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Posted on 21 August 2017 at 17:36 GMT

The role of the RMT in changing Labour

Jeremy Corbyn addressing a rally in Chingford, east London, 6.7.17, photo by Mary Finch

Jeremy Corbyn addressing a rally in Chingford, east London, 6.7.17, photo by Mary Finch   (Click to enlarge)

Reply to Rob Sewell

Peter Taaffe, Socialist Party general secretary

Rob Sewell, from the IMT group, recently attacked the Socialist Party of England and Wales because of the position that we have adopted on the question of union affiliations to Labour and specifically on the RMT transport workers' union. Truth to say this was "like being savaged by a dead sheep". However, we are replying to him to set the record straight for those members of the labour movement who are unfamiliar with our real views.

The ire of Sewell was prompted by the decision of the RMT, at its recent annual conference (AGM), not to affiliate to the Labour Party at present but instead to instigate a consultation with the membership on the issues. However, in reality Sewell has launched his broadside against the Socialist Party because of the success of the CWI (the Committee for a Workers' International, the international organisation to which the Socialist Party is affiliated) in carrying through a principled fusion between the forces gathered around Izquierda Revolucionaria (IR) and the CWI.

This decision was a severe blow to the IMT - to which IR had previously been affiliated. They broke with Sewell and Alan Woods on a number of issues, but particularly on the IMT's completely one-sided and mistaken approach towards long-term work within empty 'mass organisations' like the 'socialist' party of Spain, PSOE. Like many of their sister parties in Europe, these parties have degenerated and represented a blind alley for long-term continued work for Marxists.

The RMT decision was taken in the full knowledge that, while changes have taken place in the Labour Party through the Corbyn revolution, civil war still rages. Moreover, the outcome of this battle remains uncertain, unless decisive measures - both of a political and organisational character - are initiated and carried out by Corbyn and his supporters.

At present if the RMT - which, remember, was excluded from the Labour Party by the decision of the Blairite right - was to affiliate to Labour right away, it would hand over the bulk of its precious funds not primarily to Jeremy Corbyn, but to the right-wing Labour machine. This still largely remains intact and continues to exercise power on behalf of the right. Sewell conveniently passes over the fact that in the last general election this bureaucratic machine denied support and resources to left-wing pro-Corbyn candidates while lavishly supporting right-wing ones.

They have been allowed, through the McCarthyite Compliance Unit - which could be straight out of Orwell's 1984 - to carry through expulsions and exclusions of good, working class, socialist fighters. Many of these were expelled for the 'crime' of standing up for their class, for instance on the poll tax, opposing council cuts, etc.

Does this mean that the RMT intended to provide no financial help to Corbyn? On the contrary, a whole number of pro-Corbyn MPs received its endorsement and financial backing in the general election - and this was unchanged by the decision of the conference not to affiliate at this stage.

Sewell has absolutely nothing to say on this score. Just affiliate and hand over the funds "without conditions."

He criticises the decision of the RMT, which was made by their AGM - and the support of the Socialist Party for this - as "scandalous." Shakespeare said everything about Sewell's method: "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Sewell writes: "while their" - the Socialist Party's - "motion to conference offered 'support' to Corbyn and McDonnell in 'the struggle', it went on to place conditions on any affiliations of the RMT to Labour. These 'conditions' stipulated that the union could only affiliate if all expelled socialists are readmitted to the party, and that Labour must change its internal structures to give the trade unions more power. Only if these criteria were met in full should the union consider reaffiliation! But this is simply playing games, presenting an ultimatum while knowing full well that such demands will not be met under present conditions."

He goes on: "...the Socialist Party, whose supporters in the union, despite the facts, were finding it hard to swallow support for Labour after decades of denouncing the party as a capitalist party, no different from the Tories. The behaviour of the Socialist Party in this discussion on the reaffiliation is the logical conclusion of its past mistakes and should provide all honest SP members with food for thought."

Every word here is a mistake, and some are two! Is it not indeed "scandalous" that Rob Sewell thinks it is wrong to place "conditions" on affiliation to Labour? Did not the unions at the beginning of the 20th century place "demands" on the Labour Representation Committee to promise to repeal the Taff Vale judgement, as a precondition for affiliation? Is it not equally "scandalous" not to see that the RMT is entirely justified to be concerned that the finance of the unions be used to support Jeremy Corbyn - not the right - and to seek to ensure that it is used effectively in the cause of RMT members' interests on the industrial and political planes?

To just propose that the RMT, or earlier the Fire Brigades Union, should at this stage indiscriminately hand over its finance and resources to the Labour machine, to the Compliance Unit - which would effectively be the case - to further carry through expulsions and exclusions from Labour, is indeed reprehensible.

