Category Archives: Trade unions

Doing deals with Sir Keir

Is building a Labour Party mark two a viable strategy? Kevin Bean looks at the Unite policy conference and beyond

The various responses to the proposal at Unite’s policy conference held in Liverpool to disaffiliate from the Labour Party were almost a perfect illustration of the thoroughly confused and incoherent politics of what now passes for much of the left in Britain.

The motion, proposed by supporters of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, called for the union to sever its links with Labour and give its support instead to parties and candidates committed to the interests of the working class. SPEW’s disaffiliation call is linked to its project to build a new workers’ party through the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. Temporarily put on ice during the brief Corbyn years, it has been brought back to ‘life’ under SPEW’s general sectary, Hannah Sell. However, not only do the election results continue to be abysmal (two percent here, one percent there) – that for sub-reformist politics – Tusc has even managed to lose the only jewel in its tawdry crown. Mick Lynch decided he had had enough and RMT walked.

Although SPEW’s call for disaffiliation was ‘overwhelmingly defeated’ at Unite’s conference, its arguments about the nature of the Labour Party and its call for a “new workers’ party” represent the current common sense of the odds and ends, the flotsam, the jetsam – especially amongst former Labour members and the remnants of the Corbyn movement. This common sense has produced myriad initiatives, campaigns and putative networks, which in their many and various ways all agree that Labour under Starmer has finally crossed over the line to become an explicitly bourgeois and anti-working class party. For many of these projects winning the trade unions away from Labour and thus gaining an instant mass base is the key element in their strategy to build an alternative working class party.

Sharon Graham

How realistic is this scenario in the immediate future? Let us start with the debate in Unite and the response of the union’s leadership. Remember how Sharon Graham had campaigned to become general secretary by claiming that she was going to turn away from the politicking in the Westminster bubble that allegedly characterised Len McCluskey’s leadership and instead use the power of the union to focus on shop-floor concerns? She certainly won some left support for that ‘non-political’ stance and for her supposed concentration on the economic interests of the membership. Likewise, Unite’s 2021 decision to reduce its affiliation fee to Labour as a sign of its disapproval of Starmer’s leadership was welcomed as a sign that under Graham the union was moving to the left and becoming more militant.

Since then, she has continued with this left rhetoric and claims that under her leadership the union has secured a whole series of gains for its members during the current strike wave. At best, these deals have merely allowed the better organised sections of the union to keep pace with inflation, while for many these ‘victories’ have in reality been illusory and have actually seen below-inflation ‘increases’. Given this record and her easily acquired reputation for militancy, Graham’s reaction to the calls for disaffiliation is all the more revealing about the real nature of trade union leaders, no matter how left they claim to be.

Sister Graham not only opposed the demand for disaffiliation, but apparently reversed her previous non-political position and instead made demands on the Labour leadership. She put “Keir Starmer on notice” and said that Unite’s support was not a blank cheque and could not be taken for granted.[1] Labour needs to deliver for working people and “talk about what they can do for Britain”. Drawing on a favourite refrain of eulogising the Attlee government, Graham argued that Labour needs to “be as bold” as in 1945, and “give people something to vote for”. Her key demands were that “key industries like energy and steel should be taken into public hands”, adding that Unite would throw union officials and resources into a campaign in marginal seats for these policies, alongside greater involvement by Unite members in the Labour Party at all levels.[2] All a very long way from her previous ‘syndicalist’ position of ignoring Labour and concentrating on the “concerns of her members”.


This supposed change of heart is easily explained. As the general election approaches and the possibility of a Starmer government becomes more likely, the organised working class is turning its attention towards politics and the policies of Labour. Starmer’s triangulation strategy aimed at the ‘centre ground’, his conscious dampening down of expectations of even modest reforms, along with his explicit commitment to the wider interests of British capitalism and the American hegemon, give no grounds for optimism about the future for the working class.

His will be the most rightwing and pro-capitalist Labour government ever, exceeding in its loyalty to the existing economic and constitutional order even that of his mentor, Tony Blair.[3] While the real partisans of genuine working class politics can have no illusions in what a Starmer government will mean, trade union leaders see things rather differently.

Graham’s approach is transactional: that is, she sees her function as securing the ‘best deal’ for her members and furthering the interests of the labour bureaucracy, not least Unite’s layer of full-time officials. Trade union leaders, if they act as trade union leaders, not under communist discipline, are merchants in the labour-power of their members, striking deals with capitalists about the price of that commodity. Even the most militant leaderships, while they confine themselves to bargaining within the framework of the economic status quo, are not campaigning against the nature of capitalist exploitation, but seeking to mitigate its effects and gain some (temporary) improvements and concessions. However, even from the earliest period of general unionism in the 19th century, the organised working class went beyond purely industrial forms of struggle and attempted to secure gains through political action and legislation. The formation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 was itself a product of this dynamic and a recognition of the limitations of ‘pure trade unionism’.

Thus, both the needs of the working class under capitalism and the self-interests of the labour bureaucracy will drive trade unions to adopt basic political positions and so intervene politically to secure them. However, this approach still remains transactional, although in a political rather than in an industrial sense. As Graham explained during the Unite conference,

This is the moment of maximum leverage for the union, where we can hold Labour to account … Now cannot be the time to walk away. We would be weakening our own arm. It would be the worst time to leave the Labour Party when they are in touching distance of power. If we leave we wouldn’t influence that power.[4]

So, while calls for ‘bolder policies’ from Labour do represent something of a new orientation towards high politics, this strategy is still one of applying pressure to gain some limited concessions rather than challenging the capitalist political and economic order. Although the climate and balance of forces has changed considerably since the 1970s, Graham’s rhetoric is that of the union boss cutting a deal with politicians over the heads of the membership, not a militant fighter seeking to mobilise the working class.

Trade unions

Marxists should not, of course, be surprised by any of this. Neither should they misinterpret Starmer’s distancing of Labour from the trade unions: like Blair, his triangulation and electoral strategy requires it, as does Sir Keir’s desire to constantly prove his unquestioning loyalty to capitalism. Graham’s futile posturing and threats to apply “maximum leverage” are grist to Starmer’s mill and, as with the child benefit cap and the bedroom tax policy, give him yet another opportunity to demonstrate just how far his Labour Party has come from the ‘horrors’ of the Corbyn period.

If the conference vote and Graham’s defence of the link with Labour shows the umbilical cord between the trade union leadership and Labour politicians – and the essential Labourist politics of even the left of the union tops – it also points up another important feature of the workers’ movement in Britain. As it stands, Labour remains a bourgeois workers’ party, although Sir Keir’s well-documented dalliance with rich business donors and liaisons with lobbyists certainly strengthen the pro-capitalist elements at the top of the party and pose the question of the de-labourisation of Labour. The coming election will be more of an unpopularity contest based on anti-Tory feeling than anything like a positive endorsement of Labour: expectations are low amongst both the organised working class and the electorate as a whole, with many being disillusioned even before Starmer enters No10.

Given the Tory policies that the next Labour government will attempt to maintain, calls for an alternative to Labour and initiatives to build a new workers’ party will grow in intensity from the off. Many of these initiatives will focus on using the existing Labour Party as an organisational and political model: that is, a broad workers’ party, based on the trade unions, which will essentially be a Labour Party mark two – albeit one to the left of the current party.

