Category Archives: Trade unions

RMT union: Join us in battle!

The RMT is debating whether or not to affiliate. Jim Grant of Labour Party Marxists says get back in

“You can take your distance from America,” Tony Blair told the Chilcot inquiry years ago, “but you might find it is a long way back.”

So, also, it seems, is the case with taking of distance from the Labour Party. Close to 15 years after being expelled from Labour, thanks in large part to Blair’s many crimes, the Rail, Maritime and Transport union is to decide whether or not to apply for re-affiliation. The crunch moment comes on May 30, at a special general meeting.

“For many years I myself wouldn’t have dreamed that I would ever be campaigning to rejoin Labour,” Steve Hedley tells us. “So what has changed? Well, in a word, Corbyn.” Hedley is not a nobody in the RMT – he is assistant general secretary, and a long-standing militant and official in the union. He has spent most of that time on the fringes of the far left, briefly joining the Socialist Party in England and Wales (and the article quoted above was published on the Socialist Appeal website). If he has changed his mind on the matter, no doubt many others have too.

In the beginning

The story of the RMT’s relationship with the Labour Party is a long one – indeed, it is about as long as any such story could possibly be. For it was a motion originating in a branch of the Amalgamated Union of Railway Servants, one of the RMT’s ancestors, that led the Trades Union Congress to kick-start the Labour Representation Committee in 1899. Within a couple of years, there were MPs in parliament answerable, in theory, to the labour movement; and, though independence from the Liberal whip was largely a theoretical matter for Labour’s first MPs, the break was nonetheless decisively important in the history of the British workers’ movement – and for that matter in the history of ‘bourgeois’ politics in this country as a whole.

For the next century, the AURS and its successor, the National Union of Railwaymen, were core affiliates to the Labour Party; no less loyal was the National Union of Seamen, the other component part of today’s union. Even 20 years ago, with Jimmy Knapp still in the general secretary’s seat of what was by then the RMT, a break with Labour would have been quite unimaginable.

Knapp presided over some significant industrial battles, but aided and abetted Neil Kinnock and John Smith, as they paved the way for Tony Blair. In 2001, in a move reflecting deep disappointment with the first Blair government in the RMT ranks, the top job was taken by Bob Crow, an avowed communist and militant organiser. Under his leadership, RMT members in Scotland used the union political fund to sponsor candidates of the Scottish Socialist Party, which was riding high at the time; this can only have been a calculated provocation, and the inevitable result – expulsion from the ranks of Labour’s affiliates – followed in 2004.

Since then, the RMT’s political fund has been put to highly eclectic uses. The SSP, of course, collapsed into irrelevance within three years, when it split over Tommy Sheridan’s attempts to sue the Murdoch empire over allegations about his sex life. It continues to exist, just about, today; it is merely a tail of the nationalists, and a well-docked tail at that. The RMT sponsors a smattering of MPs on an individual basis – mostly Labour, but also including leftish nationalists and Greens. It has also been a primary sponsor first of the now disbanded ‘No to the EU’ ‘Lexiteer’ slate in the 2009 and 2014 European elections, and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition on an ongoing basis. Electoral returns for both have been generally awful – which is to say, below the pretty poor historic standard of far-left candidates in Britain’s hostile electoral system.

Though many on the far left greeted the RMT’s break with Labour – in the context of the invasion of Iraq, top-up fees and the rest – as a great step forward, it is clear, on the evidence of the last 15 years, that it was in fact a step backpolitically for the RMT and the labour movement as a whole. The most successful use of the RMT political fund in these years, apart from supporting some Labour MPs, has been boosting petty bourgeois candidates (a matter on which those who urged disaffiliation, like SPEW, are tellingly silent).

Transformed Labour?

On the RMT’s side, then, the opportunity is there to step back into the central terrain of British labour movement politics. But not only that. As Hedley tells us, there is a serious class struggle going on for the very future of the movement itself, and the place where the battle rages is the Labour Party. Merely by making that move, Britain’s most militant union would send a very clear message. The impact of the return could – almost– be worth the wasted years in the political desert.

We are told by another advocate of reaffiliation, however, that “RMT branches are divided, and the vote at the SGM is likely to be close.”1)Jeff Slee in Labour Briefing Indeed, all the signs are of a close contest. Hedley begins his article with a disclaimer – “I refuse to fall out with anyone over the debate in the RMT about reaffiliation to the Labour Party” – that suggests in itself that fur is likely to fly.

A document outlining the terms offered by the Labour Party has been circulated among RMT branches with a covering letter from general secretary Mick Cash 2)Cash’s letter is available here. The document itself is marked “private and confidential”, but seems to have been inadvertently published on the RMT website for a brief period and, at time of writing, was still in Google’s cache. Drawn from the response of the Labour Party to the RMT’s advances, it reads – admittedly to an outsider – like a document written by an advocate of reaffiliation who takes great pains to reassure opponents that their fears are unfounded.

So who are these opponents? We find many grumbles in the comments beneath comrade Hedley’s forthright Facebook posts, but a more systematic argument comes – where else? – from our comrades in SPEW. An article in their RMT members’ bulletin puts their case. “Socialist Party members of the RMT welcome the fact that a dialogue with the Labour Party has begun,” the comrades tell us:

A transformed Labour Party, with full democratic rights and due weight in its structures for trade unions – the collective voices of workers – would take forward the objectives of the RMT, as defined in our rule book: to “improve the conditions and protect the interests of its members” and “to work for the supersession of the capitalist system by a socialistic order of society”.

So far, so good. However, “are the terms of affiliation currently on offer – losing our political independence and handing £240,000 a year to a largely unreconstructed party machine (if we affiliate our full membership) – really the best way to pursue the RMT’s objectives at this moment?” Phrasing the question in that way, naturally, presumes an answer in the negative. The article continues:

There is nothing on what the party will do to stop Labour-controlled authorities implementing driver-only operation (DOO) and sacking guards on Merseyrail and Rail North, massive funding cuts in Transport for London, or privatisation plans for the Welsh railways. The RMT has AGM policy supporting local councils setting no-cuts budgets by using their reserves and borrowing powers. Yet rightwing Labour-led councils continue to slash jobs and local services and nothing is said about it.

There follows a fairly accurate description of the bureaucratic obstacles to Labour Party democracy, and so on, and the conclusions write themselves: “once the cheque is handed over, it’s no longer our money”; worries about the “(extremely limited) opportunities and (still considerable) overheads that affiliation would bring”.

We should start by pointing out that what the SPEW comrades are engaged in here is the spread of what public relations professionals call “fear, uncertainty and doubt”, or FUD. Note that the RMT would “lose its political independence”, apparently: the confidential document, to which the SPEW article refers, explicitly repudiates this, except in the case of standing candidates against Labour. And indeed there is nothing in the Labour Party rules that excludes (say) campaigning for immediate rail renationalisation simply because Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are too timid to call for it themselves.

If we are to identify standing candidates against Labour as the blocker issue, however, then the high-minded openness to reaffiliation affected by the SPEW article is revealed as a sham, for there is exactly zero point in even a politically healthy federal party of the labour movement accepting affiliates who stand against it in elections. It seems that we founder on the great socialist principle of SPEW being permitted to do whatever the hell it likes.

