The Trade Union Movement, New Labour, and Working-Class Politics: Part VI. Marxists, militants, and working-class socialism

Submitted by AWL on 18 November, 2006 - 1:13


J & S argue:

“These facts indicate that a general policy of attempting to win official union backing for socialist electoral challenges to Labour has no grip.
Such a policy could only be implemented if one of two conditions held true: either that we had no intention of allowing the union members a real say in the decision, or, we were deluded enough to think that if we acted as if the majority of the class supported us, they would.”

How could we conceivably engineer “a general policy of … official union backing for socialist electoral challenges to Labour” without “allowing the union members a real say in the decision”?

J & S write as if the Trade Union Congress General Council has been taken over by the ultra-left...

They are probably right that official trade union backing for genuine socialist candidates is a long way off. We have, let us remember, put our stress, as regards broad perspectives for the labour movement, not on “building a socialist alternative” but on restoring labour representation. Mass trade union backing for working class representation is much closer. This idea has guided our work in the SA and in elections.

So what concerns J & S? They fear that “left” trade union bureaucrats may hijack the unions. They want us to defend the “discipline” of the inactive conservative majority against such hijackers!

In any case everything said here relates only to whether socialist candidates can hope to get trade union backing. It says nothing to us about whether or not socialists should stand in elections — unless the message is an argument for giving up such activities in despair, and possibly giving up all the typical activities of revolutionary socialists now, and “accepting the discipline of” labour movement bodies and their passive majorities.

And if there is no chance of getting union backing for socialist candidacies, why do they get in such a lather about splintering the unions politically? They worry lest the SWP can carry its wishes in badly attended meetings. In such a situation we “represent” the “silent majority”? It is difficult to see what else they mean.

This is a conservative plea for political immobilism on politics in the unions until the passive majority moves!

The judgement here implicitly devalues any decision of such meetings, the typical trade union meetings now. It ties us to the opinion — or rather what they think is the opinion — of the inactive “mass”. It pits us against not only the SWP when it is being foolish, but also against others who are attracted to the idea of doing something, and who will go along with the pseudo-militant SWP by default if we orient to the passive mass.

J & S should read what Trotsky says (above) about the way the idea that the militants “annex” and usurp the majority of the working class has always been used by reactionaries …

Or is it that J & S don’t want to differentiate from the “common wisdom” of an anti-SWP section of the “left”? People with whom we have not more and frequently less in common than with the SWP. Certainly, that is the positive result.

They adopt the viewpoint of “left” trade unionists who have no perspective but trade unionism and no goal but to “restore” the Labour/union link to something like what it was.

That is not AWL’s politics or AWL’s perspective!


“The most important unions organising the key sectors of the working class are now — and will remain for the foreseeable immediate future — Labour Party affiliated organisations. Therefore, we strive to find ways to express our ideas in a form that makes sense given this reality. When addressing the unions we should raise the question of working class political independence in terms of what the union is, or is not doing, to fight for trade union control of the Labour Party and of Labour government policy.”

For five years the AWL has argued that the class content and political substance of the unions’ affiliation to the Labour Party has changed radically within the old forms. Jack put it as sharply as any of us:

“In this context, we can no longer unconditionally defend the link against the growing mood for disaffiliation which is spreading among the trade union rank and file; nor, however, should we concede to that mood. We are for the radical destabilisation and shaking up of the trade union link. In any union where we can influence events we should attempt to organise around the idea of the rank and file presenting an ultimatum to the union leadership: ‘Fight for union policies and Labour democracy-or stop paying fees’. This could be popularised around the formula, ‘No say, no pay’.”

Now, with a great sweeping generality which they call “concrete analysis”, J & S brush all that aside — everything which had led us to our assessment. Because the shifts in Labour-union relations have not gone as far as we (and Jack more than anyone else in the AWL) expected; because the Blairites have been able to get their way without needing to amputate the unions: they want AWL to pretend that the political content of the link has not been turned into its opposite, into a barrier to working class representation in Parliament.

They have not presented any detailed argument against the “John Nihill” [SM] piece of five years ago in Workers Liberty, or our analyses since, summarised in Discussion Bulletin 237. They give no reasons for their conclusion. It is so! Jack has spoken. That is all.

This indicates a change of mood rather than of analysis. How does Jack reach his conclusions?

