AWL discussion on "After Bournemouth", 2007: "Marxists and the Labour Party"

Submitted by martin on 1 November, 2007 - 2:15 Author: M

Following on from the major setback of the Unions deferring to Brown on structural change at Labour Party Conference 2007 we need to sort out our positions on Labour Party affiliation, our Labour Party involvement, the position of comrades in LP affiliated Unions and any new or renewed initiatives on standing candidates in elections.

I would suggest we need to sort out our position urgently, at least preliminarily, so we can propose a direction for the LRC at its annual Conference on the 17th November. Below are some thoughts and proposals.

1. How important is structural change?
How important are structures if you don’t use them? The Trade Unions have had the power within the Labour Party to push forward their policies since the “Partnership in Power” proposals before the 1997 election, but they have not used it. This is the case both at Labour Party Conference, in the National Policy Forum, at regional Party and local CLP level. The decision to give up a particular (and important) right to put motions to Conference this year is a logical consequence of their deference over the past decade plus. If you haven’t used a right you start thinking it is not important.
I have argued over the past few years, against the majority view in the NC that the structural changes in the Labour Party in the Blair, now Brown era, should not be considered abstractly and instead be seen politically. The latest changes in Party structure, however undemocratic, are just another a symptom of a wider political problem of the Union bureaucracy deferring to the Party leadership and the rank and file being too weak to call their leaders to account.
I have criticised the view that the Party has been “hijacked” or that the structural changes means that democracy has been “closed down”. The reason I do not think these formulas - of a Blair coup - or Blairite/Brownite repression - are not correct is that they do not fit in with what I have observed, that is the Unions voluntarily giving up their power.
If the affiliated Unions are not prepared to fight Brown in the Party they are currently in, it is highly unlikely they will break with Brown to support a new Party. A new Workers Party cannot realistically be formed without the support of a significant section of the trade unions. Disaffiliation will lead to a depoliticising of currently affiliated Unions.
We should maintain our policy of supporting the affiliation of Unions to the Labour Party and organise for the Unions to assert themselves against Brown within and outside of the Labour Party.

2. Labour Party involvement – what next
The proposals that Brown has bulldozed through will not “extend” or “renew” Labour Party democracy. An obvious point but an important one. The idea that a Brown leadership has repositioned the Party in any way that will lead to a revival of loyal Labour members flocking to renew the Party is untrue. The only growth area in Labour party membership is disaffected Tory MPs and the continuation of the Blairite big tent politics, that is Digby Jones etc. Party members in the centre ground (most of them) are uncomfortable with the fact that CLPs can no longer submit motions. Several middle of the road CLPs I know (including mine)that actually debated the proposals, rejected them. The CLP vote at Conference (82% to 18%) is not an indication of anything other that those who went to Conference voted this way. The Party has put up with the changes (new leader, imminent election etc) rather than being convinced by them.
Woodley and Kenny have declared (at the LRC fringe meeting at this years Labour Party Conference) that they will affiliate to all CLPs and promote more local involvement. If they did this seriously the trade unions could take over the majority of CLPs. They could select and deselect Parliamentary candidates (a bit late for this round). It is interesting to note that Stephen Twigg owes his new candidature in Liverpool West Derby, one of the safest Labour seats in the country, to the affiliation of 9 USDAW branches and their backing! We need more left wing use of the link.
Renewed involvement by local trade unionists in CLPs would mean they can be used as a basis for local campaigning to advance union policies, on everything from public services, housing, to the trade union freedom bill and agency workers rights. A synergy with local public sector alliances or DCH campaigns would be effective at putting pressure on local Councillors. On the wider political issues support for the TUFB and the Agency Workers Bill puts pressure on local Labour MPs. There is a place for local LRC groups coordinating such local activity and focusing activity in local CLPs which have a critical mass of trade unionists. In most CLPs you would only need half a dozen activists at the GC and/or control of the EC to make a difference.
Our current policy of asking for all members who can to carry LP cards should be continued and we ask members in affiliated trade unions to become delegates to their local CLP and to organise with other local trade unionists to promote union policies and initiatives there.