However, Graham’s intervention shows that even the left trade union leaders see no viable option for their politics and their interests outside of Labour, although it cannot be ruled out that strong currents of opposition could emerge, both within the unions and beyond, that could put pressure on these leaders and result in disaffiliation and the creation of some new formation in the future. But, unless this new organisation was committed to a Marxist programme, it would remain in essence Labourist, and so firmly rooted in capitalism and the existing constitutional order.

Broad parties simply based on opposition to the worst excesses of capitalism and basing themselves on the existing political and trade union consciousness will only reproduce Labourism in form and content, no matter how militant the rhetoric. Marxists (along with the ruling class) have long recognised that the Labour Party and Labourism remain a major barrier to developing a revolutionary socialist consciousness. The experience of Dave Nellist’s Tusc and the countless other initiatives that have been undertaken since the 1990s show the futility of attempting to construct a Labour Party mark two when the Labour Party mark one still exists.

This is not an argument for accepting the dominance of Labourism within the workers’ movement and simply adapting to it, or of working slowly to transform Labour from within. Rather it is an argument for not abandoning the Labour Party and the unions to the pro-capitalists, but instead fighting, if we can, to drive them and their politics out of the labour movement and transforming Labour into a united front of a special kind – without bans and proscriptions, and open to all socialist tendencies and working class organisations.

Socialist Appeal

But, with or without success in the Labour Party – -a very remote possibility at this particular point in time – what is key is a mass Communist Party, not a confessional sect such as Alan Woods’ Socialist Appeal, repackaging itself in the attempt to recruit student radicals. One day they were dull-as-ditchwater clause-four socialists: the next day they reappear as so-called communists. ‘So-called’ because they refuse to unite with, debate or even talk to other communists – certainly not real communists. That is cynical marketing, not principled Marxism. Obviously, the working class requires something far more serious, far more worthwhile.





A year of strikes

We must go beyond Labourism. Kevin Bean assesses the upsurge in trade union action and its limitations

June 21 marked one year since the first RMT strike, which ushered in the highest level of industrial action for more than three decades. With 3.7 million working days lost through strikes from June 2022 to April 2023, according to official statistics, this is the highest number for any 11-month period since July 1989 to May 1990, when 4.8 million days were lost.[1]

With disputes and strikes involving workers in sectors ranging from the post office and the civil service through to the health service, schools, local government, universities and transport, it seemed to many commentators – whether in the left or the bourgeois media – that ‘the militant working class was back’. Tory ministers reprised the Thatcherite playbook and declared that they would not give in to union leaders such as Mick Lynch ‘holding the country to ransom’, as they supposedly did in the 1970s. They even tried to use the Ukraine war, with Lynch and co being Putin agents. But nor did that work.

The year of strikes has drawn widely differing groups of workers into action, some for the first time, such as the Royal College of Nursing. Although the disputes have different proximate causes and demands, the common element is the defence of wage levels and working conditions.

We should also not discount the way that employers have attempted to use the historical weakness of the organised working class to further undermine conditions and benefits, such as pensions and permanent contracts. The long-running pensions dispute in the universities and the attempts by the railway employers to worsen the conditions of drivers and other workers are examples of disputes which are just as much about a wider defence of jobs and conditions as attempts to ensure that wages keep pace with inflation.

Back to 1970s?

In terms of the size of the unions and the density of membership, the differences between the 1970s and today are so obvious as to hardly need stating. According to the latest government statistics, there are 6.5 million trade unionists in Britain – just over 22% of employees. This compares to the high point of union membership of 13.2 million – with a much smaller workforce – in 1979. The majority now are in the public sector (3.84 million) and tend to be older and more highly qualified or skilled than the ‘average’ worker.[2]

A combination of economic and social change since the 1970s, such as the decline in manufacturing and the rise of the service and public sectors, alongside a conscious (and successful) strategy of weakening the potential power of organised workers through anti-trade union legislation, has decisively changed both the terrain on which British trade unions operate and their organisational form. The power of the union bureaucracy has been greatly strengthened at the expense of the rank and file, especially the workplace representatives and shop stewards. These were important elements of rank-and-file power in the strikes of the post-war boom in the late 1940s-60s, which saw action to advance living standards, as well as during the more defensive strikes against attacks on wages and conditions in the 1970s.

The legal restrictions put in place since the 1980s and the reduced industrial power of the movement have not only reinforced the power of the trade union bureaucracy, but strengthened tendencies towards compromise and class collaboration which have long been the hallmark of British trade union leaders. Hence the string of below inflation settlements negotiated by trade union leaders ranging from the FBU’s Matt Wrack to the RCN’s Pat Cullen.

The labour bureaucracy – a combination of trade union officialdom, Labour career politicians and apparatchiks – has, of course, its own niche and privileged position in capitalist society. Even when speaking the language of class war, its sectional interests cause this stratum to act as the labour lieutenants of capital in policing the working class.

This can be seen with initiatives such as Enough Is Enough, where trade union leaders such as Mick Lynch, Dave Ward and Eddie Dempsey worked hand-in-hand with aspiring Labour careerists and local hacks in order to contain and divert anger into pointless rallies and demonstrations. Naturally, the politics were kept to the usual banal platitudes of ‘a real pay rise’, ‘decent housing for all’, ‘tax the rich’, etc, and no accountable, democratic, structures were built. So, while Enough is Enough provided plenty of opportunities for inflating already inflated egos, the whole thing, inevitably, fizzled out … along with other hopes of yesterday.

Momentum, the Socialist Campaign Group, Labour Representation Committee and Labour Left Alliance have likewise all withered on the vine in spite of, because of, the strike wave. Their politics have simply proven not fit for purpose.


If the trade union bureaucrats have been behaving true to form, what has been the impact of the year of strikes on the membership and wider working class? For both those taking part and the labour movement more generally, the strikes have both been a morale booster and raised class-consciousness, especially in disputes where the pay and conditions of the workers can be contrasted with the profits of the capitalists and the income of the senior managers.

Anyone who has taken part in a strike will tell you about the solidarity and sense of collective strength that is engendered by taking part in pickets, strike meetings and protests. Workers in dispute identify their enemies and friends and start to draw wider lessons about the nature of capitalist society. Reports in the left and even the bourgeois media provide plenty of examples of how industrial disputes can shift workers’ understanding of their place in the world.

This, however, does not proceed in a straight line and the hopes and expectations of some that the strike wave would produce a shift to the left and a rapid development of a revolutionary socialist consciousness have not borne fruit. Indeed, as shown in some trade union elections, the right has been strengthened. In Unison, for example, the Time for Real Change left group lost its NEC majority and the Socialist Party in England and Wales was reduced from four seats to just one (Hugo Pierre was elected from the Black Section).

The disputes themselves have been long drawn-out affairs, but the strikes have more been a day here and a day there. Also demands and struggles have been kept sectional, even when workers in a particular sector, such as the health service, are taking action over similar issues. The levels of coordination between unions at a national level have been minimal, although local groups of workers have attempted to build common action and demands in areas such as education, local government and the civil service. Most importantly, few of the disputes have truly resulted in victories, other than in some areas of transport and food production, where all-out strikes hit the employers’ profits and forced them to concede pay settlements in line with inflation. In other sectors, many of the settlements agreed by the union leaderships, even if trumpeted as victories, actually represent real wage cuts because they are quite a bit below the rate of inflation.

