Keeping our options open

Submitted by AWL on 28 May, 2009 - 3:31 Author: Cathy Nugent/ Martin Thomas

In Solidarity 3/151 Sean Matgamna started a discussion on perspectives for the labour movement in the economic crisis. We continue the discussion in Solidarity with a (personal) reply to Sean’s articles by Cathy Nugent and a reply to Cathy by Martin Thomas. The other articles here are “observations” on issues of relevance to the discussion.

Sean and other comrades have written other articles on this issue; these, a longer version of Cathy’s article and the policy in support of union disaffiliation from Labour passed by the current AWL National Committee can be found here.

The issue will be debated at the AWL’s conference on 30-31 May.

By Cathy Nugent

The positive thing to be said for Sean’s articles on the Labour-union link is that he has started a live debate for the AWL.

Though comrades should consider Sean's arguments carefully this is not “bold new thinking about the big picture”. Sean has given us just one two-sided idea. His idea — that in the crisis Labour is a little bit likely, quite likely or very likely to revive within two to three years, and that the political campaign of the non-affiliated unions are very likely to fare badly as a consequence of Labour’s new weight in the labour movement as a whole, or just because they are not very good — is not based on anything more solid than quite mechanical speculation about the (undeniably important) force of the economic crisis alone.

Where others might want to make an assessment of the likely effects of that force and how much Labour might revive by thinking about how “the crisis” will interact with the existing labour movement, the emerging trends in the class struggle and the industrial and organisational fault lines in the unions, and then consider past historical experiences — the similarities but also the much bigger contrasts — Sean is content to stick in some caveats (maybes, maybe nots) to his one two-sided idea. But caveats are only meaningful if they refer to the kind of paremeters I suggest above and below. By stipulating a time period Sean reveals that has, in fact, a very strong commitment to the idea of Labour reviving significantly. I am much more sceptical.

There are two things wrong with Sean’s articles. 1. His reasoning is wrong. 2. He wants us to wait for two or three years (that is, a long time) for his prediction to come true... or not. But this ties our hands over issues, such as CWU disaffiliation, now. It also stops us from being genuinely tactically flexible.

The parameters for an assessment have to be much more concrete and balanced.

• The political mono-culture of neo-liberalism in the bourgeois world, could break up… but not all at once. This will affect Labour to a degree… but not all at once.

• Labour is still a strong political force within the working-class movement and, in a different way, the working class itself. But how strong can we consider it to be when only a minority of organised workers are affiliated to Labour, and largely though the medium of three highly impermeable, heavily bureaucratised unions?

• Labour is likely to be defeated at the general election. After it has finished picking over the causes and consequences of its defeat, dealing with defections to the Liberals, Tories, Greens, etc. — which will take some time — it will be the opposition to a right-wing Tory government.

• Labour will have to buck up and rethink its political stance eventually and it will do that irrespective of any class struggle pressure from below.

• At least one political shift in Labour will happen within a very short timeframe after a Labour defeat. This is the New Leader election. This new Labour leader (someone like Alan Johnson or Harriet Harman?) is not going donate real extra power to the affiliated trade unions within the Labour Party, though they might show them more respect — at least while the leadership contest is going on.

• There are some important political differences between Labour and the Tories. As the party now managing the crisis it has been obliged to implement new forms of heavy-duty state intervention; the Tories would have done the same had they had to face that responsibility.

But for Labour, getting used to state intervention, it has been all about saving capitalism’s bacon and they have been careful to ensure that the capitalists stay in charge. For Labour’s economic policy to transform, under pressure of being the party of opposition, into commitment to state intervention directed at welfare reformism, there would have to be a big political battle within Labour, which, of course, if it happened, we would be very interested in. On the other hand...

• The recent expenses scandal which has unnerved the political class (though they will probably recover after a bit of purging) has spread more political alienation will be a boost to the far right, smaller parties, political abstentionists and within the labour movement, to syndicalism. This too is part of the picture.

• Extra-Labour trade union and socialist political campaigning has been weak and fragmentary in the last 10 years. The No2EU campaign, backed by the RMT, is a genuine scandal and has set back extra-Labour political campaigning — but we should not overstate it. Unfortunately, British lefties have a habit of ignoring the worst excesses of pseudo-anti imperialism where they don’t actively disagree with it.

• In the crisis, the same external forces that put pressure on Labour will also put push foward extra-Labour campaigning.

• The extra-Labour campaign has not just been the work of a few sectarian socialists able to get “pet motions” onto the agenda of particular union conferences. These are issues that have been discussed for a long time by much wider sections in the union movement. The aspiration for an alternative working class party is weak because of the lack of opportunity is small. The talk and intention about trade union candidacies however has been very tangible. This is about revulsion with New Labour. But it is also about the fact that there has been, for a very long time now, little practical value in trade unions affiliating to Labour.