Of course, we should argue in the unions “to fight for trade union control of the Labour Party and of Labour government policy”. We do it. But their argument is a trick “argument”, one that assumes as given what it is arguing for. It assumes that the whole, or the main part, of our “ways to express our ideas” is to be filtered through “addressing the unions”. Here, as elsewhere in the article, “the unions” are presented as a bloc, with no differentiation between bureaucracy and rank and file.

We propose policies in the unions. Why does that rule out socialist candidacies as well, “wherever possible”, to quote what Trotsky said to the Independent Labour Party? If “class-conscious workers” vote for Blair, it will be with gritted teeth and by default. (Or have J & S discovered a new category of class-conscious workers — class-conscious workers who are hopeless political idiots, incapable of seeing the Blair Government as the big-business government it is?)

Why should we rule out trying to get a local union to back a “labour representation” or socialist candidate? Or is the idea that the Blairites and the trade unionists who support them, even reluctantly, are so powerful and so entrenched that socialists should disarm politically in face of them? That is, in Trotsky’s expression, “boycott ourselves”, by here and now, accepting the “collective discipline of working class organisations”?


Because of their fearful conservatism, they look to the bureaucratic rules and regulations of the union to hold things in check. For that reason they offer AWL political paralysis and disintegration. Read again: to the idea that rule changes would “make it easier to support non-Labour candidates”, they reply:

“The problem is that it would perhaps make it too easy. The formal bar on backing non-Labour candidates means that left activists have to be sure of solid support in the workplace before supporting challenges to Labour”.

Perhaps we should praise them for candour before shooting them for political fuckwittedness! It is notable that they who airily dismiss the effect of the rule changes on the Labour Party, here think rules are all-important and all-powerful. The rules are what keeps “left activists” from acting out of step with the “workplace”.

(How do they know, by the way? If there were union-backed electoral challenges to Labour, it is a safe bet now that there would be working-class support — from workers who fell away from New Labour into abstention at the last General Election, for example. One of the most instructive failures of the Socialist Alliance — in so far as it was a matter of method and approach, here mainly that of the SWP — was its failure to win such people. But the problem was not that those workers who abstained had illusions in Blair’s Labour Party!)


“Without that control provided by the rules it is absolutely certain that the sectarians would siphon off branch money without any proper democratic mandate”.

The rules that mandate exclusive backing for the Blairites play the useful role of stopping money going to e.g. the SWP! We argue against union branches backing the “Respect” coalition. We do that by explaining that a union-backed left challenge to Blair is a good idea — but not with these politics and this leadership. But here T &M seem to want us to do it by basing ourselves on “the rules” which insist that union cash should instead go to the Blairites.

By “democratic mandate” J & S here seem to mean mandate from the inactive members who do not attend union branch meetings. And again, the question confronts them: why is it better that it should be decreed, by power of inertia and pro-Blair rules, that the unions’ relations with the Blair Labour Party should be what they are? Why is it more democratic that entrenched rules rather than the active union members — sectarian though some may be — should determine what happens?

They answer strangely:

“The formal bar on backing non-Labour candidates means that left activists have to be sure of solid support in the workplace before supporting challenges to Labour... That is why there are so few solidly rooted electoral challenges — the support isn’t there in the working class”.

Eh? Do they really mean to explain the political disorientation of the Labour-loyal activists as a healthy inhibition rooted in “the working-class mind” on this question — not in the politically confused Labour-Party and “anti-Tory” mind of too many activists?

If left activists do not make more challenges to Labour “solidly rooted”, it is because they reflect the mass of workers — and that is good! (In any case, better than what the sectarians want.)

And what is the reliable guardian of the interests of the mass of the members against the errors of the activists? The rules against backing non-Labour candidates!

One of the reasons why we favour soviets over Parliament is that delegates to the soviet can be recalled at the will of the electors, easily, immediately and without bureaucratic obstacles being placed in the way of it. But here J & S see bureaucratic rules as powerful guardians of the “democracy” of the non-participants and a healthy restraint on what the activists do. (Meanwhile, the Labour Party’s changed rules, which for example make it very difficult for rank and file activists to get their propositions onto conference agendas, are of no importance at all, significant only as an “alibi”.)

