Alex Gordon, from the South Wales and the West region of the seafarers' and railworkers' union RMT, and Billy Hayes, the General Secretary of the Communication Workers Union, contributed to our debate on working class political representation at our Ideas for Freedom Summer school on 3-4 July. We print extracts from their speeches below
Working class political representation is under pressure from the impact of globalisation. Industrial struggle hasn't gone away but political struggle has moved out of Parliament - and onto the streets.
The last few years have seen neo-liberal attacks on the welfare state in Western Europe - to the point of destruction. But there have been massive strike waves in response - in Italy, France, Greece, Spain. In the UK however the level of strikes is still at a very very low historical level, despite several important struggles.
There is a question about a viable political alternative for those labour movement activists who are still fighting against the onslaught of the global economy. But the question remains unanswered.
The RMT believes that the Respect coalition is not a vehicle to form the basis of a new working class political party. The Scottish Socialist Party is a different case, they have managed to get members elected to the Scottish Parliament. (Some RMT branches have affilited to the SSP) The Labour Representation Committee is also worth paying attention to.
The RMT is affiliated to the Labour Representation Committee, it is the largest organisation affiliated. For the moment the LRC accepts non-Labour members (as are the RMT). If it keeps itself open to all labour movement bodies it has the potential to be a very important vehicle for refounding independent working class political representation.
The RMT wants to deliver political representation for our members who are after all in the forefront of the wave of global liberalisation. We can't go crawling back to a party that was stolen on the basis that we renounce independent political activity (north of the border).
That is why any kind of political relationship between the RMT and this new LRC is going to be on the basis of a new way of doing things. The RMT members in my region will not tolerate the handing over of £60,000 a year - as we did to the Labour Party - in order to have our jobs privatised.
It is becoming quite impossible to argue affiliation to a party that carried out the dirty work of capitalism. It is no longer enough to 'patiently explain' that 'there has never been a golden age' and so on. True, but it is not sustainable to make that argument and win a debate among the members.
The RMT leadership has to be congratulated for not supressing the debate on this matter. It was right to have the debate.
We need to open up the opposition that the LRC has created. At the RMT conference we endorsed uniting with other trade unions in and out of the Labour Party and opening up the debate.
We need to renew the movement, calling for labour representation, and get the message accross to people who are not already in trade unions. We need to organise on the shop floor for a political voice. I hope the LRC will start that process.
Forty per cent of our political fund is spent on the Labour Party. The remaining 60% is spent on campaigning, whether it be to back Unite Against Fascism or the anti-war movement. The Labour Party does not define the political agenda.
The qualitative difference between Blair and other Labour administrations is that Blair thinks the relationship between the Party and the trade unions was an historical mistake. That is why state funding of political parties is so significant. It is not just about cutting out the trade unions, though, it is about cutting out local activists. It is all part of a picture of depoliticisation.
You have the anti-link people on the one hand... and on the other those who back disaffiliation.
Our union opposed the RMT being expelled from the Labour Party, but that's a different case from those who back disaffiliation. What gets me - if you listen to the debate in the FBU for example - is where the arrangements end up. They start out saying "we are disaffiliating from the Labour Party now." Then they say "why are we involved in Unite Against Fascism." Then it's "what have political things got to do with my workplace?" And so it goes on down to sectionalism like not supporting strikes outside your own area. I've seen all this in my own union.
There are many frustrations in the workplace. But you can't be a good trade unionist and deal with those unless you are politically active.
Where do we go from here?
If we think we can create a new basis for political representation at a national level only through the general secretaries, then we are wrong. We need rank and file pressure on people like me! But I am convinced that we can take on the people in power.