Central in the battle for a working class anti-austerity voice
"May you live in interesting times" said Dave Nellist, chair of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), in opening its 2015 conference. This old Chinese curse is fitting for the Labour Party right wingers who thought the continuation of ’politics as usual’ was guaranteed. They have had this view shattered by the surprise landslide victory of Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership – which formed the background to the conference.
Over 200 people attended the event in central London, representing dozens of TUSC groups and all of the constituent parts of the anti-cuts electoral alliance. With serious and fraternal debate, the conference firmly asserted that TUSC has a vital role to play in the new political situation opened up by Corbyn’s win – which formed the basis for the main session.
The first platform speaker, president of the transport union RMT, Peter Pinkney, attempted to put to bed any doubt over the RMT’s continued official support for TUSC. He said "it’s wonderful that Corbyn and McDonnell are in" but pointed to the fact that they are still surrounded by many right wingers, including some in the shadow cabinet. "What if the RMT reaffiliated to Labour and then in 12 months Corbyn is ousted and replaced by a right winger?"
Peter also raised some concerns about Corbyn’s plans. The RMT has consistently argued for the immediate renationalisation of the railways. Corbyn has stepped back from his previous support for this and suggests renationalising them only as the franchises run out. To thunderous applause Peter responded: "Do what we did in 1945 – take them back, and take them back now!"
Peter Taaffe, general secretary of the Socialist Party, said that there are now two parties contained within theLabour Party – and that a split is likely at some stage. "It’s not a matter of if the right wing will strike, but when", he pointed out, saying that they hope to first discredit Corbyn. So it is essential that the forces that support Corbyn are strengthened at every level of the movement.
In this sense, the national anti-cuts force that has been established by TUSC is more essential than ever.
Peter showed that this is particularly the case given the obstacles that Corbyn supporters are facing. "The Corbyn surge is looking for a way forward and they won’t find it in the current Labour Party structures". There is a lack of local meetings where debates can take place, new members don’t have a vote for their first six months, and fundamentally "the machine is still in the hands of the right."
Given this, Corbyn has to be supported from outside the Labour Party as well – including by TUSC standing in elections against cuts-making Labour candidates. Peter said: "If we don’t stand, we are allowing them to cut unchallenged. We have no right to allow workers to lose their jobs".
Peter was followed by Charlie Kimber, national secretary of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP). Corbyn’s victory confirms, he said, what TUSC has argued – that the mood against austerity is as strong here as it is in Greece or Spain. "We should be with Jeremy Corbyn against the right. But that doesn’t mean joining the Labour Party, it means continuing to develop a socialist alternative."
The final platform speaker was Will McMahon of the Independent Socialist Network (ISN). Will emphasised again the importance of Corbyn’s victory: "A battle is about to commence. On the one side is Jeremy Corbynand his supporters and on the other is the class enemy".
Dave Nellist, who was a Labour Party MP in Coventry from 1983 to 1992, commented that he has been asked by many people since the leadership election if he will be re-joining Labour: "And I tell them, it’s great that there’s a Corbyn-led Labour Party. But Coventry doesn’t have a Corbyn-led Labour Party … the Labour council there are planning the next round of cuts … So there’s still a role for TUSC."
This point was echoed throughout the rest of the day. RMT member Sean Hoyle pointed at the TUSC banner: "Look at that banner, ’no to austerity’ – that’s what we think. And I still don’t think that’s what the Labour Party thinks."
Warrington TUSC councillor Kevin Bennett laughed that, despite him resigning from the Labour Party in February, he was the only Warrington councillor who supported Corbyn in the leadership race. "If all Labour councils stood against cuts, what a message that would send. It could bring the Tories to their knees."
However, not all speakers were so unequivocal about needing to press for a principled opposition to all cuts. Jenny Sutton, a member of the SWP who has stood for TUSC a number of times in Tottenham, correctly argued in favour of a united front approach – TUSC supporters working together with those who have been enthused by Corbyn’s campaign and have joined Labour. But she also said that "there can’t be any hard and fast rules – that they have to be in the Labour Party or have to be out of the Labour Party or have to be opposed to all cuts."
The Socialist Party would argue that being openly 100% anti-cuts is an essential basis for a united front approach. Taking a firm no-cuts line is the best lever to pressure others in the movement to act.
Suzanne Muna, a Socialist Party member who sits on the executive of Unite the Union, explained (in a personal capacity) how Unite ended up supporting Corbyn (it was initially expected to back Andy Burnham). "The Labour Link was under big threat at Unite rules conference – my branch was one of those that submitted a resolution calling for disaffiliation." Suzanne explained that it was this threat that made the executive vote to back Corbyn – that if they didn’t, people like her would "get their way".
