Making The Break With Labour

THE INCREASING strains between the unions and Blair’s party are showing. Last week, rail union RMT conference decided to further cut its ties with New Labour – by slashing its level of affiliation and opening the way for the union to support other parties like the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) in Scotland.

This was combined with a robust attack on New Labour by incoming TGWU general secretary Tony Woodley, saying the days of New Labour were numbered.

KEN SMITH, who was at RMT conference, discusses what stage the relationship between the trade unions and the Labour Party is at.

THE REPERCUSSIONS of the RMT’s potentially historic decision were downplayed by New Labour spin doctors. But last week’s events show clearly how far the disenchantment and anger of ordinary workers towards New Labour have stretched the unions’ tolerance closer to breaking point.

Whilst Tony Woodley pleaded with union members to remain loyal to Labour and not walk away, he gave them precious little incentive to stay in the party and fight. He railed against the growing wealth gap, increasing privatisation and the continuation of repressive anti-union laws while New Labour increasingly represents the interests of big business.

Rank and file pressure

The question is now posed, even where union leaders are arguing to fight to reclaim the Labour Party, how long are ordinary union members going to be persuaded to stick around in what their leaders call a “bosses’ party”?

Judging by the comments of many delegates at this year’s union conferences, not very long at all. All union leaders have had to put on a Left face to get conference delegates to accept continued support for Labour.

A number of unions have been forced, through pressure from below, to cut their affiliation to Labour. Tony Woodley is supposed to be sympathetic to the idea that the TGWU cuts its funding.

New Tories

The idea that the unions can influence the Labour Party through their affiliation no longer holds water. Bob Crow, at the RMT conference, argued that those who said affiliation would bring influence should look at UNISON, which despite being Labour’s second biggest affiliate, has had little influence in stopping the introduction of foundation hospitals. And, he argued, the increased affiliation of the Communication Workers’ Union had not stopped the proposed scrapping of mail trains.

He added: “What’s the difference between John Major with a blue rosette privatising you and Tony Blair with a red rosette privatising you?”

He outlined how New Labour had outdone the Tories in privatisation and carrying through anti-working class measures. He advocated the RMT’s affiliation to the SSP, as a viable alternative to represent working people.


Nevertheless, his punch was pulled when it came to making a decisive break from New Labour. The resolution on the funding of political parties from the union’s executive, institutionalised its affiliation to New Labour for the next three years. The rule change inserts in the union’s national rule book for the first time, that the union shall affiliate to Labour.

Until now, although there have been rules which instruct local RMT branches to affiliate to local Labour parties, the union’s national affiliation has only been a matter of custom and practice. The new rule was inserted because the resolution at last year’s conference, which led to this year’s rule change, did not mention disaffiliation and instead asked the union to clarify its position in relation to the Labour Party and supporting other parties.

The new rule means that actual disaffiliation cannot formally take place for three years, although resolutions could come to next year’s conference instructing the union to start the process of disaffiliation, or further reducing the number of members the union affiliates to a derisory handful.

Exploring links

But, before then the issue may be decided in other ways. Bob Crow spoke from the platform at a SSP fringe meeting during the conference. He made an even more explicit commitment that he will visit all the RMT branches in Scotland and campaign for them to affiliate to the SSP by 1 January 2004.

At the same time, the union has agreed to financially support Ken Livingstone in the London mayoral elections next year and the independent socialist Welsh Assembly member John Marek in Wales. Also, the union is committed to exploring links with the Greens and Plaid Cymru, the nationalist party in Wales.

Left activists in the union think this will force Labour to expel the union. New Labour has so far seemed hesitant to do this – partly because no mechanism exists in the national party rules to carry out a union’s expulsion for supporting another party. But that may change.

Labour’s general secretary David Triessman, has said that the RMT has put itself outside of the party rules but so far has not explicitly said which rule the union has broken. Labour Party chairman Ian McCartney said: “The ball is very much in the RMT’s court.”

The mood of the majority of delegates who spoke at the conference was to go further than the leadership recommended and actually make a clear break through disaffiliation. And delegates reluctantly accepted institutionalising the Labour Party affiliation.

Decisive break needed

Whilst the RMT’s intention is to make a break from Labour, it has been done in a muddled way, which some of the RMT’s leaders may find difficulty in explaining to union members throughout Britain.

In Scotland, Bob Crow’s commitment to visit every RMT branch to explain why they should affiliate to the SSP, will help. It is not a foregone conclusion that all branches in Scotland will affiliate.

Also, the conference debate saw many delegates argue the urgent need to build the framework of a new party to represent working people in England and Wales. Bob Crow accepted at the conference that whilst there was not yet a viable alternative in England and Wales, “sooner or later you had to put your toe in the water.”

At present, RMT leaders are committed to exploring and possibly supporting other candidates – in both Scotland and England and Wales. The union is likely to support George Galloway if he is expelled from Labour and stands as an independent.

