|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 226 March 2019
Socialists and the May elections
For the first time since 2009 there will be no Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition candidates standing in the local council elections that take place each May. In the article below CLIVE HEEMSKERK looks at the reasons behind this decision – followed by a timeline which puts on record the important role TUSC has played in the struggle to rebuild working-class political representation.
At its last meeting of 2018 the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) national steering committee suspended all electoral activity until further notice. This decision followed a period of discussion around proposals submitted by the Socialist Party, one of the founding organisations of the coalition, to re-set the role of TUSC three years after the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader.
Recognising that building on Corbyn’s leadership is the clearest route through which workers could achieve a mass party of our own – at least at this point – the Socialist Party argued that TUSC should spearhead a campaign within the labour movement for a Charter for Workers’ Political Representation, on the key political and organisational steps needed to decisively defeat the Blairites and complete the transformation of the Labour Party (see: The Fight Against Labour's Blairites and TUSC's Role Now, The Socialist, No.1005, 8 August 2018).
But the Socialist Party’s submission also included the proposal that, while TUSC should not stand candidates in a general election in which there is a possibility for a Corbyn-led government to come to power, it should continue to contest local council elections against right-wing Labour candidates who vote for Tory cuts in the town hall. Alleged ‘Labour’ councillors presiding over draconian attacks on local public services are undermining the chances of winning a Corbyn-led government and for that reason alone should not expect to be unchallenged at the ballot box.
The representatives of the RMT transport workers’ union, however – another component organisation of TUSC – were unable to commit the union to authorising any candidates to stand in the 2019 local elections. This was so even on the selective basis – against Blairite opponents of Jeremy Corbyn who are implementing austerity – which TUSC had operated since Corbyn’s leadership victory.
At a special general meeting (SGM) earlier in 2018 the RMT had rejected affiliation to the Labour Party. Labour’s structures, largely unreformed from the days of Tony Blair’s New Labour, had massively diminished the power of the trade unions within the party, while the majority of Labour’s MPs remain entrenched opponents of Jeremy Corbyn. Nonetheless, at the time of the TUSC steering committee, the left in the union had not been able to win support for continuing to contest elections against Blairite Labour candidates. So the decision was taken, not to dissolve TUSC, but to suspend its electoral activity. The Socialist Party will now contest elections, including this May, under its own banner.
Debate in the RMT
At the start of 2018 the RMT was formally invited by Labour’s national executive committee to re-affiliate to the party. An RMT predecessor union had been one of Labour’s principal founding organisations in 1900, as the larger trade unions initially maintained their support for the capitalist Liberal Party. Expelled over a hundred years later in 2004, the union continued to fight for a political voice for working-class voters, effectively disenfranchised by the transformation of Labour into New Labour. This was the motive for the late Bob Crow, as RMT general secretary, with the Socialist Party and others, to co-found TUSC in 2010, with the union being officially represented on its steering committee from 2012.
Trade union affiliation to Labour was not a question of principle for those involved in the formation of TUSC. It was a concrete question as to whether or not the avenues existed for the working class, particularly through the unions, to control its political representatives – which, the Socialist Party believed, had been cut off in Blair’s New Labour. But in its founding statement TUSC recognised that there were "different strategic views" within the coalition about how to achieve the common end goal of renewed working-class political representation.
"Whether the Labour Party can be reclaimed by the labour movement", the statement read, "or whether a new workers’ party needs to be established", was a strategic question that was left open. But what wasn’t left open, by Bob Crow or the Socialist Party, was the need to clearly oppose capitalism and its agents within the labour movement – including at the ballot box where necessary. There could be no peaceful co-existence with the Blairites.
The debate over Labour re-affiliation showed, however, that a section of the RMT leadership is preparing to abandon this position. ‘There isn’t right- or left-wing Labour, just Labour’, some supporters of re-affiliation argued, glossing over the role of Labour-controlled authorities implementing policies such as driver-only operation (DOO) on Merseyrail, massive funding cuts in Transport for London, or extending privatisation for the Welsh railways. The RMT’s participation in a coalition which stood local election candidates against the Blairites was in their sights.
