Unions can’t agree on how to fight cuts to spending

WHEN Brendan Barber, general secretary of the Trade Unions Congress (TUC), addressed the organisation’s annual summit yesterday, he sounded more like Neil Kinnock than the heir of militant miners’ leader Arthur Scargill. “The government is pursuing a political agenda, so our response must be political,” Barber told delegates, as he sought to distance himself from calls for a national campaign of civil disobedience in response to spending cuts.

He also attempted to win support from private sector workers, insisting there was a “huge threat to the private sector as well”, with sectors like construction bearing the brunt of cuts to capital investment. Barber reminded his audience they would have to win the hearts and minds of people outside the trade union tent if their opinions are to have any sway in the national debate over cuts.

In a worrying sign of the mood among unionised public sector workers, his comments did little to fire up delegates in the stuffy Manchester conference hall. Most stared ahead in stony-faced silence. A few offered half-hearted, polite applause – but this is not the kind of thing the trade union movement wants to hear at the moment.

Bob Crow, the ultra left-wing leader of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) workers’ union, got a much warmer reception when he told delegates they could either “lie down or stand up and fight”. He is leading calls for a more militant response to plans to slash public spending by 25 per cent in real terms by 2014-15.

Crow wants a national campaign of civil disobedience, akin to the riots that killed off Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax in the 1980s, and which helped bring about her eventual fall from power. He also suggested a series of high-profile stunts, such as a protester dressed as Batman climbing on the roof of 10 Downing Street, Spiderman scaling Buckingham Palace, and sit-down protests on motorways and key roads.

Of course, proponents of such action claim it will be non-violent. But as anyone who witnessed the anti-capitalist marches in the City last year will attest, this kind of protest is rarely peaceful. A hard core of brutal anarchist thugs will seize any opportunity to attack the police. Innocent people, like the late Evening Standard vendor Ian Tomlinson, will get caught in the cross fire, with tragic consequences.

In another sign of Crow’s growing influence in the trade unions, delegates at the TUC yesterday voted unanimously in favour of coordinating strike action when cuts start to bite. That would see different groups of workers down tools simultaneously in a bid to cause maximum disruption. Although several unions have backed generalised strike action?– the closest thing to a general strike that is possible in 2010 – Crow was the first to break ranks and support it.

And so you have the age-old split in trade unionism. A militant faction that is hell-bent on class warfare (Crow et al) issues a call to arms, while a moderate voice (Barber and his supporters) urges trade unionists to appeal to the mainstream majority.

Now, more than ever, the moderate element knows it must win the argument. Because if Ed Miliband wins the Labour leadership, a distinct possibility in a tight and unpredictable contest, the unions could have a major say over the future direction of the country.

When Tony Blair became Labour leader in 1994, he was desperate to end the unions’ stranglehold on the party, abandoning Labour’s commitment to the re-nationalisation of industry and intently trying to find new sources of party funding (a strategy that resulted in the cash-for-honours enquiry which plagued his final days in office).

David Miliband, the bookies’ favourite to become Labour leader, would continue on the course charted by Blair. But younger brother Ed, who is on the “soft left” of the Labour party (think Neil Kinnock and the late Robin Cook), has mopped up a huge amount of trade union support, and is much more likely to countenance their opinions than David. In fact, Ed’s manifesto could have been written by the trade unions themselves: a High Pay Commission that would hit wealth creation, a higher “living wage” to replace the minimum wage, a rejection of private involvement in public services, and a pacifist foreign policy.

Harriet Harman, who is staying on as deputy leader, also has strong links to the trade unions. Her husband, Jack Dromey, spent seven years as deputy general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union and Unite until he was parachuted into a safe Labour seat before the last election.

If Ed Miliband and Harman take the party into the next general election and win it, the unions will once again have a huge say in policy. The academies programme will be abandoned; state spending will surge; the private sector will have no involvement in the delivery of public services; and the rich will be soaked even more. With Lib Dem voters abandoning the party in their droves and Labour snapping at the Tories in opinion polls, this is not a socialist fantasy but a genuine possibility.

However, if Crow and his supporters orchestrate a campaign of civil disobedience, causing chaos, fear and damage to private property, it would reflect badly on a union-friendly Labour party.

That’s why Barber is sounding a more moderate note than Crow. He knows the unions could become more powerful than at any time since Jim Callaghan left government in 1979. Ironically, it is trade unionists that could end up scuppering their chances.

david.crow@cityam.com