An RMT picket line. photo G Freeman
An RMT picket line. photo G Freeman

As the Erdington by-election was under way, the RMT transport workers’ union met on 21 and 22 February in conference to continue its 2021 annual general meeting (AGM), which had closed with uncompleted agenda business late last year.

TUSC was co-founded in 2010 by the then RMT general secretary Bob Crow, and from the 2012 AGM the union has officially participated in the coalition, with representation on the TUSC all-Britain steering committee. But, and particularly so since Bob’s tragically early death in 2014, there has always been a section of the union leadership who have not been convinced of his commitment to the principle of building a new workers’ party to politically represent the working class. They either hope for change within the Labour Party – even after the defeat of Corbynism – or effectively argue that trade union action alone is enough. This debate resurfaced at the reconvened AGM.

A motion had been tabled recognising the continued refusal to readmit Jeremy Corbyn to the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and the decision of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union (BFAWU) to disaffiliate from Labour after 119 years membership. It proposed that the RMT approach the BFAWU to jointly “call a conference of trade unionists to discuss how we can take steps towards the creation of a bona-fide party of trade unions and the working class”, which would have an important impact on the debate in the trade union movement on what needs to be done.

But the motion was defeated, with the general secretary Mick Lynch speaking against. He criticised TUSC’s votes record in order to argue that the union’s political activity should concentrate on supporting ‘broad-based campaigning against cuts’ rather than electoral activity.

Events, however, won’t allow the issue to be evaded. How can workers be politically represented? Ironically, days later, as 10,000 striking RMT members brought the London underground to a halt, Mick was quoted in the media correctly criticising the Blairite Labour mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, for not “standing up to Tory ministers who want to attack jobs, pensions and conditions of key transport workers. It is this political failure”, he went on, “that has left tube workers with no choice but to strike”. (The Guardian, 2 March)

But lessons need to be drawn. In 2020 the RMT London Transport regional council, noting that “Ken Livingstone won his first mayoral election standing against the official Labour candidate”, proposed “that Jeremy Corbyn be approached by the RMT and offered support should he be prepared to stand” in the mayoral election scheduled for May 2021.

A Corbyn mayoral candidacy, backed up with anti-austerity candidates for the London assembly, could well have been successful. Then the current battle of the RMT to save jobs and pensions could have been on a completely different terrain, with a supportive mayor (of one of the biggest cities in Europe) with the potential to mobilise public support against a weak Tory government.

But the regional council’s proposal was rejected, with the argument made again, of the need instead to build ‘broad-based alliances’ to protect members from cuts ‘before and after the London elections’, and hopes expressed that Corbyn might be reinstated to the PLP. A year on, who can say they had the greatest foresight?

A strategy of waiting for something to turn up doesn’t meet the goal set by the RMT AGM in 2012 when it agreed to participate in TUSC in order to contribute “to the hard, long-term task of rebuilding political representation for working-class people and communities”. With a passive approach, the RMT’s predecessor union, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, would never have played the key role it did in the formation of the Labour Party in 1900.

The debate in the RMT, and all other unions too, will go on.