Leaving the left behind

There is no revival of the old left in the UK. And it's a good thing too.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

Topics Politics

The unexpected victory of a left-winger in the leadership elections for the UK engineering union, and a spate of strikes in public services, has prompted talk of a revival of the left.

Today’s left fantasies of a return to a militant past would be a sad enough escape from contemporary realities even if the heritage they celebrate were not so shabby.

‘I’m not from nowhere, I’m from Sheffield’, said Derek Simpson, the successful left candidate for the post of general secretary of Amicus, formerly the engineering workers’ union. It was a response to the taunt of the previous incumbent and New Labour toady, Sir Ken Jackson, that Simpson was an irrelevance who had come from nowhere to challenge the union’s rightful leadership.

Simpson, a long-standing member of the Communist Party until shortly before its dissolution in the early 1990s, became a full-time engineering union official in Sheffield in 1981. He succeeded George Caborn, now better known as father of sports minister Richard Caborn, but formerly famous as the communist activist at the head of the trade union wing of the Sheffield labour movement when it was a significant social force.

After his death, the clearing off Spital Hill where he often addressed demonstrations was designated ‘Caborn Corner’ in his honour. It must be nearly 20 years since any significant mass assembled at Caborn Corner – it is now more popular with dogs than people. It offers a vantage point from which to survey the dereliction of industrial Sheffield and the new tram as it takes shoppers to the Meadowhall shopping centre (completing the devastation of the city centre).

As it happens, I’m not from nowhere either, and I recall a rally addressed by Caborn (at this very spot) in the early 1970s. The occasion was the occupation of the River Don Steel Works, an early protest against the rationalisation of local industry that has subsequently decimated its industrial workforce. Caborn was a poor speaker and an even worse joke-teller, but the strength in numbers and solidarity of the local trade unions was impressive – and it won a significant reprieve for the River Don steel workers.

In this week’s New Statesman, Robert Taylor, formerly industrial relations journalist and now trade union researcher at the London School of Economics, recalls the traditions of Sheffield’s communist trade unionists. He quotes the view of labour historian Paul Allender that the communists were a force for moderation rather than militancy: ‘they enhanced the efficiency of companies by disciplining the workforce and by contributing a sense of pride in the job.’ Simpson told Taylor that ‘it was the industrial appeal of communism and not its political side that attracted me’. Given that Caborn’s ‘political side’ was expressed in his leading role in the Anglo-Bulgarian Friendship Society, this is understandable.

As I passed the Sheffield Communist Party’s HQ on my way to school in the 1960s I occasionally picked up a copy of Soviet Weekly, which offered impressive statistics on pig iron production and other achievements of the socialist world. Not surprisingly, it was the communist shop stewards’ commitment to well-organised trade unionism within a framework of collaboration with the employers that appealed to Sheffield workers, not their allegiance to socialist Bulgaria or the Soviet Union.

The division of the labour movement into its ‘industrial’ and ‘political’ sides in Sheffield took the form that the Communist Party controlled the unions and the Labour Party commanded the political sphere. As a result, the industrial strength of the working class was confined within the limits of trade union militancy, while Labour politicians – such as (Wednesdayite) Roy Hattersley – defined the political framework of labour movement loyalty to national and corporate prosperity.

As one local wag put it in the days when Hillsborough was Britain’s number two national stadium, ‘United We Stand – Wednesday We Sit Down’. If the communist trade unionists had strong views about the socialist bloc, they were remarkably silent about political issues closer to home, such as racism, women’s rights or the war in Ireland.

In the course of the 1970s it became clear that the narrow militancy of British trade unionism, and its acceptance of the political framework of Labourism (even with its peculiar Stalinist inflection), could not cope with the impact of economic recession and a capitalist offensive on jobs and living standards. This was the real significance of the much-vaunted ‘winter of discontent’ in 1978/79. After five years of a Labour government which had exploited labour movement loyalty to its counter-crisis strategy by imposing wage controls and public spending cuts, public sector anger
erupted in a series of strikes and protests.

But these were not so much an expression of union power challenging the government in pursuit of a different political strategy, as an expression of anger and frustration at the impact of the programme of the social contract (in which the Communist Party had been as complicit as the Labour Party). In the subsequent general election, a significant section of working-class voters deserted Labour and Tory Margaret Thatcher came to power as a result. The rest is history – a history of rearguard union resistance as unemployment mounted and manufacturing industry and its workforce disintegrated.

