Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Promises, Promises: Return to Principle Labour!

Industry and its employees are paying the price for a crisis brought on by the bankers. A loan to save 900 skilled workers from the dole cost a mere £4m, a single banker’s bonus! If taxpayers’ money can be used to bail out the banks, it should also be available to help vital industries. Yet the government persists in enforcing its old dogmas, as if nothing had changed.

Why try to force people who are ill or disabled or workshy and old people over 65 to work when there is not enough work for those who are able bodied and want to work? If there is not enough work for everyone, why not reduce the working week? If there is not enough work to go round, why did Labour help fix 48 hours as the minimum working week by refusing any amendment to the Brussels Working Time Directive. In doing this, the Labour government ignored its own party conference and the policy of both the trades unions democratically and publicly agreed through the TUC. It also defied the stance of most Labour and Socialist members of the European Parliament in an earlier vote in Strasbourg.

The Labour Party was founded by the trades union movement, and reduction in working hours was the aim of the first trades unions. Long hours and abject working conditions meant an early death for working people, including children. Strike pay was the only benefit that the first union offered, and reducing the hours of labour was, “the whole aim and intention of the union”, Will Thorne said. The eight hour day became a basic principle of trades unionism. The primary cause of trades unionism was not higher wages but shorter hours.

The first victory of British trades unionism was at the Beckton Gas Works in London’s East End—the replacement of a twelve hour day by eight hour shifts with no loss of pay. Since then the struggle to humanize work and change the economy has been long and arduous. For a century, the trades unions won significant reductions in hours through their struggles and sacrifices. By the seventies, the demand was for a 35 hour week. But the subsequent victory of the Thatcherite Tories and Blair’s Thatcherite New Labour—just when people thought they were voting for the rejection of Thatcherism—paved the way for the working week to rise from the 1980s onwards.

If the first British trades unionists knew shorter hours helped in the struggle against unemployment, the sons and daughters of clergymen, pseudes and shopkeepers constituting Blair’s and now Brown’s New Labour party simply do not get it still. Its decision to stick with a 48 hour week is a goad to all those who think the UK Labour government’s neoconservative, nineteenth century policies need to be fought with a campaign to reduce working hours in the face of rising unemployment.

Their slogan should be, “Shorter hours for better life”. Long hours preclude a good quality of life, cut down family time, erode away leisure time. And long hours of work are a health and safety issue. Health and safety at work should not be left up to arbitrary local negotiations between trade unions and employers, any more than burglary should be left up to the burgled and the burglar, to use Richard Leonard’s words. Both are matters of public interest, and so are a government responsibility in a civilized democratic society.

Paying workers dole money because they have no work at all for months or years makes no sense. What is required are loans for businesses that cut the working hours of their staff to avoid short time working, or going to the wall. Industry needs money, so credit from the banks has to be forced, if banks are determined to stay divorced from their prime purpose. Their prime purpose is not to devise pyramid selling schemes that allow dealers to get rich quick through the bonuses they pay each other. It is to lend deposited money at modest interest to entrepreneurs.

The nation has put cash into the banks to save them from their own folly. It is time to see it coming out again, in loans to industry. Workers are footing the bill for bankers’ blunders, but the money extracted from ordinary people’s pay should not be a long time commitment. The banks must be made to pay back what they have so far been given apparently unconditionally. They can only do it without stimulating an identical crisis, by returning to prudent business methods.

Too many Labour ministers have no knowledge or interest in the history of the party they represent. They are ignorant of any of the principles that motivated the party, and have opted instead for self gratification, and ingratiating themselves with US plutocrats and Russian oligarchs. They have forgotten that they were elected to serve working people, those who create wealth, not those who own the means of doing it, and certainly not themselves for personal gain.

Labour must return to principles, but since it lost all pretence of democracy in the Blair years, it has to be doggedly pushed and even threatened by the unions, which now represent not only blue collar workers but large numbers of middle class white collar workers, technicians, teachers and civil servants. This great trades union Leviathan has to get rolling again. It means members have to snap out of the lethargy induced by the borrowing boom of the Blair years. It was not a golden age but a tinsel age. Like Blair himself, it was all false.

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