3. Call the Union leaders to account
There must be a fight to call the Union leaders of the affiliated Unions to account for their collapse in the face of Brown. With Brown not giving up the proposals and the Unions having set their stall out against, it was a scenario of “who blinks first”. The awkward squad have acted like many right wing trade union leaders before them. In the face of the pressure of doing something against the will of the new leader, as with the CLPs, loyalty came first. The pressure was piled on with rumours of a possible election within weeks.
Trade Union members in Broad Lefts, LRC members in trade unions, trade unionists involved in the political structures of their trade union must call the leaders to account. As well as motions calling for a reversal of the rule changes, we need to put out propaganda that makes a connection between the denial of a clear political voice in the Party and the various disputes and union demands currently on the political agenda. If the call for accountability is a dry “principled” position we will lose. It will be seen as an internal LP matter and of course, General Secretaries have to do deals!
We need to make the issue about fighting back for trade union goals.
In the CWU delegation the vote was 11 to 8. The 8 who opposed the proposals were with just one exception members of the CWU Broad Left. The 11 included activists who were in the centre and the centre right. They do represent an opinion within the Union and are elected on to the delegation. There were a couple of people who did not understand what was at stake in the debate at the delegation meeting but most knew what was what. The Labour loyalty card, and the TULO, we must stick with the big Four (now Three) line, was what won the day. We will only win in condemning Billy at the 2008 CWU Conference if the Post strike leads to a renewed political understanding in the Union of the need to have a clear political voice. Otherwise we will just get a motion calling for disaffiliation and the fact that the CWU delegation voted to deny its own voice will be a minor issue in the discussion.
It is significant I think that it was BL supporters who provided the resistance to Billy in the CWU. Many BLs in Unions are far from perfect organisations, and the CWU BLs record is weak in many areas. However without an organisation at all, the bureaucracy are much more likely to get their way.
It is vitally important that the issue of the rule changes is raised in the big Three unions. In many ways this is the most unpromising ground to argue for political democracy in the Unions but it is vital. There is no way of avoiding this fight. There will not be a significant union split with the Labour Party that could be the beginning of a new Party without a fight in these Unions. In order to even get to this position you have to first win the big Three Unions to fight within the Party. The events of the last week do not give much cause for optimism in the near future.
We should work within affiliated Unions to call their leaders to account in order to raise the issue of working class political representation

4. No retreat to syndicalism!
At the LRC Rally at Labour Party conference Mark Serwotka said (I paraphrase) we are a Union that stands up for our members, we are not compromised by political Parties. This boast received much acclaim at the meeting (also to do with the fact he did the best rhetoric of the evening). But we must not allow the craven actions of those leaders of the Labour Party affiliated Unions to cloud our judgement on how best to advance working class political representation. Marks position is, I would argue politically to the right of Woodley and Kenny. Marks view is indistinguishable from apolitical trade unionism. We will not develop working class representation by following in the coat tails of the leaders of non affiliated Unions, many with a right wing reason for not being affiliated. We cannot ignore the need to fight in the Labour affiliated Unions as I have argued above.
The politics of leaders like Serwotka and Crow is extremely limited. Both are happy to outsource what little politics they do as a Union to whichever sectarian force is currently in the ascendance amongst their activists. This is not independent working class political representation, it is syndicalism with a sectarian left tinge. It is not even an adequate first step in a strategy for building a new workers Party.
I think the standing of candidates in the GLA elections on an RMT-plus platform (presuming the RMT Exec goes with it) represents a tactic with no clear goal. Why the GLA elections? Why apart from having a go at Livingstone? (tempting, I know) I think we should get real about electoral politics. We should get real about the nature of working class support for Labour. We should not be clutching at straws.
The LRC project is useful for us, not so much as a forum to debate with labour lefties, but rather as a way of coalescing labour movement orientated activists to particular political ends. It is currently the largest “left labour” network. We should focus on the involvement of trade unionists to develop the LRC. The LRC needs to be built up as a proper force in the labour movement not as a “faction in the Westminster village” as has been said. This means as well as the affiliation of CWU, RMT, FBU, BFAW we should look for involvement from the big Three Unions. We should also argue for affiliation to the LRC for PCS and other non affiliated Unions.
Proposals that may come up at LRC Conference which can lead to a building up of the LRC, including abolishing the distinction between LP and non LP members, the election of a proper Executive Committee, regular and scheduled National committee meetings, a NC with seats for Union representatives and representatives from local groups should, in general, be supported. “Extending and renewing” LRC democracy would be a good idea.
We should argue that the LRC national Committee should include representatives from the left groupings in Unions not affiliated to the LRC, particularly UNITE, UNISON and GMB, in order to spread the fight for political democracy across the trade union movement

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