Posted by Left Luggage on May 20, 2009
There’s been a lot of discussion recently of the role of unions in any potential rebuilding of a leftwing political culture in the UK. The RMT’s entry into the political arena through the No2EU platform for the European elections has stimulated some heated debate, and a number of trade unionists are involved in the promotion of the People’s Charter campaign. The latter initiative was the subject of a piece by former Morning Star editor John Haylett on Socialist Unity last week. Haylett was at pains to stress that the Charter is designed to gain the support of the trade union movement:
The entire charter can be read on the website http://www.thepeoplescharter.com and it reads a little like the roll call of motions carried at any trade union conference, which is certainly no coincidence.
Those who drew up the charter wanted to base the call for action not on a collection of left policies worked out among a small group of like-minded comrades, which could then be presented to the labour movement like biblical tablets of stone as the one true path to salvation, but on decisions that have already been taken by trade unionists themselves.
As with the many other Charter campaigns in the last two decades, the demands are broad, social-democratic and calculated to appeal to disillusioned former Labour voters. Many of the Left will have doubts about the campaign’s strategy, revealed in the concluding passage of Haylett’s article:
There is no political difference between Brown and Milburn, Clarke, Blunkett or the rest of yesterday’s windbags.
There is, however, a political choice to be made between Brown’s steady-as-she-sinks approach, which guarantees a trouncing in next month’s Euro election and next year’s general election, and a unifying, campaigning document that could enthuse the mass of alienated previous Labour voters by attracting a million signatures and serving notice on the government that an alternative way exists and must be tried.
The task is to build a tidal wave of public opinion that will either force Labour to change direction and save its electoral bacon or lay the basis for a united labour movement fightback to frustrate the Tories and work to deliver a government that would put principles and people before private profit.
The aim – at least for Haylett – appears to be to use the Charter to lobby the Labour leadership in the hope that this will push the Party leftwards and save it from itself. Judging from the article, it appears that the campaign is concentrating at present on getting union leaders to sign the Charter, rather than on building support through engaging in everyday struggles in working class communities and workplaces.
Commune writer Steve Ryan places no such faith in union bureaucrats. In an article last week, he distinguishes the aims of union leaders (protecting their own position as arbiters between workers and bosses) and that of rank and file union members. Ryan emphasises the need to rebuild networks of militant shop stewards:
[T]here is a need to patiently rebuild shop stewards’ networks and rank and files but with a more overt class politics. Workers’ self-activity and control of their own struggles is vital, otherwise the seeds of a meaningful fight back will not grow, smothered by a new bureaucracy.
Such smothering was in evidence within Unison this week, as a union bulletin published by the Socialist Unity blog revealed how union officials accused the National Shop Stewards Network was “interfer[ing] repeatedly in internal UNISON matters” and advised branches to have no dealings with it.
The relationship of union bureaucrats to workers’ struggles was a hot topic this week in the blogosphere, as the Visteon debate showed no signs of petering out. As we previously reported, Left critics of Unite’s handling of the dispute pointed out that the occupation was ended well before a deal had been struck, removing the workers’ most precious bargaining chip and making them vulnerable to Ford/Visteon double crossing. Socialist Democracy’s John McAnulty takes issue with claims that the occupying Visteon workers had no option but to leave the Enfield factory:
There are plenty of workers available to testify that they were not forced from the factories by police, but coaxed out by the union bureaucracy. So the steely negotiators determining the best moment to strike a deal are also those removing cards from the workers hands!
McAnulty concedes that the deal struck was “an improvement on nothing” but argues that wider goals were not met.
The other direction in which gains might have been made is in the development of broader forms of organization able to force back these kinds of attacks in the future. Unfortunately the Visteon struggle remained in-house, with offers of support from local NUJ and INTO activists not taken up and official demonstrations almost comic in their insincerity and ineffectiveness.
In a response entitled “Unite did well at every level”, Andy Newman of Socialist Unity turns McAnulty’s argument on its head, claiming that without the negotiation strategies of the union leadership, workers would never have received an offer anything like the eventual redundancy payout. According to Newman, Unite’s decision to advise workers to leave the factories is understandable given the way the anti-union laws make it difficult for unions to officially support “wildcat” action. On McAnulty’s claim that broader goals were not achieved, Newman is scathing:
Never have I known of workers being prepared to turn down a good deal, in order to pursue the abstract concept of “better organisation” for other workers in other workplaces.
