Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/463/1733
Respect Organising Fighting Unions Conference
Lack of debate exposes limitations
THE RESPECT-initiated Organising Fighting Unions Conference held in London on 11 November attracted about 600-700 trade unionists and socialists.
Following on from initiatives organised by the RMT union and the Campaign for a New Workers' Party (CNWP) earlier in the year, the conference could have been a helpful further step in rebuilding the labour movement and laying the basis for an independent political alternative for working-class people.
However, despite a cosmetic effort to make the conference look inclusive it was the exact opposite. In reality, it was little more than a Respect rally, with about 90% of those attending being either Socialist Workers' Party (SWP) members or sympathisers.
The conference's campaigning priorities, which centre mainly on lobbying MPs and trade union leaders, will not enhance the process of rebuilding the rank-and-file in the trade unions. And the conference represented a lost opportunity in the process of building a campaign to establish a new mass workers' party.
The character of the conference was shown when former Labour councillor Valerie Wise spoke. In a contribution genuinely addressing where she should work, now she has left the Labour Party, she asked the rhetorical question 'should she join Respect?' to which over 90% of the audience shouted "yes" and whooped and cheered.
Yet, Respect remains a relatively small force. It claims less than 3,000 members and is dominated by the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP). Clearly Respect's existence has not solved the 'crisis in working-class representation'.
This will only begin to be solved when a party is created that brings together broad sections of the most combative layers of the working class - trade unionists, but also unorganised workers, community and anti-war activists, and radicalised young people.
It is also crucial that a new party appeals to all sections of the working class. Respect has concentrated in the main on one section of society, the Muslim community, which it is important to win, but itself is divided along class lines. And an appeal to Muslims should not be at the expense of reaching out to other sections of the working class.
Anyone who attended expecting a genuine debate and conference on the way forward for the movement would have come away disappointed by the lack of debate and the very limited nature of the event.
Socialist Party members were deliberately not called into the debate from the floor - including Socialist Party trade unionists who are on national executives or who have led successful struggles. Nor did it seem that any other Left groups were called in as speakers were carefully vetted by a speakers' slip system, which allowed a disproportionate number of SWP members to speak.
Two exceptions to this were when Socialist Party councillor Dave Nellist was the guest speaker from the CNWP and where Hannah Sell spoke in a debate on disaffiliation from the Labour Party, initiated by a Socialist Party amendment, the amendment was defeated.
But, Dave Nellist was deliberately not brought in to speak during the session on building working-class representation where he would have had a significant impact, nor was left-wing Labour MP John McDonnell.
Consequently, the session was not a debate on the crucial issue of building a genuine mass working-class alternative but solely a vehicle to promote Respect as the political alternative.
Any other debate was consciously avoided by the SWP organisers. And, the SWP did not reveal their true position on either their attitude to the Labour Party and Lefts in the unions, or their position that the trade unions would mainly be rebuilt by political activists from the anti-war movement going into the trade unions and transforming them.
Furthermore, whilst there were numerous informative and even rousing speeches there was little specifically geared to the idea of how to build the Left in the unions.
Indeed, the SWP organisers' wish not to offend Lefts in the trade unions and the Labour Party was shown in the Workers' Charter being put to the conference, which was as limited in its demands as the TUC programme.
It was only two-thirds of the way through the day that the first mention of socialism was made by John McDonnell. Until that point the conference had been deliberately kept to the level of the lowest common denominator by the SWP speakers.
Three amendments to the charter from the Socialist Party were accepted. These called for defiance of the anti-union laws and support for those workers who were forced to take action in defiance of them. Another demanded that the TUC name the day for a national demonstration in defence of the NHS for early next year and, if the TUC fail to do so, to support any initiatives for a national demonstration from grassroots health activists.
Whilst there were some good agitational speeches at the conference there was a complete dislocation between the mood some keynote speakers were trying to inject and the reality that many trade unionists still currently face.
Dave Nellist, speaking on behalf of CNWP, injected a more practical reality into the conference about the way forward on political representation for the working class, whilst also arguing for a socialist alternative. He argued for a non-sectarian way forward on the issue.
He pointed out the important beginnings the CNWP had made in winning the case for unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party and to popularise basic socialist ideas and public ownership. Dave concluded by saying that the Socialist Party and CNWP had a sense of proportion and understood that the alternative was not yet fully formed but would support all genuine steps to ensure the election of socialist and workers' and community campaigners' candidates.
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka asked the question: "Labour is shocking but who can replace it?" He said he applauded a non-sectarian approach where all strands of opinion are allowed to speak, which was a way forward and mentioned the CNWP in this context. He also said all those there who had not already joined Respect should consider joining it.
But the Socialist Party has said - both to Mark Serwotka and a wider audience - that we do not believe Respect offers a genuine, democratic way forward in bringing together broad sections of the most combative layers of the working class, as its appeal is too narrow and its method of organisation undemocratic.
Hannah Sell moved the Socialist Party amendment arguing for the trade unions to disaffiliate from New Labour, as a step towards building a new mass party that represents their members' interests. She pointed out that every single contribution throughout the day - even from Labour Party members - had shown the wholly negative experiences of the Labour government.
She added that workers who move into struggle - like the firefighters, whose union had disaffiliated from Labour - immediately questioned why they should continue funding a party that attacks them.
She argued that no one at the conference really believed Labour MPs could get a trade union freedom bill - one of the aims of the Workers' Charter - enacted under this Labour government.
Opposing the amendment, an SWP healthworker, said she was not here to defend the Labour Party but didn't want to be seen to "impose" a position on any fellow trade unionists. And, she argued, in order not to alienate or disenfranchise good people in the Labour Party or some who support Labour we should instead argue for democratisation of trade union funds.
However, democratisation of union funds where it has been tried has led to disaffiliation by another route. When the RMT tried to affiliate to the Scottish Socialist Party while remaining affiliated to the Labour Party, the union was expelled by Labour.
In The Socialist 16 November 2006:
Socialist Party NHS campaign
What we think
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party workplace news