Rank and file participation and political representation

Submitted by cathy n on 22 July, 2008 - 6:57

At the union conferences held this summer, anger at the Brown administration gave the the left the opportunity to pose serious questions about working-class political representation. Everyone agreed that there is a gaping hole in the political landscape that the organised working class need to fill with socialist politics. However, the solutions that organised socialists are proposing fall short of what is necessary. This was made eminently clear by the left’s failure to make any change to the unions organisational and political links with the Labour Party.
The Socialist Party’s Campaign for a New Workers’ Party typifies a sectarian and inconsistent response to the crisis of working-class representation. For example, at the Communication Workers’ Union conference, the Socialist Party were quite open about the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party and their affiliation motion fell by ten to one. At the PCS (civil servants) conference, where the SP control the executive, the CNWP was not even mentioned.
But it was at Unison conference that the sectarian nature of the CNWP project became plain for all to see. Leading SP activists in Unison are at the forefront of the democracy struggle within the union. Four of their main activists are subject to a witchhunt and are being hounded out of the union on the ridiculous allegation of racism (support their campaign here: www.stopthewitchhunt.org.uk).
Throughout conference week they rallied round them impressive support, held large fringe meetings, and also led the struggle against the Labour Party and the union leadership on the conference floor.
The left looked set to win a Socialist Party motion at the end of the week – “New Labour, what do we get for our money?” This motion was re-prioritised by an overwhelming majority of conference, after the Standing Orders Committee sought to remove it from the agenda.
The motion was straightforward and called for a full review of the political fund arrangements (arrangements that are currently controlled by an incredibly undemocratic, unaccountable bureaucracy).
As the debate approached, regional secretaries — in contravention of union rules — distributed propaganda on conference floor, claiming that the motion was a conspiracy cooked up by the SP in order to get Unison to join the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party.
Throughout the debate, the chair, Norma Stephenson (who had already announced to conference that she had stood as a New Labour MP) shook her head whenever the left spoke and beamed with pride whenever someone from the right spoke. The turning point came when a right-winger on the National Executive stood up and directly attacked the SP for their clandestine plans. The SP comrades had run a very effective campaign throughout conference but were left speechless at this fairly predictable accusation.
None of them denied that this was their plan and there was no one from the Labour Party speaking on their side. To top it all, members of the Labour Representation Committee were getting up on the wrong side of the debate to give the leadership a bit of left cover.
The SP had no answers. They did not reiterate that Labour Party Link did need reviewing. They neither denied that their motion had anything to do with the CNWP, nor did they make the case for joining the CNWP — it just wasn’t mentioned.
The CNWP is a simplistic solution that exists in the heads of the SP cadre, but bears little relation to any of the real struggles inside the labour movement. Without considerably more support in the rank and file, it is pie-in-the-sky to think that the SP can gain union CNWP affiliations. The CNWP remains nothing but a front to recruit individuals to, one at a time. And once you have been recruited to the CNWP there is nothing for you to do except recruit more people — there is no real political work to be done in the here and now.

democratise the unions

But what would a CWU or a Unison affiliation to the CNWP actually look like? SP members are keenly aware of the problems inside the unions. Many of their best activists are subject to witchhunts and are leading the struggles for democracy. If Unison did affiliate, the CNWP would become dominated by the same bureaucrats that are currently chasing SP comrades out of the union! If the CWU did decide to affiliate then would CNWP meetings become a hotbed of political activity for postal workers, call centre staff and BT operators? No — it would be the CWU bankrolling the SP and imposing certain bureaucratic restraints on the CNWP’s politics.
All this points to a another task for the left in the unions. We will not see the working-class political representation we need until we democratise our unions and build a rank-and-file movement that can force union policy into the political sphere.
The SP comrades in Unison at least, are at the forefront of the democratisation struggle; here the CNWP project merely serves to create a gap between practice and theory. The CNWP is completely separate from all the other work that is being done in the unions. It is a project that exists outside of the class struggle and purely in the realm of well intentioned ideas. It typifies the “mañana socialism” that has defined this tendency for decades in that it does not link up the reality of today with the possibilities of the future.
But it’s not just within the unions that inconsistencies and muddle-headed approaches to the question of political representation are on display.
At a recent meeting convened by the rump of Socialist Alliance “independents”, representatives from a broad spectrum of the left (not including the SWP) discussed the possibility of left unity at the next general election. Whilst the AWL considers left unity, open debate and cooperation at election time as important and necessary steps, we do not confuse — as did some of those attending — this sort of work with the fundamental fight in the unions. With members of the the Green Left, LRC, Galloway’s Respect and the SWP’s “Left Alternative” in the room — organisations with radically divergent views and more than one fundamental political difference between them — any “unity” would be on a minimal basis, involving some long period of debate and discussion. But rather than recognise this point, calls for a new socialist party in “one, at most two years time” were made.

rank and file

So how do we go forward? The dead end for political representation is the notion that the influence of the Labour Party within the affiliated trade unions leads to the trade union leaderships to acquiescence. This logic suggests that if Woodley, Prentis, Kenny and Simpson backed some “real” socialists then all the problems with the unions would be solved.
While New Labour undoubtably holds massive influence within the trade union hierarchy, the problem of working-class political representation is not simply one of being shackled to the Labour Party. There are plenty of unions not affiliated to Labour who refuse to fight. The problem lies, as ever, in the relationship between the leadership and the rank-and-file.
The story of the PCS is telling. At the moment we have a SP-SWP leadership in the PCS, who are so worried that the membership is not behind them that they sap the militancy of the union with consultation after consultation, showcase 24 hour strikes, and an industrial strategy that is clearly losing. If they led the union with a fighting strategy, they might inspire some confidence from their membership, increase the activist base and actually win their industrial disputes. A left leadership is useless in itself unless it actively seeks to build a militant and organised rank-and-file. But more often than not, the rank-and-file movement that consciously organises against the bureaucracy is a precondition for any left leadership.
Both in the political and the industrial spheres we see low levels of rank-and-file organisation and activity, leading to “left” leaderships resorting to bureaucratic fixes. At some point we need to cut through this vicious cycle, by building from the bottom up and inspiring from the top down.
The SP comrades need to develop a strategy within the unions that links up the fight for democracy and accountability with the project for political representation.
This has been the aim, as we see it, of the Labour Representation Committee. With the affiliation of six trade unions and 120 smaller organisations, the LRC is a campaign for a new workers’ party. It is not seen as a front for any small socialist organisation — just a vehicle for the promotion of union policy in the political sphere. It is not a perfect organisation; some affiliated MPs occasionally take right-wing and backward positions, (eg voting to cut abortion time limits recently). But a bigger barrier to its success is the level of activity and democracy within the affiliated unions.
The lack of activists willing to concentrate their energy in the LRC has led many leading figures to look towards bureaucratic fixes. The whole project would be massively strengthened by an influx of non-Labour Party socialists who are engaged in the democracy struggles within theunions and who understood the two struggles as inseparable.
The LRC is often accused of being solely concerned with “reclaiming the Labour Party”. This misrepresents the dynamics within the organisation. The more bureaucratically minded in the LRC gave up on the project of working class political representation before it has even began. Their analysis bears more in common with the trade union bureaucracy’s notion of gaining favours from sympathetic politicians. It is based on a belief in a mythical past where these favours were forthcoming and the Labour Party was “owned” by the unions. All we need to do is reclaim that party.
But such a time never existed. The degree of political representation that was gained in the past was alwasy dependent on the struggle for democracy and accountability. That is why both the SP and the LRC right wing, with their delusional and historically fanciful Labourism, fail to connect the struggle for democracy with the struggle for political representation.

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