Debate: A workers' voice in politics?

Submitted by Anon on 1 May, 2003 - 11:51

Since May 2001, when the Fire Brigades Union voted to consider supporting election candidates closer to union policies and principles against New Labour, trade unionists and socialists have been discussing how to deal with the issue of the unions' political funds. The Alliance for Workers' Liberty has recently been taking stock of what has become a defining issue for the left, and debating how to go forward. This issue we print a contribution from John Bloxam and John O'Mahony; other contributions from the discussion among AWL activists will follow; and readers are invited to add their own comments.

1. The Labour Party is still what Lenin called it in 1920, a bourgeois workers' party. In the last decade, there has been an enormous shift within this contradictory phenomenon towards its bourgeois pole. The 'New Labour Party' is the result. It retains its trade-union affiliations; it is still reliant on trade-union financing; but the relationships and structures that now constitute New Labour are radically different from those of 'Old' Labour.

2. New Labour differs from Old Labour in these respects.

  • The trade union share of the vote at Party conference and of direct and indirect representation on the National Executive has been substantially cut.
  • The role of both Annual Conference and the National Executive in the affairs of the Labour Party has been changed qualitatively. Essentially, they no longer control Labour Party policy, or what happens in the party, even in theory.
  • Through a series of procedural checks and controls, it has become the norm for New Labour that regional and even national conferences no longer discuss political issues. With these new structures, the Labour Party "in the country' cannot counterpose itself politically to the Government.
  • Thus, the forums in which and through which the political life of the Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) expressed itself have been cemented up.
  • The leader of the party, elected by the plebiscitary pseudo-democracy of one person one (postal) vote, has been raised above the party and its affiliated trade unions into a Bonaparte figure with enormous political power. The leader's 'office'- lieutenants, advisers, spin-liars, etc. - financed by big capitalist donations and state funds, is the real centre of the party. All key policy and other decisions are taken there, outside all possible control by the party or the unions. When the leader is also Prime Minister, his power vis-Ă -vis the party is vastly increased.
  • Central control over and vetting of Labour candidacies at parliamentary and local government level has been greatly increased. The possibility of rank-and-file control through selection and deselection of candidates has been greatly reduced.

3. The atrophying and accelerated bureaucratisation of Parliament parallels the changes in the Labour Party described above and reinforces them.

Where in theory Parliament controls the executive, the reality is that the Government rigidly controls Parliament, by way of controlling its majority. Mass revolts by MPs, as we saw during the recent build-up to war, are still possible. The norm, however, has been for the parliamentary Labour Party to be as rigidly controlled and powerless as the Labour Party 'in the country' has been.

The New Labour Party in government has openly repudiated any working-class allegiance in explicit and brutal words and in such deeds as keeping the Tory anti-union laws on the statute books.

Outside of an unpredictable meltdown of its electoral support on a scale to match that of the Italian Christian Democratic Party or the Canadian Tories in the 1990s, New Labour is in power for the next decade at least. Blair has personally been strengthened by the events surrounding the second Gulf war.

4. For these reasons we have advocated independent working-class electoral challenges to New Labour. We never saw such things as ruled out on principle. We rejected them previously only because of the practicalities, chief of which was the open nature of the Party and what socialists could do in it.

5. The decisive changes are not, it must be stressed, primarily a matter of the policies of New Labour, important though those are to defining what New Labour is, and inextricably linked though they are in th eactual history in Britain with what the Blairites have done to the Labour Party structures.

It is the changes in structures and in relationships between the Party and the unions, the blocking-off of the channels of working-class representation and of possible effective labour-movement opposition to Labour government policy, that are decisive here.

Other social-democratic formations - for example the Australian Labor Party - have adapted to and even pioneered neo-liberal policies without undergoing the same transformation of their relationship to the working class as Blair's New Labour. Decisive about New Labour is the structural changes, the fact that all the old forums and channels through which the labour movement could discuss and pronounce on such policies are gone or radically changed. The Blairites have built on Thatcherism, and on the tremendous defeats inflicted on the working class by Thatcherism, to transform the Labour Party radically.