There is something more troubling yet, however, about the SPEW approach to this question, which is its petty bourgeois character. We mean this in the narrowest possiblesense – SPEW behaves exactly like a provincial estate agent, obsessed with getting the better of some petty transaction. £240,000 doesn’t buy enough influence in the Labour Party.

Sectionalism

In a more expansive sense, the petty bourgeois attitude expresses itself, in the trade union movement, as sectionalism– the pursuit of the narrow aims of the union over and above those of the movement as a whole. It is thus highly regrettable that SPEW constantly encourages such sectionalism – what does the RMTget for its money? – above the general interest, which is hardly ideal from the point of view of an organisation that considers itself Trotskyist.

The best exemplar of this is the apparent expectation that an acceptable set of terms for affiliation should contain policy on driver-only operation. The proper way to settle such questions is not in market-stall haggling between the Labour Party bureaucracy and its RMT counterparts, but at conference. (Things are more commonly settled in the now smoke-free rooms of backstage stitch-ups, of course.) Say that there was Labour Party policy to nationalise the insurance industry and, as part of negotiations to get an insurance clerks’ union on board, that policy was struck off. I, and hopefully SPEW, would be less than pleased. Yet it seems to think that the RMT should expect just that sort of behaviour.

Can it really be the case that purported Trotskyists – who aspire to be the most conscious vanguard of the labour movement – should promote sectionalism as a matter of principle? Probably not. The truth is that these sad little contortions are designed for internal consumption; the lukewarm participation of the RMT in Tusc is all that keeps it afloat and, once it is gone, the last 25 years of SPEW strategy are basically buried.

But for the moment SPEW is committed to Tusc. The April 25 edition of The Socialist urged readers to “Vote Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition” in the May 3 local elections in England – without exception, it seems: the front-page article makes no mention of voting for any Labour candidates in the vast majority of seats, where Tusc is not contesting. After all, “Today Blairite councils around the country are implementing huge cuts to public services. That is why the Socialist Party is standing, as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, against some of the worst Blairite cutters at local level.”

Yet, in the same article, we read this:

As we have repeatedly warned, making concessions to the pro-capitalist wing of the Labour Party, and attempting to conciliate with them, will only give them more power to try and defeat Corbyn. Not one inch should be conceded to them. Instead urgent measures are needed to completely transform the Labour Party into a mass socialist, working class party, with a revitalised trade union movement involved at its core through democratic, representative structures.

So how are those “urgent measures” to be won? How about winning the unions to fight for them within Labour itself? Oh no – that would be a waste of money.

Yet, as SPEW’s perspective of creating a Labour Party mark two is progressively invalidated by events, so SPEW comrades are voting with their feet and condemning themselves to a life of ‘poor value for money’ in the Labour Party – those left behind are more and more the irreconcilable and the delusional. The silver lining is that – in precisely the far-sighted spirit of the Communist manifesto– SPEW tends to find it amenable to take its political lead from the RMT, so perhaps a well-advised decision on May 30 will bring Peter Taaffe’s merry men and women finally to the same conclusion.

As already noted, however, a good outcome is far from guaranteed. If it is a close vote against reaffiliation, that will hardly cover SPEW in glory – and we shall say no more than that. To RMT members, we commend the larger view of politics, and hope that those of us wanting to truly transform Labour, rather than wait passively for it to be transformed for us, are soon to be joined by the battered British labour movement’s most militant contingent.

References

References
1 Jeff Slee in Labour Briefing
2 Cash’s letter is available here. The document itself is marked “private and confidential”, but seems to have been inadvertently published on the RMT website for a brief period and, at time of writing, was still in Google’s cache.

PCS conference: Fudging the Labour Party

Carla Roberts and William Sarsfield of Labour Party Marxists spoke to Hudson Leigh, a leftwing delegate to the 2017 annual conference of the Public and Commercial Services union in Brighton (May 22-25)

With just two weeks to go before the general election, what was the mood at conference?

Delegates weren’t exactly buoyant, I have to say. I think that is a reflection of the savage cuts that the Tories have inflicted on the civil service. Tens of thousands of jobs have been cut, which means that branches are much smaller and are entitled to fewer delegates. To make matters worse, delegates now have to take annual leave to attend. Consequently, conference is getting smaller and smaller. And more boring.

With the exception of the debate on the Labour Party?

Well, yes, that hour on Wednesday afternoon was the most interesting 60 minutes at this year’s event.

Talk us through the three main motions dealing with the general election.

Motion 304 was moved by PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka – it was the NEC’s position. It states: “Conference believes that the worst possible outcome of this election … is another Tory government.” It stops short of recommending a vote for Labour Party candidates, but notes that “this election is very different” and that “for the first time in many years the leadership of the main party of opposition in Westminster, the Labour Party, is committed to ending austerity.” It asks conference to “step up campaigning” and to “use the final days of the election to urge members to get involved in PCS campaigns”. In effect, that is what the PCS has always done; so nothing new there.

Motion 305 was seconded by a supporter of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and Independent Left, and was also supported by the NEC at conference. This commits the leadership to “issue correspondence

to members highlighting how they would benefit from Labour’s manifesto commitment”. In effect, a general overview of the party’s policy positions and where they coincide with PCS policy.

Motion 328 was a different kettle of fish. It explicitly called on “members to vote Labour in England and Wales, and encourage members to get involved in their localities, where possible, to support such an outcome”. Motions from Sheffield and East London, which I supported, did not have that reference to England and Wales, which I think made huge concessions to nationalism in Scotland. But these motions were incorporated into 328 by the standing orders committee.

How did the debate and voting go?

First, I should say that there was some manipulative chairing of this session (or perhaps, if I’m less charitable, something worse). We had an hour to discuss this pivotal issue, but president Janice Godrich – who is a prominent member of the Socialist Party – made no attempt to draw out the arguments properly. She let the discussion on motion 304 drag on interminably. And that despite the fact that it did no more than restate long-standing PCS policy. As such – and given its deliberately vague formulations – it would have made no difference at all whether it had been voted through or not.

Motion 328, however, was dependent on motion 305 not getting majority support. It would have been fairer, in my view, to have a proper debate on the issue, which would have entailed all three different perspectives being properly moved and debated. But, with time running out, it became clear we would not get to hear motion 328 at all. As the realisation of this dawned on many delegates, its appears that a lot of them just settled for a vote in favour of 305, which pushes existing PCS policy a little further forward.

I’m not saying that motion 328 and blanket support for Labour Party candidates would necessarily have won – the NEC and Mark Serwotka carry a lot of weight – but now we’ll never know. We really should have been able to have that debate – no matter which individuals or political groups in the conference hall would have been made to feel uncomfortable.

The Socialist Party in England and Wales, which is highly influential in the union,
is clearly disoriented. In the PCS they vote against supporting Labour outright. But the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, which SPEW effectively runs, has just decided to support Labour Party candidates everywhere.

Unfortunately, Socialist Party members don’t identify their political affiliation and – what is even more frustrating – they don’t argue their politics openly: you have to read between the lines.

It seems to me pretty clear that it was the RMT’s decision to offer blanket support to Labour that by default decided the issue for the SP. The RMT is the only the serious union affiliate that Tusc has and in reality they call the shots in the organisation.

