Workers at Waterloo station. Photo: James Ivens
Workers at Waterloo station. Photo: James Ivens

… but the debate will continue

As news broke of the Johnson government’s implosion, delegates at the annual general meeting (AGM – the annual conference) of the RMT transport workers’ union were discussing what political strategy the union should adopt to meet the tests ahead.

A reshaping of capitalist political representation is under way in Britain, the outcome of which is far from predictable. As the various Tory factions battle to seize control of the Conservative Party ‘brand’, there is no certainty that the losers will accept the writ of the eventual winners.

New parliamentary blocs and parties could result. The short-lived Change UK party formed in 2019, and fronted by ‘liberal Tories’, is a faint augury of more substantial splits possible three years on. And now that the party is no longer the threat to capitalist interests that it potentially was under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, more defections to Labour are also on the agenda, following that of the Bury South MP Christian Wakefield earlier this year. A new period of political flux is opening.

Starmer’s Labour

But one thing in all this is absolutely clear: with Sir Keir Starmer’s triumphant restoration of New Labour-style pro-capitalist politics within the party after the defeat of Corbynism, the working class is now once again effectively disenfranchised. A new vehicle to represent workers’ interests at the ballot box has to be found. This is why the decisions on political strategy made by the RMT AGM were an opportunity missed, if not worse, in the fight for the new workers’ politics needed for these times.

Just when trade unions have gained authority for being seen as leading the defence of working-class, and middle-class people too, above all because of the RMT strikes, a majority group in the union’s leadership around the misnamed ‘Broad Left’ is adopting a fundamentally passive political stance.

This is a retreat from the position the union has held since 2004, when Bob Crow was general secretary and when the RMT, one of the few unions to have kept a commitment to socialism in its constitution, was expelled from the Labour Party, then led by Tony Blair.

The AGM debated a resolution from the Coventry No.1 branch noting the disaffiliation of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) from Labour since the last AGM – after a 119-year association – and the continued suspension of Jeremy Corbyn from the parliamentary party, which will bar him from standing again as a Labour candidate in the next general election.

“We must now recognise that the brief window of opportunity that the election of Jeremy Corbyn provided us with to transform the Labour Party… is well and truly over”, it argued. The call was made to support Corbyn standing independently in the general election; to back “pro-trade union, anti-austerity candidates in local and general elections” – which could, of course, include left-wing Labour candidates; and, lastly, to approach the BFAWU and Unite to organise a conference to discuss the possibility of a new union-based party to meet “the historic crisis of political representation facing the working class”.

What arguments could be made against such proposals which were not an implicit (or explicit) support for Starmer’s Labour? If Jeremy Corbyn stands independently in Islington North, which candidate should trade unionists support? Were the BFAWU wrong to disaffiliate last September? If not, why shouldn’t there be executive-level talks with them to discuss a way forward politically for militant trade unions and the working class as a whole in these testing times?

But the Coventry motion was defeated, with the RMT general secretary, Mick Lynch, speaking against.

Workers’ reps or ‘friends of labour’?

In his speech, Mick Lynch said that he no longer supported the union reaffiliating to Labour, which he had done in 2018 when a special general meeting had been held on the issue. (The vote then was 31 to 25 against re-affiliation.) Instead, he reportedly argued the RMT should not be currently affiliated to any party, and that candidates seeking support should come to the union, not the union go to them.

This could mean that Mick would support the RMT backing Jeremy Corbyn, if he chooses to stand, in the same way the union has funded the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas or individual Labour candidates. But that is still at bottom a passive wait-and-see approach, not actively seeking to build independent working-class political representation. Workers don’t wait for others to choose or not to act in their interests in the workplace, but organise to have their own accountable representatives. Why shouldn’t that be so politically too?

