Now -read the book!

Here is a link to my memoirs which, if you are a glutton for punishment, you can purchase online at
Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name. (William Morris - A Dream of John Ball)

Saturday, October 01, 2022

Class struggle and the next Labour Government

The Labour Party is enjoying a lead in the opinion polls which is unprecedented this century. Whilst strong supporters of the current leadership will see this as the product of what was, in their terms, a successful Party Conference, it seems more likely that the economic chaos created by the Truss government is at least as important.

Opinion polls have put Labour consistently ahead of the Tories this year. This is a significant improvement on this time last year when Johnson's Government were ahead of the opposition in the polls, and the latest poll gives us the largest lead we have had since the 1990s. However, we do not (yet) have a long-term consistent lead in the polls such as preceded previous occasions when we ousted a Tory government.

Last time Labour kicked the Tories out of government, winning a significant majority, our position in the polls had been even more impressive. From 1993 until the 1997 election Labour was ahead in the polls consistently over a period of four years. 

A generation before, in the run-up to Harold Wilson's victory in 1964 the Tories had not been ahead in the polls for three years from mid 1961 until the period of the election campaign itself when they closed the gap considerably (so that Wilson achieved a tiny majority and had to call a further election in 1966)(credit to Mark Pack for this historical data).

It is received Westminster wisdom that Oppositions do not win General Elections, Governments lose them. The received wisdom is not always wrong. In particular the political history of the UK since the Second World War suggests that Labour Oppositions do not win General Elections, Tory Governments lose them.

As David Coates wrote in the run-up to 1997;”In electoral terms, it is striking how much assistance from external events and forces the Labour Party has always needed to create an electoral bloc sufficiently substantial to give it parliamentary power. It is also striking just how quickly that bloc has then eroded. After all, it took two world wars and a massive capitalist depression to wean sufficiently large numbers of UK workers away from an electoral loyalty to Liberalism and Conservatism, to give Labour its first (and still its largest) parliamentary majority in 1945. It then took another thirteen years of Conservative mismanagement and anachronistic fustiness to enable Harold Wilson fleetingly to reconstitute the width of that electoral bloc in 1966; and in neither instance did Labour manage to retain over the long term the majority it had so gratuitously won.

For in each case Labour was largely the passive recipient of electoral swings. Its own politics never normally possessed sufficient magnetic force to redraw the shape of electoral Britain by the power of its own programme and possibilities alone. The forces shaping that electoral map were largely external to Labour and beyond its control. They came (and the Labour Party flourished); they went (and the Labour Party was unable to prevent their going). It is true, of course, that the Labour Party did slowly build up its core vote by its own organizational and ideological efforts: defeating the Communist Party for the loyalty (by 1945) of the majority of unionized workers. But its capacity as a party to sweep up the bulk of the unorganized working class (in 1945) and of the new white collar and managerial strata in the private sector (in 1966), was largely not of its doing.”

Something similar was already happening when David Coates wrote those words. Following "Black Wednesday" in 1992, the Tory Party lost and did not regain its fabled reputation for "economic competence” (a trick which Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng may just have repeated a generation later). John Major's Government then became mired in scandal and division.

Had he lived, John Smith would have led Labour to victory in the 1997 General Election, but as it was it fell to Tony Blair to benefit from the re-creation of the electoral bloc which had put Labour into Government in 1945 and 1966 (although with a lower share of the popular vote then either Clement Attlee or Harold Wilson had achieved). 

“New” Labour subsequently benefited both from relatively favourable economic circumstances (prior to the crash of 2008) and from the parlous state of the Conservative party as it worked through its divisions over Europe that would eventually lead to Brexit. Although Labour lost votes in 2001 and, even more so, in 2005, the Tories were not able to overtake us.

These factors together meant that the government which was elected in 1997 lasted longer than its predecessors that had come into office in the 1940s and 1960s. However, the achievements of Labour in office between 1997 and 2010 did nothing to invalidate the cautionary observation made by David Coates in 1996; "We need to remember how regularly hopes have been created only to be dashed, promises made only to be broken, agendas set never to be sustained. We need to remember how previous generations of Labour politicians—both in opposition and in power—tended to fall short of even the most modest aims of the people sustaining them; and we need to contemplate at least the possibility that a Blair-led Labour government will disappoint its supporters in a similar way. Amid the understandable pleasure, for many on the Left, at the prospect of a Conservative electoral defeat at last, we need to keep a very tight grip on any creeping sense of euphoria.”

