Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Then and now

The Trades Union Congress opening in Manchester today marks the start of a new political season – and it will be a very different set of political conditions we are all operating in. The terms of engagement from now on will be very different from those which any of us will be familiar with.

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Many might think we have been here before in the 1980s with a determined attempt by a reactionary Conservative government to roll back the political and social achievements of Labour since 1945 – but history never repeats itself exactly. One of the big differences between the late 1970s and early 1980s is the very clear political dividing line. Labour has, so far, touch wood, avoided the self-indulgent carnage we indulged in then and, crucially, the Lib Dem leadership has crossed the Rubicon. In selling any principle for the trappings of power they have drawn a clear political line. You are either for this government and its ideologically driven cuts package (already 50 per cent greater than Alistair Darling thought necessary) or you are with Labour. There is no SDP or Alliance to provide a soft option. This will become especially clear after October 20 and the spending review.

Our job will be to ensure that we have the economic policies that allow us to ensure that the majority of people fall onto our side of the fence. To that we need an intelligent and well coordinated response from all sections of the Labour movement; MPs; local government; trade unions; MEPs and the wider party.

There will be one similarity with the 1980s though. The determination of the Tories to drive their policies through against all opposition. The recent enforced publication of cabinet office papers from the period before and during the miners’ strike show the lengths they were prepared to go to beat down trade union opposition. If you said at the time that this was what the Tories were up to you were dismissed as paranoid – which proves the old saying ‘just because you are paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

They will be determined to break the link between the Labour party and the trade unions, at one stroke denying unions a political voice and greatly weakening our ability to resist. The Lib Dems in particular will be keen to push this through and will be pushing for state financing. Funny isn’t it that, according to them, the country can’t afford decent social services anymore but will be able to stump up millions for a ‘spare’ Tory party. I don’t think the public will buy that one.

We need to meet the threat head-on – not just defending the link but strengthening it where it really matters – on the ground and in the workplace. Links are close and strong at the national level but in too many constituencies they have been allowed to weaken. How many MPs know their local full-time officials? How many CLPs are cooperating with the CWU on their anti-selloff campaign?

This Conservative coalition mean business and our response has to be equally determined and well thought out.

Photo: www.tuc.org.uk/index.cfm 2010

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Peter Wheeler

is a candidate for Labour's NEC

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