Britain: Socialist Alliance’s trade union convention

No way forward shown

On 7 February around 700 activists attended a trade union convention on the political funds, organised by the Socialist Alliance.

The highlight of the conference was the speech by RMT (rail workers union) general secretary Bob Crow. Following its historic conference decision the day before, the RMT showed that it would not be bullied by New Labour and overwhelming voted to uphold its decision to give its backing to Scottish Socialist Party.

As Bob got up to speak the clock struck twelve (the deadline given by the Labour Party to back down). But this was no Cinderella running home to New Labour. Now, over 100 years after being a founder member of the Labour Party, the RMT has been expelled. There is no doubt that this is a new turning point in the battle for a break with New Labour.

Bob rightly listed the crimes of New Labour. And, whilst all credit must be given to him for not cowering in the face of their threats, he stopped well short of supporting disaffiliation and offering a way forward. In fact, he said that the RMT had sent its affiliation cheque to the Labour Party and it was up to them if they cashed it.

The main debate was between those who called for the unions to “reclaim the Labour party” and those who argued it was beyond redemption. Unfortunately, only one Socialist Party member was called, and that was to speak on the Hackney bins dispute. Without Socialist Party imput, that was the end of any clarity in the debate.

The ‘reclaim the party’ brigade could not offer a shred of evidence as to the success of their campaign. In fact, since the campaign was launched, the Labour Party has ignored conference decisions on pensions and voted through foundations hospitals and tuition fees – pushed through with the votes of union sponsored MPs. Even the expulsion of the RMT was moved and supported by the union reps on the NEC!

The truth is that reclaiming the Labour Party would take tens of thousands of union members (even if they were allowed) flooding into the party – and there is as much chance of that as Leeds winning the premiership.

I have no problem with those union members who want to stay in the Labour Party and try to reclaim it. But a minority has no right to to chain the majority of us to a party intent on continuing its attacks on workers and the unions.

But the alternative position put forward was equally fudged. One Socialist Workers Party (SWP) member after another attacked New Labour. However, they hid behind phrases like ‘democratising the funds’, without ever explaining what they meant. In fact, the SWP FBU delegate said that they “opposed disaffiliation in favour of democratisation”. This vacuous phrase means everything to all people and is used as a way of avoiding the issue and sitting on the fence. If unions democratise their funds, as the RMT effectively did, then they will, like the RMT, face disaffiliation from the Labour Party.

Those who say that it is not possible to reclaim the Labour Party are duty bound to put forward an alternative, yet none was forthcoming. Bob Crow rightly drew parallels with debate in the unions 100 years ago, quoting from the minutes from his own union. But he failed to draw the logical conclusions that then, as now, the role of a courageous union leader could be key. If the real awkward squad were to call a conference of union, community, student and youth activists to prepare the way for launching a new mass party, it would gain an enormous echo

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

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February 2004