The SGM in May 2018 decided by 31 votes to 25 not to re-affiliate at this stage but to continue with the RMT’s current political strategy instead. The successful motion acknowledged that Labour "has the potential to be a mass party of the working class" since Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the leadership, but that the RMT can best "support, defend and develop the socialist advances that have been made" through its own independent political activity.
The current political strategy includes retaining RMT representation on the TUSC steering committee and supporting candidates who support the union’s policies. After their defeat at the SGM, however, the right-wing within the RMT stepped up the campaign against TUSC. Already for the 2018 local elections there had been last-minute attempts, one day before nominations closed, to withdraw TUSC candidates in favour even of Labour councillors who were known supporters of the Blairite ‘Progress’ group. It was clear that no assurance could be given that any TUSC candidate would not be blocked in the future. No trade unionist, socialist or working-class community campaigner could contemplate an electoral challenge to defend local services against right-wing councillors with that level of uncertainty.
So, while the left in the union will continue to fight for the RMT to retain its ability to act independently for its political goals, and TUSC will remain registered with the Electoral Commission, there will be no TUSC election candidates until further notice.
The resolution agreed at the RMT’s 2012 annual general meeting which established the union’s formal participation within TUSC, saw the coalition as potentially "providing a nucleus" within the trade unions for "the hard, long-term task of rebuilding political representation for working-class people and communities" in the harshest period for workers since the depression-wracked 1930s. TUSC saw a greater level of trade union leadership and involvement than any other ‘comparator’ organisation, involving at various times not only the RMT but leading officials from the PCS civil servants union, the National Union of Teachers, the Fire Brigades Union, and the Prison Officers Association.
Trade unions are still the basic organisations of the working class, which gives them enormous social weight. It is not for nothing that strike action is routinely denigrated by the capitalist media as unions ‘holding the public to ransom’ or ‘crippling the economy’. For long periods, it is true, the formal structures in some unions can atrophy, with limited participation by rank-and-file members, but even these unions still possess social reserves. For the Socialist Party the importance of TUSC lay in its potential as a catalyst in the trade unions, both in the structures and below, for the idea of working-class political representation.
TUSC’s other great strength is its federal character, with agreed core election policies but with participating organisations, including the Socialist Party, retaining the freedom to campaign independently – marching separately but striking together. This is what Marxists refer to as a united front, in this case with the most militant industrial trade union in Britain today.
Jeremy Corbyn’s unanticipated leadership victory and subsequent events changed the situation from the time of TUSC’s formation. But critical moments are now approaching that will determine whether or not the potential for Corbynism to become a real channel for working-class representation on a socialist basis can be realised. Whatever exact course events take, the TUSC model remains an example of how that struggle can be conducted.
A brief history of TUSC
• Early in 2009 the No2EU:Yes to Democracy coalition is established to stand candidates in the 4 June European parliament elections on a platform of opposition to the EU’s neoliberal agenda. The coalition involves the RMT – with general secretary Bob Crow heading the candidates’ list in London – the Socialist Party, the Communist Party of Britain (CPB), Scottish Solidarity, and others, including convenors and leading activists from the Visteon plant closures and Lindsey oil refinery construction workers’ disputes, prominent industrial struggles of that year.
• No2EU stands candidates for all eleven regional lists and polls 153,236 votes. The RMT’s formal backing made this the first time a trade union had supported a national electoral challenge to Labour since the formation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900. The coalition participants discuss how the successful model of co-operation between different forces could be continued and a common platform of core policies agreed for the general election due in 2010.
• Following a resolution at the RMT annual general meeting (AGM) a conference to discuss working-class political representation is hosted by the union on 7 November, at which it is announced that a federally-organised coalition has been agreed to stand candidates in the election (with the name still to be finalised). Speakers include Bob Crow, Joe Higgins (Socialist Party Ireland MEP), Dave Nellist, FBU general secretary Matt Wrack and… Jeremy Corbyn! On the issue of working-class political representation the then backbench Labour MP says "there has always been a debate, in or out of the Labour Party, but what we can agree on is the need to stand up against war and poverty".
