Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/708/14094
Editorial of the Socialist
Trade unions must build mass party
In January Labour leader Ed Miliband announced that a Labour government could not guarantee to reverse any cuts and would maintain the public sector pay freeze.
In response, Unite the Union leader Len McCluskey asked: "Where does this leave the half a million people who joined the TUC's march for an alternative last year, and the half of the country at least who are against the cuts? Disenfranchised."
He is right: in the face of these cuts the working class has no mass political voice. But the hope that Len McCluskey expresses that Labour can be transformed into a fighting force, a voice of the working class, is a forlorn one.
The Labour leadership never loses an opportunity to stress that there is no alternative to cuts. For example, Maria Eagle, shadow transport secretary, has announced that Labour would carry out £6 billion in transport cuts.
Even Ken Livingstone, Labour's candidate for mayor, still trying to maintain his position as a radical with a welcome pledge to cut fares and bring back EMA student payments, has come out in support of Miliband's statement on cuts and the pay freeze. Revealingly, while 68% of Londoners support Livingstone's low fares pledge, only 44% believe he will actually carry it out.
Up and down the country Labour councils have forced through cuts budgets, stripping away hundreds of jobs, closing libraries, shutting down young people's, elderly and women's services, and cutting pay.
A serious campaign to reclaim Labour would require the mobilisation of thousands of trade union members, with a clear programme of demands to put on the Labour leadership. These should include, for example, scrapping the anti-trade union laws and restoring the EMA for all students and all the council cuts. It would require rebuilding the shut-down democratic structures so a leadership on a fighting programme could be elected. But such a campaign is not being conducted.
The Socialist Party believes that the might of the union movement should be mobilised to forge a political voice, not to try to change Labour, but to fight for a new mass party of the working class.
The Socialist Party has, since the start of 2010, worked alongside leading figures in the transport union RMT and others in the formation of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC).
Unfortunately one of the barriers to the development of an alternative, often held up by some defenders of Labour and others, is the 'failed attempts' of the Socialist Labour Party and Socialist Alliance in the 1990s and Respect in the 2000s. The character of each of these organisations and the reasons for their demise vary.
The main point, however, is that they did not develop as mass organisations that were based on serious forces of the working class.
Whenever the possibility of a trade union and socialist challenge is raised in union meetings it is met with enthusiasm - as one teacher said in a recent meeting: "it's about time trade unionists stood in elections".
This is the significance of TUSC's impressive list in London for the Greater London Assembly elections in May 2012. The importance of this list lies in the serious support from the London regions of the RMT and Fire Brigades Union, and also the support within the structures of the POA prison officers' union. This is not an electoral challenge which these union regions are passively supporting - this is their election campaign.
The lead candidate on the list is RMT president Alex Gordon and he and the leading members of other unions - standing at this stage in a personal capacity - such as in the teachers' union NUT, civil servants' PCS and public sector Unison, themselves represent thousands of people. Hundreds of trade unionists from across several trade unions, including in those affiliated to Labour such as Unison and Unite, have signed the petition supporting a trade union-based anti-cuts electoral challenge.
As the trade union support shows TUSC is not a list of individuals, or simply of left activists, although the Socialist Party has been a key player since TUSC's inception, and the list does include members of both the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party.
The Socialist Party hopes that the TUSC challenge in this election could be a step towards a new mass workers' party. It could increase the pressure on the leadership of the affiliated unions to break the link with Labour. It can also have an effect in non-affiliated unions to encourage them to not only support a political alternative but to stand candidates themselves.
What we hope for is not just a 'left unity project' but something much more significant: the active mobilisation of the organised working class on the political plane. The trade unions are mass organisations, with over 6.5 million members. They have the power to bring society to a standstill. A glimpse of this power was seen in the great events of 2011 - the 26 March TUC demo, the 30 June teachers', lecturers' and civil service strike, and the 30 November public sector strike.
There is a view that the wave of direct action protests currently taking place against workfare, the Occupy movement, and the development of groups such as UK Uncut, all show that there are 'new' methods of campaigning.
Understandably, given the role of some right-wing union leaders in holding back a fight against the cuts in councils, and attempting to call off the pensions battle, there can be a tendency for some to think that such actions are more effective than mass trade union action.
The Socialist Party supports many of the acts of civil disobedience, or 'direct action'. Bold actions by small groups of people can have a big effect in highlighting issues, garnering widespread support, applying pressure, building confidence. Youth Fight for Jobs has organised brilliant, imaginative anti-workfare protests such as the 'Westfield Workhouse' walkabout.
But it would be wrong to conclude that civil disobedience or 'direct action' is needed instead of mass working class trade union action. Union leaders should not franchise out the fight against the cuts to small groups.
An illustration of the power of workers once organised is the magnificent victory won by electricians, defeating massive construction companies who wanted to inflict a devastating 35% pay cut, through a gritty six-month campaign of weekly protests at construction sites.
The campaign involved the 'direct action' of blocking gates, invading sites and company offices, impromptu demonstrations and occupying roads. These actions pushed the Unite leadership to take the dispute seriously. But it was the serious threat of national strike action that caused first Balfour Beatty and then the rest of the companies, to collapse like a house of cards.
This is the potential role of the working class, organised in trade unions, in fighting the cuts. This power needs a political expression that can give a voice to working class people, articulate a programme that meets their needs, and fight for its implementation.
The TUSC election campaign provides an opportunity to engage a new layer of workers and trade unionists around the country, hopefully inspired by the list in London, either as candidates or as campaigners in the election, as a step down this road.
If you want to stand as a TUSC candidate in local elections in your area this May, check out the TUSC website at http://www.tusc.org.uk/candidates.php
TUSC against cuts
The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition list for the Greater London Assembly elections in May 2012 has been agreed:
Alex Gordon, president of rail union RMT; Nick Wrack, TUSC national committee; April Ashley, Unison executive, representing black women members; Steve Hedley, RMT London organiser; Ian Leahair, Fire Brigades Union national committee member; Gary McFarlane, anti-racist activist; Martin Powell-Davies, executive member for Inner London of the teachers' union NUT; Joe Simpson, assistant general secretary of the Prison Officers Association; Jenny Sutton, lecturers' union UCU; Nancy Taaffe, library worker made redundant, former chair Waltham Forest Unison; Jackie Turner, GP; Lee Vernon, Young Members convenor for London and southeast of the civil service union PCS; Lesley Woodburn, Unite rep on southeast regional TUC LGBTQ committee. (There is a place reserved for a leading CWU representative). Candidates are in a personal capacity
In The Socialist 7 March 2012:
Fighting the government's attacks
International Women's Day
Socialist Party youth and students
Socialist Party reports and campaigns
Socialist Party workplace news
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party news and analysis