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Building a new workers' party: Trade unionist initiative needed
John McInally, vice-president of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), photo Paul Mattsson
A number of left trade union leaders have recognised that the Labour Party in councils and in government is not going to stop trying to push through privatisation, cuts and other attacks on workers' pay and conditions. Some of them have drawn the conclusion that a new workers' party is necessary, but they have not yet taken early steps towards building such a party.
John McInally, vice-president of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), argues here - in a personal capacity - the need for the left trade union leaders to organise a conference later this year or early next year to discuss what steps could be taken. John is a member of the Socialist Party.
"The eleven years of Labour have been absolutely fantastic for the super-rich. Having a friendly Labour government has almost been better than a Tory one". If you wanted to sum up the record of the New Labour government then this statement from Philip Beresford, author of The Rich List, needs little elaboration.
In fact there is an arguable case that says New Labour is better for the super-rich than a Tory government. More privatisation has taken place under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown than under Margaret Thatcher and John Major combined.
Inequality is greater now than when New Labour came to power, the wealth of the super-rich has trebled, the multinationals and banks have made profits hand over fist and an unprecedented assault on public services has taken place.
Plus of course there has been the imperialist war in Iraq, which, amongst other things is the costliest and bloodiest privatisation in history.
The "moral compass" Brown claims he is guided by, looks catastrophically askew - there is not just the unforgivable privatisation of education, including the encouragement of creationists to 'educate' our children, but the promotion of the 'me first' unrestrained consumerism of a society falling deeper into crisis.
Corruption and sleaze
New Labour has been a sorry tale of corruption and sleaze. No lie is too big to tell; Brown's assertion that there would be no more 'boom or bust' is one of the worst examples, especially as he was aware that the boom for which he took credit, was based on unsustainable levels of cheap credit and ruthless exploitation of cheap immigrant labour. On the latter point, Brown fuelled racism with his call for 'British jobs for British workers', a slogan of the far-right British National Party.
In pursuing its "war on terror", also a major element in stoking up racism, New Labour has driven through some of the most oppressive legislation ever, that will be ruthlessly used against the labour and trade union movement at some future stage.
The Labour Party was never a socialist party but it was formed by the trade unions and workers saw it as the best vehicle for representing their interests; they saw it as 'theirs'.
Labour governments established the National Health Service and introduced other social advances, albeit in response to pressure as a result of struggle by workers on the industrial and political front. Socialists and Marxists played a crucial role in these struggles, something that has been airbrushed from history in the interests of the ruling class and labour and trade union 'leaders'.
New Labour will not be reclaimed by the working class. Even if the diminishing band of activists who think it can be rescued toiled for decades, they could never achieve their objective, not least because the democratic structures that may at one time have made such an endeavour possible have been completely shattered. There is no credible basis upon which to argue the Labour Party is reclaimable. To do so is a distraction from, and a barrier to, the task of developing an alternative form of political representation. Investing further precious time and energy in pursuing this unobtainable goal is a waste of time and a fetter to building a genuine alternative.
The biggest obstacles to the development of such a political alternative are the leaders of the New Labour-affiliated unions and the Trades Union Congress (TUC), whose behaviour in the face of New Labour has been craven. They argue that we must concentrate on avoiding the re-election of a Tory government, ignoring the fact that New Labour is no longer capable of beating the Tories precisely because it has carried out unpopular 'Tory' policies.
Even during the long eighteen years of the Thatcher/Major regimes, the trade union leaders closest to the Labour 'modernisers' like Neil Kinnock argued we must not take strike action because it would damage the chances of the return of a Labour government.
Disgracefully, they stood to one side during the great miners' strike of 1984/5, collecting money and making fine speeches, but eschewing the type of solidarity industrial action that would have finished off Thatcher. They also tried to disrupt and sabotage the tremendous non-payment battle against the poll tax, arguing that we must 'obey the law' as otherwise no future Labour government could govern with credibility and authority.