Our political fore-parents, you see, were wiser than we are, and imposed rules on us that are a sort of political entail: the present activists cannot dispose of the basic assets. The rules work like the US Supreme Court as a check on impetuous democracy, if democracy means the majority will of those present and voting. Alternatively, J & S think that bowing to what they claim is the will of the inactive union members is more democratic than having the activists give money to the sectarians.

We do not want to follow Jack’s bad example and exaggerate wildly, but what hits you in the face here is that if J & S mean what they say, then they have a lot of agreement with the Blairites and the trade union bureaucrats who argue that some of the Tory anti-union legislation is good and democratic. Of course neither T nor M holds to such an opinion. Yet it is the logic of some of the things they write.

“If you try to get the union rules to move ahead of the class—as most of the left now wants to do—you simply reproduce the same danger of elitism and bureaucratic substitutionism as in any other attempt to short cut the necessary work of convincing and mobilising the workers”.

There is nothing “elitist” and “bureaucratic-substitutionist” about the existing rules and the way they inhibit the most active part of the unions?

J & S proclaim it a principle of working-class democracy that:

“We should sharply oppose any attempt to change the political fund rules to indicate support for political parties other than Labour, without first putting the proposed rule changes to a ballot of the membership.”

But to keep the existing rules in place without a ballot of the membership is fine and good!

In other words, we are not only champions of the rules as the embodiment of the wisdom of our ancestors — dealing with a different Labour Party — but we also rely on and champion what we think are the attitudes of the mass of the least involved union members to keep the rules in place against the possibly rough hands of the activists chafing against the healthy restraint of the rules that now serve the Blairites.

The abstentions in the last General Election suggests that there has been quite a working-class shift from Blair-Labour. We think that local union-backed and union-financed candidates challenging the Blairites might get a lot of the traditional core Labour/trade-unionist vote. There are enormous obstacles to mounting such candidacies in inertia, the weight of the union bureaucracy, and so on. J & S champion the obstacles and the restraints!

For J & S, before such a thing can be mounted by us, or us and others, we must first either be confident enough to break the union rules — rules which they themselves strongly defend — or put the proposition to a national ballot of the union (something easier said than done in any context other than the union bureaucracy wanting it).

According to J & S, we must make insistence on such a ballot about rule changes a central concern of the AWL.

They say we should insist on prior agreement by a majority of the whole union before the rules which act to restrain the activists and stop them moving ahead of the working class can be changed — rules which were imposed a political age ago to regulate relations between the unions and their political creature, the Labour Party, and which now serve to finance the Blair Party.

They want the maximum restraints, inhibitions and obstacles in the way of any challenge to New Labour, and any support to a labour-representation or socialist challenge to New Labour.

The rules and the mass of inactive members are the guarantee against “bureaucratic substitutionism” — not, note, against the Blairite hijackers “substituting” an out-and-out anti-labour, anti-working-class party for the old Labour Party, but against “left”, “socialist” and pseudo-socialist bureaucratic self-substitution.

The implication is that not only are the ancient rules democratic and “progressive”, but also that relatively, their guardians, the trade-union bureaucrats, are too, at least on this question. They play a progressive role in keeping open the option — which they don’t use, and may never use! — of a serious fight to “reclaim the Labour Party” and in protecting the inactive majority against the activists.

The curious parallel with the idea that the ruling Stalinists, despite all that could be said against them, preserved nationalised property, is again forced on the reader of J & S.

The trade union bureaucrats, of course, have always claimed that this is what they do!

The fact that the working class and the trade unions are now the victims of an enormous political fraud, a hijacking (there is no hyperbole in calling it a hijacking) that has substituted the Blairite “changeling” for the older party — that is all right for now. (It corresponds to the state of mind of the working class: that is plainly J & S’s train of thought). Nothing can be done about it, and nothing should be done about it, except by way of a ballot of the whole union!

The point here is not that we are against ballots. Where they can be organised, their usefulness in getting the political debates out to wider circles of workers may well outweigh the risk that they allow the passive majority to hamstring the activists. The point is that J & S would have us argue and campaign to demand that the union bureaucrats initiate such a ballot not to test whether the members really do want to stick with the Blairite monopoly. No: the demand for a ballot comes into play, and should be “sharply” insisted on, as a fallback defence of the status quo, should the left manage to defeat the bureaucrats at union conference and vote through a rule change.

