Rail union moves towards break with Labour

Submitted by martin on 2 July, 2003 - 11:12

According to the Financial Times of 1 July 2003:

The descendant of one of the Labour Party's founding unions could see itself branded an outcast under the party's rules after it voted on Tuesday to seek "closer links" with a range of other parties, including the Scottish Socialist Party, Plaid Cymru and the Greens.
Bob Crow, general secretary of the 65,000-strong Rail Maritime and Transport union, went further still by exhorting his union's Scottish branches to affiliate to the far-left SSP.
Delegates at the union's annual conference in Glasgow rounded on New Labour over its stewardship of rail services, the government's decision to go to war in Iraq and its hardline stance in the fire dispute.
During an aggressive speech, Mr Crow lambasted the government's policy towards Iraq, complaining to the delegates that: "We've got a Cabinet of war criminals in this country."
He questioned the decision by other trade unions to retain their heavy funding of Labour through the contributions of their massed ranks of affiliated members. Mr Crow said that Amicus - Britain's biggest private-sector union - had about 1m members affiliated to the Labour party, but asked: "Is that going to stop the destruction of manufacturing industry?"
The RMT also voted during Tuesday's debate to further reduce Labour funding by cutting once more the number of members it affiliated to Labour, to 5,000 from 10,000.
The move follows May's conference decision by Bectu, the broadcasting and entertainment union, to ballot its members on whether it should retain its link with Labour. Bectu is planning to produce the maximum political effect by balloting its members in September, on the eve of the Labour Party conference.
The RMT also decided to support Ken Livingstone against the Labour candidate in London's next mayoral election.
Mr Crow told journalists on Tuesday: "We wouldn't have dreamt of putting a candidate against the Labour Party four or five years ago.
"I think if the Labour Party continues the way it's going, I couldn't honestly see that in five years' time we would be in it," he added.
David Triesman, Labour's general secretary, said: "If an affiliate does actually actively organise for, or fund, a party or candidate standing against the Labour Party, then that affiliate puts itself beyond the party rules. In that situation the rules have to be enforced".

An AWL bulletin distributed at the conference shared the general anger against the Blair government, but proposed a different road for fighting effectively against New Labour.

Excerpts:

[Some] motions, to this conference... want the union to start supporting middle-class parties like the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru and the Greens, as well as Scottish Socialist Party candidates.
They would cut down our affiliation to the Labour Party to a token 5000 members. (It is already down to 10,000, though the union claims 60,000 members and the great majority pay the political levy).
This is soft-sell disaffiliation.
For individual trade unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party sounds radical, but in fact is an acceptance of defeat. So also, in a different way, is the proposal to "diversify" to supporting friendly individual politicians in a range of political parties both within and outside the labour movement.

The RMT's forerunner, the ASRS, played a central role in breaking the old Lib-Lab system and establishing the Labour Party.
Socialists in the ASRS argued that the working class needed its own party, rather than just looking for friendly politicians in the middle-class Liberal Party (there were some, of course) and a few places on the Liberal list of candidates.
Liberals and right-wingers in the ASRS argued the contrary. After a long battle the socialists won. They were right. You can see they were right by looking at the USA, the only big capitalist country where the working class never managed to set up its own mass party, and unions instead back friendly-looking politicians from the middle and upper class parties.
The working class needs its own political party to win socialism. The working class needs its own political party even to win a decent amount of reform within capitalism.
To go for backing Plaid Cymru or the Greens would mean saying that the socialists were wrong, and the Liberals were right!

The ASRS founded the Labour Party not on its own, but together with other unions and the socialist groups who had campaigned for an independent workers' party, the Marxist Social Democratic Federation and the softer Independent Labour Party. Today too, in the battle to refound working-class representation, we need to look at what is happening in other unions.
The new TGWU leader, Tony Woodley, declared on 1 June: "I'll... call a summit of affiliated unions to discuss how to get Labour back representing working-class people...."
Two days later, the ASLEF conference unanimously resolved "to reclaim the Labour Party as a party not only of peace, but also one in which internal democracy and accountability are re-established" and which is based on the "values of socialism".
Union general secretary Mick Rix told delegates: "We must fight from within and take control of the Party".
The same conference also voted not to back the official Labour candidate for Mayor of London, but instead to help finance the campaign of outgoing Mayor Ken Livingstone. Mick Rix said he did not expect this support for an independent candidate to disrupt or prejudice the union's position within the Labour Party.
On 9 June, the conference of the GMB general union voted to review its donations to individual constituency Labour parties and to withdraw cash if an MP does not share the union's "aims, values and priorities".
About 100 MPs supported by the GMB will be invited to interviews. High-profile New Labour figures like Peter Mandelson could lose union financial backing.
The GMB conference also passed an emergency motion calling on Tony Blair to resign if an independent inquiry establishes that he was deliberately lying about "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq. (And who seriously thinks he wasn't?)
The broadcasting union BECTU, at its conference on 17 May, decided to ballot its members on whether or not to continue its affiliation to the Labour Party.
Unison leader Dave Prentis has called for a review of Labour Party structures to restore an effective union voice in the party. Trouble is, he said it in order to give himself a "left" profile and help push through a bland report from the review of its political funds which Unison decided on in 2001. In Unison general conference (17-20 June) Prentis got a left-wing "reclaim the Labour Party" motion voted down. But a motion was passed calling Unison to withdraw funding from Labour MPs who back privatisation.
Derek Simpson, leader of Amicus (AEEU-MSF), has allied himself with the "awkward squad", but his merged union's new rulebook will put its political fund in the hands of a tiny minority, the union's delegates to local Constituency Labour Parties - who, on the old AEEU side, are notoriously handpicked rightwingers.
The picture is uneven. But things are stirring in the union/Labour Party link as they have not done for years.

The changes made in the Labour Party have radically reduced union input. An army of media people, advisers, and think-tankies, most of them people with no links to the labour movement, sits on top of the party. The unions still have a voice in the National Executive Committee and the Labour Party conference, but both that voice, and the powers of the NEC and conference, are radically diminished.
Perhaps most important, such union say as there is in the Labour Party is far less subject to control by the rank and file.
The moves by Woodley and others to reverse this political disenfranchisement of the working class are very important and very welcome.
Woodley is right to campaign for the remaining union positions of strength within the structures of New Labour to be used in a way accountable to union members and to working-class interests.
Such an effort could draw together the forces for a new and sharp campaign for working-class political representation, one which could and would go further than nudging Blair a bit on this or that issue, one that would eventually force an open break between, on the one side, the unions and the socialists, refounding labour representation, and, on the other, the Blairite privatisers and warmongers of "New Labour".
Those who want to change the unions' relationship with New Labour are right - but the way to do that is through a positive fight to restore working-class representation in politics, not just negative gestures of protest.
The central question is rank-and-file control, and the building of rank and file trade union groups which combine the fight for labour representation in politics with the fight to democratise the trade unions.
Woodley is right to call for a "summit" of union leaders to organise a fight in the Labour structures. But it should not remain just a matter of "summits".
Build a Labour Representation Committee - not just as a cabal of left-wing trade-union leaders, but as a broad-based rank-and-file movement, with representative conferences! And don't wait for Woodley! Start now, by organising local "labour representation" conferences to debate the issues, review local options, and coordinate activity.

Full bulletin (pdf).

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