Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Dilemmas of activism, politics and unity

A recent meeting of UNISON activists makes this a timely (and as far as I can see accurate) account of issues of which UNISON activists need to be aware.

Diligent readers of this blog (Sid and Doris Trotspotter) may recollect my public criticism of the lamentable handling of allegations of sexual harassment and rape by the tragically inadequate "Central Committee" of the Socialist Workers Party, and perhaps also the subsequent decision of myself and some other comrades to leave UNISON United Left (UUL) rather than organise alongside those who defended such conduct.

I know there are those who think that action was a mistake, or an over reaction (or that I and others were over-hasty). I invite them to read the link at the head of this blog post. The response of the leadership of that Party to such serious allegations has been consistently grotesque.

Of course most workers, most trade union activists even, have no knowledge of, or interest in, the goings on within a small political organisation (even one which has in the past "punched above its weight" in some admirable causes).

And therein lies a problem.

Because, among the few hundred remaining loyal members of that Party, there remain some good trade union activists. Why they subordinate themselves to the misleadership of a clique of "full time revolutionaries" capable of such atrocious conduct is a mystery to me - but then again I have always been mystified by the deference shown by some of the most vocal trade union militants (who would think nothing of confronting employers or union leaders) to the idiots who lead various sects.

Putting that mystery to one side,‎ there remain good trade unionists in the ranks of those still following the fools who mislead the Socialist Workers Party. In my daily work I deal with trade unionists whom I respect, in my own branch, and other local branches (as well as at all levels in the Union) who continue to make what I consider to be the grave mistake of supporting the rotten faction which runs that Party. I accept that they - and others - work with me whilst harbouring strong views about my lifelong affiliation to the Labour Party.

And to those many trade union activists who neither know (as they probably should) nor care (as perhaps they should not) what brought the Socialist Workers Party into its current, terminal, crisis, it appears evident that we should - at all costs - have unity on "the left".

So, when a meeting of UNISON activists earlier this week (convened to discuss issues of concern in our Union in the run up to Conference and the local government pay dispute) was disrupted by the arrival, uninvited, of SWP members still loyal to the leadership which has destroyed their organisation as a serious force, many of those present were immediately won to the seductive argument that we should all organise together on "the left."

And I have some sympathy with that argument.

For a hundred years, since the Miners' Next Step and the Clyde Workers' Committee, union activists have understood the need for rank and file organisation, not only to win elections within our unions, but also because we aspire always to be able to take action with the officials when we can, and without them when we must.

Such organisation benefits enormously from the unity of all those who see the need for it.


Such unity is rare.

The history of UNISON is a case in point.

After the "broad lefts" of NUPE and NALGO failed meaningfully to cohere following the creation of UNISON, some of us organised the Campaign for a Fighting and Democratic UNISON (CFDU).

The CFDU brought together activists on the Labour Left‎ with members of the Socialist Party and other independent leftwingers. The Socialist Workers Party members active in the Union deliberately abstained from this united organisation. To say that they ever advanced a persuasive argument as to why they did this would be to exaggerate.

In the late 1990s, in the context of what was, I believe, a witch hunt of SWP activists‎, we began to forge a wider unity, bringing in to the (newly created) "United Left" not only those already organising in the CFDU and those who were members of the SWP but also other, respected, independent activists. One moment in this process was the support of SWP members for the CFDU candidate in the General Secretary election in 2000.

This unity was short-lived, as - in the run up to the 2005 General Secretary election, at National Delegate Conference 2004, members of the Socialist Party decided ‎to leave the United Left, producing a special broadsheet to publicise their "official" reasoning (which was quite unrelated to any - probably unfounded - fear that their preferred candidate would not have been chosen to stand as the UUL candidate in that election).

I remained sufficiently committed to the project of unifying "the left" that I was prepared to stand (at the behest of a then comrade otherwise facing pressure to do so themselves) as a "United Left" candidate in a General Secretary election in which I came a poor third (though of course that was still a bronze medal position...)

The, by then hardly well-named, "United Left" staggered on for years (I staggered with it!) - and my friend and comrade Paul Holmes came a better third place in another General Secretary election five years further on (whilst my other friend and comrade Roger Bannister came second in a third consecutive General Secretary election - presumably entitling him to keep the silver medal?)

Throughout this period of disunity on "the left" we managed to work together (under the banner of "Reclaim the Union") both against the further round of political witch-hunting which commenced after the 2006 TUC and petered out (too slowly) following the 2010 General Election (and the resilient campaign to "Defend the Four") and to stand candidates in internal UNISON elections (with mixed results).

Therefore, from my own experience, I know that disunity, whilst regrettable, is no impediment to joint work in the interests of our members. I believe that the response of some of us to the facts set out in the link at the head of this blog post provide a more serious objection to unquestioning "unity at all costs" than any of the reasons (real or "official") which led the SWP to abstain from the CFDU in the 90s or which led the SP to depart from (and remain outside) UUL ten years ago.

Therefore I won't accept lectures about the importance of unity from either of those organisations. 

Nor will I accept that I must simply forget a political analysis of the disgraceful failure of the failing leadership of the SWP to handle serious allegations of rape and sexual harassment because it is "more important" to defend some of those who continue to justify this disgrace from the possibility that they might be isolated and politically attacked.

I will, however, defend any socialist activist in our Union who may face political attacks - and I will work with those with whom I have profound political disagreements (even those who still mistakenly believe that Alex Callinicos and the "Central Committee" of the SWP are worth following).

Given that anyone who has ploughed this far through this turgid blog post will know what I'm saying, I will observe that those members of the Communist Party who stood by their Party after its political turn following the Nazi-Soviet Pact made a catastrophic error out of loyalty to a tragically erring leadership but did not thereby cease to be part of "the left".

Since the death throes of the Socialist Workers Party will last for years we shall continue to face the dilemma which some of us faced earlier this week.

I'll try not to blog about it at quite such length again though!

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

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