Given our recent experience of the brutal sabotage of the Corbyn leadership of our Party and the subsequent witch hunt of socialists under the current leadership (as recently exposed by Al Jazeera), many left wingers will find it  much easier to avoid a “creeping sense of euphoria" than we did in the mid 90s. Once again, the Labour Party can only approach Government having been sanitised and made fit to manage British capitalism.

I find myself increasingly reminded of an experience whilst out canvassing in the 97 general election campaign. One of the many right-wingers who were by then dominant in Lewisham's Labour Party asked me what I was doing campaigning when they knew I didn't support Tony Blair. I said that it was true that I did not support Tony Blair and that indeed I knew that if Tony Blair became Prime Minister the country would likely get worse. However, I pointed out that if John Major remained Prime Minister the country would get a lot worse a lot faster. I still think I was right on both counts. As they say, the worst day under a Labour Government is always better than the best day under a Tory Government.

Unfortunately, because Labour’s victories are always fundamentally Tory defeats, we have repeatedly ended up with Labour Governments which inherit problems from their Conservative predecessors (and confront the inevitable contradictions of a capitalist economy) for which they are eventually  themselves blamed, paving the way for a return to the UK’s political default setting, which is a Conservative Government. 

Had we been able to create the mass Labour Party rooted in working-class communities, of which some of us caught a distant glimpse in the period after 2015, we might have been able to win on the basis of the sort of radical transformative policies which proved so popular in 2017. In the absence of such a vibrant extra-parliamentary power base, no Labour Government can do more than ameliorate the worst of inequality and oppression (and, indeed, we will be lucky if it does as much as that).

The campaigning and strike action which is happening up and down the country today in opposition to the current Tory government will need to continue up to and beyond the next General Election, regardless of the outcome of that election. Our standard of living, our employment rights and our public services are under attack. These attacks may reduce under a Starmer (or post-Starmer) government but we would be naive to imagine that they will cease.

Trade unionists and socialists (including, crucially, the many thousands of socialists inside the Labour Party) need to focus our attention upon defending our class, now and in the future, from the war being waged upon us by our adversaries. When the General Election comes, there will be sitting socialist MPs (if not many new socialist candidates) to campaign for, but before and after that there will be struggles which need to be supported.

We have been here before. We may very well be here again. As Tony Benn said; "There is no final victory, as there is no final defeat. There is just the same battle. To be fought, over and over again.”

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Sorry? Not sorry? Labour responds to Forde allegation 6...

On the day that Black members of the Labour Party were due to hold a protest outside Conference this afternoon about the failure of the Party to acknowledge the findings of the
Forde report in respect of allegations six, the Party finally published online an apology from our National Executive Committee (NEC).

The first sentence of the apology sums it up really well; "The Labour Party apologises for the culture and attitudes expressed by senior staff in the leaked report, as well as for the way in which those comments came to light.”

In other words; "we are sorry that some of our senior staff were comfortable expressing vile racist and sexist views to each other, and we are also sorry that one or more of them were so stupid as to ensure that these would be recorded within the Party and subsequently leaked” (or, more simply still; "we are sorry we were so badly wrong and we are sorry we got caught”).

The NEC go on to say; "The Labour Party is committed to ensuring that such a situation will not arise again and that any racist and discriminatory attitudes will be tackled immediately, wherever they arise, in whatever section of the party.” 

Likewise in his own statement the General Secretary, David Evans (who has previously featured on this blog), states that; "I also want to offer a commitment to you and all other members that such a situation will not arise again and that we will tackle racist and discriminatory attitudes wherever they arise in whatever section of the Party.” 

Even the Leader of the Party gets in on the act, saying; "I want to work with all those effected to drive this work through our party and ensure this never happens again.”

As a loyal Labour Party member I want to believe these protestations and, had the apology been forthcoming promptly when the report was published more than two months ago, I might have done so.

However, my own experience, since the publication of the Forde report, does not encourage me to put much faith in these words. 

The General Secretary says now that; "we will tackle racist and discriminatory attitudes wherever they arise” but one of his senior subordinates (a national officer of the Labour Party acting under the NEC’s delegated powers) responded earlier this month to a well-founded expression of concern about racism by demanding that his correspondent; “withdraw, and apologise for, the most ridiculous assertion.” 

I see no evidence of a positive change in the culture which is so justly criticised in the Forde report.

