Category Archives: Trade unions

Labour Party Marxists: Open letter to Jerry Hicks

Stan Keable, secretary of Labour Party Marxists, calls for an end to begging and bullying in return for crumbs

Dear comrade

As someone who supported your 2013 election campaign to become general secretary of Unite, Britain’s biggest trade union and biggest affiliate to the Labour Party, I am writing to offer some comradely criticism. Specifically I urge you to reconsider your negative attitude towards the Labour Party.

Your approach differs only in degree from Len McCluskey. Earlier this year he said that if Labour did not serve the interests and hopes of the working class the unions might have to find another way. This position may sound strong – threatening to withdraw vital union funding in order to get our way. But actually it reveals a weak, subservient, slavish mentality, which to all intents and purposes accepts that the rightwing, pro-capitalist, careerist politicians will always remain in control. We should not be aiming to bully or beg them into conceding a few crumbs, but winning control away from them.

Hence LPM’s strategic aim of transforming the party into a permanent united front of the whole of the workers’ movement. We seek to transform Labour into an organisation which includes all trade unions, socialist groups and pro-working class partisans. Something which, for us, goes hand in hand with winning the working class to the Marxist programme of human liberation.

At a time when the fight is on to defend the Labour-trade union link your comment that Unite should stop “infiltration through recruiting members to the Labour Party” dovetails perfectly with Tory media misinformation.1 As if trade unions are external to the Labour Party. Of course, Unite came about through a merger of constituent unions such as the engineers’ and transport workers’ unions which were founding affiliates of the original Labour Representation Committee back in 1900.

You say: “Unite should end immediately its disastrous ‘reclaim Labour’” policy. But the only thing wrong with this aim of ‘reclaiming’ is the illusion that the Labour Party ever had socialist politics. The Labour Party has always been led by reactionary politicians who are committed body and soul to capitalism. Even when ‘clause four socialism’ was adopted in 1918, this was never more than a sop to satisfy an increasingly militant working class.

From the beginning, Fabian leaders like Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald, campaigned for independent working class political organisation (ie, independent of the Liberal and Tory parties) in order to put working class representatives in parliament. But they did not develop independent working class politics. The first Labour MPs, mostly trade unionists, went into parliament with the same politics as the Lib-Lab MPs before them. And these professional politicians – the Parliamentary Labour Party – quickly became the dominant section of the party, politically independent of conference, albeit held in check on occasion by the trade union bureaucrats who traditionally provided most of the funds.

Your October 24 press release complains about “Labour being given members’ money hand over fist and unconditionally”, despite which “The man Unite gave £10,000s to become Labour leader, Ed Miliband, treated them with complete and utter contempt.” In a similar vein, during the Unite election campaign, interviewed by the Bristol Post, you said: “I think we should stop giving the Labour Party money if they are not going to support our principles in their policies. We should keep our members’ hard-earned money tightly in our grasp, and use that to negotiate with the party – we should only give the party money as a reward, because giving it as an incentive doesn’t work.”2

Of course, the union is free to decide how to spend its money, and whether or not to affiliate to Labour. But affiliation is about much more than money, and the debate about the Labour-trade union link should not be primarily about funding. Affiliation, like individual membership, carries rights – the right to play a part in collective decision-making, the right to democratically determine policies and practices.

With all its faults, the Labour Party is just as much a part of the workers’ movement as the trade unions which created it over 100 years ago. The struggle for trade union democracy and the struggle for Labour Party democracy are in fact one and the same. The fight for working class politics (ie, Marxism) in the trade unions and the fight for working class politics in the party are inseparable from the task of winning the majority of the working class to class-consciousness and active involvement in organised political struggle.

Your September 9 complaint against Unite to the certification officer about the union’s general secretary ballot magnifies possible irregularities out of all proportion, and adds grist to the mill of the Tory and media witch-hunt targeting McCluskey and (ex-) Grangemouth convenor Stevie Deans, as if they are ballot-riggers in the Labour Party and ballot-riggers in the union. They are nothing of the kind. Unite activist Charlie Pottins got it right:

“Since the election for general secretary was supervised by the Electoral Reform Society, there is surely no suggestion that one of McCluskey’s minions was caught stuffing ballot boxes? If not, what we are left with is a technical irregularity, and it [ie, Jerry Hicks’s complaint – SK] reminds me of the kind of objection we have seen the employers and their lawyers coming up with to challenge strike ballots.”3

The aim of the Tory witch-hunt, of course, is to denigrate effective trade unionism in general and the Labour-trade union link in particular. All part of a desperate attempt to undermine Labour’s electoral support and boost Tory chances of staying in office beyond May 7 2015.