An RMT predecessor union, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS), was one of the principal founding organisations of the precursor of the Labour Party, the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), in 1900. The new party would be different from the Liberals and Tories not because there would be individual ‘friends of labour’ in its ranks, as there were in both capitalist parties. Instead, the aim was to have political representatives under the collective control of workers – for MPs and councillors to actually implement union policies – even as there was a constant tension between the Labour parliamentarians bowing to the pressure of capitalist interests and the party’s working-class base.

The LRC was formed in February 1900, and in the first general election it contested, in October that year, polled 63,304 votes, a 1.8% share. But the process of creating a party of the working class was under way.

In this new period of political volatility and the enhanced prestige of trade unions, achieving a bloc of workers’ MPs in the next general election would be entirely possible if an independent union-based election coalition was prepared now.

But that requires a fighting lead from the RMT, politically as well as industrially, the goal of the Coventry resolution. The debate will go on.


That the RMT Broad Left group in the union leadership do not have anything other than, at best, a wait-and-see political strategy, was shown in the only political ‘action point’ they brought to the AGM. This was the resolution from Paddington No.1 branch calling for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) to cease its electoral activity “for now” or, if there continued to be TUSC candidates, for the RMT to withdraw its official participation in the coalition. This was presented to delegates for the first time at the opening of conference, submitted as an emergency resolution because of TUSC’s allegedly ‘extremely poor votes at the May 2022 local elections’. (See box)

After its expulsion from the Labour Party, the RMT continued to fight for a political voice for workers including at the ballot box. In backing the ‘No2EU: Yes to Democracy’ coalition at the 2009 European elections, the RMT became the first trade union to support a national electoral challenge to Labour since the party’s formation.

Although No2EU, standing in all nine English regions and in Scotland and Wales, polled just 1%, with Bob Crow heading the list in London, it was still important to have a workers’ voice speaking against the EU bosses’ club’s neoliberal agenda, distinct from right-wing nationalist Tories, UKIP and the far-right British National Party.

Working-class political representation

In 2010, following the No2EU experience, Bob, with the Socialist Party and others, co-founded TUSC to take the fight for independent working-class political representation into the trade union movement. This included providing an opportunity for trade unionists, community campaigners and socialists from different parties or none to appear on the ballot paper other than as ‘Independent’ – the only non-registered name allowed under Britain’s election laws – on a common platform of minimum anti-austerity and socialist core policies.

It might have been correct to suspend TUSC’s electoral activity, as it was for general elections under Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership, if a wider coalition than TUSC currently is was in place for the next general election. But in its absence what does the RMT gain by TUSC not standing candidates?

Arguments were raised at the AGM about union resources. The RMT political fund collects around £240,000 from the £18 million or so members pay each year in union subscriptions; so around £2.6 million in total since TUSC’s formation in 2010. In those twelve years just £21,500 (less than 1%) has been donated to TUSC from the national political fund.

But the majority group in the leadership were intent on sending a signal. What can the union do politically after the AGM decisions that it couldn’t do before? Nothing. Branches can still support TUSC candidates ‘under rule’, as now. But it will reinforce the arguments of those in other unions that there is no alternative but to support Keir Starmer’s Labour.

It was not until 2012 that the RMT AGM agreed that the union should be officially represented on the TUSC all-Britain steering committee. For the first two and a half years Bob Crow and others from the RMT sat on the committee in a personal capacity, while support for TUSC and the wider fight for working-class political representation was built in the union. The need to do so today is even more urgent.

The TUSC votes

The AGM resolution calling for the RMT to withdraw from TUSC if it continued to contest elections was submitted as an emergency motion on the grounds that “at the May 2022 local elections TUSC received 0.2% of the vote”.

This figure is worked out from the fact that over 10.5 million people voted in May and that TUSC polled 29,169 votes. But this is misleading as there were only 268 TUSC local council candidates in May, out of the 6,848 seats up for election. In 40 wards the TUSC candidate polled over 5%, including eight in the north east London borough of Waltham Forest, where TUSC outpolled the Tories – the party of government remember – in six.

