The dinosaurs, right all along

The Inside Track with Martin Bright at the TUC plus Tara Hamilton-Miller

It's easy to sneer at the trade unions. Towards the end of his time in office, Tony Blair made an annual ritual of it, with his speeches to the gathered tribes of the TUC becoming ever more snide. The national press, relieved that it no longer has to take the unions seriously, now confines its reports to the latest excesses of the dinosaurs of organised labour (threats of industrial action, sit-down or stand-up protests during ministers' speeches). Sometimes editors send down their parliamentary sketch-writer to mock some more.

After spending a train journey down to Brighton with a carriage full of bullet-headed, corpulent, hard-man delegates, I was tempted to join in. Why is it that so many male trade unionists still play up to those old macho stereotypes?

Then there is the quaintly old-fashioned rhetoric. I sat through a transport debate where the talk was all of fat-cat profits, the evils of rail privatisation and "monsters like Branson trying to get his grubby hands on the maintenance side". I call it a debate, but everybody agrees on these things and, when you are involved in the serious work of "driving back the neoliberal agenda", the votes are unanimous. However, after clearing away a fog of metropolitan cynicism, I had a moment of clarity. Weren't these speakers right, after all? The language may have been crude, but the unions have been correct about rail sell-off all along. The privatised British rail network is a disgrace. When you examine Transport Motion 41, for example, it is entirely reasonable. "Congress rejects the failed free-market approach to public transport and calls for the General Council to campaign for the benefits of a fully integrated public transport policy."

I began to look at the conference through new eyes. What's wrong with heckling the Work and Pensions Secretary, Peter Hain, over the proposed closure of 43 Remploy factories, which provide work for the disabled? Nothing, particularly when the intervention led the minister to reverse, on the spot, a decision by managers to issue redundancy notices to Remploy workers.

And what has ever been wrong with campaigning for a minimum wage, flexible working hours and a fair deal for black, gay and disabled workers? These are all areas where the unions were the pioneers and the Labour government followed. So convincingly did the unions win the argument, that these ideas are now Conservative Party policy, too.

If truth be told, even Blair acknowledged the positive contribution of the trade union movement until he became so bitter that any opposition to his reform agenda was taken as a personal slight. I have kept his speech from the 2001 con ference, the one he never gave because it coincided with the 11 September terror attacks in America. I read it again this past week. The first three pages were a gushing encomium to the unions and the work they had done in helping Labour to a second election victory earlier in the year.

Cold war

In the six years since that undelivered speech, an industrial cold war has been fought. It has not developed into an all-out cataclysmic conflict, but it has always had the potential to do so. Gordon Brown was determined to put an end to this stand-off. For this reason he was bitterly disappointed with his reception at the TUC and angry that a personal message from Nelson Mandela was treated with apparent indifference.

So why did it go so badly wrong? Brown's determination to stop unions and constituency parties proposing motions at the Labour conference, "contemporary resolutions" that have the potential to challenge the leadership on policy, is deeply unpopular. But no one really believes this is a red-line issue when the conference is already all but neutered.

Matters were not helped by comments to GMTV by the Business Secretary, John Hutton, on the weekend before the TUC gathering, in which he said Labour politicians would no longer be "going into little huddles and smoke-filled rooms" to cut deals with union leaders. I understand Brown and his advisers spent much of their time in Brighton furiously distancing themselves from Hutton's comments. Although there are no longer any smoke-filled rooms, there were plenty of huddles and if the Prime Minister could have cut a deal, he would have been delighted.

But still this does not get to the heart of Brown's problem. Looking back at Blair's six-year-old speech, one phrase stands out: "Public sector wages are rising faster than private sector salaries for the first time in years." While this was the case, it was always easier for the unions to swallow the more unpalatable aspects of new Labour reform. Now things are different. With the new Prime Minister committed to keeping public sector pay pinned to 2 per cent, even previously loyal union leaders are talking about strike action. I know Brown spent several hours in Brighton in discussion with Paul Kenny, the general secretary of the GMB, who, in the words of one insider, was seen as "a paid-up Brownite helped into the job by Brownite influence". The talks came to nothing.

These are dark times for Brown, who knows that co-ordinated industrial action by the public sector unions over the winter would cause him considerable political damage. TUC backing for a referendum on the new EU treaty has caused him further frustration.

But if there is something positive to have come out of the past few days it is this: unlike his predecessor, Brown does not see conflict with the unions as an affirmation of his vision. His disappointment is genuine, and despite what Hutton says, the huddles will continue. The time for sneering is over.

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times