AWL discussion on "After Bournemouth", 2007: "Beating the retreat"

Submitted by martin on 1 November, 2007 - 2:19 Author: MF

With the threat of a snap general election out of the way here is my response to the EC motion on the changes in the Labour Party. For those who wish to spare themselves my tortured prose and rambling motivation the basic idea is that we need to add to the EC formula an effort to organise external pressure on the trade unions via the anti privatisation campaigns alongside the campaign inside the unions to hold the leaders to account.

Through the LRC as a first focus and then hopefully the Public Services not Private Profit campaign to try and organise and coordinate the various community campaigns in a common national framework that in turns gives a local focus for LRC groups, trades councils etc. The logic of most of these campaigns leads to the conclusion of a political intervention to limit and reverse the attacks i.e. independent working class representation in politics.

Beating the Retreat

Twice the EC describe the actions of the trade unions as political hara-kari.That of course refers to the ritual form of suicide committed in Japan also known as seppuku. I think that's wrong hara-kari was a form of suicide designed to maintain honour and avoid shame. The true union leadership have done neither: going for the more western version of suicide in which the act is born of despair.
Three key negative thoughts are understood to predict suicidal behaviour: hopelessness, helplessness and worthlessness. The options then are to get on with the job or surrender your independence and get someone else to take care of you. Our trade union leaders seem to believe all three about themselves and their organisations. As such they have thrown themselves on the ground in front of Brown and asked him to take responsibility for their futures.
That the trade unions would fight has been our hope for the last ten years. Our original prediction was that after an initial honeymoon period the unions would start to assert themselves against Blair's continuation of Thatcherite policy. As such we had tried to prepare ourselves with the creation of the Welfare State Network in preparation for a battle over public services. That fight never came and we tried to reconcile ourselves to a perspective in which the control of Blair over The party was more deeply rooted than we had first believed.
Our hopes were raised again with the election of the Awkward Squad. Surely a change in leadership to a set of general secretaries that had in advance committed themselves to basic trade union norms would make a difference. Unfortunately this too proved not to be the case.
In retrospect now, and probably more starkly in the future, the sell out over pensions will be seem as a historic defeat. Such failures underlined the lack of independent will and strategy amongst most of the trade unions. Just as Blair and Brown can be seen as the heirs of Thatcher in the Labour Party having accepted all the essential truths of her 'market ideology' the 'new realism' of the 1980s has become the framework for the trade unions. Not just a dominant ideology but a whole world view this parallel process of political degeneration inside the trade unions has been the focus of occasional internal debates but I don't think clearly codified. We have carefully marked the progress of the Bourgeois part of the dynamic becoming more dominant as structural and other reforms have progressed I think we continued to assume that the Workers part was largely there and intact able to be reasserted if only there was there was the will to do so.
For instance one historical example we seem to have increasingly used was that of the early 1930s where against the treachery of MacDonald the trade unions saved the party for themselves. Until recently that possibility has been a central part of our perspective. Aside from the RMT it would be difficult to suggest that any union has attempted to assert itself for independent class politics.
Unlike the LP the trade unions cannot just cut themselves from their membership through rule and structural changes. They can close the door quite effectively on membership participation in their political dealings with UNISON being possibly the worst example of this. Poor branch organisation, a lack of activists and an increasing reliance of FTOs have also helped to create a situation where the leaderships can be largely unchecked in their dealings with New Labour. By their nature they remain more directly responsive to the needs of the working class but because of the democratic deficit have a great deal of autonomy in how they choose to act. Again there is a range amongst the affiliated unions but exceptions only tend to reinforce the general rule or trend.
The current situation is that the trade unions have given up on the idea of direct and independent representation of their interests in politics. They seem to have chosen quite deliberately to opt for a client relationship with New Labour as their preferred lobbyists. Painting such a reality is harsh and the process not as complete as these broad brush strokes would suggest however that seems to me the underlying truth.
Given that the utter naivety of those like the Socialist Party who campaign for disaffiliation with a prejudgment that once away from the LP the unions will automatically chose to sponsor a more left wing alternative is a great danger. From their current position some trade unions would much prefer to have an informal relationship with the government, one in which awkward questions could not be asked, where there is no responsibility to have put forward a motion or to have voted in a particular way.
And as long as the money keeps going Brown's ministers will be happy to have a little reassuring chat now and again and possibly make the odd concession. So much more modern and grown up than all that voting and resolution mongering according to Gordon.
