Britain: How to build a left alternative

Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) decides to contest future elections – can Labour be “re-claimed”?

Below we publish two articles from the Socialist, reporting on new developments in the TUSC and commenting on the developments in the Labour Party after their election defeat.

TUSC plans for future elections

"THE Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) is not the answer for everything that we need to do as a movement to resist the austerity measures that will come from this Tory-Liberal government", said the RMT transport workers’ union general secretary, Bob Crow, to a post-election meeting of TUSC candidates last week. "But in my opinion, speaking in a personal capacity, TUSC should carry on, it should stand in future elections, and it should be at the forefront of anti-cuts campaigning as well".

"The votes for TUSC candidates were small on this occasion", he went on, "and a report will be presented to the RMT’s annual general meeting listing the votes of all RMT-endorsed candidates. But I’m looking forward to having the argument with those who say the unions shouldn’t be involved with election campaigns that get small votes. When do you start to offer an alternative?

"And what’s the alternative if you don’t stand, other than to back a New Labour party that has held down the working class in the interests of capital for 13 years?"

The meeting heard reports of how well the TUSC campaign had been received whenever candidates had a chance to address a public audience. Particularly in this election, however, even sympathetic workers were not confident that a vote for TUSC could make a difference and so voted for Labour as ’the lesser evil’ against the threat of the Tories. But, the meeting agreed, that mood can change as struggles develop against the new government. TUSC, precisely because it is a coalition involving leaders of the most militant trade unions in Britain today, could be a catalyst in developing the independent working class political representation that is needed.

Proposals were presented to the meeting from the TUSC steering committee on how to take the coalition forward into 2011.

While TUSC will consider contesting parliamentary by-elections as they arise, it will also actively seek to encourage and coordinate challenges in the elections scheduled for 2011.

A conference will be organised in the autumn for local groups planning to stand candidates for the Welsh assembly and English local councils, where policy statements relating to these elections will be discussed, while the Scottish TUSC steering committee will prepare for the Scottish parliament elections.

A campaign will be conducted to take TUSC into the trade unions in particular, to get more leading trade unionists to participate on the steering committee. But the steering committee proposals also recognised that the structure of the coalition is "only an interim arrangement" which will need to be reviewed as TUSC develops in the future.

"TUSC was established more for the events to come than the election just past", concluded Dave Nellist, the Coventry Socialist Party councillor and former Labour MP. "The first priority in the immediate future is to back all efforts to force the TUC to organise an autumn demonstration against the cuts, or to back an alliance of those unions prepared to fight to do so if the TUC won’t.

"But all participants in TUSC have a responsibility to keep up its profile as struggles against the new government unfold".

What we think: Labour leadership contest dominated by right wing

Editorial from the Socialist, 16 June 2910

One issue will overwhelm all others in the coming years – the struggle against cuts in public services. In the first instance this struggle will involve demonstrations, strikes and community campaigns. However, the issue of political representation for workers and young people struggling against the cuts must also be an important aspect of the campaign.

That is why The Socialist welcomes the decision of the steering committee of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) to contest future elections and to encourage other socialist, trade union and anti-cuts candidates to stand under the TUSC banner. This decision was unanimously endorsed by the TUSC candidates’ meeting (see report below).

For some trade unionists the New Labour leadership contest raised the hope, however faintly, that the crisis in working-class political representation might by solved by ’retransforming’ the Labour Party – changing it back from capitalist New Labour to ’old’ Labour which, at least at its base, was a vehicle for working class pressure.

The failure of John McDonnell to get on the ballot paper has shown yet again the overwhelming obstacles that lie across such a path. John McDonnell has a consistent record of campaigning in parliament in support of trade unionists’ demands. That is why the Unite union conference, against the recommendation of its executive, correctly passed a motion calling for Unite-sponsored MPs to nominate John McDonnell.

However, the undemocratic constitution of New Labour means that the support of a conference representing nearly two million trade unionists is not enough to get on the ballot paper for the Labour leadership; it is also necessary to have the support of 12.5% of Labour MPs. The overwhelmingly right-wing, pro-capitalist nature of the parliamentary Labour Party means that John McDonnell has been excluded from the ballot paper from the start.

Diane Abbott

It is true that Diane Abbott, a member of the Socialist Campaign Group who nominated John McDonnell in 2007, has scraped onto the ballot paper and is to the left of the other candidates. However, her inclusion is a sign of the weakness of the left in the Labour Party, not its strength. MPs from the right of New Labour – including David Miliband, Phil Woolas and Stephen Twigg – felt able to nominate her in order to demonstrate the party’s ’diversity’, without fearing the consequences.

One diehard Blairite, Paul Richards, called nominating her a "foolish error" which would "skew the leadership debates to the left" and "open all manner of settled issues" – by which he meant it might result in socialism being once again mentioned in the Labour Party!

However, such is the feebleness of the Labour left, and the limitations of Diane Abbott as a candidate, that the majority of New Labour is clearly relaxed about her appearing on the ballot paper. Unlike the other four candidates she did oppose the Iraq war when it was launched, and has also campaigned in defence of immigrant workers and against New Labour’s undermining of democratic rights.

Nonetheless, she does not have a consistent record of supporting a socialist programme. The fact that her child goes to a private school, and her inconsistency on other issues – including supporting academy schools in the London borough of Hackney – means that she is not seen in the same way as John McDonnell by trade union activists.

In addition, her leadership campaign has, up until now, not dealt with the key issues for trade unionists – opposition to all public sector cuts and repeal of the anti-trade union laws. If she were now to take a clear socialist position on these issues, it would still be possible for her nomination – despite coming about as a sop to diversity – to represent an opportunity to put a fighting, left programme to young people, workers and trade unionists.

Nonetheless, the next New Labour leader is going to be a pro-capitalist politician, be it David Miliband, Ed Miliband, Andy Burnham or Ed Balls. You cannot get a cigarette paper between the policies of these four. It is true that the two Eds have belatedly discovered that they were opposed to the Iraq war, but neither has responded to John McDonnell’s demand that they call for immediate withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. And despite Ed Miliband’s attempts to appear marginally to the left of his brother, he – like the others – does not call for repeal of the anti-trade union laws and has opposed the BA strikes.

While all four candidates are quick to criticise the Tory and Lib Dem cuts, they nonetheless fully advocate the need for huge public-sector cuts. Where it is Labour councils carrying out cuts – such as Kirklees in Yorkshire, one of the first councils in the country to threaten compulsory redundancies as part of its £400 million cuts budget – you will not hear one word of criticism from them.

In the coming months and years Greece and Spain will come to Britain, both in the scale of the cuts we will face, and the movements that will take place against them. This will sharply pose the need for a political alternative to the capitalist politicians.

The failure of John McDonnell to get on the ballot paper shows again that such an alternative will not be created by reclaiming New Labour. Instead, the task of building a new mass party of the working class is posed – which stands against all cuts and for the socialist transformation of society.

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June 2010