Rail workers, trade unions and politics

Submitted by Janine on 21 October, 2004 - 9:28

Working people probably have less faith in politicians now than ever before. Election turnouts have hit a new low, especially amongst young people. It is harder and harder to tell the difference between the policies of the main parties. The Tories privatised the mainline, Labour privatised the Tube.

So why should we bother with politics? Because it is too important to be to be left to politicians. Political decisions affect our working lives (privatisation, health and safety legislation) and our lives outside work (the health service, pensions, our kids' education, …).

If railworkers and our unions stay out of politics, we let ourselves be exploited and mistreated.

A class issue

Politics is fundamentally about class. Workers produce all the wealth in society - without us, trains do not run, houses are not built, no-one has anything to eat. But society is run by the bosses' class and by their political servants.

Their interests are directly opposed to ours - they make their profits by making us work harder for less, and have opposed every single advance for working people, from the NHS to the minimum wage.

Despite what many politicians claim, you can not represent both employers and workers. There is not 'one nation' - there are two classes.

From when Parliament was set up, it has been stuffed full of employers. In 1900, 53 railway bosses were MPs! The workers' movement realised it needed to get its own representatives elected. The bottom line is that the working class can not get representation from non-working-class parties. We need our own representatives: better still, our own party.

Isn't that the Labour Party?

That is why Labour was set up - to break the monopoly that the Tories and Liberals provided for the employers.
Labour was never perfect - it negotiated within the capitalist system, and attracted career politicians who were not committed to serving the workers. But it brought real advances. In 1948, a Labour government created the NHS and nationalised the railways - there were now 30 railworkers sitting as Labour MPs, and just two railway bosses on the Tory benches.

But the 1970s Labour government attacked working people, and then in the wake of Thatcherism, Labour's leaders started a gallop to the right.

Ten years ago, Tony Blair became leader, and has pushed Labour as far away as possible from its working-class origins. He has embraced Tory policies, and changed Labour's structures so that it is harder than ever for members and unions to challenge him.

So what now?

Trade unions should break with Blairism, and fight to refound a party of the working class.

ASLEF and TSSA should stop sponsoring right-wing Labour MPs who back anti-union laws and privatisation. They should take a new approach: support and work with only those MPs who back railworkers' demands - just as RMT did in 2002. And they should take up an uncompromising fight within Labour against Blair's treachery. TSSA made a start by winning a vote at Labour Party conference for renationalisation of the railways - but a real fight has to go much much further than that.

Although railworkers are rightly angry with Labour, our unions should not disaffiliate at this point. Union leaders who have not had the guts to fight within the Labour Party are not likely to lead a fight outside it either. We should not leave in a mood of resentment and defeat, making life easier for Blair.

Life outside Labour?

RMT is now outside the Labour Party - expelled for backing the Scottish Socialist Party as well as Labour. The Labour Party's decision was wrong: the labour movement should drive out Blair, not the RMT. The union's decision was right: where we have the opportunity to vote for a better, socialist alternative against Labour, we should do.

But the sad fact is that in most of the UK, an alternative, working-class socialist party does not exist. RMT did not launch a proper fight to get re-admitted to the Labour Party, and is now in danger of drifting in a political 'no man's land'.

The union should not fall into the trap of backing non-working-class parties or coalitions, such as the Greens, Plaid Cymru, the LibDems or Respect. Even if these groups have superficially half-decent policies, the fact remains that if you are not accountable to the working class, then you can not represent us.

There are some socialist groups which deserve our vote, but these are small and scattered, and can not provide the whole answer.

The unions should take the initiative and stand pro-union, socialist candidates, as part of the process of refounding a working-class party. If we don't do this, we will be left picking between establishment parties and career politicians who do not really represent us. Trade unions do this in the USA - and look at the result: two parties both in the pocket of big business.

Organising the fight

There will probably be a General Election within a year. We should vote socialist where we can, Labour where there is no alternative. Despite Labour's betrayals, we do not want the Tories back in power.
Unions should fight within the Labour Party, and also support socialist candidates against Blairites. We should fight both inside Labour and outside it.

That may seem contradictory, as this debate is often posed as "In the Labour Party or not?" If the unions fight hard in the Labour Party, they are unlikely to reclaim it, but they could push it to a split. If the mass of the political labour movement breaks from its treacherous leaders, it can join with trade unions and activists outside the Labour Party to form a new working-class party. This is a more plausible way to create a working-class party than to 'reclaim the Labour Party' (probably a hopeless cause) or to build a new party from the bits and bobs of the non-Labour left.

Importantly, we need a co-ordinated campaign across the unions to fight for political representation for workers. RMT's 2004 AGM voted that the union should host a conference to organise this fight. The union should put this policy into action.

And our unions should get fully involved with the Labour Representation Committee - a newly-formed alliance of unions and activists to challenge Blairism.

Don't settle for crumbs

Ultimately, to get our voice in politics, we will also need to change our unions. A working-class party based on the unions could be weak, undemocratic, and repeat the experience of the Labour Party. Or it could be strong, principled and controlled by its rank-and-file members.

It's up to us. The political process tells workers that we have to settle for crumbs. We don't.

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