The majority of national trade union leaders have accepted the logic of the market and can conceive of no alternative to pro-big business governments. Unfortunately, this is even true of some who were seen as part of the 'awkward squad'
Yet New Labour has given the union leaders virtually nothing in return for their support, for instance Brown has firmly declared there will be no relaxation of the anti-trade union laws. As private sector donors desert Labour and with the party virtually bankrupt financially as well as in every other respect, the unions are expected to foot the bill - currently 92% of funding comes from affiliated unions.
Instead of using this leverage to insist on even the most minimal concessions to help working people, the union leaders incredibly are content to allow the pro-market agenda to continue, hoping desperately that a few scraps might be flung in their direction.
The tremendous industrial potential of the trade union movement has been held in check and concessions left unclaimed by those leaders who argue there is no alternative to Labour.
Action gets results
The recent tanker drivers' strike demonstrated that while the industrial working class has shrunk, its impact and effectiveness can still be enormous. However, in recent times the main arena for struggle has been in the public sector, with left, campaigning leaderships like those in the PCS (Public and Commercial Services union) and RMT (Rail Maritime and Transport union) taking the lead. It is there that workers are learning the fundamental truth that if you do nothing the bosses and government will walk all over you and that campaigning works and action gets results.
The PCS's record under the leadership of general secretary Mark Serwotka, president Janice Godrich, and the Left Unity leadership, with the Socialist Party playing a key role, has demonstrated political and industrial campaigning work based on and underpinned by a willingness to take action when required.
Where action is deliverable, effective and sustainable, it can build workers' confidence and wrest concessions. There is an alternative to bending the knee.
The consistent campaigning record of unions like PCS and RMT throws into sharp relief the failure of the Labour affiliated union leaders who are incapable of even securing the easing of the anti-trade union laws. Even on the question of agency workers and on issues of basic equality, equal pay for example, New Labour has pulled up the drawbridge and told the Labour-affiliated unions: 'you have no alternative, it is us or the Tories'.
There is now a real need to move to begin to build a viable and sustainable alternative to Labour capable of starting the process of offering working people the type of political representation they need and deserve.
As a first step, a conference must be held of all those who support and are committed to building such an alternative. In doing so we cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the last decade where a series of initiatives have failed; the Scottish Socialist Party, the Socialist Labour Party, the Socialist Alliance and Respect being the most obvious examples.
Any new configuration promising political representation to workers cannot simply be announced as an accomplished fact that demands the immediate allegiance of workers, but instead must be patiently built and tested. To be successful, some very basic, minimal, but critical conditions are needed.
Firstly the trade unions have an important role to play. This does not necessarily mean, at this stage, the complete endorsement or affiliation of any trade union.
What is required is the support and endorsement of genuine left socialist leaders and activists in the trade union movement and their engagement in building such a formation. We should also see this process as being predicated on a commitment to stand trade union based candidates in elections.
Secondly, the task of building such an organisation needs to begin with an alliance agreed around a minimum but extensive programme capable of attracting millions of workers to its banner. In the Socialist Party's opinion this should include a socialist clause. However, this, along with the other demands, would be decided by democratic discussion among the forces involved.
There is no contradiction in the expressions 'minimum' and 'extensive'. Minimum, in the sense that some issues almost pick themselves and around which agreement can be secured. But extensive in the sense that such a programme, if fought for and achieved, would mean tremendous steps forward for working people. The programme must address what needs to be done to defend workers' interests but also define and articulate their hopes and aspirations.
Such demands would surely include: opposition to cuts, privatisation, war, fascism, racism, nuclear weapons and destruction of the environment; for a living wage for all, a properly funded welfare state with well-paid and trained staff delivering vital services in communities where they live and work; repeal of the anti-trade union laws; and international workers' solidarity.
Thirdly, if the left is serious about building a genuine and sustainable alternative then we must say upfront and without mincing our words that the lessons of history must be learnt; in creating any such alliance there can be no place whatsoever for the destructive rule or ruin tactics that have characterised the dead ends of recent years.