At January’s Tusc conference, the RMT were still insisting on only case- by-case support to Labour candidates and, as a result, the SP withdrew its suggestion to suspend Tusc’s electoral campaigning. They were even prepared to see the Socialist Workers Party walk out of Tusc over the issue in March. But, now the RMT has changed its view, the SP loyally follows suit.

This, presumably, is the model of what their ‘new workers’ party’ to replace Labour would be like – a lash-up where the trade union bureaucrats have the last word on everything! What’s the point of that?

But wouldn’t they call that tactical flexibility?

They can call it what they want. I call it a lack of principle.

What about the role of Mark Serwotka? He moved a successful motion last year, which instructed the NEC to review its relations with the Labour Party, “including the issue of affiliation”. He told the 2016 conference: “The debate about affiliation is one we should have next year. But we can’t be on the sidelines. It is members’ direct interests – their jobs, pay and pensions – to support [Corbyn] against the attacks from the right wing of the Labour Party.”

Given the lack of transparency in the union, it’s hard to know what happened on the NEC. Why was this important issue quietly dropped? I don’t know. We can speculate about deals with, and pressure from, the Socialist Party members on the NEC, who are still against affiliation to Labour. But, given the fact that the SP has a lack of confidence in openness much of the time, it has to remain speculation for the time being.

Of course, it also has to be said that no branch moved a motion for affiliation. It just shows how painfully weak the left is.

In service of Miliband

Labour’ annual conference (Manchester, September 21-24) confirmed once again that the union tops work hand in glove with the party bureaucracy. Charles Gradnitzer reports

This year’s Labour Party conference got off to a democratic start, with 65 out of the 132 contemporary motions being ruled out of order before it had even begun.
At least seven of these motions noted the August Care UK strike in Doncaster and committed a future Labour government to implementing a living wage for NHS workers. One might be forgiven for thinking that these motions were ruled out of order due to the machinations of New Labour or Progress types. However, there are five union officials on the seven-member conference arrangements committee (CAC).
Obviously the majority of the CAC’s members do not think a motion that commits the Labour Party to a living wage for Unison members in Doncaster, who are currently staging “one of the longest strikes in the history of the NHS”,1 should even be allowed on the priorities ballot (although, of course, even if it had been timetabled for discussion, it would likely have been gutted during a compositing meeting).
This depressing beginning set the tone for the conference, which, as most people on the left will be aware, is a well choreographed, stage-managed spectacle. Carefully crafted speeches, bereft of political content, are delivered by shadow cabinet ministers; prospective parliamentary candidates are called to speak, one after the other, by a chair who pretends not to know their name; and on those rare occasions when one of the plebs is allowed to go to the podium the regional director is on hand to help write their speech.
The good
On the first day of conference the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty had organised a lobby to highlight the arbitrary rejection of motions on the national health service and to demand that the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy model motion2 was included in the priorities ballot.
The NHS, having come out on top in the ballot, was scheduled for debate and the CLPD model motion emerged from the compositing meeting totally unscathed, with all its demands left in place. Unfortunately, however, the motion was quite unambitious, aiming to “end extortionate PFI charges” rather than abolishing PFI altogether and writing off PFI debt, as other motions on the NHS aimed to do. What exactly constitutes an “extortionate” charge is left open to interpretation.
The health and care composite was carried, but, as with the NHS motion that was passed unanimously in 2012,3 it is likely that the motion will be ignored by the Labour leaders, who have no intention of taking privatised services back into public ownership unless they are “failing”.
All three of the CLPD’s rule changes received the backing of the NEC and so were approved by conference. The first ensures that no member of parliament and no shadow minister can be elected to the CAC, the second stipulates that two of the CAC members should be directly elected by the membership of the party, and the third lays down that the ‘three-year rule’, which has historically been used to stop CLPs submitting rule changes, now only applies to rules that have the same purpose rather than the entire section of the rule book.
While these are small victories, compared to the mammoth task the CLPD has set itself of restoring Labour Party democracy and handing power to the members, they nonetheless put the left in a better position to make further democratic gains in the future – you never know, we might actually get to debate leftwing policy at conference.
The bad
These gains were more than outweighed by the speeches of various shadow ministers. Ed Balls was booed and jeered by some when he announced that he would be raising the retirement age, means-testing winter fuel allowance and capping child benefit, but this soon gave way to rapturous applause when he announced that a Labour government would restore the 50p top rate of tax and introduce a ‘mansion tax’ on properties worth over £2 million.
Most of these announcements were nothing new – they were contained in the ‘final year policy’ document, which had not only been available online from the end of July and had been physically mailed to delegates, but, just to make absolutely sure, was handed out during delegates’ regional briefings at the start of conference. However, while the FYP document pledged to raise the retirement age, what was new in Balls’ speech was the announcement on winter fuel allowance and child benefits. In this way the policy-making process, which had been going on for the last five years, was totally bypassed and the proposals could not be voted on.
By far the most sick-making speech of conference was delivered by the shadow defence secretary, Vernon Coaker.4 Coaker began by telling conference that Britain stood for progressive values, such as humanitarianism and internationalism, before thanking his team for campaigning for our “successful and developing” defence industry. He cited the occupation of Afghanistan (responsible for the deaths of some 21,000 civilians) as an example of the UK’s progressive, humanitarian and internationalist role in the world. Britain, he claimed, had helped to improve women’s rights and bring stability to Afghanistan. Other examples of Britain’s humanitarian role included dropping aid in Iraq “alongside US air strikes” to stop Islamic State – “a brutal terrorist organisation which poses a threat to Britain”.
Taking identity politics to the point of absurdity, he confirmed that Labour would introduce an Armed Forces (Prevention of Discrimination) Bill in the first parliament after its election. This would make “discrimination against” or “abuse” of members of the armed forces a crime on a par with racism and sexism. He ended by informing us that Labour is “the patriotic party, the party of Britain”.
He was followed by shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander, who implicitly compared Russia to Nazi Germany by claiming that “no country had seized the territory of another European country by force since 1945”.
The ugly
Awkwardly delivered, full of cringe-inducing anecdotes about various people he had met and containing very little we did not already know, Ed Miliband’s speech was inoffensive and unsurprising. With the exception of the windfall tax on tobacco companies, it did not reveal any policy that had not been included in the NPF document, which had been publicly available for two months.
As readers will know, the leader was widely criticised for forgetting to talk about immigration and the economy, although these subjects were covered by Ed Balls, who also promised “fair movement of labour, not free movement of labour”, and reiterated the 2013 policy that, for every skilled foreign worker a big firm hires, they must also take on an apprentice.
What was more telling, though, was what he failed to mention about the policy on immigration contained in the NPF document. While wrapped in empty platitudes about immigration being good for the economy and promises not to engage in a rhetorical “arms race” with Ukip, Labour’s policy is to “bring it under control” by introducing a “cap on workers from outside of the EU” and prioritising “reducing illegal and low-skilled immigration”. Moreover, Labour plans to do “more to tackle illegal immigration” by introducing “new powers for border staff”. At present, the “situation is getting worse, with fewer illegal immigrants stopped, more absconding, fewer deported and backlogs of information on cases not pursued”.
Neither Miliband nor any of his shadow ministers talked about this aspect – hopefully they would have been booed off the stage had they done so. Mind you, since the policy document runs to some 218 pages, few people would have actually read it.
Futility
This parody of a conference is not just an indictment of the Labour Party, but reflects the dire state of the unions and the wider labour movement.
The unions have 30 representatives on the national policy forum – which, among other things, pledged to increase the retirement age, give more powers to the UK Borders Agency, make being rude to members of the armed forces a crime, and continue to spend billions of pounds on Trident. They also comprise more than 70% of the CAC, which, as I have already noted, blocked more than half the motions submitted by constituency Labour parties. Finally, the unions have half of the votes at conference and typically vote en bloc, meaning that they could, if they wanted to, prevent a lot of this policy from going through.
This demonstrates the futility of any strategy that calls on the unions to break from Labour in order to … forge a second Labour Party. The unions are not simply complicit in passing reactionary policy through conference: they sit on the committees that produce these policies in the first place and act as enforcers for the party bureaucracy to prevent even moderately leftwing policy from being discussed.
Without a thoroughgoing, democratic transformation of the unions, combined with a programme of political education, any attempt to split the unions from Labour would either fail or produce something similar to the current Labour Party, which is not and never was a vehicle for socialism.
Notes
1. The Guardian August 9.
2. www.leftfutures.org/2014/08/time-to-get-your-contemporary-motions-in-for-labours-conference.
3. http://l-r-c.org.uk/news/story/labour-conference-votes-to-restore-the-nhs.
4. http://press.labour.org.uk/post/98135471954/speech-by-vernon-coaker-mp-to-labour-party-annual.

