The cause of labour is still the hope of the world: what the working-class movement can do to regroup

Submitted by AWL on 10 May, 2015 - 11:35 Author: Daniel Randall

1) Fight

Over the five years of the coalition government, the labour movement failed to mount any consistent fight (either industrially or politically) against it. Had it done so, and had it forced the Labour Party to respond to that fight, we might be looking at a different election result.


See also: Regroup and fight back!

The capitulations of the last five years have to give way to a new spirit of belligerence. With many in the Tory party committed to pursuing new restrictions on unions' ability to organise and take action, the government may be about to go to war on our movement. We have to be ready to respond.

The 2010-2015 balance sheet makes for grim reading. Pitched battles like the public sector pensions fight of 2011 were sabotaged, de-escalated, and sold out. The public sector pay fight of 2014 was a shabby rerun on an even less ambitious scale. Politically, well-intentioned but relatively token and unambitious efforts like the NUT's "Stand Up For Education" campaign, or the rail unions' "Action for Rail" coalition, have been the only attempts to positively assert working-class political demands.

There has been working-class resistance, of course. Some local industrial battles have won gains, such as the 3 Cosas campaign at the University of London and the Ritzy Cinema workers' strikes, and inspiring social struggles such as those of the Focus E15 mothers have emerged and won victories. But these have been the exceptions, not the rule, and often these campaigns have been forced to the fringes of the movement - under resourced and staffed by beleaguered volunteers - because of the conservatism, inertia, and political timidity of mainstream labour movement officialdom.

The first step to regrouping and rebuilding, then, is to make our movement fight. No more token one-day strikes, launched too late to make a difference and then unilaterally suspended. No more "mañana militancy", promising the next battle will be fought full tilt, but surrendering on today's. Every campaign, every local dispute, every strike, must be amplified and helped to win. A movement on a war footing, that seeks opportunities for combativeness rather than finding excuses for passivity, is a prerequisite to any progressive change.

2) Don't abandon the terrain in the Labour Party, but don't limit the horizons either

The Labour Party is in political crisis. That is a tumult into which organised labour and the socialist left must intervene and assert ourselves. Abandoning the terrain to the Blairites, without even attempting to shape the outcome of that crisis, would be disastrous.

For over a year, there has been talk of Unite, the largest affiliated union, breaking from the Labour Party. Paul Kenny, the leader of the GMB, Labour's third-biggest affiliated union, has indulged in similar disaffiliationist posturing, as far back as 2012. Dave Ward, the new general secretary of the CWU (the fourth biggest affiliate) distinguished himself from his incumbent rival Billy Hayes by demagogic appeals to anti-Labour (and, often, anti-political) sentiment. If any of these three unions, or any other, were to disaffiliate from Labour without a substantial fight, and if it were then to lurch into a pick-and-mix, candidate-by-candidate approach to politics, that would be a huge setback.

Rather than ducking the fight with the Labour leaders, and seeking better “value for money” elsewhere (the "payment-by-results" approach advocated by Jerry Hicks and others), the unions and the left need to push the historic, and ultimately untenable, contradiction the Labour Party has always represented right up to (and, if necessary, past) its limits. The left should mount a leadership challenge (John McDonnell MP is the obvious candidate), to make the case for genuine working-class political representation and socialist politics. The links established through the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory, which Workers' Liberty and others ran during the election, can contribute to that.

All unions, affiliated and not, should be challenged to back that fight. When McDonnell challenged Gordon Brown for the leadership in 2006, members of the Unite United Left – a broad left caucus within Unite – held a majority on the Unite Executive. But, staggeringly, although UUL itself backed McDonnell, its supporters on the Unite Executive failed to use their majority to secure Unite's backing for McDonnell, and the union backed Brown.

That is the dynamic which characterises the big unions' relationship, and particularly Unite's relationship, to the Labour leadership for the last decade: demagogic posturing when it suits them, but complete acquiescence when it comes to the crunch. If Unite had even consistently fought for its own policies within Labour, it could have used its weight to force it to campaign in the election on an anti-austerity platform. Instead, Unite and other union delegates to Labour's National Policy Forum made sure pro-austerity policies were passed. That acquiescence has to end.

Faced with a genuine campaign of combative union self-assertion, within and against the Labour Party, the Blairites may move to sever (or reform out of existence) the link with the unions sooner than the 2019 deadline for the implementations of the recommendations of the Collins Review (which unions also failed to oppose at the time). Forcing a break on the momentum of such a fight would be vastly preferable to unions hiving off, one by one, in demoralisation and despair.

Left-wing Channel 4 journalist Paul Mason has bombastically predicted that Unite breaking from the Labour Party would lead to an “English Syriza”. If only it were that simple. Syriza itself was not created by individual unions peeling away from the official social democratic party, but through long years of splits and fusions in Greek's radical left milieu. It is unlikely that model can be easily replicated here.

