One doesn’t have to be Mystic Meg to have predicted in advance how Ed Balls was going to go down at the TUC today. Plenty of Tory-bashing comments that win support and applause, but when the nitty-gritty of the policies he is proposing are properly discussed he is given a far harder time. The Guardian today reports he was booed and heckled when it became clear that he wouldn’t support an ending of the pay freeze and the renationalisation of the railways.
Nobody can claim to be surprised at his views though. It isn’t as if he was saying anything that he hasn’t said many, many times before. It all seemed a little choreographed.
I would make a couple of observations though.
Firstly, these words from Balls go to the heart of where the Labour leadership is going wrong at the moment:
“Jobs have to come first and I think that is the right choice at the moment…….We cannot say that the first priority is more pay for existing workers when hundreds of thousands of workers are losing their jobs”
Balls is presenting this as a binary choice, and also a rather crude guilt trip to the unions. Either we pay more or have to sack more. Pay increases that at least keep pace with inflation are irresponsible, apparently.
Essentially he is allowing Labour policy to be decided by the Tory economic strategy and budgetary constraints. I’m sure he will say that it is electorally necessary, but considering that he simultaneously points out those same Tory plans are doing huge damage, I’m not sure how he can square that particular circle. If the Tories plans aren’t working, why is he pledging to stick to them? It is the Tory cuts and policies that he cannot even bring himself to repudiate (even now when the pro-austerity consensus has fallen apart as quickly as some of us thought it would) that have got us in this mess. Why would the same plans produce a different outcome under a Labour government? If he has nothing different to offer then what possible point is there in voting Labour?
I think this comes back to a piece I wrote the other day. Balls and Miliband are trapped by ideology and the Blairite methodology (however much they might recoil at the idea if they were confronted with it). By refusing to commit to reverse Tory cuts or bringing public utilities into public ownership, Labour (however much the mood music may have changed) are still playing the game New Labour played in 1997.
I’m sure Ed Balls won’t be remotely fazed by the negative reaction, sadly. In fact quite the opposite. It is still a preoccupation of Labour leadership’s that they define themselves against the unions. A test of virility to appear ‘hard’. A row with the unions plays well in the press and amongst the public, apparently. It establishes the party’s ‘maturity’ and ‘credibility to govern’ and make ‘tough choices’. Balls (and I’m still inclined to think he has basically good intentions) is constrained by the ideas that have predominated in the Labour Party for a generation or more.
On the other hand the angry reaction from the unions was perfectly justified but still strangely disenchanting. The bureaucracy are, to a degree, also playing the Blairite game. It’s also very well complaining that Miliband and Balls are not representing trade union interests and advocating trade union policies, but last time I checked the unions have some power over the party. Maybe it’s time they starting exerting that power a little more aggressively. So why don’t they?
The radical socialist rhetoric all seems a little hollow when you look at the way that the union bureaucracy actually behaves.
As Shiraz Socialist absolutely correctly point out, the correct response is not cheap sloganizing, which is what some of the union leaderships are doing right now, presumably in an attempt to keep a lid on the anger that is building up. We are not in a period when demands like a general strike are serious ones.
The response needs to be very different both from the Labour Party and labour movement. The Labour leadership need to show a little more ambition and backbone in what are in some ways quite propitious circumstances for the left, and the unions need to turn their rhetoric into practice. And right now practice means tasks a little more basic and credible (i.e. flexing their muscles inside the Labour Party structures and doing a better job of looking after their members interests, something that doesn’t involve selling them cheap car insurance last time I checked……) than passing resolutions advocating the kind of strike action that we all know will never actually see the light of day.