Saturday 29 September 2012

Small victories raise confidence

– but what about the Labour Party?

It’s good to turn on your mobile to find that your overnight voicemail message is not the usual desperate cry for help from another bullied or harassed teacher but a shriek of joy from a school NUT rep who has just achieved a victory!

This morning’s triumphant message was from a Lewisham school rep who had just read my email confirming that their ‘action short of strike action’ had achieved a small but significant victory from the very start of the new campaign.

I had informed the Head that on Wednesday, the first day of the action, NUT members would be refusing to attend that day’s staff meeting, as it would be teachers’ second meeting of the week – outside Union guidelines. Her response – the meeting has now been cancelled !

That’s just one example of the small battles that are being won as reps and school groups meet to confirm the action they will be taking. These successes will lift confidence to build for the bigger national strike action that urgently needs to follow.

But the question that dominated the two largest meetings that I attended last week was “what about the Labour Party”.

Yesterday, I was asked to speak to a group of over 100 Danish teachers visiting London from a further education institution taking all their staff away together for a study tour. What a contrast from the meagre ‘how-we-meet-this-year’s-imposed-targets’ training days most teachers in England have to endure! Indeed, it was a sobering experience having to explain to these colleagues quite how bad our education system had become.

But the most revealing question asked by a Danish colleague was “what do you think of the Labour Party – do you think they will make any difference?” The doubtful tone of his voice, and the discussion that followed, showed only too clearly that it isn’t only in Britain where teachers are crying out for a genuine political alternative that will stand up against cuts and privatisation. Many shared exactly the same doubts and disappointments with their equivalent parties in Denmark as many NUT members do with Twigg and New Labour.

Earlier that week, the same debate had taken place in Lewisham Town Hall’s Council Chamber. This certainly didn’t include any councillors – who had all stayed away that night – but was part of a discussion amongst trade unionists at a public meeting called by Lewisham Trades Council to build for the TUC demonstration on October 20th.

The discussion around building for strike action was led by Mark Serwotka, PCS General Secretary, and there was overwhelming support for his call to build co-ordinated national strike action to oppose austerity.

However, the contribution from left-wing writer Owen Jones raised more disagreements. Owen spoke well about the need to reverse Tory cuts but then explained how he was working with a pressure group ‘CLASS’ to widen the debate within the Labour Party as to the way forward. As an article in this week’s Socialist (which Owen took away with him to read! ) points out, some involved in CLASS certainly have no commitment to socialist ideas nor even to genuinely reclaiming the Labour Party as a force to support workers’ struggles.

There’s nothing wrong with having that debate within Labour but surely Owen’s energies would be far better used campaigning for a genuine workers’ voice rather than in a wasted attempt to try and rescue a New Labour party that has long since cut itself off from its past.

As I pointed out to Owen, the lack of a real alternative is sapping workers’ confidence when they are considering taking strike action against cuts. Many wonder how much would be achieved by defeating this Government if a New Labour administration would then carry on with exactly the same attacks. (In case any more evidence was needed, Ed Balls made another pro-cuts announcement in today's Telegraph: ).

Of course, a Government elected on the back of a determined campaign of trade union action would be under enormous pressure to change course from the present pro-cuts consensus. But, unlike SYRIZA in Greece, there are no significant forces within New Labour who are calling for real opposition to neo-liberal austerity.

Owen has correctly called for Labour Councils to start to stand up against the cuts but, with a tiny handful of honourable exceptions, Labour councillors and MPs show no sign of waging that fight. When they do, as in Southampton, they are disciplined! But I pointed out to Owen that Socialist Party councillors like Ian Page and Chris Flood had led exactly those kind of battles – against Labour cuts – from the seats we were sitting on in the Lewisham Council Chamber. Electing fighting trade unionists and socialists like that will put more pressure on New Labour than any pressure group like CLASS will ever do.

Of course, some in the meeting did not agree with me – but many did. Owen has accepted an invitation to continue this debate at the Socialist party’s weekend of discussion, Socialism 2012, in London on November 3-4. I’m looking forward to carrying on the debate! See:

For an interview I gave to 'the Socialist' on similar issues, please have a look on:

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