Update on 27 September -

Watch that and weep

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Democracy and the rights of members in the Party and the trade unions

I can thoroughly recommend Al Jazeera’s "The Labour Files" the first episode of which is now
available online.

Having lived through what happened in Brighton and Hove Labour Party over recent years, I can vouch for the honesty and integrity of many of the local witnesses interviewed as part of the documentary, which explores the war being fought against socialist within our Party. I also have well-founded and firm opinions about some of the liars and bullies exposed in the programme.

I shall watch the remaining two episodes (being screened tonight and on Monday evening) and may well have more to say thereafter. The first episode, however, has been more than enough to get me thinking about the problem of confronting a rampant reactionary bureaucracy in the mass party of the working-class, and about the similarities and differences with similar confrontations in the trade union movement (with which, as regular readers of this blog (Sid and Doris Blogger) will be well aware, I have a reasonable amount of experience).

Having a bureaucracy of paid employees which does the bidding of a right-wing leadership to constrain or eliminate left-wing critics is not a phenomenon exclusive to the Labour Party. I have written extensively on this Blog over the years about the struggle for democracy within the trade unions, both with reference to the history of the movement and to contemporary struggles within UNISON throughout my working life.

The resources available to a trade union bureaucracy (pro rata to the size of membership of the organisation) are greater than those available to the Labour Party (because the average trade union subscription is considerably higher than the cost of party membership). With those resources, I have witnessed what can be done to witchhunt socialist activists from the trade union.

However, the trade union bureaucracy, in spite of its relatively greater resources, is in a weaker position confronting its own rank-and-file than is the bureaucracy of the Labour Party. In UNISON the expulsion of a handful of activists caused great conflict and, on each occasion, the leadership eventually backed down. In today's Labour Party, hundreds - if not thousands - of members have had their membership terminated with remarkably little resistance.

The proximate explanation for this difference is the difference between the rules of the two organisations. In UNISON a member can only be disciplined in accordance with rules which protect the right to hearing and which provide that any sanction only takes effect once rights of appeal had been exhausted. In the Labour Party now, a member can find their membership terminated on the basis of an allegation which they receive in writing and to which they may only make a written response. Although they have a right of appeal, their membership remains terminated pending such an appeal - so a Labour Party member can be thrown out of the Party (regardless of the length of their membership or their record of commitment to the organisation) without any right to hearing or to challenge in person the evidence against them.

Of course, the difference between the rules of the two organisations simply reflects differences in the context within which they operate. In UNISON, the rules of the trade union can only be amended following a 2/3 majority vote at Conference on a proposal admitted to the agenda months in advance. Submissions to the conference by the National Executive Council (NEC) have no privileged position above those from branches or other UNISON bodies.

In the Labour Party, whilst proposals from Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) to amend the rules must now (once more) be submitted a full year in advance, the National Executive Committee (NEC) can, and does, submit rule amendments with almost no notice (which can get through providing the trade union delegations have been squared).

If the difference between the rules of the two organisations reflect the differing levels of democracy in their structures, the structures themselves reflect the different material balance of forces between the organisational machine and the rank and file membership in each case.

Ironically, an important part of the explanation for the different structures of the trade union and the party is provided by the framework of anti-trade union legislation put in place since the 1980s.

A trade union member experiencing injustice as a result of a breach of the rules of the trade union has the option of complaining to the Certification Officer (without cost). A trade union member who is discriminated against by their trade union can bring a complaint to an employment tribunal (at minimal cost). 

The only legal recourse available to an individual member of the Labour Party  facing unjust treatment from the Party is to go to court, incurring considerable expense up front and risking an award of costs if they lose (to rub salt into the wound one of the things for which your party membership may be terminated without a hearing is if you fail to pay costs which a court orders you to pay to the Party!)

Whilst this difference in legal context is significant (and I myself have taken advantage of it in the past) a more important difference is provided by the underlying material reality of the two organisations in question.

The rank-and-file activists of a trade union are continuously in a three-way relationship with their own officials and with the employers with whom they bargain and negotiate. Their power in each of these relationships is founded upon the effectiveness of their organisation at workplace level (and therefore their most important relationship, which is with the workers they represent). 

Strong workplace organisation constrains the ability of union officials to control local activists and can compel employers to a constructive relationship with local activists, even against union officials. My experience was always that my employer treated me as a local union activist with more respect than hostile officials of my own trade union and that, unable to secure support from the employer, the hostile officials backed off time and again. 