As you know, the Labour Representation Committee and its journal, Labour Briefing, declined to take sides between you and McCluskey. But Labour Party Marxists (an LRC affiliate) supported your campaign. That despite your attitude to the Labour Party. We stand with you all the way on the need for rank-and-file organisation and militant action to fight austerity, closures and job cuts, and confronting the anti-trade union laws which make effective solidarity illegal.

What clearly distinguishes you from McCluskey is your anti-bureaucracy, anti-careerist proposals: “The election of all officials, elected by members, not appointed by an individual or a panel … For a general secretary to live the life of the members they represent, on an average member’s wage, not a six-figure salary.”4 But militancy in defence of workers’ rights, wages and conditions – or militancy to make fresh gains, for that matter – is not enough. Any gains made can only be temporary, so long as the capitalist system of wage labour, of exploitation and oppression, remains. I am sure you agree.

Our class needs its own independent politics – not just to fight for concessions within the system, but to supersede it positively by replacing capitalist class (minority) rule with working class (majority) rule in transition to a classless society. We urge you to drop your equivocal attitude to the Labour Party, and commit wholeheartedly to the struggle to transform it into “an instrument for working class advance and international socialism”.5

Notes

1. October 24 2013 press release: www.jerryhicks4gs.org/2013/10/pressrelease-press-release-press.html.

2. www.bristolpost.co.uk/Bristol-s-Jerry-Hicks-faces-biggest-job-interview.

3. randompottins.blogspot.co.uk.

4. jerryhicks4gs.org/p/i-stand-for.html.

5. LPM ‘Aims and principles’.

Labour and unions: Democratise the link

Stan Keable of Labour Party Marxists takes a look at Ed Miliband’s attack on trade union influence

Ed Miliband at TUC 2013
Ed Miliband: his Clause 4 moment?

When Ed Miliband tells the Trades Union Congress to “show courage” by backing his proposals to neuter the collective political role of affiliated trade unions within the Labour Party, we should understand the word ‘courage’ in the same way as we understand, the phrase, ‘difficult decisions’, when he and Ed Balls promise to continue with economic austerity under a Labour government. ‘Courageous’ and ‘difficult’ are the words of praise heaped on Labour leaders who attack the working class and the workers’ movement.

Where was Miliband’s courage in face of millionaire media hysteria over the totally legitimate, now vindicated, participation of trade unionists in Falkirk Constituency Labour Party? But he has found the ‘courage’ to refuse to apologise for the baseless suspensions of Karie Murphy and Stevie Deans, on the spurious grounds that “at each step the general secretary and the NEC have acted quickly to protect the interests of the party” (Labour Party statement). Although “no organisation or individual has been found to have breached the rules as they stood at the time”, Falkirk CLP is still under ‘special measures’, and “Labour intends to impose a centrally decided shortlist of candidates for 2015”.1

Throughout the Blair years of New Labour government, the misnamed pro-capitalist Progress organisation funded by Lord Sainsbury packed the selection meetings of numerous CLPs, with never a murmur of protest from Murdoch or the Tories – or Labour HQ – so that now the parliamentary Labour Party is dominated by smart-suited careerists with barely a genuine trade unionist in sight. And Ed Miliband is one of them.

In fact, far from being “panicked under ferocious Tory fire” into a knee-jerk response to the manufactured Falkirk ‘scandal’, as Mark Seddon claims,2 Miliband was quick to take advantage of the opportunity to announce his plans to diminish the influence of trade unions within the party, through a consultation about the relationship (the Collins review) ending with a special party conference in April 2014.

Of course, the attack on collective affiliation, by requiring individuals to ‘opt in’ in place of the right to ‘opt out’, is couched in beguiling language: “I want to make each and every affiliated trade union member a real part of their local party, making a real choice to be part of our party, so they can have a real voice in it,” said Miliband in his September 10 speech to the TUC. And, by making those who ‘opt in’ to the affiliated political levy full party members, Miliband hopes to raise Labour’s individual membership from around 200,000 to more than 500,000.

Those of us, like my comrades in the Labour Representation Committee,3 who are campaigning to defend the Labour-union link and the principle of collective decision-making – in working class politics as much as in workplace matters – should take note what an easy target is the status quo. See how Miliband was able to denigrate the existing arrangements when he spoke to the TUC: “Some people ask: what’s wrong with the current system? Let me tell them: we have three million working men and women affiliated to our party. But the vast majority play no role in our party. They are affiliated in name only”.4 It has to be said, of course, that this is also true of the vast majority of Labour Party members, and only a small percentage play an active role even in canvassing, let alone decision-making.