Labour: Unions vote to be distanced

Delegate Charles Gradnitzer reports on Labour’s special conference

As readers will know, the Labour Party endorsed the Collins review at its special conference held in London on March 1. Collins requires trade unionists to “opt in” to become second-tier members of the Labour Party, introduces ‘one member, one vote’ for elections of the party leader, imposes primaries for the selection of the candidate for London mayor against the wishes of London Labour and requires “registered supporters” to pay a fee for the privilege.1

Nobody expected conference to be anything other than a rubber-stamping exercise to give the ‘reforms’ a democratic veneer. The apparatchiks of the Labour Party are such experts in stage-management and stitch-ups, they could make a lucrative career teaching theatre and haberdashery.

In the run-up to conference delegates received numerous letters from Ed Miliband urging us to vote for the reforms. One such letter told the story of Paul, a lifelong trade unionist and figment of Miliband’s imagination, who finally joined the Labour Party after the reforms were announced – on the basis that “until now the party never felt democratic. It never felt like one I could join.” This anecdotal approach was commonplace throughout the entire affair.

One encouraging development before the conference had been the February Young Labour conference, which had narrowly voted to reject Collins. This came as a surprise to many, as Labour Students has often been dominated by rightwing careerists, and prompted Labour Party headquarters to issue a statement explaining that “some people may find change difficult to accept”.2

But there was no chance of that being repeated on March 1, despite the opposition of several groups which turned up outside the Excel Centre. Labour Party Marxists was amongst them, distributing our special bulletin.3 The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy had produced its usual Yellow Pages,4 which comrades from the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, Labour Representation Committee and Socialist Appeal were helping to distribute.

Surprisingly, a small contingent from the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition was also opposing the reforms. In a rather surreal scene the comrades – no doubt members of the Socialist Party in England and Wales – followed Ed Miliband in their dust masks, shouting, “Don’t let Labour silence the unions”, as he arrived.5

Inside the hall Miliband used his opening speech to attack the Conservative Party as a bunch of “out-of-touch toffs” and joked feebly that the Liberal Democrats would have their next conference in Nick Clegg’s local garden centre or a telephone box.6 And there were more of those anecdotes. We were told about Tracey, a union member and mother of three who had not voted in 20 years. She feels as though politics does not speak to her. Assuming she is not another figment of Miliband’s imagination or a product of his PR team, it was unclear exactly how these reforms were going to convince “Tracey” to vote for the party, let alone join it.

What his speech lacked was any logic or reason bridging the chasm between his truisms and the reforms he was asking us to vote for. It is perfectly true, for example, that movements change things and that it was the labour movement that won workers’ rights at the beginning of the 20th century, but it was not explained how completely ending collective affiliation or imposing primaries for the London mayoral selection would build on those achievements.

But, of course, making Labour part of a vibrant mass movement is the last thing Miliband wants to do. And his nod in the direction of the party’s reformist past was at odds with his assertion that he found support for nationalisation “worrying”. Even though polls show 70% support for renationalisation of the utility companies and the railways7and such a policy was passed unanimously at the 2013 Labour conference, it is clear that, in a tradition stretching back to the 1924 Ramsay MacDonald government, this policy will be ignored by the parliamentary party on the ostensible grounds that Labour needs to show that it is “fit to govern”.8

Fair and balanced 

When Miliband had finished, a point of order was raised by a CLPD supporter – who was booed and jeered, as she walked up to the rostrum – presumably for exercising her basic democratic right. She asked why there had been no conference arrangements committee report and what had happened to the emergency motions that had been submitted by several CLPs calling for the review to be taken in parts.9

Angela Eagle replied from the chair to the effect that the CAC had met in January, and immediately asked, “Can we please move on?” – to the enthusiastic applause of many. Clearly if the CAC met in January, then it would not have been able to consider submitted motions or actually do any arranging, as the Collins review was not published till February.

Speakers were called in rounds of three and the first six were all in favour of Collins. Their speeches were obviously well rehearsed and followed the same disjointed, truism-cum-‘support the reforms’ pattern of Miliband’s speech.

Several union general secretaries walked up to the rostrum to urge delegates to vote in favour. They included Paul Kenny (GMB), who not eight months ago had opposed the reforms on the Todayprogramme.10 He was followed by Dave Prentis (Unison), Len McCluskey (Unite), John Hannett (Usdaw) and Tosh McDonald (Aslef), who all praised Miliband and called for a Labour victory in 2015.

Eventually Angela Eagle asked those opposed to the reforms to indicate if they wanted to speak, but, despite her promise of a balanced debate and the comparatively large number who had indicated, only six out of 27 people called from the floor were opposed to the review. They included Pete Firmin, political secretary of the Labour Representation Committee, who has written a report of the conference for the LRC website,11 and Dame Margaret Beckett.

Steve Brown argued that the way to win mass support for the Labour Party was through having “good policies”, such as renationalisation, while Richard Johnson said that the move to an opt-in system could lead to a £7 million shortfall in party funding, which could only be mitigated by state funding and so would be unpopular with the electorate.

When it came to the vote, 96% of the affiliates (mainly trade unions) and 74% of the Constituency Labour Parties voted in favour of the reforms, giving a total of 86.29% in favour and 13.71% against.

The closing speech was delivered by Leicester South MP Jon Ashworth, who congratulated Angela Eagle on her “fair and balanced” chairing. Though laughable, this was hardly surprising, coming from a man who was once national secretary of Labour Students.

