The Official Opposition

The trades unions need have no fear of flexing their muscles: we now depend on them to fight the government

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian, 10th September 2002

A year and a day ago, the battle which may have determined the political future of Britain was about to commence. Tony Blair was to have told the annual conference of the Trades Union Congress that he would persist with his part-privatisation of public services, and the unions were due to respond with unprecedented anger. As Blair was waiting to speak, news of the attacks on New York reached the conference. The Prime Minister spoke briefly about his horror, then left. The TUC curtailed its conference, and the fight was postponed until today.

Tony Blair’s reappearance at the conference this afternoon will be overshadowed both by the anniversary of the attacks and by rumours of war. The unions’ response to his speech is likely to flicker across our television screens then disappear. So it will take us some time to grasp the significance of 9/10. This confrontation could prove to be the most important political event in Britain since the general election of 1997.

The battle the unions will resume this week is being fought, ostensibly, over low pay, the minimum wage, pensions, health and safety and the coming war with Iraq. But, as everyone in Blackpool knows, it is in reality about far more than this. Most of the unions fighting the transfer of staff from public bodies to private companies are concerned not only about poorer conditions for the workforce, but also about the quality and scope of public services. They see part-privatisation as symptomatic of the corporate takeover of Britain, and the government’s capitulation to big business, in turn, as symptomatic of its willingness to side with power against the powerless. This is the week in which the trades unions become the United Kingdom’s official opposition.

They are assuming this role not as a result of any grand ambitions (if anything they have been overcautious about making use of their resurgent power)but because no one else can do it. For the past five years the radical, progressive opposition without which all political systems succumb to corruption has failed to materialise. It cannot arise in Westminster: the three main parties, constrained by the distribution of marginal constituencies, are fighting over the same floating voters of the middle classes, while the smaller ones are obstructed by first-past-the-post elections and a funding system which relies on the benevolence of the rich. There is no sign of a sustained revolt among the senior civil servants who must implement the gradual demolition of public services. The government seems to have little fear of unaffiliated public protest.

The civil servants who run our public services know that the extra money the chancellor has found for health and education is likely to be swallowed by the massively inflated costs of permitting private companies to build and run our schools and hospitals. Three months ago this column listed nine serious and specific charges of public fraud and false accounting surrounding the “private finance initiative”, and suggested that if the Treasury failed to answer them, the public should conclude that it has no defence to offer. The Treasury has not responded.

But they know too that, like nuclear waste, PFI is a problem which will trouble only future generations of administrators. By the time the costs of the initiative become unmanageable, most of today’s senior managers will have retired. Their interests are best served by doing what they are told and hoping that they make enough money to buy private health insurance and insulate themselves from the inevitable collapse of the system they now run. They know it’s wrong – I’ve seldom met a senior public servant who is not privately horrified by PFI – but they have no incentive to oppose it.

Nor will spontaneous public protest be sufficient to change the course of government policy. The private finance initiative is too complicated and too boring to generate a sustained mass movement among people whose professional interests are not affected. Part-time protesters struggle to compete with the businessmen who have all day, and plenty of resources, to lobby for privatisation.

The unions, by contrast, do have an immediate professional interest in confronting the seizure of the public budget: many public service workers whose jobs are transferred to private companies must work harder for less pay. It is greatly to their credit that the unions have, on the whole, resisted the government’s attempts to divide this immediate interest from their longer-term concerns, by negotiating better terms of employment. They have not forgotten that their members cannot afford to buy their way out of the system when they retire.

The unions are also uniquely equipped to confront the privatisation lobbyists. Only they can afford to employ enough researchers and analysts, only they can sustain a mass mobilisation of the kind required to defeat a policy as complex and pervasive as PFI. The rest of us have, without admitting as much to ourselves, come to rely on the public sector unions to fight this battle on our behalf.

This tacit expectation appears to be reflected in the levels of public support for strikes which might, at other times, have generated only resentment towards organised labour. Six weeks ago, for example, a Guardian/ICM poll found that 59% of voters believed that the recent strikes by rail, tube and council workers were justified, while only 29% opposed them.

We have come to rely on the unions too to confront the corporations’ other intrusions upon the public domain. The Enron and Worldcom scandals appear to have done nothing to dissuade Tony Blair of the superiority of big business over any other form of human organisation: perhaps, we hope, the unions can. And who, among the opponents of the impending unprovoked war with Iraq, has not secretly wished that organised labour will somehow prise Mr Blair away from Mr Bush?

Such hopes have been boosted by the recognition that the year’s delay has enhanced the unions’ position. Since Blair hurried away from the conference his two most trusted lieutenants in the movement – Ken Jackson and Barry Reamsbottom, men who behaved very much like the business leaders they were supposed to confront – have been deposed. The TGWU has begun to rise from its slumber. Unison and the GMB are more confident than they have been for years.

The trades unions, in other words, should have no fear of inciting public hatred by exceeding their mandate. It may not be fair of us to expect them to fight our battles on our behalf, and it is certainly lazy, but when the public is ready to thrust greatness upon them, they should not be reluctant to accept it. We now expect them to articulate the concerns not only of their own members but also of all those whose needs have been subordinated to corporate greed. In time, we should hope, a revitalised union movement will encourage the rest of us to organise more effectively, but for the moment the unions offer the most realistic means of confronting the complex of state and corporate power. So today, when Tony Blair flaunts his indifference at their conference, the unions should not fear their freedom.