As such the EC focus on organising a fight inside the trade unions, within a limited time frame, is going to be hard work. For a start within most unions there is the initial task of organising a coherent united left challenge to the existing leaderships. The development of a fightback on pay may open up a path to a rank and file revival but it is not automatic that such developments will see the current crisis in the labour party in the same way as we do.
The particulars form of how we try to organise in the individual unions will have to be discussed by each fraction. What I think we can add is the more general need to reinforce any internal pressure we can generate inside the unions with a focus on those ongoing anti-privatisation campaigns that exert external pressure. At present there are serious local campaigns in defence of the health service, education, council housing and transport. What's lacking is a national coordinating centre for these campaigns as a whole and for some such as health individually. (Keep our NHS public has been effectively neutralised by the unions cutting of funding and their active exclusion of community campaigns from NHS Together)
We should focus on these campaigns as they represent a defence of what we have called the 'political economy of the working class'. The logic implicit in them is a movement to defend them effectively in the political sphere. We have a least one positive in that the Labour Representation Committee is already in existence and has the right name. Beyond that we probably have serious concerns about its current organisation and aims. Nevertheless it should be our focus for pulling together these campaigns by recasting Public Services Not Private Profit as basing itself on local community campaigns as much as the more inert trade union campaign it is now. Forging such links can become a focus for the development of local LRC groups or where we can manage it PSAs and any Trades Councils that we can breathe life into. In fact the PSAs may be the platforms which extended can become effective trade councils.
Creating a local and national focus on the anti privatisation campaigns should not contradict any of our ongoing work inside and outside the Labour Party. Our standing policy on Labour Party membership holds true and this emphasis potentially gives us an added angle around which any, even small, resurgence of the CLPs and branches can be developed.
By proxy we create a virtual convention of the left where a more open appeal is likely to fail. The task ahead is to recreate the labour movement from the bottom up and that is a job much broader than we could manage ourselves. Building the group on a practical strategy that delivers real answers for other activists rather than dogmatic schemas is implicit in this strategy.
So the unions do remain our focus but we try to broaden the EC strategy to include developing an extra parliamentary, extra union campaign in defence of socialised medicine, education etc. This is all a bit schematic and need filling out. Quite quickly as the LRC conference is in November but hopefully tries to give a bit more of a focus than McDonnell's more generally formless appeal.
The process of recreating a trade union based party is likely to be as piecemeal as the creation of the Labour Party itself was. Only when the unions are forced to assert themselves in the interests of their members and in the first place the public sector services they work in will we be able to move forward.
The RMT seem to be at least moving towards such an orientation. The growing attack on the post office/royal mail will pose the question sharply inside the CWU. The bigger unions will take longer but we must try to create for those activists inside them an arena to pursue their instinct toward solidarity etc.
Beating the retreat does not mean running away but gathering together our disorganised forces to make a proper assessment of whether we have enough resources available to continue that particular battle. If not we should move in good order to a new battle field which within the limits allowed we can chose to engage again making best use of the advantages we have.
In the existing structures we are short of numbers and allies we have to try and tap in to the continuing support that exists in working class communities for the NHS, a publicly owned Royal Mail etc. We need to regroup our forces and rally new levies to our cause.
In the first place I believe the LRC and through it the PSNPP may be the best forums we have at hand to attempt this.

Caveats
1. As usual I don't deny that some of the views expressed above are to some degree subjective. In particular being in UNISON doesn't do anything to help breed anything but cynicism.
2. If the trade unions have decided to manage their dealings with bourgeois politics in a different way, as I believe they have, makes them no less trade unions. As of yet I'm not on some third period binge and wanting to call for Red Unions. Trade Unions are almost inherently conservative and their role historically is to bargain within the limits of capitalism. As such these actions are well within the limits of what we might expect of them Marx well understood these limitations:
'Trade Unions work well as centres of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to guerilla war against the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organised forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class, that is to say, the ultimate abolition of the wages system' Wages, Price and Profit 1865.
3. As this was already getting a bit long I haven't really touched on the prospects of left unity but will attend to that issue soon.

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