120 people attended the RMT-organised meeting ‘to discuss the crisis in working-class political representation’, held in London on 10 January. The meeting agreed unanimously that workers need a new political voice, but could not agree on when — or, at least, on the next steps to create one.
Debate centred on 1. whether we should stand working-class candidates in elections soon; 2. the role of a charter in organising working-class representation – alternative to standing candidates, or a way to support them?
Bob Crow, RMT General Secretary, said he wanted a new working-class party, but could not say when. Many people, he said, himself included, had “got their fingers burnt” in left unity initiatives or striking out beyond the Labour Party, and would hesitate to try again — this meeting was a chance to “break down the barriers of the past”. He dismissed prospects for “reclaiming” the Labour Party for the left.
The fact is that Crow and others who could be important to organising working-class representation are not convinced that standing candidates now is useful or viable. But even enthusiasts don’t claim that a workers’ party can be proclaimed now — it must be built in the current and looming struggles. And, while standing candidates is part of our campaigning, political organisation doesn’t just mean electoralism.
John Reid, RMT, said: “We are not just talking about Parliamentary representation: we are talking about a voice in every area that affects working-class life”. For example, we should have had a leaflet for the Gaza demonstration (held on the same day), to reach thousands of people with working-class answers to the issues.
Political representation is needed now like at no other time for decades past! Jared Wood, RMT, said: when the RMT organised the first such conference it was before the credit crunch and economic crisis, and the massive discrediting of capitalism. Another speaker from the floor pointed out that working-class people had no voice to articulate their concerns while there was no scarcity of answers on the left: every group had produced a charter or a plan to respond to the crisis.
On the day, a Charter was heavily plugged as an organising tool in lieu of working-class candidates; we could sign people up door to door. We could use it to get people involved in local campaigns.
Many people said they wanted to debate the content of any charter: would it be a people’s charter or a workers’ charter? East Midlands RMT said that since we were talking about political representation based on the trade unions and articulating the demands of workers, we should call it a workers’ charter. Labour historian Professor Mary Davis, editor of the Communist Party of Britain’s Communist Review, replied we should call it a People's Charter because not everyone was in work — many people were unemployed. (The phrase “People’s Charter” was mooted by the CPB in September 2008, and apparently they are working with sympathetic union leaders on a text — all behind closed doors.)
Davis said that talk about creating a party now would sow division — she didn’t say among whom.
The person least enthusiastic about working-class candidates now seemed to be John McDonnell MP, who came late, had not heard the other interventions, and left before he could hear replies to his speech, which, I think, showed him to be somewhat out of touch.
Speeches from the floor — for example, Elaine Jones from Wirral TUC, describing how public meetings in recent weeks against (Labour and Liberal) council cuts had attracted 2,000 people, many declaring that they could not vote for Labour again — suggested that there is a wide constituency for the idea of working-class political representation.
Even if we would have to work to get a hearing, the need was urgent. Tony Byrne, East Midlands RMT, spoke about the existing threat from the BNP in his area.
But McDonnell had missed all that. He proposed a slow, incremental path of “building trust” — among whom? Perhaps he is talking about circles of trade union leaders, and Labour left activists that he works within the Labour Representation Committee. McDonnell reported how the LRC conference recently rejected the idea of supporting other than Labour candidates. I was at that conference, and I know that the main people opposed were the rump of Labour leftists with a certain analysis of how working-class politics can be advanced: reclaiming the Labour Party or, failing that, staying Labour-loyal and waiting for something to turn up!
Anyone that does not share their analysis is doomed to sit on their hands? It is not likely; steps must be taken now to organise some sort of political representation for working class people.
“Electoral politics may not be where it’s at...” McDonnell said, “Direct action [may be more important now].” In fact, the two should not be counterposed but can reinforce each other.
“Organising working class political representation is not the time scale for the next 12 months”, McDonnell said. It might not be for McDonnell, but it will be important for people out in the country: come the European elections, who are we going to vote for? If a general election is called? Council elections in 2010? If we don't organise now, we won’t have any voice in those political forums.
Although it was not a policy-making conference, some groups — Camden no.3 RMT branch, East Midlands RMT, the Socialist Party — had brought proposals for discussion and the debate was better for them: all called for working-class candidates sooner rather than later.