Radical trade union leaders – like Caborn and Simpson, and Arthur Scargill of the National Union of Miners – proved ineffectual defenders of their members. However loudly they proclaimed the rhetoric of militancy, their Labourist politics ensured that their cause was doomed. Unfortunately, it also provided an effective bulwark against political challenge from below. The ultimate beneficiaries of this process were the opportunist clique around New Labour which was able to assume control over a labour movement vanquished by Thatcherism. One of the ironies of this victory (one which Blair and his acolytes did nothing to achieve) is that numerous former communists (or their offspring) have taken their place in the Blair camp.

Sheffield’s proud traditions of physical force Chartism (Samuel Holberry), incendiary trade unionism (the Sheffield Outrages) and revolutionary communism (Jack Murphy) are now inherited, not only by humble Derek Simpson but by New Labour home secretary David Blunkett, the dour, authoritarian product of non-conformist religion and labourist politics.

What about the current revival of union militancy and the left? Whereas George Caborn had clear positions on both industrial and political matters, it is remarkably difficult to discover what Derek Simpson stands for. The main basis of his challenge to the old leadership was that he was more in touch with the mood of the rank and file, which is discontented.

Fair enough, but how does he propose that rank and file discontent should be remedied? No comment. On political matters, he is cryptically ‘not a Blairite, but not anti-Blair’. He is agnostic on the Euro, but keen on chess and collecting old comics (Rupert the Bear, The Eagle, Hotspur).

One of the widely celebrated ‘new breed’ of militant trade union leaders – railworkers’ leader Bob Crow, also a former communist and currently involved in London tube protests – is more forthcoming. He recently complained that a procession of businessmen, including rail company executives, had been received in Downing Street, but not the heads of the industry’s main union: ‘we deserve at least one meeting and a cup of tea’ was his strident challenge to the government.

Crow’s not-very-revolutionary demand clarifies the current spat between the union leaders and the Labour Party. They recognise that they are in a very weak position. They have fewer members and a much more remote relationship with them. Members are discontented with pay and conditions, particularly in public services, but have little confidence in their unions as a means of improving matters. (It is important to note that what are currently described as strikes are not really strikes at all, more token protests organised by union leaders to publicise their campaigns.)

Union chiefs have chosen a moment, when a general election is a few years away and the Labour Party has hit some financial difficulties and is thus more reliant than usual on union funds, to press their plea of more respect and recognition from the Labour leadership, which they hope will enhance their prestige with the rank and file.

The only political demand emerging from the union leaders is a plea for a retreat from privatisation in public services. No doubt, at a time when some privatisation measures – notably in public transport – have proved disastrous, there is some scope for negotiating the terms of further public-private partnerships. No doubt, too, Blair will drink some tea with union leaders and win back their funds in time for the next election.

When even transport workers official Jack Dromey, another veteran of the old left who is close to the New Labour clique, feels obliged to declare himself ‘a former Blairite’ for the purposes of the forthcoming election for general secretary, it is a sign that the Labour leadership needs to make some accommodations.

However, there is no prospect of a return to the nationalised industry and public sector bureaucracies in which the union barons of the past prospered (generally at the expense of their members).

As Simpson is to Caborn, so today’s ‘left’ union leaders are a mere shadow of the leaders of the past. Take Mark Serwotka, another veteran of the Sheffield scene and the so-called Trotskyist leader of the civil servants union, PCS. If it is difficult to establish the content of the term ‘left’ today, what it means to be a Trotskyist is even more obscure. It would be a surprise to the great Bolshevik leader to discover that his name now defined the union leaders’ campaign for a cup of tea at Downing Street. The only barricades Serwotka knows are the ones he wants to build in social security offices to protect his members from the wrath of claimants who are denied their benefits.

There will be no return to the days when Harold Wilson told the left-wing engineers leader Hugh Scanlon to ‘get his tanks off the lawn’ of Downing Street in the course of wage negotiations. The fact that Derek Simpson has no tanks to put on anybody’s lawn is, in no small part, due to the influence of George Caborn and the narrow militancy of a tradition that has now become a heritage product for today’s tired radicals.

We should look back without nostalgia and understand that a revival of the old left is neither possible nor desirable.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick is the author of MMR and Autism, Routledge, 2004 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and The Tyranny of Health: Doctors and the Regulation of Lifestyle, Routledge, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA). He is also a contributor to Alternative Medicine: Should We Swallow It? Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

When strikes were strikes, by Dave Hallsworth

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Topics Politics


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