An undemocratic, top-down approach will not work. The young people who are becoming active in struggle in the 21st century, correctly have a horror of bureaucracy.
Their experience of the betrayals of New Labour and the right-wing trade union leaders, combined with the effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union - which capitalism worldwide falsely equated with genuine socialism - mean that democracy is particularly vital to the new generation.
It is crucial that a new formation be open and welcoming to all those who want to work together against the neo-liberal onslaught on the working class. It must be based on a federal structure where groups and individuals have the right to democratically organise and argue for their position. Differences cannot be airbrushed away but neither can they be the most prominent feature that defines a new configuration.
Where one organisation is initially numerically dominant, we need to find ways to make sure that the views of other significant currents and trends are heard and that consensus is sought on key issues.
Trade union involvement would be vital in providing a real sense of 'discipline in action' of the type that should apply in the best examples of industrial action - concentration on priorities, and debate without the type of sectarian demoralisation that sometimes targets even the best left union leaders rather than employers and the political establishment.
This is especially important in setting out clear and disciplined campaigning work.
Who then should be involved in such an initiative? Given acceptance of the points outlined above then there is surely no reason why any organisation should exclude itself. It would be na´ve to suggest that all would be plain sailing. But active trade union involvement would greatly increase the chance of developing an effective organisation that is intent on sharply focusing on the programme that workers see as relevant to their day-to-day lives.
What about those left Labour MPs who have tried to keep the socialist flag flying amidst the corruption of New Labour? They also should be involved in building alternative political representation for workers.
Some of these MPs argue that it is best they remain in the Labour Party for the foreseeable future because they at least provide some limited representation for workers and trade unions in parliament and to lose that platform would be a setback. However, by remaining inside Labour they give a degree of credibility and 'left cover' to a party that is antagonistic to the interests of the working class and is, to put it bluntly, an enemy.
Secondly, it is simply wrong to assume, as some do, that if such MPs stood under the banner of a trade union based organisation in the future then they would automatically lose their seats.
On the contrary some of these MPs - who have built up considerable capital with activists and workers by opposing the New Labour project - could very well, standing on a programme such as that outlined above, not only win their seats but be highly effective tribunes for building the alternative to the rotten political establishment New Labour is now a torch-bearer for.
Building an alternative to New Labour is not, and cannot be, a risk free business. But the greater risk by far, is failing to recognise that the main historical and political task currently in front of socialists is to build a political alternative. Hesitation now in firmly espousing that cause can only be a fetter, or at least an impediment, to building an alternative, no matter how unintentionally.
The debate will continue on these and other matters. But it is clearly now time to organise a conference that, while focusing on the industrial issues facing workers and the unions, is also capable of addressing the key task of beginning the process of developing effective political representation. A key aim should be standing candidates as outlined above.
To avoid this issue would be an abdication of responsibility and would disappoint and disorient the more politically conscious workers in the trade unions and working class. To pose the question of what is required, how to develop the struggle politically as well as industrially, but then dodge the only real answer - building a mass political alternative to represent the interests of our class in the way the parties of the political establishment represent the bosses and the millionaires - is no longer an option.
There should be no extended delay in organising such a conference, but it is important to get it right.
That indicates informal discussion between interested groups, but especially left leaders in unions like PCS, RMT and undoubtedly others, to set out the basis of the conference and hopefully have an aim of holding it at the end of this year or early next year.
Socialists should be clear that such an initiative will incur the wrath of New Labour and the leaders of the affiliated unions (especially when they see their own best activists expressing support for such a development) and even in unions like PCS there will be opposition.
But without political representation we cannot effectively defend the interests of union members, let alone those of workers generally, never mind achieve what we deserve and need. The case for building alternative political representation for working people is unanswerable and the task set out by history can no longer be avoided.
In The Socialist 2 September 2008:
Socialist Party editorial
Socialist Party workplace news
Socialist Party feature
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party campaigns
Socialist Party review
Socialist Party NHS campaign