Labour and the unions: "compliance" or democracy?

Submitted by AWL on 3 November, 2008 - 11:12 Author: Nick Holden

Nick Holden and his partner Kate Ahrens, both of whom are Unison members in Leicestershire, have been expelled from the Labour Party. Nick explains how he feels about that.

Having lived together for thirteen years, Kate and I plan on doing most things together now. One thing we didn’t plan on doing together was getting expelled from the Labour Party. But in September, two days before Kate was due to travel to Blackpool to join Unison’s delegation to the Labour Party conference, we both got identical letters from Roy Kennedy, who styles himself the “Director of Finance and Compliance”:

“I have been informed that you are a member of the Workers’ Liberty, an organisation which is registered as a political party on the Electoral Commission’s website... You are, therefore, no longer a member of the Labour Party and have been removed from the national membership system. You will no longer be entitled to attend local Labour Party meetings.”

Never mind that in our local Labour Party there hardly are meetings for us to attend, and never mind even that any organisation that has a Director of Compliance is having serious problems remembering what democracy is. This decision is a shocker. Not because we’re not supporters of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, we are, and we’ve never made a secret of that, but because the entire process happens without any kind of hearing, never mind appeal.

So if I informed Roy Kennedy that Gordon Brown was also a supporter of the AWL, would he be automatically removed from the Labour Party membership system with no right of appeal? Never mind all those years of patient entry work, if Trotskyists really wanted to destabilise the Labour Party all they’d need to do is embellish their own membership lists with the names of a few cabinet members and the staff of the Prime Minister’s private office, and inform Roy Kennedy that the party’s top nobs were on their list. And hey presto! The government is expelled from the Party.

Of course it doesn’t work like this. The rulebook of the Labour Party is an undemocratic, blunt as a sledgehammer weapon, but it is wielded deliberately, and only in one direction.

I’ve been a supporter of the AWL for sixteen years, about the same time that I’ve been a Labour Party member. I first came across the AWL in the late 1980s when I was a student, but at that time I was in the Green Party, and considered all those in the Labour Party far too old fashioned (I think the term we used was “grey” and it certainly applies to a lot of Labour Party members I’ve known since) to be worth bothering with much. However, the AWL, or Socialist Organiser as it was known then, were active on campus, and seemed be saying the right things and talking about the right issues.

But then I finally figured out that all that “grey”droning on about what dead men wrote a hundred years ago actually had more relevance to changing the world than any amount of consensus decision making about putting “spirit” into politics.

I had come back to Leicester, was out of work and in debt, and almost immediately the Tory government announced the pit closure programme — the final act of revenge on miners and their union for daring to stand up to the Tories in 1984/85 and many times before.

I joined the Labour Party, because it was clear that if there was going to be a serious fight to save the pits then part of the fight would be to get the opposition in parliament to oppose the plans, and because the Labour Party was the obvious vehicle to involve hundreds of thousands of politically minded people in the fight. It wasn’t, particularly, at least not in the Constituency I lived in, but one activist I met at my first Labour Party meeting turned out to be a supporter of Socialist Organiser.

He, and others from the group, soon proved themselves to be serious and committed activists, with a strategy and vision about how the labour movement could, and should, be organised so that fights like that over the pit closures could be won.

Other people who I met through that pit closures campaign in Leicester have since become local councillors or just dropped out of political activity altogether, but I think my contact with the AWL, its political education, its encouragement of open and critical debate, and its focus on being “the memory of the working class” has kept me, more or less, on the right path: still active, still questioning, still with a plan. Not bad for someone approaching their 40th birthday!

I can remember the conversation I had with the SO comrade who talked to me about the group and the commitment I needed to make: “We expect people to join and be active in the Labour Party,” he told me. That was fine with me. Indeed, in many places the Labour Party has benefited massively from the work of socialists encouraged to join the Party by the work of SO/AWL.