In response to these developments there is nothing wrong with calls from those on the left to build on the year of strikes and make attempts to overcome sectionalism by generalising the various struggles. But it is also important to undertake a sober assessment of where the movement might be heading and understand the limitations of strike action. After all, if a year of strikes has produced little in the way of tangible results, it is perfectly logical for trade union members, not just leaders, to look to the politics of moderation and the election of a Labour government headed by Sir Keir Starmer.

But some will never learn.


Take Socialist Worker; its whole raison d’être for decades has been the alchemy of spontaneity and turning the base metal of protests and strikes into socialist gold. At last, with big strikes happening, the picture was painted of Britain being on the cusp of a revolutionary situation rather than an altogether routine general election. Such economism entails either steering clear of high politics or, when there is high politics, there is tailism of the liberal bourgeoisie. But what is really important, in the meantime, is recruiting trade union militants to the confessional sect. Party Notes boasts of the SWP recruiting “well over 1,000 people since 2002” (June 19 2023). But, of course, few of them pay dues or attend meetings. Indeed it is a revolving door.

In a similar way Socialist Appeal – the British section of the International Marxist Tendency – also draws the wrong conclusions by overstating the impact of industrial disputes on class-consciousness. After the dreary years of auto-Labourism and pushing clause four socialism, albeit with a brief dalliance with Chavismo, the Scottish Socialist Party and other left nationalisms, they have suddenly discovered that they really are communists and that the crisis of capitalism internationally demands a new revolutionary leadership – now! The idea of entering into discussions with other groups with a view to forming an embryonic Communist Party, however, remains noticeably absent. Instead there is yet another attempt to build the confessional sect … this time by appealing  to revolutionary minded students (amongst whom communism is increasingly popular). The aim is to get a thousand members!

Socialist Appeal wants to, needs to, keep its recruits excited. Very excited. So what we have is the upturn in strikes painted, yet again, as a prelude to an acute social crisis and the outbreak of social revolution. The danger is, of course, that the false perspectives of today lead to burnout and demoralisation tomorrow.

All the while, their old comrades in the Socialist Party in England and Wales, now under Peter Taaffe’s chosen heir and successor, Hannah Sell, doggedly push the totally stupid Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition project – trying to create a Labour Party mark 2. Clearly the elementary lessons of the real Labour Party founded in 1900, the Labour Party mark 1, have not been learnt. At best Labourism leads not to socialism, but governing capitalism in the interests of the working class … and, when that all goes wrong, to a Tory government.

Comrade Sell and, following the Socialist Alternative split, her much reduced band of followers, cannot quite understand why trade union officialdom insists on sticking with the Labour Party and the real prospect of a Labour government headed by Sir Keir Starmer, rather than throwing in their lot with Tusc. True, members of Labour’s front bench keep a studied distance from strikers and picket lines. They must appear responsible before the City, the capitalist media and Britain’s US master. But, and this is crucial, a Labour government can actually deliver concessions to trade union officialdom and will almost certainly be less overtly hostile to trade unions than the Tories. Better, then, reasons the average trade union general secretary, to persuade, to pressurise, to plead with a Labour minister, than engage with the toytown Labourism of the Tusc project.

Clueless, Tusc carries on carrying on and in ever smaller circles. The SWP has gone, RMT has gone, even Chris Williamson has gone. Tusc’s politics are, of course, thoroughly economistic; high politics are almost totally absent. Despite that, Tusc candidates get farcical votes … one or two percent. That would not matter particularly … at least to begin with, if the politics were principled – but they are not.

Then we have the fragments and sects of one who hanker after the big time by uniting in this or that broad front. There are plenty of them on offer: Left Unity, George Galloway’s Workers Party, Socialist Labour Network, Peace and Justice and whatever Ken Loach comes up with next. All useless. All absurd.

Probably, however, after the next general election and a Sir Keir Starmer government, things will change. The larger sections of the organised left will be looking towards an alternative to ‘vote Labour …but’.

The choice is clear: building yet another broad front, or something really serious: building a mass Communist Party.



The Gerard Coyne danger

Stan Keable reports on debates on the Unite election, the Chatham House left and our criticisms of the LPM fraction

As readers will know, union branch nominations for the post of Unite general secretary closed on June 7, and voting will take place from July 5 to August 23.1

Four candidates – one rightwinger and three on the left – achieved the 174 nominations from more than two regions required to get a place on the ballot paper – that minimum equals 5% of Unite’s 3,474 branches. For a while, only the three left candidates had reached the threshold, but hopes of a left-only contest were dashed when rightwinger Gerard Coyne scraped through with 196 nominations. For the left, this changed the question from ‘which candidate do you prefer’ to ‘which two should stand down’, so as not to repeat the Unison debacle, where Dave Prentis’s continuity candidate, Christina McAnea, held the top post on a minority vote against a divided left.

The number of nominations becomes a secondary question once the threshold has been crossed. Coyne will be backed to the hilt by the press, the BBC and the Labour right. Back in 2017 Len McCluskey seemed to be way in front, with 1,185 branch nominations to Coyne’s mere 187. But Coyne gained 41.5% of the vote and was only narrowly defeated by McCluskey (45.4%) on a 12.2% turnout, although third-placed leftwinger Ian Allinson took 13.1% of the vote, so the total left vote amounted to 58.5%. So this time, if there were a single left candidate, Coyne would have an uphill struggle … but could still win.

The forces that support Coyne have already chosen Howard Beckett as their favourite demon. At the June 12 Labour Left Alliance organising group meeting the Labour Party Marxists successful motion – accepted by the LLA OG with just two votes against – calls on Unite members to vote for Beckett “as the best, or least worst, of the three ‘left’ candidates on offer”. It notes “the targeting of Howard Beckett by the BBC, the Murdoch press and the Labour right, including Tom Watson and Margaret Hodge, and his suspension from Labour Party membership for speaking out against Tory government deportations”.

In the LLA-organised hustings, Beckett pledged “to call out the witch-hunt against the Labour left and to support those who have been unjustly suspended and expelled from the Labour Party”. Good – but don’t hold your breath. “On the negative side,” the motion continues, “we note that he rejects the socialist principle of ‘a worker’s representative on a worker’s wage’ – that socialist trade union officials – and MPs – should live on a skilled worker’s wage … Howard Beckett is a product of the trade union bureaucracy, a well-paid, careerist, left bureaucrat.”

As for the other candidates, former Militant member Steve Turner has made clear his departure from left politics, while Sharon Graham’s key campaign slogan, “to take our union back to the workplace”, is probably code for downgrading Unite’s involvement in internal Labour Party struggles (enough to get her the SWP’s backing – textbook economism).

Speaking of former Militant members, the Socialist Party in England and Wales is giving a master class in tailism, when it comes to the election. SPEW’s preference for both Beckett and Sharon Graham and its gentle criticisms of Turner appear to be governed by diplomacy – by which left bureaucrat members and supporters have been working with. SPEW’s June 9 statement, after nominations closed, calls Coyne “a direct representative of big business and the Starmerites”, and notes Steve Turner’s “compliant approach both industrially and politically, reflected in him clearly not being prepared to challenge Starmer as Labour leader.” Consequently, “… we believe it is Steve who should step down as a candidate in favour of Sharon or Howard to carry the battle against Coyne.”