The way is also open, if RMT branches request it from the union’s executive, to support other credible candidates: Socialist Party councillor Dave Nellist in Coventry is one example.

New workers’ party

But the big question – hinted at in the conference debate but unfortunately left unanswered – was what can be done to begin the creation of a new mass workers’ party in England and Wales?

As one delegate at the conference, Glen Burrows, described it: “This is only delaying the inevitable of making a necessary break from the Labour Party. I have respect for those who are fighting on in the Labour Party but they are wasting their energy. We are at a watershed, the next year will be crucial to building a new organisation in England.”

And, as other delegates repeatedly remarked, now the RMT has started the ball rolling, the shockwaves will reverberate throughout other unions, with increasing pressure for disaffiliation from Labour.

Whilst, as the RMT conference showed, the mechanism will not always be clear cut, the trend is definitely now for the unions to make the break with Labour.

That trend could be accelerated if union leaders like Bob Crow of the RMT and Mark Serwotka of the PCS civil service union back up their statements about the need for a new party, with concrete steps towards the establishment of such a party.

Can The Labour Party Be Saved?

ON SATURDAY 5 July the Socialist Campaign Group held their 4th annual conference under the heading ‘Save Our Party’. This meeting of Labour Party and trade union members, including some of the so-called awkward squad of new left trade union leaders, denounced the pro-big business policies of Blair’s New Labour government and called for the reclaiming of the Labour Party.

Jim Horton

In the opening plenary session John McDonnell MP attempted to instil a sense of urgency, warning that the Labour Party needed to be saved in order to win the next general election and to save the government. He said the new left project was about winning the next election for Labour to avoid a return to the Tories and increased support for the BNP.

Highlighting a number of policy areas, such as pensions, student debt, ending privatisation and more public service investment, the aim was to restore confidence in the Labour Party and a Labour government. There was talk of a window of opportunity with the election of the awkward squad. CWU general secretary Billy Hayes spoke of a seminal period for the party.

Tony Woodley, TGWU general secretary elect, expressed the unanimous view that working class people are disillusioned with New Labour, but claimed walking away from the Labour Party would create a diversion for people to attack the left. Both Jeremy Dear (NUJ) and Joe Marino (Bakers’ union) asserted that millions of people supported the campaign to reclaim the Labour Party.

But this wishful thinking contrasted starkly with the more moderate, but still difficult, aim of trade unions sending fifty members into every constituency party to take them over by the next general election.

Given the weakness of the left in the Labour Party, with one speaker complaining that while the trade unions had moved to the left the constituency parties remained New Labour, it is not incorrect to look towards the unions.

But they face a number of difficulties: candidates for the next election have already been selected (not one Blairite was deselected); people complained about too few activists (Unison in London has affiliated to every constituency party but has failed to convince enough members to become delegates to Labour Party meetings) and, as one Amicus member put it: “we can’t make fundamental changes because we’re saddled with the party constitution.”

But the main difficulty they face is convincing workers facing New Labour neo-liberal attacks on their jobs, pay and conditions that New Labour can be or is worth changing.

Bob Crow, while giving support to the ‘Save our Party’ campaign, explained why his members couldn’t wait. He announced the RMT would continue to support the deselected RMT sponsored MP John Marek rather than the pro-privatisation New Labour candidate and in the London mayoral elections backing would go to Ken Livingstone not Labour’s Nicky Gavron, who opposed renationalisation.

Crow said he did not manufacture the vote at RMT conference to back non-Labour Party candidates, adding that many felt it did not go far enough.

Speaker after speaker gave ample evidence of how New Labour had failed working people. But it was also clear from this conference that the left trade union leaders see it as their duty to channel the growing anger at – and increasing pressure to disaffiliate from – New Labour into the nigh impossible task of saving the party.

But as one Unison member commented, even the idea of ‘Save Our Party’ will have no resonance with young people.

The conference backdrop had photos of Keir Hardie, Clement Attlee and John Smith. Joe Marino claimed that if Keir Hardie were alive today he would be a member of the awkward squad. But clearly Attlee and Smith are unlikely awkward squad members, representing the traditional Labour right. Working people do not need misplaced nostalgia.

If the new left trade union leaders were to organise a conference to launch a new mass workers’ party as an alternative to New Labour, it would gain tremendous support.

“Too late for Labour”

Welsh Assembly member John Marek is discussing setting up a new left-wing party or Alliance to challenge Labour in Wales.

A conference of interest groups and individuals will be held on 9 August.

Marek stood as an independent in his Wrexham seat after being deselected by New Labour, and won.

Marek says that it is “too late for Labour”. He considers the Campaign Group conference a “waste of time” and says that trade unions should “transfer their allegiance to other parties that are prepared to help them pursue their political aims”.