Unions must break the link!
"The Labour Party died on Thursday." This was how one letter to the Guardian newspaper on 1 July, the day after the biggest strike action in decades, summed up the feelings of millions about Labour leader Ed Miliband’s condemnation of the strikes.
To add insult to injury Miliband, having condemned the strike, was then photographed in parliament laughing over a cup of tea with Cameron and Clegg, while the pickets stood outside.
In reality, the Labour Party, as a vehicle for the interests of the working class, died long ago. Under Blair the party was transformed from a capitalist workers’ party – with a capitalist leadership but a working class base that could influence the party via its democratic structures – into a capitalist party.
However, Miliband’s statement has brought the pro-capitalist reality of New Labour home to millions. Another letter to the Guardian on 1 July drew the conclusion that many others will also be pondering: "Surely it is time for a new party to represent workers and hold true to the values many of us thought Labour was supposed to represent."
The death of political parties is being widely predicted by capitalist commentators. The real reason for their shrinking membership, however, was mentioned as an aside by Anthony King in the Financial Times (2 July): "differences among the main parties have narrowed, sometimes to vanishing point. Few socialist parties exist any longer, and only the tiniest fringe parties talk the language of political struggle."
King went on to say that the continued decline of party memberships is inevitable. In the past, he states, politics was a matter of "warfare… between classes, nations, races and religious denominations" but in Europe today, he says, this is no longer true.
It is true that the differences between the establishment political parties has narrowed to vanishing point, but the gap between them and the views of the majority of the population has never been wider.
If King was to ask any public sector worker in Britain, or benefit claimant, or library user, or student if political "warfare" was a thing of the past they would be able to tell him about the vicious class war being conducted by this government against them.
King concludes: "Who in 2011 would dream of christening… a party ’the Labour Party’? The very idea is anachronistic". Given the recent history of the Labour Party in cutting and privatising services and opposing strikes it is very unlikely anyone would give a new workers’ party that name, but a mass party that stood for the majority – for the working class, the poor, the young – would, far from being "anachronistic", be enormously popular.
The Socialist Party participates in the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC www.tusc.org.uk) an electoral alliance involving leading militant trade unionists from the RMT, PCS and NUT.
TUSC plays an important role, enabling trade unionists, community campaigners and socialists to stand candidates against the pro-austerity consensus of the capitalist parties.
For the Socialist Party TUSC is also part of a campaign, which we have waged for well over a decade, for the trade unions to stop funding Labour and to begin to build a new party that stands in the interests of working class people. Both the objective need and potential for such a party has never been greater than it is today.
At the 30 June London strike rally Mary Bousted, the general secretary of the ATL, the most ’moderate’ union to take part in the strike, attacked the Labour leadership which is "laughingly called an opposition". She called on trade unionists to ’do it for themselves’ (see pages 8 and 9), receiving the biggest cheer of the whole rally.
If any platform speaker had argued for trade unionists to do it for themselves – by striking but also by standing in elections on a clear anti-cuts programme, it would have had a huge response.
Break the Link
None of the unions that went on strike on 30 June are affiliated to the Labour Party. This year’s PCS conference agreed that, within the next twelve months, a full membership ballot would be held "to decide whether the union could stand or support candidates in national elections".
If that ballot is passed it will be a major step forward for the trade union movement and would open the possibility of a trade union based electoral alternative on a wider scale.
It is true that the leaders of some of the Labour-affiliated trade unions, particularly Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, have argued for a major campaign to reclaim the Labour Party, rather than founding a new party.
Mistakenly there were hopes that Ed Miliband’s leadership would represent a step in this direction. On the contrary, as we warned, Miliband’s leadership is a continuation of New Labour.
For the trade unions to reclaim Labour would require a mass influx of trade unionists into the party. We don’t think that this can be achieved: the main response of trade unionists to Miliband’s condemnation of the strike is not to join the Labour Party to change it but to turn away from the Labour Party in disgust. We argue for Unite to stop funding New Labour and to begin to build a new party.
Nonetheless, a serious campaign to reclaim New Labour by affiliated trade unions would be a huge step forward on the current policy of the majority of the union leaders of clinging to the coat-tails of the Labour leadership.
Such a campaign would have to demand that Labour adopts a socialist programme. Key demands would include the repeal of all the anti-trade union laws and opposition to all cuts in public services, not just in words but in action.
It would be necessary to demand that Labour councils stop wielding the axe and instead ’take the Liverpool road’, that is to follow the example of Liverpool City Council in the 1980s; refusing to implement cuts and mobilising the workforce and population in a mass campaign in their support.
It would also be necessary to demand that the pro-capitalist leaders be expelled from the party. Linked to this would be the rebuilding of democracy within the Labour Party, which is currently non-existent at national level.
The trade unions, the main funders of New Labour, no longer even have the right to move motions at the toothless annual conference. Yet Miliband is threatening to get rid of even the few tiny remnants of workers’ democracy that still exist, including the election of the shadow cabinet.
We do not think that a campaign to reclaim New Labour could succeed. However, we are not inflexible; were it to be effective we would turn towards such a development.
Equally, if we are proved correct, the affiliated trade unions would need to draw the conclusion that New Labour could not be reclaimed and join with those workers who are fighting for the formation of a new party.
Such a party, in contrast to the shrinking membership of all the capitalist parties, would grow rapidly.