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Still no political voice for the unions

THE PAST year has seen an intensification of debate about the future direction of the labour movement – particularly the crisis in working-class political representation. But has the debate progressed this issue any further?

In January 2006, the RMT railworkers’ union convened a well-attended conference explicitly on the crisis in working-class political representation. Following on from that in March was the very successful launch conference of the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party (CNWP). Since then there has been a further RMT conference on rebuilding the shop stewards’ movement in October and the Respect-initiated ‘fighting trade unions’ conference in November.

At the same time, the growing crisis facing the Labour government – whether Blair or Brown is leader – coupled with the decision of the left-wing Labour MP John McDonnell to stand in the Labour leadership contest, has also given at least the impression that an attempt to reclaim the Labour Party may be underway. When, as unfortunately is likely, McDonnell’s leadership challenge fails, with Brown succeeding Blair, the question of what way forward will be sharply posed.

However, while all these initiatives could have been helpful further steps in rebuilding the labour movement and laying the basis for an independent political alternative for working-class people, the reality is that – with the exception of the CNWP – none of them have concretely addressed the complex issues involved in this urgent task.

Certainly, the potential for beginning to lay down roots for a new mass working-class party – particularly through the trade unions – has become more favourable as the year progressed. There has been growing erosion in support for Labour and a clear rejection by many voters of its free-market, ideologically-driven programme.

However, without a mass workers’ alternative, the opposition to Labour, especially in the local elections in May, has taken varied forms, including an electoral recovery by the Tories and the election (albeit on an extremely limited scale) of far-right British National Party councillors. But there were also significant successes for socialist and left-wing, anti-establishment candidates. One result – the stunning victory of Socialist Party member and health service campaigner Dr Jackie Grunsell in Huddersfield – was particularly symptomatic in showing the potential for a new party and where it could be built from. The success of Respect in east London – albeit based on a narrower appeal, concentrated in the main on one section of society, the Muslim community – also showed the potential there is.

A new mass party will not build itself, however. It particularly requires forces that command support among broad sections of the working class and are capable of carrying out the specific tasks necessary to inspire and organise working-class people into forging such a party.

The Socialist Party-initiated CNWP has made some important beginnings in winning the case for unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party and to popularise basic socialist ideas and public ownership. At the same time, the campaign has a sense of proportion, realising that the alternative is not yet fully formed and that it is necessary to support all genuine steps to ensure the election of socialist, workers’ and community campaigners’ candidates. While objective conditions in society and the hatred of the Blair government could, if utilised, add impetus to creating a new mass workers’ party, the potentially key factor in such a process – the left leaders of the trade unions and left-wing public representatives like John McDonnell – have shown little inclination to participate in and speed up such a process.

Regrettably the RMT, to a partial extent, and more particularly the SWP-dominated Respect, have not shown the necessary strategic vision or inclusiveness to progress matters forward.

The RMT shop stewards conference in October, with about 200 in attendance, was half the size of the RMT conference on political representation in January. The January conference showed the significant interest developing around the idea of trade unions working towards establishing a new workers’ party. Unfortunately, the RMT leadership does not at this stage appear ready to take this task fully on board, and the fact that the second conference did not address the issue represented a backwards step.

Positively, the RMT executive council attempted to be inclusive and provided for the election of a broadly-based steering committee of ten people, which was given a Ł3,000 budget from the RMT. Their task is to establish a National Shop Stewards Network with a first step being to organise a formal delegate conference in the spring of 2007.

The election of the steering committee – which includes four Socialist Party workplace reps – could represent a significant step forward in re-establishing a vibrant national shop stewards’ network. However, missing from the conference was an assessment of what is the present potential for establishing such a network and what issues are going to attract workplace reps to a conference on building a national shop stewards’ movement?

These are complex questions – given the current low level of confidence and consciousness of trade union members – and they cannot be resolved by just electing a committee. It also requires debate and practical steps throughout the union movement where the best left union leaders give a political and industrial lead that inspires a new generation of workplace reps to come forward.

The Respect-initiated Organising for Fighting Unions Conference on 11 November, in contrast, was little more than a Respect rally. While the conference had an audience of 700 the majority of those present were either members or sympathisers of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), content to limit their radicalism to appeals for solidarity for other workers in struggle. It clearly did not represent the drawing in of a new generation of workplace activists.

The conference itself was stage-managed to avoid a genuine democratic debate on the key issues. The charter of workers’ rights proposed at the conference is, in reality, no more radical than the current programme of the TUC. And, despite amendments from the Socialist Party which sharpened the charter up on some issues, the main thrust of the conference organisers was towards lobbying MPs and trade union leaders. This will not effectively enhance the process of rebuilding the rank and file in the trade unions or challenge the union leaders – left-wing or otherwise – about their lack of fight on the burning issues facing the working class.

The reason for this approach is that the SWP conference organisers mainly wanted to use this Respect rally to be able to claim that they were being ‘inclusive’ and attempting to build a representative trade union activists network. They also wanted – as the Communist Party (CP) used to do in the past – to use left leaders on their platform to give them a credibility that they would otherwise not achieve. Although correct to give a platform to left union leaders, like the PCS civil service union general secretary, Mark Serwotka, and the Fire Brigades Union general secretary, Matt Wrack, the SWP’s approach, again like the CP of old, avoids putting positive demands on the left union leaders or, when necessary, criticising them.

Mark Serwotka told the conference that what is needed is active broad left-type organisations within the unions – like Left Unity in the PCS – to hold left leaderships to account. This is correct, but there was no sign of any such initiative emanating from the Respect event. And the conference also represented a lost opportunity in the process of building a campaign to establish a new mass workers’ party. Instead, the session on the crisis in political representation took the form of a rally designed to show how bad New Labour is – on which there would be little disagreement – and that the alternative, therefore, is Respect.

Even Mark Serwotka, while saying there needed to be debate on the alternative to New Labour, ended his speech by urging people to join Respect. Is this a sign that – contrary to previous statements that a new vehicle for workers’ representation would need to be a coalition of broader forces – he now thinks that Respect is the alternative?

If that is the attitude of the organisers, and the 17-strong steering committee appointed by the conference, then that effectively rules out co-operating with the other initiatives such as the RMT shop stewards’ network conference planned for next spring and the CNWP conference scheduled for 31 March 2007.

Whilst a greater degree of co-operation between the campaigns is desirable – and will be strived for by Socialist Party members and CNWP supporters – the key to progressing things forward will not be the attempts of Respect to present themselves as the fully-formed alternative to New Labour. Instead, it will be objective events – particularly the growing crisis of the Labour government – and the desire of all those trade unionists, socialists and community campaigners to forge an inclusive, democratic alternative that fights to genuinely represent all working people against the capitalist system and addresses the crisis in working-class political representation.

Ken Smith


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