As usual the best and worst of Britain was evident at the TUC. The best is very brilliant with unions standing out as the most democratic and important organisations in our country still. The worst is very dangerous, with the majority of unions unprepared to recognise the cyanide beneath the sugar coating on the EU pill.
Frances O’Grady gave a smashing General Secretary’s address, the best for many many decades. In effect she argued without using the words, for a break with the neoliberalism of the last thirty years. And this reflected the positive aspects of Congress, a new spring in the step, a new determination, some good victories under the belt and undaunted in the face of the intensifying vandalism and authoritarian nature of the government. A trade union movement standing up for the people of Britain, six million strong, but representing 26 million workers. The General Secretary deserved her standing ovation – it was a speech for workers and did not advocate any solution other than those that rested in the hands of workers themselves and their organisations. The TUC made it clear that it stood for peace and no war against Syria.
The trade unions are about defence and influencing power and speaking truth to power, but they are not about seizing power, and it is this tension filled characteristic of their role that creates frustration, confusion and false expectations.
Despite an unelected government without a mandate launching the fiercest blitzkrieg against the working class, the trade unions have not been able to sufficiently unite and co ordinate action in a deliberate and sustained effort to topple the government. Hence the frustration that some feel that we should have one massive simultaneous general strike and the bankers will drop down dead and disappear.
There is confusion because in the face of the previous Thatcher assault the unions clung onto the promise of a social Europe. Though this was always a myth, its reality now is exposed as a complete con with the EU creating 30 million unemployed across the continent and systematically dismantling workers’ rights and collective bargaining in a fresh attack. It is easier to believe that the part time workers directive and paid holiday legislation will liberate us from austerity. Socialist lawyer John Hendy totally demolished this nonsense at the most important fringe meeting of Congress organised by no2eu.
And then there are the false expectations. The Labour Party leader is invited to Congress whether in or out of power to see what they have to offer in the hope that it will be something. Not since the mid forties has there been anything to offer. Promises to manage capitalism a little more humanely have fallen into disrepute especially under the fierce stare of the new neoliberalism with the banks in charge and the EU dominating parliament. But there was quite a twist this year. In a speech which he had memorised like an actor, Ed Miliband in effect made it clear that the collective voice of trade unions in the Labour party needed to be removed in order to pave the way for two things; European style state funding of parties and an escalation of the privatisation, austerity, mythical deficit reduction programme, and EU dominated anti trade union and worker agenda.
There was no challenge by Miliband to the fundamental programme of the Con Dems. In answer to the best question from PCS he didn’t say he would stop wage restraint, stop privatisation, stop public sector cuts, restore trade union rights, protect the economy, take public services and banks into public ownership and enable parliament to have sovereign powers to rebuild the country. It was a clear declaration, sweetly put, and with a history lesson on the pro trade union bias of the nineteenth century One Nation Tories, that capitalism will be managed a bit more softly and not be allowed to have some forms of zero hours contracts and restored provisions of some kind to Employment Tribunals.
Bu the problem is why should trade unionists expect any more? No Labour leader has been able to fully act as advocate on behalf of the combined aspirations of the working class, because the Labour Party does not and cannot speak for the working class. It is a parliamentary party. Parliament cannot speak for workers.
The fact that capitalism will not permit parliament to return to the one nation Toryism, let alone the 1945 reconstruction and commitment to public service is a matter that both the Labour Party and the trade union movement will have to come to terms with pretty fast and the call for a referendum on the EU and a no vote when it is called will be the best expression of the recognition that workers are coming to understand the new predicament.