Sometimes an individual rises to the top of a large organisation because they are the only person so equally disdained by all the personal cliques and ideological factions that they emerge as the compromise candidate writes Tom Smith. Once in power, they stay there by a mix of patronage and coercion. John Biggs, the executive mayor of Tower Hamlets, is in that mould.
The Labour council which he leads has sacked and re-employed two thirds of its workforce, re-employing them on worse terms in the teeth of two three-day strikes organised by UNISON. This is after the council’s chief executive repeatedly threatened trade unionists that he would take them to court to stop their strike ballot and the head of human resources told strikers they would lose their entitlement to continuous service if they walked out. This would have a huge impact on their pensions.
Workers have taken the action to prevent the council slashing severance pay by 80%, cutting travel allowances, worsening the flexi-work scheme and the range of usual attacks that Biggs would describe as “modernising” conditions.
Tower Hamlets UNISON say only 30% of workers have voluntarily signed the new contract.
The strikes have been well-supported with large, lively picket lines every day and well attended online rallies at which Diane Abbott, Richard Burgon, Shami Chakrabarti, Nadia Whittome and one of the two local Labour MPs, Apsana Begum, have spoken. She has also been on picket lines.
Eleven local Labour councillors have signed an open letter supporting the strikers, saying:
“As Labour councillors, we believe in the right of workers, particularly workers so vital to our borough, to determine the terms and conditions of their work through collective agreement. In a borough with such high levels of poverty and inequality we think most local residents will agree.”
It’s unclear if the other thirty-two share that point of view. Certainly, none of them have been spotted on the picket line unlike the Liberal Democrat Rabina Khan who is likely to pose a strong challenge to Labour in the 2022 mayoral election.
Grotesque chaos of a Labour council
Way back in 1985 Labour leader Neil Kinnock told conference that “you can’t play politics with people’s jobs and with people’s services or with their homes”. He denounced the “grotesque chaos” of a Labour council making workers redundant.
On the very day Tower Hamlets UNISON members were on their fourth day of striking Keir Starmer asked Boris Johnson “Will the prime minister now personally intervene and make clear that actions like those at BA cannot be allowed to stand without consequences for landing slots?”
British Airways had done pretty much the same thing as Tower Hamlets council. Starmer hasn’t yet commented publicly on that.
The strike is illuminating the massive divisions in Labour over something as basic as defending jobs, conditions and services. The party’s right is willing to take extreme measures to force through cuts, confident that the majority of the centre will acquiesce and shut up, waiting for all the fuss to die down.
If this dispute had happened before the Corbyn leadership neither of the local MPs would have appeared on a picket line. The strike organisers would have struggled to get more than a few MPs to speak at the rallies. Barely a handful of councillors would have signed a statement in support of the workers.
Even with the defeat for the left that the Starmer leadership represents, it’s obvious that there is a strong kernel of class struggle activists in Labour who are willing to challenge the right. These are the people who will help lead the fight against the wave of austerity that Sunak is hinting is on the way. As Abbott and Chakrabarti pointed out, Labour is supposed to be the political voice of trade unionists and working people. But for this to happen there has to be a constant fight against Labour politicians who use Tory methods.
The Labour left has to start thinking about the internal battles that will be happening as the next wave of councillor and mayoral candidate selections looms for 2022 in parts of England. In practice this means identifying credible challengers to those Labour politicians in local government who are engaging in class war against their own employees. This will require developing both a body of ideas and networks of people ready to take on this challenge.
The Tower Hamlets strikers remain defiant and well organised. Their action is a reminder to class struggle socialists in Labour that we have be willing to have hard fights with a right wing that has the wind in its sails. A new generation of radical left MPs and councillors is showing what it is made of and the Tower Hamlets strike has been its first test.