This is more than conservative. It is not just a trade-unionist as distinct from a revolutionary socialist point of view. It is the point of view of the politically backward, timid and disoriented trade unionists, and of the incumbent trade union bureaucrats!

The argument is not made any better by the explanations about the danger of “moving ahead of the class” and of being elitists and bureaucratic substitutionists who attempt to short-cut the work of “convincing and mobilising” the workers.

Is it all right for AWL, as AWL, to be ahead of the class? Maybe. But we must not take the unions ahead of the class! The common-sense rule of thumb that militants can’t do anything if they fail to carry the rank and file with them, is here translated into a prohibition on being ahead of the mass in the sense of giving leadership.

Do they mean to say these things? Possibly not. If we “exaggerate”, or misunderstand, we will be happy to be corrected.


Now we move into strange and unexpected territory.

“The AWL should not take the initiative in proposing fragmenting the trade union political funds. Not because we are conservatives who desire to control developments, but because we are working class militants who believe in workers’ democracy.”

But of course we desire to “control developments”. Don’t J & S? “What else” — as Frederick Engels once put it — “are we here for”? The point we made before, which they respond to in such an odd way here, is that the desire to control developments, when we can’t, can lead to us becoming prisoners of the larger forces which do have at least a measure of control, and thus falling into a sort of conservatism.

The difficulties we outlined are rooted in the fact that we can’t control developments and the danger, therefore, that dissatisfaction with the fragmentation possibly consequent on initiative and movement will lead us into a conservative defence of the Blairite status quo, “until” things break from their present pattern immediately into the pattern we would like.

Whether they know it or not, that is exactly the position J & S are letting themselves be pushed into.

The appeal to “working class democracy” here can only mean that we ourselves submit in politics to what we think is the viewpoint of the silent rank and file and to the “discipline” and tempo of their movement. What else can the approach they advocate come down to in practice?

That is better than “sectarianism” towards the labour movement? No it isn’t — it produces exactly the same results as the most stupid sectarianism!

Not to dare to differentiate and go our own way politically has exactly the same consequence vis-a-vis the “mass movement” as cutting ourselves off from it by sectarianism, that is, by being so far ahead that development and fruitful interaction with the mass of workers is ruptured.

It would make us politically irrelevant in the affairs of the labour movement, in this case by having us politically “boycott ourselves”.

No! We go our own political way.

It needs to be said clearly: we do not believe in what is quaintly mis-defined here as “working-class democracy”, understood as getting in line docilely behind the broad, now inert, mass of the working class in trade unions.

The idea is not made any better or rendered less of a political suicide note for AWL by defining the policy of doing nothing to upset the status quo vis-a-vis the unions and New Labour — the idea that you do not break up, fragment, the unions’ political funds in any way — as “working-class democracy”.

It is plain here that what we defined as the crux of the issue, the danger of becoming conservative guardians of the status quo, is exactly what J & S are doing here, whether they understand it or not.

They more or less candidly describe this condition in themselves, at the same time as denying its existence:

“When proposing a policy for the unions, as unions, we should do nothing that undermines the fundamental collective purpose and class solidarity of the trade unions and renders them incoherent and ineffectual. If there is to be a meaningful political aspect to the unions [emphasis added], it has to be collective and unitary; anything else is out of kilter with the essential nature of trade unions as the embodiment of the principle of class solidarity”

This is downright nonsensical. It sinks politics into trade unionism. It conflates the point, impulse and content of trade-unionism — unity, collective action — with working class politics. It proposes that we sink our politics for the working class and the unions into trade unionism.

In politics — as distinct from trade unionism — the basic principle is not unity but programme, goals, etc. In a world where socialism is very much a minority view, to limit ourselves to what is “collective and unitary” is an ultra-conservative doctrine of immobilism which cannot but help bolster the status-quo.

It cuts against the militants, the awkward squad, the pioneers of something better.

