Thursday, February 02, 2012

A letter from some comrades

The timely open letter from the Communist Party of Britain concerning the crisis of political representation of our movement (http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/news/content/view/full/114897) echoes views quite widely expressed on the Labour Left - indeed it expresses the reasons why we launched the Labour Representation Committee (http://www.l-r-c.org.uk/about).

It is now vital that the trade unions try to shift the Labour leadership into a position of opposition to the deficit reduction plans of the Coalition Government, which are plans to dismantle the Welfare State and achieve a once in a generation shift in the balance of wealth and power (even further) away from working people.

The absence of opposition from "Her Majesty's Opposition" reduces the political space within which we can mobilise to defend the NHS, state education or council housing. The stifling neoliberal consensus ensures that voices raised in defence of the interests of the majority of the population are marginalised.

For trade unionists trying to fight pay freezes, job losses, pension cuts and attacks on terms and conditions, the absence of a clear alternative in public debate makes it harder to mobilise our members and therefore harder to defend our interests.

The Communist Party are therefore right to propose that the affiliated trade unions should act together to shift the Labour Party leftwards.

However, comrades, you need to consider therefore how we achieve change within our trade unions also. The record of recent years does not suggest that such effective action will easily be achieved.

When (New) Labour was in Government we needed - and tried - to mobilise labour movement opposition to its policies of privatisation and war. The affiliated trade unions - and indeed the TUC - generally adopted sound policies and, on occasion fought and won policy positions on the floor of Labour Party Conference. Modest constitutional gains were achieved - increasing the number of contemporary resolutions for example.

However, when real power has been at stake, those who direct the activities of the affiliated trade unions within the Labour Party have failed to assert the interests of our members. Crucially, the trade union leaders made the foolish error of acquiescing in the coronation of Gordon Brown as Leader, with predictably catastrophic results.

Brown's office leant heavily on MPs to nominate him, ensuring that socialist challenger, John McDonnell, was unable to secure sufficient nominations to force a ballot. The only people within the Party who could possibly have applied sufficient countervailing pressure to have ensured a contest were the General Secretaries of the affiliated unions, acting in concert.

Not only did the trade unions fail collectively to support McDonnell, they split five ways in the sideshow election for Deputy Leader, with the consequence that the candidate elected was the only one who secured no union nominations whatsoever.

When, after the General Election, another leadership election came along, the unions did manage to coalesce around a candidate they thought better than the perceived front runner - but the political composition of the Parliamentary Labour Party was such that there was no serious socialist challenger, the candidate of the left having made it on to the ballot paper only with borrowed support.

The trade unions are of course culpable for the political composition of the Parliamentary Labour Party - we could have run a series of campaigns to select socialist trade unionists across a number of constituencies but no such effort was made (indeed the trade unionist's route to Parliament is more commonly a career move and reward for loyalty in a union context than any part of a political struggle to reshape the Party in the interests of the movement).

We are now reaping the bitter fruits of the lamentable inadequacy of the intervention in the Labour Party by the trade unions over the past twenty years. The approach of "quietly influencing" the Labour leadership, of which Dave Prentis gave a spirited and successful defence to UNISON Conference in 2004 when defeating a call from the Lambeth Branch for the resignation of Tony Blair, has until now precluded the involvement of the trade unions in mobilising rank and file opposition to the Party leadership.

Through TULO and at Warwick, the union leaders got the best policies they could when we were in Government- but on the basis that they did not mount an organised challenge to the leadership.

An earlier Miliband would have recognised this feature of Labourism - the division of labour between the industrial and political wings of the movement - and its chilling effect on the prospects of the Party, in Government or Opposition, ever adopting socialist policies.

I hope that those who engineered the coordinated media response of the "Big Three" to the recent pronouncements of the "Two Eds" will pay heed to the call made today by the Communist Party - but that will require a break from the trade union approach to the Labour Party (and leadership) which has generally been taken over the past twenty years.

Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange

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