Daniel Platts

At the June 12 LLA OG meeting, 16 delegates from affiliated local groups and political organisations attended, to decide LLA’s position. Two motions in support of Howard Beckett were on the table. The LLA trade union group motion offered only uncritical support, which was why LPM submitted an alternative motion setting out a principled approach, which I am pleased to say is now LLA policy:

Trade unions limit competition between workers, thus securing a better price for labour-power. They represent a tremendous gain for the working class, drawing millions of workers into collective activity against employers.

Of course, left to itself, trade union consciousness is characterised by sectionalism. At best trade union consciousness attempts to constantly improve the lot of workers within capitalism. At worst trade union consciousness degenerates into business unionism and sacrificing the interests of workers for the sake of capitalist competitiveness and profitability.

We openly seek to make trade unions into schools for communism. We do this by always putting forward the general interest of the working class, by fighting for workers’ unity and by fully involving the rank and file in decision-making.

Bargaining is a specialist activity. Consequently the trade unions need a layer of functionaries. However, due to lack of democratic control and accountability these functionaries have consolidated themselves into a conservative caste.

The trade union bureaucracy is more concerned with amicable deals and preserving union funds than with the class struggle. Operating as an intermediary between labour and capital, it has a real, material interest in the continued existence of the wage system.

Within the trade unions we fight against bureaucracy by demanding:

  • Trade unions must be free of any interference or control by the state or employer.
  • No trade union official to be paid above the average wage of a worker in that particular union.
  • All full-time trade union officials must be elected, accountable and instantly recallable.
  • All-embracing workplace committees. Organise all workers, whatever their trade, whether or not they are in trade unions. Workplace committees should fight to exercise control over hiring and firing, production and investment.
  • One industry, one union. Industrial unions are rational and enhance the ability of workers to struggle. Given the international nature of the capitalist system and the existence of giant transnational companies, trade unions also need to organise internationally.

Daniel Platts of the steering committee proposed an amendment (which, thankfully was defeated, but gained four votes), replacing our description of the limits of “trade union consciousness”, with Daniel’s view of the limits of trade unions. He evidently overlooked, or did not understand, the well known Marxist formulation in the very next sentence: “We openly seek to make trade unions into schools for communism.” Here is his text:

At best trade unions can illustrate the power of the working class within society, by stopping the means of production against the wishes of the capitalist class. But rarely does this happen on any considerable scale, and usually the best they offer are merely attempts to improve the lot of workers within capitalism.

I can only recommend a visit to and reading again – or perhaps for the first time – Lenin’s What is to be done?

Chatham House left

The LLA meeting started with a political opening by Roger Silverman on behalf of the steering committee. Comrade Roger reminded us that the right would “never repeat their mistake” of allowing a left leader of the Labour Party to be elected, and noted “calls for a new party” as a result – but warned of the long list of failed left splits from Labour. However, he spoke of a “huge explosion” of discontent building up around the world: “The counterattack is coming. That will be the basis for a left split.”

In the discussion, I argued against aiming for a left split, saying we need serious Marxist organisation now, to fight inside and outside Labour. Whether or not the left is forced out of the party, the need for a socialist programme and serious organisation stands.

LPM is, of course, an opposition faction within the LLA, whose conferences have twice rejected the aim of replacing capitalism with socialism and the aim of a classless, moneyless, stateless world. So I was truly (and pleasantly) surprised to hear Daniel Platts’s confession on behalf of the LLA SC: “Most of us realised pretty quickly [after the LLA conference] that we had made a massive oversight in not putting ‘socialism’ into the LLA’s aims.” Then Tina Werkmann interjected, quite rightly: “And a membership structure!”

Yes, an individual membership structure – an essential requirement for the effective democratic organisation of socialists – has also been rejected twice. Without either a Marxist political programme or a serious organisation, we believe the LLA will remain part of the failed official Labour left, which it was set up to replace. So we should look for opportunities to draw out and emphasise sharp lines of demarcation between principled positions which consciously uphold the long-term general interests of the working class as a whole, and unprincipled compromises which accommodate to short-term sectional interests – the career interests of the latest official left bureaucrat or MP on offer, for example.

This brings me to the second main item: the – secret – left unity talks between 25 or so groups under the title, ‘Future of the Labour left’, hosted by Don’t Leave, Organise. In respect of this, LPM had submitted a motion titled ‘Accountability’. The motion reaffirmed that, according to the LLA constitution, “the LLA officers and steering committee are accountable to the OG”, and complained that the SC minutes provided to the OG suggest that “full reporting of this activity was not happening”. The OG therefore requires SC representatives attending the talks to “produce a full work report for scrutiny at each meeting of the organising group”.

The two LLA representatives in the talks, at the three meetings which have taken place so far, were Tina Werkmann and Tasib Mughal. While the SC majority were clearly uncomfortable with the Chatham House rule – the ban on reporting – they supported comrade Tina’s view that it was better to have a voice inside, so as to know what was being decided and to influence the discussions, than to be kicked out for disobeying the gagging order. Comrade Tina’s seemingly innocuous amendment, replacing a “full” report by a “verbal or written” one, actually meant ‘verbal only’. She gave the reason for this explicitly: anything written “will end up in the Weekly Worker”, and – she believes – would be met by the LLA’s immediate exclusion from the talks.

For LPM, openness is a principle which the working class needs if it is to become the ruling class. So there should be no place for the Chatham House rule in the workers’ movement.


Following the LLA OG meeting, the LPM steering committee has been critical of the position taken by the LPM fraction for not contesting unprincipled elements in the motions and amendments that were voted through.

For example, we should have insisted that the principled LPM motion for critical support for Howard Beckett was a replacement for the motion of uncritical support. The motions were not complementary, so we should have voted against the uncritical motion. The fraction should also have rejected the uncritical sentence praising Howard Beckett, in that he is “by far the best of the three left candidates to be our standard bearer”.

We should also have rejected outright the amendment from Tina Werkmann to LPM’s ‘Accountability’ motion, replacing the requirement for a “full” report by a “verbal or written” report. Finally, as well as requiring LLA SC representatives in the talks to report fully to the OG, the LPM motion should have gone further, and required them to publish a full report of each meeting.

  1. Official info is available at; and↩︎

Taking the witch-hunt into the workplace

Hammersmith and Fulham council is appealing against the employment tribunal’s decision that its dismissal of Stan Keable was ‘unfair’. Ed Kirby reports

Stan Keable – LPM secretary – was sacked by Hammersmith and Fulham borough council for making critical remarks about Zionism. This happened in the course of a notably civilized exchange at the ‘Enough is Enough’ demonstration and Jewish Voice for Labour counterdemonstration in Parliament Square on March 2018.

He was, though, fully exonerated by an employment tribunal. However, now council officers have decided to appeal. If that appeal is allowed to go ahead, not only will more precious public funds be wasted on lawyers’ fees, the council’s reputation will be further tarnished.

The appeal is, of course, politically motivated. Stephen Cowan, Labour leader of the council, wants to uphold the British establishment’s ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ false narrative. In this Stan Keable is not the real target. That is Jeremy Corbyn – and the entire Labour left. In the attempt to see the back of Corbyn, the Labour right is quite prepared to extend the ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt from the Labour Party into the workplace.

The council’s failure at the five-day tribunal hearing in May – a full year after Stan Keable’s dismissal – was humiliating. Judge Jill Brown found that the dismissal, for “serious misconduct”, was “both procedurally and substantively unfair” and “well beyond the range of reasonable responses of a reasonable employer”.

