TUSC press launch in the 2015 general election. Photo: Paul Mattsson
TUSC press launch in the 2015 general election. Photo: Paul Mattsson

Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition pre-conference interview

The annual conference of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) takes place on Saturday 4 February. TUSC was set-up in 2010, co-founded by the then general secretary of the RMT, the late Bob Crow, along with the Socialist Party and others. Its aim was to enable trade unionists, community campaigners and socialists, of any party or none, to stand candidates against the pro-austerity establishment parties under a common umbrella. The Socialist interviewed the TUSC national election agent and Socialist Party executive member Clive Heemskerk on some of the key issues up for discussion at this year’s conference.

The conference title, ‘Starmer’s heading for Number Ten, so what should we do at the general election?’ has been answered by some people saying, ‘don’t stand, because you will let the Tories in’. What’s your response to that?

What is clear about the next general election is that, whatever the exact outcome between the parties is, the next government will be led by politicians – whether it is Rishi Sunak or whoever is the Tory leader then or, more likely, Sir Keir Starmer – who defend the free market, capitalist big business system. While there may be some variation in how they do it, whoever is in Number Ten will put the interests of that system first at the expense of the working class. No one, I think, can seriously doubt that now.

But that wasn’t so in 2017 and 2019 when Jeremy Corbyn led the Labour Party, with his denunciation of ‘the rigged system’. That was so even though the election manifestos didn’t include the measures of democratic nationalisation of the financial system and the major monopolies – the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy – that would have been necessary to enable Corbyn’s promises to be successfully implemented against the capitalists’ sabotage. But a Corbyn victory would have undoubtedly opened up the chance to break with the status quo.

So TUSC didn’t stand candidates in 2017 or 2019 and instead campaigned for a Corbyn-led government; while calling for the deselection of the right-wing majority within the Parliamentary Labour Party, Starmer included, who we warned would do everything possible to undermine a Corbyn administration.

But the situation is completely different now and the whole working class movement needs to prepare for the battles that will come under a Starmer government carrying out the capitalists’ demands. And if it is possible to get even a small bloc of workers’ MPs elected unbound by the Labour whips, who could then become a pole of parliamentary opposition to Starmer’s inevitable Tory-lite austerity policies, then that’s what should be done.

And actually that would be achievable if steps were taken now by the left-led trade unions to establish a new workers’ party; or if even a couple of the fighting trade unions organised their own list of independent working-class candidates for the next election. With the cost-of-living battle they are conducting against the bosses and the government, their authority is such that a parliamentary breakthrough would be entirely possible.

But wouldn’t trade unions standing candidates risk letting the Tories back in?

Many workers will be genuinely fearful of another Tory victory but we shouldn’t accept that as a justification for failing to stand trade union candidates.

For a start – and it’s an obvious but often forgotten point to make – under Britain’s electoral system a general election is not one all-UK-wide contest but 650 different elections to elect an MP in each constituency. So, for example, in the Islington North constituency, Jeremy Corbyn, who Starmer is clear will not be able to stand as a Labour candidate but who won in 2019 with 64.3% of the vote (with the Liberal Democrats second), could stand for a trade union-organised list. How would a vote for Corbyn in Islington North be ‘letting the Tories in’?

And how do those who repeat the ‘vote Labour or be a Tory enabler’ mantra – the less genuine, less honestly concerned cyber-trolls especially – deal with the fact that in 91 constituencies, overwhelmingly Tory held, the Liberal Democrats were in second place at the last election? Wouldn’t a Labour vote in those seats ‘let in the Tories’? Should the unions back the Lib Dems there? Of course not – so clearly every constituency contest has its differences.

Since its formation, TUSC, in both local and parliamentary elections, has not stood against left-wing Labour candidates who have been prepared to resist the austerity consensus; and a new workers’ party or a workers’ list for the general election would almost certainly not contest those seats where a genuinely left-wing candidate has managed to be selected.

But the fundamental point is that the trade union movement, and the working class generally, should not be drawn into a stage-managed auction between different varieties of capitalist politicians seeking votes but should have its own candidates to support. A government majority of workers’ MPs is not on the agenda at this moment; but the possibility of getting a block of MPs to represent our class in parliament is, if the left-led unions take the necessary steps.

What if there isn’t a trade union election list organised in time? What is the TUSC steering committee proposing should be done then?

This has been considered by the steering committee since we began detailed discussions on the next general election, launched with a briefing document last June (available on the TUSC website at www.tusc.org.uk/txt/475.pdf). We agreed that a TUSC list could not be anywhere near as authoritative as a trade union-organised electoral challenge with the potential involvement of Jeremy Corbyn – or have the same prospects for success – but that there still needs to be a ‘Plan B’.

So we organised a series of public discussion meetings under the heading ‘Enough is Enough! But what do we do at the ballot box?’ to provide an open forum to debate how to achieve the biggest possible trade union, socialist, environmentalist and anti-austerity election challenge. This started in October 2022 and saw successful meetings organised in 23 towns and cities – although that still leaves lots of places where meetings could be organised in the coming weeks and months, including constituency follow-up meetings to an earlier city-wide or regional event.

We made an appeal to over twenty campaign groups and socialist organisations inviting them to join the discussion, from the former Labour councillors in Liverpool now sitting as Community Independents in the council chamber; to the Aspire group of councillors in Tower Hamlets, who won their seats in May 2022 standing against the local Labour Party’s austerity agenda; to campaign organisations like Enough is Enough, Don’t Pay UK, Just Stop Oil, The People’s Assembly, and Acorn. And socialist groups like the Breakthrough Party, the Socialist Labour Network (the ‘Labour-in-exile’ group), the Northern Independence Party, Left Unity, the People’s Alliance of the Left (PAL), International Socialist Alternative UK, the Socialist Labour Party, the Communist Party of Britain, and the Socialist Workers Party. The Workers Party of Britain, meanwhile, now has observer status on the TUSC steering committee.

