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TUSC conference: A step forward for working class political representation
Paula Mitchell, London regional secretary, Socialist Party
The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition conference on 22 September was a forum for real debate about political representation for working class people.
In opening the conference, former Socialist Party councillor Dave Nellist pointed out that the two general secretaries who moved and seconded the general strike resolution at the TUC - Steve Gillan of the POA prison officers union and Bob Crow of the RMT transport union - plus the first contribution in the debate from PCS vice-president John McInally - are all members of the TUSC steering committee. That shows how serious a development TUSC is.
RMT President Alex Gordon addresses TUSC conference 2012, photo by Suzanne Beishon (Click to enlarge)
The first session of the conference was a debate about building working class political representation against austerity and the parties promoting it.
RMT president Alex Gordon said that the RMT, in supporting No2EU in the 2009 European elections, was the first national union to back candidates against the main parties.
Both the resolution passed at its 2012 annual conference (AGM) and its motion presented to the TUSC conference, underline the determination the RMT has to build TUSC.
The RMT had sent four delegates from its executive to the conference, along with the London regional secretary.
"TUSC provides a nucleus, perhaps a step on the path to a mass working class party that represents the interests of the masses not the bosses," said Alex.
However, he was clear that the litmus test for the success or failure of TUSC is getting the involvement of trade union forces.
John McInally, PCS vice president, explained the process towards a political fund in the PCS and now the decision to support or stand candidates in national elections in exceptional circumstances.
The PCS is the first union that has not been affiliated to Labour to vote to stand candidates. John stressed the necessity of the debate they had had at all levels of the union, against the argument of the "Moderates" that the civil service union should be politically neutral.
He acknowledged that this decision is not enough to solve political representation but is a significant step.
He made his view clear that it is a bankrupt proposition to say the Labour Party can be transformed.
TUSC steering committee member Charlie Kimber explained the position of the Socialist Workers Party. He said that while the key method of fighting austerity will be resistance in workplaces and on the street, there is also the need for political representation and a socialist party.
The volatility shown by the dramatic increase in support for Syriza in Greece showed what is possible.
He argued that it is necessary to root an electoral alternative as broadly as possible, and to secure good results in order to look more credible. Trade union support is key, he said.
Rob Griffiths, leader of the Communist Party of Britain, was next in the debate. The CPB is not part of TUSC, although it has been invited to join, but the TUSC committee believes it is important to engage in discussion with other forces on the left that are also standing candidates.
Rob said that the CPB believes that what is needed is a mass party of labour based on the organised working class movement, capable of winning a general election and implementing, at least, reforms in favour of working class people. It would need not just unions like RMT and PCS but big unions like Unite and GMB.
In the view of the CPB, "the most direct and straightforward route" to do that is reclaiming Labour. He argued it won't be possible to convince Unite activists that the project is futile until they have gone through the experience.
He quoted Unite general secretary Len McCluskey saying that if there were no significant advances by the next general election, we will then have to reconsider.
Will McMahon spoke for the Independent Socialist Network. He said that it is necessary to enfranchise the thousands of trade unionists in unions still affiliated to Labour, and provide a way for people involved in single issue campaigns to get involved.
He argued for the establishment of TUSC groups all over the country. He also argued for standing candidates widely - "putting a flag in the ground" - and to not be put off by small votes.
Hannah Sell spoke as the Socialist Party's representative on the national TUSC committee. She underlined TUSC's achievements so far and said TUSC should aim to stand the (up to) 400 candidates necessary for a TV broadcast in the next local elections in 2013. That would raise TUSC's profile and improve its credibility.
She pointed out the powerful mass movements that can develop and that TUSC should not expect to just keep progressing incrementally.
The most important task is how we build support for TUSC amongst the working class, especially amongst the organised working class in the trade unions.
Hannah argued that it is not just about getting the backing of the trade unions for socialist/left candidates, but forging a political voice of trade unionists.
The RMT had gone through a period of steps and now other unions needed to do the same. TUSC supporters in PCS now need to wage a campaign.
Hannah disagreed with the CPB that there can't be significant steps until the big trade unions like Unite are on board - there will be a battle inside Unite for some time. And you can't say there will be no breakthroughs before the Labour Party is in power.
From the floor there was general agreement that TUSC should appeal to people who vote Labour, and that we should support the tiny number of Labour councillors who have stood out against the cuts, and those who fight for Labour to adopt policies in favour of the working class.
But Socialist Party members pointed out that this should not mean soft-pedalling when it comes to Labour councillors who vote for cuts.
The second session of the conference dealt with preparation for the council elections in 2013, with introductory speeches from TUSC/Walsall Democratic Labour Party councillor Pete Smith, Mark Kranz from the SWP speaking on behalf of councillor Michael Lavallette, and TUSC's Liverpool mayoral candidate and Socialist Party member Tony Mulhearn.
Tony was able to draw on the experience of Liverpool council in the 1980s, which was led by Militant supporters (the forerunner of the Socialist Party), to show how a mass movement of trade unions and the community can be built to back a fighting stand taken by elected councillors.
The discussion from the floor included the importance of equalities, and of campaigning early.
Socialist Party members stressed the importance of giving TUSC candidates a platform at every opportunity and not giving credibility to Labour MPs and councillors, such as had happened in the recent campaign against the far-right EDL march in Waltham Forest.
The final session gave an airing to the on-going discussion on organisational structures. The TUSC committee has set up a Structures Commission to take submissions from any groups or individuals on how TUSC can be best structured to achieve its tasks at this stage in its development.
Clive Heemskerk, national nominating officer of TUSC, explained the importance of retaining TUSC's federal, consensus-based structure as the one best suited for TUSC's current stage and tasks.
This was endorsed by both the SWP speaker Mark Thomas, and Pete McClaren, speaking for the Independent Socialist Network.
Pete also stressed his view of the necessity of building up branches and of considering individual membership at a later stage.
This session also discussed democracy. A representative from Socialist Resistance, which has applied to have a place on the national TUSC steering committee, suggested that TUSC is not democratic because the conference was not voting on these issues.
However, as Sean Hoyle, a delegate from the RMT executive, explained, the issue of structures is very serious if we are to be able to draw in more trade union forces.
A careful process is in place, which would not be helped by premature decisions before there has been serious consideration given to the proposals and their ramifications.
Clive explained the case for representative democracy: all the participating organisations in TUSC are democratic bodies which send representatives to decision-making meetings.
The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) was set up in 2010 to enable trade unionists, community campaigners and socialists to stand candidates against the pro-austerity establishment parties.
TUSC came out of a series of discussions by participants in the No2EU-Yes to Democracy coalition, which contested the 2009 European elections with the official support of the RMT transport workers' union, the Socialist Party, and others.
TUSC is a coalition with a steering committee which includes, in a personal capacity, the RMT general secretary Bob Crow, the general secretary of the POA prison officers union, Steve Gillan, and national officers and executive members of the PCS civil servants union, the Fire Brigades Union, and the National Union of Teachers. The Socialist Party and the SWP are also represented on the committee.
TUSC is a federal 'umbrella' coalition, with agreed core policies endorsed by all its candidates but with participating organisations accountable for their own campaigns.
Its core policies include a clear socialist commitment to "bringing into democratic public ownership the major companies and banks that dominate the economy, so that production and services can be planned to meet the needs of all and to protect the environment".