Britain: TUSC and the road to a new workers’ party

Rising support for UKIP shows both the erosion of established party loyalties and the existence of a profound vacuum of working-class political representation.

What role can the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) play in coalescing the forces for a new workers’ party?

May’s local council elections showed, five years into the worst crisis of capitalism since the 1930s, how deep the alienation from Britain’s ‘traditional’ parties has become. The BBC made a projection of the national share of the vote from the 2013 results – the elections covered 24 million people, but did not include Scotland, Wales, or most big English cities. Despite this element of psephological guesswork, their figures were sobering for the establishment parties. Labour was ahead on 29%, the Tories on 25%, and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) third on 23%, with the Liberal Democrats on 14%. For the first time ever no party had reached over 30% of the vote.

The Tories lost 335 councillors on the last time this set of predominantly county council seats were up for election, in 2009 under Gordon Brown’s premiership, when they won 38% of the projected national vote. But while Labour gained 291 seats this was the same number (exactly!) that it had lost in 2009. It was another blow to Ed Miliband’s ‘One Nation’ appeal that Labour only won back control of two councils, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. The big winners were UKIP, which gained 139 seats.

These trends were confirmed in the first Guardian/ICM series opinion poll taken after the council elections. It found the three main establishment parties all down four points on the previous month, the first time in the 29-year history of these surveys that all three had fallen at the same time (The Guardian, 14 May).

Labour’s 34% is its lowest rating since the immediate aftermath of the 2010 general election defeat. The Tories’ 28% is a low point they had not reached since the 1997-98 Blair ‘honeymoon’. The Lib Dems were on 11%, their lowest score since September 1997. While the poll also showed limits to UKIP’s support – at just 2% in Scotland and 6% in Wales – overall it was up by nine points to 18%. The Guardian editorial correctly described these results as “a rejection of British mainstream politics without modern precedent”.

The ICM poll showed UKIP drawing support not just from former Tory voters and people who had not previously voted at all, but also from Labour voters, at least in England. While 27% of those who said they voted Tory in the 2010 general election now backed UKIP, 13% of Labour voters in 2010, and 12% of Lib Dems, had also moved to UKIP. Its support was disproportionately higher, at 27%, among working-class ‘DE’ voters.

Further evidence of UKIP’s ability to gain from all the big parties is that it has been the only party to poll above 20% in the two parliamentary by-elections held this year, in the Labour northern stronghold of South Shields, and the previously Lib Dem-Conservative marginal of Eastleigh. An exit poll in that contest found that 83% of UKIP voters did so as “a message that I’m unhappy with the party I usually support”.

Some of the mood of anger expressed by workers at ‘elite politicians’ presently finding an outlet in a UKIP vote seeped into the media coverage of the elections. A Guardian reporter interviewed one South Shields UKIP voter who explained: “I was very disappointed that Labour made no effort whatsoever to stand up for ordinary working people’s rights… They ought to change their name. But I’ve found a party now that represents some of the views that I would like”. (4 May) Meanwhile, in Yeovil, a 30-year-old pub worker “said he had not voted before but decided to back UKIP this time. ‘I think the party is the only one that speaks up for the ordinary working man. The rest seem to be more interested in keeping rich people happy’.” The real position of UKIP, for even more brutal austerity in the interests of the capitalist elite, is either not known or shrugged off in the urge to grab the most easily available stick to fight back with.

Why not to a working-class alternative?

So why is the developing anger not finding a mass electoral outlet in a working-class political alternative to the establishment parties? The ideological weight of UKIP’s nationalism, its railing against ‘Europe’ (while supporting pro-austerity EU directives), and its anti-immigrant rhetoric, should not be underestimated in a period of economic crisis. Such ideological weapons (along with racism, sexism, religion, the role of the monarchy, etc) have been nurtured by the forces of ‘official society’ for generations as vital tools to preserve the ‘minority rule’ of the capitalists and their system.

This is done both openly – witness Michael Gove’s crude attempts to rewrite school history lessons – and sits at all times in the background, for example in the media. Despite not having a single MP, UKIP leader Nigel Farage has been on the BBC’s Question Time more times than any other politician since 2008. There is an element of building up UKIP as a safety valve to bleed support from the far-right racists of the British National Party (BNP) – certainly the case before the 2009 European elections – and to try and prevent the development of a mass workers’ party. But now UKIP has injected a new instability into all the capitalist parties.

Not surprisingly, one South Shields voter, a North Sea oil worker and former Labour voter, was quoted in the Guardian as backing UKIP because “I want a change. I know quite a bit about Nigel Farage. I’ve seen how he handles himself on Question Time” (4 May). Without a powerful ‘counter-narrative’ – and the outlet of Scottish nationalism is one reason for UKIP’s lack of support there, along with a greater concentration of working-class communities – UKIP’s ready-made nationalist formulas, already there in the background of society, provide a seemingly plausible answer.

