Unite and divide

Vince Mills looks at the reasons behind the STUC’s decision to reject the Scottish People’s Charter and argues that this attitude damages not just Labour but all of the left

The launch of the Scottish LRC in late February was by the standard of Left events in Scotland, nowadays, a big success.

All of the main political players were there – the Scottish Labour Party Campaign for Socialism but also the SSP, SWP, CPB and some of the groups within other groups like the Alliance for Workers Liberty. Perhaps more importantly, so were a number of individuals or loosely organised groups like the Socialist Forum from Lanarkshire which is made up of lefts from every background and a number of Trade Union activists from ASLEF the RMT, Unite and Unison. There were even two Labour MSPs in the audience Bill Butler and Elaine Smith (‘of course’ you are saying but actually Elaine has been ill so it was good to see her). I apologise for any unions or groups that I missed but I think this gives a flavour of the event: it was a big tent.

The platform did not particularly politically represent the meeting. The Chair Kevin Lindsay, is the Scottish Organiser of ASLEF, and he along with John McDonnell MP, Rozanne Foyer of Unite and myself are all closely associated with the Labour Party. Nevertheless the presence of so many on the left was interesting and can I think be put down to two things: the first is that we launched the Peoples Charter, suitably tartan-clad, as The Scottish Peoples Charter and secondly because there appeared to be a real desire for Left unity as there had been at the Convention of the Left the previous September, even though as one SSP wag put it, there is nothing divides the Left so effectively as a call for unity. But the feeling seemed real enough. What’s more it seemed to be more than desire. The leadership of Unite amongst others had declared support for the Peoples Charter.

It is strange therefore that only a month or so later that unity is under serious attack and the Peoples Charter with it.

At the STUC last month, there was a concerted and ultimately successful attempt by some union leaders, most notably Unite, to ensure that the STUC congress did not support the Peoples Charter. I am not picking on Unite – its kind of hard to pick on the country’s biggest union anyway – but the leadership of Unite was initially supportive of the Charter, as you would expect them to be given its largely uncontentious content; well uncontentious for most trade unionists at any rate.

And the reason for this opposition? Those who opposed the Charter had two key arguments. Firstly that it was already STUC policy. Nobody had ever argued that the Charter was anything but bread and butter trade unionism; the novel idea was that it distilled this so that it could be presented it in an easily accessible format to the many thousands of trade union members and more to point the many thousands more who are not trade unionists, and let then sign up for it. It is a politicising tool.

More surprising was the second argument mounted by the Charters’ opponents; that the Charter had been devised as a device to build support for an electoral alternative to the Labour Party. A few weeks previously I had sat on a platform in Glasgow entirely made up of Labour Party members launching the Scottish version of the Peoples Charter, hotly denying the allegation that the Labour left was trying to hijack the Charter to recruit to the Labour Party!

Of course the paucity of argument that could be brought against it merely underlines the Charter’s strength as a vehicle for challenging the current attempt by the Britain’s ruling class to solve their economic crisis on our backs, with I am sorry to say, the connivance of the leadership of the Labour Party. And that is the real reason why the charter was attacked; it was an attempt to blunt the inevitable criticism of the New Labour Project. Nor is it difficult to spot the routes taken. Leonard Cohen is only too right when he says that the rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor. They have also got them in our unions and our parties.

Of course the paucity of argument that could be brought against it merely underlines the Charter’s strength as a vehicle for challenging the current attempt by the Britain’s ruling class to solve their economic crisis on our backs, with I am sorry to say, the connivance of the leadership of the Labour Party

Charlie Whelan one time spin-doctor for Gordon Brown, now works for Unite as political director. He is, according to the Times, part of a strategy group set up by Ed Balls which had among its number the now disgraced Damian McBride. I wonder what kind of conversations they had about the charter and what ‘line’ you might spin to split support for it? And I wonder in whose ear they whispered to make sure that story was promoted.

With four elections facing them in Scotland it is only too easy to see how electoral concerns have infected sections of the movement. And the fear of a return of the Tories is certainly a legitimate one. However, we are likely to hasten that victory if the New Labour leadership is not challenged. If trade union leaders fail to defend their members’ interests they will further undermine support, not just for Labour, but for left policies in general. We must remember that shifts in the voting behaviour of trade unionists, who believed that Labour was no longer acting in their interests, were key to Thatcher’s electoral success.

The argument is over how we make that challenge to New Labour. For us on the Left there is no evidence that quiet diplomacy within the New Labour tent has led to lessening in intensity in the government’s love affair with markets and finance capital. Quite the reverse; Brown’s strategy for emerging from the current crisis has been to save the banking system toxic assets and all and cut public spending.

Hence the reason why the Scottish Left must give undiluted support for the People’s charter. Fifty years ago the chaotic landing of 82 men on an obscure Cuban beach led to a change, the effects of which may yet mean that a whole continent can be won to Socialism. The one thing we must not do is to stop fighting.