I was selling copies of Socialist Organiser through the rest of the pit closure campaign and Socialist Organiser had been banned (by Labour Party conference, then, after a debate) in 1990. That didn’t stop the Leicestershire Labour Party electing me press officer for the county council elections in 1993, or my local Labour Party asking me to organise our campaign for the local borough council in 1995. It didn’t even prevent my being selected as the Labour candidate for Harborough in the General Election of 1997.

Maybe I should have informed Roy Kennedy — who was, by coincidence, a high-up in the East Midlands bureaucracy at the time. I’ve even got a letter from him somewhere, congratulating us on getting the biggest increase in a Labour vote anywhere in the whole country.

So if it was OK for me to be a council candidate etc in the past, why do I get expelled now?

It’s all about the timing. Kate, as a member of Unison’s National Executive has an increasing profile as a critic of the union leadership’s passive relationship with the Labour government. And thanks to that, she was elected by the East Midlands regional Labour Link to be one of the region’s two delegates (part of a massive Unison delegation of maybe 40 people) to the Labour Party conference. And that was the trigger for Roy Kennedy’s letters.

This is the only explanation that I can come up with: that someone was so frightened by what Kate might have said or done at conference, or so worried that she might have used our blog, or the pages of Solidarity, to report back to the members on whose behalf she would have attended the conference, that they resorted to bureaucratic means to stop her. I want to believe that they expelled me because they think I’m just as much of a threat, but I’m realistic enough to think they just expelled me because I live at the same address.

Perhaps the Labour Party bureaucracy decided they didn’t want a repeat of the Walter Wolfgang fiasco, and decided to throw Kate out of the conference before she even arrived. Perhaps the Unison bureaucracy were terrified that one lone voice speaking out in support of public sector workers would be an embarrassment for the majority of the delegation, sitting quietly in the conference hall.

Is the AWL wrong to register as a political party in its own name, and to consider standing candidates against official Labour Party candidates? At a time when the Labour Party in government does more than even the Tories dared to try when it comes to privatisation, and resolutely fails to address either falling living standards or workers’ rights?

I have to say that to remain a Labour Party member, and not also be an active socialist trying to overhaul the entire Party, would seem to me to be an irrational thing to do. Why would anyone want to be identified only as a passive supporter of the Blair/Brown gravy train, unless of course, they had aspirations to get their snout into the trough as well? Almost all Labour Party members I know are deeply disturbed by the direction the Labour Party has moved in the past decade, and almost all of them want change. Maybe Roy Kennedy should remove them all from the membership list?

It would be futile and self-defeating to set ourselves the task of overhauling the entire labour movement (and this is what any socialist must set themselves the task of doing, if their socialism is ever to be more than a comfort for cold winter nights) without at least reserving the possibility that there may be times when the Labour Party must be challenged openly in elections, and not only internally, through fights for democracy and in the selection of candidates.

Within Unison, much of the left are already outside the Labour Party, and probably view our expulsion with a “so what?” attitude. Bob Crow, speaking shortly after the RMT was expelled from the Labour Party for daring to support the Scottish Socialist Party, talked about feeling “free” — when he should have been talking about fighting to get back into the party. That option isn’t really open to us, but I don’t feel “free”.

I don’t feel free any more than someone who is sacked might feel free from having to go to work. The left who see the Labour Party only as the “enemy” and not as an arena for class struggle in itself are massively missing the point.

I hope Labour Party members will recognise our expulsion as yet another attack on the rights of Labour Party members to be a critical minority, and will give more support to the efforts of groups like the Labour Representation Committee, who are trying to restore the idea of a democratic and collective political voice for the labour movement, rather than seeing members as a stage army of supporters for the Labour Party front bench stars.

Within Unison, we should continue to demand that all those who pay in to the Labour Link, whether individual Labour Party members or not, should have democratic rights within the Labour Link structures, and we should use those structures to wield Unison’s power in the interests of our members, not in defending the Labour Party machinery from criticism.

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