The national conference of the Labour Representation Committee on 17 November will provide an opportunity for socialist and trade unionists who want turn the tide of retrogression in the labour movement.
The significant effort by the left to re-assert itself through the campaign for John McDonnell MP for leader of the Labour Party was unable to surmount the bureaucratic obstacles bolstered by the Parliamentary Labour Party and the union hierarchy. At Labour’s conference in Bournemouth, the union leaders allowed the abolition of conference’s ability to make policy and at a stroke disenfranchised sixteen affiliated trade unions and all Constituency Labour Parties.
It is the class struggle in the postal dispute that we see the crisis of working class political representation being given its most concrete expression; the seething anger of the rank and file brings into question not only the role of the union leaders, but the entire nature of the relationship between the Communication Workers’ Union and the Labour Party.
For a decade a significant section of the left responded to the process of centralisation and exclusion in the Labour Party through efforts to coalesce into electoral blocs. These myriad initiatives to construct an alternative to “New Labour”, not organically from a process of struggle within the labour movement, have failed. Now just at the point when this historical phase of change in the Labour Party appears to have run its course, these projects have all but exhausted themselves. This places the Labour Representation Committee in a strategically important position to address our current dilemmas.
Ten years ago Tony Benn argued in this paper that: “We need to recreate a representative body of people to fight for working-class rights… [the] trade unions will again have to set up political action committees to get Parliamentary representation” He raised the idea of “refounding the Labour Representation Committee…..based on the labour movement as it as it exists”.
The current LRC was founded “to secure a voice for socialists within the Labour Party, the unions, and Parliament.” The LRC can boast the affiliation of five national trade unions, eight union regions, and 62 union branches; but only 10 Constituency Labour Parties and seven LP branches along with 16 other organisations. This is still a potentially powerful base of support to build upon.
Now the LRC is at a crossroads. If it is to achieve its strategic goal of working class representation it cannot allow itself to be restricted to “the development of a radical policy agenda for the Labour Party and the trade unions”.
Yet while the Labour Party at one level remains an arena of struggle, the LRC goal been rendered unattainable by structural changes. There is legitimate objection by LRC members and within affiliated trade unions to restricting the socialist project to reforming the ossified Labour Party. As John McDonnell has argued: “We have to face up to the challenge of identifying and developing new routes into effective political activity.”
The LRC needs to grasp the historical opportunity and re-launch itself — to make itself the axis for a re-composition of the left, to become a workers’ representation committee in its full and unbridled sense.
My initial thoughts are that such a re-launch would comprise:
1. Replacing the name LRC with that of the “Workers’ Representation Committee”. This is the equivalent of the LRC initiated by the Scottish TUC in 1899, which unified wider forces and was clearer in its call for a new worker party committed to creating a socialist society. It is about adopting a name more representative of our purpose to represent the politically disenfranchised workers, as opposed to being a fraction of a body which they consider has disenfranchised them.
2. The LRC conference needs to take a clear decision to reconstitute itself by seeking to unite under the banner of workers’ representation the various bodies of our movement, socialist organisations, the trade unions and, where affiliation is not yet attainable, the broad lefts and rank and file organisations. A new Workers’ Representation Committee would seek to be an axis to bring about a re-composition of the left. An urgent appeal for socialist unity to achieve Workers’ Representation should be issued by the national conference.
3. The coming conference should give a new impetus to the efforts to establish local workers’ representation committees, drawing together socialists, trade unionists and working class communities. The question of elections is crucial to the provision of workers’ representation but it is also the cause of some of the fragmentation on the left.
There is a tendency to erect false-opposites in this debate. A new Workers’ Representation Committee should seek to transcend such fragmentation which can only weaken our overall effort. As a federal body it should allow flexibility of tactics among its constituent elements in achieving the strategic goal of workers’ representation.
The RMT is currently discussing whether it should stand in the Greater London Autority elections. There growing support for the call by the RMT London Transport Regional Council, and what is being proposed is not a sectarian stunt. The RMT is an affiliate to the LRC, and such an electoral challenge should be viewed as complimentary to the LRC’s goals.
Such candidates should stand under the banner of an affiliate to the LRC/Workers’ Representation Committee in order to strengthen our overall project to provide workers’ representation against those of capital.
Achieving workers’ representation should be done through all avenues available: where it is still possible, we secure workers’ representatives through the Labour Party, such as in the trade union parliamentary groups; when securing council candidates there is no absolute principle to mount a counter challenge.
Immediately we must wage a struggle in the unions to call the leaderships to account for their actions at the Bournemouth conference.
Contrary to the views of some comrades, such as in Labour Left Briefing, my argument does not mean abandoning posts in the Labour Party, but facing reality. Through these struggles we should be laying the groundwork for renewal through new forms of organisation — workers’ representation committees which require full freedom of manoeuvre in asserting our class interests.
In calling for a new Workers’ Representation Committee, we should avoid repeating the errors of the past. Tony Benn was wrong in one respect when he argued in the past for “action committees to get Parliamentary representation”.
Istvan Meszaros has argued that the derailment of the movement was partially secured by the gaining of access to Parliament — this actually shaped the conservative nature of the modern labour movement. A structural weakening of Labour’s fighting potential, was caused by the acceptance of the parliamentary constraints as the only legitimate framework of contesting the rule of capital. This saw division of the movement into the “political wing” and the “industrial wing”, with the belief that the “political wing” would legislate in the interests of the working class organised in the trade unions.
As time went by everything turned out to be the other way round. The “political wing”, instead of asserting its mandate in close collaboration with the “industrial wing”, used the rules of the parliamentary game to subordinate the trade unions to itself. Thus, instead of politically strengthening the fighting force of labour in its confrontation with capital, the “political wing” confined the trade unions to “economic trade disputes”.
What was supposed to be the “political voice of labour” ended up actively imposing capital’s interests and banning “politically motivated industrial action”. Any new initiative has to aim to avoid repeating that corrosive division between parliamentary political action and industrial action.
In its long history social democracy at first followed the path of trying to introduce major changes in the prevailing class relations through parliamentary reform, and after a period of failure ended up reneging on the goal of socialist transformation. This was not simply due to some individuals’ “personal betrayal”. The project of gradually instituting socialism through parliamentary legislation was doomed from the outset. And so the practice of “gradual change” was substituted by a defensive capitulation to capitalist parliamentary manipulation.
The objective potentialities for a socialist offensive are inherent in global capitalism. However these potentialities face a major contradiction: the absence of adequate instruments that could turn the potentiality into reality.
This situation cannot be countered without a fundamental reorientation, transformation and renewal of the labour movement so that it is capable of offensive action. Without that, we will all end up like that part of the left who have while repeating the line about the “decay of capitalism” for decades, have found that all that has decayed so far is themselves.