Unions should keep independence to lead fight to defend Corbyn
The civil war in Labour took a further step into the open on 8 November when Labour’s shadow defence spokesperson, Maria Eagle, supported an outrageous attack on Jeremy Corbyn by the chief of the defence staff of the armed forces.
Sir Nicholas Houghton used a Remembrance Day TV interview to say that Corbyn’s support for unilateral nuclear disarmament should not be "translated into power". Instead of denouncing this attack, Eagle said the general "was within his rights to express his doubts" about her party leader becoming prime minister.
This attack followed the scandalous suspension from Labour Party membership on 6 November of Jeremy Corbyn’s head of policy, Andrew Fisher. This clearly shows that the right-wing Blairite party machine is not only still intact after Jeremy’s election victory but is now moving to assert its control. The charge is that Fisher tweeted support for non-Labour candidates in the general election, even welcoming the defeat of pro-austerity former shadow chancellor Ed Balls.
But the hypocrisy is striking. There has been no disciplinary action taken against Frank Field. He called for any right-wing MPs who might be de-selected in the future to resign their seats, force by-elections and stand again as independents, in which he would support them! Field like some other right-wingers, ’lent’ their votes to Corbyn when they arrogantly miscalculated that he would be routed in the leadership election.
In a similar vein, applications to join Labour have been refused from those who have stood as anti-cuts candidates in elections. This has included former Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) candidates such as Kingsley Abrams, who was thrown out of the Lambeth council Labour group because he wouldn’t vote for cuts in 2011. Jeremy Corbyn and Kinglsey’s own local Labour MP wanted him to re-join, but he has been barred. Yet the Blairites welcomed the Tory MP Shaun Woodward not just into New Labour in 1999 with a safe seat but into the cabinet!
Inevitably, there must be a debate on how best to challenge the developing Blairite attack. Corbyn has to take on the Blairites by basing himself on those who rallied to support his anti-cuts message. He should reverse his refusal to push for mandatory re-selection of MPs and should go further to open up the Labour Party to all socialist, anti-austerity forces by voting to give the opportunity for parties like ourselves to affiliate, as the Co-operative Party is now.
This debate is a live one in the unions as well and they must play a central role in defeating the right-wing assault on Corbyn by the capitalist establishment and their allies in the Labour Party.
The leadership of the FBU firefighters’ union is bringing a motion to re-affiliate to Labour to its special conference on 27 November. The FBU voted to disaffiliate in 2004 as a direct consequence of the national dispute on pay in 2002-3 against Blair’s Labour government who used the army’s Green Goddesses to try and break the strike. The then FBU assistant general secretary told the conference that FBU strikers had been called, "criminals, wreckers, fascists and even worse".
The leadership of the union argue that not to re-affiliate to Labour is to ’stand on the side-lines’ of the fight to defend Jeremy Corbyn. But non-affiliated unions, including the FBU, have not been ’on the side-lines’ over the last six months.
The FBU was one of the first unions to come out in support of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid. Moreover, they donated £5,000 to Jeremy’s campaign fund, with only four unions giving more. In fact, the second biggest donor was another non-affiliated union, the RMT transport workers’ union, one of the core constituent organisations of TUSC. And when Jeremy stood on the FBU’s fire engine outside the monster election rally in Camden to address those who couldn’t get in the venue, he didn’t ask if the FBU were affiliated!
Like many FBU members, we believe that while this debate is legitimate, to vote on re-affiliation at this moment is premature. The conference should instead be launching a thorough consultation at all levels of the union that should report to the annual conference next May. This should be used to draw up a list of demands that can be put to the Labour leadership to extract an absolute commitment to refuse to implement the cuts alongside a democratic transformation of Labour.
We think that this should include convincing Corbyn to reverse his refusal to support the mandatory reselection of MPs on the mistaken premise of trying to placate the Blairites. It is clear from the latest attacks that, reflecting the interests of Britain’s capitalist establishment, they will not be reconciled to Jeremy’s leadership.
But democratisation should go further and needs to be connected to fighting the cuts. Labour needs to return to the past position when councillors were accountable to local Labour Party members, who through borough or district party committees, decided the council elections manifesto. Now we have an unaccountable caste of councillors, who are generously paid if they are in the cabinet. No wonder only a handful have voted against implementing Tory cuts.
This is a concrete issue for FBU members, who have already faced 7,000 job losses in the fire service since 2010. In Leicestershire, some Labour councillors holding the deciding vote on the fire authority, have signalled their intention to support further brutal cuts. Just days before the special conference, the union is lobbying the Labour-led West Midlands Fire Authority because they are voting for cuts.
Isn’t it better to have this negotiation with the Labour leadership before affiliating? Afterwards, it will be far more difficult given the anti-union constitutional set-up that has been inherited by Corbyn and the limited role that the FBU will be able to play given its size.
In a similar vein, by affiliating, the FBU’s fee – which could be over £50,000 a year – would go to the same party machine that is now acting against Andrew Fisher and is debarring anti-austerity applicants. In fact, it would be easier for unions such as the FBU and RMT to ensure that their money goes directly to ’Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party’ – as opposed to ’Austerity Labour’ – by not affiliating. They could finance organisers from Corbyn’s office or, for example, convene a conference of those Labour councillors on fire authorities who do want to resist the new round of cuts.
They could also continue to give financial support to MPs and councillors that support Jeremy’s anti-austerity policies. In the general election the RMT donated £10,000 from its national political fund to TUSC candidates (and £7,000 to the Green MP Caroline Lucas), but also donated £93,000 to Labour candidates who had declared support for the union’s policies.
At this stage, the FBU should maintain its ability to act independently to support the anti-austerity struggle inside and outside Labour. This is in effect what the leadership is proposing it does in Scotland by not affiliating its Scottish members because of the anger that still exists to Labour after its role in the ’No – Better Together’ alliance with the Tories and Lib Dems in the independence referendum.
It’s not clear if this would be allowed within Labour. It certainly would cause a crisis if the FBU in Scotland wanted to support non-Labour candidates – the reason for the expulsion of the RMT in 2004.
The almost daily attacks on Corbyn show how serious the threat to his position is. What is urgently needed is a ’council of war’. This should include left wing-led unions like the FBU, the RMT, the PCS and others, along with serious socialist organisations inside and outside Labour. It must discuss how a real campaign could be mounted to take on the Blairites in the Parliamentary Labour Party and the councils and transform Labour into a real anti-austerity party.