Britain: The European elections and working-class representation

In an important move, the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers’ union (RMT) has announced its support for an electoral alliance to contest the forthcoming European elections in June.

A ‘political party’ has been registered – as required under electoral law to contest elections – under the name No2EU-Yes to Democracy, with the RMT general secretary, Bob Crow, as the official leader. Its platform includes opposition to the European Union (EU) constitution (now re-packaged as the Lisbon treaty), the EU’s pro-privatisation directives, and the anti-trade union and ‘social dumping’ rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The platform takes a necessary stand against the racist far-right British National Party (BNP), and in defence of international workers’ solidarity.

At present funds are in place for No2EU-Yes to Democracy candidate lists to appear on the ballot paper in a minimum of six of Britain’s eleven electoral ‘regions’, including Scotland and Wales, but more may well be contested.

This is an electoral coalition, with initial support from the RMT, the Socialist Party, the Communist Party of Britain (publishers of the Morning Star), Solidarity – Scotland’s Socialist Movement, and a number of trades union councils. Respect is still considering its involvement; the Socialist Party, for its part, would favour the broadest participation of all left and working class organisations.

No2EU-Yes to Democracy is a temporary platform for the European elections only, with the RMT representatives at the inaugural meeting stressing, unfortunately, that they were not launching a new workers’ party. But that does not negate its significance as the first electoral challenge to New Labour initiated by a national trade union, the RMT, the most militant industrial union in Britain.

Pent-up anger

The European elections might not loom large in workers’ thinking, as the economic crisis intensifies. But the EU’s neo-liberal directives and rulings, enthusiastically implemented by the New Labour government, are linked to the avalanche of job losses, wage cuts and continued privatisation.

Nowhere was this more clearly revealed than in the Lindsey oil refinery construction workers’ dispute earlier this year. It was under the EU ‘posted workers directive’ and subsequent ECJ rulings that the Italian-registered company, IREM, was able to employ workers not covered by the union-enforced national construction industry agreements. The part-privatisation of the Royal Mail, the first step to its complete sell-off, is also linked to EU directives to introduce a deregulated postal services market.

The No2EU-Yes to Democracy campaign can expose the reality of the EU’s neo-liberal agenda to millions of workers, while arguing the case for a workers’ alternative to pro-market politicians – whether in Brussels or Westminster! And June’s Euro-poll will be the first national electoral expression of the enormous anger accumulating at the devastating consequences of the capitalist crisis.

But where will that anger go? The 2004 European elections, in a completely different economic climate, still saw a big protest vote, which primarily went to UKIP, the UK Independence Party. (See the article on right.) Labour could well register an even worse result than its disastrous performance then, when it at least enjoyed opinion poll leads as the most ‘economically competent’ party.

UKIP, meanwhile, is likely to suffer a big loss of support. Promoting themselves as having been elected to ‘take on the corrupt Eurocrats’, two of its MEPs were soon implicated in benefit and EU fraud investigations, the egomaniacal Kilroy-Silk departed, and membership and donations have slumped. The Tories can expect to make big gains but there is a real threat that the far-right BNP could win seats in June.

This fear has also been a powerful impulse behind the RMT’s move to organise an electoral challenge. As Bob Crow reported to the inaugural meeting, RMT members had already been contacting the union asking who the national officers thought they should vote for in June. The only alternative to backing a union-initiated electoral coalition would be to urge a vote, as anti-fascist groups like Searchlight advocate, for ‘the mainstream parties’ to stop the BNP.

Another factor behind the RMT’s decision was the lessons of the Lindsey dispute. Firstly, it brought to wide attention in a way not done before in Britain, the role of the EU’s anti-worker directives.

The RMT is currently balloting, or has taken strike action, in nine separate disputes over job losses and privatisation proposals. Is it so hard to imagine the RMT facing ‘barges in the Thames’ of sub-contracted EU ‘posted rail workers’ – as the IREM workers are being billeted in Grimsby docks – as the New Labour government, or an incoming Tory government, under the impulsion of the crisis, looks to confront one of the most powerfully organised sections of the working class?

Lindsey also highlighted another aspect of the situation now existing in Britain. As previous reports in The Socialist have shown, Lindsey was a victory for the working class. But it took the conscious intervention of the strike leadership, including Socialist Party members, to cut across any national or racial divisions that could have derailed the movement.