But the easy attractiveness of UKIP’s right-wing ideology is not the fundamental reason why the labour movement has not put its stamp on society and channelled the anger at the Con-Dem government into an electoral alternative to austerity. Firstly, has been the continued support for Labour by the leaders of the biggest unions, despite any verbal criticisms they may make of Labour’s ‘slower and fairer’ austerity programme. Secondly, and most importantly, has been the squandering by the majority of these same trade union leaders of the opportunities of the past three years – especially since the massive 750,000-strong demonstration on 26 March 2011 – to lead a decisive struggle to turn back the Con-Dem assault on workers’ living standards.

It has now been widely forgotten that in the wake of M26, the biggest unmistakeably trade union and working-class led demonstration in British history, UKIP supporters attempted to organise a counter ‘rally against debt’ in May 2011. The organiser, Annabelle Fuller, a former assistant to Farage, initiated the pro-cuts protest after being “completely appalled” by the TUC demonstration (The Guardian, 14 May 2011). Amid excited talk about a US Tea Party-style ‘mass movement’ beginning in Britain, a bare handful turned up, bearing ‘Stop spending my money’, and ‘What cuts? When will they start?’ placards, to hear Farage, ‘Euro-sceptic’ Tory MPs, Priti Patel and Bill Cash, and other right-wing luminaries. This was the real measure of where the balance of forces lay.

Two years later, however, particularly after the abandonment of the pensions struggle following the public-sector strikes of November 2011, UKIP has been able to partially seize from the unions the banner of challenger to the establishment, certainly on the political plane. Its right-wing populism – different to Beppe Grillo’s appeal in Italy – can be easily punctured but it is symptomatic that, in a recent YouGov poll (23 April) assessing opinion about a general strike against austerity, UKIP voters were only second in their support for such action (26%) to Labour voters (49%) – while Miliband denounced strike action as “a terrible idea”.

Establishing TUSC

This is the background in which the efforts to build the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) have taken place since its formation, with little preparation time, in the run up to the 2010 general election. TUSC has made advances since then, most notably in the decision of the 2012 RMT transport workers’ union annual conference to regularise the union’s involvement in the coalition. When TUSC was established it was on the basis of individual leading trade unionists giving support in a personal capacity, following decisions in late 2009 by both the RMT and Prison Officers Association (POA) executive committees not to formally participate.

In contrast, today, the RMT is officially represented on the TUSC national steering committee by its general secretary and president, and five executive members. The POA does not have a formal relationship with TUSC but both the general secretary and assistant general secretary are members of the steering committee. The PCS civil servants’ union assistant general secretary and vice-president are also on the committee. It was not accidental that the mover, seconder, and first speaker in the debate on motion five at the 2012 TUC conference to commit the TUC to consider a general strike – Steve Gillan (POA), Bob Crow (RMT) and John McInally (PCS) – are members of the TUSC steering committee.

TUSC was explicitly established, and registered with the Electoral Commission in 2010, “to enable trade unionists, community campaigners and socialists to stand candidates against the pro-austerity establishment parties” (see Providing such an electoral ‘umbrella’ was itself an important step because, under Britain’s election laws, if candidates are not endorsed by a registered political party they are only able to appear on the ballot paper as ‘Independent’. That does not allow trade unionists, local anti-cuts campaigners or individual socialists to distinguish themselves as standing for something different to the establishment parties. Using the TUSC name does. Candidates have autonomy to run their own campaigns, with the only provision being that they are expected to endorse a core policy election platform.

In its three years’ existence, 582 candidates have stood under the TUSC umbrella, in a range of contests from parliamentary elections, to city mayoral polls, to local council elections. In the recent county council elections, TUSC stood more candidates than the BNP – “the first time in recent history”, according to the New Statesman, that a left-wing party “will be better represented than Griffin’s mob”. This did not stop the BBC from carrying items on the BNP while refusing to acknowledge on its website that TUSC was standing any candidates at all, until the day before polling day.

More than 100,000 votes have been cast for TUSC candidates in that three-year period – still a modest electoral record but not insignificant. Overall, TUSC is still only a ‘pre-formation’, a precursor of a future mass workers’ party that could impact decisively on the political struggle against austerity. But it is the most promising development, at this stage, and certainly not one to be lightly pushed aside for ‘the next new thing’.

Uniting the left?

