Getting a political strategy into the unions

Submitted by martin on 27 September, 2011 - 2:43

Pete Firmin, joint secretary of the Labour Representation Committee, spoke to Ed Maltby at the Labour Party conference.

How do you see the LRC going now?

It’s been growing, in terms of individual membership and affiliations from union branches and bits of the Labour Party.

What the LRC has to do is two things – be at the cutting edge of the struggles, such as strikes and anti cuts campaigns and so on – and be at the cutting edge of taking that up within the party.

That’s what we try to do. It’s not always easy because you’re persuading people to go to Labour Party meetings and argue with rightwing shits, which is not always very exciting, but it’s what has to be done.

You see some unions which are nominally to the left but they don’t have a political strategy. We have to change that. They have to challenge within the Labour Party to see the party supporting the industrial struggle. If that’s a disaster for the Labour Party then so be it. But you push it to that point rather than stand back from it.

Apparently Len McCluskey said the other day that we need Labour Party support for the strikes and if we don’t get it then we’ll have to look for another party – the problem with that is, that’s a completely passive attitude to the political party. You’ve got to struggle for it. If it then breaks up, then fine. But you don’t just pitch up and say, “support us or we’ll leave” like Scargill did, because it leads nowhere.

Is there any sign of the 70,000 new members at conference? Are there dissident motions being put?

Well, there have been resolutions put to conference that the leadership would not want to see passed. There are motions on the riots from the LRC and a motion from Unison on pensions which the leadership won’t like. The problem is that even when these motions do get passed, the unions don’t follow through and ensure that they’re acted on. Now even during the Blair years sometimes radical motions, like on council housing, would get passed. So it’s not clear yet that this is all part of some new wave.

A challenge to standing orders was made by a new member but mainly people who become delegates have been around for a bit longer than that. How things get expressed in LP meetings is another question. There is a danger that a lot of these new members join, then the leadership’s attitude towards say the pension strikes pisses them off and they leave again.

There isn’t a new spirit here at the conference. There was a certain amount of belief that Ed Miliband would do things a bit different but he hasn’t. The whole Refounding Labour façade of democracy has been a damp squib. Indicative of this is that on the eve of conference he announces his new policy on tuition fees.

Leaving aside the fact that the policy is crap – where does this policy come from? It comes from Ed Miliband’s head, not from party procedure or anything like that.

I think it’s pretty much a continuation of New Labour. The party machinery hasn’t changed. During the debate on Refounding Labour they didn’t call a single person in opposition to the proposals.

The new Labour Party General Secretary, Iain McNicol, spoke to Conference. He slipped in that he would never cross a picket line, and he got a lot of support for that. That’s a clear contrast to Miliband’s line on the strikes. Now that’s just a small thing – and whether anybody will challenge Miliband on that is another question.

Another change is the elimination of Local Government Committees.

Not all Local Government Committees currently do what they should be doing, which is deciding on policy for local government and accountability. Over the years a lot of them have withered to the point where they are just campaign committees, going out knocking doors in elections and so on.

What Refounding Labour has done is formalised this state of affairs – that’s all they can be, they can’t be decision-making bodies now. But in a lot of places you’re arguing against this change in a place where they haven’t had real structures for years and years.

But to me this is the single worst change in Refounding Labour. It is the single worst downgrading of accountability.

What is the leadership’s strategy for reshaping the party? What is Ed Miliband’s political strategy?

I’m not convinced he has a strategy. It is slightly to the left of Blair and Brown but he is still distancing himself from the unions, the pension strikes and so on.

And in terms of the Party, the way they have ditched all sorts of input from members is indicative of a lack of democracy. So, before the consultation was over they announced that they would ditch electing the shadow cabinet.

What is the ideological change in the party? Is there any substance to Blue or Purple Labour?

I think it’s more a case of limping and groping along. I don’t think there is any real substance to these grandiose words. I have yet to find out what Blue Labour or Purple Labour means beyond just words.

It’s like when they talk about “working in the community” – what does that mean? Working in local anti-cuts campaigns? Strikes? Or does it just mean working with local businessmen? It’s just words, or – at the end of the day – bullshit.

Do you think the leadership is serious about the transformation into a US Democratic Party-style structure?

I think Mandelson and Blair were serious about it. There are signs that people around Miliband wanted to go in that direction but then pulled back. In Refounding Labour there is a provision for “registered supporters” who can vote. Now it could be an own goal for them, as a lot of inactive party members might decide to be registered supporters as it’s cheaper, and they’d lose money over that.

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