Reclaim the unions

The opt-in system was originally introduced by the Tories in the 1927 Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act in order to damage the Labour Party and was finally repealed in 1945 by the Attlee government. It resulted in an 18% decrease in party funding.12 Which begs the question: is the Labour Party committing financial suicide? The answer to that perhaps lies in the timetable.

The Collins review establishes an implementation group to oversee the reforms. The timetable given for the transition from ‘opt-out’ to ‘opt-in’ for the unions is five years – well after the next general election. However, if in 2015 Labour is unable to secure state funding for political parties by forming a government either alone or in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, who also support state funding,13 then the whole thing could be dropped.

The other question is, why did the unions overwhelmingly vote to end collective affiliation? Christine Shawcroft, in her report of the national executive meeting that endorsed Collins, said: “I believe that several trade union delegates opposed the report, but felt that they were in a difficult position: as their general secretaries had negotiated the proposals, they didn’t feel they were able to vote against.”

The union bureaucrats were always going to come to a compromise. They were never going to vote against. This is hardly in the interests of their members, as collective affiliation represented a progressive gain for the working class. Those arguing for Collins championed liberal individualism over collective decision-making. But, once a democratic decision has been made by a collective organisation – whether to collectively affiliate to a political party or vote for industrial action – there should be no right for individuals to opt out: ie, to scab, either politically or economically.

In an article entitled ‘Labour has betrayed its roots by distancing itself from the unions’14 Bianca Todd of Left Unity has argued that Labour is no longer the party that reflects trade union values, the party of people like her father, Ron Todd, the former general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union. Since it is now hopeless trying to “reclaim” the Labour Party, disenchanted members should join Left Unity instead.

Leaving aside the fact that the trade unions themselves block-voted for Labour to ‘distance itself’ from them, when has the party ever ‘reflected trade union values’, let alone acted in the class interests of workers? It was precisely because the Labour Party sought to become a respectable party of government, to demonstrate that it was “fit to govern”, that it has repeatedly “betrayed” the working class. Because it sought to manage capitalism (allegedly in the interests of the working class), it had no option but to behave in that way.

So the idea that a Labour Party mark two would behave differently is absurd – not that LU has any hope of becoming one. Left-of-Labour electoral projects come and go, but have never offered a real alternative; they merely promise the same thing – a ‘fairer’ capitalism, thanks to sensible Keynesian management. But how that will happen without Labour’s established voter base and trade union backing is anyone’s guess.

The Labour Party can be neither ‘reclaimed’ – it was never ours – nor sidestepped. Yes, it is possible for the union leaders to demand policies in the interests of their members, but that assumes that those leaders are accountable to their members in the first place. By winning control of our own organisations – first and foremost the unions – we could hope to transform Labour into a different sort of party. But the Labour question must be confronted head on; we cannot wish it away.

Notes

1. www.scribd.com/doc/210583833/THE-COLLINS-REVIEW-INTO-LABOUR-PARTY-REFORM.

2. http://labourlist.org/2014/02/labour-hq-defends-party-reforms-as-young-labour-votes-to-oppose-collins-review.

3. http://labourpartymarxists.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/lpm4_feb2014.pdf.

4. http://home.freeuk.net/clpd/Yellow_Pages_140301.pdf.

5. http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/18236/03-03-2014/tusc-campaigners-cause-stir-at-labour-rules-change-conference.

6. www.newstatesman.com/politics/2014/03/ed-milibands-speech-labours-special-conference-full-text.

7. http://yougov.co.uk/news/2013/11/04/nationalise-energy-and-rail-companies-say-public/

8. RN Kelly, J Cantrell Modern British statesmen 1867-1945Manchester 1997, p149.

9. www.christineshawcroft.co.uk/nec/20140204.

10. http://labourlist.org/2013/07/paul-kenny-says-wed-be-lucky-to-get-10-of-gmb-members-opting-in-to-the-party-might-such-low-take-up-end-the-union-link-by-default.

11. http://l-r-c.org.uk/news/story/labours-special-conference-report.

12. SJ Lee Aspects of British political history 1914-1995 Oxford 1996, pp94.

13. The Guardian September 6 2013.

14. The Guardian March 3 2014.

Rearm working class with collective representation

We need to do more than defend the union link as it exists, argues Paul Demarty

As can be seen from the Collins review, the trade union role in the Labour Party is not about to disappear. Of course, down the line there may be another change, and another, until finally union influence over Labour is quietly extinguished.

There are some on the left who eagerly anticipate this eventuality, stupidly imagining that the logical result will be for the unions to bring financial muscle and prestige to whatever no-hope pet project a given group happens to have (leaving aside those ultra-leftists who consider such matters irrelevant in any case). Of the rest – those who understand that the dissolution of the union link would be a historic defeat for the British working class, taking it from a faint shadow of political representation to no representation whatsoever – not a few, naturally, are to be found in the ranks of the Labour Party.

Last November’s AGM of the Labour Representation Committee voted to support the utterly ineffective Defend the Link campaign. Naturally the vote was uncontroversial. Labour Party Marxists, however, moved a second motion urging the LRC to go further and commit itself to transforming the link, overturning the legal right of individual union members to opt out of paying the political levy, and fighting more generally against state interference in the internal affairs of the workers’ movement. This motion, unfortunately, proved very controversial. For the record, Graham Bash, LRC treasurer, abstained and Pete Firmin, its political secretary, voted against. However, the LPM motion was comfortably defeated.

Right to scab

Behind this superficially tactical difference are two matters of principle. The first ought to be the most straightforward for any advocate of working class political action – the principle of binding collective action.

It was, in fact, put quite nicely at the LRC AGM by comrade Gary Heather, Islington North CLP, who criticised the individualism of “liberal philosophy” – this was based on an elitist notion that the masses should not get involved in politics. Attacks on the Labour-union link, comrade Heather correctly noted, are in fact attacks on the principle of mass political action, which for capitalist ideology amounts to mob rule.

More sharply still was it put by Trotsky, sarcastically commenting on Tory encroachments on the political levy shortly before the 1926 general strike. Union funding for Labour, even then, was what we would today call a ‘political football’; a decision by the law lords in 1909 (the infamous Osborne judgment) ruled that the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS) – an ancestor to today’s Rail, Maritime and Transport union – was ultra vires in providing financial support on the part of its members t o the Labour Party. This ruling was overturned in 1913 by the Asquith government, but the right of workers to opt out was enshrined in law.

“The crux of the matter is, of course, that the workers’ organisations, by asserting their anti-Liberal, ‘despotic’, Bolshevik right of enforced collection of the political levy, are in effect fighting for the real and concrete, and not a metaphysical possibility of parliamentary representation for the workers; while the Conservatives and the Liberals, in upholding the principles of ‘personal freedom’, are in fact striving to disarm the workers materially, and thereby shackle them to the bourgeois parties,” Trotsky further writes.

“It is sufficient merely to take a look at the division of roles: the trade unions are for the unconditional right to the enforced collection of the political levy; the House of Exhumed Lords is for the unconditional banning of such extortion in the name of sacred personal freedom; finally the House of Commons forces a concession from the trade unions, which amounts in practice to a 10% refund [the number of workers who opted out – PD] to the principles of Liberalism.”1

From this perspective, it is quite clear: the ‘opt-out’ rule is just as much a violation of the principle of collective political action as Miliband’s ‘opt-in’ wheeze. Moreover, it is plainly the case that such encroachments strike at the very heart of working class politics. The bourgeoisie has the means of production, the repressive apparatus of the state, legions of paid persuaders and all manner of other means at its disposal with which to fight its corner. The working class, in the final analysis, has sheer weight of numbers on its side.