Stan Keable has asked for reinstatement, and his work colleagues are looking forward to welcoming him back into the housing team. Departmental director Nicholas Austin – the man who formally sacked him – told the tribunal that he had “an entirely clean disciplinary record”, was “good at his job” and described him as “good, thorough, dogged in pursuit of landlords in trying to improve housing conditions”.

The issue of reinstatement was due to be resolved, along with appropriate compensation, at an October 2 “remedy hearing” – which may now be postponed, extending Stan Keable’s time in limbo even further. Hopefully, the tribunal will refuse permission to appeal. Criticism of Zionism and Israel should be calmly debated, not be a sacking offence.

On March 27 2018 – the morning after the ‘Enough is Enough’ demonstration, ostensibly against Jeremy Corbyn’s supposed anti-Jewish racism – Stephen Cowan forwarded a 105-second long video to the council’s chief executive officer. This video had already been publicly tweeted by Chelsea and Fulham Tory MP Greg Hands. It showed a brief moment taken from a longish political conversation in Parliament Square between Stan Keable and an unknown man,

Cowan’s email stated:

LBHF [London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham] employee Stan Keeble [sic] making anti-Semitic comments. I’ll let Mr Keeble’s words speak for themselves. I believe he has brought the good name of LBHF into disrepute and committed gross misconduct. Please have this looked at immediately and act accordingly and with expediency … Please advise me at your earliest opportunity what action you have taken.

Hands’ tweet, tagged to Cowan and Hammersmith Labour MP Andy Slaughter, was not a complaint to the council, but a public attack on the Labour Party, smearing the party as a home for anti-Semites. Stan Keable’s employment at LBHF was unknown to Hands, but well known to Cowan, who seized the opportunity to extend the scope of the anti-Corbyn witch-hunt to the workplace. Cowan was, at this stage, the only complainant – joined later only by Greg Hands himself. His twitter campaign to drum up a storm of protest – and of BBC Newsnight journalist David Grossman, who was actually responsible for the video – produced zero results. Tens of thousands viewed the video, Stan Keable’s comments were reproduced in the Evening Standard and Mail Online – surrounded, as usual, by reports of unsubstantiated allegations of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. But no-one complained to H&F council. Hands and Cowan were alone.

By labelling Stan Keable’s comments “anti-Semitic” and saying “gross misconduct”, Cowan effectively instructed council officers to suspend and dismiss him. Judge Brown found that they were “clearly put under very considerable pressure by Mr Hands MP and by councillor Cowan to dismiss the claimant”.

Four hours after Cowan’s email, Stan Keable was unceremoniously suspended from work – on charges which did not include anti-Semitism. One presumes that the council’s lawyers had pointed out that telling well documented, historical truths about the Zionist movement did not constitute racism. That would have been a good moment to tell Cowan that he was wrong and advise him to drop the matter. But an instruction is an instruction. Omitting the leader’s unsustainable “anti-Semitism” complaint, the suspension letter described the comments as “inappropriate”, “insensitive”, “likely to be considered offensive” and having “the potential to bring the council into disrepute”.

The tribunal, however, took a different view. Judge Brown “found that the claimant’s demeanour throughout the video clip was calm, reasonable, non-threatening and conversational”.

Stan Keable was not told that the complainant was the council leader, nor the substance of the complaint – that it was explicitly about “anti-Semitism.” Those embarrassing facts were only revealed a year later, shortly before the tribunal hearing. Nor did the suspension letter specify which comments were considered “offensive”. The original complainant (Cowan) had not done so.

Two “offensive” comments were eventually selected by the investigating officer, Peter Smith: (1) “The Zionist movement at the time collaborated with them” (ie, the Nazi regime), and (2) “The Zionist movement from the beginning was saying that they accepted that Jews are not acceptable here” (ie, in the countries where they currently live).

Stan Keable’s Jewish former wife, Hilary Russell, had already helpfully emailed the council: “I can say absolutely confidently that he is no anti-Semite … it is not anti-Semitic to be opposed to Zionism, as many Jews are, or to criticise the government of Israel.”

Keep digging

Smith should have dropped the case. But he chose to keep digging, adding the Equality Act 2010 to the allegations. If anti-Semitism won’t stick, let’s try anti-Zionism.

He wrote:

If Zionism constitutes a belief under the terms of the Equality Act, then the statements made by the claimant that the Zionist movement collaborated with the Nazis and that it accepted that “Jews are not acceptable here” might be deemed to have breached the Equality Act … [and] do not promote inclusion nor treat everyone with dignity and respect and … have breached the council’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Policy.

Subsequently, whether a belief in Zionist ideology should be considered a protected characteristic under the Equality Act was neither claimed by the council nor determined by the tribunal. In any case, the act does not forbid criticism of a protected “religion or belief”: it outlaws harassment, discrimination and victimisation of believers. But the council “did not find that the claimant had made anti-Semitic or racist or discriminatory remarks”, so this seed fell on stony ground.

In his zealous search for a case to answer, Smith concluded his investigation report by adding a truly Orwellian allegation to the charge sheet, effectively saying that council employees must not attend demonstrations:

That, in attending a counter-demonstration outside the houses of parliament on March 26 2018, Stan Keable knowingly increased the possibility of being challenged about his views and subsequently proceeded to express views that were in breach of the council’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Policy and the council’s Code of Conduct …

Unsurprisingly, the tribunal upheld the right to demonstrate. The judge concluded that Stan Keable’s comments were “an expression of his views and beliefs. The claimant, as other employees, had the right to freedom of expression and assembly, which would normally include attending rallies and expressing their views there”

As Justice Michael Briggs commented in the High Court (Smith v Trafford Housing Trust [2013] IRLR 86, HC):

The encouragement of diversity in the recruitment of employees inevitably involves employing persons with widely different religious and political beliefs and views, some of which, however moderately expressed, may cause distress among the holders of deeply felt opposite views. The frank but lawful expression of religious or political views may frequently cause a degree of upset, and even offence, to those with deeply held contrary views, even where none is intended by the speaker. This is a necessary price to be paid for freedom of speech.

Quite so.

Unable to dismiss Stan for anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism, the council then attempted to establish “misconduct” for being “offensive” – but this failed at the tribunal too. The judge “took into account the line of case law which says that for a single act of misconduct to justify dismissal it must be serious, wilful and obvious”:

The misconduct must be obvious; it must be such that the employee would plainly recognise it as conduct which would merit summary dismissal if discovered by his employers. Such recognition might be either because the employers had expressly made known to their staff that a particular type of misconduct would be treated as a dismissible offence or because the employee, judging the matter for himself according to the ordinarily accepted standard of morality of the time, would recognise dismissal as the predictable consequence of such misconduct (Bishop v Graham Group plc EAT 800/98).

The basis of the decision to dismiss Stan Keable was departmental director Nicholas Austin’s personal view that “the average person would interpret the claimant’s comments as suggesting that Zionists collaborated with the Nazis in the holocaust and that that was highly likely to cause offence”. However, the judge disagreed: “Mr Smith had not interpreted the claimant’s comments in that way, nor had Mr Hands in his tweet or letter … and nor had the other evidence which Mr Smith had relied on from the Mail Online or the Evening Standard.”