6. But the trade unions continue to back New Labour? Before they founded their own party, the trade unions backed the Liberal Party, and regularly got a group of MPs elected under Liberal Party auspices, the so-called 'Lib-Labs". In the last two decades of the 19th century, the pioneer socialists stood in elections, in the main but not only in local elections, against a Liberal Party which had trade union backing.

The unions continue to have organic ties to New Labour, not least financial ties, that the late 19th century trade unions did not have with the Liberal Party. Acknowledge that difference; understand that the trade unions could do much more than they now do inside the Labour Party to fight Blairism; advocate that the rank and file of the trade unions should demand of the trade union leaders that they do fight Blair and Blairism within the Labour Party - and nonetheless there is an important degree of parallel between the position of socialists now standing against the trade-union-backed Labour Party, and our predecessors a hundred years ago standing against a Liberal Party which had trade-union backing.

7. A simultaneous mass revolt by the CLPs and the trade unions - crucially, by the mass of the unions - could, of course, quickly re-open, cleanse and democratise the New Labour structures. We can expect that some MPs who rebelled in Parliament against the war will more easily rebel in the future. It may be that a new offensive for privatisations and so on by a post-Gulf-war Blair, feeling strong, will generate concomitant opposition by MPs and others.

The most important fact for now, and calculably, is that nothing short of a large-scale general revolt can break the hold of the New Labour machine. New Labour can see off partial revolts, even large and important ones. Only a large, determined and simultaneous revolt could swamp the breakwaters.

Constitutional formulas, legalities, and rule changes are never all-decisive, in the Labour Party or in the class struggle at large. Some struggles can break through undemocratic rules; or entrenched leaderships can find ways to suppress the rank and file even if the formal rules are democratic. But rules matter.

To say that the rule changes in the Labour Party do not signify much would be as wrong as saying that the anti-union laws do not matter much for the industrial struggle, or that the different Labour Party rule changes of the early 1980s, in favour of democracy, were a diversion.

8. The transforming changes affect precisely those areas where the political life of the old Labour Party, that is of the old labour movement, expressed itself, and into which socialists could intervene as we did.

If there is some political life in a local CLP it cannot now - short of a very large-scale simultaneous revolt in other parties and the unions - go beyond local opposition. Nor can it feed into the old national forums like National Executive and Conference, and thus stimulate and coalesce with other local groups. The pockets of local life bear the same relationship to the old national Labour Party life that rock pools bear to the receded sea.

9. The working-class movement has effectively been deprived of its old political dimension. The trade-union political funds that help sustain New Labour do not now operate to secure working-class representation in Parliament. Those funds now go to sustain an anti-working-class government party.

The fact that the break has not been done cleanly, completely, or even, perhaps, definitively, serves the Blairite machine in two ways. It secures continued trade-union provision of money for it. More importantly in political terms, it makes what has been done less obvious than it should be and thus works to head off moves to restore working-class political representation in opposition to New Labour.

10. What we want to happen in response to this situation has been set out in resolutions and in articles in Solidarity and Workers' Liberty. The trade unions should oppose Blair within the Labour structures, push things to a break with New Labour as in 1931 they broke with James Ramsey MacDonald, and refound a trade-union-based Labour Party.

11. It can be calculated that only a not-very-big minority of the Parliamentary Labour Party - which has no working-class roots worth recording - would split from Blair in those circumstances.

12. In the last decade, if there had existed even a small non-sectarian Marxist party of a few thousand - the size of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1920s - then something like the 'National Left Wing Movement', the network of CLPs disaffiliated from the party in the 1920s for refusing to expel communists, would have come into existence, linking up such forces as the Leeds CLP members who split over the Liz Davies affair. It did not exist. In the drift and then stampede to the right that began in 1982-3, the once left-wing CLPs had in the main been transformed into organisations whose dominant drive was to get the Tories out at any price, and finally even at the price of accepting the neo-Thatcherite politics that Blair's and Brown's ascendancy had made Labour Party policy. That limited the size of Leeds-style revolts.