The same burning need for a clear lead is true on the political plane. That’s why the RMT’s electoral initiative, despite any weaknesses it may have, is so important.

In response to Labour’s 2004 Euro-elections debacle the leaders of the Labour-affiliated trade unions issued another round of verbal broadsides and threats to withdraw funding.

At the Unison public sector workers’ union 2004 conference, for example, the general secretary Dave Prentis promised not to “keep our heads down, gobs shut for Labour, if this government continues to put forward rightwing policies” (The Guardian, 23 June, 2004). And yet, of course, that is precisely what has happened – with the union leaders continuing to pour their members’ money into Labour’s coffers.

Political tasks

The RMT, on the other hand, has moved. There are, inevitably, potential difficulties. Because of the constitutional bar on union officials holding parliamentary seats, and its view that Brussels is ‘a fake parliament’, the RMT is insisting that victorious No2EU-Yes to Democracy candidates will not sit in the European parliament – although they would still campaign, alongside any other European workers’ representatives who are elected in June, against EU attacks on the working class. And a convention of the forces involved in the campaign would be held to work out exactly how to proceed.

Most importantly, socialists could not participate in an electoral block or coalition which made concessions to racist or nationalist prejudices. But that is not the case with the proposals agreed so far around the RMT’s electoral initiative which, while its programme is limited, is at bottom a pro-worker block.

There is no easy or straightforward path to re-build working class political representation. The German party, ‘Election Alternative – Jobs and Social Justice’ (WASG), the initial dynamic component of what is now the Left Party, was not formed, back in 2004, with a fully developed programme or democratic structures. But it broke the logjam.

And so, potentially, could the RMT’s electoral initiative. The train is moving. The task of socialists, while not holding back from arguing for our ideas on the way out of the economic crisis, is to lend a helping hand.

Lessons of the 2004 election

The 2004 European elections were a disaster for New Labour. Labour’s 3.72 million votes were its lowest share of the poll in a national contest (22.6%) since the December 1918 ‘khaki election’ at the end of world war one. Then, the newly-emerging Labour Party – not contesting every seat – polled 2.38 million votes for a 22.2% share.

But 2004 was also a poor election for the Conservative Party. The Tories came top in the previous European elections in 1999, with a 35.7% share of the poll to Labour’s 28%. In 2004 the Tories’ share fell to 26.7%, largely due to the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP).

Set-up in 1993 by a London School of Economics academic, Dr Alan Sked, UKIP first contested seats at the 1997 general election, polling 106,000 votes (0.3%). But in the 1999 European elections UKIP finished fourth behind the three main parties with 696,000 votes (6.96%), winning three Members of the European Parliament (MEPs).

Then, in 2004, having recruited the ex-BBC day-time TV ‘personality’ and former Labour MP, Robert Kilroy-Silk (sacked from the BBC for racist anti-Arab comments), and bankrolled by the ex-Tory millionaire Paul Sykes, UKIP leapt to 2.65 million votes (16.1%), pushing the Liberal Democrats into fourth place and winning 12 MEPs.

The UKIP vote was above all a protest vote: 15% (400,000) were people who had not voted at all in the 2001 general election (ICM poll, 15 June). This, particularly in the context of a 6.44 million increase in turnout to 38.2% (from 23.3% in 1999), showed the beginnings of a shift in consciousness, from ‘protest abstentionism’ to more widespread protest voting.

In the 2004 elections 5.49 million votes (33.4%) went to parties without representation in the House of Commons, up from 1.87 million (18.7%) in 1999.

This trend, likely to continue in this year’s elections, of the fragmenting support for the establishment parties, is a concern to ruling class strategists because it has an impact on the perceived ‘legitimacy’ of government policies – particularly important in an economic slump. It is a direct consequence of the ‘Americanisation’ of British politics, with two dominant capitalist parties, following the transformation of the Labour Party into New Labour.

In the past, of course, Labour governments would carry out mainly pro-capitalist policies. But the Labour Party then was a ‘capitalist workers’ party’, with a working class base and a pro-capitalist leadership, which provided the working class with an element of political representation that could be used to push the leadership further than they would wish to go against capitalist interests.

