU, shamefully led demands for a watered-down version, preventing agency workers (some 600,000 working in Britain) getting the same terms and conditions as permanent staff. The move delighted the Tories. “The Labour government, instead of talking tough for business, has actually delivered”, stated Philip Bushill-Matthews, the Conservative spokesman in the European parliament.[11]

Blair continued to boast publicly that Britain was the most deregulated economy in the western world. He claimed to be creating the best possible climate for the success of big business. Such pronouncements had serious implications for workers and their families. As more and more became increasingly alienated from the pro-business policies of the New Labour government, pressures were building up in the working class for a backlash against Blairism. The official figures from the Office for National Statistics for 2002 saw the number of days lost in strikes jump to 1,323,000, the highest figure since 1990. The total was more than double the 2001 figure and over twice the annual average in the previous decade. The number of working days lost was the highest since 1996. Most significantly, the number of workers involved climbed to nearly a million, the highest since the miners’ strike of 1984, and a massive rise over the 179,900 level for 2001. Although small compared to the Seventies and Eighties, with the turmoil in society, the trend and direction is clear enough.

“A resurgent labour movement is confronting the government of Tony Blair with the biggest threat of widespread industrial action in the two decades since Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher broke trade union power over the British economy,”

noted The New York Times.

“Railroad employees, mail deliverers, police officers, teachers, hospital workers and civil service unions are all threatening walkouts in the coming months, egged on by a new generation of radical leaders and playing to Britons’ discontent with the state of their public services.”

Given the ebbs and flows of the class struggle, whether this level of industrial action sustains itself or not, it is certain that a qualitatively new situation – the most turbulent since the Second World War – has opened up in Britain.


[1] The Financial Times, 3 August 1994

[2] Socialist Appeal, October 1994

[3] Ibid, September 1994

[4] Ibid, April 1996

[5] The Financial Times, 16 January 1997

[6] The New Statesman, 12 July 1996

[7] The Mail on Sunday, 29 September 1996

[8] Quoted in Blair, New Britain, p.133, London 1996

[9] The Financial Times, 7 November 1997

[10] The Observer, 16 November 1997

[11] The Financial Times, 22 May 2003