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The awkward truth

Review by Laurence Humphries

Andrew Murray's book* is about New Labour and the trade union movement. "The awkward squad" refers to trade union leaders like Tony Woodley, Bob Crow, Billy Hays and Derek Simpson. They have in the main replaced right-wingers as leaders of their unions and are painted by the media as men with a mission to upset the New Labour applecart.

Murray, whose own political background is Stalinism, deals with the background to the role of New Labour, the recent firefighters' dispute and the massive opposition to the invasion of Iraq. Murray himself came to prominence as chair of the Stop the War Coalition. Several trade unions became affiliates and much was made of the claim that they would act if war began. Nothing happened, of course. Meanwhile, Murray, working closely with the Socialist Workers Party, helped to keep any serious political perspective out of the coalition. He helped block moves to make the Peoples Assembly a permanent body as a focus for the anti-war movement.

He says that New Labour wants to sever the links with the trade unions and asserts that the party was "hijacked" by the "clique of six or seven people led by Tony Blair" following John Smith's death in 1994. Murray describes how the so-called awkward squad defended public services at the 2002 New Labour conference but fails to explain their role in 2003, where they refused to mount any opposition. They decided not to oppose the invasion of Iraq, could not bring themselves to oppose tuition fees or even call for a major increase in state pensions.

Murray makes some interesting points about the TUC and the trade unions in the Thatcher period. "The TUC and the major unions did not seek to challenge the existing social system and were more concerned to curb the class struggle," he points out. Murray says that Blair showed his contempt for the trade unions when he was first elected as Prime Minister in 1997. He describes how Blair sought to sever the link with the trade unions.

Murray rightly says there is little support among the new generation of union leaders for ending the link with New Labour. As an inveterate reformist himself, he insists: "Challenging New Labour and seeking to return the Party to something like a real Labour perspective is the only way to keep the unions link alive."

Murray shows how in firefighters were victimised and witch-hunted by New Labour. But talk of FBU leader Andy Gilchrist's "popularity" misses the point completely. He and other leaders refused to confront New Labour and as a result the rank and file voted to sever links with Labour - while Gilchrist was mysteriously absent from the conference only to turn up in Portugal a few days later.

Bob Crow, the RMT leader, makes some telling comments about New Labour, insisting that it is a pro-capitalist party. Since the book was written, the RMT has been expelled by Labour for refusing to stop members giving financial support to branches of the Scottish Socialist Party. The railway workers were, of course, one of the founders of the Labour Party in 1900.

Derek Simpson, the engineering union leader who was once in the Communist Party, belittles the role that Hugh Scanlon, one of his predecessors, played in the great class battles of the 1970s. "I am probably the most left wing leader that has ever been elected. I don't actually think that even Scanlon would come into my category," claims Simpson arrogantly. Unlike Scanlon, he is yet to lead any kind of fight and is ruling the union with an iron, bureaucratic group. Simpson is another one of those leaders who cannot see beyond his nose. "I would like to see the continuance of a Labour government," he tells Murray.

Billy Hays of the communication workers came to prominence when he actively supported the Stop the war Coalition. Like all lefts he believes that the Labour link should be retained: "The time is now to reclaim the Labour Party." He adds: "I do not think that the working class will win by just striking." In a sense he is right, but hanging on to New Labour's coat-tails is no solution either.

Tony Woodley of the TGWU recognises that trade union leaders like himself have no answer to the attack of global capital. He has said that "while capital is global and Labour is local we are going to be at a disadvantage". Woodley also supports the New Labour link. "Obviously the answer is not to have the Tories back, that is why I don't support breakaways from Labour."

In his conclusion Murray says: "The vice that has beset the British Labour movement has been Pragmatism." He asks a question which he does not the answer: "What after all lies behind New Labour?" He believes that this new breed of trade union leaders - the "awkward squad" is a panacea for all the difficulties the trade union movement has.

But the only thing awkward about this group is their inability to grasp principles and political reality, which accords with one dictionary definition of awkward, which is to lack skill. Some of them are engaged in half-hidden manoeuvres to oust Blair in order to replace him with Gordon Brown, the chancellor who is sacking 100,000 civil servants. That's how desperate they have become.

The refusal of the author and his subjects to grasp the capitalist nature of New Labour is, of course, the central weakness. A picture is conveyed of union leaders floundering about while their membership falls away under the impact of the global market economy. Instead of working out a perspective for going beyond New Labour, we are presented with the notion of going further into it. Talk about putting your head in the sand!

26 July 2004

A New Labour Nightmare: the return of the awkward squad. Andrew Murray, Verso 2004

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