Yesterday the Birmingham City Council chamber was packed with Trades Unionists from the former TGWU and Amicus wings of Unite, as it saw the launch of the united left platform within the new union. Representing the fusion of the TGWU Broad Left and the Amicus Unity Gazette, the new left will be a powerful body within the largest trade union in the UK.
The meeting itself was something of an odd affair, however it began with an excellent address from TGWU-Unite General Secretary Tony Woodley, who set out a stall calling for nationalisation to protect jobs, and reminding the assembled members of the importance of a strong, member-led union. We were then treated to a rather odd speech from Labour Left MP John McDonnell, who gave what appeared to be an update on the state of left politics in the UK in general, followed by a call to support the “People’s Charter” which he and others are involved in promoting. The meeting was chaired by the thoroughly affable and genuine Martin Mayer of the TGWU Broad Left, who then gave a possibly over-enthusiastic call for people to endorse the Charter “in principle and in spirit”. This would be all very well were it not for the fact that no-one in the room had seen the document, which as far as I understand it hasn’t even been finalised as yet. McDonnell helpfully gave us a run-down of roughly what would be in it, which appeared to satisfy the crowd. Two of the audience in particular (one of whom is known around this parish) spoke against endorsing a document which they hadn’t seen, yet such was the good will in room that it was endorsed anyway. Mr Denham rather appositely compared this to putting an amendment with a speech which doesn’t say what it is that you’re trying to amend, but there we are. Let’s hope the Charter reads as well as you think, John.
About halfway through Woodley’s speech we were joined by around 15-20 supporters of Derek Simpson, the Star Bird hogging, “British Jobs For British Workers” placard poser currently running for re-election to a 1-year lame duck term in a totally unnecessary ballot precipitated by ex-SWP member Jerry Hicks, who is a rank outsider candidate in the same election. The election has no “good” outcome that most observers can see – Simpson is a lame duck whether he wins or not, Hicks isn’t going to win, and the worst possible outcome is that right-winger Kevin Coyne is elected, giving him a head start over a politically better candidate (probably from the ex-TGWU Broad Left) for the unified general secretary’s post at the next full-term election. Quite what if anything the Simpson people hoped to accomplish is not clear, and indeed their interventions in the meeting did not appear particularly organised.
The meeting had a discussion about the aims and organising principles of the new left, which initially looked like it was about to descend into “can we amend it to replace ‘if’ with ‘but’ in line 444” type nitpicking. However this was cut short by a female delegate pointing out that this really wasn’t the time for such wrangling, and that there would be ample opportunity to debate this out at a later stage. With the exception of one north-western supporter of Simpson saying that he wouldn’t be able to support the documents because he hadn’t had enough opportunity for member consultation (which rather raises the question of why not, given that the documents have been circulating for months), both statements were passed by acclamation. We then all wandered out, TGWU members being slightly perplexed by Simpson and Hicks leafletters glowering at each other across the entrance. The prize for crap slogan of the day goes to the Simpson guy who I am reliably assured regaled one group of departing TGWU members to vote for Simpson (which they couldn’t even in the unlikely event that they wanted to) in order to stop the “loony left”. Perfect pitch for the launch meeting of a union left bloc, not. You provided us with a chuckle in the pub anyway, comrade.
Overall, the meeting went very well and could have been a lot less cordial than it was. However it was unfortunate in my view that a union whose members have been involved in most of the sharp-end industrial relations issues in this country over the past few months, chose to platform only Woodley and McDonnell. Where were the victorious strikers from Lindsay, the sacked workers from Cowley, or the occupiers from Waterford Crystal? It seems to me that a trick was missed there.
Either way, we will see how things progress. The foundation of this new left is an accomplishment in itself, particularly given the balkanised and fractious histories of the lefts in both unions. Let us hope it gives us a platform from which we can continue to rebuild a grass-roots, socialist labour movement in the UK: if ever the protection of that movement were needed, it is now.