After the general election a new debate opened on how the left-led trade unions should act to transform the Labour Party. This article by CLIVE HEEMSKERK was first published in The Socialist, issue No.956, 12 July 2017.
In a significant development for the whole labour movement, the recent annual general meeting (conference) of the RMT transport workers’ union agreed to open a branch consultation on re-affiliation to the Labour Party. A special general meeting will be organised subsequently to discuss the results.
An RMT predecessor union was one of Labour’s principal founding organisations in 1900, as the larger 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 Blairite New Labour.
The late Bob Crow, as RMT general secretary, was a co-founder with the Socialist Party and others, of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) in 2010 and the union retains its representation on the TUSC national steering committee. For the RMT to now open a discussion on the possibility of re-affiliation to the Labour Party is an important move.
The Socialist Party welcomes the political strategy report approved at the AGM that proposed the consultation. The report rightly poses the issue of affiliation in the context of the union’s consistent policy of trying to help “to create a mass party of labour that fights in the interests of the working class, as Labour arguably now has the potential at least to be that party”. The question, as it then goes on to state, is what terms of affiliation would take forward that goal?
As part of the consultation, the report goes on, the union should “seek answers from the Labour Party” including on “what powers affiliation would actually give the union, if any” and whether it “would still be free to pursue its own policy agenda”.
In engaging in this process, not least in the opportunity it opens up for a dialogue with Jeremy Corbyn and other left-led unions on what needs to be done to dismantle the legacy of Blairism and transform the Labour Party, the RMT could once more be poised to play a pivotal role.
Still two parties
The RMT never disaffiliated from Labour but was expelled, formally for agreeing a rule change at its 2003 AGM to allow branches to back non-Labour organisations. That decision reflected a growing frustration within the union that it was being politically gagged by New Labour, which had become an unqualified upholder of capitalism. So when in February 2004 Labour’s national executive committee (NEC) gave the union an ultimatum to reverse the AGM decision, after five branches had agreed to back the Scottish Socialist Party, a special general meeting voted by five to one to defy them. The hundred-year link was broken.
How to preserve the political independence of the union to pursue its own policies and socialist objectives – the RMT is one of the few unions to have kept a commitment to socialism in its constitution – will be a critical consideration in the forthcoming consultation. Even compared to the situation in 2004 the rights and powers of trade unions within the formal structures of the Labour Party have been weakened, nationally and in local parties.
Affiliated unions have a proportionate share, based on their affiliated membership, of half of the voting weight at Labour Party conferences; one-third of the NEC; and one-sixth of the policy-making National Policy Forum (NPF). If the RMT was to affiliate its full 80,000-strong membership on the current basis, at an annual cost of £240,000, it would not be guaranteed a seat on the NEC. Its conference vote would be the equivalent of just 23 local Constituency Labour Parties and it would have less say at the NPF than the House of Lords Labour Group! Meanwhile the input into local parties that affiliation gives union branches as collective organisations is almost negligible.
Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is a bridgehead for the working class against the forces of capitalism within the Labour Party, and the non-affiliated RMT was the second biggest donor to his leadership campaigns, behind only the 1.4 million-member Unite union. But almost two years on the bridgehead is still far from consolidated.
The failure to fight for mandatory re-selection means that last year’s coup-plotters still dominate the parliamentary Labour Party. And locally the vast majority of Labour councillors do not support Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity policies, instead implementing Tory cuts in the council chambers. Until this changes there is still a role for TUSC.
The right wing anticipated an election disaster and has been thrown back by the response to Corbyn’s radical campaign. But they are still there, entrenched in the apparatus, biding their time. Ultimately the structures and power relations that were developed under New Labour to curb the representation of working class interests within the party remain in place. Labour is still two parties in one.
The RMT rightly seeks “answers from the Labour Party” before it considers affiliation. But which Labour Party will turn up to the negotiations to provide them? The Blairite general secretary Iain McNicol, or Jeremy Corbyn?
Breaking the logjam
Jeremy Corbyn could certainly break the logjam. The Socialist Party argues that he should go over the heads of the Blairite apparatus and present his own proposals for a new Labour Party constitution directly to party members and trade union supporters.
In the latest issue of our monthly magazine, Socialism Today, Peter Taaffe argues that Jeremy should act boldly “as he did with the general election manifesto. [Then] he appealed over the heads of the right and got support for his radical proposals. That confronted the right with a fait accompli!
“He should do the same by presenting his own democratic constitution to a referendum of all Labour Party members – full and associate – which would have at its heart mandatory reselection of MPs and the replacement of the bureaucratic machine, with power resting in the hands of the membership, particularly new members and the trade unions. It should also enshrine the principle of a federal arrangement which would lead to the re-admittance of all expelled socialists and organisations back into the Labour Party”. (Britain’s earthquake election, Socialism Today No.210, July-August 2017)
Such a constitution would mean restoring the unions’ rights of collective representation in the formation of Labour Party policy, the selection and reselection of Labour Party candidates, and the governance of the party locally and nationally. This really would take forward the RMT’s goal of ‘a fighting party of labour’. Then the process of negotiating affiliation could become a factor in putting into action the necessary steps to transform Labour.
And not just the affiliation of the RMT. The PCS civil service union held a consultation on its political strategy late last year. The consultation document circulated to members could not but accurately inform them that “formal policy making in the Labour Party has not been a genuine democratic process” and, despite Jeremy’s leadership, which the union leadership fully supports, the party’s “structures have not yet changed fundamentally to allow meaningful trade union input”. Not surprisingly, the consultation saw 86% oppose affiliation and just 6% in favour.
But a clear signal now from Jeremy Corbyn that he will take the action needed to transform the Labour Party would produce a different response. Other left-led unaffiliated unions, but with political funds, include the POA prison officers union, the National Union of Teachers, and the University and College Union.
The left-led unions currently affiliated must also step up. The right-wing union leaders are rallying to defend their co-thinkers in the Labour Party. Unison’s Dave Prentis, USDAW’s John Hannett and the small Community union have denounced mandatory reselection of MPs. Gerard Coyne’s challenge to Len McCluskey for general secretary of Unite earlier this year was in part a third Labour leadership contest.
The Labour affiliation debate, re-ignited for the whole movement by the RMT AGM decision, must include an urgent summit of the left unions to discuss concrete steps to transform the party. The RMT’s predecessor played a historic role in establishing the Labour Party. Now the union could write a new chapter in firmly re-establishing it as a political voice for workers.