Local Labour Party activists have no similar corresponding material power base to act as a counterweight to the power of the organisation. Perhaps we would have if our local Labour Parties were genuine mass organisations rooted in our local working-class communities, but they are not (and never have been). Therefore a bureaucracy which is less well resourced, and generally less experienced and less capable, than the bureaucracy of a trade union is nevertheless able to wield much greater power over the membership within the Labour Party.

The question which arises is, of course, the only question which ever really arises; "what is to be done?" Your humble blogger doesn't pretend for one minute to have a certain answer to this question. However, having considered the different balance of forces between rank-and-file democracy and bureaucratic autocracy between the industrial and political wings of our movement it seems to me that we need to find a way to build out from areas of relative strength to areas of relative weakness.

At the heart of Labourism, the distinctively British variant of social democracy, has been a "division of labour" between the political and industrial wings of the movement, as part of which the leadership of the trade unions have generally ensured that the role of the affiliated organisations within the Party has been to provide ballast for the leadership. We need to depart decisively from this tradition.

The trade unions need to become campaigners for democracy and the rights of members within the Labour Party. Trade union activists need to find ways to control our Labour Party intervention so that it is used to encourage democracy and not to prop up the leadership. A small first step, which I understand has already been taken by UNITE, would be to provide representation and assistance to union members who are being victimised or disciplined as members within the Labour Party.

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Serfs you are and serfs you shall remain

A little over 40 years ago, to mark the 600th anniversary of the Peasant’s Revolt, the great socialist journalist Paul Foot wrote a very interesting article.

Foot explained how it was that a peasant army which had arrived in London and achieved its target of killing various of the King's most hated advisers was defeated although its adversaries lacked the military force to inflict such a defeat;

“Pretending that they wanted new talks with Tyler’s army, the king and a large gang of courtiers went to Smithfield. They insisted that Tyler come alone at least a mile from his army and talk to the king’s men about his demands and whether the army would disband. Tyler, still, trusting the king, came, alone, on his horse, and engaged in absurd negotiaions for a few moments. It’s not exactly known what happened. Somebody shouted out some insulting remark. Tyler drew his dagger. Five people jumped on him, stabbed him, and he fell dying to the ground.

Then the king, alone, went to the peasant army and explained that there had been an accident, a mistake. We don’t know exactly what he said to them, but he managed to persuade them that their demands would be met full, indeed had been met in full, and that it was a terrible thing that their leader had been killed. He led them out of the city.

That moment is the climax of the revolt, which begins to falter from there. The confidence of those peasant armies depended on their success, and now the success has stopped.

It’s difficult even to imagine, in those circumstances, how they could have conceded to King Richard as they did. The only explanation lies in the tremendous power which the royal presence had at that time over the common people.

(I have added the emphasis to that last sentence for reasons which regular readers of his blog, Sid and Doris Blogger, will already have guessed).

When, subsequently, some messengers from the peasant army got through to the court to remind the young King of what he had said to his people, he said to have replied as follows;

‘Serfs you have been and serfs you shall remain in bondage, not such as you have hitherto been subjected to, but incomparably viler. For so long as we live and rule by God’s grace over this kingdom we shall use our strength, sense and property to treat you that your slavery may be an example to posterity and that those who live now and hereafter, who may be like you, may always have before their eyes, as it were in a glass, your misery and reasons for cursing you and the fear of doing things like those which you have done.’

I don't suppose that any of the leaders of today's workers movement in this country expect their names will still be known and honoured in 640 years as are the names of Wat Tyler and John Ball. I think we would all hope, however, that we have learned something in the last six and a half centuries and that we would not repeat the mistakes of the past.

I am not, for one moment, comparing the embryonic strike wave of the past weeks with the events of 1381 which shook England’s feudal ruling class to its core. However, bearing in mind the decision to postpone TUC Congress, and the decisions to suspend  strike action by various trade unions, as well as the instruction to local Labour parties not only that we should cease campaigning, but that we may not even meet for the time being, I wonder whether we are entitled to feel that we have moved an inch forward from the position of our predecessors in 1381, so sadly seduced and betrayed because of their feelings about royalty.

I can understand why, in the moment, those charged with making such decisions may have concluded that strike action in the immediate aftermath of the death of a hereditary monarch might be unpopular even with many of those who might be called upon to take such action. Those having that decision in front of them will have to have taken into account; "the tremendous power which the royal presence [or perhaps absence] has at this time over the common people.”