• At the General Election there could be some broadly working class political campaigning — anti-cuts campaigns for instance.

• In the period after the General Election (and Labour defeat) for the union leaders already committed to extra-political campaigning (of some sort) the issues posed will become sharper; either they will see New Labour as being more useless than they already imagined it is and be galvanised or they will put the issue aside — until the next election. But they may not get the choice: what they do also depends on the class struggle.

All of the above points to instability and confusion for a good period of time, where more likely than not it will not be possible for Labour to become a clear “reformist” pole of attraction, the only conditions under which extra-Labour trade union political campaigning is actively destructive to the overall cause of working-class political campaigning. Hanging on for any lengthy period of time — which two to three years is — and for us to do nothing that upsets the scenario of significant revival will destructively tie our hands.

A “ cleaner” result for working class political representation is still for the affiliated unions to assert themselves in Labour. But wanting, wishing and hoping for two or three years is not a good basis for a “tactically flexible” orientation.

What I see most of all in Sean’s approach is, despite the stated commitment to objective analysis and concrete historical experience, is a lack of faith (as opposed to reasonable scepticism) in any substantial, broadly working-class, political project outside of Labour, even under new conditions. He talks of the alternative to reclaiming Labour structures as “building up working class political representation anew from zero”. But it is not “zero”. To say that it is “zero” is a ridiculous refusal to look at the significant fact — that there is a social base in the unions for building a political voice outside Labour.

For sure the extra-Labour “party” (I use the word in the old-fashioned sense of political stream) is contradictory, politically underdeveloped, and not immediately positive. The fact that the leaders in the big affiliated unions have stifled the aspirations of members does not help. They may continue to stifle it for a long period. We think that stifling is wrong, we want the bureaucrats to stop doing that. We want workers to have the space to develop their own political alternatives. For these reasons alone we should be very, very wary of “abstaining” in the next two to three years from intervening into how an extra-Labour “alternative” develops.

I think I want to discuss where the workers, unions and Labour might go from a different angle. It seems to me that as the crisis deepens, and as unemployment rises, as Labour is defeated and the Tories win at the polls, the small new elements of class struggle — workers defending jobs or trying to moderate the situation of job losses — in the construction industry, on the rail and London Underground, within the CWU, in occupations by small groups of workers — all that will expand.

But even if industrial struggles pick up only a tiny bit, and it takes a long time for it to pick up, workers caught up in the disputes, perhaps very bitter disputes, will either want to find some political place to go or will fell obliged to reject politics altogether.

Where the militants go politically, in the short and long term, depends on their experience — where they start from, what they see on their horizon and how far they wish to travel.

The Labour Party may well be the biggest land mass on the horizon of older and younger trade union members. (And it strikes me that the outlook of older, more conservative trade unionists will dominate.) It does not follow that trade unionists will fancy travelling to New Labour Land or even a hypothetical Renewed Labour Land. They’ve experienced a lot of bad things about this place and the journey itself seems like a bit of a risky adventure; the union leaders say that the sharks no longer circle the shoreline, but they don’t trust their union leaders.

So there will be a lot of unevenness, flux and volatility in the class struggle. That impacts on labour movement politics too, even at the level of the bureaucracy. From the “grass roots” class responses to the new situation there will be no uncomplicated, unimpeded journeys for militants seeking political answers.

Why would we lock ourselves into one perspective, one strategy and one organisational form for such a time of flux? Advocating CWU disaffiliation now, clearly linked to a strategy of union-sponsored candidacies, building up working-class political campaigns to fight the crisis, is a positive way to relate to what is happening right now — a trajectory among union members away from Labour — and what is more likely than not to happen in the future — i.e. a continuation of that trajectory.

If that trajectory goes into reverse or is blocked, or on the other hand I’ve underestimated Harriet Harman’s love for her husband, and/or the bureaucracy in the affiliated unions make a very significant turn to asserting themselves against the Labour machine in spite of their natural temperaments and abilities, if they begin to recreate democratic channels in Labour etc., etc, — then we can advocate the CWU reaffiliate (or stay affiliated) to Labour because it makes experiential, practical and strategic sense for CWU members and other trade union members.

What are the “facts on the ground”? In nine years, between 1997 and 2006, the affiliated members of the Labour Party dropped from 3.2 to 2.6 million.

