Mick Lynch addresses CWU strike rally, photo Paul Mattsson
Mick Lynch addresses CWU strike rally, photo Paul Mattsson

This year’s RMT general secretary’s annual address, delivered by Mick Lynch to the union’s conference (AGM) held in Bournemouth on 26-29 June, was an important marker of where even some of the most combative left trade union leaders are at politically, one year into a still-ongoing strike wave, and in a pre-general election period.

The strike action launched by the RMT transport union last summer touched the consciousness of millions of workers, in Britain and internationally. The government thought then “that the public would hate us and that we would be out of this fight quickly,” Mick said, but that didn’t happen and the strike wave spread.

Public opinion polling, although slanted in its methodology against the labour and trade union movement, has consistently shown sympathy to workers in action. This reflects the wide-scale anger at the cost-of-living crisis and an understanding that something has to be done, which the RMT’s stand crystallised into a broader sentiment.

“We have a high profile, not just in the labour movement but in society as well,” Mick rightly argued. “Not everyone likes us, but we are widely respected”.

“Some have said”, he went on, that “the RMT has revived the trade union movement, putting our values and our politics back into the mainstream in this country. We can all be proud of that”.

“It is our efforts that have ensured that policies of nationalisation are incredibly popular with the people of Britain,” he said, as an example. “Even though we have not sought a leadership role, by the actions of our members, we have led the labour movement… Where we lead, others follow”.

When the first RMT strike took place, Boris Johnson was still prime minister. Two prime ministers later, the Tories are stuck way behind in both opinion polls and real ballot boxes, winning a projected national vote share of just 26% in the May local elections.

Even though the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves offer no substantive alternative to this second age of austerity, the prospect now is for, at the very least, a minority Starmer government, but possibly a 1997-scale Tory meltdown.

What is incontestable is that no post-war Conservative government has achieved, over an equivalent period, the swing required by Rishi Sunak to win a general election, including Margaret Thatcher’s government after the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas war.

But what political conclusions has Mick drawn from all this? Above all, from the re-emergence of the working class and its unions as a leading force in society, a ‘subjective actor’ able to shape events?

A workers’ list

In this situation it would be entirely possible to get a bloc of workers’ MPs into parliament at the next general election, if steps were taken now by even a couple of the left-led trade unions to establish a new party, or, at least, organise an election coalition list.

Including Jeremy Corbyn, who will not be standing as a Labour candidate, even a small parliamentary group could rapidly develop as a pole of opposition to a Starmer-led government implementing its inevitable austerity agenda.

Workers’ interests would have direct representation in parliament, which they will not have through Starmer’s Tory-lite party. The clearest foretaste of that is the role of the Blairite Labour London mayor Sadiq Khan, who is presiding over job losses and pension cuts in Transport for London, impacting on 17,000 RMT members. But what does Mick Lynch think?

Mick did argue in his speech that the movement should put “every politician” – from wherever they are – “under extreme pressure. You can’t cosy up to them and hope they will do you a favour”.

“The trade unions must now, in this time, and under a new government, exert themselves as an independent working-class movement,” he said. But not, he advises, at the ballot box at the next general election.

Instead, he argued, the working class will have no other option than to line up behind Starmer’s Tony Blair-style New Labour party against the Tory party. “It will be Tory or Labour – that is the simple truth,” he said.

There is no escape that this is a retreat from the position the union held since 2004, when the late Bob Crow was the general secretary, and when the RMT was expelled from Blair’s original New Labour.

An opportunity for workers’ politics

Mick is right that a government majority of workers’ MPs is not on the agenda at this moment, after the defeat of Corbynism in the Labour Party, and the lack of preparations by the movement to date for an alternative.

But it was also true, for example, that a workers’ government was not an immediate prospect when the Labour Party – then the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) – was founded in 1900. At that time, workers were also faced with a choice of two capitalist parties – then it was the Conservatives and the Liberal Party – and the LRC, with just 15 candidates in that year’s election, was only a modest start to the process of creating a new party of the working class.

Surely, however, Mick would not argue that the RMT’s predecessor union, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS), was wrong to play the key role that it did in bringing the LRC into being?

In fact, the very emergence of the Labour Party – the “extreme pressure” of the working class in an organised form, even though it did not have a clear socialist programme – was a major factor in compelling the 1906 capitalist Liberal government to introduce the trade union legislation and the social reforms that it did.

