Organised Labour is essential to rebuilding of Left

Organised Labour is essential to rebuilding of Left 

City Workers Rights Center

Referring to the Conservative Partys handling of Britains early post-war economy, Aneurin Bevan in an often quoted quip 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, they are rarely short of such organising geniuses. The current 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 dont do so for too long, this is not an accident. The reason for the apparent anomaly is due, as the British Governments Office for Budget Responsibility has pointed out in its November report,[1] to the sharp rise in low-wage employment, from which lower revenues are collected. 

Not that the posh-boys are too concerned at this blip on the graph. It has caused a slowing down of the Chancellors 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, zero-hour-contract work. After all, isnt 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 we 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 of this, though, is the absence from the British Labour Party of a modern day Bevan indicting the wealthy and providing encouragement to the poor.  On the surface this is surprising since there is deep disenchantment in working class communities with the government 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 trashing 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 by the way) through a twin strategy of trying to outbid its right-wing opponents with dubiously populist policies while improving its PR performance. Curbs on migrants income[3], caps on social welfare and distancing the leadership from organised labour are among Ed Milibands worrying proposals and 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 Hardies party but when even some prominent trade union leaders such as Mick Cash of the RMT[4] are openly questioning its commitment to the working class, it is hardly surprising that Labours respect 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 Britains working class from its plight by actively intervening in societys wider struggles.

Encouragingly, there is evidence that something similar is emerging within the organised labour movement in Ireland. After a lengthy period of excessive cautiousness, stemming largely from the debilitating effects of holding on too long to social partnership, trade unionists are again visible to 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 focussing purely on the narrower issues of their membership. With the old, three party matrix that has dominated southern Irish 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 any one 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 Irish 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 workforce, is better placed to facilitate a decisive contribution to this project than any other organisation.

It cant 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 neo-liberal programme and movement, while the rest of us stand and watch. Progressive trade unionist 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 unionist engaged in this work should hold open their doors to as many sections of progressive society as possible. 

With Irelands 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 from 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 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.


Tommy McKearney ... 

This article first appeared in Socialist Voice Dec 2014 (http://www.communistpartyofireland.ie/sv/02-labour.html)

[1] See: Weak tax and oil revenues hinder pledge to cut deficit.  Chris Giles, Financial Times, 22/11/2014

[2] Rochester by-election: beliefs of Ukip voters are soaked in leftwing populism

As working class voters flock to a party of the hard right, is it possible for Ed Milibands Labour to reconnect with them? Owen Jones, The Guardian, Friday 21 November 2014

[3] Ed Miliband: we will introduce tougher rules on benefits for new migrants. Toby Helm. The Observer, 11/10/2014

[4] Mick Cash interview: Disillusioned with Labour, RMT union chief plots a new party for the left. Independent, 5/10/2014

This© Tommy McKearney 2012                                                                                      email:    tommymkearney@me.com