Britain: In defence of TUSC

As the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition gears up for its biggest ever electoral stand…

The Socialist Party’s annual Socialism weekend in November included a forum entitled, In Defence of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). As TUSC gears up for its biggest ever electoral stand we publish below the introduction by CLIVE HEEMSKERK, a Socialist Party executive member and the TUSC national election agent, one of the platform speakers at the event.

Why has this session at Socialism 2014 been given the title, ‘In Defence of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition’? After all, looked at from a subjective level, what has been achieved in the four-and-a-half years of TUSC’s existence is not insignificant. But looked at on an objective level, it is a fact that the vacuum that has been created by the transformation of the Labour Party into another capitalist party has still not been filled by the workers’ movement. So we can rightly ask what more, if anything, could TUSC have done to help fill the vacuum?

When TUSC was established in 2010 it did not proclaim itself to be ‘the new workers’ party’. The forces involved – the Socialist Party, the late Bob Crow, and the other leading trade unionists on board – saw TUSC as a precursor of a new party, a coalition that could play a catalyst role, above all in relation to the organisations of the working class, to push those organisations to create a new mass vehicle for independent working-class political representation. This meant primarily the trade unions but also other social forces that we could anticipate would develop in the ‘age of austerity’, like the anti-water charges movement unfolding now in Ireland.

But it was established with the clear and sober realisation that unless significant forces of the working class moved, other forces – the far right, or right-wing populism – could also partially fill the vacuum. At the second ever meeting of the TUSC steering committee, in January 2010, Bob Crow raised the question whether he should stand for TUSC in Barking against the British National Party’s Nick Griffin in the coming general election. This wasn’t with the expectation that either the BNP or TUSC would win the seat, but to take the BNP head on in a battle for a segment of the working-class vote which Labour could no longer reach.

In the event the BNP has imploded since its peak in 2009. But that has principally been due to the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) which was actually partially promoted by the ruling class for that very reason, particularly in the 2009 European elections, to be a ‘safer’ alternative to the BNP. UKIP was and still is the establishment’s ‘anti-establishment’ party. The point here is that right-wing populism has been able to grow because the crisis of working-class political representation has not been filled by the heavier battalions of the trade union movement.

The clearest example of this is to compare the situation in spring 2011 with that which exists today. The TUC demonstration against austerity on 26 March 2011, at 750,000 strong, was the biggest organised working-class demonstration in British history. Six weeks later, in May, UKIP organised a demonstration for austerity! This ‘rally for cuts’, with UKIP leader Nigel Farage and various right-wing Tories speaking, could mobilise just a few hundred. That was the real balance of forces in the first year of the Con-Dem government. But the leadership of the big unions threw it away, both industrially – when they retreated after the N30 pension strikes that year – and politically, by refusing to discuss any alternative to Labour as it stuck to the austerity consensus.

But that objective development shows that while we shouldn’t underestimate what has been achieved by establishing and developing TUSC, we also need a sense of proportion. The forces that have come together in TUSC since 2010 cannot substitute themselves for the ‘heavy reserves’ of the trade union movement. As Mick Cash, the new general secretary of the RMT transport workers’ union, put it in The Independent, "if one or two large trade unions start to say we need an alternative, they have the organisation and financial clout to start developing a political party that could have its roots in the working class". (5 October)

Of course those objective facts are frustrating and it is legitimate to ask what more the Socialist Party and its allies in TUSC could have done to push history forward. But it is also true that there are some who play on the contradiction between what TUSC has been able to achieve, and the still unmet objective need of the working class for political representation, to attack TUSC, to sneer and write it off as ‘failed’. So that’s why this is a session organised in defence of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition.

What could have been done? Electoral strategy

One criticism made is that TUSC’s electoral strategy, of standing candidates widely, has held back progress to a new workers’ party.

