Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader the day before Trades Union Congress gathered in Brighton electrified the annual gathering of shop stewards and general secretaries. Speeches on the most prosaic subjects were greeted with thunderous applause if they included a hat tip to the MP for Islington North. One militant general secretary took to the rostrum to anticipate strikes being enthusiastically supported from the opposition dispatch boxes. And, even the Trotskyite newspapers, whose vendors crowded around Congress’ entrance, struggled to contain their delight at the veteran leftist’s surprise triumph.
When the man himself arrived in Brighton to address Congress he was accorded not one, but three standing ovations.
Labour’s new leader is no orator. In other circumstances his performance might have provoked yawns. The wave of enthusiasm that had swept him to victory has been such that he could have read out his shopping list and still received a hero’s welcome. As it was, he talked about his own union background, praised the unrecognised potential of ordinary people “on whom the elite look on with contempt because of the way that they speak”. And committed himself to a discursive approach to writing Labour’s next manifesto: “if everyone is involved in policy making then everyone will feel ownership of those policies”.
Corbin concluded with and emphatic promise to the 700 delegates: “The Tories have declared war on organised Labour…but in 2020 we will be the winners”.
A delegate from the National Union of Teachers caught the mood when she told a fringe meeting that the spirit in the country was: “Like Stop The War, the miners strike and the Poll Tax all rolled in to one”. Even general secretaries whose unions long ago disaffiliated from the Labour party were keen to relate their long-time relationships with the Corbyn and his shadow chancellor.
Conviction that a momentous change is underway was not the only thing charging up the the industrial comrades, however. On Congress’ first full day, draconian new trades union laws received their second Parliamentary reading. This, quite rightly, was the subject of universal and furious condemnation. Len McCluskey from Unite was one of several general secretaries to openly contemplate defying repressive trades union laws. He drew parallels with US civil rights activists in the 1960s and those whose sexuality was once outlawed.
Matt Wrack, the firefighters general secretary told a fringe meeting that he and his president had been frustrated not to have been arrested at a recent demonstration that they had organised in defiance of public order laws. “What would happen if we organised a protest that got the entire General Council of the TUC arrested – that would show our members what we are up against”, he suggested.
His idea did not make the final order paper – so perhaps not all the general secretaries shared the views of the delegate who announced that in defence of her union she would “happily go to prison and lose her home”.
Recognising division at the TUC requires a tutored eye. Most differences are ironed out at the compositing stage. When no amount of redrafting satisfies everyone, then the General Council recommends composites to delegates – but warns them of their “concerns’ with aspects of the motion”. This year’s tussle had clearly been over the use of the phrase “organise generalised strike action to fight any attempts to criminalise trade unionists engaged in industrial action”. It appeared in a motion about the pending Trades Union Bill. The General Council was apparently keen to avoid anything containing echoes of 1926’s nine-day stoppage.
Supporting their case, RMT delegates reminded Congress and fringe meetings of their predecessor union’s track record opposing unjust laws. The Taff Vale judgement of 1901 was rehashed in some detail for the benefit of those not steeped in the movement’s history. It was a reminder of union activists’ fondness for evoking their own past, and in this debate proved sufficient to persuade delegates to back the RMT’s stance.
One event of the recent past was little mentioned in Brighton, however. Its only four months since a Labour leader who owed his job the trades union backing was convinced that he was on threshold of Downing Street. Instead the Tories won their first election for 22 years. The unexpected elevation of Ed Miliband’s successor appeared to have largely erased this painful episode from the minds of most of those who took to the rostrum.
Perhaps this will turn out to be a good thing? The pessimism that sometimes infuses trades union gatherings is not attractive. This moment of boundless optimism on the left might be just what is needed to project the movement anew to those generations of workers who, if they think of unions at all, picture relics from the era of black-and-white tv, little relevant to their own working lives.
If that happens, it will be quite an achievement for a man well past the age at which most unions campaign for workers to be allowed a peaceful retirement.
Pictures all © Tim Dawson – Jeremy Corbyn greets congress, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady presents the annual report, Congress in session, workers who have been in dispute during the previous year are honoured, former NUJ President Anita Halpin prepares a speech, Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey flashes a smile and House of Commons Speaker John Bercow explains that trades unions are vital defenders of human rights the world over.