Britain: The working class needs its own party

Being asked to choose between New Labour and Tory governments is no choice at all.

This month talks will be taking place between union leaders and the New Labour government. Most of the national trade union leaders are hoping that the talks will lead to a ‘Warwick Two’ agreement, which they hope will result in a few scraps being thrown to the trade unions. This is a vain hope.

The first Warwick Agreement, reached in the run-up to the last general election, did not agree to any of the trade unions’ central demands. Much of what it did agree, including some pensions protection and the expansion of apprenticeships, has not taken place.

For example, Warwick One promised that Royal Mail would remain in public hands. Three years on and the postal workers’ union, the CWU, is still threatening to withdraw funding for New Labour in the next general election in order to try and force the government to keep this promise.

However, just to make New Labour’s anti-union position crystal clear, Brown has made a statement before the talks even begin, saying: “There will be no return to the 1970s, 80s or even 90s when it comes to union rights.” For Brown even the 1990s, which were the culmination of more than a decade of Thatcher’s brutal union bashing, were too benign a period for the trade unions and the workers whose interests the unions are there to defend.

Brown went on to say that: “The countries that prosper in future will be those that combine fairness with flexibility, to ensure full employment. There can be no question of any reintroduction of secondary picketing rights.”

Translated from New Labour speak, this means that Brown will continue to back to the hilt the policy of British capitalism of relying on a ‘flexible’ workforce – ie a low-paid casual workforce. It also means it will never repeal anti-trade union laws because to do so would strengthen workers’ ability to fight against low pay and casualisation.

This is a defining moment, comparable to the anti-union ‘Taff Vale’ ruling a century ago that led to trade unionists splitting from the Liberals and founding the Labour Party. And yet the pro-government trade union leaders continue to argue in favour of the unions funding New Labour because it gives them ‘influence’ over the government. The trade unions have less influence over the Labour Party and Labour government than at any time in the last 80 years.

The need to break the union link with Labour is urgent. Since 1997 well over £100 million of ordinary trade unionists’ money has gone to fund the Labour Party – the party of pay restraint and privatisation. As this year’s trade union conferences have shown, an increasing number of trade unionists are no longer prepared to accept this.

Socialist Party members are playing a key role in campaigning to break the link. However, this does not mean supporting non-political trade unionism. On the contrary, the trade unions should begin to use their political funds to create a party that stands in their members’ interests – a mass workers’ party.

Political representation

We wholeheartedly welcome the recent statements made at the Campaign for a New Workers Party-hosted forum by Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT, the railway workers union, and by leading figures in the PCS, the civil servants union – in support of moving in this direction.

In particular, we welcome the idea of a conference of trade unionists to discuss the crisis in workers’ political representation and to look at the way forward – including standing trade union-backed candidates in elections.

The right-wing trade union leaders argue that it is impossible to create a new party. They point to the false starts of the past decade – including the Socialist Labour Party and now Respect – in order to make their case. Following the split in Respect, the four Tower Hamlets councillors who had supported the Socialist Workers’ Party-led Left List, have now defected – three to Labour and one to the Tories. Last week one of the Respect Renewal (Galloway) councillors also defected to Labour.

However, it would be completely wrong to conclude from this that it is impossible to build a new mass workers’ party. These projects failed, as the Socialist Party predicted, because they were based on incorrect policies and methods of organisation.

It is crucial that any new formation appeals to all sections of the working class. Respect concentrated in the main on one section of society, the Muslim community, which it is important to win, but not at the expense of reaching out to other sections of the working class.

A prerequisite for a successful new party is that it involves significant sections of young people and workers moving into struggle. Unfortunately, this was not the case with Respect. The top-down bureaucratic approach that was taken by both leaderships of both the SLP and Respect repelled a new generation of activists who, given their experience of the pro-big business parties, have an understandable suspicion of parties.

For any new broad formation to be successful it is crucial it has an open, welcoming and federal approach. Federalism was adopted by the early Labour Party enabling it to bring together many different organisations and trends, preserving the rights of all to organise and argue for their particular points of view.

A party started on such a basis could very quickly gain support in the coming period. The working class in Britain is voiceless and faced with a choice between three capitalist parties. Ironically, the most effective means of putting pressure on those capitalist parties would be the existence of a coherent voice for the working class.

This is graphically demonstrated by, despite its weaknesses, the effect of the growth in support of the Left Party in Germany. Its leader, Oskar Lafontaine, has correctly declared that the Left Party is pushing the political debate in Germany as the capitalist parties are forced to react to the Left Party’s success by retreating, as has taken place, for example, with the SPD (social democrats), which has now come out in opposition to some of the counter-reforms it previously introduced when in power.

The pro-government trade union leaders warn that we must not ‘rock the boat’ or we will face a return to the Tories. Yet, in reality, we already have a government that carries out Tory policies. As a result of those policies New Labour faces losing the next general election because it is profoundly unpopular. Being asked to choose for the rest of our lives between New Labour and Tory governments is no choice at all.

We appeal to all readers of The Socialist to join the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party and to assist in the historic task of the working class of England and Wales to build a mass political party that stands in its interests.

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July 2008