In a leaflet I wrote for the Socialist Part for distribution to delegates at the Wales TUC Conference in Llandudno at the end of last month, I wrote the following:
"Almost every motion on the agenda deals with organising to fight cuts and privatisation of public services. All motions rightly attack the Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition for austerity. But this conference can't afford to let the link between some trade unions and Labour, hamper the effectiveness of the Wales TUC in opposing cuts when they are passed on by a Labour Wales Assembly or Labour councils."
|Alec Thraves: Censured!|
Reflecting on the conference, I think that although there was an understandable desire for unity, amongst trade unionists facing the worst attacks on our jobs, terms and conditions, services, pensions and our very ability to organise. But there was a significant divide at the conference on some issues between those unions that remain affiliated to the Labour Party and will only fight cuts they can blame on Tories and those that are committed to fighting all cuts, no matter which party implements them. There wasn’t a lot of controversy - apart from TUSC election agent for Swansea during the recent council elections, Alec Thraves, being formally censured for criticising UNISON’s leadership for not allowing members the chance to take part in further strike action on pensions (for more see: http://www.swanseasocialistparty.org.uk/view/news/2012-05-28/150-wales-tuc---a-tale-of-two-conferences.html) – but where there were divided votes it was regularly the unaffiliated unions, including PCS, POA, RMT, FBU and Trades Councils voting against the ‘big 3’ that between them, give £millions of members’ subs to the Labour Party every year.
Welsh Government First Minister, Carwyn Jones, got a standing ovation (although not from all parts of the conference hall) for what I thought was a rather boring speech in which he claimed that there would be no downgrading of NHS services in Wales. At the same time as he was speaking, in Cardiff outside the Senedd, hundreds were protesting at plans to close the A&E unit at Llanelli’s Prince Phillip Hospital! The threat to accident and emergency services at Prince Phillip is part of cuts health Boards are making across Wales as they struggle to find the £290 million of savings that the Labour government of Wales is demanding of them for 2011-12. But this is only the beginning; they will have to save similar amounts, the best part of £300 (by coincidence, roughly the amount that’s stolen from Wales annually through the Barnet Formula for determining funding for devolved areas) or 5% of their budgets, every year for the next 3 years.
In the run up to the conference there has been a heated debate between Labour-supporting trade unionists, such as then-WTUC president Andy Richards and Plaid Cymru. Obviously rattled by concerns that with a new left leader in Leanne Woods, Plaid might threaten Labour’s support in, and finance from, the union movement in Wales, Andy Richards had claimed, “There is only one party for the working people of Wales, the party that the trade unions founded to give a voice to working people – the Labour Party. This is why it is called the Labour Party.”
I support TUSC not Plaid Cymru and I wonder if Labour had got one less seat in the Assembly elections last year, would Plaid now be in partnership with Labour, carrying through same cuts? But the debate has highlighted just how blinkered the Labour-supporting leadership of trade union movement in Wales has become. This fixed outlook, assuming that because trade unions have backed Labour for 100+ years they always will, ignores history and ignores important developments taking place in the more radicalised unions. I’m sure you would have found Liberal Party spokesmen making very similar statements to Andy Richards about the Liberals being the only party for the working person over a hundred years ago when Keir Hardie and others were laying the basis for Labour’s future growth in Wales and Labour Party pioneers were being attacked for splitting the Liberal vote. Within a generation the Liberals went from being a party of government to a broken rump.
PCS was never affiliated to Labour but RMT and FBU were and no longer are; the FBU disaffiliated after a bitter strike dispute against a Labour government. Even in those unions that give the most financial support to Labour, members are not all happy about the uncritical support their leadership gives to a party that has done nothing to support them. They are unlikely to go through but 25% of the motions at this year’s GMB conference are on disaffiliation. Only UNISON’s bizarre rules in this respect – rules that say that only the union’s Labour Link can determine the union’s relationship to the Labour Party – prevent all union members discussing this issue but the leadership will not be able to rely on this to hold back members for ever.
The growth of disenchantment with Labour may be quicker for Welsh trade unionists because, unlike the rest of Britain, we have a Labour government in Wales and, after May’s council elections, Labour in power in many council chambers as well. If, as they have given every indication they will, the Welsh government and Labour councils say they have no choice but to pass on Tory cuts, the disintegration of Labour’s base of support could be extremely rapid. Supporters of TUSC can speed that process up by intervening in struggles against cuts and posing the question of the need for a new, mass workers’ party. TUSC has already taken important, if modest steps, in the direction of attracting trade union support. In the May council elections, TUSC was backed officially by a national trade union, the RMT, for the first time. 3 union general secretaries, from RMT, POA and FBU, gave their personal backing to TUSC.
Unless the government collapses, which could happen if the tops of the trade union movement prove capable of building a campaign that matches the anger of their members, the only elections in Wales in the next 3 years will be the European ones. The main focus for TUSC supporters now should be the trade union movement, which is where the campaign against cuts and austerity will be fought in the immediate future. All TUSC supporters, particularly anyone who hasn’t been before should definitely try to attend the 6th annual National Shop Stewards Network Conference (see http://www.shopstewards.net/) next Saturday and the Welsh Shop Stewards Network Conference in Cardiff on June 30th.