Socialist Party documents

British Perspectives, March 2014 congress


[Next]

Mass workers' party

50. Despite Labour's role in power at local level, the majority of trade union leaders encourage their members to cling to the hope that a Labour government will come to their rescue - despite all evidence to the contrary! To describe the leadership of the Labour Party as 'social democratic', as Owen Jones has done, is ludicrous. Social Democrats formally believed in the idea of socialism - albeit as a long-term goal, and disagreeing with Marxists about how it could be achieved. Today's Labour leadership defends capitalism, with Ed Miliband declaring that it will go into the election as the party of 'competition'. Labour politicians appear hell-bent on out-Torying the Tories. Rachel Reeves's call for benefit claimants to have their benefit stopped if they can't pass exams in Maths, English and IT came hard on the heels of Tristram Hunt's support for academies and attacks on teachers' rights. Ed Balls met Osborne's announcements of 25 billion extra cuts, not with outrage but with an earnest reiteration of Labour's pledge to match coalition pledges on cuts in its first year in office. Balls has also made it very clear that the belated pledge to reintroduce the 50p tax rate is a temporary measure. It is Tory-lite policies, and not the deficiencies of Miliband's personality, which is responsible for the shrinking of Labour's poll lead. It is not a coincidence that Labour has gained in the polls when it has dared to portray itself, in a very limited way, as standing up to the fat cats.

51. When Labour announced the freezing of energy prices for up to 20 months, it received overwhelming public support. No wonder, when fuel bills have risen by 40% since 2007. The reason that there was such outrage from the capitalist media over this extremely modest pledge is that they feared it could awaken an appetite for more. Over 70% of people would support the renationalisation of the energy companies. If Labour was to call for their renationalisation it would be enormously popular. Nor would workers' demands stop there. What, for example, about nationalising the major food companies? The cost of food and non-alcoholic drink has increased by 35.6% in the last six years, while the giant supermarkets have made huge profits. Labour, of course, has ruled out renationalising the energy companies, Royal Mail or any of the other privatised utilities.

52. The capitalist character of the Labour Party is summed up in the Falkirk fiasco, which has left UNITE's strategy of pushing Labour to the left in tatters. Falkirk was the jewel in UNITE's 'reclaim Labour' crown. One sixth of the 600 UNITE members recruited to the Labour Party as part of its campaign were in the Falkirk constituency. Of these 80 were recruited by Stevie Deans! The result, however, was the disgraceful spectacle of Miliband calling in the police to investigate. This was followed by the Grangemouth defeat, a government 'inquiry' - i.e. a witch-hunt against UNITE - and the moves by the Labour leadership to break the remnants of a voice for the organised working class within the Labour Party.

53. The process of fundamentally undermining the collective voice of the unions within the Labour Party began with John Smith's introduction 20 years ago of one member one vote (OMOV). John Prescott accurately commented that this was even more important than the abolition of Clause IV. OMOV meant using a passive membership - sitting at home and seeing debates within the party via the capitalist media - against the more active layers who participated in the democratic structures of the party. At the same time the union block at conference was reduced from 90% to 49%. The organised working class had been able to put pressure on the Labour leadership via the block vote. It is true, of course, that right-wing union leaders often wielded it against their own members' interests. That is why we called - as part of our programme for democratic, fighting unions - for democratic trade union checks over the block vote. Nonetheless, the reduction of the block vote was an essential part of transforming Labour into a capitalist party.

54. Tony Blair then went further and stripped the Labour conference of its policy-making power so it became merely a consultative body. This means that, even before Miliband's proposals, "unions have less influence over selection than they have had in 100 years" - as Tom Watson MP rightly declared (Guardian, 16 August 2013) - even though they provide a majority of Labour's funding. The details of Labour's latest proposals are still being haggled over behind the scenes, but it is clear that Miliband's goal is the complete abolition of the block vote. The initial proposals put forward by Lord Collins had some similarities to those imposed on the unions, particularly regarding their relationship to the Labour Party, by Tory prime minister Stanley Baldwin in 1927. That was in order to weaken the working class after the defeat of the general strike. Collin's proposals also included the addition of primaries, initially for some constituencies only but as the model for the future. The Labour leadership has been desperately attempting to reach an agreement with the trade union leaders on a deal which would be 'acceptable' to both sides. The announcement that the special conference will last a mere two hours makes clear that Miliband is hoping to shove through his proposal without any discussion.