• There is no significant already-existing stream of “intellectual reformism” in and around Labour. There are Guardian journalists, Compass and, slightly to the left of Compass, the Labour Representation Committee. Middle-class, academic, NGOish, Green New Deal environmentalism etc. attracts a certain kind of person, true. There are even some interesting ideas within the milieu (on inequality for instance). However the existing reformism would have to have some real grip on fundamental questions — on saving jobs and services — for it to grow much beyond its deliberately diffuse mushiness.

• The unions, in membership and organisation, are weak.

• The revolutionary left is very weak, fragmented and in large part politically corrupted and outside the Labour Party.

• The structures for political representation have been closed down.

• Many of the other mechanisms, beyond the formal structures for policy making, that constitute the Labour-union “link”, the full relationship, have not been properly used for a very long time. The unions have very little institutional role within Labour. They don’t have to be “consulted” on any aspect of policy. All they have to do is to hand over the dosh. It is not in our interests to “talk up” these relationships. We never did it before, why do it now?

Whatever else you say about Ernest Bevin — his class of right-wing union leader did have an institutional role within Labour. Ramsey MacDonald felt obliged to consult the TUC over cuts in unemployment benefit in 1931. Consequently Bevin was able to help provoke a crisis within Labour on that issue. He and other unions leaders were necessary to the overall functioning of Labour, not just its financial infrastructure.

• Individual membership of the Labour Party has been very low before, but as one journalist recently put it, the CLPs are now “ghost towns”. 200 people nationally signing a petition demanding national Labour allows local parties to deselect MPs who have abused the expenses system is a good thing, but also a sign of overall weakness (virtual non-existence) of the activist base in Labour. If it is a beginning of a oppositional development (it might be) it is not one that inspires much energy or commitment from others!

• Within the affiliated unions there is surely a vast, hidden detachment of the rank and file and the activist layers, away from association with New Labour. Political revulsion is only part of it. What is the point after all, for most union members as union members, of New Labour? The fact that the unions hand over so much money and get so shafted must seem very illogical especially to many average, younger, politically-aware trade union member. Many older politically-aware union members have watched the Labour Party get functionally useless over a long period of time; it will take a lot more than an Alan Johnson charm offensive to convince them that it can change.

Can Labour revive given the right set of circumstances? Sure. But because the revival will start from this very low base, if it happens, and it is likely to take longer. It is very much not obvious now, therefore it would have to become obvious over time, that Labour is the “natural path” or “the path of least resistance” for trade unions rousing themselves to oppose the Tories.

Twenty odd years ago we had a few members in Harrogate. To keep their spirits up they told themselves a bad joke. About Harrogate they said, “on a clear day you can see the class struggle”. They were forced to hope for the best in what was, you can imagine, a really oppressive situation. After all they were on the dole and there was no getting out of Harrogate soon.

We are not forced, as the Harrogate Revolutionaries were, to hope for the best. Our job is different and it is put rather well by Sean in our pamphlet The Trade Union Movement, New Labour, and Working-Class Politics: a debate.

“... speculating about possible prospects is not the elaboration of Marxist ‘perspectives’. The perspectives the AWL elaborates for itself are a different thing entirely.

“The question is: out of these possibilities what can we do to facilitate the most favourable developments for us?”

Because Sean puts a long timetable on “wait and see” what happens to Labour, even when so much is in flux, he is in fact substituting “speculation”, what might happen for the best in the best of all possible worlds, for “perspectives”.

All we can do and all we should do is register all of the possibilities and work out what to advocate at any given time, as time goes on, what will create the best political terrain for the workers. And the disaffiliation of the CWU right now could (I stress could) help create a more dynamic fight around political representation in general and that in turn could have a positive impact on latent struggles within the affiliated unions; we would of course also link the political change in the CWU to a longer-term perspective of generalised working-class fightback against discredited capitalism.

Our orientation and tactics has to be based on the approach that has brought us to where we are now. An approach that was very concrete, very exact, weighing up current reality as well as what is likely to change, recognising that the trajectory of events will be shaped by a number of things, not just one or two facts that we chose to emphasise and that a shift in orientation will be a matter of balancing all of those things up.

Reply: “Extra-Labour” party in next years is a phantom

By Martin Thomas

Sean Matgamna’s article in Solidarity 3/151 argued: • “Prospects have, maybe, changed as a result of the slump, the radical discrediting of New Labour, and the opening up again of a clear political gap between the Tories and Labour”.

• The union-Labour link has survived the New Labour period (bar the FBU and the RMT), and since the unions and the Labour Party will soon be in opposition to a right-wing Tory government, there will be no radical break-up of the link for the calculable period ahead.