The TUSC national steering committee has only very rarely turned down an application to be a TUSC candidate – just three compared to the 1,221 candidates that have been accepted since 2010, a sign of how inclusive the coalition has been. But by standing widely, the argument goes, TUSC risks getting low results and therefore discourages the big trade unions from independent political activity. This is a real debate. We know that canvassing someone doubles the likelihood that they will vote for you compared to just receiving a leaflet, but that’s harder if you stand more widely. And we know that the worst TUSC results are used to say, ‘look, standing alternative candidates doesn’t work’.

For example at the Unite conference this year there was a debate on a motion calling for the union to organise a conference on working-class political representation. The motion didn’t mention TUSC but speakers against it did, using the result in the February 2013 Eastleigh by-election, 18 months ago, to say that Unite had no option but to continue funding Labour. But let’s be honest. What result would have encouraged them to say, ‘yes, Unite does need to build a vehicle for independent working-class representation’?

Are they convinced by the Greens’ election results perhaps? Actually some trade union leaders are happy to cheer on the Greens, because it sub-contracts taking a political stance out to somebody else. They don’t have to put themselves on the line and take responsibility for organising a new working-class party. So they don’t attack the Greens’ results as they do TUSC’s – perhaps someone in the discussion who wants to criticise TUSC could say what the Greens’ vote was in Eastleigh which is, after all, in the South East European parliamentary constituency where they’ve had an MEP since 1999? [This was a trick question, which no opponent of TUSC in the audience could answer. In fact, the Greens could not find a candidate to stand in the Eastleigh by-election.]

How do the Greens’ results generally compare to TUSC? Let’s look at local council by-elections, where the Greens have stood in 65 contests this year, with an average vote of 7.4%. TUSC has stood in 21 by-elections this year to date with an average vote of 4.7% (which is actually down on the 2013 council by-elections performance, showing the effect of UKIP being able to position itself as the main vehicle for a ‘protest vote’). Incidentally, the Liberal Democrats have polled 6.7% in those seats.

All of these are Championship club results, not the Premier League – although Bob Crow, who was famously a Millwall supporter, was always prepared to point out that a Championship club could still win… They are modest results – 187,000 votes for TUSC candidates since 2010. But nobody has died because some TUSC candidates get 1%. We need to balance the results against the enormously important effect that encouraging workers to stand in an election under a common banner has on their confidence. That’s what TUSC does, enabling trade unionists and working-class community campaigners to identify with a clear anti-austerity, pro-working class, socialist platform, and to feel it themselves that ‘politics’ isn’t just ‘for them’ at the top, it’s for us too. We can say that, or write it in articles a thousand times, but ‘an ounce of experience is worth a ton of theory’.

So that’s why the Socialist Party is pleased that the TUSC national steering committee has agreed to go for 1,000 local council candidates and 100 general election candidates in the 2015 elections. With this number of candidates TUSC will reach the BBC’s threshold for ‘fair media coverage’. But most importantly the local council target in particular can encourage and enable every working-class fighter who can stand in the elections to come forward as a candidate.

TUSC’s federal structure

Another criticism made by opponents of TUSC is that the coalition’s federal structure holds back the involvement of new forces. But actually the opposite is true. The coalition structure, agreeing on core policies to contest elections but allowing different organisations and individuals to retain their own political independence, has encouraged the anti-cuts ‘rebel councillors’ in Southampton and Leicester, the Hull ‘Red Labour’ councillors, and some of the ex-councillors in Harrow and their supporters, to work with or be part of TUSC without the fear that, having left the Labour Party, they were now going to be outvoted or dictated to by other forces.