• The POA executive discusses the proposed electoral coalition at its 16 December meeting. While deciding that the union would not officially participate, it agrees that individual members and officers can do so in a personal capacity. The then general secretary of the POA, Brian Caton, declares his support.
• The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition is founded on 7 January, with an initial steering committee including the Socialist Party and, in a personal capacity, Bob Crow, Brian Caton and PCS assistant general secretary Chris Baugh. Dave Nellist is registered with the Electoral Commission as the legally required ‘party leader’.
• Later in January NUT president Nina Franklin and PCS vice-president John McInally join the steering committee in a personal capacity, and the SWP joins as a participating organisation. A founding meeting of Scottish TUSC is held at the RMT Scotland HQ on 30 January, also attended by Bob Crow and Dave Nellist. The CPB executive, however, votes narrowly not to take up a place on the TUSC committee. TUSC stands 42 candidates in the 6 May general election and 33 in the council elections held on the same day, polling a combined vote of 23,580.
• Following the elections an open conference of TUSC candidates and agents is held on 12 June which agrees that TUSC will continue to stand candidates and establish local steering committees in preparation for future contests. The RMT 2010 AGM approves the executive’s political report on the general election, including the union’s formal endorsement of 21 TUSC candidates in May. At the end of the year the steering committee facilitates a national meeting of independent members of TUSC (those not in the constituent organisations) to formalise their involvement in the federal coalition.
• A TUSC conference on 22 January agrees the core policy platform for the 2011 local elections. While candidates are responsible for their own campaigns and election literature, agreement with the core policies is the basis on which they are able to use the TUSC name on the ballot paper. TUSC stands 179 candidates in the local elections on 5 May, polling a combined vote of 26,765.
• A second TUSC conference of the year is organised on 16 July. Discussing future electoral plans, the conference also agrees to include the TUSC Independent Socialist Network as a constituent component of the national steering committee to represent individual members.
• A conference is held on 28 January, finalising a challenge in the English and Welsh local elections and the London assembly elections on 3 May. There are 120 council candidates in England, 14 in Wales, and 38 organised separately by Scottish TUSC for the local elections there. The TUSC candidate for the Liverpool mayor, former Liverpool 47 councillor Tony Mulhearn, polls 4,792 votes (4.7%), coming fifth ahead of the Tories and with double the UKIP vote. The combined vote of all TUSC candidates is 46,816.
• The RMT AGM in June agrees the union should be officially represented on the TUSC national steering committee. POA general secretary Steve Gillan, assistant general secretary Joe Simpson, and FBU NEC member Ian Leahair also join the committee in a personal capacity.
• A further TUSC conference is organised on 22 September, which includes a platform speaker from the CPB. The CPB is again invited to join the steering committee but decides in November that it will still not formally participate in the coalition.
• A TUSC Trade Union Forum is organised on 6 April, attended by 19 NEC members and senior officers from eight unions. In the mainly Tory county council elections on 2 May, TUSC stands 121 candidates, polling 10,182 votes.
• Over the summer the RMT hosts three meetings to discuss a challenge in the 2014 European elections embracing the different organisations involved in the 2009 No2EU coalition and TUSC. The main organisation involved in 2009 that had remained outside TUSC was the CPB so another approach is made to invite it onto the steering committee with full rights. By August, however, it is clear that the CPB is insisting on a separate European election coalition, so it is agreed at the 4 September steering committee that TUSC will not contest the Euro-elections in its own name and leave it to constituent organisations to decide whether or not they will support the re-established No2EU electoral list.
• TUSC enters discussions with two ‘rebel councillors’ in Southampton who have been expelled from the Labour Party for opposing the closure of a swimming pool in their ward and the general austerity policies of the Labour-led council. TUSC is also contacted by a group of eight former Labour councillors in Harrow.
• The TUSC conference is held on 1 February, with attendees including councillors from Harrow, Rotherham and Southampton. With Labour’s special conference endorsing the Collins Review proposals to further reduce trade unions’ collective rights within the party, TUSC agrees to make a particular appeal for active trade unionists to stand in the forthcoming local elections. Following Bob Crow’s tragically early death on 11 March, 53 RMT members stand as TUSC candidates in the elections on 22 May. They are part of the biggest left-of-Labour electoral challenge since the immediate aftermath of world war two, with 559 candidates together polling 68,152 votes – including ten councils where TUSC scores over 2,000 votes.
