Thursday, 14 August 2008

Unions roll over at Labour policy forum

by Daphne Liddle

LEADERS of most of Britain’s trade unions set out for Coventry and the Labour Party national policy forum at the end of last month with a list of 130 demands for changes in policy to make the party more electable.
It was just after the disastrous Glasgow by-election; Gordon Brown’s position as Prime Minister was precarious and New Labour was deep in debt after most of its big business friends had quit to return to the Tory fold. The party was desperate to hang on to its trade union funding.
It seemed the perfect moment for the union leaders to press home their demands for policies that would be friendlier to the working class – now facing increased unemployment, home repossessions and soaring prices for basic essentials. The union leaders had met with Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband – who will be drafting Labour’s next election manifesto – to discuss their demands.
But the union leaders still managed to pull a staggering defeat from the jaws of victory.
The union leaders’ demands included implementation of the Trade Union Freedom Bill, which would have restored trade union rights taken away by the Tories in the 1980s.
They were also calling for more council housing to be built and measures to help families facing eviction because their mortgage repayments have increased beyond their ability to pay. And they were calling for a windfall tax on the exorbitant profits of the energy companies; an end to private contract cleaners in hospitals; free school meals for schoolchildren, the abolition of prescription charges and withdrawal from the illegal occupation of Iraq.
But nearly all the demands were rejected. Brown refused to change policy on the grounds that “there would be no return to the chaos and unrest of the 1970s”, though most workers would remember that as a time when terms and conditions of work were idyllic compared to today’s and we had a healthy, thriving NHS.
The Financial Times reported: “Gordon Brown was yesterday praised by business for resisting the worst union demands on policy”. It went on to brag: “Facing a list of 130 union demands, Mr Brown rejected the vast majority outright and gave little ground on the rest.”
The demand for a windfall tax on the energy company bosses was dismissed out of hand. A few days later Shell announced six monthly profits of almost £4 billion; Bp’s profits for the same period were £6.75 billion, which was a 23 per cent increase. British Gas announced that bills will be rising by 35 per cent and Centrica announced a huge payout to their shareholders following a massive £992 million profit.
The result will almost inevitably doom the country to another period of Tory rule soon. Many argue that there is little difference between New Labour and the Tories.
But the Tories, with growing confidence, are already promising significantly greater powers of surveillance for the police, a voucher system for children to buy a school place and effectively the privatisation of the education system.
The whole farrago demonstrates plainly that the bourgeois state machine of government is designed to defend the interests of the ruling class against the workers.
Unison general secretary David Prentis claimed the unions had won a loosely defined commitment to maintain some sort of public sector from New Labour. Within days Brown seemed to have forgotten that commitment. In any case such a pledge will be useless when the Tories win the next general election.