• In a year or so “working-class people [will be] facing an onslaught from the new [very right-wing] Tory government... [They] will look for organised means to protest and resist and — the activist left outside the Labour Party still being weak — may turn in some numbers to the unions and Labour...”

• Thus “the proposals for a revival within... the moribund and occluded channels... of the Labour Party [are better]”.

• At the CWU conference in June (for example) we should advise those who want CWU to disaffiliate from the Labour Party to “wait” on that “until we see how things shape up with the big unions and the Labour ‘base’ after the general election”. “If the possibility exists [relatively soon] of reclaiming the Labour structures, or sections of them, from the New Labour hijackers”, then it is better for CWU to be in there.

In response, Cathy goes all round the houses. She makes much of how “flexible” we should be. But in a vote on union disaffiliation, we have to answer yes or no. Given that unions are slow-moving bodies, the yes or no is for a while.

Neither disaffiliation nor continuing affiliation does much “statically”. A decision depends on an estimate of prospects and possibilities along one route or the other in the next two or three years. It has to.

Cathy’s “flexibility” is a trick argument. She is not at all open-minded, reserving judgement. She wants the CWU to disaffiliate. That conclusion implies certain prior assumptions.

Cathy’s very definitely “inflexible” and “closed-minded” assumption is that we should bank on the prospect of “the extra-Labour party”, “the extra-Labour campaign”, “extra-Labour trade-union political campaigning”, a “substantial broadly working-class political project outside of Labour”.

She does not deny, in general, that “moribund Labour” may revive. She is aware of the history of apparently long-dead or near-dead “bourgeois workers’ parties” reviving under a variety of new pressures. So she writes: “Labour [can] revive given the right set of circumstances”. Her case is that revival will happen only after a long time, and in the short term “the trajectory among union members [will be] away from Labour”.

She takes her stand on dogmatic commitment to the idea that, though Labour can revive, and we should keep that in mind, she is absolutely sure it will not happen for a few years. Conceding the gist of Sean’s argument, she demonstrates her “flexibility” by an absolute dogmatism towards the least calculable element n the picture which Sean draws and which she broadly accepts — the time-frame of union-Labour revival.

Swallowing the ugly big camel of an idea that Labour can revive as a (bourgeois) working-class force, she gags at the gnat that a revival may be a relatively quick result of union-Labour opposition to the coming Tory government.

The bad smell surrounding New Labour will surely slow any revival. But the combined pressures of the next two or three years will push towards revival (what better “set of circumstances” does Cathy think will bring the revival many years later?); within those two or three years we should be able to see whether revival is happening (slowly or fast); and there is no quick “bypass to the masses” to go round that.

Sean’s argument that Labour revival may come was based on clearly defined elements in the situation —slump, Tory/Labour policy differentiation, heavy Labour defeat, a right-wing Tory government — whose interaction will work in favour of revival. Cathy accepts that Labour will revive at some point in the future — at a point whenthe specific reasons Sean gave for believing that revival may come have already failed to produce it.

Dismissing Sean’s reasons for thinking revival possible, she offers no reasons of her own to explain the future revival. Or rather she does, implicitly: she suggests there will be a slow, incremental Labour revival (irrespective of what the union-Labour bloc does in response to the Tories in 2010-11? Implicitly, she says “yes”, irrespective of that).

So, not only does Cathy accept Sean’s basic idea that, despite everything, Labour can revive: she sees the revival process as starting from 2010 onwards. Only, she is sure in advance that it will revive very, very slowly, and the initial movement will continue to be Labour decline. This is trifling with the issue!

Cathy “inflexibly” rules out union-Labour revival in an assayable future, and bets the farm instead on a “substantial broadly working-class political project outside of Labour” able to be “the ‘natural path’ or ‘the path of least resistance’ for trade unions rousing themselves to oppose the Tories”, a “political place to go” of sufficiently broad catchment to command the working-class scene in the next few years.

Sean wrote: “AWL will be running Jill Mountford as a... candidate against Labour... in the 2010 general election, and we... call for the maximum coordination and mobilisation of socialists to run as broad a spread of [socialist] candidates as possible”. Sean’s and my orientation does not hinder such “extra-Labour” AWL activity as is realistic. However, Cathy’s orientation does rule out CWU leverage in a union-Labour revival within the next two or three years.

Realistic “extra-Labour” AWL activity — even on the scale, much larger than today, that we could be in at the peak of the Socialist Alliance in 2001, or in the heyday of the SSP — does not “dispose” of the Labour Party question. The weight of the Labour Party in the labour movement, and the “spontaneous Labourism” in the British working class (even if much of it today is Labourism of “Labourites” who are disgusted with the Labour Party), remain as problems to crack open.

