In a letter to the Evening Standard on Tuesday 9 July, Jerry Hicks, Len McCluskey’s challenger in the 2013 Unite general secretary election, set out his view for how trade unions should seek political representation.
He believes Unite should give money to the Labour Party on a “payment on results” basis, effectively giving them financial rewards for delivering political favours in office. Hicks said this approach would “make it easier for Ed Miliband”, presumably by ending the permanent, structural (and financial) link between unions and the party. Hicks must have his tongue in his cheek when he makes this remark, but it’s very near the truth.
Hicks’s view is the most starkly-posed version of what has become a consensus amongst much of the labour-movement left about how unions should relate to organised politics. That is, rather than having a fixed, permanent relationship with a political wing, directly accountable to and controlled by unions and their members, unions should incidentally line up with (that is, bankroll) external political initiatives that, it is hoped, will be more union-friendly if elected. I wrote about and critiqued this approach in a letter in January (“Fight for real workers’ representation”, Solidarity 231, 25 January 2012).
Advocates of such an approach are using the Falkirk incident to boost their case. In a response to Ed Miliband’s speech (in which the Labour leader blustered about reforming the Labour-union link but proposed very little in concrete terms), RMT general secretary Bob Crow claims his union has “increased [its] political influence” since its expulsion from Labour in 2004, as it has “the freedom to back candidates and parties who demonstrate clear support for this trade union and its policies.” He advocates other unions break their links with Labour.
But what does this “increased political influence” look like? In electoral terms, the candidates RMT has backed have won almost universally tiny votes.
In political terms, the TUSC initiative it backs (despite increasing opposition — one third of delegates at its 2013 AGM voted against continued support for TUSC) is bland, lowest-common-denominator anti-cuts populism, and the No2EU slate it ran in the 2009 European election (and plans to resurrect for 2014) was reactionary and quasi-nationalist.
The Fire Brigades Union, the only union to have disaffiliated from Labour, rather than to have been expelled as the RMT was, did next to nothing politically (aside from passively backing some desultory TUSC efforts) until the London Assembly elections in 2012 when it ploughed its resources into backing… Labour, so Andrew Dismore could unseat the arch-Tory head of the Fire Authority, Brian Coleman.
The “break the link now” narrative relies on the entirely false idea that the affiliated unions have spent the years since the Blairite takeover of Labour being oppositional and dissenting, and finding themselves blocked, with the latest outrage representing some kind of final straw. The opposite is the case. In 2007, for example, when a series of rule changes disenfranchised CLPs and unions (essentially abolishing party conference), GMB, CWU, T&G, and Amicus all voted for the changes, despite bluster in advance that they would fight them. The 2007 changes have since been reversed, but the episode tells the real story of the unions’ relationship to the Blairite revolution in Labour — oppositional bluster, followed by complete acquiescence.
None of those unions have had substantial changes of leadership since 2007. The people who then ran the T&G now run Unite. What we have, then, is a trade union movement that is not prepared to fight Blairism. Making immediate disaffiliation the point-of-departure demand does precisely nothing to change that. In fact, it makes a perverse implicit excuse for the bureaucracy by pretending their acquiescence is caused by the link to the Labour.
What should the ultimate aspiration here be? Can the Labour Party be “reclaimed”? No, and not only because it was never meaningfully “ours” in the first place. The link between the trade unions and the Labour Party (greatly hollowed-out and controlled by a party-within-a-party cadre of bourgeois political organisers) does need subverting, disrupting, and, ultimately, “breaking”. But it matters a great deal how that break is made. A campaign that makes “break the link now” its starting point would, in current conditions, be objectively passive. It would mean the far left reacting to a Labour leadership determined to drive the unions out of official, and potentially governmental, politics by saying “sure, let us help you!” And it would mirror back and entrench the current levels of consciousness and confidence that sees many trade unionists rightly despise the Labour Party for all it did in government, and for all it’s failed to do in opposition, but extend that hatred into an understandable but ultimately incapacitating cynicism about politics as a whole.
What would an active campaign for union self-assertion within the Labour Party, and against its leadership, look like? There is a whole raft of things we should fight for:
• More active, public political campaigns — involving stalls, demonstrations, rallies, and other direct action — for union policies. Unions, including non-affiliated unions, should demand that these campaigns are backed and taken up by the Labour Party. Even minimally visible public political campaigns which demanded support from Labour would apply pressure to the Labour Party.
• Opposing local government cuts. Advocating Labour councils defy and mobilise against central government instructions to make cuts.
• Committing to support, including against imposition of government commissioners or punitive action by the national Labour Party, Labour councils which defy cuts; and to support, including against disciplinary procedures and expulsion, individual Labour councillors who vote against cuts budgets.
• Withdrawing funds and other support from MPs and councillors who vote for cuts.