In fact, the political life of the CLPs is at a low ebb. The uniform submissiveness of local Labour councils and the dearth of strong local rank and file Labour revolts against them is one clear measure of that.

13. In this situation, the sort of rationally-controlled moves that we want to see in response to New Labour have not happened. Disappointment with Blairite control of the Labour Party and the trade unions has taken the form of the election of a wide range of new trade union leaderships committed at one level or another to defending their members' immediate interests - that is, of a drive to recreate real trade unionism.

Without the support or tolerance of the trade union establishment, the Blair-Brown-Mandelson New Labour coup in the political wing of the British labour movement could not have been made, or not without a major 1931-style split in the Labour Party.

Many of the leaderships that supported Blair in his coup are now gone or going. To the new trade union leaders we say: counterpose the unions to New Labour immediately, and take the fight if necessary (as we think it will be necessary) to an open break and a refounding of labour representation.

We are, however, nowhere near the possibility of controlling what happens. The new leaderships are not doing what we think the situation indicates.

Some of them have an 'outsider' attitude akin to that of some trade unions in the USA to the Democratic Party: New Labour is something to get the best you can from, rather than the trade unions' own party. The idea of fighting to reclaim the party or of 'refounding the Labour Representation Committee' as yet has little weight even with the new layer of trade union leaders. They have not even organised a strong campaign to have the anti-union laws removed from the statute books (though there is now more activity on that front than for two decades). In the run-up to and at the start of the recent Iraq war, not one single union got its representative on the Labour National Executive to stand up for union policy against the war. Every union representative toed the Government line.

14. There is not a united, strategically coherent response by the political elements in the trade unions. There is a fragmentary, incoherent response.

Instead of a coherent strategic movement towards transferring the political funds of the unions, as a body, from New Labour and into recreating a real Labour Party, we have all sorts of proposals about those union political funds. Thus, for example, we get the bizarre advocacy by Bob Crow, the ex-SLP leader of the RMT, of support for Plaid Cymru.

15. The absence of a coherent, co-ordinated union response is a result of our weakness as a force in the labour movement; but we are where we are.

Centrally, we advocate that the unions fight within the Labour Party against New Labour, and fight - if necessary, as we think it will be - all the way to a break and the refounding of a real Labour Party. But that is not all we do. In the actual situation of flux, we break down that central idea into immediate tactics. And we relate to inchoate responses as militants, not as 'inspectors-general' of history or of the labour movement.

16. What are the logical possibilities for what we say and do about how unions use their political funds?

One possibility is to argue for continued exclusive support of the New Labour Party. We could now adopt such a position only on one of two grounds. Either, that we expect the new bourgeois execrescences to be shrugged off the body of the Labour Party, and old Labour to re-emerge.

Or, that we want to keep the trade union funds that go to New Labour as a unified mass of politically-directed money that can then tidily be transferred to the replacement mass trade-union-based party which we advocate.

We have argued that Blairism will not easily be shrugged off, and that even a concerted trade union break with New Labour would take only a small part of the Parliamentary Labour Party (and, possibly, unless there had been, in the interim, a sizeable influx and a revival of political life) not even most of the CLPs. It would in effect be the foundation of a new party.

To argue for the status quo until either the Blairites are cut away and New Labour is turned back into Old Labour, or until the unions break from New Labour and found a new workers party, would be to appoint ourselves as guardians and advocates of doing nothing about the funds for an incalculable period of time, and anyway for the foreseeable future.

17. The second possibility is to argue for the tactical use of existing funds.

Our central political demand on the unions - that they fight Blairism within the Labour structures, right through to a break, and found a new working-class trade-union-based party - does not oblige us to oppose everything short of that. It does not oblige us to oppose any tactical fragmentation of the union political funds.

18. Advocacy of our epochal concern - the mass trade union break with Blair and move to a new workers' party - should not shade into a conservative defence of and support for the Blair-serving status quo against immediate limited initiatives, left-wing or labour-movement electoral challenges to the New Labour party; things which, on their merits, we should support here and now.