Why is a Labour council pursuing this pathetic case – wasting public money in order to restrict our hard-won rights of freedom of speech and assembly? These rights are the products of, above all, the class struggle of the workers’ movement, from the Chartists onwards. This case illustrates the fact that the class struggle is taking place at present in a sharp form within the Labour Party – councillor Cowan has placed himself firmly on the side of the ruling class.

One can only assume the council is counting on the legal strategy of “deep pockets wins”. Stan Keable’s legal costs, if the appeal is permitted, are likely to rise above £10,000.

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Union votes vs CLP votes: Democratise the unions!

One thing has become pretty clear at this year’s conference: the huge increase in membership and consequent radicalisation sparked by the election of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 has not found much reflection within the trade unions.

This is hardly surprising, of course. Corbyn’s election had little effect on the bureaucracies’ control over their unions and this is exemplified by the way they vote at conference. On matters that have not been decided in advance, all union delegations are simply instructed on how they should cast the vote of their hundreds of thousands of members.

That was the case on Saturday in a series of card votes over proposed rule changes, and two in particular stand out. First, there was the vote on the NEC’s proposal to “fast-track” expulsions of party members whose behaviour is judged to be irredeemably unacceptable – without the need for any hearing, for example. Understandably, most individual delegates were less than convinced by this proposal and CLP representatives voted narrowly to reject it (52%-48%). By contrast, the vote of affiliates (ie, overwhelmingly the unions) was 97% in favour! The CLPs and affiliates have equal weight, of course, both accounting for 50% of the total vote.

Then there was the card vote on ditching the 1995 Blairite version of clause four in favour of the original (Fabian) version. We have made clear our criticisms of the 1918 wording, but it is self-evident that its reinstatement would have marked a substantial advance. CLP delegates voted 56% in favour. But over 99% of the affiliated unions and socialist societies voted against!

On Sunday a series of national policy forum documents were put before conference. As delegates cannot amend these documents, the only option they have is to propose a ‘referencing back’ of particular sections of these for the NPF to reconsider (clearly, the whole undemocratic NPF should be abolished). In relation to the NPF document on education there were several such proposals, one of which specified that it should be reconsidered on the grounds that it did not contain a clear commitment to abolish grammar schools.

Incredibly, none of these reference-back proposals are put before conference in writing – delegates have to listen really carefully about what is being proposed. Perhaps even more incredibly, it was a full three hours later when the chair, Andi Fox, put them to a vote – without even a reminder as to their contents. Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of confusion in the hall. And when the unions overwhelmingly rejected every single reference back, this caused a huge ruckus and eventually Andi Fox agreed that the votes would be revisited.

Sitting at the back of the hall, it did indeed look incredibly undemocratic: in vote after vote, a clear majority of people voted in favour of a particular reference back – but then the chair ruled that the vote was, in fact, lost. Why? Because in the areas where the union delegates sit, most had voted against. The chair explained that as she knew “certain stakeholders” hold more votes than the CLP delegates, she had taken that into consideration to make her decision.

Numerous delegates got up to express their dismay at these rulings – should the chair not actually be counting all the hands? “What is the point of me being here?”, one delegate asked? “Everything us CLP delegates are trying to get through is opposed by the unions over there!” Encouragingly, there was also discontent within the union delegations and members were seen arguing amongst themselves over the wisdom of voting against the abolition of grammar schools, for example.

So what is the solution? Certainly Labour should remain a federal party – indeed in our view it should encourage the affiliation of all working class organisations, including left groups, and grant them the right to participate in its decision-making process. But, when it comes to trade unions in particular, we are talking about mass organisations with less than vibrant forms of democracy and accountability. All too often the bureaucracy is given a free ride.

That bureaucracy knows which side its bread is buttered. Its role as the intermediary between the employers and their workers requires that it must appear ‘reasonable and acceptable’ to both sides. In reality, left to itself, it acts as a stalwart of the current capitalist order. And it follows from that that the union bureaucracy tends to side with the ‘moderate’ wing of the Labour Party – in other words, the right.

The solution therefore must lie in the ability of the union membership to control and hold to account their leaders. We need the great mass of that membership to get actively involved – in the Labour Party as well as in the unions – to demand that their interests really are represented and that the bureaucracy upholds democratic principles. And such mass participation would make it less likely that the bureaucracy continually votes with the right at Labour conference.

All-members-meetings or General Committees?

Labour First, the LRC and the CLPD all vigorously oppose all-members meetings, while Momentum is in favour. But it really is a question of tactics, argues Carla Roberts 

A rule change snuck through at last year’s Labour conference has led to some rather heated debates. It allows Constituency Labour Parties to switch easily from a delegate-based general committee (GC) to an all-members meeting format (AMM) – and vice versa. A number of CLPs have recently used the rule to abandon their GC and establish meetings where every single member can show up and vote. Many more CLPs are in line to follow soon, as it is immensely popular, seen by many as a measure to support the Corbyn leadership.

Critics warn, however, that the AMM structure “undermines the rules of trade unions, abandons the spirit of collectivism and breaks the principle of representative democracy that Labour has held dear for a century”. This could have been written by the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) or the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD), which both oppose the rule. But it is actually part of an article by Matt Pound, organiser of Labour’s most rightwing faction, Labour First. Something that unites the extreme right of the Labour Party with traditional Labour left organisations certainly deserves a closer examination.

At the 2018 conference, few people paid much attention to this rule change. That was mainly down to the fact that delegates and visitors had little time to study in full detail the proposals contained within the Democracy Review: the party’s national executive committee, meeting a week before conference, had gutted the document of most of the constitutional changes originally proposed by Katy Clark (ie, Jeremy Corbyn and his allies). The first that delegates saw of the proposed rule change was on the morning of the first full day of conference: it was one of the 57 such proposals presented over 35 pages in the report of the conference arrangements committee (CAC). A travesty of the kind of democracy we need in the workers’ movement.

The focus at conference was very much on the proposals to reduce the nominations needed to stand in any leadership election and, crucially, the question of how parliamentary candidates are selected. While the vast majority of delegates were clearly in favour of the reintroduction of a system of mandatory reselection of all candidates (aka open selection), the NEC pushed for a far less democratic reform of the trigger ballot instead.

Now even this reform seems too radical for the NEC to actually implement. In January, Jennie Formby was commissioned to produce guidelines and a timetable, without which no such ballots can take place. But then Chuka Umunna and co split from the party and the leadership got cold feet. Despite the fact that the departure of Umunna et al can hardly be described as unfortunate, the mere possibility of further splits, perhaps led by Tom Watson, is regarded as a threat by Corbyn. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, he still seems to believe that he can win over the right.

In our view, the sooner those saboteurs in the Parliamentary Labour Party are gone, the better. As long as they dominate the PLP, Corbyn has very little chance of doing anything. More importantly, we need to get rid of the right if we actually want to be able to make some of the radical and democratic changes that are so desperately needed to transform the party into a powerful weapon of the working class.

However, it seems that this is not the only one of its own rule changes that the NEC has had second thoughts about.

For decades, CLPs were organised exclusively on the basis of the general committee, which is still how about half of them operate today (we are guessing here, as there are no official figures on this): local Labour branches elect delegates according to their membership figures, while trade unions and socialist societies can send one delegate for each of the branches that is affiliated locally. Trade unions have made full use of this rule, affiliating several of their branches, even if they do not actually meet or do anything – it seems that sometimes such branches have been set up explicitly for this sole purpose.