It was the revelations of how the Labour right-wing machine is using finance to carry through such undemocratic, bureaucratic measures that provoked opposition from unions like the civil servants' union, PCS, when the question of affiliation came up at its conference.

Sewell further argues that our demands "will not be met under present conditions." Is this not the argument that reformists consistently make against socialists? Your demands cannot be realised "under present conditions."

The realisability or not of the demands of the working class and the labour movement is entirely dependent upon struggle. Here you have an example of the fatalism of the IMT, of abstract propagandism, unrelated to the real situation of the working class because they do not have any real presence within it.

And they have nothing to say about the demands made even in the bourgeois press, like correspondents in the Guardian, that the Greens should be affiliated to Labour like the Co-op Party is. According to the report at the special conference, in the general election the RMT gave 7,000 to Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Greens. She has stood 'against Labour', with the Green Party also standing against Jeremy Corbyn in Islington North. The RMT gave 4,000 to support the Communist Party daily, the Morning Star.

Sewell mobilises Alex Gordon in his defence. Alex, past president of the RMT, played an important and progressive role in supporting the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) and is still part of the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN). However, he subsequently joined the Communist Party of Britain (CPB), and has made a number of political mistakes. Alex's position on TUSC, as stated by Sewell, is inconsistent to say the least. He opposes TUSC standing against the 'cutters', the attackers of RMT members' interests at local and national level. Yet as a member of the CPB he must take full responsibility for the decision of that party to put up candidates "against Labour and Jeremy Corbyn" in local elections. Why this double bookkeeping?

On the character of the Labour Party under Blair and Brown, these comrades repeat the warmed-over phrases of the past. They claim to be keen to employ "dialectics" - which is essentially the theory of change. But for these hidebound dogmatists it seems everything can change - except the character of the Labour Party!

There is no "fundamental difference," they claim, between the character of the Labour Party when Militant had a mass effect within it, and its character under Blair and Brown. Historically, the Labour Party was at bottom, in Lenin's phrase, "a bourgeois workers' party," controlled at the top by a pro-bourgeois wing, but at the base resting on the unions and the working class.

However, its character changed with the triumph of Blair's New Labour pro-capitalist counterrevolution: Clause 4 expunged, decimation of Labour's ranks, elbowing aside and enormous weakening of the presence of the trade unions, the Iraq War, mass privatisation, docile right-wing Labour councillors carrying through savage cuts - which is still going on. Is it really necessary to recount all of this today to emphasise just how far back Labour was taken by Blair, to become, in his own words, a "new party"?

Even if you were to argue that Labour still retained the small embers of social democracy - and therefore was still a bourgeois workers' party - then in practice it offered no room for socialists to participate in.

The IMT has intoned for decades about work in the Labour Party. But this is just a 'theoretical' issue for them - because they have not conducted any effective work within the Labour Party, precisely because of Labour's police-type regime under Blair. Where they had a few 'sleeping' members they've kept their mouths shut, gone back to sleep, and in effect accommodated to the right.

But it must be conceded that the IMT is nothing if not consistent - consistently wrong! They argued that in Greece, Pasok remained a mass socialist workers' party, when it was evident that it had degenerated beyond recognition, was carrying through vicious attacks on the working class, and was rotten to the core. Then, without any explanation, the IMT jumped ship to join Syriza when it began to grow.

They acted likewise in the case of Spain, arguing that PSOE was the mass workers' voice, despite the rampant corruption and rottenness of leaders like Felipe Gonzales and a series of other equally rotten leaders. They did the same in Italy, defending the Italian Communist Party, which has now completely disappeared, and initially writing off any chance of Rifondazione Comunista from developing. When it did develop as we predicted, however, they abandoned their position, without explanation once more, to join the new formation (see 'Militant's real history').

The Socialist Party has never had a fetish about party or organisational forms for the working class at different stages. We wrote in 2002: "Theoretically, Marxism has never discounted that, under the impact of great historic shocks - a serious economic crisis, mass social upheaval, etc - the ex-social democratic parties could move dramatically towards the left." There was no room for socialists to operate within the Labour Party effectively at this time. Even John McDonnell was moving towards drawing similar conclusions in the immediate aftermath of the 2015 general election.

Moreover, the IMT, having been wrong over the Scottish referendum - first advocating an anti-independence position and then quickly afterwards performing a somersault to welcome the "hard-fought struggle against the establishment" in Scotland - went on to advocate that the IMT break with Labour in Scotland, supporting the "mass alternative" of the now totally ineffectual Scottish Socialist Party.