So we have to have the “courage to change” – but not in the way Miliband proposes, by liquidating collective decision-making and collective action (‘united we stand’) in favour of individual choice (‘divided we fall’). On the contrary, we must aim to rebuild our collective strength, not dismantle it. Revitalise the trade unions by thoroughly democratising them: officials at all levels must be paid the average wage of their members, and be elected from below, not bureaucratically appointed from above. Bring the Rail, Maritime and Transport union and Fire Brigades Union back into the party, win the Public and Commercial Services union to affiliate, bring all trade unions and all socialist and working class organisations into the party, make the Labour Party into a permanent united front of the whole working class.

With this perspective, we must reject Miliband’s ‘opting in’ proposal, and overturn the existing ‘opting out’ system. As Hazel Nolan of London Young Labour told the September 3 launch meeting of the Defend the Link campaign, “When you buy a bottle of coke, you can’t opt out of paying the tax on it. Why should you be able to opt out of paying your share of your union’s democratically agreed political spending?” The right to opt out of the union’s political fund is a legally imposed right to scab, which should be overthrown, along with all anti-trade union laws.

At the same meeting the Communication Workers Union’s Maria Exall struck the right note, combating the idea that the campaign should merely defend the status quo and postpone political disagreements until this latest attack on the link had been defeated, or that criticism of union leaders who might support the campaign be muted. “There is a problem within the trade unions – the bureaucracy. How come we still have anti-union laws? The unions let New Labour through,” she said.

The campaign must not be left in the hands of overpaid trade union bosses like Len McCluskey of Unite, Paul Kenny of GMB and Dave Prentis of Unison, who do not practise the anti-bureaucracy, anti-careerist principle that officials in the workers’ movement should live on the same wage, or the average wage, of those they represent, and who each preside over an army of appointed officials. 

Notes

1. ‘No Miliband apology over Falkirk vote row – Harman’:www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-23999869.

2. ‘The battle for Labour’s soul’ Morning Star September 9.

3. l-r-c.org.uk.

4. Full speech at www.labour.org.uk/speech-by-ed-miliband-to-the-tuc.

Falkirk: Defend the union link

Stan Keable of Labour Party Marxists looks at the latest attack on the union link with Labour and reviews its history

So Len McCluskey’s prediction was right. The police found nothing wrong in Falkirk. They looked at the report on Falkirk Constituency Labour Party’s selection process for its prospective parliamentary candidate – disgracefully handed to them by Labour’s HQ – and found “insufficient evidence to support a criminal investigation at this time”.

Instead of accepting this result, lifting the suspension of the CLP and reinstating chairperson Stephen Deans and Unite’s preferred parliamentary candidate, Karie Murphy, Ed Miliband announced that the party – ie, the bureaucracy – will now pursue disciplinary action using party rules instead of the law. Meanwhile, the local Labour Party is disenfranchised. Individual members, trade union delegates, socialist organisations and any others affiliated to Falkirk CLP are deprived of any opportunity to discuss and resolve the matter collectively themselves, and Karie Murphy remains barred from becoming a candidate.

Far from being stampeded by Tory pressure, as many naive leftwingers would like to believe, the media union-bashing furore over Unite’s campaigning in Falkirk is an opportunity not to be missed. Ed Miliband and Ed Balls want to turn a ‘crisis’ into an opportunity. But the simple fact of the matter is that Unite did nothing more than pay the first year’s Labour Party membership fee for some of its local members. This, it should be pointed out, is a practice that the party had encouraged trade unions to adopt in order to draw trade unionists into active involvement. No rules had been broken.

So, seeing his moment, Miliband closed down the membership scheme by diktat, and upped the stakes by throwing the whole Labour-union link into the melting pot. He has now asked former Labour general secretary Lord Ray Collins to organise a “consultation” (‘the Collins review’) on the relations between affiliated organisations (principally the trade unions) and the party, which is to culminate in a special party conference in April 2014 to amend party rules.

Do not be fooled by Miliband’s declared aim – to “mend, not end” the link. His proposals, in his notorious July 9 speech,[1] smearing Unite’s legitimate involvement in Falkirk CLP as “closed”, “hated”, “damaging” and “part of the death-throes of the old politics”, will certainly weaken the link, preparing the way for its abolition, if we allow it. Perhaps he is consciously setting the scene for the introduction of state funding for political parties, along with the further extension of legal interference in the internal affairs of the workers’ movement. Socialists should aim to get the law out of the workers’ movement altogether. We should as a matter of principle decide our own affairs.