19. The situation is further complicated by the activities of sectarians like the SWP and the Socialist Party. The SWP has no strategic overview and uses elections in a catchpenny, opportunist 'build the SWP' spirit. The SP have a wrong assessment of the situation, believing that the entire process of destruction of the old Labour Party has been completed.

The phrase, 'democratise the political funds' was initially used to express the correct broad idea of the FBU May 2001 decision - that the union, nationally and regionally, should critically examine election candidates seeking its support, and consider backing independent working-class candidates against New Labour. That broad idea always involved accepting the risk that a drive to reassert independent working-class representation will, in the given circumstances, involve, or open the door to, some fragmentation and false starts. But the SWP, in particular, has cumulatively reinterpreted 'democratisation of the political funds' as positive advocacy of fragmentation and 'diversification' of the political funds. They have proposed having money allotted branch-by-branch or in proportion to different parties' support in the membership. We are against fragmenting the funds in such a manner, which will end up (i) providing a safety-valve for the bureaucrats, freeing them to back Blair with the bulk of the political funds as long as they allow a few branches to give money elsewhere; (ii) drifting towards business-unionism, i.e. giving money to whatever mainstream party candidate seems friendliest or most susceptible to lobbying.

20. However, a policy of no changes in the distribution of trade union political funds until either the Labour Party has been won back from the Blairites, or a new workers' party is launched by the trade unions, would for socialists be a policy of long-term inertia. It would be a de facto acceptance of Blairism as working-class politics for the foreseeable future, and, by way of that, a long-term policy of de facto abstention from electoral politics. Under the guise of strategic thinking we would adopt a policy of passive waiting for 'something big' to happen. Such an approach is not a conceivable option for us. It would destroy the AWL as an interventionist political force.

21. We made the following harsh but true and just assessment of the performance of the Socialist Alliance in the 2001 General Election. "We have something to congratulate ourselves for in having organised such a widespread public challenge to Blairism. The Socialist Alliance has little else to congratulate itself for. With very few exceptions our impact on the electorate was not noticeably greater than that which any halfway presentable socialist candidate would have made in any suitable constituency at any time in the last hundred years.

"So far, the main significance of the Socialist Alliance lies in its impact on the left, where it has brought a number of tendencies together in a loose collaboration, rather than in its impact on the working-class electorate or the broad labour movement. So far, the latter is slight... The Socialist Alliance waged a campaign that was shaped and limited by the politics and by the organisational practices of the SWP..." (Workers' Liberty 2/1).

For any collective that has our concern with mass working-class politics, a recoil is a natural response to this reality of the Socialist Alliance.

But recoil from inadequate and often toytown electoralism into some variety of the policy of passive waiting outlined above would simply be a form of political suicide, motivated on our disappointment with the "revolutionary" left.

The point is that the AWL has to recreate a revolutionary left - one that can interact healthily with the existing broad labour movement. One of the central arguments for electoral activity - as against doing nothing in that arena - is that it will help us in our work of recruiting, regrouping and educating the revolutionary socialist forces to make a difference in the mass labour movement.

22. We cannot adopt one sweeping, generalised 'line' for all the permutations we face in the flux around us. We cannot respond as 'inspectors-general of history', saying that nothing should move unless it accords to our strategic conception of the speedy replacement of Blairism by a trade-union-based working-class party.

We may calculate that there is a drift towards depoliticising the unions. We may observe that in practice it is sometimes hard to disentangle proposals on the political funds which allow support for Socialist Alliance and independent working-class candidates from trends that might mean furthering the drift towards an attitude of backing various friendly politicians from the 'outside' instead of asserting an independent role for the trade union movement itself inside the existing Labour Party structures, as an alternative to continued and in fact passive affiliation to the Blairite New Labour party. All we can do about that is to fight for our alternative, and to argue politically against the trends to depoliticisation.

