Tony Woodley: Latest member of the 'awkward squad' is bad news for Blair

The Monday Interview: Deputy Secretary, Transport and General Workers' Union

Barrie Clement,Labour Editor
Sunday 18 September 2011 00:50

Tony Blair is enduring his worst nightmare as leader of the Labour Party.

Tony Blair is enduring his worst nightmare as leader of the Labour Party.

First the Prime Minister had to adjust to the shock that the former Communist Derek Simpson had been elected joint leader of the party's largest affiliate Amicus in preference to Sir Ken Jackson, his most cherished trade union ally.

Then at the weekend Downing Street's favoured candidate to succeed Bill Morris as leader of the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU) was beaten by the left-winger Tony Woodley, whose backers - from Trotskyist to traditionalist Labour - were united by their suspicion of Mr Blair.

Having defeated Jack Dromey, husband of Harriet Harman, the Solicitor General, Mr Woodley will now take his place among a burgeoning cabal of radicals - "the awkward squad" - who are expected, at his invitation, to organise a council of war to take on New Labour.

They include Bob Crow of the RMT rail union, Mick Rix of the train drivers' union Aslef and Billy Hayes of the Communication Workers Union. All will be keen to have a go at the Government over the next five weeks of the conference season.

In common with his comrades in the awkward squad, Mr Woodley lives in a parallel universe to Mr Blair. Where the Prime Minister wanted to go to war with Iraq, Mr Woodley did not; where Downing Street believes that the private sector should take an increasing role in the delivery of public services, Mr Woodley is deeply opposed to the idea. While the Prime Minister argues that the national minimum wage is adequate at £4.20 an hour, Mr Woodley believes that it constitutes "poverty pay".

Mr Woodley is also unimpressed by Mr Blair's boast that Britain's employment protection legislation is the least comprehensive in Europe.

"A priority for stronger unions in the workplace must be a repeal of the anti-union laws," Mr Woodley said. "This is not a matter of political theology. While these laws remain in place, we often find ourselves trying to fight with one hand tied behind our back.

"No other country outlaws solidarity action, places so many obstacles in the way of lawful industrial action, or makes trade union recognition almost a privilege instead of a right."

British employment laws made it easier and cheaper to sack workers than on the Continent, he said. "I will campaign to stop the scandal of British workers being the canon fodder of Europe."

Mr Woodley told The Independent: "We had a situation last week where one company sent out redundancy notices by text message. Is this the way we treat people in an allegedly civilised country in western Europe? We see employers waltzing away from their commitments while the Government sits back and does next to nothing."

On the euro there is more disappointment in store for the Prime Minister. Mr Woodley is "very cautious" on the issue, in the same way as the TGWU general secretary. While the newly elected leader accepts that life outside euroland may be difficult for manufacturers and therefore for their employees, he also believes there may be more fundamental issues to be taken into account. "There must be a serious assessment of the impact on jobs of remaining outside the euro, but there must also be an analysis of the political issues involved," he said. But he believes that, as far as the TGWU is concerned, the decision should lie with activists at the biennial conference.

There are signs that Mr Woodley's idealism is tempered with pragmatism. He was instrumental in protecting car manufacturing at the Longbridge plant after BMW sought to pull out. When all seemed lost he rang John Towers, a former Rover chief executive, and urged him to help. Mr Towers - with the help of the Government - drew up a package to save the complex.

But Mr Woodley is no pushover when it comes to the blood and guts of industrial negotiation. He opposes "concession bargaining" - the practice of lowering workers' benefits where employers unconvincingly plead poverty.

And he is deeply sceptical of the kind of "social partnership" espoused on the Continent and promoted by the leadership of the Trades Union Congress.

"I have no problem at all in working constructively with employers who treat their workers with respect and their trade unions with honesty," he said. "But we have seen too little of both in recent times. Social partnership is not working for our members."

Mr Woodley wants the electorate to be aware that unions such as the TGWU still form the biggest single source of Labour Party income and that they still command half the votes at policy-making conferences. He is also wont to remind his Labour critics that unions established the party in 1900.

He is convinced his win will send a strong message to the Government. " My election means that people are looking for a change ... in their unions and in their Government," he said. "They feel badly let down. The recent local elections showed as much. In Scotland every party except Labour gained ground. In Wales the party made progress precisely because they disassociated themselves from New Labour.

"The message for Tony Blair is stop trying to please everybody. Remember where your grassroots support comes from. Starting acting in the interests of working people."

He said the Government should start listening to the priorities of Labour-voters such as jobs, "decent pay", good working conditions and pensions.

"We have seen situations where employers have raped and pillaged pension scheme surpluses, leaving people with poverty pensions. Employers have not been prepared to put their hands in their pockets to give their employees a decent retirement and the law allows them to get away with it."

He said he intended to take his message "to the heart of government". Even though Downing Street will argue that the 20 per cent turnout in the TGWU election is more suggestive of apathy than militancy, Mr Woodley's message will send a collective shiver down the spines of Downing Street.

Mr Woodley's background is far removed from that of the privately educated doctor's son who now inhabits No 10. A working-class boy, Mr Woodley went to sea when he was 15 before securing a job four years later in the Vauxhall plant at Ellesmere Port. He became a district and then national official of the union before becoming deputy to the general secretary, Bill Morris.

He is determined that when he finally assumes the top post in October he will try to "make a difference". He wants the unions in general and the TGWU in particular to secure more power to influence Labour policies.

"I am most certainly not in favour of breaking the link with the party," he said. "I will have no truck with what I believe is a right -wing agenda. I want to take Labour back into the party.

"I hope to promote a more proactive agenda so that the Government adopts more worker friendly policies. This Government has got nothing to fear from the TGWU and its new leader, but they shouldn't take our loyalty and support for granted. If the Government does not act in the interests of working people, we will."

Mr Woodley hopes his council of war with other like-minded trade unionists will produce a united front against New Labour. If that is not possible he may then resort to "Plan B" which would involve withdrawal of financial support from constituencies where Labour MPs are opposed to TGWU policies or a reduction in contributions to the party's national coffers.

Mr Woodley also intends to "take the union back to the members". Under the stewardship of Mr Morris the TGWU has closed down many of its local offices; partly because of the closure of factories and partly to save money.

The general secretary-elect intends to reverse the process so that the union once more has numerous "shop fronts" from which to recruit new members. The TGWU membership has declined over the last 10 years from more than a million to the present 850,000 - although considerably fewer are fully paid-up members. "The only viable programme for the future of the union is one rooted in and nourished by our traditions and the finest achievements of our past," Mr Woodley said.

The one consolation for New Labour is that the election of left-wing general secretaries may hasten the collapse of the party's federal structure and usher in state funding. The Blairites would no longer have to sit through conferences with people like Mr Woodley lecturing them on socialism.

The CV

  • Tony Woodley, born 2 January 1948, Wallasey, the Wirral.
  • Educated at junior and secondary schools, the Wirral.
  • 1963 Went to sea as a 15-year-old with the Ocean Steam Ship Company.
  • 1967 Joined Vauxhall Motors' Ellesmere Port factory.
  • 1980 Elected union convenor for the plant.
  • 1989 Appointed full-time district official of the Transport and General Workers' Union (T&G).
  • 1991 Appointed national officer of the union
  • 2002 Elected deputy general secretary of the T&G.

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