December 2014        

Organised labour is essential for resistance

Tommy McKearney

Referring to the Conservative Party’s handling of Britain’s early post-war economy, Aneurin Bevan of the Labour Party said: “This island is made mainly of coal and surrounded by fish. Only an organising genius could produce a shortage of coal and fish at the same time.” In fairness to the Tories it has to be said that they are rarely short of such organising geniuses. The present chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, in partnership with his colleague, the Old Etonian David Cameron, have contrived to preside over a state where employment is increasing but the take from income tax is not rising apace.
     Snigger if you will, but don’t do so for too long: this is not an accident. The cause of the apparent anomaly, as the British government’s Office for Budget Responsibility has pointed out,1 is the sharp rise in low-wage employment, from which less revenue is collected.
     Not that the posh-boys are too concerned at this blip on the graph. It has caused a slowing down of the chancellor’s plan to balance Treasury borrowing with budget expenditure, but that can and will be corrected. Even Dozy Danny from the Beano can balance a budget; all he has to do is privatise a goodly slice of the National Health Service, cut social welfare, close libraries, and so on and so on. The nice thing about this from a Tory point of view, of course, is that it all contributes to forcing working people into accepting low-paid, part-time or contract work. After all, isn’t that what austerity is all about?—reinforcing the power of a ruling elite while simultaneously improving its take from labour. (And this applies to austerity programmes in Ireland as much as it does in Britain.)
     Not that we should be surprised by the sly and greedy behaviour of the parties of capital. Dogs bark, and Tories appropriate wealth without regard. The interesting point in all this, though, is the absence from the British Labour Party of a present-day Bevan indicting the wealthy and providing encouragement to the poor. On the surface this is surprising, as there is deep disenchantment with the government in working-class communities and an ever-increasing alienation between them and the establishment.
     Unfortunately, a different party appears to be occupying some at least of the space left by Labour. As Owen Jones pointed out recently in the Guardian,2 the reactionary UKIP has drawn a disproportionate amount of its support from working people, who, in spite of voting for this aggressively right-wing party, still subscribe to views broadly echoing left values.
     In common with almost every other social-democratic party in Europe, the British Labour Party has failed to provide a meaningful answer to the neo-liberal onslaught on working-class living standards. As a consequence it has been left thrashing around in an attempt to connect with what, until recently, was its core support.
     In a way that typifies many parties in the social-democrat groove, the Labour Party leadership is trying to restore its fortunes—and failing—through a twin strategy of trying to outbid its right-wing opponents with dubiously populist policies while “improving its PR performance.” Curbs on immigrants’ income,3 caps on social welfare and distancing the leadership from organised labour are among Ed Miliband’s worrying proposals, all to be smuggled in using that toxic legacy of Blair and Mandelson, disingenuous “spin.”
     In spite of this it is too early to speak of the demise of Keir Hardie’s party; but when even some prominent trade union leaders, such as Mick Cash of the RMT Union,4 are openly questioning its commitment to the working class it is hardly surprising that respect for the Labour Party in deprived and abandoned communities is diminishing. Nor is it surprising that the more progressive sections of organised labour in Britain are beginning to examine options for rescuing the working class from its plight by actively intervening in society’s wider struggles.
     Encouragingly, there is evidence that something similar is emerging within the organised labour movement in Ireland. After a lengthy period of excessive caution, stemming largely from the debilitating effects of holding on too long to social partnership, trade unionists are again visible in the forefront of a mass popular movement. Five trade unions have played an important role in convening and guiding the Right2Water campaign, while prominent figures in Unite and Mandate have spoken unambiguously in public in support of this demand.
     Hopefully, this welcome initiative is the beginning of a resurgence of trade union involvement with the broad concerns of the people and not simply focusing purely on the narrower issues of their membership. With the old three-party matrix that has dominated Southern politics since the 1930s beginning to crumble, the future is at best uncertain. What is clear, however, is that the neo-liberal project, with its austerity-driven objective of strengthening capital at the expense of working people, is still in play.
     Moreover, while there is as yet no Irish version of UKIP, there is little doubt that those with a vested interest in strengthening the status quo are organised and determined to advance their aims. If anyone doubts this they need only look at the orchestrated and virtually McCarthyite reaction to the Jobstown protest.
     Constructing an adequate and viable response in order to resist the damaging and very powerfully backed neo-liberal agenda requires the broadest input and participation from the working class. Objectively speaking, the trade union movement, with its very large membership spread across every part of the island and in almost every sector of the work force, is better placed to facilitate a decisive contribution to this project than any other organisation.
     It can’t be repeated too often, though, that the Irish trade union movement is not a political party, and whatever about its origins, nowadays its members have different party loyalties. There is little point in simply waiting for trade union leaders to deliver a new anti-neoliberal programme and movement while the rest of us stand and watch. Progressive trade unionists at all levels and in all unions are in need of support and encouragement while they continue with their campaign. In turn, those enlightened and radical trade unionists engaged in this work should hold open their doors to as many sections of progressive society as possible.
     With Ireland’s working people facing the prospect of years of neo-liberal misery, there is an obvious need for a widely supported and well-organised resistance that understands the nature and make-up of its opponent. We are long past the time for believing in deliverance through gurus, sects, or conspiracies. Organised labour is needed to facilitate the resistance and help organise a working-class resurgence; but it cannot do so on its own.
     If this fails, the alternative will be to find ourselves living on an island managed by organising geniuses who will leave us with a shortage of just about everything except Eurocrats, bankers, and Blueshirts.

     1. See Chris Giles, “Weak tax and oil revenues hinder pledge to cut deficit,” Financial Times, 22 November 2014.
     2. Owen Jones, “Rochester byelection: beliefs of UKIP voters are soaked in leftwing populism,” Guardian, 21 November 2014.
     3. Toby Helm, “Ed Miliband: We will introduce tougher rules on benefits for new migrants,” Observer, 11 October 2014.
     4. Andy McSmith, “Mick Cash interview: Disillusioned with Labour, RMT union chief plots a new party for the left,” Independent, 5 October 2014.

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