Political vaccuum

By the same token, however, the ruling class, through the agency of the Labour Party leadership, had a means through which they could attempt to secure acquiescence to their policies. The situation now is completely different, the Labour Party is a completely capitalist party, and a vacuum has resulted.

With brazen hypocrisy, Hazel Blears, an unapologetically hardline New Labour cabinet member, recently spoke of ‘disaffected voters’ needing to be convinced that “mainstream politics has the answers they seek”.

Sam Younger, ex-chair of the Electoral Commission, has warned of the dangers of ‘extremism’ being provoked by unpopular government polices in the absence of such legitimacy: “because in the end there are going to be people outside the democratic system who start saying, ‘we can claim to represent people just as well as these politicians who’ve been elected by very few of the electorate’. That way lies a very dangerous future which in the end – and without trying to be too dramatic about it – can threaten the rule of law”.

The capitalist strategists in Britain are certainly looking with alarm at events across Europe, as the economic crisis deepens. They no doubt discussed the implications not only of the December rebellion of the Greek youth, for example, but also the rise of a new workers’ party, SYRIZA.

But the same disenchantment with the capitalist politicians – the feeling that ‘they’re all the same’ – are also the conditions in which right-wing populism can grow. A Joseph Rowntree Trust study at the time of the last Euro-elections found many BNP voters claiming that they had only voted BNP to register a protest against the Labour government or a Labour-run council.

This is not to underestimate the ideological weight of racism and nationalism underpinning the appeal of the BNP, and the hold these ideas can establish in the absence of a convincing, authoritative working class alternative.

Along with other ideological weapons, (sexism, religion, the role of the monarchy etc) racism and nationalism are sustained by the forces of ‘official society’, not always openly but at all times in the background. This includes not only the media but the education system, and also the political representatives of the ruling class, the capitalist parties – including the Labour government – attempting to hold together a social base of support. Witness Gordon Brown coining the ‘British jobs for British workers’ slogan at the 2007 Labour Party conference.

If there is no alternative offering a way forward, the ready-made formulas of racism and nationalism, already there in the background, provide a seemingly cogent answer. But at bottom, certainly at the electoral level, support for the BNP at this stage is overwhelmingly a vote against the lack of any alternative.

In 2004, while polling 808,200 votes (4.9%), the BNP failed to make a breakthrough. The main beneficiaries of the protest vote then were UKIP – the party for “men and women who want their country back” as their leaflets said – with its nationalist anti-Europe (and anti-immigrant) platform and perma-tanned ‘charismatic’ figurehead. But Kilroy-Silk has long gone from public prominence and the UKIP bubble has deflated. So where will the anger be vented now?

Campaign for a New Workers’ Party

In the last decade, the Socialist Party has successfully fought and defended seats in local council elections in Coventry and in Lewisham, south London. Socialist Party member Jackie Grunsell was also elected in 2006 in Huddersfield as part of a community based ‘Save our NHS’ campaign.

However, the Socialist Party cannot alone at this stage fill the political vacuum on the left resulting from the demise of the Labour Party, as a party representing the working class.

A new, broader left party, necessarily, will develop out of the struggles and experiences of trade unions, socialists and the working class as a whole.

Other left forces that have attempted to short-cut such a process have been largely unsuccessful. Taking a different approach, the Socialist Party launched in 2006 the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party to propagandise amongst workers’ organisations, etc, for such a party.

A new workers’ party is long overdue in Britain. That is why the left trade union leaders should grasp the nettle now and take the necessary steps towards it.

For more information about the CNWP: and

Join the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party – by Hannah Sell, a Socialist Party pamphlet.

£1 incl. p&p.

Available from Socialist Books, PO Box 24697, London E11 1 YD.

020 8988 8789 or buy online from

Special financial appeal to all readers of

Support building alternative socialist media provides a unique analysis and perspective of world events. also plays a crucial role in building the struggle for socialism across all continents. Capitalism has failed! Assist us to build the fight-back and prepare for the stormy period of class struggles ahead.
Please make a donation to help us reach more readers and to widen our socialist campaigning work across the world.

Donate via Paypal

Liked this article? We need your support to improve our work. Please become a Patron! and support our work
Become a patron at Patreon!

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


March 2009