“We are meeting in momentous times”, is how former Labour MP and chair of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), Dave Nellist introduced its conference in London on 4 February. Trade unionists and socialists discussed the tasks for TUSC in preparing for a general election.

Overall just under 200 registered for the event, with 120 attending in-person including national executive members of several trade unions such as RMT, Unison and Napo, members of groups and parties such as the Socialist Party, Turkish-Kurdish community group Day-Mer, Breakthrough and System Change, as well as individual socialists. All were given the opportunity to contribute to the discussion.

The conference heard speakers from across the TUSC coalition. This included Hannah Sell, Socialist Party General Secretary, as well as Carlos Barros, a member of the  RMT union national executive (personal capacity), and Hugo Pierre, a member of Unison national executive committee (personal capacity), and representatives from the TUSC individual members’ section – Tom Allen and Kirsty Smith.

Dave explained how, on the numerous picket lines he has visited, he has found widespread anger and “an absolute hatred of the Tories as a government.”

“A couple of days ago, Rishi Sunak reached 100 days. One of the papers did a league table of who has been the most unpopular prime minister at the 100-day mark, and by far he was the most unpopular prime minister of the last 30 years…

“But that hatred leads on to a question which has been debated on the picket lines and within the working class more widely.

“When there is a general election – with the splits in the Tory party who’s to say how many weeks or months away that could be – what should socialists do given that Keir Starmer is more and more selling the Labour Party as an alternative Tory party, not an alternative to the Tory party?”

A feature of discussion was about which party is likely to win the next general election. Labour are 20 points ahead in the polls,

Hannah explained: “The desperation to get rid of the Tories is palpable”. For many, “that is going to mean voting Labour in the next general election, as the only viable means that they can see to get rid of the Tories…”

“And while we will be out cheering with everybody else when the Tories are finally forced out of office, it could not be clearer that Starmer will not act in the interests of our class.

“There were around 50,000 strikers outside Parliament on 1 February. Inside Parliament, it was Prime Minister’s Questions. Starmer did not ask one question about the strikes.

“He didn’t even mention them, while all those thousands of workers were protesting outside!

“How could he? Because he agrees that below-inflation austerity pay cuts, in reality, are all that can be and should be on offer for the workers who are on strike.”

TUSC did not stand in the last two general elections. That is because in those contests, working-class people had the option to vote for a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn, and with an anti-austerity manifesto. A number of those attending the conference had been enthusiastic Corbyn supporters; some have since been expelled from Labour Party membership. The question was raised about whether or not there is any prospect of Labour being reclaimed as a party for the working class.

Hannah explained how the Labour Policy Forum is going to meet again this year, for the first time since 2015, to “rubber stamp the ditching of every remnant of Corbyn’s anti-austerity programme”. Including, as Starmer has already signified, jettisoning the pledge to abolish tuition fees. But ultimately, the Labour manifesto will be decided by the Clause V meeting, made up of those hand-picked by Starmer.

“The endless refusal to support the strikes; his speeches about fiscal responsibility; ‘not fat cheque books’; going not just around the City of London but to Davos to suck up to international big business.”

“It is absolutely clear that a Starmer New Labour government will act, not in the interests of the working class, but in the interests of the capitalist elites.”

Carlos expressed the discontent of thousands of trade unionists: “Frankly, I’m tired of asking Starmer.

“Everybody’s asking Starmer, from our general secretary, all the other general secretaries, everyone in the working class is asking him to support us, to stand on pickets, to not attack MPs that stand on pickets with us, and it’s just a resounding silence.”

He went on to say: “There is plenty of money in this country, and we all know it… We need a workers’ party. We need people understanding that what the workers want does not coincide with what business wants.”

Carlos later added: “We’ll be missing a trick if we don’t all strike together on Budget Day – 15 March.”

Hannah explained that the around half a million people who have signed up to Enough is Enough, launched by RMT General Secrerary Mick Lynch among others, is an indication of the appetite for a “political alternative that stands for nationalisation, abolition of the anti-union laws, and so on.”

“If, between now and the election, significant forces in the trade union movement take a decision, that they will stand candidates – or back other candidates standing, call on Jeremy Corbyn to acknowledge he is never going to be a Labour candidate and declare that he’s standing himself and the other Labour lefts that get forced out as well, if that was done – we could easily get a bloc of MPs elected.”