We cannot be the 'inspectors-general' of the broad labour movement, either. We cannot allow our own fight for our own politics to be stifled by cautious reluctance to trigger debates which may be risky for the movement as a whole. We are militants fighting within the movement to shape and reshape it, and fighting to group enough revolutionary socialists to do that. It would be a foolish error for us to fear to play the role of militants, fighting to group and recruit militants, because of a detached long-term estimate of the risks to the broad movement from destabilising the status quo. We will only be able to remake and reshape the movement if we succeed in organising the militants now around healthy Marxist politics.

The signs are that there will be much fragmentation of what exists now before the movement can gather itself together coherently. We cannot respond by mechanically saying no to any initiative by the sectarians, because that would inevitably mean leaving to them elements of a response to the situation we are in that make sense or partial sense. We should always try to recast anything sensible in what they propose - independent working-class electoral challenges to New Labour, and trade-union involvement in such challenges - in our own political framework, by putting down our own resolutions and amendments.

23. We should advocate local labour movement political action committees, and where possible treat Trades Councils as potentially such committees. We support any solidly-based moves by trade unions to counterpose themselves electorally to New Labour, for example FBU candidates in local elections.

We are in favour of winning support from Labour-affiliated unions, or (the more realistic option now) from local or regional union bodies, for authentic independent working-class electoral challenges to New Labour. Obviously how and when this is done is a tactical question, but in general we favour it.

24. To campaign now in unaffiliated unions for them to affiliate to New Labour, on the basis of joining a general trade-union fight against the Blair machine within the Labour structures, would be inept - a piece of project-mongering that could not be shown to make sense to thinking militants. Such a fight does not exist in any halfway coherent, concerted or large-scale fashion.

A campaign for affiliation would inescapably imply commitment to a narrow preconceived scenario for the future, that the unions will fight in a co-ordinated fashion to reclaim the Labour Party, or, in an equally tidy and co-ordinated fashion, disaffiliate to form a new party. There is no warrant in what has happened, or what is foreseeably likely to happen, for tying our tactics to that scenario.

25. We are against disaffiliation, which in practical terms could only mean the Labour-affiliated unions ducking out of the fight-to-a-break against the New Labour machine which we advocate.

26. But what if a decision by a trade union - say the RMT - to let branches back non-Labour-Party candidates leads to the Labour Party disaffiliating the RMT? Isn't support for local trade union branches having the right to back non-Labour candidates only the advocacy of trade union disaffiliation 'by the back door'? Won't it come to the same thing? And we are not for disaffiliation, are we?

The reasoning here is only a variant of the idea that we want everything done in an orderly, co-ordinated fashion, that we want the unions as a body to fight Blair and then, when it proves necessary, to move as a body to found a replacement trade-union-based working-class party.

Therefore? Therefore we don't dare move for anything partial lest we thereby spoil the prospects for the more orderly changes we would like? Since we cannot control what the whole trade union movement does, therefore in spheres where we have some say we adopt a policy of passive waiting, not daring to fight in individual unions for the right of local organisations to back other than New Labour candidates?

An analogy will help clarify things here. We do not want to split the trade unions. So therefore the rank and file should never push a conflict with an entrenched trade union bureaucracy as far as a split, or the risk of a split? Such a policy would amount to setting artificial a priori limits to the rank and file struggle for control of the union. It would amount to saying that if the bureaucracy is pushing things to a split, then the rank and file will capitulate - in advance! - to the entrenched bureaucracy, rather than letting the logic of the struggle decide.

Trotsky dealt with this in a famous document. "If it be criminal to turn one's back on mass organisations for the sake of fostering sectarian fictions, it is no less so to passively tolerate subordination of the revolutionary mass movement to the control of openly reactionary or disguised conservative ('progressive') bureaucratic cliques. Trade unions are not ends in themselves; they are but means along the road to proletarian revolution".

We must fight for working-class politics in the labour movement. We do not fight in the most advantageous, still less ideal, conditions. We cannot let fear of damage that will be done during that struggle stifle the will of the rank and file to fight. We cannot fetishise the existing links and relations between the New Labour Party and the trade unions. We must advocate a fight on every level, and now.

