THE attention of Labour — not just the party but the entire labour movement — is focused on the question of the party’s leadership.
This will be the case for the next few weeks even though there is a host of pressing problems and contentious issues which are the stuff of daily working-class politics.
The report that detailed the partisan pursuit by the police of the small but rather effective union that represents private-hire drivers serves to remind us that the law is heavily stacked against workers.
In this case the union organiser faced an unjustified charge which resulted in a court appearance following which the union was doubly disadvantaged by a legal bill that, if it is not explicitly designed to discourage effective trade union activity, certainly functions as such.
Funding a court case is never a problem for employers. It is always a disproportionate expense for unions.
It is worth reminding ourselves that the legal framework of immunities which for the last century framed the legal context in which trade unions functioned came about because a vindictive employer secured a crippling fine against the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants — now RMT — and sparked a powerful demand for trade unions to be able to function effectively.
The illusion that the law stands above class conflict is undermined by every instance in which it is deployed in the service of employers and the employing class.
But it has a remarkable persistence, especially in parliamentary Labour circles.
The New Labour years came about after a period in which the Thatcherite assault on workers’ rights was answered by repeated demands by trade unions and the TUC — and backed by aspiring Labour politicians — that these anti-union laws be repealed.
A good part of the disillusion with the Blair and Brown governments was down to the failure to carry through on these undertakings.
A full commitment to change the balance of power between workers and employers entails not just a repeal of these laws but requires — as the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom and the Institute of Employment Rights have argued — a broader government approach with sympathetic ministerial oversight of the entire framework of employment.
With a Tory government, for the moment that is not a runner.
But if the Conservative Party thinks that its majority — secured on a fairly narrow victory in terms of the number of votes cast — insulates them against political pressure they are mistaken.
Even if Johnson’s government is compelled by electoral logic to row back a bit on its instinct for austerity it will nevertheless be confronted with an instinctively unruly opposition movement of people in every locality who have stored up an inexhaustible list of things that need doing, doing soon and doing at some expense.
Local government underfunding, the schools crisis, the housing emergency, the mounting problems in the health service, the problem of unemployment and especially prospects for the young offer the prospect of innumerable flash-points.
In this context, the popular movement for a real change needs to find a route to exercising real power.
Renewing the challenge that has over the past few years been organised mostly through the People’s Assembly Against Austerity must be central to this and this needs to be expressed not only at national level through mass demonstrations but in thousands of ways locally.
And an active alliance with the unions needs to go beyond support at national level to make the movement a decisive force in the localities.
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