Trade unions must build a political voice for the working class
"If others want to stick around and be insulted by those whose only interest is our money and not our ideas then that’s a matter for them." RMT general secretary Bob Crow made it clear that the Labour leadership’s attack on the unions, and Unite in particular, should be a defining moment for working class political representation.
From the platform at the 129th Durham Miners Gala, Bob made the case for a new mass party for working people: "We need an alternative party of labour." (See RMT press release on www.tusc.org.uk)
He reminded the massive crowd in the Gala’s Big Meeting on Saturday 13 July, how the trade unions broke from the Liberal Party over 100 years ago, because it was incapable of representing workers’ interests, to form the Labour Party.
On top of all the crimes of New Labour over the last two decades -privatising public services, maintaining Thatcher’s anti-union laws, conducting wars, etc – the Labour leaders’ recent confirmation that a Labour government will stick with the Con-Dem cuts surely urgently raises the question of a political alternative.
Bob Crow’s speech got a huge response from the crowd. There was also support for the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, as he rose to speak.
As with many trade unionists around the country, the Gala audience wanted to show solidarity with a trade union leader under vitriolic attack from all the enemies of the working class, including the Blairites, the Tories and the right-wing press.
Len got the best reception when he attacked the Labour leadership for their attempt to scapegoat the unions around the Falkirk selection process where Unite had pushed for its preferred candidate. "Labour doesn’t have an automatic right to exist…
"The Parliamentary Labour Party today does not look like, or think like, the working class communities it seeks to represent. That is a serious problem… That is what Unite was fighting for in Falkirk – to give the working class a stake in our democracy. I make no apology for that."
But, as with the week before, when he cautiously welcomed Labour leader Ed Miliband’s ’reform’ of how the unions affiliate to Labour, even agreeing with Tony Blair, Len’s refusal to draw the necessary conclusions, left many bewildered and disorientated, if not angry and frustrated.
Len posed questions without answering them: "But if we are to go out and convince thousands of working class men and women that they want to sign up to be associate Labour Party members they will not be interested in the rulebook, or even the history.
"They will want to know – will Labour make a difference? … Will it be different not just from Cameron and his crew but from the Blair-Brown years as well? If we can say ’Yes, Labour has learned, and Labour is on your side’ then this scheme will work.
"But if our people – our members – are unclear as to the answer then no amount of persuading will get them to sign up."
This doesn’t address Miliband’s proposed ’reforms’ of the Labour Link which will further dilute the already neutered role of the trade unions in the Labour Party as a collective force for the working class.
Miliband is under pressure from representatives of the capitalist class to block a voice for the working class in this way.
Moreover, given Labour’s commitment to working within the limits of capitalism and to maintaining cuts if it forms the next government, and Labour councils’ record of implementing cuts, the answer is clear – Labour offers no alternative to austerity.
Rank-and-file trade union activists are disgusted at Miliband’s actions, particularly calling in the police to investigate the Falkirk allegations, but also Labour’s out-and-out anti-working class policies.
As Bob Crow angrily said on Saturday, why hasn’t Miliband called in the police to investigate the scandalous injustice meted out to miners at Orgreave, or the Shrewsbury pickets 40 years ago still continuing today after successive Tory, Labour and Con-Dem governments?
We encourage Unite branches to discuss the model motion (see box) and all members of the affiliated unions to raise Falkirk and the question of disaffiliation in their branches.
Break with Labour
We say it is time for the trade union movement to take the bold step of breaking with New Labour, not to go into ’non-political’ trade unionism, but to use its political strength to form a new collective voice, a mass workers’ party, that could appeal to the disenchanted, the poor and all the victims of austerity and the capitalist system by putting forward fighting socialist policies.
Undoubtedly, there will be some in the unions and on the left who argue this is impossible. Ultimately they hope against hope that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, Labour can somehow be reformed.
The Falkirk debacle is a damning demonstration of the lengths to which the Labour leadership and their ruling class backers, including in the press, will go to resist any challenge to their complete control of the party and its policies and candidates.
The early Labour pioneers, such as Kier Hardie, prepared the ground for the advances Labour made from 1906 onwards when workers’ mass struggles against the system showed the need for the working class to take independent political action.
Who could question that, given the pro-cuts policies of all the traditional main parties, alternatives can’t develop rapidly in the resulting political vacuum.
Despite their limitations new formations have emerged in Europe. In Italy, Beppe Grillo’s Five-Star Movement appeared to come from nowhere and in Greece, Syriza’s anti-austerity programme sparked its rapid electoral rise.
In Britain, anger at the main parties has been demonstrated by abstentionism and votes for the right-wing nationalist Ukip, including by a section of workers who want to ’kick the main parties’. This adds urgency to the need to build a real workers’ alternative.
Imagine a left challenge with the financial resources of the unions or even just the £3 million annual affiliation fee of Unite to Labour compared to the shoestring that the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) attempts to operate on, notwithstanding the involvement and backing of the RMT.
The Socialist Party is also a key component of TUSC and we believe that it is tenaciously playing a pioneering role, arguing the case for a political voice for the working class and providing a way for anti-cuts fighters to stand as candidates against councillors voting through austerity.
TUSC sees itself as facilitating and campaigning for the building of a new mass workers’ party. A new formation, based on the unions and the resources provided by their millions of members and the basic anti-cuts and anti-capitalist policies expounded at Durham by Len McCluskey and Bob Crow, embracing all those being battered by these brutal cuts would have a massive appeal across society and, in fact, shove the political debate to the left.
What should Unite should?
Unite members, in their branches, stewards committees and constitutional committees of the union, should pass resolutions defending the union against these attacks and calling for a full, democratic discussion of the alternative. In particular, they should call on the leadership to implement the following plan of action:
• An emergency executive council should be called to discuss the crisis.
• The EC should pass a resolution for a recall rules conference which would have the objective of removing the references to Labour Party affiliation from the rulebook, thereby facilitating disaffiliation. This conference should also discuss political representation for the working class.
• Should this be carried, Unite should call meetings and conferences of trade unionists, from affiliated and non-affiliated unions, including those linked to TUSC. These events should have the aim of forming a new workers’ party, which would have the programme of fighting the cuts, scrapping the anti-trade union laws and opposing privatisation of public services. Such a party would truly reflect the needs of the working class and fight in workplaces, communities and in elections for socialist ideas.