Discussion in Unite ‘United Left’ on stance in general election
Socialist Party members in Unite have received an open letter from leading members of Unite who are in United Left (UL), in which Socialist Party members are also organised. [see below for the letter]
In the run-up to the General Election, the letter is appealing to socialists not to stand widely in the election but “to do all we can to elect a Labour Government”. In reality, this is an appeal to support a government that would be, at best, austerity-lite and a continuation of the crisis that faces working-class people. This prospect has led to a fracturing of politics.
Firstly, it is not just the Socialist Party that is standing in May’s polls, which also include elections in local authorities. We are part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) that also comprises the RMT in an official capacity, representing its 80,000 members, and other leading trade unionists from PCS, Unite, NUT and the POA as well as other socialist organisations and individuals. Its federal structure means that whoever stands for TUSC has to be agreed by democratic discussion by the different constituent parts of what is a coalition. It is these collective interests that determine the decision to stand or not.
Actually, not every prospective candidate is automatically agreed. The TUSC steering committee has a flexible approach and considers all factors, not least the political record of the Labour candidate. If the comrades want to argue that TUSC shouldn’t contest particular Labour target seats, they could enter a dialogue with the steering committee stating which Labour candidates they mean. For example, the Communist Party is contesting Sheffield Central with a Labour majority of 165, presumably because the Labour candidate is not a clear opponent of austerity. But the letter’s authors can’t have it both ways. If TUSC is ‘”derisory” in terms of votes, many will ask why is this letter necessary?
To determine in which constituencies TUSC should stand, its supporters have gone through a process of writing to Labour PPCs with a set of demands that many Unite members would consider the minimum for support, such as opposing austerity and reversing Tory cuts, renationalisation of Royal Mail and the railways and repeal of the anti-union laws. The last demand, enshrined in John McDonnell’s Trade Union Freedom Bill, was unsuccessful precisely because Labour MPs wouldn’t vote for it.
The comrades are right to put this debate in context. All unions and political parties are operating in the austerity offensive, which puts all programmes to the test, as we see on a daily basis in Greece. The acceptance by Labour of the brutal ConDem cuts and the role of Labour councils in passing them on to working-class communities and council workers has led to a debate within the unions and Unite in particular about political representation and whether we can continue to support Labour. Len McCluskey himself has raised that it may be necessary to build an alternative political vehicle depending on the outcome of the election.
The signatories are posing this debate as the Socialist Party on one side and everyone else united in support of Labour on the other. They know full well that this is not the case. There has been a massive debate in Unite and UL about our attitude to Labour. Of course, over and above the attitude of the leadership to austerity or Labour councils, there is also the issue of Falkirk, where Miliband sent in the police against our union for the crime of doing what the comrades want us to do: recruiting people to Labour to transform it into a party that fights for the union’s policies.
This led directly to two respected Unite convenors being sacked at Grangemouth by the vicious Ineos management. It was also the trigger for Miliband to use the Collins Review to complete Blair’s mission to eradicate the right of the unions to act collectively within Labour in order to end any chance of the organised working class influencing Labour policy. Incidentally, in the UL meeting to discuss Collins at the end of 2013, there was a virtually unanimous vote to oppose Collins, yet Unite voted for it, despite the EC having a clear UL majority.
The tragedy is that the Labour-affiliated unions haven’t challenged Labour on the cuts. The fact that the election result is in the balance is a condemnation of Labour. Without an electoral challenge from the left that fights the cuts and privatisation, the space will continue to open up for dangerous interlopers such as UKIP. It is the big unions that should put themselves at the head of such an alternative but, unfortunately, in the absence of this it is left to TUSC to prepare the ground.
The election victory of Syriza has been met with hope by socialists and trade unionists internationally because it was the first breakthrough by an avowedly anti-austerity force in this period. Our union was rightly quick to welcome it but where did Syriza come from? It didn’t just appear ready formed but was a decade in the making. Less than three years before coming into government office, the equivalent of Labour was in power, while Syriza’s vote was 3.3% in 2004 and 4.6% in 2010. Those fortunes have now been reversed.
A party that fights for this programme is needed now in Britain but you will look in vain for it in Labour. We believe that Unite should disaffiliate from Labour and help create a new party for our class, or at least amend its rules so that it can support Unite members like those in Warrington, Lambeth and Southampton who as Labour councillors wouldn’t vote for cuts and were disciplined. It is not insignificant that they and ‘rebel’ councillors like them are now part of TUSC. Their stand was an attempt to defend Unite members in those councils but in order for those members to support them, we would need to change the union’s rules!
This debate is about nothing less than the future for working-class people in this country and included in that are our union’s members. Until now, this has been conducted in an open and friendly manner in United Left and we hope that this will continue.
Rob Williams, Socialist Party
Open letter to Socialist Party supporters in Unite
This Coalition government has been responsible for attacks on our class that go far beyond anything Thatcher would have dreamed of. Their austerity policies have been targeted on the poor and vulnerable in our society. They have lined the pockets of their Hedge Fund backers and speculators in the City with billions of public money. They have been responsible for attacks on the organised labour movement and have been open in their support for even more draconian legislation if re-elected. New proposed laws which would make effective trade union action virtually illegal – The Tories are not campaigning in this election as the Hug-A-Hoodie, party that can be trusted with the NHS, they are back as The Nasty Party fighting on a class war programme.
While Unite policy is to support Labour, in fact to do all we can to elect a Labour Government, your organisation has decided to stand candidates in the forthcoming general election. Of course that is your right; we are a trade union not a political party, we do not have any disciplinary means to force you to support union policy and rightly so.
Within the UL there is then a clear political difference; on the one hand the majority, working for a Labour victory who are also intent on developing the left within the Party and your goal, of standing candidates in the election as part of becoming the political alternative to Labour. In our view a big claim for some 1,000 -2,000 people, whose track record in elections is derisory.
While we know we can’t dissuade you from standing candidates we consider you have crossed a line by standing candidates in marginals. We would ask you to withdraw your candidates from the 100 Labour must win marginals. In our view standing in these seats is a breach in a working class front against the Tories.
You are not a rival to Labour. While Labour are standing to win every seat and form a Government, you know very well you will not win one seat let alone form a government. Rather your goal is to recruit to, and make propaganda for your organisation.
By standing in marginals you are not just ‘building the party’ you are also taking votes from Labour – those who vote for you, and those you influence not to vote Labour. While the numbers you convince will be small, in such a tight election where every vote counts you must realise it may mean Labour losing seats, in effect allowing seats to be won by the Tories or their partners in crime the Lib Dems.
The logic of your position goes further; it is to argue, where there is no SP candidate, workers should abstain. If of course we have misunderstood your position then why are you fielding candidates in marginals Labour can win?
The only rationale for this cavalier attitude is because you believe there is no difference between Labour and the other capitalist parties. This is blind sectarianism, yet Labour is supported by nearly every union, and unions are the mass organisations of workers, do the unions not count for anything?
We urge you then as fellow UL members to reconsider standing in marginals and so not breaking the front against the Tories.
Tony Woodhouse UL, Chair Unite Executive Council
Mark Lyons UL, Vice Chair Unite Executive Council
Martin Mayer Chair Unite UL
Terry Abbott UL, Chair North-West Regional Committee
Dick Banks UL, Chair North-East Regional Committee
Liam Gallagher UL, Chair Unite Ireland
Mike Jenkins UL, Chair Unite Wales
Jim Kelly UL, Chair London & Eastern Regional Committee
Gordon Lean UL, Chair South-East Regional Committee
Kev Terry UL, Chair South-West Regional Committee
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 26 February 2015 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.