The Spirit of Brotherhood by Bernard Meadows, TUC Congress House The Spirit of Brotherhood by Bernard Meadows, TUC Congress House. Source: Lisa - Flickr - Wikicommons / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-SA 2.0

Trade union leaders at the TUC appeasing the right-wing media will do nothing for the working class and spares a wounded government, argues Chris Nineham

Trades Union Congresses never showcase the labour movement at its most radical. Historically their debates and decisions are almost always dominated by the leaderships of the more right-wing unions. 

With the Tories in meltdown, pretty much the whole country complaining Britain is broken, inflation still rampant and after the biggest strike wave for forty years, you might have thought this year’s congress would have been different.

If so, you would have been disappointed. The anger of many delegates was clear. Resolutions were passed to campaign to defend the NHS and to push for more collective bargaining. But most of them call in practice only for further consultations and for putting pressure on the Labour Party.

Right-wing leaders like Gary Smith of GMB and Mick Clancy of Prospect argued that the window for industrial action is closing as a recession approaches. There was certainly no plan for mass resistance to the most right-wing and destructive government in decades.

Importantly there was a vote to organise a conference to discuss non-compliance with the Minimum Service Levels legislation which aims to force public-sector workers to keep services running during public-sector strikes. But despite the vicious nature of this attack on union rights, union leaders stressed that the resolution was not a call to break the law. According to the Financial Times, concerns were expressed at the TUC’s General Council about the resolution opening up the movement to attacks from the right-wing press, with officials saying, ‘They didn’t want headlines in the Daily Mail saying, “unions plan to break the law”.’

Capitulation to the war agenda

On the issue of foreign policy, the TUC voted for a composite resolution spearheaded by the GMB which, though watered down under pressure, effectively backs the Tories over support for the war in Ukraine. Although a number of unions abstained and the FBU and the Bakers’ Union voted against it, the vote marked a worrying move away from unions’ opposition to foreign wars in the recent past.  

Once again, the argument was put at meetings of delegates that voting against the Tories’ war effort in Ukraine would risk being attacked in the Daily Mail. This is an absurd and dangerous position for anyone in the working-class movement to take. The Daily Mail and the rest of the right-wing media are mouthpieces for employers. Increases in wages, better union rights and higher public spending are all anathema to the rich and powerful. They cut into their profits. The ruling class will use every means at their disposal to stop them, including the columns of the Daily Mail.  

The right-wing media are hostile to the strikes, they will be hostile to any effective union campaigning and they will savage any government that tries to improve life for working people. The argument that we shouldn’t do anything that will upset the right-wing press is, of course, straight out of the historic playbook of Labour’s right. Neil Kinnock used it to justify turning his back on the miners in 1984-5 and embracing the market, moves he laughingly dubbed ‘new realism’. Tony Blair famously loved up to Rupert Murdoch as part of his campaign to make Labour ‘business friendly’ and later to take Britain into the Iraq War.

The results were disastrous for the labour movement and the wider population. In his own feeble way, Starmer is following in their footsteps, attacking the left, crawling to big business and courting favour with the Sun.

Sadly, part of the story of the 2023 TUC Congress is that for all the grumbling about Starmer from some trade union leaders, there is clearly a mood amongst many of them to focus more on electing a Labour government and less on a real fight against the Tories or the bosses. The truth is even this probably won’t stop the Daily Mail from attacking them. What’s for certain is it won’t help working people.

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Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

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