1. Under the proposals tabled by Gordon Brown at the end of June, and approved by the Labour Party National Executive on 18 September, unions and local Labour Parties will be banned from submitting motions on current political issues to Labour Party conference.
All the formal powers that conference once held to determine party policy will be transferred to the leadership, which will only have to "consult" with the National Policy Forum, itself a well-controlled and largely impermeable body. These proposals will finish off Labour Party conference as a serious political event. They are an attempt to finally destroy the Labour Party as a democratic political organisation based on the labour movement. Instead of a broad based party grounded on the participation of organisations with roots in the communities and workplaces, Labour will be reduced to a US style political party. It would be nothing more than a narrow political machine populated by members of the professional political elite. The goal of giving working class people a voice in politics through the labour movement, which is why the Labour Party was set up in the first place, will be renounced. The only input that the labour movement will have in the new party structure would be through a junior lobbying role for trade union leaders in the Policy Forum. That could never counteract the fact that policy wonks, spin doctors and the business lobby have more or less permanent access to ministers.
2. At present, unions can use Labour conference to challenge Labour leadership policies on privatisation, anti-union laws, council housing, the health service, and other issues. In recent years they have done so. The union leaders have then kept quiet, without complaint, when the Labour flatly ignores conference votes. But even a modest revival of assertiveness, confidence, and democracy in the ranks would push the unions to start kicking. Gordon Brown sees that "risk", and that is why he wants to double-lock and bolt the gates on the already choked-off avenues for a working-class political voice in the Labour Party.
3. The proposals went through the Labour Party Executive without dissent from the trade union representatives on the committee. This despite the fact that major union leaders had been denouncing the proposals only a few days before. "The joint leader of the UK's largest trade union has warned Gordon Brown he will fight plans to change the Labour party's constitution. Derek Simpson of Unite said proposals to reduce the union's policy-making role would be resisted..." (BBC News, 9 September). Tony Woodley of TGWU-Unite and Billy Hayes of the CWU billed themselves to speak at a rally opposing the proposals on 11 September. "Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of T&G-Unite, said that there was 'not a chance' that the unions would support such a constitutional change. Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB, said: 'No one in the GMB is up for changing the constitution.'. Asked if the GMB would vote against, Mr Kenny said: 'Unless there is a dramatic change of heart, it is 99.9 per cent certain that we would'." (Times, 12 September). No authoritative union committee or conference had voted to back the proposals.
But now: "Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB union, said: 'We have been asked to trust the Prime Minister. GMB will recommend that we try the new system for two years. If it does not work, agreed mechanisms will be in place to restore the current system on contemporary motions'." (Independent, 21 September).
4. We must now throw ourselves into a fight in the unions over the coming months, up to their 2008 conferences, for them to repudiate the Brown plan and table proposals in the Labour Party to restore their political rights. It is the only way to rally broad forces either to tackle Brown/Blair in the Labour Party or to assemble the basis for a new workers' party.
5. This political hara-kiri by the unions could happen so suddenly, and so easily, only because the "workers'" element in Labour's "bourgeois workers' party" had already been hugely weakened, over a decade and more, in favour of the "bourgeois" pole, so that the issue of the unions' political voice at Labour Party conference seems to many trade unionists as a mere empty formality.
6. This means that our fight in the unions to call the leaders to account will be a fight against the odds. It is nonetheless necessary. It also means that the fight cannot be limited to a fight to restore the status quo. It should be a fight to restore the full right of the unions (not just the "big four") to table motions at Labour Party conference, to abolish the Policy Forum, to make the union representatives on the Labour Executive fight for union policy, and to apply maximum union pressure to the New Labour leadership to respect the conference decisions on privatisation, anti-union laws, rail renationalisation, council housing, the health service, and so on, passed under working-class pressure.
7. The necessary fight to call the union leaders to account means that we do not in advance declare defeat in that fight, and define the Labour Party as already and completely a straightforward bourgeois party (with the unions having a client, or lobbyist, relationship to it) like the US Democratic Party. However, plain common sense tells us that the chance of winning a reversal by 2009 is small, barring dramatic about-turns in the labour movement. Such dramatic about-turns are not impossible if, for example, the current credit crisis turns into a full-scale crisis of trade and production, and Gordon Brown loses the next general election badly. If the about-turns do not happen, and the new structure is consolidated in 2009, then we will have to register the facts. The Labour Party will have been destroyed as any kind of political party of the working class movement. We will be back to the situation that working-class activists faced before the Labour Party was founded in 1900. And we will have to draw the necessary conclusions for our policy and tactics.
8. For the coming General Election, our slogan will be, as before: "vote socialist if you can, Labour if you can't". We will couple that with calls to make the unions fight to restore their political voice.
9. We should immediately start practical discussions about where we can stand a "flagship" candidate in the General Election, and approach the SP and AGS to reactivate the Socialist Green Unity Coalition.
10. We should argue in the RMT for the RMT to sponsor a recall conference on working-class political representation - this time approaching other unions and union organisations to co-sponsor it - to discuss the way forward after the unions' political hara-kiri.