There are other electoral alternatives which challenge the Con-Dems from the left which have remained outside the TUSC umbrella. These include George Galloway’s Respect party and the Green Party, each with one MP. The Communist Party of Britain (CPB), the dominant influence behind the Morning Star newspaper, also contests elections, as does, sporadically, Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party (SLP). Recently, following an appeal ‘to begin a discussion about a new party of the left’ by the socialist film director, Ken Loach, a ‘Left Unity initiative’ has been formed and the Left Party registered with the Electoral Commission by Kate Hudson and Andrew Burgin, who resigned from Respect last summer (Kate Hudson is a former prominent member of the CPB). Its founding conference – which may or may not agree that name – will take place in November. Could a common organisation of these forces, or at least a coalition, be achieved?

The Greens are the most established, with a registered membership that has risen from 7,553 in 2008 to over 12,000 now, and 141 local councillors. They will not discuss nationally with other forces: unions should back the Greens, they say, without any affiliation rights reflecting their membership or social weight, and individual socialists can join the party.

More fundamentally, the Green Party does not see itself as, and is not, a workers’ party, either in its social base or ideologically. By this is meant the fact that the Greens are not based on working-class organisations, in particular the trade unions, or on an explicit socialist opposition to capitalism – socialism being the generalised political expression of working-class interests against those of the capitalist class and its system. TUSC’s core platform is limited but it is socialist, including policies like opposition to all cuts to jobs and services not adhered to by Green elected representatives.

Already this is creating the outlines of future splits as Green councillors in Brighton and Bristol, for example, participate in local administrations implementing austerity policies. The Greens in Britain, in essence, only differ from their European counterparts in that they do not have the parliamentary positions to participate in coalition governments.

Those Green activists who are socialists can play an important role in the struggle for a new workers’ party, as individuals like the environmental socialist William Morris – or co-operative movement activists organising against food adulterators, etc – did in the early struggles for independent working-class representation in the late 19th century. Helping the working class develop its own political voice, a new workers’ party, is the key task. Unlike TUSC, with its position in the unions, the Green Party as a whole will play no part in that.

TUSC is a coalition

TUSC, as the name says, is a coalition, and has written to Respect, the National Health Action Party (launched in May 2012), the SLP, the Communist Party (CP) – and, most recently, Ken Loach – inviting them to discuss participation in TUSC, or at least electoral collaboration.

The National Health Action Party and the SLP have not responded. Respect replied but declined the offer even of exploratory talks. The SLP and Respect, unfortunately, share the ‘dissolve into us’ ultimatory stance of the Greens. Two meetings have taken place with CP officers and they provided a guest speaker to a 2012 TUSC conference, but they have not taken up the offer to join TUSC, with the full rights of a participating organisation and a place on the national steering committee.

What is the problem here? It is not a question of TUSC being ‘narrow’ and ‘non-inclusive’, or that the Socialist Party allegedly ‘dominates TUSC’. The coalition is based on agreement on a quite limited core programme, although with a clear socialist clause for democratic public ownership of the banks and major monopolies, supplemented by policy statements for particular elections. Every TUSC candidate is asked to endorse these before they are issued with the legally necessary ‘certificate of authorisation’ (see Beyond that, however, candidates are responsible for their own campaign. So far 582 candidates have stood under the TUSC umbrella. Only two applications to be a TUSC candidate have been turned down: one who planned to stand against a member of the RMT’s parliamentary group; another, a last-minute candidacy opposed by his union’s branch chair (with no time available for the steering committee to mediate).

Organisations’ rights are protected by the federal, ‘umbrella’ character of TUSC. If the CP, Respect, etc, were to join the RMT, the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers’ Party on the TUSC national steering committee, their rights as autonomous organisations would be fully guaranteed – including to stand candidates under their existing registered names, to produce their own independent material in elections, etc. The rule that the steering committee has to operate by consensus means that no organisation – or leading trade unionists participating in a personal capacity, with their ‘unofficial’ union constituency – could ever be ‘bounced’ into lending their name and authority to an action taking place under the TUSC banner.

The TUSC rules encourage the establishment of local steering committees or branches to be organised on a similar inclusive basis. How more open and ‘pluralist’ could it be?

Representative democracy, not plebiscites

Unfortunately, this attractive feature of TUSC – unity with equal rights, not the domination of one group over others – has been used by some of the founders of Left Unity to dismiss TUSC as ‘undemocratic’. Counter-posing ‘one member, one vote’ (OMOV) to the democracy of organisations electing accountable representatives, they have often echoed the propaganda of the Blairite right-wing in the 1990s as they sought to transform the Labour Party into New Labour. John Prescott, who pushed through the OMOV constitutional changes – which, for example, abolished the role of local union delegates in selecting parliamentary candidates in favour of an individual membership ballot – saw this as more significant in changing Labour than the abolition of its socialist ‘Clause Four’. The plebiscitary ‘online democracy’ of Grillo’s Five-Star movement in Italy, or the German Pirates’ Party – a cyber equivalent of US-style party primaries – is not a model for the workers’ movement.