Nevertheless it is a foolish and shamed Labour movement which ceases its activities to defend our people because an old woman living at the apex of our anachronistic class society has died at the end of a long life of comfort and privilege. 

There may not be that many today who will join this blogger in saying quite honestly that I did not respect the former monarch in life and I'm not such a hypocrite as to feign respect for her in death. Nor will a majority say of the new King Charles III that he has no legitimacy as a head of state, not being elected by or accountable to the residents within any of the areas he claims as his realms. Sometimes one just has to be prepared to paddle against the tide.

Those such as Trevor Sinclair, the sports commentator who observed, in response to the death of the former monarch, that this is a racist society, will be driven into apologies by the online equivalent of an 18th-century "Church and King mob". At the very point in time when it is most relevant to question the absurdity of a hereditary head of state in what purports to be an advanced democracy in the 21st-century, any attempt to ask such questions will be silenced with the demand for respect for a nation in mourning.

I hope that witnessing the damage which the cult of monarchy and its visceral appeal to "national unity” can do to our class will now awaken activists in the Party and trade unions to the need to take up cudgels in the cause of republicanism. Even self-professed revolutionaries in our ranks rarely prioritise attacking the absurdity of hereditary monarchy, both because it seems less urgent than the next strike or demonstration, and because it is much harder to win the argument for republicanism then it is to win the argument for strike action for higher pay, or to protest against racism.

I am proud to be chair of a Constituency Labour Party which has expressed its support for Labour for a Republic. I hope that socialist trade unionists who, like me, have looked on aghast as our movement falters at the very moment when it was beginning, for the first time in years, to seem relevant and effective, will now take the argument for republicanism up through their trade branches to conferences and ultimately to the TUC and (for affiliated unions) to Party conference.

This will be a long fight and a difficult one. It will go through all the phases identified by Tony Benn; “First they ignore you, then they say you're mad, then dangerous, then there's a pause and then you can't find anyone who disagrees with you.” My life expectancy probably won't see me beyond the first stage, but unless socialists within our movement commit themselves to embarking upon this journey our movement will never be fit to free our people.

Our class can never develop a hegemonic consciousness of and for ourselves whilst we are trapped beneath the nightmarish weight of the traditions of the past venerated by our rulers and oppressors.

Sunday, September 04, 2022

Racism in the Labour Party

The Forde report may have been all but ignored by the hierarchy of our party (try searching the party website for the word Forde), but those of us who are committed to a Labour Party which represents the interests of the people the Party was established to serve need to be more attentive.

For those whose idea of politics is that it consists of what goes on in the Westminster bubble, including Party HQ on Southside and the office of the Leader of the Opposition, Forde was awaited for two years for what it would tell us about who said what to whom about disciplinary action within the party and to what extent officials hostile to the Corbyn leadership sabotaged our campaigning.

However, for those of us who understand that politics is about a class struggle, which is always being waged against us by our adversaries but only occasionally being fought vigourously from our side, the most important part of the Forde report is almost certainly its findings in respect of "allegation 6" (that “a racist, sexist and otherwise discriminatory culture exist in Party workplaces.”)

Forde States that; "three dimensions of our inquiry lead us to conclude that there are serious problems of discrimination in the operations of the party:

  • The undoubted overt and underlying racism and sexism apparent in some of the content of the WhatsApp messages between the Party’s most senior staff.

  • A significant number of replies to our Call for Evidence – mainly from ordinary party members – spelling out their experience of discrimination - racism, Islamophobia and sexism – in constituency parties and in Party processes; whilst it is not our intention to examine cases in CLPs, often the complaints were in part about the failure of party officials at regional and national level to take such problems seriously.

  • Submissions from current and former members of staff describing their experience of discrimination and of lack of sensitivity to issues of racism and sexism displayed by senior management.”

Though expressed in the measured, lawyerly language which helps to soften the blows of so much of what Forde has to say (and for which one ought not probably to criticise a measured lawyer) these are damning and damaging conclusions.

The Trappist silence of the Party Leader in response to this condemnation of the organisation he heads has rightly been called out by a number of our Black MPs. Hundreds of party members have signed an open letter calling for a response from the Party leadership to Forde’s conclusions in respect of Allegation 6.