For example, since Corbyn’s election, the GMB has made huge efforts to affiliate at least one of its branches to every single Labour branch in the country, while the Jewish Labour Movement is trying to affiliate to every CLP. The purpose is clear: to oppose the left at every opportunity and support those MPs and local politicians who support the affiliate’s particular political agenda. The GC structure gives affiliates a good deal of power.

This started to change under Tony Blair in the late 1990s. Proposals to introduce all-members meetings were presented as a way to “empower the members”, when in reality they were part of the efforts to curtail the power of the unions throughout the party. Understandably, the unions strongly opposed the proposals – in this they were supported by Tony Benn and the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD).

In 2012, Ed Miliband introduced reforms that allowed a CLP to switch between CG and AMM at its annual general meeting, where the change to the local constitution was subject to a two-thirds majority vote. This was mainly down to the fact that under Tony Blair the Labour Party not only lost tens of thousands of members; but many of those who had retained their membership did not bother showing up at meetings any more. Most CLP meetings were poorly attended, boring and utterly uninviting (yes, they were even worse than today’s).

The survey carried out by Katy Clark at the beginning of the Democracy Review in 2018 showed that, out of the 208 CLPs who participated, 141 already had an all-members structure, while 67 were based on a general committee. She reported that, “In general, in most cities” CLPs tend to have a GC structure, while “in some areas where there are AMM structures” no local branches exist.1), p33


According to the rule change passed at the 2018 conference then, any party unit (ie, either a branch or an affiliated organisation) can move a motion proposing to change the method of organisation – ie, to switch either to AMM or GC (the Labour Party rulebook actually allows for alternative methods beyond that, but that is very uncommon). A special CLP meeting then has to be called, in which all local members and delegates of affiliated organisations can participate. The decision to switch now requires only a simple majority of all those present. 2)Labour Party rule book 2019, clause IV, point 1.C (p40)

The vast majority of union delegates at conference 2018 – as always, under strict orders from their leaderships – voted in favour of this rule change, as part of the NEC’s tame reform package. However, it seems that it then started to slowly dawn on the unions that this was, in fact, potentially a rule change that could reform them out of any meaningful existence, when it comes to CLPs.

And it is true: in all-members meetings, the role and power of a delegate from a local union is dramatically reduced, compared to their role in a delegate-based GC. In fact, a union delegate has the same rights and voting power as any local party member, when previously a single union delegate could hold as much power as a whole Labour branch.

In November 2018, two months after conference, Unions Together (previously the Trade Union and Labour Partly Liaison Organisation – TULO), which represents the 12 affiliated unions, came out against the rule change in a short statement:

Trade unions support delegate-based structures for CLPs, because they allow TU branches that have affiliated to a CLP to be formally represented and take part in the CLP’s decision-making processes. All-member meetings do not allow affiliated TUs to be represented in CLP decision-making, and this weakens the relationship between the party and the unions at the local level.

We also believe that the unions are playing a part in delaying the implementation of the reformed trigger ballot, as this would further reduce their power in the party. For the first time, the trigger ballot has been split into two – one for all organisations affiliated to the CLP and one for all branches. That means Labour members can choose to challenge the sitting MP (if one third of all local branches vote in favour of doing so) and cannot be blocked by delegates from local affiliates. However, affiliated organisations are unlikely to initiate a trigger ballot. Their role in this process has tended to be mainly a negative one – ie, often it has been local union bureaucrats who have voted against challenging a sitting MP.

This does rather beg the question as to how, firstly, those two rule changes made it into Katy Clark’s Democracy Review and then, secondly, got past the NEC, which gutted it of many other suggestions. After all, 13 of the 39 members of the NEC are representatives from the affiliated unions, with a couple of other members (like treasurer Diana Holland) having been ‘seconded’ by them. They represent a hugely important bloc and usually vote together (just as they do at conference). Did they simply take their eye off the ball?

And who had been pushing for these changes in the first place? Katy Clark was working closely with Jeremy Corbyn – did they really set out to take on the unions? Yes, the union bloc has often acted as a barrier to progressive change in the party. But the biggest affiliate is still Unite and Len McCluskey remains a loyal supporter of Corbyn. Corbyn and Clark surely would not have pushed for these two changes without McCluskey’s say-so.

Perhaps this move indicates a split within the unions between those who support Corbyn and those who are currently led by rightwingers, such as the GMB, Unison and Community. That would be very welcome indeed. But we are guessing here. As is unfortunately often the case in the labour movement, these arguments are not fought out in the open, in front of the membership, but treated like a dirty secret and kept away from the working class.

We do know, however, that a certain Jon Lansman has certainly set out to curb the power of the unions in the party – no doubt in order to increase his own. The less power the unions have, the larger Momentum looms. This became most obvious when his then ally, Christine Shawcroft (whom he made director of Momentum on January 10 2017: ie, the day of his coup within the organisation), publicly supported his short-lived campaign to run against Unite’s Jennie Formby for the position of general secretary:

I was supporting Jon Lansman for general secretary before today’s NEC subcommittee meetings, but after today I am even more determined. Only someone from his tradition will support the rights of rank-and-file members in the CLPs. It is time to support disaffiliation of the unions from the Labour Party.

The reason she gave for that last comment was because they “always stick it to the rank-and-file members, time after time after time.”

Shawcroft clearly thought she was doing Lansman a favour by repeating what he had no doubt been going on about behind the scenes. Our Jon, however, was not best pleased and – despite dumping her like a hot potato straightaway (like he has done with so many former political friends and allies) – he was forced to withdraw his candidacy.

Momentum is, as far as we can see, the only Labour organisation that is supporting the move towards AMMs. True, among the pro-Corbyn membership this is considered ‘common sense’ – after all, the members should be in charge, right? Many local members who are pushing for AMMs are undoubtedly on the left and are doing so out of a real desire to support Corbyn’s leadership and break the ongoing hold of the right over many CLPs. In many areas, the same old bureaucracy has been running things for years and seems to have an unbreakable hold over the branches.

Local branch meetings, which select the CLP delegates, are often so boring and bureaucratic, without any debates or real life to them, that many of those inspired by Corbyn turn up once – and cannot bring themselves to go again. It is very difficult to turn around a rightwing branch that has been run by the same local clique for decades; it takes patient work and a huge amount of effort to organise the local left.

Pros and cons

The AMM structure does seem the easier way to turn things around. After all, CLP meetings are larger, you only have to attend a meeting once a month and they are more likely to feature a political discussion of some sort. It is much easier to persuade disconnected, atomised Corbyn supporters to come to a monthly AMM. This is, of course, exactly the reason why Labour First opposes the move (although Matt Pound tries to pretend that it has to do with its concern for the “gender balance” of CLP delegates, which would not be guaranteed in AMMs). In other words, in some areas it can be a good idea to push for AMMs – especially in smaller CLPs.

