With a recent change of Prime Minister and the prospect of a general election in 18 months at the latest if not before, now is as good a time as any for the trade union movement to review its political strategy. To put it bluntly in one of Tony Woodleys phrases its time to wake up and smell the coffee
Many trade unions and the TUC seem to be continuing to operating under an illusion about the way the political system currently operates. The old constitutional theories about how political parties operate and how governments, particularly Labour governments, govern have gone out the window under New Labour.
In the past political parties brought together their supporters to debate, discuss and decide the policies which were then drafted into a manifesto and placed before the electorate. If there was sufficient support for the policies and the party was elected, new ministers would arrive into office with civil servants waiting with advice on how to implement the policy programme. The battle for an incoming Labour government was with the vested interests of the status quo which had largely permeated government and all its departments.
Trade unions need to forget this archaeological exhibit of constitutional theory. The modern reality is that policy may still be debated within the Labour party but this policy debate and even decision making is rarely translated into the manifesto which is drafted internally by the Prime Minister’s closest aides. Once in office ministers responsible for policy implementation are now surrounded by a policy network dominated by advisers drawn from or even directly representing private sector interests. Dominating centralised control means that no policy which contradicts the core ideology of the government is allowed to surface.
The core ideology is shared by both main political parties. That is why Gordon Brown has found it so easy to appoint Tories to be part of his government. Both parties share a neo liberal ideology which believes that the market must be given free reign and as a result will produce the optimum solution in virtually every instance. Consequently both share an evangelical zeal for flexible labour, privatisation, low corporate taxation and corporate driven globalisation.
Trade unions and the TUC need to wake up to the fact that they are just not part of this structure of government policy formulation and implementation any more under New Labour. Occasional delegations of trade union general secretaries to the Prime Minister and to individual ministers resemble in reality little more than shouting through Number 10s letter box and peeking through its key hole. Ministerial visits and speeches to trade union conferences are viewed by ministers as some sort of tiresome atavistic rituals that have to be endured.
The TUC and some trade union general secretaries mistake vague, at times almost mystical, policy statements and minor offerings of changes in policy by the Prime Minister and other ministers as signs of a genuine relationship that reflects real trade union influence. In reality they are little more that patronising pats on the head to box off any effective mobilisation of alliances within our movement aimed at having a real effect on policy. They enable those union leaders who want to be bought off for a quiet life, those that enjoy the status of wandering the corridors of power, and those who want to kid themselves that they are having some influence, to be easily bought.
In the real world where government policy has changed it has mostly been as a result of change being forced upon it by hard realities within our society, external influences and external campaigns. Rarely has it come from trade union influence and even where deals have apparently been negotiated, like the Warwick agreement, most are generally ignored or only implemented if on the government agenda anyway.
The lessons are fairly obvious for us.
First, trade unions need to ensure that what limited opportunities for influencing policy debate within the Labour party still exist are maintained by rejecting at this year’s Labour Party conference the imposition of the Brown proposals to undermine Labour Party conference policy making powers.
Second we mobilise immediately a new alliance across the unions, constituency Labour Parties, affiliates and linking with supporters within the Parliamentary Labour Party to reassert democracy within the Labour Party at every level.
Third, we recognise that on issue after issue large sections of our community are increasingly losing confidence in the Parliamentary system of government where they see no difference between the political parties which are party to a neo liberal political consensus. Instead they are forming extra parliamentary social movements to campaign on issues like climate change, asylum, developing world poverty and liberation, inequality, and privatisation. These movements are increasingly becoming effective at changing societal attitudes to forcing governments and political parties to address issues. Linking to these emerging social movements by supporting and becoming active participants in their campaigns would enable trade union movement to be much more effective in creating a climate of influence no government can ignore than continuing to delude ourselves about the effectiveness of Prime Ministerial speeches to Congress or tea with ministers.