• Two councillors in Leicester leave the Labour Group to form an Independent Councillors Against the Cuts official council group, which subsequently becomes part of the Leicester TUSC steering committee. Two rebel councillors expelled from the Labour Party in Hull also approach TUSC to discuss joint work on preparing a no-cuts budget.
• The RMT AGM in June unanimously agrees that the union "will continue to participate as a founding element of TUSC with representation on the TUSC national steering committee"; "will continue to support TUSC candidates in local and national elections under rule"; and "encourages RMT branches to consider standing members as candidates in the forthcoming general election".
• In September places on the TUSC national steering committee are agreed for two representatives of the group of TUSC supporters on the NUT executive.
• A 300-strong TUSC conference to discuss the 2015 elections is held on 24 January, addressed by rebel councillors from Hull, Leicester, Walsall and Warrington. The national steering committee meetings in February and March process over 750 applications to be candidates for the general and local elections, approving the big majority but not accepting parliamentary candidacies in seats where the RMT executive separately endorses the Labour or Green Party candidate.
• 748 TUSC candidates contest the 7 May elections, polling 118,125 votes in total. TUSC local council candidates poll over 3,000 votes in seven councils and over 1,000 votes in a further 17.
• Following the general election Labour holds a leadership contest. Two weeks after the winner is announced TUSC meets in conference on 26 September to discuss Jeremy Corbyn’s welcome victory and the new situation that has opened up. A revised local elections policy platform is agreed and a call made on TUSC supporters to approach Labour councillors to discuss the new possibilities for anti-austerity action, while recognising that Jeremy Corbyn had only received the public support of 450 out of Labour’s 7,000 local councillors.
• The September conference also agreed that TUSC will campaign for a leave vote in the referendum on EU membership scheduled for 2016. TUSC will not back any leave campaign headed by Tory or UKIP politicians but will campaign on its own core policy platform of opposition to austerity and support for socialist policies. The 25 November steering committee agrees a petition to the Electoral Commission demanding it uses its legal power not to choose an official Leave campaign at all "if there is not one organisation that adequately represents those supporting a particular outcome to the referendum". Neither the Vote Leave nor Leave.EU campaigns, TUSC argues, should get the public resources and profile that official designation would give them.
• In January Unite’s Local Government National Industrial Sector Committee agrees a resolution calling on Labour-controlled councils to use their reserves and borrowing powers to set no-cuts budgets, using TUSC-published research on council reserves. In February Unison’s Local Government Service Group Executive makes a similar call. The TUSC steering committee publishes a comprehensive briefing pack, Preparing a No-Cuts People’s Budget.
• The ‘Don’t give taxpayers’ money to UKIP and Tory EU campaigners’ petition is launched in February with the signatures of two national union presidents, two vice-presidents, and 26 national executive committee members. In March the PCS NEC supports the call on the Electoral Commission to not designate any group dominated by UKIP, Tory and other pro-austerity and racist politicians as the official Leave campaign. The Commission is due to decide on 13 April but refuses to discuss the option of not making a designation, stating instead that "it is of course open for TUSC itself to apply for lead campaigner status". So to keep up the pressure TUSC does apply, in what the BBC calls "a surprise bid". However, revealing its political bias, the Commission goes ahead without any further correspondence with TUSC and appoints the Boris Johnson-fronted Vote Leave as the recipient of millions of pounds of public funds and guaranteed media coverage.
• In the new political context of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party TUSC adopts a more targeted approach to the elections on 5 May. TUSC candidates poll 43,309 votes in total, including 3,540 votes for the six constituency seat candidates for the Scottish parliament, while the Liverpool mayoral candidate, Unison NEC member Roger Bannister, increases TUSC’s support from 2012, winning 4,950 votes (a 5.1% share) and coming in fourth, ahead of the Tories once again.
