by Atul Hatwal
Something very important for Labour happened earlier this week. At the TUC conference on Monday, Ed Balls was challenged during a Q&A session about his support for a public sector pay freeze.
He gave a robust response,
“When you are losing hundreds of thousands of jobs, you cannot say the first priority is more pay for public sector workers. That is the reality because of the government’s failure on the economy. We have always said let us put jobs first.”
The resulting boos gave reporters their headlines and the situation was mildly uncomfortable for the shadow chancellor.
In one sense, there’s not much new here. Balls was merely re-iterating a position from earlier this year and Labour politicians are often jeered by angry union delegates.
But this exchange has brought an underlying divide within Labour much nearer to an explicit schism.
Although issues such as redundancies, cuts in facilities and the lack of investment in public services are important for the unions, public sector pay is what really animates members and their union leadership.
Public sector workers make up 61% of the trade union movement. As damaging as redundancies are, the majority of public sector workers are not going to be sacked. But what will hit all of them is the pay freeze.
The unions’ ability to defend their members’ pay levels is at the heart of their raison d’être. One union insider speaking to Uncut was blunt about their priorities,
“Forget the grandstanding on capitalism and economics. That’s an ego trip for the leaders and trots. What our members want from us is protect their jobs, and most of important all, their pay.”
In the past, commitments to restricted spending on public sector pay by future Labour governments could be sold to union leaders as central to winning back office and ejecting the Tories, who were, after all, the real enemy.
But times change.
Three factors have transformed the Labour’s relationship with the unions in a way that mean, following Ed Balls’ answer at the TUC Q&A, an almighty bust up between the shadow chancellor and the unions is now inevitable.
First there are the unions’ commitments to their members on public sector pay, second, the new politics of the union movement and third, the impending major union merger.
In terms of their rhetoric to members and the media, union leaders have been uncompromising on public sector pay.
In January, Len McCluskey’s reaction in the Guardian when Ed Miliband and Ed Balls both backed the government’s pay freeze was illustrative of a leadership that is unequivocal and particularly distrusting of Balls,
“Ed Balls’s sudden embrace of austerity and the public-sector pay squeeze represents a victory for discredited Blairism at the expense of the party’s core supporters. It also challenges the whole course Ed Miliband has set for the party, and perhaps his leadership itself. Unions in the public sector are bound to unite to oppose the real pay cuts for public-sector workers over the next year. When we do so, it seems we will now be fighting the Labour frontbench as well as the government.”
The vehemence of the Unite leader’s article should not have been a surprise. It was entirely representative of a broader shift in the politics of the union movement.
Since the early 2000s, the unions have been drifting left. Disappointed by successive Labour governments, one by one they have been captured by ideologues from the far left. First at PCS with Mark Serwotka, then the RMT with Bob Crow and finally the big one, Unite, with Len McCluskey.
The team around Len McCluskey bear little loyalty to the Labour party – his chief of staff Andrew Murray was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the mid-2000s – while Mark Serwortka and Bob Crowe aren’t members of the party, have disaffiliated their unions from Labour and are both supporters of Socialist Alliance.
Since Unite was taken by the hard left, the leftward slide of the union movement has accelerated. Leaders in unions such as the GMB and Unison have had to calibrate their positions in the face of competition for members from rivals to the left, and the rising tide of militancy within their own ranks.
No matter how much the likes of Paul Kenny or Dave Prentis understand the need for Labour to position itself in the electoral centre-ground, the new politics of the union movement mean they no longer have any room for manoeuvre to help the party.
It’s a situation that will only become worse with the impending merger of Unite and PCS. The new mega union will combine militancy with public sector muscle. At the next election, Labour faces the prospect of Mark Serwotka being the join general secretary of what used to be its largest donor.
In this context, with unbending rhetoric on public sector pay, left-wing ideologues running Unite and an imminent merger that will further concentrate union power in the hands of the extremists, there is no way the unions will meekly accept Labour entering the next election campaign committed to a public sector pay freeze.
There was no immediate public response to Balls following his Q&A session from the union leaders. But his words were noted throughout the union movement. A union official from one of the smaller unions at the TUC conference earlier this week was clear on the impact of Balls’ statement,
“It’s now a test of strength with Unite. On Monday night in the bar it’s all people were talking about. For someone like Andrew Murray, if Len lets this go then everything they have worked for over the past few years will have been for nothing. If they can’t make Labour hold the line on public sector pay they won’t get anything they want. This is a fight to the bitter end.”
When the confrontation comes, it will define who runs the Labour party – our politicians or the unions.
The clock is ticking.
Atul Hatwal is editor at Uncut