Today, in a situation where, as Mick says, “we lead, others follow”, why couldn’t the RMT play a similar role in getting at least a bloc of MPs to represent our class in parliament? Especially if Mick himself gave a lead?

For a start, under Britain’s electoral system, a general election is not one all-UK-wide ‘Tory or Labour’ contest, but 650 different elections to elect an MP in each constituency. So, for example, in the Islington North constituency, Jeremy Corbyn, who won in 2019 with 64.3% of the vote (with the Liberal Democrats second), could stand for a trade union-organised list without any prospect whatsoever of ‘letting the Tories in’.

The RMT AGM delegates recognised this and passed a resolution, from Bob Crow’s old union branch – LU Engineering – giving full support to Corbyn if he does stand independently. But Islington North is not the only seat where a trade union-organised candidate could stand.

Time to act

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 where it is possible should have its own candidates to support.

It suits some, even on the left, to exaggerate the prospect of a Tory victory – including, it seems, unfortunately Mick Lynch too – in order to avoid the conclusions the workers’ movement needs to draw.

The most likely perspective is for a Starmer-led government. His revived Blairism will be operating without the cushion of the ‘great moderation’ of steady growth that characterised the world economy from the 1990s to the 2007-2008 financial crash, and will bring his government into bitter conflict with the working class. Workers will need their own mass vehicle to politically represent their interests in the events that lie ahead – and the steps to achieving that should begin now.

RMT backs Corbyn to stand

The resolution from London Underground engineering branch that was unanimously passed at the RMT AGM:

Support Jeremy Corbyn for MP

This RMT AGM notes:

  • The announcement by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer that Jeremy Corbyn will not be allowed to defend the Islington North seat, that he has held since 1983, at the next general election

This RMT AGM believes that:

  • This is an utterly undemocratic act, removing Jeremy’s right to take part in a selection contest
  • Jeremy Corbyn has been a consistent supporter of RMT members taking action, and RMT policies such as renationalisation of the railways and the repeal of the Tory anti-union Trade Union Act
  • As with Jeremy’s suspension from the Parliamentary Labour Party, this is a political statement by the Labour leadership, moving the party to the right politically, proving its credentials to big business and the capitalist establishment. It follows the refusal of Starmer to support striking workers, and the sacking of Sam Tarry from the shadow cabinet for speaking up for union action from the picket line
  • It is confirmation that, under Starmer’s leadership, Labour does not represent the interests of workers and working-class communities
  • Therefore, workers need political representation that supports their action against the cost-of-living squeeze, and stands for policies such as renationalisation, opposition to cuts, and for the repeal of the Tory anti-union laws

Therefore, this RMT AGM agrees to instruct the union NEC to:

  • Give full support to Jeremy Corbyn, and to campaign for his re-election as the Islington North MP if he decides to stand in the next general election, including as an independent candidate

Nationalisation is popular – but how to win it?

Mick Lynch was right to say that the “policies of nationalisation are incredibly popular” – but they won’t be on offer from either Rishi Sunak or Keir Starmer. In a recently leaked email, the chief executive of the FTSE100 Severn Trent water company, Liv Garfield, wrote that, “while it is clear Labour will not include nationalisation in its next manifesto, they are also not keen” on being seen to be “championing the status quo”, suggesting a rebrand of the private utility firms as ‘social-purpose companies’.

Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the last Labour manifesto, in contrast, did commit to bringing “our energy and water systems into democratic public ownership”, and the renationalisation of Royal Mail and British Telecom.

And the railways. In his speech, Mick Lynch pointed out that: “November this year is the 30th anniversary of the legislation that privatised our railways”. But he didn’t say that for 13 of those years New Labour was in government, presiding over the privatised system.

Starmer, it is true, last year distinguished between the 2019 commitments to renationalise water and energy, and nationalisation of the railways, saying in a Daily Mirror interview: “Rail is probably different from the others because so much is already in public ownership” (25 July 2022).

But this is certainly not a commitment to immediate renationalisation. The remaining private train operating companies would be taken back into public ownership only as their contracts expired, with five franchises not ending until 2025 or later.

A mixed system would remain, potentially for a full parliamentary term, unless a Starmer government was forced “under extreme pressure” to act.

“You can’t cosy up to them and hope they will do you a favour”, says Mick. But at the end of the day, what’s the difference between ‘cosying up’ to pro-capitalist politicians, and leaving them unchallenged at the ballot box?