It has meant that groups like Day-Mer, the Turkish-Kurdish socialist organisation, can participate in TUSC while promoting their own political position; that the TUSC supporters on the NUT executive can organise as a group with representation on the TUSC national steering committee; that senior officers and executive members in the PCS civil servants’ union and the Prison Officers Association (POA) can participate in a personal capacity, knowing that they cannot be ‘bounced’ into backing anything they do not support. And above all, the RMT has voted now at three consecutive annual conferences to have official representatives on the TUSC national steering committee on the basis that TUSC is a federal coalition. The resolution passed unanimously at this year’s conference referred to this as "providing a safeguard to ensure that no decisions can be made by TUSC without the authorisation of the RMT representatives". The idea of ‘organising separately but striking together’ is not a new one in the workers’ movement.

But there are other arguments involved here. The Labour Party has been transformed from an organisation of representative democracy, of local constituency and district parties for example composed of delegates from unions, ward parties, the women’s sections, the Labour Party Young Socialists, the Co-op party etc. It is now an organisation of ‘plebiscitary democracy’, typified in the ‘One Member One Vote’ (OMOV) reforms for selecting parliamentary candidates pushed through in 1994 and culminating in the Collins reforms this year, cleaning up the last remnants of the unions’ collective voice in Labour’s structures.

Yet the opponents of TUSC tell us that OMOV is the only way to organise and that representative democracy is inherently undemocratic. The Socialist Party doesn’t agree with that. We are opposed to ‘Strictly Come Politics’, where individuals sit at home with the capitalist media in their ear, and don’t reach decisions collectively.

There are historical arguments on our side. The Labour Party was also a federal body from its formation as the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) in 1900 until 1918 and even then retained an important federal element. It’s a fact that one of the first two Communist Party MPs was Shapurji Saklatvala, ‘Comrade Saklatvala’, elected in 1922 as a joint candidate of the CP, Labour and Battersea Trades Council.

But nobody should make a ‘fetish’ of structures. There are issues about the accountability of public representatives that should be discussed. Keir Hardie’s ‘guide’ in 1900, that organisations affiliated to the LRC should promote their own candidates who ‘shall then form a Labour group in parliament’, is not a clear mechanism for accountability – although of course we haven’t got a group of MPs we need to discipline yet.

TUSC will have to discuss these issues as it develops. For example, when another union joins the RMT with official representation on the steering committee, perhaps TUSC should move to votes for organisations based on their membership? TUSC is still a work in progress – but all those who have participated in it can be proud that its structures and methods of collaborative working have enabled it to get to where it is today.

TUSC’s policies

The debate over TUSC’s structure has been linked to the issue of its programme. This includes a commitment to democratic public ownership of the major companies and banks – a new version of Clause Four – but that is not a fully developed socialist programme. So the charge is made – ‘you say the Labour Party had a federal structure, but look at how Labour betrayed the working class’. ‘What guarantee is there’, the argument goes, ‘that TUSC, if it developed into a new workers’ party, wouldn’t go the same way as Labour?’ or, more probably, if a new workers’ party was formed by a different route with TUSC as a part of that process.

There are actually no absolute guarantees, and certainly not structural ones, that can determine how a workers’ organisation will evolve. There are trade unions which were formed as fighting organisations of the working class which are now ‘unions’ in name only in the way they act. That also applies the other way, of course – look at the transformed outlook of the Royal College of Midwives’ members on the TUC demonstration in October after the first strike action in their organisation’s 130-year history!

The point is that you can have workers’ organisations – trade unions, parties, and even strike committees and workers’ councils or soviets – which degenerate and come into conflict with the interests of the working class. It will always be necessary for Marxists to organise within them and argue for a clear socialist programme. But it is also true that only through workers organising independently will the working class move from being a ‘class-in-itself’ to a ‘class-for-itself’, conscious of its own interests against those of the capitalists and able to act on that consciousness. Without organisation, in unions and in a workers’ party, we are individuals, in the workplace and politically, unarmed against the capitalists.

The next period will put all organisations to the test. The general election will deepen the crisis of the capitalist establishment parties. But the objective need for independent working-class political organisation in the age of austerity will remain and TUSC is poised to play a vital role in pushing forward the process to the new workers’ party that can meet that need.

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