At its best our Party has a proud record of fighting racism and supporting anti-discrimination legislation. At its worst, our Party has a shameful record of support for imperialism overseas and racist immigration legislation at home. We cannot go on facing in both directions forever if we expect to retain the strong electoral support which Labour receives from Black voters in the inner cities.

The silence of the Party leadership in response to Forde suggests an organisation in denial about its problems. This can't go on. Labour cannot be a Party in which Black activists are treated less favourably on grounds of race or are victimised for expressing their concerns.

In the meantime, those of us who become aware of individual cases which appear to illustrate in practice the conclusions drawn by the Forde report in respect of Allegations 6 will have to think carefully about how long we allow the Party to resolve issues before making public criticisms.

Monday, August 29, 2022

What is going on beneath the surface?

As our movement experiences a strike wave unprecedented in recent times, because our class faces a cost of living crisis which will echo in misery and death throughout the winter unless we fight back, there is (of course) another struggle going on, hidden beneath the surface, in the darker recesses of the movement.

Those for whom the labour movement is essentially a source of power, prestige or employment are diligently protecting their interests from those activists who are fighting for the movement to be primarily a source of hope and empowerment for our people.

As is pretty much traditional when right wing officialdom launches an attack on left-wing activists in the workers’ movement, many victims of the witch-hunt are mischievously accused of bullying or harassing officials of the movement. This is not at all new. 

Hard as it may be to believe, even someone as sweet and reasonable as your humble blogger has faced the threat of disciplinary action for having criticised employees of the labour movement (even when that criticism was for the most egregious breaches of the rules of the trade union which employed them!)

There are two reasons why allegations of bullying or harassing staff are commonly made when concocting disciplinary cases against socialists in the labour movement (or three, if you include the fact that being held to account by ordinary members is sometimes experienced by some of the "paid ones" as aggressive). 

First, an allegation of bullying disarms potential supporters of a victimised activist. Because bullying at work has increasingly been recognised as a significant problem over the course of the past generation, and all the more so during the period of austerity since the last financial crash, we are all used to the idea that it is important to listen attentively to those who allege bullying or harassment. 

As labour movement activists we tend to start from the position of believing and supporting an employee who alleges that they have been bullied or harassed. This approach, which is only sensible when dealing with an employee of a private or voluntary sector organisation or of the (local or central) state, can easily lead us astray when we are considering cases within our own movement. Bullying is the abuse of power. When the powerful accuse their critics of bullying, wise observers look more closely to see what is really going on.

Secondly, it can be easier to secure a disciplinary sanction in cases in which allegations of bullying or harassment of staff are made against activists. Recent changes to the rules of the Labour Party (set out in Clause I, Part 5.B.vii of Chapter 2 of the 2022 Rule Book) have defined “threatening or harassing" staff as a "prohibited act" for which a member may have their membership terminated without the right to a hearing of the evidence against them or the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses.

UNISON also has a separate "fast track" disciplinary process which is applied in cases where complaints are made by staff against activists (the original version of this, which used to be set out in appendix 2 to the UNISON Rule Book, was introduced in 1997 after the union lost an employment tribunal claim and was intended to apply only to cases of alleged harassment, but revisions made in 2017 broadened the scope of the process considerably).

The device of using allegations of bullying to attack left-wing critics also enables those who wish to support the status quo in our movement to jump on a high horse and pompously denounce anyone supporting victims of the witch-hunt for defending bullies. 

This has the added benefit that it does not require those sitting on the high horse to think too much about what is actually going on, as that could give them quite a nasty headache.

Whilst the most important struggle facing us is unquestionably the struggle against the Government and employers to defend the standard of living of our people, we cannot abandon the victims of witch-hunting within our own movement, nor can we remain silent when those with power in our movement use administrative means to settle political differences.

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

TUC - the triumph of hopelessness over experience

I really should have known better.

After several years of advising Labour Party comrades to be careful what they share on Facebook, I fell, hook, line and sinker, for something of a scam yesterday.

During the day, I noticed that the TUC were advertising, on Facebook, an announcements to be made at 10:30 pm that evening.

As a hardened cynic, and Labour historian, I really should've known better, but I briefly thought (in the context of a strike wave unprecedented in recent years) that this might be an important announcement about some action being called by, or in the name of, the General Council of the TUC. 

I can console myself that many others drew a similar conclusion, but I don't have the excuse of lacking either experience or understanding of the history of our movement generally, and the TUC in particular.