Elections next year
The second session concentrated on the 2016 council elections.
Clive Heemskerk from the TUSC steering committee set out that these elections would have been important because of the huge cuts facing local government, and the powers councils have to resist them. But following Corbyn’s victory they are even more so – there is now no excuse for Labour councillors to be voting for cuts against their leader’s anti-cuts mandate.
The handful of TUSC councillors who have presented alternative, needs-based budgets to councils have carried out pioneering work – of which TUSC should be proud, Clive said. He listed the ways in which councils refusing to implement the cuts has been made easier since the heroic stand of the Liverpool City Council in the 1980s.
Clive encouraged all local TUSC groups to make full use of the TUSC model letter to councillors (asking to meet with them to discuss joint campaigning against cuts; and for no-cuts budgets) as a real campaign tool. "National events will be clarifying the dividing lines in the Labour Party. But we need to work out on the ground who is prepared to fight."
This approach was widely supported from the floor. Wayne Naylor, a former councillor in Leicester who left the Labour Party to make a stand against cuts, talked about putting forward an alternative budget there. "We put it forward with a lot of pride. No-one supported us in the council so we took the message out to the streets in the TUSC election campaign."
Socialist Party member Nancy Taaffe recounted the battle of the residents of Fred Wigg and John Walsh towers in Waltham Forest, who are resisting ’regeneration’ of their estate. Sonia, the leader of the campaign, has written to Jeremy Corbyn asking for him to intervene to stop the Labour council’s plans.
Nancy argued that, if Corbyn adopts an approach of putting unity inside the Labour Party over all else, he will be unlikely to do this. "We have to stand with theworking class every time. We’re with Corbyn, but we’re with Sonia first."
European Union referendum
The final session of the day discussed what position TUSC should take to the referendum on European Union (EU) membership. John Reid from the RMT council of executives stated clearly the RMT’s position, which is that the EU is an anti-working class capitalist club. The RMT AGM this year agreed to campaign for a progressive ’No’ coalition.
Socialist Party deputy general secretary Hannah Sell agreed, calling for a "socialist, internationalist, anti-racist campaign that highlights the international interests of the working class." She demonstrated the various ways that the EU damages the interests of workers – enabling the bosses to pay lower wages to workers from other countries, demanding further privatisation of public services, etc. We cannot, Hannah argued, leave the ground open to reactionary right-wing forces such as Ukip to be the sole voice of the ’No’ campaign.
Mark Thomas, speaking for the SWP, agreed with the first two speakers. The EU was central, he said, in forcing austerity on Greece "taking up the mantle of what the IMF have done for decades to neo-colonial countries." Referencing the Syrian toddler who was pictured drowned in the Mediterranean, Mark put paid to the lie that the EU ensures freedom of movement – "look at Aylan Kurdi."
The ISN has a different position to the rest of the constituent parts of TUSC. Ed Potts argued that a position of ’exit with socialist policies’ is inadequate because it will not be an option on the ballot paper. A withdrawal from the EU would be a victory for reactionary forces, he said. In response to points on the role of the EU in imposing austerity in Greece and elsewhere, Ed argued that campaigning for Britain to unilaterally exit from the EU would be ’deserting our European brothers and sisters’.
In the vote that followed the discussion only nine of those present voted against the motion from the TUSC steering committee agreeing to register as a ’permitted participant’ in the referendum to conduct an independent campaign against EU membership (while guaranteeing the right of TUSC supporters who wish to do so to campaign in a different way and produce their own material).
Those who spoke from the floor generally agreed. For example, Vladimir Bortun, a Romanian living and working in Britain, commented that although it could be said that he had personally benefitted from Britain’s membership of the EU, he was still in favour of campaigning to exit. "We can support free movement without supporting the EU."
Judy Beishon of the Socialist Party’s executive committee disagreed with the ISN and said that it is not automatic whose victory a ’No’ vote would be. She said that we need to differentiate between the motivations of the working class who will vote against EU membership and the motivations of the ’No’-campaigning right-wing and Ukip. The EU is seen as "remote, undemocratic and a gravy train." A vote against the EU could well be seen as a vote against the establishment and against the government.
The motions passed at the conference will now be referred to the national steering committee of TUSC. The event set a firm basis to move forward towards May and beyond, ensuring that TUSC continues to place itself central in the struggles of workers and young people and the battle for a mass working class, anti-austerity political voice.