Are we fainthearts? With sufficient effort, could AWL rally broad forces for a “political project” of such substantial scale to marginalise Labour for the next few years? That would require AWL very quickly to become maybe a thousand times bigger than we are today. On all historical experience, even in the most favourable conditions that can not happen just by us growing linearly while Labour stays still. It would require a prior general revival, and splits, in the labour movement.

Does Cathy think some political group other than AWL will pull together the “substantial political project” in these next two or three years? SWP? Socialist Party? I’m sure she doesn’t. So we are left with the scenario that this “political project”, big enough to command centre-stage in the working class, will come together without any political core at all? RMT and a disaffiliated CWU will do it by themselves? It defies logic and historic precedent that a couple of sectional unions, as unions, should initiate a viable political party, or party-type “project”. Unions by their nature are organised differently.

To get support from RMT (or CWU branches, as has been done often without CWU disaffiliating) for socialist candidates is good. But it is of a different order of things to bank on Cathy’s stage-commanding “substantial political project”.

Cathy enables herself to bank on fantasy by political mislabelling. “Extra-Labour” is not a “party” definition! By disaffiliating from Labour, FBU did not become more advanced politically. Nor would CWU.

There is no “extra-Labour party”. There is an old-Labourite “party”, using the word “party”, as Cathy does, “in the old-fashioned sense of political stream”, but it is very diffuse and passive.

Although most of its adherents are scattered outside the Labour Party, its known leaders and relatively concentrated bodies of people are inside. If new pressures revive it, people are more likely to orient (mainly) to the union-Labour structures (especially when those structures are seen to stand as the big opposition, albeit hypocritical and weak opposition, to a new right-wing Tory government) than to some notional new “political project”.

It is galling to admit that we have failed to split any large part of Labour’s base away to our politics over the 12 years of New Labour rule. It will be galling to see “re-branded” New Labourites strutting as the big opposition to Tory cuts. Only the AWL — as an organisation with clear politics, but able to move with a “tactical” sense of real terrain — not a phantom “substantial” “extra-Labour party”, can serve us as an instrument to fight the Labourite demagogues in the new conditions.

Can we rebuild the Socialist Alliance?

I hope that comrades don’t feel cynical about the editorial in the last issue of Solidarity calling for a rebuilt Socialist Alliance.

I spent the week after the paper came out touring round the country for meetings on Iraq, and somewhat to my surprise the call seems to have made people, at least in and around the AWL, sit up a bit and listen.

In Lambeth, south London, the night before I left, activists in the Unison-sponsored anti-cuts campaign were discussing standing “worker-and-tenant” candidates in next year’s local elections. After our first Iraq meeting, in Middlesbrough, we took part in a discussion about opposing the growth of the BNP locally. In both cases, activists felt that the Socialist Alliance could have provided a pole of attraction and organising centre for such struggles, for instance by sponsoring working-class electoral candidates — if it had survived.

In both cases, and in a number of other individual conversations during the tour, the call to rebuild something like the Socialist Alliance made people want to discuss further whether it’s possible, and if so how to do it. In the midst of the capitalist crisis, with widespread working-class disgust against the mainstream parties and the growth of the far right, this is an urgent necessity.

We should use the pages of Solidarity to host such a discussion

Sacha Ismail, south London

RMT low-profile in No2EU

By Martin Thomas

The No2EU slate, initiated by people from the Communist Party of Britain (Morning Star), is running a slate in every one of the eleven regions in England, Wales, and Scotland for the Euro-elections on 4 June.

The first surprising thing about the list of 69 candidates is how few it has from the rail union RMT, whose Executive voted to contribute £45,000 to the campaign. The 69 include only eight current RMT activists, plus one retired one. Of the eleven lists, only two are headed by RMT people.

People who have backed No2EU on the grounds that it is “a major trade union making a political initiative" are not seeing the enterprise as a whole. The bulk of RMT activists have little to do with No2EU.

Other regional lists are mostly headed by people in or close to the Socialist Party (four of them), or Morning Star people (three of them).

The website of George Galloway's rump "Respect" organisation reports that “Southwark Respect has decided to support No2EU in the Euro Elections in London”, suggesting that other Respect branches think different. Respect's national secretary, Nick Wrack, has bottom place on the No2EU list of candidates for London.

The basic problem with No2EU remains its politics: diverting all blame for the capitalist crisis onto ”Europe” rather than capital, and opposing “the so-called freedom of movement of labour” in the EU.

RMT general secretary Bob Crow, who is “convenor” of No2EU, says that the alliance will disband after 4 June. It will leave a sour after-taste, a negative rather than a positive influence on future trade-union initiatives in politics.

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