This is what the nonsense at the start about trade-union discipline comes to. It is the sort of thing trade-union officials and time-serving Labour politicians say, to rubbish the left and excuse and defend themselves and their “realism” (unlike J & S, they don’t call it “revolutionary realism” just “realism”…)

It is perfectly true that we never take the initiative in splitting a union along political lines. But we may well push policies, including political proposals, which we think are necessary to the working class, even if our opponents will hive off or expel the minority and thus split the union “as a union”. If we are urging the unification of politically divided trade unions into an umbrella organisation in which the communists will be in the minority — say, the policy Trotsky advocated for the French trade unions, split by the right wing in the 1920s — especially then we will not accept the “political discipline” of the union. In terms of the history of labour movements, the claim that “if there is to be a meaningful political aspect to the unions, it has to be collective and unitary” is way off the mark. To say the very opposite would be more true to history and reality.

In many countries of Europe there have been trade-union federations defined by political alignments — Christian-Democratic, social-democratic, Stalinist. In France there were historically three large union federations and are now half a dozen.

What do we argue in such a situation? Of course we want trade union unity. But we do not say that the principle of working class unity demands of revolutionary socialists that they sink into the largest trade union federation and accept its political “discipline”. Our French comrades have never done that! The idea is as absurd as it would be suicidal.

We do not apply the trade union principle of unity to working-class politics. There the decisive thing is political programme and combat for ideas and actions against every other tendency.

The first sentence — “do nothing that undermines the ... class solidarity of the trade unions”, etc. — is a flat truism. And a pretty useless one in and of itself when we have to assess the effect of a policy or initiative.

The way J & S put it, the tenor of the truism and the conclusion it implies is starkly conservative. If we take it literally, it means do nothing on political or even trade union affairs that may divide the working class. Don’t risk rocking the boat of the “fundamental collective purpose and class solidarity of the trade unions”, which they implicitly (but falsely) assume to be on an even keel and the right course so long as we “do nothing” to disturb it. It conjures up such bits of trade-union routinist wisdom as “a bird in the hand is worth two in an unrealistic pay claim”.

In its emphasis on warning against making the movement less effective by creating divisions, it implicitly puts the onus of responsibility on those who want to challenge the status quo. It is up to them/us to do things so as not to take risks. In the 30 Theses we published in Solidarity, to which J & S’s piece was a reply, we quoted LDT:

“If it be criminal to turn one’s back on mass organisations for the sake of fostering sectarian fictions, it is no less so to passively tolerate subordination of the revolutionary mass movement to the control of openly reactionary or disguised conservative (‘progressive’) bureaucratic cliques. Trade unions are not ends in themselves; they are but means along the road to proletarian revolution.”


The thoroughly unserious approach to the points in dispute that runs through every part of J & S’s document is again dominant in the next passage.

“Bloxam and O’Mahony tell us that ‘logically’ there are only two possible uses of the fund: ‘One possibility is to argue for continued exclusive support of the New Labour Party… the second possibility is to argue for the tactical use of existing funds’ by which they mean ‘tactical fragmentation of the funds’ to support left wing, or labour movement electoral challenges. This is a prime example of an attempt to fit reality into a pre-conceived schema to suit your argument.

They use this a priori construction in order to portray those who want a serious and active trade union led fight in the Labour Party as ‘conservative upholders of the status quo’. It won’t work. We are proposing an aggressive tactical use of the funds to complement and fund activity to fight for working class control of union representatives. All they propose is the working class organisation handing over money to somebody else. What is most worrying is that you can only think that tactical use of the funds equals support for non-Labour candidates, if you have already given up on a struggle within and through the Labour/union link”.

The first thing that strikes you here is the political disorientation expressed in the workerist demagogy, the narrow trade-unionist point of view. We (Bloxam and O’Mahony) propose, they say, that “the working class organisation hand over money to somebody else”. The trade unions “handing over” — that is, donating — money to socialist or labour-representation candidates is “the working class organisation” giving money to “somebody else”?

Does the counterposition of “somebody else” to “the working class organisation” include AWL? In relation to the working class and working-class organisations, are we “somebody else”?

It is hard to see how we would not be included in this “somebody else”. Why wouldn’t we be (especially if we continue to do the things J & S object to)? It is difficult when you read stuff like this to believe that it is written by members of AWL.

This sort of workerist demagogy would not be acceptable even if they were to direct it exclusively against the SWP. Our objection to the SWP is to its politics and its typical modus operandi.

It might very well be in order for us in a trade union branch to oppose giving a donation to some SWP electoral or other project. It would be entirely out of order to back up our opposition to the specific proposal by deploying such an appeal to narrow trade-union-mindedness — us workers against the petty bourgeois socialists! Wouldn’t it?