Nevertheless, it is not our job to defend the structural integrity of the existing Labour Party for its own sake. Our aspiration should be genuine, independent, working-class political representation: a party based on and accountable to the industrial labour movement, which acts in Parliament and wider politics for our class in the way that the Tories, the Lib Dems, and New Labour have acted for the bosses. Winning such a party will involve a radical transformation, and probably the explosion, of the current relationship the majority of organised labour has to politics (i.e., the Labour-union link). But the means of that transformation (whether it is affected by splits and recompositions resulting from combat, or whether it simply crumbles through passive disaffiliation and meek acceptance of the Blairite ambition to turn the British Labour Party into the US Democrats) matters a great deal.

3) Their plan and ours: be bold!

The project of the 2010-2015 coalition government, which will undoubtedly accelerate and expand now, has been to use the economic crisis that began in 2007 to screw down social costs for the ruling class, and to remake society along more rigidly neo-liberal, market-driven, and privatised lines. The Tories have had a clear, definitive plan.

Labour has not. Despite Ed Miliband's attempts to nudge the party back in the direction of mildly social-democratic reform, Labour's campaign fell between two stools. It half attempted to foreground its social democratic policies on the NHS, zero-hours contracts, wages, etc., but consistently limited itself in the attempt by insisting that it had to operate within the framework of Tory-dictated “fiscal responsibility”. It offered alternative, and, for the most part, better, policies than the Tories on many issues, but by accepting the Tories' framework, these policies appeared as a wish-list, presented late in the day, rather than a coherent alternative vision for organising society.

But the revolutionary socialist left too has suffered from an abject lack of political ambition. TUSC, the main far-left electoral effort, based its campaign on opposition to "cuts". All the other parties wanted some cuts, it said. TUSC was the party that wanted no cuts. Its platform included many worthwhile demands, but was not a sharp propaganda effort to promote those demands, and synthesise them into a coherent political programme, but rather a lowest-common-denominator punt on the idea that there was some body of people inhabiting an "anti-austerity" space to Labour's left that, if they (TUSC) positioned themselves correctly, they could corral. That strategy has not been vindicated.

A socialist consciousness - that is, a conscious, self- and mutually-educated ownership of socialist ideas - can only be built by consistently promoting and arguing for the policies and demands that can link our day-to-day struggle with a struggle for working-class social power. In the parlance of the Trotskyist left, this has been called a "transitional programme". The “transitional demands” we need now must be bold, ambitious, and must respond to the questions our workmates, neighbours, and friends are asking of the society around us.

We need demands like:

• Expropriate the banks, tax the rich
• Repeal the anti-union laws; for a positive charter of workers' rights
• Public ownership of industry; genuine democratic social control, not bureaucratic nationalisation
• Living wages and living benefits
• A mass programme of social housing construction
• Free education; democratise schools, colleges, and universities
• Reverse cuts and privatisation in the NHS and other public services; rebuild the health service
• End the scapegoating of migrants; resist right-wing pressure to leave the EU; open borders
• Democratic reform; abolish the monarchy and the House of Lords; for a democratic federal republic of England, Scotland, and Wales (loosely federated with a united Ireland), with constituent assemblies elected by proportional representation.

These are not catchpenny demands designed to capture or mirror back an existing "mood". In some cases, such as open borders, they are ideas that are positively marginal and currently rejected by most working-class people. Others, such as the demand for a democratic federal republic (rather than secession for Scotland and Wales), or opposition to withdrawal from the EU, are marginal even on the far-left.

But we cannot hope to popularise them or make them less marginal except by raising them consistently, within the context of a programme which starts from the logic of our current struggles. The boldness required is the difference between attempting to create a political "space", through the hard work of agitation and education in our workplaces and communities, and cynical attempts to manoeuvre into some existing space where people are already imagined to be by mirroring back to them slightly more radical versions of the ideas we presume them to already hold.

These wouldn't be demands that we'd orient towards the state, necessarily, as if we expect a Tory government to implement them. They are demands that make up part of our own political narrative, our own plan for remaking society, just as the Tory policies of cuts and privatisation make up theirs.

Capital make concessions to labour either when we are strong enough to simply overwhelm it and impose ourselves, or when it is too scared of the consequences of not making concessions. For either condition, a conscious programme - a working-class socialist alternative to austerity - is necessary.

4) Organise the unorganised

The organised labour movement is at its lowest ebb for a generation. From a height of 14 million members in 1979, there are now half that number of trade unionists in Britain. More alarmingly, there are around 65% fewer elected union reps, and the average shop steward is 47 years old.

The labour movement must rebuild. That must mean an outwards push into new industries and sectors, including those, such as high street retail and call centres, reckoned in much labour-movement opinion to be too hard to organise - due to high turnover of staff, anti-union managements, or a variety of other excuses.

