Britain: Rail workers’ union breaks with New Labour

Historic decision shows willingness by union to support socialists

Last week a special conference of the rail workers’ union, RMT (Rail, Maritime and Transport), voted by 42 votes to eight to reject Labour Party intimidation and reaffirmed its decision to support other political organisations, including affiliation to the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP).

Even before the debate took place, the Labour Party held a gun to the head of the union, saying that if the conference took any decision other than rescinding affiliation to the SSP it would face automatic expulsion.

These threats backfired on Labour as delegate after delegate to the conference expressed their anger at the Labour government and the Labour Party.

Opening the debate, union general secretary Bob Crow said that the only part of New Labour’s programme his union could agree with were the bits that said “The” and “End”.

Bob Law, a London Underground worker said that money going to Labour was “wasted money” and that not a single member of the union in his branch wanted to keep the Labour link.

Steve Hedley, delegate from area 20, argued that if Labour was a new party coming to the RMT for support on the basis of their current programme, there would be no way the union would consider affiliating to the party.

Bill O’Dowd, another London Underground worker, said some arguing to keep the link say it’s better to be inside the tent pissing out but, he added, the problem was it was workers “who were being pissed on and we’ve had enough.”

Craig Johnston, a Socialist Party member and delegate from area 5 where he is a conductor on Arriva Trains Northern, made a devastating case for the union breaking from Labour.

Craig pointed out how this debate really started in 1997. He was then still a Labour Party member, but soon realised that it was no longer delivering for working-class people.

He referred to some delegates supporting continued affiliation to Labour because it was a marriage that was going through a rocky patch. Craig said: “If this were a marriage, then we have to face up to the fact that we are victims of industrial and political domestic violence and it’s time to walk away.”

Craig outlined how New Labour Transport Minister Kim Howells had sent a letter to Labour MP Russell Brown on 25 November last year claiming, in response to rail union questions, that the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) did not know of any threat to close the Leeds and Newcastle train depots as part of the Trans-Pennine Express (TPE) franchise bid. But the company later said that the SRA had always known it was its intention to close the depots as part of the franchise bid – something which Labour ministers should have known about.

Yet again, said Craig, workers were the victims of “another shoddy Labour lie”.

Peter Skelly from area 16 in South Wales said that the political fund issue had been debated at a well-attended special meeting. He said workers were questioning why the RMT (like other unions) gave Labour a distinct advantage over other political parties, when New Labour had shown such contempt for the unions.

Peter asked why the unions should give any money at all to Labour when “it is openly pro-big business and Blair boasts about Britain having the most restrictive anti-union laws in Europe. The unions gave £200 million to Labour while it was in opposition and we have got nothing for it.”

Many delegates, whilst realising expulsion from Labour was inevitable, were not at all worried by the prospect. Instead, they argued that the debate needed to continue about the union helping to create a wider political alternative outside Scotland.

Half a dozen branches had submitted resolutions to the conference. Unfortunately, because of the union’s rules they were not debated at the conference but were given to delegates for information only.

However, they show that activists are thinking about the way forward for the RMT and advocate concrete steps which Socialist Party members in RMT will support.

One from East Midlands Central branch, while welcoming last year’s historic decision and arguing against supporting, nationalist, religious or liberal organisations called on the union to take “the initiative to stand our own candidates, along with other unions and socialists rather than tagging along with non-socialist, non-working class or personalities.”

Another resolution from Bristol Rail Branch called on the union to build “a national conference of trade unions and organisations of working-class communities and political organisations to discuss political representation for workers.”

Summing up the debate, RMT general secretary Bob Crow called on delegates not to panic or be frightened by Labour’s threats, or the statements of other labour movement figures who claim the RMT will be isolated, because, he said: “Today we take a decision that will give confidence to every other worker in a trade union in Britain.”

The RMT decided at its annual conference last year that although it would continue to affiliate to the Labour Party, it would decrease the numbers on which it affiliated. And it would allow its branches and regional councils to affiliate to and support other political organisations, subject to the approval of the national executive of the union.

Since that decision seven branches and the regional council of the RMT in Scotland have voted to affiliate to the SSP.

At the end of December the Labour Party threatened RMT with expulsion unless it over-ruled these democratic decisions.

In response the RMT convened its special conference to debate the Labour Party’s threat. Nearly all branches of the union were consulted in the run-up to the conference.

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales

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February 2004