THE REPERCUSSIONS of the RMT’s potentially historic decision were downplayed by New Labour spin doctors. But last week’s events show clearly how far the disenchantment and anger of ordinary workers towards New Labour have stretched the unions’ tolerance closer to breaking point.
THE INCREASING strains between the unions and Blair’s party are showing. Last week, rail union RMT conference decided to further cut its ties with New Labour – by slashing its level of affiliation and opening the way for the union to support other parties like the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) in Scotland. This was combined with a robust attack on New Labour by incoming TGWU general secretary Tony Woodley, saying the days of New Labour were numbered. KEN SMITH, who was at RMT conference, discusses what stage the relationship between the trade unions and the Labour Party is at.
Making the break with Labour
Whilst Tony Woodley pleaded with union members to remain loyal to Labour and not walk away, he gave them precious little incentive to stay in the party and fight. He railed against the growing wealth gap, increasing privatisation and the continuation of repressive anti-union laws while New Labour increasingly represents the interests of big business.
Rank and file pressure
The question is now posed, even where union leaders are arguing to fight to reclaim the Labour Party, how long are ordinary union members going to be persuaded to stick around in what their leaders call a "bosses’ party"?
Judging by the comments of many delegates at this year’s union conferences, not very long at all. All union leaders have had to put on a Left face to get conference delegates to accept continued support for Labour.
A number of unions have been forced, through pressure from below, to cut their affiliation to Labour. Tony Woodley is supposed to be sympathetic to the idea that the TGWU cuts its funding.
The idea that the unions can influence the Labour Party through their affiliation no longer holds water. Bob Crow, at the RMT conference, argued that those who said affiliation would bring influence should look at UNISON, which despite being Labour’s second biggest affiliate, has had little influence in stopping the introduction of foundation hospitals. And, he argued, the increased affiliation of the Communication Workers’ Union had not stopped the proposed scrapping of mail trains.
He added: "What’s the difference between John Major with a blue rosette privatising you and Tony Blair with a red rosette privatising you?"
He outlined how New Labour had outdone the Tories in privatisation and carrying through anti-working class measures. He advocated the RMT’s affiliation to the SSP, as a viable alternative to represent working people.
Nevertheless, his punch was pulled when it came to making a decisive break from New Labour. The resolution on the funding of political parties from the union’s executive, institutionalised its affiliation to New Labour for the next three years. The rule change inserts in the union’s national rule book for the first time, that the union shall affiliate to Labour.
Until now, although there have been rules which instruct local RMT branches to affiliate to local Labour parties, the union’s national affiliation has only been a matter of custom and practice. The new rule was inserted because the resolution at last year’s conference, which led to this year’s rule change, did not mention disaffiliation and instead asked the union to clarify its position in relation to the Labour Party and supporting other parties.
The new rule means that actual disaffiliation cannot formally take place for three years, although resolutions could come to next year’s conference instructing the union to start the process of disaffiliation, or further reducing the number of members the union affiliates to a derisory handful.
But, before then the issue may be decided in other ways. Bob Crow spoke from the platform at a SSP fringe meeting during the conference. He made an even more explicit commitment that he will visit all the RMT branches in Scotland and campaign for them to affiliate to the SSP by 1 January 2004.
At the same time, the union has agreed to financially support Ken Livingstone in the London mayoral elections next year and the independent socialist Welsh Assembly member John Marek in Wales. Also, the union is committed to exploring links with the Greens and Plaid Cymru, the nationalist party in Wales.
Left activists in the union think this will force Labour to expel the union. New Labour has so far seemed hesitant to do this – partly because no mechanism exists in the national party rules to carry out a union’s expulsion for supporting another party. But that may change.
Labour’s general secretary David Triessman, has said that the RMT has put itself outside of the party rules but so far has not explicitly said which rule the union has broken. Labour Party chairman Ian McCartney said: "The ball is very much in the RMT’s court."
The mood of the majority of delegates who spoke at the conference was to go further than the leadership recommended and actually make a clear break through disaffiliation. And delegates reluctantly accepted institutionalising the Labour Party affiliation.
Decisive break needed
Whilst the RMT’s intention is to make a break from Labour, it has been done in a muddled way, which some of the RMT’s leaders may find difficulty in explaining to union members throughout Britain.
In Scotland, Bob Crow’s commitment to visit every RMT branch to explain why they should affiliate to the SSP, will help. It is not a foregone conclusion that all branches in Scotland will affiliate.
Also, the conference debate saw many delegates argue the urgent need to build the framework of a new party to represent working people in England and Wales. Bob Crow accepted at the conference that whilst there was not yet a viable alternative in England and Wales, "sooner or later you had to put your toe in the water."
At present, RMT leaders are committed to exploring and possibly supporting other candidates – in both Scotland and England and Wales. The union is likely to support George Galloway if he is expelled from Labour and stands as an independent.
The way is also open, if RMT branches request it from the union’s executive, to support other credible candidates: Socialist Party councillor Dave Nellist in Coventry is one example.
New workers’ party
But the big question – hinted at in the conference debate but unfortunately left unanswered – was what can be done to begin the creation of a new mass workers’ party in England and Wales?
As one delegate at the conference, Glen Burrows, described it: "This is only delaying the inevitable of making a necessary break from the Labour Party. I have respect for those who are fighting on in the Labour Party but they are wasting their energy. We are at a watershed, the next year will be crucial to building a new organisation in England."
And, as other delegates repeatedly remarked, now the RMT has started the ball rolling, the shockwaves will reverberate throughout other unions, with increasing pressure for disaffiliation from Labour.
Whilst, as the RMT conference showed, the mechanism will not always be clear cut, the trend is definitely now for the unions to make the break with Labour.
That trend could be accelerated if union leaders like Bob Crow of the RMT and Mark Serwotka of the PCS civil service union back up their statements about the need for a new party, with concrete steps towards the establishment of such a party.