The TUSC results have undoubtedly been modest, including when achieving a third-place finish ahead of the Liberal Democrats, Greens, Reform UK (formerly Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party) and six other candidates in the Birmingham Erdington by-election in March. While over 450,000 votes have been cast for TUSC candidates since its formation, only a few second or third-tier council seats have been won.

But, ultimately, the important question is: how does it help the struggle for workers’ interests if the only choice on the ballot paper is between different shades of austerity politicians, left completely unchallenged?

RMT delegates buoyed by strike action response

Ted Woodley, AGM delegate

The RMT transport union’s annual general meeting (AGM) gathered last week at a time when it is leading a high-profile fightback against austerity, low pay and insecure jobs in Britain.

Two weeks before the AGM started, the RMT put on three days of strike action involving 53,000 members on the rail network, which has inspired millions of workers who are glad that there is a fightback taking place in this country. Delegates were buoyed by the fighting spirit displayed, and the AGM got off to a great start.

The meeting was held in Birmingham and, as it was the fiftieth anniversary year of the battle of Saltley Gate, the conference opened with a fighting speech from former miners’ leader Arthur Scargill.

Most delegates understood the significance of having the leader of the 1984-85 miners’ strike addressing our meeting. Arthur spelt out what was at stake in our dispute and the lengths the establishment will go to in order to break our strike, and our union, if they are allowed to.

Later in the week, conference was addressed by Dave Ward of the Communication Workers Union (CWU), bringing solidarity greetings from thousands of BT members who have themselves just voted massively for strike action.

Rotten Labour councils

Later, striking Coventry City Council refuse worker Pete Randle gave a barnstorming speech to delegates, explaining the rotten role of the Labour council employing agency workers, at great cost, in an attempt to break their strike. He received a standing ovation, and the AGM agreed to make a donation of £1,000 to the Coventry strikers’ dispute fund. An additional £560 was raised in donations from individual delegates.

Other highlights included the announcement of a successful reballot of our members on Govia Thameslink Railway, which delivered a solid mandate for strike action in spite of the highly restrictive Tory anti-trade union laws. And, as the week progressed, news filtered through that Boris Johnson had resigned, resulting in an almighty cheer from delegates!

Rightly so, as our action in giving a lead to workers to fight back was undoubtedly a factor in speeding up the crisis in the Tory party, puncturing the myth that Johnson’s policies had popular support.

But it is clear that, particularly given the scale of the industrial battles, we require a concrete political strategy to address the current absence of working-class political representation. Keir Starmer banned the Labour front bench from standing on RMT picket lines, and Blairite Labour MP David Lammy publicly attacked striking Heathrow Airport workers.

While our leadership and AGM delegates were often highly critical of Starmer and Labour’s failure to offer an attractive alternative to the Tories, it was disappointing that a resolution calling on the union to facilitate talks with other unions to attempt to address the lack of working-class political representation was defeated. 

Later, a resolution for the RMT to withdraw from the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) if TUSC wants to continue to stand candidates in elections was carried. 

During these debates, and in discussions throughout the week, the only policy on offer was simply to wait and hope that Labour changes for the better. General secretary Mick Lynch argued that RMT should not be affiliated to any political party at all.

Branches would still be able to support TUSC candidates, subject to authorisation by the NEC, which is welcome. But the main beneficiary of the AGM’s decisions on political strategy will undoubtedly be Labour right-wing Blairite candidates, who will potentially have no challenge from a socialist, pro-trade union candidate at the ballot box. 

The question of working-class political representation and the creation of a new mass workers’ party is not going to go away, and unions such as RMT, along with the bakers› union BFAWU, Unite and others will play a vital role in driving that agenda forward. 

However, we do need to have a proper debate in the RMT over this issue, particularly as London’s Labour mayor Sadiq Khan continues to attack our Transport for London members’ jobs, and pensions.

Socialists in the RMT will be campaigning for this debate to happen as a matter of urgency.