If those numbers are coordinated into conscious collective action, then no amount of yellow-press hacks, cops and slick politicians will save their bosses. Which is why the ‘other side’ are so very keen to make that more difficult. The right to opt out of the union political fund is the right to scab. So it has been since the days of the Osborne judgment.

It is depressing to see comrades on the Labour left shrinking from this perspective, given how utterly dependent their political projects are on the maintenance of the party’s link with organised labour. At the LRC AGM, where the argument was not the philistine one – that arguing for a better, more democratic union link was somehow incompatible with effective resistance to attempts to weaken or break that link – it was laughably timid.

One comrade suggested that getting rid of opting out would lead to a split in the union movement, because people would leave in disgust at handing money over to Labour (or whoever it happened to be). This was the argument of the scab Osborne himself! It completely internalises the degraded model of contemporary trade unionism as a sort of legal services provider to embattled individuals – or at best, ‘traditional’ apolitical unionism (which renders a political fund entirely redundant anyway).

If enforcing compliance with the political fund will cause a split in the union, the union is already split – just as much as a union needs to tackle old-fashioned blacklegs, it needs to enforce united political action. You do not accept the liberal (or even Tory!) prejudices of some union members as immutable. You destroy those prejudices. You win them over. That is the tradition of the working class movement – not liberal timidity.

Their law

The other serious aspect to this question is more insidious: the question of legal and state interference in the affairs of the workers’ movement as a whole.
It is a matter posed very well by the historic case of the Osborne judgment, although such interference is as old as workers’ organisations themselves. The argument of the law lords was that the ASRS was “a lawful society at common law”, and as such subject to legal restrictions on the demands it was entitled to put on its members. The jargon of the legal profession conceals what is from the point of view of any democrat a flagrant absurdity. The ASRS never asked to be a ‘lawful society’; its freedom of association is rendered moot by a decision of the courts which serves only to place arbitrary restrictions on its activity.

A more recent case exemplifies this problem even more sharply. Viva Palestina, George Galloway’s aid-to-Gaza initiative, never sought registration with the Charity Commission – but nevertheless, the latter unilaterally declared it to be a charity, and on that basis immediately sequestered its funds for breaking regulations pertaining to support for political causes!

Freedom of association is not a freebie that comes with bourgeois society. The “liberal philosophy” referred to by Gary Heather abhors the collective action of the masses for good reason, and seeks to undermine it at every turn. Allowing the bourgeois state to set the limits of working class organisation is a sure way to defeat; the judicialisation of industrial relations has closely tracked the deepening weakness of organised labour, and this is not a coincidence.

Astonishingly, even this aspect of the LPM motion was opposed by some. We were told that opposing state interference in union affairs was anti-working class – because, after all, we want unions to be subject to the minimum wage and health and safety legislation! Comrades, if you go down that road, we can all kiss goodbye to the pittance that is the minimum wage and patchy workplace protections altogether – because only effective working class action, in trade unions and ‘high’ politics, can get even such crumbs as those, and imagining somehow that bourgeois law is neutral in affairs of the class struggle is the surest way yet invented to disarm the class.

Notes

1. www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/britain/wibg/ ch07.htm.

Reject the Collins review

Transforming the Labour Party remains a strategic necessity. Stan Keable, secretary of Labour Party Marxists, makes the case for genuine democracy

Talk about the demise of the Labour Party’s trade union link is greatly exaggerated. Those on the left who stand aloof from the party because its leadership is rightwing, or campaign for trade unions to disaffiliate, are running away from the fight for socialist politics within Labour and merely leaving the right in control. The deficiencies in the party are as old as the party itself

Lord Sainsbury’s Blairite protégés promoted by the Progress organisation will be disappointed that their political careers will continue to be tainted by association with the collective decision-making so essential to working class democracy. Stephen Bush, a “contributing editor to Progress”, describes the link as “a relationship that should never have started in the first place” and writes of “the party founders’ historic error in building a relationship with trade unions and not trade unionists”.1

Peter Taaffe’s Socialist Party in England and Wales – the ex-Militant Tendency majority who ran away from the fight to win the Labour Party to socialism – is unable to sustain its self-serving line that Labour has already been transformed into a purely bourgeois party, just because they are out of it. Labour’s death as any kind of workers’ party is now postponed for a further five years: “… if implemented, the Collins review will mean the destruction of the last remnants of the trade unions’ organised presence within the Labour Party … this will conclude the already advanced transformation of Labour into one more party of big business.”2 So the struggle in the party is not over? A pity you have given up the ghost, comrades.

After implementation of the Collins proposals, the unions will retain their 12 NEC seats and their 50% share of conference votes. Labour will remain a “bourgeois workers’ party” (Lenin’s famous description) – a product of the workers’ movement, but dominated by parliamentary leaders with pro-capitalist politics. Its bourgeois pole is dominant and its working class pole is subordinate, but that is nothing new. The trade union bureaucrats can sometimes prevent changes that do not suit them, but it is the Parliamentary Labour Party which rules, and the ‘leader’ who rules the PLP – and that is nothing new either. The PLP can safely ignore conference decisions – but that anti- democratic Labour ‘principle’ was formally endorsed as long ago as the 1907 party conference.

The proposed ‘democratisation’ of the party will leave the MPs, not the party, choosing candidates for leader and deputy leader, before the rest of us get to vote for a candidate not of our choice – again that is nothing new. The extensive patronage powers of the party leader to give away jobs is not mentioned by Collins, so the Führerprinzip will continue its corrupting influence: MPs’ loyalty goes to the leader, not the party – once more nothing new.

In short, there was no golden age of ‘real Labour’. Labourism was hobbled by capitalist politics from the beginning – Liberal Party politics, to be precise – along with a trade union movement dominated by a self-serving, privileged bureaucracy.3 However, this unfortunate situation is not inevitable.

The fight to democratise and rebuild our unions and our party, and transform them into effective instruments of working class struggle, is inseparable from the fight to win the active support of the working class majority for the socialist political programme. Without this, capitalism cannot be superseded positively. Those who claim that the party cannot possibly be transformed might just as well argue that those other mass organisations produced by our class, the trade unions, cannot be transformed, or that the working class cannot be won for socialism.

The party has been saddled with rightwing, pro-capitalist leaders, whether trade union bureaucrats or professional, careerist politicians, since the foundation of the original Labour Representation Committee in 1900. But there is no good reason why this must be so. It is certainly not because the right wing has such a good political programme for our class. Every Labour government to date has demoralised and weakened the workers’ movement and paved the way for the return of a Tory administration.

It is not that the Labour right deserves to win, but the Labour left deserves to lose – so long as it prioritises short-term vote-winning and the return of a Labour government above the long-term struggle to win active majority support for working class socialism. Yes, we need to elect socialist MPs, to act as tribunes of the people, as the voice of those in struggle. But we need an Ed Miliband government attempting to establish a “responsible capitalism” like a hole in the head.