The RMT has a proud history of fighting for political representation for the working class, photo Paul Mattsson

The RMT has a proud history of fighting for political representation for the working class, photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge)

The implication of Rob Sewell's article is that the changes in the Labour Party around Corbyn came, in the main, from within the Labour Party. This is false.

The candidature and subsequent election of Jeremy Corbyn was unexpected - not least to himself. It was not a manifestation primarily of a rank-and-file revolt within Labour, as Sewell and the IMT have argued. It was the introduction of 'associate membership', originally a right-wing measure - you could join Labour for the price of a pint of beer - which allowed all of those forces outside of Labour, above all the youth radicalised by austerity, to make their presence - and crucially their votes - felt.

We fully supported them. We orientated towards the Corbyn movement in a friendly and comradely fashion - including very successfully in the last election - while criticising the deficiencies of organisations around him, particularly of the leadership of Momentum.

They have squandered some of the great opportunities that were presented through the mass movement around Jeremy to effectively politically take on the right wing - to drive out the Blairites through mandatory reselection. We and others on the left wanted to help in this process. But instead the leaders of Momentum chose to exclude us - and others, but primarily the Socialist Party. It has to be said that, "shamefully and scandalously," they were helped in some cases by the IMT. They silently acquiesced to our exclusion from meetings or sat on their hands when our members were expelled from Momentum and sometimes from the Labour Party.

And yet they have had members expelled from the Labour Party! But you wouldn't know this from their paper or from Rob Sewell's article.

Moreover, while tolerating the Co-op as a constituent part of the Labour Party - they now refuse to support our affiliation to Labour. And Rob Sewell de facto supports this by his complete dismissal of the possibility of the reconfiguration of Labour on the basis of an open, democratic federation, which would allow all genuine socialist, left organisations to join Labour. This was an idea pioneered by Marxists, and was implemented for a period in the early 1920s.

Sewell asserts that "TUSC, at the behest of the Socialist Party, stood candidates against Labour in this year's May council elections 'to help Jeremy Corbyn'! How standing against Labour helped Corbyn, the Labour leader, is a complete mystery." Only an organisation that is completely separated from the real struggles of the working class on the ground could draw such conclusions.

We made it absolutely clear that we did not and will not stand against Jeremy Corbyn's attempt to shift Labour towards the left. The same, however, does not apply to the right who are doing everything to sabotage the Corbyn revolution and may seek to split Labour at any time.

In particular, it is vital still to continue to fight against the cuts - which are taking place through councils still overwhelmingly dominated by right-wing Labour. TUSC "suspended" its electoral challenge in the general election, not standing any candidates on 8 June, and instead campaigning for a Jeremy Corbyn-led government. But it is true that in the local elections held five weeks before the general election we stood against right-wing Labour mayors and councillors who refused to give an undertaking to fight the cuts, not just to ourselves but to the RMT.

Sewell gives the impression that the motion from Neasden branch of the RMT, initiated by Socialist Party supporters in the union, was defeated at the RMT conference. This is not true. The Neasden resolution was incorporated into the decision to unanimously support the NEC political strategy statement. The RMT leadership's statement agreed to explore the possibilities of affiliation on the right terms. Socialist Party members in the RMT supported this. The most striking feature of the conference was that while supporting Jeremy and John McDonnell, who both attended the conference, the delegates still insisted on exploring all the issues. Of course Sewell doesn't mention this.

The Neasden motion states clearly: "RMT has a political strategy that starts from the principle supporting those who support our socialist and industrial aims and objectives. The manifesto that Corbyn fought the 2017 general election on was a clear departure from the New Labour pro-business policies of recent Labour campaigns and this is clearly consistent with our own aims. However, we also note that the majority of Labour MPs and councillors do not share Corbyn's political outlook. In parliament and in council chambers the majority of Labour representatives vote for austerity cuts at home and bombing abroad. We also note that affiliated unions do not, at this time, have an effective role in the development of Labour programme and tactics."

In a subsequent motion passed by Neasden branch after the union's conference, a number of questions are posed for the debate within the RMT:

What is the alternative of Rob Sewell to this? Affiliation "without conditions" - in other words, provide resources and money indiscriminately to right-wing Labour to act against the interests of trade union members - as for instance has happened in Birmingham by the Labour group in the recent bin dispute and elsewhere.

The balanced, nuanced approach of the Socialist Party and the left of the RMT has as its heart support for Corbyn - to complete the revolution by driving out the right wing and establishing a mass, socialist party which can bring real change to people in Britain. This is the way forward for the RMT and the labour movement.

See also

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