Here and there, there are attempts, or half-attempts, often at a local level, to undertake such work: the “Hungry for Justice” campaign for fast food workers' rights, sponsored by the Bakers' union, Unite's hotel workers project, or the embryonic "Union Town" initiative in Brixton. "Independent" union initiatives like the Independent Workers' Union of Great Britain (IWGB), some Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) projects, and “United Voices of the World”, a split from the IWGB, have had, in some places, successes in organising groups of workers marginalised or ignored by other unions, and in the case of IWGB particularly have built an impressive culture that combines industrial organisation and militancy with a social and cultural "union way of life". Those experiences should be brought in from the margins and made the rules, rather than the exceptions.

The labour movement also needs to organise unemployed workers. The Unite Community project has many positives, although is ultimately a reflection of the bureaucracy of its parent body. Its activists need to be part of a conversation about how the labour movement can make itself the hub for struggles that take place outside the workplace, on issues like benefits, housing, and more.

5) Challenge nationalisms from the left

The SNP whitewash in Scotland is bad news for socialism. If we are entering a period where people feel more and more compelled to vote along "national" lines, that cuts against any attempt to rebuild working-class politics.

That the SNP were able to convincingly present themselves as opponents of austerity, when their record in Holyrood (and, indeed, their actual policies) so obviously prove the opposite, is an indication of the weakness of working-class consciousness – or rather, its confiscation into a cross-class project to boost an independent Scottish capitalism.

But nationalism is on the rise south of the border too. While Ukip's result was, fortunately, worse than expected, close to four million votes for a far-right, anti-migrant nationalist party indicates that the appeal by both Tories and Labour to “English” and “British” national identities in the Scottish referendum has helped boost racism. The labour movement cannot challenge nationalism in Scotland by counterposing the de facto nationalism of support for the status quo. We must pose our own, progressive alternative to the current union: a democratic federal republic, with open borders. This must be part of a wider anti-racist push that makes the tough, currently-unpopular arguments against immigration controls and seeks to develop an internationalist working-class identity based on mutual solidarity.

A campaign for democratic and constitutional reform that is republican, anti-racist, and internationalist can resolve legitimate aspirations for greater self-determinations without leading us down the blind alley of nationalism, on either "side".

6) Transform our movement

To make real gains, we need a vastly more democratic and responsive movement than the one we currently have.

We need unions in which local branches can call industrial action, and in which all officers are elected, recallable, and paid an average workers' wage. We need structural reform to reorganise our unions along industrial lines, ending the ridiculous state-of-affairs where (to give one example) teachers in a school might be in any one of three different unions, and the teaching assistants with whom they share a workplace and an employer might be in any one of another three. We need real power for self-organised networks of women workers, black workers, LGBT workers, and disabled workers within the labour movement, to put liberation struggles at the heart of the labour movement's agenda. We need organisation and decision-making structures in unions devolved as close to the workplace as possible, to ensure that the union is, fundamentally, a tool workers can use to fight for change at work.

None of this is to say that no fightback is possible until we have remade the movement. Local struggles will inevitably emerge, which must be amplified and proliferated wherever possible. And it is not in the interests of even the most conservative labour bureaucrat to respond with complete and utter passivity in the face of a Tory onslaught. The union leaders will inevitably launch some struggles, however minimal or inadequate, which grassroots militants in the movement must attempt to push beyond the limits the leaders set for them.

But without a substantial transformation of the labour movement, there will always be hurdles on our own side over which we will have to jump before we even begin to confront the obstacles that capital and its state place in our path. To make our class fit to rule, we must first make our movement fit to fight.


Postscript: Why “labour”?

Why focus on “labour” at all? Why not aim for a broader alliance against austerity, in which organised workers might be one stakeholder, but play no privileged or leading role, participating instead as a partner alongside other stakeholders? The answer, simply, is capitalism. As long as we live in a world based on the drive for profit, and as long as that profit is created by a minority class exploiting the labour of a majority to create value, the conflict between workers and boss is not just one struggle amongst many, but the struggle with a unique, integral potential to overthrow the rule of profit.

This is not to suggest that struggles which take place outside of the workplace are irrelevant, or of secondary importance. Although capitalism as a social relation is fundamentally expressed in the relationship between worker and boss, that is not its only expression: it expresses itself too in the relationship between benefit claimant and state, between landlord and tenant, between debt-saddled student and millionaire Vice Chancellor, between police brutality and black community. And there are other struggles, such as the struggle against the oppression of women, and struggles against religious oppression, that pre-date capitalism (although they are mediated today through capitalist relations).

But it is organised labour, the self-organisation of workers at the point where capitalism most fundamentally “happens”, that has the potential to be the hub to which all of these other struggles are spoked – not as subordinate elements, or as potential distractions, but as elements of an organic whole, a totalising, working-class fightback against capital.

In the bleak aftermath of the election, in a moment when our movement is weak, disorganised, and misled, and at a time when the ideas of revolutionary-democratic libertarian socialism seem utterly marginal, that working-class fightback can seem very distant.

But a fightback will occur. How successful it is depends on the extent to which socialists in the labour movement have managed to affect the regroupment described in this article. The attempt to do that begins now, with each of us recommitting to our basic task: to agitate, educate, and organise for socialism.

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