Socialist Alliance Trade Union Convention

The socialist – what we think

Socialist Alliance Trade Union Convention

MANY TRADE union branches recently received letters from the Socialist Alliance (SA) calling for support for their February 2004 conference entitled: ‘Convention of the trade union left’.

Its stated aims are “to discuss the issues that have been dominating discussion in many trade union branches up and down the country: who should we vote for at the next elections? What can we do about the state of political representation for the trade union movement?”

What should be trade union activists’ attitude to this? The Socialist Party believes the left in the trade unions need to come together to challenge in an organised way the pro-market, pro-Blair policies of the right-wing union leaders that still dominate many trade union head offices, particularly the TUC at Congress House.

But the primary responsibility for organising this surely lies with the new left trade union leaders, the so-called ‘awkward squad’ who were elected precisely because so many of their members were fed up with the ‘social partnership’, class-collaborationist policies for so long pursued by the right-wing.

Kick in the teeth

Regrettably, most of the new left trade union leaders are still arguing that it is possible to “reclaim the Labour Party”. It seems that even the kick in the teeth the union leaders were given by Blair and company’s dismissal of the vote on foundation hospitals at this year’s Labour Party conference has not convinced them to change strategy.

So there remains an enormous vacuum on the left of British politics. The SA has already shown it is incapable of filling this vacuum. Unfortunately, the SA today has become little more than a front organisation for the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). The SWP’s refusal to allow the SA to be an inclusive organisation, as predicted by the Socialist Party, has led to its withering on the vine.

The SA now bears no resemblance to the original conception of ourselves and others of a democratic, federally-organised alliance, popularising socialist ideas and arguing for the trade unions to play a central role in founding a new workers’ party.

In fact the SA, by claiming to be the only left alternative to Labour, has provided ammunition to union leaders who want to keep the Labour link to attack the idea of a viable socialist alternative to the main capitalist parties.

Both CWU general secretary Billy Hayes and FBU leader Andy Gilchrist have pointed to recent poor SA election results as a reason why there is no alternative but to reclaim the Labour Party. Certainly it has been difficult to achieve an electoral breakthrough, particularly in council and Westminster elections with a first-past-the-post electoral system.

The Socialist Party, with a better electoral record than the SA (including four elected councillors), has always recognised that our results are just a foretaste of what could be achieved by a new workers’ party, initiated and built by the trade unions.

The SA, however, by refusing to put their results in that context – and instead insisting that the unions’ task is merely to support them – play into the hands of those opposed to breaking the Labour link.

Genuine choice

THERE HAS never been a greater need for a new workers’ party to give a political voice to the trade unions and give a real choice to workers in elections. A genuine, broadly prepared convention of the trade union left on this issue could play a very useful role.

But it would need to be organised and built for, not in competition with but jointly with the trade union left organisations and other socialist organisations with trade union support, such as the Socialist Party (with 17 national trade union executive members).

It would also need to be a representative meeting (ie based on genuine delegations from trade union branches and shop stewards committees), with a clear aim to launch a wide-ranging debate throughout the trade union movement on how an alternative to New Labour can be built.

If, however, as all previous experience of the SWP-dominated SA suggests, the aim of this meeting is merely to attract trade unionists to the Socialist Alliance, it will not take the struggle for workers’ political representation forward.