• From May to the 23 June EU referendum a TUSC ‘20-city tour’ of public meetings takes place under the heading, The Socialist Case Against the EU (eventually 25 cities are covered). There are platform speakers from the TUSC constituent organisations, including RMT general secretary Mick Cash at the London leg, and other labour movement speakers supporting a leave position, including BFAWU president Ian Hodson and FBU NEC member Paul Embury.
• The government’s defeat in the EU referendum triggers a crisis in the Tory party but also a leadership coup attempt by the Parliamentary Labour Party. The RMT AGM, meeting from 26-30 June, gives resounding support to Jeremy Corbyn to continue as Labour leader. At the same time it agrees to continue participating in TUSC to ensure that the union will not be trapped into supporting alleged Labour politicians who vote for austerity and war for lack of an alternative electoral vehicle.
• Following Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election the TUSC steering committee meeting on 12 October initiates a discussion on TUSC’s role now, including the question of electoral strategy, in preparation for the 2017 elections conference.
• The TUSC conference is held on 28 January, agreeing to continue contesting local elections but to insist that prospective TUSC candidates seek a dialogue with the Labour candidate on their preparedness to resist cuts before their candidacy is approved. A Scottish TUSC conference is held on 25 February to agree plans for the Scottish local elections. However, in March the SWP suspends its participation in the TUSC steering committee in disagreement with the plan to stand in the council elections in England and Wales (while supporting candidates in the different political situation in Scotland).
• TUSC stands 78 candidates in the Scottish and Welsh council elections and the English county council elections on 4 May, plus two mayoral candidates, polling a combined vote of 15,407. During the campaign Theresa May makes her surprise announcement of a snap general election, cutting across the council contests.
• Meeting on 10 May, the TUSC steering committee agrees that it will not stand candidates in the 8 June general election but will work all-out to try and get Jeremy Corbyn into Number Ten. In contrast to the prevailing media talk after the local elections of a 100-seat Tory majority the TUSC press release argues clearly that "the election outcome is not a foregone conclusion".
• Following the surge of support for Jeremy Corbyn at the election the RMT AGM at the end of June agrees a branch consultation on whether re-affiliation to the Labour Party would help the union pursue its goal to "create a mass party of labour that fights in the interests of the working class". The union will approach Labour for answers to questions on its democratic structures, the rights of unions within the party, and what it will do about ‘Labour’ councillors and mayors who continue to implement Tory austerity policies. The AGM also agrees policy for local authorities to use their reserves and borrowing powers to set legal ‘no-cuts budgets’ that protect public services and jobs while fighting for more government funding.
• TUSC releases a report on the level of reserves held by the 124 Labour-led councils across Britain and organises a survey on how far Labour councillors are preparing to back Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity message in the next round of council budget-setting – the first since the general election produced a weak Tory government which would not be able to defeat concerted resistance to its cuts policies if Labour councillors were prepared to fight.
• The TUSC conference meets on 10 February and agrees a motion calling on the steering committee "to continue with the broad electoral approach adopted since September 2015" for the local elections, "but ensuring that no candidates are authorised to stand against consistent public supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and his anti-austerity policies". The resulting electoral stand on 3 May was the most selective in TUSC’s history, with 112 candidates polling a combined 14,073 votes. The national steering committee member Keith Morrell is re-elected in his Southampton council ward with a 46.9% share of the vote.
• A special general meeting (SGM) of the RMT is held on 30 May to discuss a formal invitation from the Labour Party to re-affiliate. The SGM decides by 31 votes to 25 not to re-affiliate at this stage but instead continue with its current political strategy, which includes retaining RMT representation on the TUSC steering committee.
• The Socialist Party submits proposals to re-set the role of TUSC, including a plan for a Charter for Workers’ Political Representation campaign on the steps still needed to transform the Labour Party, while continuing to contest local council elections against Blairite opponents of Jeremy Corbyn implementing austerity. At the TUSC steering committee on 7 November, however, the RMT representatives are unable to commit the union to authorising any candidates in the 2019 elections so a decision is taken to suspend TUSC’s electoral activity until further notice.