We suggested a target of 100 seats, which qualifies an electoral list for ‘fair media coverage’ from the broadcasting authorities (15% of the 650 seats), including a party election broadcast, coverage of a manifesto launch, and so on. It does not, of course, mean genuinely fair coverage in the establishment media but meeting the 15% threshold gives far greater leverage in negotiations with individual programme editors, local radio and TV, and the print media too, marking out a serious electoral campaign.

Some of those groups like Breakthrough and Left Unity have committed to seeking a ‘non-aggression pact’ at the election, to avoid left-wing candidates standing against each other. Isn’t that a positive step?

TUSC actually already has such an arrangement for local elections with Breakthrough and Left Unity so really, unfortunately, a ‘clash avoidance’ agreement for the general election is not nearly ambitious enough. The ‘fair coverage’ issue is a clear example of that.

The broadcasting authorities only recognise candidates for the purposes of the ‘fair coverage’ threshold who appear on the ballot paper using the name of a political party registered with the Electoral Commission, or one of its registered ‘descriptions’. Standing as an Independent or under the name of different political parties registered with the Electoral Commission would not count, even if the parties or individual candidates declared their alignment with other candidates, whether in a ‘non-aggression pact’ or a mutual endorsement agreement.

None of the organisations have suggested that they are realistically planning to stand 100 candidates on their own (which would cost a minimum of £50,000 to pay the legally required £500 election deposit for each seat). Some are locally based – not covering enough seats to reach the threshold on their own – while others have had a very limited electoral presence. In the May 2022 local elections, for example, there were 271 candidates, members of different socialist organisations and none, who stood under the TUSC name, but just 37 other left-of-Labour candidates (not counting Aspire) standing for five different registered parties.

So not only Left Unity and Breakthrough but all the socialist organisations TUSC sent our appeal to have to seriously address the question. Would half-a-dozen or so separate lists of maybe tens of candidates without any guaranteed media access have more impact than one list of 100 or so candidates with ‘fair media coverage’ rights?

So what’s their solution?

Good question! TUSC has a clear model to maximise electoral unity between separate organisations which meant, in the 2015 general election for example, that there was a list of 135 candidates appearing on the ballot paper with one or other of the TUSC registered descriptions next to their name.

TUSC is constituted so that members of different groups or parties who use a TUSC description have the guaranteed right to run their own election campaign, including promoting their own organisation as they so wish in election material, social media campaigning etc. The only provision is that the individual candidate accepts a minimum core policy platform for the relevant election – which, for the next general election, we will be discussing at the conference.

Actually the 2015 general election, and the local elections held on the same day – in which, combined, the TUSC candidates polled 118,125 votes – was a good example of how inclusive this TUSC ‘federal model’ is. There were candidates from seven different parties using a TUSC description on the ballot paper, including nine Left Unity members as parliamentary candidates, all thereby contributing towards the ‘fair coverage’ threshold.

There was not a single complaint made at the time or since by any of the different parties involved, about the election broadcast or any perceived restrictions on the ability of their candidates to promote their own organisation, or its policies where they went beyond the TUSC minimum platform.

The TUSC model is one that works and if others don’t like it and are serious about organising the most impactful possible general election campaign, they really need to say what their alternative is. The TUSC door is always open.

In the meantime I hope that TUSC supporters will push on with their campaigning within the trade unions for a workers’ challenge at the election; continue the open ‘what do we do at the ballot box’ discussion meetings; and, where there are local elections this May, organise the biggest possible number of candidates to stand.

The conference closes with a session on the TUSC core policies for the May local elections, under the heading ‘a socialist response to the cost-of-living crisis’. But is there really anything councils can do?

Absolutely! Councils are responsible for over one fifth of all spending on public services, and with regulatory powers in other areas. The core policy platform for this year’s elections includes a list of emergency measures which councils could take – they have the powers to act now – that would make an immediate difference to millions of peoples’ lives.

These include extending the opening of public buildings, including libraries, to provide staffed warm spaces and youth facilities; funding kitchens in schools and other services to introduce free breakfasts, lunches and evening meals; using council licensing powers to cap rents, including for students, and stopping the eviction of those who fall into cost-of-living-related arrears; an emergency programme of home insulation to cut energy bills…

But wouldn’t a council just go bankrupt if it did things like that?

No, it’s not as simple as that. Councils in Britain cannot go bust in the same way as a private company can, like the Flybe airline for example, which just ceased providing its services. Only an act of parliament can shut down a local authority and the functions it exists to carry out.

That makes council finances implicitly underwritten by the government, which is why, to maintain some central control, local authorities are legally required to set a ‘balanced budget’ each year before they can issue council tax bills, set service charges etc. But the legal position still leaves significant discretion in the hands of councillors over their authority’s borrowing capacity (and council reserves) – in other words, what counts as a ‘balanced budget’. So much so, that the Tories are currently legislating for extra powers, in the so-called Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill, to come into effect this summer.

But even then councils will still have enormous power. Labour-led administrations alone, in 125 councils across Britain, control between them spending power of at least £82 billion and hold around £20 billion in usable reserves (which could be used to finance borrowing). They could open up a second front against the Tories in the cost-of-living fightback tomorrow – which would be unstoppable if, for example, Starmer and the shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves pledged that, on entering Number Ten, they would reimburse councils for any emergency steps they took now!

But again we come back to the same question, which the 1 February strikes made so clear. Where is our movement’s political voice, making such a case?

Everyone who has been standing on the picket line to fight the cost-of-living crisis should consider standing against the cost-of-living crisis at the ballot box too, starting in May’s local elections. Nobody else will do it for us!