It is not at all certain that New Labour would rush to cut off its trade union sources of income because local trade unions backed non-Labour candidates. Or if it was inclined to rush, that it would not back down faced with a widespread trade-union revolt against its moves to disaffiliate a dissident union.

In any case, we cannot let ourselves be blackmailed into passive acceptance of the political dominance of the Blairites. We must fight our way out of the political impasse of the labour movement.

RMT Assistant General Secretary Patrick Sikorski explains that the rule changes he wants to see at RMT conference this year will open it up so that the union can "support those who support our policies. They will emerge from the SSP in Scotland, the Socialist Alliance in England, members of Plaid Cymru in Wales, and others who will be to the left of Labour. Also it will involve socialists still inside Labour".

Against the idea of backing Plaid Cymru, we counterpose the principle of independent working-class political representation - not the idea that the union must stick to exclusive support for New Labour candidates.

27. We should propose in each union a national policy which would establish a framework for the union's political activities and use of its political fund set by union policies and the principle of independent working-class representation in politics.

In pursuit of this national approach, we should argue against automatic support for New Labour and its candidates, and for the possibility of supporting independent working-class candidates. We explain openly that we want the unions to consider support only for working-class and socialist independent candidates, not for any independent candidates sympathetic to the policies of the union, and that our aim is not 'diversification' but the recreation of a trade-union-based workers' party. We argue for decisions about such alternatives to be taken, where appropriate, at regional and local level in the unions, subject to the fullest democratic control (e.g. workplace and membership ballots).

We are also for:

  1. Reducing union contributions to the Labour Party to the flat affiliation fee, ending extra donations, as the CWU has done. (We are not for reducing the level of affiliation).
  2. Making union representatives in New Labour structures fight for union policy.
  3. Withdrawing union sponsorship to MPs who flout or oppose union policies (as the RMT has done).
  4. Challenging, expressing no confidence in, and where possible de-selecting councillors, MPs and leaders who refuse accountability to the labour movement and oppose working-class interests. No confidence in Blair as Labour leader!
  5. Using union funds for independent working-class political campaigning - e.g. for referenda on privatisation, for a European workers' charter rather than supporting bourgeois yes or no campaigns on the euro.

Where we come across motions in the unions expressing some of these ideas, but in an inadequate framework, we should seek to amend them so as to set them clearly within the framework of the fight for independent working-class representation.

Where our amendments fall, or circumstances prevent us from proposing them, the way we vote on such motions must be judged tactically in each case, in the light of both their wording and the meaning given to those words by the conditions and balance of forces in each union. Such tactical judgements should be made by our union fractions in consultation with the Industrial Committee and the EC.

28. In fact, the fight on the different fronts - to get the trade union leaders to fight Blairism within the Labour structures, and to get the trade unions to back working-class and socialist candidates against New Labour - is inseparable from the work of building a cross-union rank and file movement. The trade union leaders who will not fight for working-class and trade-union interests now, within the structures of the Labour Party, are not likely to support the formation of an anti-Blairite working-class party to replace New Labour. Here too, on the question of backing anti-Blairite working-class election candidates, the old watchword offers guidance: if the leaders won't lead, then the rank and file must.

29. We should pay more attention to the Labour Party. We should improve our efforts in pushing affiliated unions to fight the Blairites - that is, get our trade-union work better organised and fight systematically to get our own resolutions on political funds to the union conferences. Socialists should reorganise and reactivate our Labour Party fraction, but not, unless there is a major change in the condition and levels of life of the CLPs, significantly increase the number of comrades assigned to such work.

30. The central conclusion from the reality of the fragmented responses to the Blairite coup is that only a coherent Marxist organisation can in itself act to co-ordinate in any thoroughgoing way the different responses evoked in the labour movement. We, as a living organisation, have to respond to the 'fragments'. AWL has to co-ordinate our different fields of work - trade union, youth, students, No Sweat, Socialist Alliance, SSP, Labour Party - integrating them both politically and organisationally.

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