Hugo outlined how even a small group of MPs in Parliament, prepared to back strikers and present an alternative, would make more of a difference to working-class people than Labour simply replacing the Tories. He said it would be a “lightning rod for the aspirations of ordinary working-class people in this country to begin to develop a programme that deals with all of the issues that workers face”.

Introducing the discussion on the core policies for the general election, TUSC national election agent Clive Heemskerk said: “The task of fighting for the trade unions, the basic organisations of the working class, to have their own political vehicle is the fundamental task that we have to address.

“And that’s why the TUSC steering committee is in favour of a campaign for a new mass workers’ party. But we also say that, in relation to the next period, if that isn’t established, if even a couple of the most militant fighting trade unions – the RMT, the CWU, perhaps Unite, and the Bakers Union, which disaffiliated from Labour in 2021 – were to organise a list of trade union candidates, that would have the possibility of an electoral breakthrough… and could rapidly develop as a leading parliamentary pole of opposition under a Starmer government implementing an austerity agenda…”

“But if that isn’t achieved, the view of the TUSC steering committee is that we have to have a plan B, and start working towards it now. That means the biggest possible list of trade unionist, anti-austerity, community campaigner, environmentalist, and socialist candidates (members of parties or individuals as well). This would have less chance of electoral breakthrough compared to a trade union-organised list. But at the very least it would force Labour candidates who face that challenge to look over their left shoulder…

“The steering committee believes that, in order to have the biggest possible impact, we should aim to reach the broadcasting authorities’ so-called fair media coverage threshold… that means 100 candidates standing under a common name or registered variance of that name, and of course that’s what TUSC is for.”

The contributions from the floor expressed a determination, in the absence of a trade union initiated workers’ list of parliamentary candidates, to put up an electoral stand and present an alternative to Tory and Labour austerity.

Dave Warren, Secretary of TUSC in Wales: “In Wales we don’t have to speculate about what a Labour government will be like, because we’ve already got a Labour government. And in fact we’ve had nothing but a Labour-led government since devolution started in 1999. Labour first minister Mark Drakeford has said his ambition is for a more equal Wales. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. After nearly a quarter of a century of Labour in government, Wales remains blighted by poverty, homelessness and a health service in crisis.”

Rachel Cox, a Socialist Party member in Oxford, is standing as a TUSC candidate in an upcoming by-election for Littlemore ward of Oxford City Council as “a unique opportunity to put forward a true proper alternative to not only Tories, but to the Labour Party. To put forward a programme that properly benefits the working class.”

The by-election takes place on 2 March.

Paul Kershaw, chair of the Unite housing workers branch LE1111, explained how, ahead of last year’s local elections, his branch had written to every Labour councillor in London, and some other major cities, asking them to support the official Unite policy that Labour councils should set “legal, needs-based no-cuts budgets”.

The branch offered: “We will put all our resources into campaigning for you in the forthcoming elections on this one condition, that you will fight on Unite’s policy of no cuts”. Very few replied, and the branch has “so far identified nobody at all who would support Unite’s policy.”

“If Unite is the biggest funder of Labour, and we haven’t so far found a single councillor that will campaign on our opposition to cuts, we need a debate in Unite about our relationship to the Labour Party and how we can support candidates that will defend workers and will support Unite policies.”

Bill Reed, secretary of Hounslow Unison local government branch in West London, speaking in a personal capacity, explained how the Labour council recently decided “just like that, to knock 12,000 people off the bottom of its council housing waiting list.”

He added: “Not a single council house has been built in Ealing during the time of the Labour council over the last eight years. That is a disgrace. It’s certainly something that TUSC candidates exposed in the May local elections last year and will continue to do in the build up to the general election.”

“When we come to a general election we’ll be ready. There are three right-wing Labour MPs in Ealing, and each and every one of them will be faced with a TUSC candidate. We’ll be putting forward the TUSC programme that we agree on today. And there will be an alternative for people who have been let down by Labour in Ealing!”

  • The conference discussed core policy platforms for both the general and local elections (see page 10-11). Both documents were approved resoundingly by the conference in a consultative vote, they can be read online at tusc.org.uk