But there are very good reasons to be critical of them too:

  •  AMMs can further atomise the membership. The average size of a CLP is 850 members, but the actual local membership figures vary massively. In a small CLP, an AMM structure can allow you to meet and organise with other lefties when there might not be many or any in your branch (if there even is a branch). But in CLPs with many hundreds of members, AMMs can easily become too big to allow for any real democratic debate or decision-making. If the chair is on the right, they may not be willing to call in somebody from the left to speak, for example, making discussions very one-sided. The AGM is likely to turn into a huge jamboree, where members are supposed to vote for candidates that many might not have even heard of. This structure has the potential to make the CLP executive incredibly powerful and almost untouchable for the rest of the year. Not surprisingly, in some areas it is the local right that argues in favour of AMMs. Any AMM that involves more than, say, 70 members is clearly too big.
  • AMMs undermine representative democracy. Jon Lansman is a big fan of ‘digital democracy’ and online decision-making using ‘One member, one vote’. That should tell you why real democrats must oppose it. These methods might look democratic on paper, but dig a little deeper and you will find that they are designed to keep members atomised and the leadership all-powerful. CLP delegates, like conference delegates, are – at least in theory – accountable to the people who elected them. They are supposed to represent and argue for a particular political point of view. Good delegates report back on how they voted and are then faced with criticism or support, which allows for good political debate and the education of the whole membership.
  • AMM structures can demobilise the membership. They may make it more difficult for members to get involved in the day-to-day decision-making within the party. If you go to an AMM, you do not need to get involved in the local branch structures, you do not need to stand for delegate elections, you do not need to defend your voting records or your point of view. But we need our comrades to learn how to run things, to take charge, to organise and to be accountable and hold others to account. This is a crucial part of training our side up to run society in the not-so-distant future.
  • AMM structures weaken the trade union link. This is where the LRC focuses its criticism: It “seriously dilutes the input of union delegates into CLPs, a dangerous step … With some on the left even questioning the union-party link at any level, it is incumbent on socialists to argue for retaining that link, while taking up the cudgels for democratisation of that union input.”

While LRC comrades are wrong to elevate support for GC structures into a principle, they are quite right to raise the need to campaign for the “democratisation of the union input”, as they put it. In fact, the whole union movement – just like the Labour Party itself – is in need of a radical, democratic transformation. Many delegates from affiliated unions and socialist societies are playing such a negative role – for example, by supporting the local rightwing MP or stopping the CLP from supporting progressive campaigns – that many Corbyn supporters are understandably tempted to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

This issue really underlines how weak the left is in its campaign to democratise the unions. This is visibly demonstrated by the fact that both the CLPD and LRC have managed merely to come out against AMMs: they are not in a position to campaign against it.

Reinstate Peter Gregson

The use of the IHRA ‘definition’ of anti-Semitism to expel a union activist marks a new low, writes David Shearer 

On March 6, a shameful precedent was set when it was confirmed that Peter Gregson, a GMB shop steward in Edinburgh, has been expelled from his union for his political opinions.

In September 2018 Gregson launched a petition for Labour members, which has been signed by almost 1,600 people, declaring Israel to be “a racist endeavour”. This was, of course, intended as a direct challenge to Labour’s adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance so-called ‘definition’ of anti-Semitism, which lists precisely this expression among its ‘examples’, along with six other forms of criticisms of the Israeli state. According to the IHRA, all seven such examples are ‘anti-Semitic’.

His appeal against expulsion was heard on March 5, and the following day he was informed by the GMB’s central executive council that it had been rejected. The CEC letter states: “whilst you have every right to your freedom of speech, … you continued to post online and send emails against the decisions and policies set out by the governing authorities of the union …” In other words, “your freedom of speech” doesn’t apply when we tell you to shut up.

Gregson comments: “I have been expelled for breaching the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, for I failed to ‘cease and desist’ in promoting ‘anti-Semitic views and material’, when I was told to by the GMB Scotland secretary … and am therefore in breach of the rulebook.”

I will return to the details of the case below, but first it is necessary to outline the reasons why this decision is particularly outrageous. The aim of a union is to organise all workers in a particular sphere of employment, irrespective of their political views. Whereas a party is obviously defined by its politics, and clearly must have the right to decide which particular political opinions are compatible with its overall trajectory, that most certainly does not apply to unions.

The reason for this is obvious. While we must aim to win over the vast majority of union members to principled working class politics, the necessity for such political organisation will become clearer as a result of workers initially accepting their common class interests, as opposed to those of employers and the bourgeoisie in general. So unions must not vet members for their political opinions: it is to be accepted that these will vary enormously and – especially in the current climate, where forms of populist nationalism are on the rise – a minority of workers will have racist and even fascistic views.

However, these should only result in disciplinary action if it is clear that they have impacted directly on union organisation. If, for example, a member of a far-right grouping was elected as a local union official and began discriminating against black or other members, that person would have to be removed from their post (preferably through the actions of the local membership). But expulsion must only be implemented as a last resort – if, say, a member, whether as a result of their political views or not, attempts to sabotage agreed union actions and is clearly working against the interests of the overall membership.

It goes without saying that this is not such a case – to put it mildly – with Peter Gregson. The rightwing leadership of the GMB is in reality importing the Labour witch-hunt into the union – it adopted the IHRA ‘definition’ itself immediately following its adoption by Labour’s national executive on September 4, so that now, in the union as well as the party, anything but the mildest criticism of Israel is declared to be “anti-Semitic”.

In addition to spreading the message that Israel is a “racist endeavour”, Gregson was also found guilty of breaching another IHRA ‘example’: “Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the holocaust”. He admits that he has accused Israel (as opposed to Jews) of “exaggerating the holocaust” and quotes the former Israeli minister of education, Shulamit Aloni, who said in an interview: “Well, it’s a trick – we always use it. When from Europe somebody is criticising Israel, then we bring up the holocaust …” But Gregson adds: “I most definitely do not accuse [Israel] of exaggerating the numbers – six million Jews died in the crime of the century.”

Just for good measure, Gregson – who is also “under investigation” by the Labour Party – was found “guilty of a direct attack on one of the GMB’s employees”. No, not a physical attack – he had “singled out” for criticism Rhea Wolfson as the person most likely to have initiated the disciplinary action against him. He stated (correctly) that Wolfson, a leading member of the Jewish Labour Movement, is “an avowed Zionist”. As a result he was accused of “targeting” her “because she is Jewish”.

It goes without saying that, while Gregson is not anti-Semitic, he can certainly be criticised for his eccentric politics – in the words of Jewish Voice for Labour, he is a “loose cannon”. For example, he admits that his initiative can be described as a “death-wish” petition, in that it is “sticking two fingers up to the NEC” by “brazenly breaking the IHRA rule”. He adds: “It is important now for more of us to come out and openly breach the IHRA, whilst never being anti-Semitic in the true sense of the word.”

Such brazen defiance is a matter of tactics, of course, but it must be said that in current circumstances it is not exactly a wise move. Firstly, the forces opposing the witch-hunt are extremely weak and are hardly in a good position to mount a successful challenge of this sort. Secondly, the “death-wish” petition does the right’s work for it by identifying hundreds of Labour members as easy targets.

Gregson also makes himself a target through his inappropriate choice of words. For instance, he has claimed that “Jews” in Britain have “leverage” because of what he describes as a general feeling of guilt over the holocaust. When this clumsy phrasing was criticised by JVL – surely it is the Zionists, not undifferentiated “Jews”, who would try to turn any such sentiment to their advantage? – he was not prepared to admit his error or change his wording. His response is: “… we suffer in the UK from holocaust guilt. Thus, all Jews have leverage, whether they want it or not, because all Jews were victims.”

However, we must not let this hold us back from defending him.He is a victim of a rightwing witch-hunt, aimed at defeating the left and regaining control of the party for the Blairites.