120 people attended the RMT-organised meeting to discuss the 'crisis in working-class political representation’ in January. The meeting agreed unanimously that workers need a new political voice, but could not agree on when or how we might create one.
Most present were from socialist groups and most of those thought that we should move towards creating a new political party now. Bob Crow said he wanted this too but would concentrate on promoting a People’s Charter: a list of policies for a government to carry out. All the top-table speakers said that a Charter would be easier to get agreement on than founding a new party. They are right on this, especially as this one was drawn up by a few self-selecting trade union and labour movement leaders with no input from the members of their organisations!
A Charter may get people talking about what the government should do, but we can’t imagine getting a governing party that would implement it any time soon. Its main authors oppose both independent working-class candidates against Labour and using what remains of the Labour-union link to confront Brown. Their agenda is one of lobbying for more crumbs. It is in effect a glorified petition from the trade union bureaucracy to the government. How can we get a party that will realistically push this kind of agenda? On this issue the Charter is silent.
RMT has tried to answer this question by backing independent working-class candidates in elections. While this work is important, political organisation does not just mean electoralism. It also means political education, direct action, demonstrations: it must be built in the current and looming struggles; a workers’ party can not just be proclaimed now.
The best example of such a party recently was the Scottish Socialist Party. With the SSP’s collapse and the promotion of the Charter, RMT’s leaders seem to have retreated on the question of political representation. But if it was good for the Scottish region then, why isn’t it still right for the whole union now? The political situation has deteriorated since then with the rise of the BNP and the current economic crisis.
Part of the problem seems to be the union’s relationship with the far left groups. Bob Crow tried to blame them for holding principled differences and Mary Davis (another top-table speaker) said that trying to get the groups working together would just bring out their sectarianism.
This is a not unwarranted charge, but with union involvement neither is it an insurmountable problem. Any new left-wing political formation will initially rely heavily on these groups and rather than being driven to vote Liberal Democrat (as Bob did in 2005) it would be better if he tried to develop the union’s relationship with socialist groups through joint work in a common organisation.
Union leaderships reflect the political balance within their unions, but they have to provide political leadership too. It would be within the norms of labour movement working for union leaders who support a new workers' party to take their ideas out to regions and branches and take decisions made there to an AGM. In RMT, fighting for these ideas has been left up to the members and when this does not happen the leadership can throw their hands up and say there is no will among members for a new party thus abrogating their political leadership responsibilities.
Which leaves us with the old saying, ‘if the leadership won’t the membership must’. We can’t wait another two years to call another conference and have the discussion on working-class political representation sidelined in favour of some diversion or other. Members who want a new political party will have to lead the way. We could try this through trades councils which may be convinced to set up local working-class representation committees. If enough of these can be set up with RMT involvement, it would be legitimate for the branches involved to make their case at RMT AGM for the union as a whole to adopt this strategy.