Where will the Brown bounce land?

Issue: 116

Gordon Brown has got his honeymoon with the voters—or at least with enough of them for him to consider calling an early general election. He has not changed a single one of Tony Blair’s major policies. But the disappearance of some of the most unpopular ministerial faces has been enough to boost his poll ratings. Labour was able to defeat the Tories and the Liberal Democrats in the Southall parliamentary by-election in July, and also marginalise the vote for Respect.

There are sections of the left who were thoroughly disillusioned with Blair but who, having learnt little and remembering less, are still prepared to invest some of their hopes in Brown. The leaders of most of the biggest unions continue to pour money into New Labour’s election coffers, despite their grumbling over Brown’s insulting lecture to them at the TUC—described by Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of the biggest union, Unite, as the worst speech from a Labour leader for many years.

But the reaction to Brown’s speech shows he is far from overcoming all the obstacles to polishing up New Labour’s image, especially when it comes to the hundreds of thousands of activists who hold the working class movement together and who regard themselves in some way as socialist.

On top of the old obstacle of the war, there is now the new one of public sector pay. This issue jumped into the headlines with the sudden walkout of prison officers on 29 August. More than 90 percent struck in clear defiance of the anti-union laws—and, despite government threats, did so with impunity. But they were not the first to take action. Civil service workers in the PCS union have held two one-day strikes so far this year and are likely to hold two more over pay and other issues. The postal workers’ CWU followed up its national one-day strike with a series of rolling strikes, designed to close down much of the postal system. Two more 48_hour strikes were called as we went to press. A strike ballot has been called among 800,000 local government workers. Teachers are considering a strike ballot. Altogether around two million public sector workers have claims that clash with what New Labour is prepared to offer. No wonder even the most moderate union leaders acceded to the pressure to vote for a resolution at the TUC calling for united action across the unions—although many will no doubt be doing their utmost to avoid translating words into deeds.

Holding back public sector pay is a central issue for Brown. As we showed in our previous issue, New Labour’s strategy, as developed by Brown, depends on presenting Britain as a safe haven for international finance—a sort of glorified Switzerland. One element of this was giving the Bank of England control over interest rates and, effectively, the power to impose limits on government policy. Keeping within those limits in turn depends on restraining public expenditure, and on low levels of taxation for corporations and the rich. It is a balancing act that can no longer work unless public sector pay rises are held below inflation (average public sector pay increased by 2.9 percent over the past year, the Retail Price Index by 4.1 percent). This is something that no government has succeeded in achieving for 30 years.

There has been a long history of public sector pay norms in Britain, with repeated attempts to impose them under the Macmillan, Wilson, Heath, Callaghan and early Thatcher governments. The conclusion arrived at by ardent supporters of capitalism was that they could be effective for a year or two, but eventually led to a build up of resentment that tore them apart. This was one of the factors that led to adoption of various forms of monetarism under Margaret Thatcher. It was judged better to weaken workers’ organisations with high levels of unemployment and laws that made industrial action difficult than to provide them with a single focus for discontent. The last attempt at imposing a public sector wage norm, under the Major government in 1992-3, fell apart as the government retreated after only a few months.

It is a sign of the problems Brown faces on the economic front that he has been forced to pick up a long discarded weapon.

That does not necessarily rule out short term successes for Brown. He is betting on the union leaders not turning rhetoric into action. He knows that most see themselves as negotiating partners of capitalism rather than its enemies, ready if necessary to sacrifice their members’ conditions for the stability of their own bureaucratic career structures. He is at least dimly aware than even among the minority who retain some commitment to class struggle most have little faith in the capacity of organised workers to win.

Hence his belief that he can hold the line if below_inflation offers are slightly repackaged to give more to the lower paid grades. He managed to persuade leaders of the Unison union not to oppose such a repackaging of the offer to health workers, and has used the same tactic among council workers, offering a 3.4 percent pay rise to the poorest paid (still less than inflation) with 2.475 percent for the rest. These are examples of the more general “social liberal” strategy of redistribution of income to the poor from the slightly less poor, as opposed to redistribution from the rich. He will also undoubtedly use the prospect of an election to try to browbeat the TUC leaders into conceding his agenda.

He is likely to get some shocks, even if the TUC leaders squirm their way out of the united response they voted for. The older generation of workers may still remember the defeats of the 1980s and often lack the confidence to fight without an official say-so. But these are not even distant memories for workers under 30. And everywhere there are deep rooted resentments. On pay the mega salaries of the company bosses intensify class feeling among many workers, and even among those layers of white collar workers who still regard themselves as middle class there is a feeling that they are missing out on something. You cannot have a society in which the top 10 percent have soared upwards in the past ten years without a healthy “politics of envy” among those who have witnessed their conspicuous consumption.

Pay is not, of course, the only basis for resentment among the mass of people who have to drag themselves to work each day. Managerial bullying, the pressure to do unpaid overtime, the stress of having to balance work and childcare, the erosion of lunch breaks and tea breaks, the endless upping of workloads, the apparently irresistible demands to service the 24/7 economy—all these add to the deep sense of dissatisfaction in workplaces. Pay can act as a unifying focus for all these other grievances, and struggles over it provide a class-based outlet for deep accumulations of discontent. In every workplace there are already workers who have been radicalised against New Labour by the anti-war movement. This autumn and winter could see the return of the picket line—and of the growth of class consciousness it expresses. What is a new problem for New Labour will also provide a new audience for its socialist opponents.