McAnulty counterattacks the following day with increased venom, seemingly enraged by Newman’s misspelling of his surname. He insists that the debate does demonstrate that the goals of workers and union leaders are irreconcilable:
We have an unrestrained attack on workers. The workers react in the only way that could offer them any protection. The action remains unofficial for the duration of the dispute – the negotiations, and the settlement are conducted primarily to protect the bureaucracy rather than widen the struggle and it is followed by endless bombast – in part because the bureaucrats have surprised themselves by getting any kind of settlement.
Whatever our assessment of the deal, the Visteon workers took the decision to leave the factory on Monday. A local newspaper report summed up the mood of the workers well: “happiness that their protest succeeded, fear for the future and sadness in saying goodbye to their past.”
Prospects for the Euro elections
Commentators are agreed that Labour is headed for an historic drubbing in next month’s elections to the European Parliament. The Guardian’s Patrick Barkham finds not a single Labour supporter during a tour of six constituencies. Not surprisingly, he finds “the most disillusioned parts of Britain were the poorest, in Labour’s heartlands”. The expenses scandal seems to have eroded even further Labour’s core vote.
Jim Jepps of the Daily Maybe reports not only Labour voters, but also the party’s activists abstaining from this election. He offers a number of different explanations, including that Labour members are either scared to show their faces or ashamed of their party.
Judging from a post by Labour member Dave Osler, the latter explanation seems the most convincing:
For New Labour, it is payback time for a decade and more during which its tiny cadre organisation managed to alienate a base of mass support that took generations to build. If it was any party other than the BNP that got to administer the kicking, there would even be an element of vicarious pleasure to be gleaned.
As a Labour Party member, I am constrained to urge a Labour vote next month. I’m sorry that I cannot find many reasons beyond simple loyalty so to do, and I can sympathise with those on the left who will be placing their cross elsewhere.
The link Osler draws between the alienation of Labour’s core support and the rise of the BNP might be taken to imply support for an anti-fascist strategy that seeks to develop a leftwing alternative to Labour and the BNP in working class communities. It is surprising, then, to see that Osler endorses a Tory-lead campaign entitled “There’s nothing British about the BNP” that seems to be intent on employing the tired Searchlight formula of highlighting BNP members’ criminal convictions, stressing their “extremism” and urging a vote for “anything but the BNP”.
Dave Broder of The Commune shows in impressive detail why such strategies are never likely to be successful. His article echoes much of our own thinking on anti-fascism – especially in the way he documents the BNP’s attempts to position themselves as radicals, fighting a liberal elite on behalf of the common man:
An article in The Times on Tuesday about a large meeting with Nick Griffin speaking in a Barnsley pub reported that “Mr Griffin expresses sympathy for the 1984 miners strike, triggered by the closure of the Cortonwood colliery in Barnsley. He denounces the Government’s privatisation programme. He accuses Labour of crushing ordinary people to ensure maximum profit for its corporate financiers. “It has sold out,” he thunders. “The old Labour Party is dead. Long live the new party for British workers — the BNP.”” The Times featured a photo of the people at the meeting, many of whom – it says – 25 years ago were striking miners.
By contrast, Broder reports that Unite Against Fascism’s Weyman Bennett argued against the BNP on a recent TV show by insisting that “they would not be able to ‘restore the system to equilibrium’”. Broder argues that such conservative anti-fascism should be discarded in favour of an approach that seeks to “build some better, political alternative” to both the mainstream parties and the BNP.
In terms of next month’s Euro elections, Left alternatives do not look promising. Gregor Gall criticises the Scottish Socialist Party’s decision to stand against No2EU in Scotland, despite earlier deciding against standing:
This is another act of political suicide which merely reinforces the perception – and thus to a large extent actuality – that the left in Scotland outside Labour is a basket case. For the SSP, it will be lucky to get 1% of the vote. Whether it beats No2EU is immaterial. As Colin Fox has remarked before – in the run up to the 2007 elections – this will thus be a case again of ‘two bald men fighting over a comb’.
Jim Jepps reviews the prospects for the Left next month in the rest of Europe, and finds that in many countries popular discontent at the economic crisis is taking a leftwing direction. In Britain – in the midst of deepest recession for 80 years and the biggest crisis of legitimacy in recent history – it is the Right who are likely to benefit.
As we’ve said before, if there is hope for the Left in the UK, a large part of it lies with the numerous community campaign groups that have been established in recent years. Liam MacUaid’s blog carries news of another such group formed in Tamworth recently. Hands Off Tamworth Schools started out as a group opposing the local Labour Council’s plans to close one school, merge some and turn others into academies. Now they are standing in the election to prevent the other parties “from capitalising on our hard work.”