If and when the left becomes strong in the party, the capitalist media can be relied upon to pull out all the stops to make Labour ’unelectable’, and the careerists of the Labour right can be expected to jump ship, as they did in the 1980s. Good riddance! Better still, we should drive out the pro-capitalist politicians as class enemies within our movement, starting with those who collaborate with the present Tory-led coalition government.

Socialist strategy towards Labour should not be entryism, seeking to split the left away at an opportune moment. That would leave the party in the hands of the right. No, our aim must be to win the party for working class liberation, for socialist politics, for Marxism, and kick out the pro- capitalist right. Rebuilding and re-educating our movement and our class from its present politically weak condition must be done in opposition to a capitalist government of any stripe, not in servile loyalty to ‘our’ capitalist government.

Rubber stamp

Lord Ray Collins’s final report, endorsed by Labour’s national executive committee on February 4, will be rubber-stamped by the March 1 two-hour special ‘conference’ with the backing of delegates representing the three largest affiliated unions: Unite, GMB and Unison.4 No amendments will be allowed. Only one vote will be taken: ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
Months of behind-the-scenes negotiations between top trade union bureaucrats, on one side, and Ed Miliband and his apparatchiks and would-be capitalist ministers, on the other, reportedly described by an unnamed shadow cabinet member as a “rollercoaster”, have predictably produced a rotten compromise which reflects the present balance of forces.5 The outcome leaves the trade union link intact, but weakened, and is correctly characterised by Socialist Appeal – the ex-Militant Tendency minority who opted to stay in the party – as a mere “rejigging of internal party procedures”.6

Nevertheless, the Collins proposals, Ed Miliband claims, are “the biggest changes to who can become involved in the Labour Party since probably its formation”.7 So what are these changes?

Firstly, the three-part electoral college for leader and deputy leader elections – one third each for CLPs, affiliates and PLP – is abolished, so that only individuals can vote, and all votes count equally, whether cast by an MP, a party member, an affiliated supporter or a registered supporter (see below). No longer will some individuals have multiple votes – one as a party member, another as a trade union levy-payer, a third as a member of an affiliated socialist society, for example. But this desperate attempt to appease the rightwing press and appear democratic comes with an old formula. The PLP gets to choose the candidates. So the ‘one member, one vote’ election in the party is preceded by MPs voting to select a short list of candidates.

In the few days before the February 4 NEC meeting, the threshold percentage of MPs required to get nominated was knocked down by the trade union side from Collins’s original 25% to 20% – which Miliband announced in his January 31 Guardian interview – and then to the 15% endorsed by the NEC. So some hard bargaining took place. But it produced a rotten compromise, which leaves the PLP in effective charge of the party – a far cry from the democracy we need.

Secondly, when the five-year transition period is complete, affiliation fees will only be accepted by the party from individual levy- payers who have opted in. At present, all affiliated levy-payers get a vote in party leader and deputy leader elections. From the end of 2014, onlythose levy-payers will be eligible to vote who have chosen to become “affiliated supporters” (at no extra cost), confirmed their allegiance to (unspecified) “Labour values” and linked up with a local party organisation in a constituency where they are on the electoral register. Those who “opt in” but do not become affiliated supporters will be disenfranchised.

Alongside the full party member and the affiliated supporter, there will be a new, or rather an amended, category of “registered supporter”. They too must affirm their “Labour values”, appear on the electoral register and be linked to their local CLP. They have no other rights than voting in a leader and deputy leader election, and in a “closed primary”, should one be organised. Leader elections may be few and far between, and the only closed primary planned so far is to select Labour’s candidate for London mayor in 2015. If I read Collins correctly, registered supporters must sign up afresh and pay a £3 admin fee each time they wish to get a vote in a party election. Whether his ‘bait’ of occasional voting rights will draw new blood towards the party, as Miliband hopes, remains very doubtful. The previous category of “supporters”, who paid no fee, but were promised voting rights if their number rose to 50,000, only reached 20,000 and has now been junked.

Miliband had told The Guardian that he “would look at the structure of conference in the future”, but the offending words about reviewing the number of trade union NEC seats and the percentage of conference vote had been removed from the final document.7
Unite is linking its regional political committees and political activists with the largest workplace branches to encourage its members to tick the necessary boxes to become affiliated supporters and move on from that to full party membership. The current Labour membership is about 186,000, equal to no more than 13% of Unite’s.

All this means that if trade unionists get busy, affiliated supporters and new recruits could transform the largely hollowed out Constituency Labour Parties and help swing the party radically to the left.

Notes

1. ‘Harry Potter and the question of party reform’, February 4: www.progressonline.org. uk/2014/02/04/harry-potter-and-the-question-of- party-reform.
2. www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/797/18123.
3. Keir Hardie’s 1892 election manifesto, when he was elected to the Commons for the first time as MP for South West Ham, declared: “I have all my life given an independent support to the Liberal Party … I am in agreement with the present programme of the Liberal Party.”
4. http://s.bsd.net/labouruk/default/page/file/ a84a677f479406989c_pom6b5w60.pdf.
5. The Guardian February 4.
6. Socialist Appeal February 5.
7. Interview in The Guardian January 31.

Labour: Everything to play for

The fight for the soul of the Labour Party has only just begun. Stan Keable of Labour Party Marxists reports on the Collins review

Trade union influence: still there but weakened

Expectations of the demise of the Labour Party’s trade union link are greatly exaggerated. Those on the left who stand aloof from the party because its leadership is rightwing, or campaign for trade unions to disaffiliate, are running away from the fight for socialist politics in the party and merely leaving the right in control. The deficiencies in the party are as old as the party itself.

Lord Sainsbury’s Blairite protégés promoted by the Progress organisation will be disappointed that their political careers will continue to be tainted by association with the collective decision-making so essential to working class democracy. Stephen Bush, a “contributing editor to Progress”, describes the link as “a relationship that should never have started in the first place” and writes of “the party founders’ historic error in building a relationship with trade unions and not trade unionists”.

Peter Taaffe’s Socialist Party in England and Wales – the ex-Militant Tendency majority who ran away from the fight to win the Labour Party to socialism – is unable to sustain its self-serving line that Labour has already been transformed into a purely bourgeois party, just because they are out of it. Labour’s death as any kind of workers’ party is now postponed for a further five years: “… if implemented, the Collins review will mean the destruction of the last remnants of the trade unions’ organised presence within the Labour Party … this will conclude the already advanced transformation of Labour into one more party of big business.”2 So the struggle in the party is not over? A pity you have given up the ghost, comrades.

After implementation of the Collins proposals, the unions will retain their 12 NEC seats and their 50% share of conference votes. Labour will remain a “bourgeois workers’ party” (Lenin’s famous description) – a product of the workers’ movement, but dominated by parliamentary leaders with pro-capitalist politics. Its bourgeois pole is dominant and its working class pole is subordinate, but that is nothing new. The trade union bureaucrats can sometimes prevent changes that do not suit them, but it is the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) which rules, and the ‘leader’ who rules the PLP – and that is nothing new either. The PLP can safely ignore conference decisions – but that anti-democratic Labour ‘principle’ was formally endorsed as long ago as the 1907 party conference.