Some questions to J & S. In British working-class history, back at least to the “labour unrest” before World War One, at what point did the Tories, Labour right-wingers and trade-union bureaucrats (and, where Trotskyists were involved, the Stalinists) not condemn the activists, the militants, the communists, the Trotskyists, as “unrepresentative minorities of troublemakers” and — as Harold Wilson infamously said of the 1966 seafarers’ strike leaders — “politically motivated men”?

How did the Minority Movement in the 1920s get that name? They picked up a dismissal of them by a union leader as “just an unrepresentative minority” and wore it proudly as a badge of honour.

Much of the real rationale and public justification of the series of anti-union laws brought in 1981 and after was precisely the need to rein in the militant minority. Thus the imposition of strike ballots and so on.

Already in 1923, Trotsky had to take the syndicalist-communist Robert Louzon to task for blundering into the habitual language of the reactionaries in denouncing socialist minorities: “It is wrong for Louzon to employ the terminology customarily used by our opponents in their fight against the revolution — it is a question of winning the confidence of the proletariat. And it is only possible to do this with correct tactics, tested by experience.”

Don’t J & S think that the arguments they have been forced into using to defend their stand are indecently close to the age-old arguments of the reactionaries?


All the issues in this section are summed up in the answer to this question.

In fact, even in a period of working-class quiescence such as this, it is nonsense to present things as if the incumbent trade union bureaucrats merely reflect the passive rank and file. The interaction is more complex. With better leaders the class would not be quiescent. If the ‘left’ had constructed an equivalent of the rank and file ‘minority movement’, able to give a lead and challenge the incumbent trade union leaders, the working class would not be quiescent. There are huge possibilities for competent militant leaders to cultivate working-class combativity.

Politically the RMT leaders leave a lot to be desired, but they have helped encourage and cultivate railworkers’ militancy.

Comrades should have a look at the way Trotsky discusses these questions in the texts on class, party and leadership in the Spanish Revolution which we have put on the Internet at

No sensible activist will substitute him/herself for the members. Yet our movement rejects all the formal and bureaucratic breakwaters against “impulsive” rank and file initiatives — that is, against the democracy of the activists.

We reject the counterposition of the inactive members to active, and the raising of the former above the latter.

We reject the idea that AWL looks to the rules to impose political wisdom on activists who might “rush too far ahead”.

We treat with the contempt they deserve all those, be they trade union bureaucrats, Labour Party politicians, or Thatcher Tories bringing in anti-union laws, who claim to “democratically” represent the inactive or “silent” majority against “unrepresentative” activists and militant minorities.

The entire approach J & S advocate is entirely out of line with the ethos of Marxist socialism and sharply at variance with the traditions of our movement.

If AWL were to assume the role of guards for the status quo against the SWP and suchlike — no matter how politically idiotic one thinks the SWP to be! — we would be signing our own political death warrant. .


And what do they counterpose to “the working class organisation handing over money to somebody else”?

“We are proposing an aggressive tactical use of the funds to complement and fund activity to fight for working class control of union representatives”.

Translation: they propose a campaign of propaganda within the unions, advocating that the unions should deploy their political donations “aggressively” to influence sponsored MPs. That is their “working class control of union representatives”.

Fine. None of us is against that. We have been advocating that for a long time. It is one of a number of things we should do, and continue to do. We are, however, against dressing it up so grandiloquently that no-one, including ourselves, knows what we are talking about.

We are against pretending that such propaganda in trade unions can lead to “working class control of union representatives”. Against pretending that it is the self-sufficient road to restoring working-class political representation.

The worst thing here, though, is when they complain that our attempt to delineate the logical possibilities sharply and clearly is an “a priori construction” chosen in order “to portray those who want a serious and active trade union led fight in the Labour Party as ‘conservative upholders of the status quo’...”

It would be better for them to reply to the substantive point — that we risk being trapped by our desire to see the unions move as quickly and in as straight a line as possible to recreate a labour party, into being defenders of the status quo against anything which contradicts the pattern we want.

We wrote explicitly — have in our press written explicitly, again and again, for years — that we want a serious fight in the trade unions to make the unions fight. The crux of the argument is whether that is compatible with standing labour-representation or socialist candidates in elections. We think they are compatible.