When it turned out that the only announcement that was made (on Twitter, and only five minutes late on Facebook) was that the TUC was to start campaigning for an increase in the minimum wage to an hourly rate of £15, there was considerable disappointment expressed online.

I really had no business being disappointed. If anything, I ought to be happy that the TUC is doing anything at all. The history of the TUC is not a history of coordinating action by trade unions and providing leadership to struggle. It is a history of presenting itself as an “honest broker” between unions and Government.

The General Strike of 1926 was not called off because it was insufficiently supported, but because the leadership of the TUC were terrified of what they had unleashed. During the public sector pensions dispute of 2011/2012, if reports received by the UNISON NEC are to be believed, the TUC "office" was even more keen on an early settlement, on almost any terms, than the leadership of the large trade unions who eventually led us into an unsatisfactory settlement.

One of the many amusing features of my 14 years on the UNISON NEC was to hear, from time to time, reports from our officials about the dastardly goings-on which were the responsibility of the "office" of the TUC (although nothing quite matched the sheer hilarity of the anger expressed by the General Secretary upon his return from the Congress of the Public Services International (PSI) at which our candidate had been unsuccessful in an election and, as it was reported to us, the staff off PSI had been less than neutral (and not to our advantage)).

The officials of the TUC are an "ideal type" of a trade union official. If union officials generally are fairly well insulated from direct accountability to the membership of their trade union (and all the more so the larger the union and the more diverse its membership in terms of occupational groups) then the officials of the TUC benefit (if that is the right word) from a sort of double insulation. They are not even accountable to the officials of the other trade unions!

This insulation may serve as some sort of soundproofing. This would certainly explain why Congress House appears at the moment to be listening to the struggles of our class with a tin ear. As laudable as it no doubt is to campaign for a minimum wage to be set at the level of £15 an hour (although it would be better also to demand some form of indexation, perhaps like the "triple lock" on the state pension), there can be little doubt that what workers taking strike action across the economy at the moment are looking for is leadership in their fight for higher pay to address the cost of living crisis.

The challenge which faces comrades on the General Council of the TUC, and delegates attending next month’s Congress, will be not simply to agree the excellent motion from UNISON which sets out what needs to be done, but to ensure that it is acted upon.

I will end with one piece of friendly advice for Congress house.

Don't advertise statements in advance when they are only going to disappoint the people to whom you have advertised them. 

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Huffington Post misleading on UNISON membership

I was struck by a report in the Huffington Post about falling membership of GMB and UNISON. The report was clearly based on the annual returns submitted by each trade union to the Certification Officer, but had used the total membership figures rather than more important figure of the number of members contributing to the general fund (i.e. the number of members in employment paying subscriptions).

Being interested in such matters (as regular readers of this blog, Sid and Doris Blogger, are well aware) I thought I would look at these more important membership figures for our trade union over the past decade or so (since the commencement of Tory austerity);

Table One: UNISON membership 2010-2021


Membership (millions)

Annual percentage change





































These figures do not tell the tale that the Huffington Post was telling. UNISON’s total membership did indeed fall between 31 December 2020 and 31 December 2021, but only the laziest journalist would describe this as a "slump in the membership" if they were aware of this historical background (which can be accessed online in a matter of minutes).

If anything these figures demonstrate a return to the gradual decline in UNISON membership which has been a feature of the period since 2010, following an increase in membership in 2019, and particularly during 2020. This might not have given a “clickbait” headline, but it would have been an accurate piece of reporting had it been reported.

As a general union organising across a number of sectors, the aggregate membership increase or decrease in UNISON in any given year will mask quite different experiences in the different sectors and regions of the trade union. However, the figures submitted to the Certification Officer are an authoritative source for our aggregate membership figures.

The real membership challenge facing UNISON in the coming period is to make UNISON membership feel relevant and important to members during the cost of living crisis. If UNISON is not seen to be fighting to defend our members standard of living, then many members may decide that their monthly subscription is one of those expenses on which they will cut back.

In fact we need to go beyond "making members feel" that UNISON is fighting to defend their standard of living, by actually fighting to defend our members standard of living. In the period since 2010, UNISON's approach has generally been one of symbolic opposition to austerity in order to recruit and retain members. Not only has this approach coincided with a dramatic fall in real pay for our members, it has also seen a 10% fall in UNISON membership.

Now is the time to lead our members in a fight for higher pay.