The RMT is currently debating whether to reaffiliate to the Labour Party. The decision will be made at a Special General Meeting in Doncaster on 30 May. In the run-up to this meeting, many branches are holding special meetings to decide their positions and mandate their SGM delegate.
A majority of those involved in producing the Tubeworker bulletin support reaffiliation: this view is reflected in the first article below, and elsewhere on this site (including in this briefing).
However, some supporters of the Tubeworker bulletin take a different view. As Tubeworker is committed to open, democratic debate, this view is also reflected here, in the second article.
Rejoin Labour and fight!
An earthquake has taken place in British politics in the last few years. The Labour Party has its most radical leadership for a generation, and has brought policies such as the renationalisation of the railways, the postal service, and utilities back into the political mainstream. Hundreds of thousands of people have flooded into the Labour Party, inspired by its newly radical message, eager to get active to kick out the Tories. The Tory government is weak: a left-led Labour government is a real alternative.
The right wing within the Labour Party can be isolated and defeated. It is strong and vocal within the Parliamentary party, but with little support in the grassroots of the party. In boroughs like Haringey, a combined movement of party members and local trade unions has swept right-wing councillors out of their way following their support for gentrification.
It is in this context that the RMT, the only union organising on London Underground which is not affiliated to Labour, is discussing the prospect of reaffiliation. There is an explosive struggle taking place within Labour, a struggle to fulfil the radical potential of the Corbyn surge and transform Labour into a genuinely democratic, genuinely socialist party. By reaffiliating, RMT could play a practical role in that struggle.
Knowing the history is important here. The Labour Party was founded in the early 1900s because the most active unions at the time had arrived at an important political conclusion. They realised that making deals with friendly MPs in the Liberal party, or even the Tories (the only two major parties at the time), was not good enough. Organised labour needed its own political party, based on and linked to workers’ basic organisations: trade unions. Thus the Labour Party was born.
A great deal has taken place since, and much has changed. But that basic reality - that our class, the working class, needs independent political representation via our own party, linked to our unions - remains.
Despite the best efforts of the likes of Tony Blair, right-wing Labour leaderships have not been able to entirely break Labour’s links to the working-class movement. Now, under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, the party is undergoing a process of transformation of a different kind: making it more radical, and returning it to its foundational aim of representing working-class political interests.
That radical transformation is far from complete. There is still a substantial Blairite element within the party. The force that can defeat them, and carry through the radical transformation of Labour, is the combined weight of the hundreds of thousands of new members, many of them young, who have flooded into the party in support of Corbyn, and the affiliated trade unions. RMT should rejoin their ranks.
By reaffiliating to Labour, RMT can have a direct voice within party structures. RMT activists could stand in internal selections against right-wing Labour candidates, offering an alternative to the New Labour throwbacks. RMT could propose policy at Labour conference, and have a representative on Labour’s National Executive Committee. RMT branches could affiliate to local Labour Parties, guaranteeing local representation and giving us an opportunity to mobilise within Labour in support of our industrial campaigns: against job cuts, and for better pay, terms, and conditions.
In London, affiliation to Labour would allow us to directly challenge, within the party, Sadiq Khan’s failure to offer any meaningful resistance to the Tories’ slashing of the TfL budget. Direct pressure within his own party, combined with industrial action to resist the cuts, could have an enormous impact.
We should face up to the fact that RMT's current political "strategy" is barely a strategy at all. It is a recipe for passivity, for having no strategic intervention into politics, to throwing money away on fringe candidates standing against Labour who garner pitiful votes. Promoting candidates against Labour might make sense if they were making sharp, class-struggle-socialist propaganda, but the lowest-common-denominator "anti-cuts" message of the so-called "Trade Union and Socialist Coalition" candidates RMT will be backing in the 3 May council elections is hardly going to advance political consciousness. Standing candidates against Labour is a dead-end: reaffiliating, and standing or supporting alternative candidates within the party against right-wing MPs or councillors will be far more effective.
We should not see our union’s political strategy in isolation from the wider labour movement. Our aim should not be an “independent” strategy, but to be part of a collective effort of the entire labour movement, or a substantial part of it, to secure working-class political representation.
A Corbyn-led Labour Party, bolstered by hundreds of thousands of new members, in a state of clear political flux with great potential to become more democratic and more radical, offers the best vehicle for pursuing that aim. RMT should reaffiliate to Labour and join the fight.
Retain RMT's current political strategy
This Tube worker argues that our union and the wider labour movement, including the socialists in the Labour Party can best be supported by the RMT maintaining its current political strategy. We currently have the power to withhold our support from politicians who work against our interests, as well as giving support to those who support us.
The members on the gateline and in the cab have no appetite to change a winning formula. We are told that if we don’t affiliate to Labour, we are left with a choice of bosses' parties. But Labour still is, to a large extent, a bosses' party! Members are pointing to the Labour mayor of London, elected thanks to support for Jeremy Corbyn. We are asking why our Labour mayor is content to administer billions of pounds worth of cuts, preside over the current "transformation" process which is devastating our admin grades and allows the continued exploitation of our cleaners by an outsourced company, despite all the promises of change.
Members point to the disgraceful spectacle of Labour MPs queuing up to undermine the leadership, inside parliament and out. The change in leadership and the consequent surge in membership is to be welcomed. We are sure that Jeremy Corbyn opposes cuts to public services and we are being asked to support him in that by fighting from the inside as an affiliated union. Yet a Labour councillor, Rachel Heywood, has had the Labour whip withdrawn for doing exactly that! Jeremy Corbyn's leadership has not been able to prevent the local party from standing a pro-cuts candidate against her. An affiliated RMT would be prevented from supporting people like Rachel as it would involve going against the official Labour candidate. Fighting from the inside would not be an option.
The vast majority of RMT members in Scotland are vehemently opposed to affiliation to Labour. The argument that Scottish branches would not have to affiliate is not helpful. Scottish branches would NOT be able to support socialists against Blairite Labour candidates. To affiliate would be to completely abandon our Scottish members.
Members point out the disappointing lack of content in the discussion paper released by the Labour party. We are told that it is simply an outline and details can be worked out later. Would we accept such an answer in any other context? If an employer gave us a vague written promise that we would get better pay and conditions, would we commit to that and work out the details later? Of course not!
Further promises and details are being mentioned in online and branch debates. We are told that there will be a seat on Labour's NEC for an RMT member. But nobody can make that promise now! Election to the NEC is just that! When challenged, such promises are retracted but are then repeated in other forums. We must be absolutely clear: the only influence over Labour policy that RMT members will have is what is contained in the discussion document. Promises and pledges made in online posts and in speeches are worth nothing. Many RMT members are already active in the Labour Party. Being in an affiliated union makes hardly a scrap of difference, you still have only one vote in your CLP!
We are told that the reason that the last Labour manifesto did not promise to scrap Driver Only Operation (DOO) and all anti-union laws was because RMT did not have a seat at the table. Really? We have enough faith in Corbyn to believe that those items would have been in the manifesto if the choice was his. The truth is that he would not be able to get them past the Blairite machine that still holds power. An affiliated RMT could not make that magically disappear.
We are a members led union. Our members, especially those in Scotland, do not want to change our political strategy. Many believe that the Blair/Mandelson project of turning Labour into a bosses party may be reversible. The 2017 election manifesto (influenced as much by the non-affiliated RMT as any of the affiliated unions) enabled many of us to vote with hope and positivity for the first time in decades. There is hope for the future. However, the case of Rachel Heywood and the plight of our Scots members shows that affiliation at this time would tie our hands and prevent us from pushing the very changes that we need. We are stronger outside. We must keep our current political strategy.