But what exactly is a “union-led fight in the Labour Party” in this connection? How can we arrange this “union-led” fight? What else can “union-led” mean other than “led by the existing leaders of the unions”?

That is a long stage ahead of the immediate possibility for us — a propaganda campaign by us and other socialists to get the unions to fight in the Labour Party.

We advocate that. But there is no guarantee that “the unions”, as a body, will ever do that. We could not take the one-sided course J & S advocate without warping AWL into an utterly narrow sect focused for politics exclusively on its propaganda campaign in the unions — a campaign based on a preconceived scenario and commitment to the belief that the labour movement can develop from where we are now in one way and one way only.

There is a serious question embedded in the bluster. There is no getting away from the need for honest calculation and concrete assessment.

What calculation do they ground themselves on?

They say that our approach means culpably “giving up on a struggle within and through the Labour/union link”. What is their alternative? It is to jolly themselves along with rhetoric, close their eyes to realistic assessment, and commit themselves exclusively (the practical difference between us is defined by the word “exclusively”) to the idea that trade union leader-led “struggle within and through the Labour/union link” can be mounted on a serious enough scale to have a chance of success, and in a reasonably short time.

There are only two possible ways this can happen. Either that the present union leaders will carry through a successful struggle against the Blairites. Or that the unions will be radically shaken up, and we, or people like us, will soon win leadership in them, or, enough support to exercise decisive influence.

In practice, as an immediate policy, inside a time frame which would not mean leaving the electoral arena to the Blairites for a political epoch, this idea can only mean having unlimited confidence that the new trade-union leaders will break the Blairites and their grip. Without a firm confidence in the new leaders to do that, J & S’s policy just does not make sense.

That is, indeed, the undertext of the document, and perhaps the source of some of the unqualified identification of “the unions”, as a bloc, with workers’ control, working-class democracy, etc.


But having unlimited, unqualified confidence in the new trade union leaders does not make sense either!

Thinking that “tactical use of the funds equals support for non-Labour candidates” (as a possibility) proves that “you have already given up on a struggle within and through the Labour/union link”?

More to the point: if you think tactical use of the funds cannot mean anything more than unions putting financial pressure on sponsored Labour MPs — if you rule out going outside the existing Blairite-union framework — then what right do you have to get indignant when someone says you have let yourself be boxed into a conservative defence of the status quo (defending it because you hope the union leaders will soon transform it into a modified, better version of that status quo)? What right?

The inalienable human right to splutter and bluster when you have boxed yourself into a corner and can’t think of anything intelligent to say?

But why do J & S want us to switch from the existing AWL policy of walking on two legs — electoral work and a labour-movement campaign — to the Long Jack Silver policy of hopping around on just one leg?

In so far as we can make sense of it, it is triggered by the statements of some of the new trade-union leaders. Jack is bowled over.

What is the difference between us here? It is not, certainly not, about whether we should treat the new developments in the union leaderships very seriously and try to build on them. We started to do that many months ago, in editorials in the paper in August 2002 and in October 2002.

The difference is that they want nothing else. (We will give our reasons for thinking that their nominal commitment to some independent candidates amounts to very little.)

The Socialist Alliance experience, with its large blanket of “Socialist Alliance” — largely SWP — candidacies, is coming to an end, and in any case, outside a few exceptions, has not been a good example of electoral work. Their Long Jack Silver policy may be given a certain appeal and even some credibility by recoil from the Socialist Alliance experience.

We should not just recoil from it. We should analyse, understand and learn from it. We should also learn from the not-at-all-so-bad experience of the Scottish Socialist Party’s election candidacies.

We need to keep firmly in mind that the bad experience of the Socialist Alliance, and the further bad experience now being prepared with the “Respect” coalition, has no proper bearing on whether there actually is an alternative “Labour Party” option — a turn back to the Labour Party — for us to take. The one-sided policy J & S propose makes no more sense now, even with the coming of the “left” trade union leaders, than it would have made four or five years ago when we adopted our present “walk on two legs” policy.

What they propose is nothing like a viable worked-out Labour Party policy. Why? Because there isn’t one, short of a concerted trade union drive against Blairism. We want that. But we can’t bring it about at will.

We are forced to recognise that it may never happen. And while advocating it, for all the reasons above, we do other things too. This is the crux of our differences.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.