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14 September 2023

Trade union militancy will outlast the Tories

At the TUC conference in Liverpool, the gap between what the unions want and what Labour is offering is glaring.

By Jonny Ball

The Trades Union Congress (TUC)’s jamboree of workplace reps, general secretaries, shop stewards and delegates serves almost as a warm-up act for the trade union movement’s political wing, the Labour Party, whose own conference takes place in a month’s time. Like Labour’s meeting, the TUC Congress is in Liverpool this year – in the same venue, in fact. Unlike Labour’s meeting, the TUC floor loudly celebrates strike action, pay victories and the passage of all manner of left-ish policy motions with the full connivance of its leaders.

The Congress Hall (which my free conference copy of the communist-affiliated Morning Star calls the “workers’ parliament”) is more feminised, multi-ethnic and diverse than ever, but the room still holds its fair share of that distinct tribe: the big, bald trade unionist bloke of a certain vintage, sometimes seen on the six o’clock news, stood, looking serious, on a picket line. And it’s a good time for picket lines. Inflationary pressures, more than a decade of stagnant or falling living standards, and a crumbling public realm, have turned them into one of Britain’s few growth industries, prompting a wave of strike action not seen since the days when Arthur Scargill made those 6pm bulletins. And yet there’s little in the way of alternative vision being offered by Labour, except some vague soundings on a kind of bargain-basement Bidenomics.

“They’re being so timid,” Sharon Graham, the general-secretary of Unite, the second-largest union in the country, tells me. “Everyone is crying out, everyone is willing them to show us what the route map is for the country. But they’re almost acting as though they can’t say anything, and as though no one is allowed to say anything.”

Paul Nowak, the TUC’s own general-secretary, addressed the conference, walking onstage to Public Enemy’s “Harder than You Think”. In June he told me that he “fit every stereotype of a Daily Mail trade unionist – a slightly overweight, balding Scouser who gets a little bit too aerated”. His first leader’s speech is well-received and he’s not overly aerated. He gives a hearty endorsement for the Labour Party, but not without also calling for higher taxes on wealth and top incomes – policies the shadow chancellor has markedly ruled out.

Just outside the main room there’s the public face of the movement and its messy contrasts: all pastel-coloured stands from public-sector unions, moderate and palatable, just feet away from the old hard-left stalwarts of Cuba Solidarity and Socialist Workers Party-funded booksellers with busts of Karl Marx and Che Guevara. Outside the venue, on the banks of the River Mersey, a group called the Spartacist League look miserable trying to shield from the drizzle against a wall, selling sodden copies of a paper called Workers Hammer that tells the TUC to “get off its knees” and “call a general strike”. Delegates walk past them with looks of embarrassment and pity.

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[See also: TUC chief: Tax wealth to fix broken Britain]

Graham warns in her speech, speaking almost directly to the Parliamentary Labour Party: “We created you.” Before reminding MPs not to “lose sight of what you’re there [in power] to do”. The Labour Representation Committee – the precursor to the modern Labour Party – was indeed formed as a coalition of trade unions and socialist societies to provide parliamentary representation to working people and an alternative to the Liberals, who had previously been the recipients of anti-Tory votes.

But the relationship between the party and the wider movement has often been strained. This week, the congress acts as a kind of moral conscience for a guilty Labour that has abandoned most of its more robust pledges, only to replace them with the kind of management speak you might find in a corporate consultancy brochure: breaking down “siloes”; cross-departmental “collaboration”; sectoral “partnerships” – extremely thin gruel. While Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves have denounced or prevaricated over workers’ pay, tuition fees and their green investment plans, the unions spend three days almost unanimously waving through motions on nationalised energy, publicly owned buses, universal free school meals, inflation-linked salary restoration and much else besides.

The biggest show of dissent witnessed by this reporter was one on solidarity and providing “means of defence” to Ukraine, which the Fire Brigades Union opposed. The firefighters’ leadership has a Trotskyist, anti-Nato background, meaning its wary of supporting anything that could look like an endorsement of the Western “military-industrial complex”. Another delegate gossips to me that certain members of other left-led unions were under strict instructions to sit on their hands for the Ukraine vote, rather than publicly declare for what might be interpreted as an embarrassing (and doomed) pro-Russian position (the motion passes easily).

But everyone gathers together to hear Angela Rayner, now shadow deputy prime minister and shadow levelling-up secretary, and not only because of her union background. Delegates also want reassurance. They know they can’t expect the big spending and public ownership pledges of John McDonnell’s shadow Treasury era, but they’re hoping that actually existing Starmerism will include the cheap and cheerful labour market reforms embodied in the New Deal for Workers.

That policy document, championed by Rayner, would vastly expand workers’ rights, banning zero-hour contracts, ending fire-and-rehire schemes, repealing recent anti-strike legislation, introducing sectoral collective bargaining, and giving workers full employment rights from day one.

The Mancunian deputy leader makes good on the reassurance. “We will give trade unions a new legal, reasonable right to access workplaces,” she said, reiterating some of the New Deal’s key measures.

But not everyone is fully convinced.

“Anyone can make a speech,” Mick Lynch, the head of the transport union RMT, tells me. “It was a good speech. But it’s the implementation that’s important.

“We’ve got to make sure it’s a full-fat product. Not watered down, not diluted.” His is one of the more militant trade unions, non-Labour affiliated, and Lynch’s no-nonsense manner in media appearances has gained him a big online following (although he doesn’t partake in these online worlds himself). Rayner didn’t mention public ownership of the railways, he notes, which her party is still committed to – for now. Nevertheless, he says, “we’ll be supporting people like Angela who I hope are still intact when [a future Labour cabinet] is named.”

“It’s not 1997,” Graham tells the conference in her speech. “There’s no point grasping for a policy mix stuffed down the back of a 1990s sofa.” Unite has publicly distanced itself from Labour’s efforts to renege on its promises. It’s one of the party’s biggest donors.

Afterwards, I ask her about reports surfacing before the conference that she had declined an invitation to a dinner function with Starmer and other union leaders. Sky News had claimed she was “on the naughty step”.

“It’s because I’m pretty honest and vocal, I suspect,” she says, laughing, telling me she meets with the leader of the opposition all the time. “And, of course, because I’m not talking about factional politics, because I’m talking about what I know that people want, maybe it’s harder to deal with.” She wouldn’t attend the dinner because she had negotiations that evening, she adds, which was “a bit of a reprieve from having to go”.

Graham is right that it isn’t 1997. Starmer won’t enter No 10 on the back of a rosy economic outlook, with world markets buoyed by flourishing globalised supply chains, the entry of the post-communist world into the capitalist fold, and a revolution in home computing. Instead, the forecasts are bleak. Growth remains anaemic, productivity weak, public accounts woeful and personal bank balances stretched. If Labour rides into power next year it will find it difficult to settle the frayed nerves of a movement with millions of members demanding it help them make ends meet. So will the current wave of union militancy continue beyond a general election?

“Yes, I think it will,” says the Unite chief. “A Pandora’s box has opened up.”

[See also: Could Angela Rayner’s TUC hero status backfire?]

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