55. However, this is not easy to achieve given the opposing class forces bearing down on the negotiations. Miliband is anxious to mollify the demands of the capitalist class and Tory Party. The leaders of the affiliated unions, meanwhile, cannot easily submit to Miliband's demands, given the pressure from their membership not to do so. In UNITE, in particular, McCluskey has had to retreat from his initial acceptance of the Labour leadership's proposals, under pressure from his national executive. At the time of writing, the outcome of these negotiations is not clear. Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB, has reported that the talks have broken down.

56. Nonetheless, it is possible that a deal will be found where the formal link between the trade unions and Labour is broken, to be replaced by individual trade union members joining the party - the original aim. However, Miliband may be able to get the union leaders on board by agreeing to delay eliminating, or perhaps even lowering, the unions' voting rights within the Labour Party until beyond the general election. This would be justified on the grounds of giving time to recruit individual trade unionists to the Labour Party before finalising new voting arrangements. While this would protract the process, it would not fundamentally change it. The central issue is that the unions' supposed influence within the Labour Party would no longer be based on a collective voice but on individual trade unionists choosing to join the Labour Party. In addition, as Paul Kenny has correctly pointed out, the number of trade unionists who would actually choose to join would be tiny. Kenny's prediction that 10% of those that the GMB was previously paying affiliation fees for would join is probably optimistic. The net result would be the destruction of the last remnants of the trade unions' organised presence within the Labour Party.

57. It is also possible that Labour will move more quickly to reduce or end the unions' voting power, if it is confident it can get a sizeable majority at the conference. If this happens it will not prevent major donations from the unions to Labour in the run-up to the general election, justified on the grounds of getting rid of the Tories. However, Labour's dream that it can permanently get away with the kind of relationship the Democrats have with the unions in the US - endless financial support with no rights - will prove utopian. The situation is beginning to change in the US but, in Britain, where the whole history of the Labour Party is of a party based on the trade unions, this proposal will create outrage from trade unionists, particularly beyond the general election.

58. Regardless of the detail of how this plays out, it marks a major turning point on the road to independent working-class representation, although this may only become fully clear after the general election. Unfortunately, it is not the most likely scenario that a significant section of the trade unions will go to the special conference and clearly oppose the Labour leadership's plans. The pressure not to allow Labour to appear 'divided' will be used to try and keep the union leaders in line. Never mind that, far from worrying about unity, the Labour leadership has launched an all-out assault on the trade unions, including calling the police against UNITE! If a significant number of leaders clearly opposed the Labour leadership's proposals, the very act of fighting to defend the collective political voice of the working class would raise class consciousness and open the road to a continued struggle for working-class political representation. Even if, as is more likely, a deal is cobbled together, the genie has been let out of the bottle. The popularity among UNITE activists of our proposal for the union to call a conference to discuss launching a new party shows the mood that is developing. That this proposal was passed unanimously at UNITE's North West regional committee is extremely significant.

59. Len McCluskey himself has mooted the idea of founding a new party beyond the general election. This is a reflection of the mood that now exists in UNITE. We, however, do not accept the idea that this is an issue for after the general election. Nor that a failure to fight the Labour leadership's attack on the union link can be justified by talk of a new party at some indefinite point in the future. Action is needed now! While it is most likely that decisive steps towards a new mass workers' party will take place beyond the general election, we are preparing the ground. We have to continue to argue the case for the trade union movement to launch a new party. We can get a greater echo for this now than at any time since we first raised the issue over a decade and a half ago.

60. At the same time, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), in which we participate, is continuing to gather around it those forces that see the need for a working class alternative. The challenge TUSC is mounting in this May's local authority elections will be the biggest left challenge since the Communist Party in the aftermath of the second world war. While the electoral results are unlikely to be a qualitative breakthrough, it can mark a significant step forward in terms of the breadth of the challenge and can establish the idea of standing workers' candidates among a broader section of trade unionists. At the same time, within the currently affiliated unions, the breaking of the link will make it much harder for union leaders to insist that their funds only go to Labour, and not also to candidates who actually stand on a programme that is in the interests of their members. The events developing in the unions confirm the approach of TUSC, which is based on the unions, and has a democratic federal structure which also gives individual participants a democratic voice. This contrasts to those on the left, including the leadership of Left Unity, who mistakenly argue that a new party must be based on OMOV, the very measure used by the right wing to transform Labour into a capitalist party. At this stage, Left Unity has attracted very limited fresh forces, and seems unlikely to make a significant impact on the struggle for a new workers' party.


[Next]