By Chris Ford and Pat Markey
Over 300 people attended the conference on working-class political representation sponsored by the rail union RMT on 21 January, and another 100 or so were unable to get in because the hall at Friends Meeting House in London was full.
The large attendance — despite the lack of publicity for the event even inside the RMT — shows the interest in the question among activists.
RMT General Secretary Bob Crow opened the conference by stating there “needs to be a debate about whether the Labour Party can be changed. I think it can’t”. There is no prospect of convincing RMT members to join the Labour Party to change it.
In Scotland the RMT is affiliated to the Scottish Socialist Party. South of the border? Crow just didn’t have an answer, other than that the “RMT is a single issue organisation. It is a trade union”.
Not once did he mention that the RMT is affiliated alongside the Communication Workers’ Union, Fire Brigades Union and Bakers’ Union to the Labour Representation Committee.
The main idea Crow put over was the need for a “national shop stewards movement”.
The RMT leadership organised the conference after being instructed to do so by both the 2004 and 2005 conferences of their union, in the wake of the Labour Party expelling the RMT in February 2004 because Scottish RMT branches had affiliated to the Scottish Socialist Party. Alex Gordon from Bristol RMT, the branch which moved the proposal at the 2004 conference, said that the aim was to stop Blair and Brown being able to marginalise the RMT politically.
Yet the RMT leadership had plainly organised the conference in a laggardly, reluctant, perfunctory way. Alex Gordon: “We called this conference, but we really don’t know what to do with it”.
Left Labour MP John McDonnell, a key figure in the Labour Representation Committee, was optimistic. He was the only person who actually pointed to the developments in capitalism itself, globalisation on the one hand and on the other new movements. “For the first time in years there is rebuilding at the base”, he claimed. In the trade unions no General Secretary has the prospect of winning an election without at least formally claiming to stand on the left.
McDonnell argued that anything new had to built from “the organisations we have” towards a “united front against capital”. For the Labour Representation Committee, he argued that “above all it provides a democratic space on the left”.
Scottish Socialist Party leader Colin Fox stated that the “working-class voice of people in England is punching below its weight”. Fox reported on the successes of the SSP and argued it would be a “questionable tactic to reform the Labour Party”.
Dave Nellist of the Socialist Party argued that: “We need to start seriously constructing a new workers’ party”. The SP has its Campaign for a New Workers Party, but he did not counterpose it to the RMT initiative. He put to the organisers that “we should come back again later in the year” to develop things further.
John Marek from Forward Wales (a former Labour MP) argued that we have to work within the system, and urged us to buy shares in Arrive because the market won’t go away. There was only polite applause for him. Jean Lambert from the Green Party, and Liz Green from Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, also spoke from the platform.
With the whole event lasting only three hours, there was limited time for speakers from the floor, and those taken were mostly from the Socialist Party or Respect.
Hannah Sell, the last Labour Party National Executive representative from the old Labour Party Young Socialists and now an organiser for the Socialist Party, said rightly that the RMT can play a key role in organising in the unions to get something new off the ground. This theme of the necessity for RMT and union involvement in any credible big new political initiative was echoed by several floor speakers.
One welcome feature of the conference was the lack of respect for Respect. There was no Respect speakers on the platform. From the floor, the SWP’s Paul Holborow and John Rees lectured the conference that the “ship has left the port” and plied us with election statistics.
Because of the limited time, there was little debate. Speakers made their own positive case, without developing their arguments against competing views.
Unfortunately the conference did not take decisions. There will now be a discussion at the RMT Executive. This should provide an opportunity for RMT branches to discuss the conference and feed in their opinions.
Dave Nellist’s proposal for a further conference later in the year should be taken up - with a clear agenda and an ability to take decisions, and, preferably, co-sponsored by other unions and organised on a delegate basis. Local working-class representation conferences on the same lines would start to build a solid base for a new initiative.
It is entirely possible that socialist organisations, individuals and some trade unions can be drawn together in an active alliance and united behind the need for independent working-class political representation.
If such an initiative is to succeed, then the activists involved also need to recognise that there is still a fight to be had in the Labour Party, as well as organising outside against Blair/Brown. The majority of unions are still affiliated, and the majority of rank and file unionists do not see a viable alternative. A strong alternative cannot be simply proclaimed externally. It must be forged in a struggle within the existing movement against Blair/Brown.
The trade unions do still have influence within the Labour Party. The problem is when, except for some individuals, have the union leaders actually mounted a major fight for their members? There were gains made in terms of the Trade Union Freedom bill at both the TUC and Labour Party conference. A more serious fight can rally a serious organised force for working-class politics.