In fact, Left Unity itself is not operating on an OMOV basis. Eight thousand people clicked an online declaration supporting ‘Ken Loach’s appeal to discuss the formation of a new party’ following the release of his film, Spirit of 45, a Guardian article and other media publicity, and over 500 have been reported as attending local meetings. Its first national meeting was composed of local group representatives from ‘minuted meetings of no less than five people’ (and ‘volunteers’ from yet to be constituted local groups), which elected a committee.

But how is that fundamentally structurally different to the RMT, with its national officers, executive committee and annual conference delegates all elected by union members, choosing its representatives on the TUSC national steering committee? Except that the RMT has 80,000 dues-paying members and has proved its ability through collective action – its social weight – to defend working-class interests. If a viable organisation emerges from the Left Unity initiative, why wouldn’t it want to come into the TUSC umbrella?

‘But TUSC stops individuals from participating’. No, that’s not true. The TUSC national steering committee agreed in June 2011 that individual members would have an elected place on the committee through a ‘TUSC Independent Socialist Network’, duly filled at its inaugural meeting in October that year. Nobody has been excluded from a local group, or prevented from setting one up.

Preparing for the break

Much of the frustration with TUSC’s progress comes down to the failure to date to make a major electoral breakthrough of the scale of George Galloway’s ‘Bradford spring’ in March 2012. But, while an important parliamentary figurehead was won, largely due to working-class voters from an Asian Muslim background breaking from their traditional allegiance to the Labour Party, how has this been used to help develop an alternative vehicle for political representation for all sections of the working class? What alternative was it when the Bradford Respect councillors abstained in the Labour council’s £82 million cuts budget debate in February? What impact does Respect have in the unions? In May’s council elections there was not a single Respect candidate.

While local successes may be possible, election results are broadly a reflection of objective developments, above all the catching up of mass consciousness with the reality of a capitalist system in profound crisis.

The questioning of trade union support for Labour, for example, will develop, including in those unions still affiliated to Labour. This year’s Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) conference defeated a motion for “discussions with the wider trade union movement and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition in order to examine the development of political representation for workers and CWU members”. But with Royal Mail privatisation looming – which Labour’s frontbench could but won’t stop in its tracks by pledging re-nationalisation without compensation to the big shareholders – the question will resurface again and again. While neither candidate in the recent election for the general secretary of Unite, Len McCluskey nor Jerry Hicks, clearly posed the need for the union to stop funding Labour and take the necessary steps to build a new workers’ party, it was significant that no candidate could be found in Labour’s biggest affiliate who would defend the current programme, undemocratic structures or leadership of New Labour.

At the same time, Unite’s political strategy to recruit 5,000 new members to Labour in one year, agreed at its December 2011 executive council, has not produced the results hoped for, with just 600 signed up by the December 2012 meeting. In one constituency where there had been some success, Falkirk West, the parliamentary candidate selection process was suspended in February and the Unite-backed candidate withdrew, according to the Guardian (13 May), after allegations that new members’ “fees were being paid en bloc by the union”.

Meanwhile, Unite members who are Labour councillors who defend union policy by voting against cuts in Labour-controlled councils are either suspended (in Warrington) or expelled (Southampton) from New Labour. Significantly, the Southampton ‘rebel two’ anti-cuts councillors are now backing TUSC. The undercurrent of discontent in the unions and a searching for a viable means of political representation will surface after the next general election and possibly before. Developing TUSC in the unions and election campaigns is vital preparation for the events to come.

Last autumn the Economist magazine (4 August) picked up on a research report on mass parties, ‘Going, Going… Gone?’ by Ingrid Van Biezen at Leiden University. It charts how party membership has declined throughout Europe since the 1990s: in the ten years to 2008, by 20% in Germany, 27% in Sweden and 36% in Britain.

This was the period of capitalist triumphalism following the collapse of Stalinism, which had its ideological and organisational impact on the working-class movement. Changing the class character of the former capitalist workers’ parties like New Labour, so that they were no longer a potential expression of working-class representation, this process also eroded the reason for the existence of the traditional bourgeois parties, too. The result, the Leiden researchers warn, is the development of “a more fragmented political spectrum”, which will “make forming governments much harder” with the ‘political legitimacy’, the social reserves, to carry through austerity. But viciously assaulting the conditions of the working class is precisely the task capitalism requires of its political representatives in the age of austerity. Explosive developments loom.

As to timing, comments the Economist, despite “being abandoned by many of their members”, the established mass political parties “will seem strong – until they quickly fall apart. History is littered with once-dominant institutions that were imperceptibly hollowed out and then suddenly collapsed”. Across Europe, they warn, “such a tipping point could be near”. Britain not excepted.

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May 2013