Miliband’s main proposal, to replace the legally imposed individual right to “opt out” of your trade union’s affiliated political fund by the right to “opt in”, will certainly lead to a loss of affiliated members, cutting the party’s finances at a stroke. More importantly, however, under the slogan of increasing individual choice, he is further undermining collective decision-making by trade unions, weakening their political strength. The principle of solidarity – united we stand, divided we fall – is the key to working class strength against capitalist class power just as much in political struggle as in the workplace. Opting out of the Labour-affiliated political fund after a union has decided to affiliate amounts to political scabbing, just like strike-breaking after a collective decision to strike.

Separating political affiliation from union membership divides union members into two camps: politically affiliated and not. This is already the case in Unison, where (as a result of the 1993 merger of non-affiliated Nalgo with affiliated Cohse and Nupe) only about one-third of the membership subscribe to the Labour Link political fund, with two thirds opting for the general (ie, non-party) political fund (and a tiny minority opt out of both funds). The result is collective depoliticisation, the exclusion of party-political matters from trade union branch meetings. A well-attended local branch meeting can deal with general trade union matters, but cannot take party-political decisions about Labour Link matters – such as who to delegate to the constituency management committee of the local CLP, and what motions to propose there; or who to delegate to the union’s regional and national Labour Link structures. Branch-level Labour Link meetings in Unison are usually tiny or non-existent, as is Unison’s affiliated membership input into the Labour Party locally, leaving control of the union’s political input into the party firmly in the hands of the bureaucracy at regional and national level.

This debilitating division of Labour (pun intended) is a cornerstone of the ideology of Labourism which the workers’ movement must ditch: leave politics to the party, and workplace matters to the trade unions – a reactionary principle of non-interference, which cripples both wings. On the contrary, we need freedom of expression, freedom to discuss all issues in our unions and in our party, without interference by the courts of the capitalist state or the bureaucrats of our own movement.

A look at our history is in order, to remind us that democracy is alien to the capitalist class, for all their hypocritical talk. It interferes with the rights of property, just as working class collective organisation does. From the campaign for the 1825 Reform Bill and the Chartists in the 1830s and 40s, the main driving force for the extension of the right to vote was the workers’ movement, while our wealthy rulers regarded ‘democracy’ as a dirty word. Likewise, from the earliest days of working class self-organisation, they have always tried to use their law to hold us back. The common law of conspiracy was first used against industrial action in 1721. After 150 years of struggle, legal immunity from criminal conspiracy was eventually achieved in the Employers and Workmen Act 1875 – so the employers turned to civil conspiracy legislation, with the potential to bankrupt trade unions daring to take illegal industrial action.[2]

When, in 1901, the Taff Vale Railway Company won huge damages in a court action against the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, this triggered a flood of trade union affiliations to the Labour Representation Committee, formed by the Trades Union Congress the previous year. The LRC already had two MPs, and by 1906, with 30 MPs, it changed its name to the Labour Party, and achieved further statutory immunities from prosecution for striking.

From 1900 to 1913, affiliated trade unions funded the LRC and then the Labour Party without legal interference. But in 1909 the House of Lords intervened with the notorious Osborne judgment, ruling that “political action was outside the definition of trade unions, and that they were no longer allowed to make any financial contributions to political parties”.[3] This judges’ ruling was reversed by parliament in 1913, but only with conditions – not ending legal interference in our unions and party, but institutionalising it, as part of the ongoing process of incorporating the workers’ movement into the capitalist state. Trade unions were permitted to set up political funds, on condition that they first ballot their membership, and that individual members were entitled to “contract out” of contributing to the political fund – the thin end of the wedge aimed at undermining collective political decision-making.

When the workers’ movement is weak, our enemies take the opportunity to further undermine our solidarity. So, in the aftermath of the defeat of our class in the 1926 General Strike, Stanley Baldwin’s Tory government enacted the 1927 Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act, enforcing the compulsory disaffiliation of the civil service trade unions, and substituting “contracting in” for “contracting out”.[4] Contracting out was restored by Clement Attlee’s 1945 Labour government. Despite its celebrated landslide parliamentary majority, Labour did not take the opportunity to repeal the right to opt out, and remove legal interference in trade unions altogether. We have been stuck with it ever since.

__________

Notes

[1]. www.labour.org.uk/one-nation-politics-speech,2013-07-09.

[2]. See Alastair J Reid, ‘Trade unions: a foundation of political pluralism?’: www.historyandpolicy.org/papers/policy-paper-05.html; and GDH Cole A history of the Labour Party from 1914 London 1948, pp192-95.

[4]. See GDH Cole A history of the Labour Party from 1914 pp192-95.