Should The Unions Campaign To “Reclaim The Labour Party”?

SOME OF the recently elected left trade union leaders have raised the idea of launching a campaign to “reclaim the Labour Party”. One of those leaders is Tony Woodley, general secretary elect of the TGWU.
Below we print an open letter which Socialist Party members in the TGWU have written to him about this issue.

“Dear Tony,

“YOUR RECENT election, and the election of other left-wing general secretaries, has raised the hopes of many in the labour movement that a meaningful fight against this government’s Tory policies can be launched.

“As you said in your speech to the Transport and General Workers’ Union’s Biennial Delegate Conference, your election was a mandate for change in the way the union does its business.

We would have little quarrel with the points you make with regard to campaigning against the bosses. TGWU members have been at the sharp end of redundancies in manufacturing industry.

The ruthless lust for profits of the new owners of privatised utilities has also meant job losses and our members have been affected, particularly in the transport industry where TGWU membership remains strong.

Our members in local government face cuts and privatisation from councils every day, including Labour-led ones. Meanwhile, the pensions of workers are being robbed, as clearly as if Dick Turpin had been responsible.

This onslaught on the working class has received an inadequate response from leaders of trade unions up to now.

‘Awkward squad’

BUT THINGS are changing. Your election, and that of others in the so-called ‘awkward squad’, is a reflection of the anger of union members that exists against the bosses .

Many would support your belief in a union that “expresses, rather than damps down, the aspirations of working people and always meets the members before it meets the managers when a problem arises”, “a union that gets right behind [our members] 110% and fights to win”.

Many would agree with your sentiments that sometimes trade unions can be seen as “too close to the gaffer”. These opinions and more lay the basis for the TGWU becoming once more a “fightback union”.

You rejected the false division between industrial and political work; as you said, the TGWU has “been involved in politics and will continue to do so”.

We would welcome that. But where is that political involvement to take place? You have committed the union to “reclaim the Labour Party”.

The days of New Labour are “numbered”, you said. Many would like to believe that the destruction of New Labour could be possible from within the Labour Party.

Sadly, we have to disagree.

Reclaiming Labour?

WE BELIEVE that there is very little chance of changing the Labour Party today. New Labour is a different beast even to previous right-wing Labour governments.

Many of us participated in the Labour Party in the 1970s and 1980s when left-wing policies were adopted and big reforms were won in party democracy. However, all of those reforms have gone and more.

Even you admit that policy is now “handed down from the top with no room to challenge or question it”.

While you say that another look has to be taken at party democracy, a huge campaign would have to be launched inside the Labour Party to force changes.

Even when union policy is carried at conference, as for example, the resolution on PFI last year, it is simply ignored.

How are you going to reverse this? How are you going to force the party to actively oppose Foundation Hospitals, which the union has said it will fight, alongside other unions including GMB and UNISON?

A serious campaign to reclaim the Labour Party, to end PFI and privatisation, to repeal the trade union laws, to stop the imperialist foreign policy and get rid of the Blairites, would require a determined struggle involving the mobilisation of large numbers of workers into the party.

You propose that five major unions should affiliate to every Constituency Labour Party, send delegates and that within two years they could take over the party because they are so small at the moment.

If this were possible, what does it say about activity inside the Labour Party now? The problem with this is finding enough branches and enough trade unionists and who are Labour Party members to fill the positions.

Many Labour Party members have left in disgust at the pro-capitalist policies of Blair, New Labour ministers and their acolytes in councils up and down the country.

Rather than staying in the Labour Party, many members are tearing up their cards; instead of joining, many union members, such as firefighters who came under the cosh in their recent dispute, are filling up the forms to end paying the political levy because it goes to New Labour.

Fewer workers are voting for New Labour. Only a quarter of the electorate actually voted Labour in the 2001 general election.

Just 59% bothered to vote at all. Huge sections of the working class have been politically disenfranchised because no party, including New Labour, represents what they want.

Political vacuum

IN THAT vacuum, unless the labour movement organises a radical, socialist alternative, there will be support for parties which seem to oppose the system.

In particular, the racist BNP has gained because the major parties have failed to address the needs of ordinary people. This is something which the union has pledged to counter.

But it can’t do this so effectively while it is tied to New Labour.

In your reply to the debate on the link to the Labour Party at the BDC, you used the example of Annie Besant’s paper The Link. We think there are similarities today with the period of the late 19th century when Annie Besant and her newspaper helped the matchgirls’strike – the prelude to a huge wave of militant strike action by previously unorganised workers.

Then, the general unions, alongside socialist groups, fought to establish independent political representation for the labour movement, in opposition to the old labour aristocracy’s policy of ‘Lib-Labbery’, which tied the working class to the Liberals, a capitalist party.

Measures like this are needed today. The Labour Party has a similar character, consorting with big business and its pro-capitalist policies.

You would say that it is necessary to get the trade unions to reclaim the party from ‘New Labour’.

We say it is time for the trade union movement to take the bold step of breaking with New Labour, not to go into ‘non-political’ trade unionism, but to use its political strength to form a new workers’ party that could gain the ear of the disenchanted, the poor and all the victims of the capitalist system by putting forward socialist policies.

That would give a real alternative to New Labour.

Please consider our proposal seriously. There have already been too many false starts from socialist formations.

But a serious lead from one or more trade unions would be of a different dimension entirely. We need the trade unions to take bold action now.

There is not a moment to lose.”