• Nominating and voting for candidates committed to defy cuts in council selections, and for candidates committed to left-wing pro-union policies in parliamentary selections.
• Initiating de-selection procedures against councillors and MPs who vote for cuts.
• Mandating union representatives on Labour Party committees to fight and vote for union policies, and recalling them if they don’t.
• Reconstituting unions’ parliamentary groups so as to only include only labour-movement MPs who commit to fight for basic working-class policies.
• Putting rule changes, policy resolutions, and emergency motions to Labour Party conference, and actively supporting democratic improvement.
• Organising union members who are also Labour Party members into a network, and encouraging them and giving them resources to campaign for union policies in the Labour Party and to report back.
• Affiliating to the Labour Representation Committee and taking an active part in it. Working with other LRC-affiliated unions to form a pro-LRC union caucus which operates in a cohesive way at, for example, Labour Party conference.
A rupture of the Labour-union link following such a campaign would present radically better prospects for any new initiative than disaffiliation in current conditions of passivity and retreat. None of the proposals above are made impossible by objective structural issues or rules within the Labour Party. The missing ingredient is political will.
It is a fairly significant missing ingredient. Unions unprepared to vote against the 2007 rule changes are unlikely to suddenly to launch a militant campaign for independent labour representation. Many unions are as thoroughly controlled by a professional bureaucracy of effectively-bourgeois politicians as the Labour Party is. In Unison, for example, democratic oversight and control of its relationship to Labour is hived off into the “Labour Link”, an esoteric corner of the union’s structure that even the few members that are inclined to do so find it difficult to engage with.
A fight for a transformation of the way our unions “do” politics – and, in the first place, how they relate to the leadership of our existing political wing, the Labour Party – cannot take place in the abstract, but must be part of a wider struggle to transform our unions; not a structural tinkering, but a top-to-bottom transformation.
This is unlikely, impractical, unfeasible? The union bureaucracies will block it? Disaffiliation would be easier to win over a shorter timeframe? This is Luxemburg and Bukharin’s argument about the national question applied to domestic politics. They contended that it was pointless to fight for national self-determination for small nations because larger imperialist powers would inevitably crush them.
Immediate-disaffiliationists argue that advocacy of union self-assertion now is pointless because the union leaders will block it and, if they don’t, the Labour leaders will stamp on it. But if these contentions are true, almost nothing is achievable. It is not even the case that disaffiliation would be “easier” to win in current conditions. There is no evidence from any of the recent conferences of any of the larger affiliated unions that this is so. And if it were, that wouldn’t make it the right policy to pursue.
The FBU’s disaffiliation was “won” on a largely anti-political basis (understandable, given their bitter experience in the 2002 pay dispute against a Labour government), and, as aforementioned, they have done little politically since that time.
A new working-class party cannot be conjured out of thin air, or simply declared. The existing labour movement, warts-and-bureaucracy-and-inadequate-political-wing-and-all is the only one we’ve got. Attempts to find shortcuts around the very probably long and difficult work of revolutionising it (which necessarily involve circumventing the 200 years of accumulated struggle, resource, memory, and experience – positive and negative – that it represents) are vastly more impractical and unfeasible. There is no way around, only through.
The internet agitation for a “new party of the left”, for which (once it is declared) union support might then be sought (along with support from various other elements – students, pensioners, and so on) is not an alternative.
“The left”, as an amorphous body of social opinion abstracted from class and class struggle, is not a helpful focus. The logic perversely mirrors that of the Blairites, who want the unions to be one stakeholder, or “interest group”, amongst many, with no privileged degree of control or accountability over the political Labour Party. As organic, organisational expressions of class relations and class conflict, the trade unions (even in their passive, class-collaborationist, and bureaucratically-controlled current forms) are more than an “interest group” — they are the necessary point of departure.
Immediate-disaffiliationism and new-partyism do not see socialists as a political tendency within the broad labour movement, starting from its existing levels of consciousness and organisation but seeking to educate, develop, and shape its ideas — but rather as external forces attempting to instrumentally capture working-class support for this or that sectarian initiative.
The 1900 Labour Representation Committee and the 1906 Labour Party were not attempts to create “parties of the left”, but to create a political extension of the industrial labour movement to give voice to working-class interests in the political sphere.
The Hicks policy, and the variants of it held across the left, would aid the Blairite mission of winding the clock back 113 years and reducing organised labour to, at best, an “interest group” and, at worst, a cash cow for external electoral adventures. Instead, revolutionary socialists and other radicals in the labour movement should advocate a policy that makes union self-assertion — within and without Labour Party structures – its starting point, not making a fetish of maintaining the Labour link, in its current form, for all time, but neither making a fetish of immediately breaking it.
Our job is not to “reclaim Labour”, our job is to make our movement fight — using any and all channels available.