The proposed ‘democratisation’ of the party will leave the MPs, not the party, choosing the candidates for leader and deputy leader, before the rest of us get to vote for a candidate not of our choice – again that is nothing new. The extensive patronage powers of the party leader to give away jobs is not mentioned by Collins, so the Führerprinzip will continue its corrupting influence: MPs’ loyalty goes to the leader, not the party – once more nothing new.

In short, there was no golden age of ‘real Labour’. Labourism was hobbled by capitalist politics from the beginning – Liberal Party politics, to be precise3 – along with a trade union movement dominated by a self-serving, privileged bureaucracy. However, this unfortunate situation is not inevitable.

The fight to democratise and rebuild our unions and our party, and transform them into effective instruments of working class struggle, is inseparable from the fight to win the active support of the working class majority for the socialist political programme. Without this, capitalism cannot be superseded positively. Those who claim that the party cannot possibly be transformed might just as well argue that those other mass organisations produced by our class, the trade unions, cannot be transformed, or that the working class cannot be won for socialism.

The party has been saddled with rightwing, pro-capitalist leaders, whether trade union bureaucrats or professional careerist politicians, since the foundation of the original Labour Representation Committee in 1900. But there is no good reason why this must be so. It is certainly not because the right wing has such a good political programme for our class. Every Labour government to date has demoralised and weakened the workers’ movement and paved the way for the return of a Tory government.

It is not that the Labour right deserves to win, but the Labour left deserves to lose – so long as it prioritises short-term vote-winning and the return of a Labour government above the long-term struggle to win active majority support for working class socialism. Yes, we need to elect socialist MPs, to act as tribunes of the people, as the voice of those in struggle. But we need an Ed Miliband government attempting to establish a “responsible capitalism” like a hole in the head.

If and when the left becomes strong in the party, the capitalist media can be relied upon to pull out all the stops to make Labour ’unelectable’, and the careerists of the Labour right can be expected to jump ship, as they did in the 1980s. Good riddance! Better still, we should drive out the pro-capitalist politicians as class enemies within our movement, starting with those who collaborate with the present Tory-led coalition government.

Socialist strategy towards Labour should not be entryism, seeking to split the left away at an opportune moment. That would leave the party in the hands of the right. No, our aim must be to win the party for working class liberation, for socialist politics, for Marxism, and kick out the pro-capitalist right. Rebuilding and re-educating our movement and our class from its present politically weak condition must be done in opposition to a capitalist government of any stripe, not in servile loyalty to ‘our’ capitalist government.

Collins

Lord Ray Collins’s final report,4 endorsed by Labour’s national executive committee on February 4, will be rubber-stamped by the party’s March 1 two-hour special ‘conference’ with the backing of delegates representing the three largest affiliated unions: Unite, GMB and Unison. No amendments will be allowed. Only one vote will be taken: ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The annual conferences, with their potential for rank-and-file rebellion, have been successfully by-passed.

Months of behind-the-scenes negotiations between trade union bureaucrats, on one side, and Ed Miliband and his apparatchiks and would-be capitalist ministers, on the other, reportedly described by an unnamed shadow cabinet member as a “rollercoaster”,5 have predictably produced a rotten compromise which reflects the present balance of forces in the party. The outcome leaves the trade union link intact, but weakened, and is correctly characterised by Socialist Appeal – the ex-Militant Tendency minority who opted to stay in the party – as a mere “rejigging of internal party procedures”.6

Nevertheless, the Collins proposals, Ed Miliband claims, are “the biggest changes to who can become involved in the Labour Party since probably its formation.7 So what are these changes?

Firstly, the three-part electoral college for leader and deputy leader elections – one third each for CLPs, affiliates and PLP – is abolished, so that only individuals can vote, and all votes count equally, whether cast by an MP, a party member, an affiliated supporter or a registered supporter (see below). No longer will some individuals have multiple votes – one as a party member, another as a trade union levy-payer, a third as a member of an affiliated socialist society, for example. But this much vaunted ‘democratisation’ is marred by the fact that the PLP gets to choose the candidates. So the Omov election in the party is preceded by MPs voting to select a short list of candidates.

In the few days before the February 4 NEC meeting, the threshold percentage of MPs required to get nominated was knocked down by the trade union side from Collins’s original 25% to 20% – which Miliband announced in his January 31 Guardian interview – and then to the 15% endorsed by the NEC. So some hard bargaining took place. But it produced a rotten compromise, which leaves the PLP in charge of the party – a far cry from the democracy we need.

Secondly, when the five-year transition period is complete, affiliation fees will only be accepted by the party from individual levy-payers who have opted into affiliation. At present, all affiliated levy-payers get a vote in party leader and deputy leader elections. From the end of 2014, only those levy-payers will be eligible to vote who have chosen to become “affiliated supporters” (at no extra cost), confirmed their allegiance to (unspecified) “Labour values” and linked up with a local party organisation in a constituency where they are on the electoral register. Those who “opt in” to the affiliated levy but do not bother to become affiliated supporters will be disenfranchised.

Alongside the full party member and the affiliated supporter, there will be a new, or rather an amended, category of “registered supporter”. They too must affirm their “Labour values”, appear on the electoral register and be linked to their local CLP. They have no other rights than voting in a leader and deputy leader election, and in a “closed primary”, should one be organised. Leader elections may be few and far between, and the only closed primary planned so far is to select Labour’s candidate for London mayor in 2015. If I read Collins correctly, registered supporters must sign up afresh and pay a £3 admin fee each time they wish to get a vote in a party election. Whether his ‘bait’ of occasional voting rights will draw new blood towards the party, as Miliband hopes, remains very doubtful. The previous category of “supporters”, who paid no fee, but were promised voting rights if their number rose to 50,000, only reached 20,000 and has now been junked.

Only two NEC members, Christine Shawcroft and Dennis Skinner, voted against the Collins report on February 4, and one of the six Unite delegates, Martin Meyer, abstained. Afterwards, on February 13, the Unite executive council met and endorsed the proposals. Miliband had told The Guardian that he “would look at the structure of conference in the future”, but the offending words about reviewing the number of trade union NEC seats and the percentage of conference vote had been removed from the final document.

Unite is linking its regional political committees and political activists with the largest workplace branches to encourage its members to tick the necessary boxes to become affiliated supporters and move on from that to full party membership. The current Labour Party membership is about 186,000, equal to about 13% of Unite members alone.

All this means that if trade unionists get busy, affiliated supporters and new recruits could substantially outnumber existing party members, demolishing the argument that the union share of conference votes and NEC seats should be reduced. So take courage, comrades: the fight is not over. We have everything to play for.

Notes

1. ‘Harry Potter and the question of party reform’, February 4: www.progressonline.org.uk/2014/02/04/harry-potter-and-the-question-of-party-reform. 2. www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/797/18123. 3. Keir Hardie’s 1892 election manifesto, when he was elected to the Commons for the first time as MP for South West Ham, declared: “I have all my life given an independent support to the Liberal Party … I am in agreement with the present programme of the Liberal Party.” 4.http://s.bsd.net/labouruk/default/page/file/a84a677f479406989c_pom6b5w60.pdf. 5. The Guardian February 4. 6. Socialist Appeal February 5. 7. Interview in The Guardian January 31.