Andy Forse (Solidarity 357) accuses me of “defeatism” in his reply to my criticism of his article “Why I’m not voting Green” (Solidarity 356). Personally, I would prefer Gramsci’s oft-quoted “Optimism of the will, pessimism of the intelligence”.
It is difficult to see how the trade union movement can revive in this country – even if all the call centres, online ordering warehouses, fast food outlets and such-like could be organised. The facts are that the “big battalions” of labour have gone: when I was a member of the NUM, it had 220,000 members and even if a revival in the mining industry was possible (unlikely given EU energy policy) it would never reach even near that number again.
How the trade unions respond to this is another story – one tactic is to build so-called “community unions” which have met some success in the USA.
However, whichever way you look at it trade unions are going to have a hard time, even harder with the next wave of automation only just round the corner. One example: the driverless car (which will almost surely happen in your lifetime, Andy). What then happens to the 231,000 licensed cabs and mini-cab drivers in the UK? What will happen to lorry, bus and delivery drivers?
One source estimates that, overall, something like 47% of jobs could disappear in the next 20 years. This is reality – not defeatism.
Going back to the issue of the “conduit” which Andy describes as “the structural relationship by which Labour can be influenced by the ranks of the trade union movement” I would like to ask: what concretely does this mean? Is it passing resolutions in branch meetings? Writing to your local Labour MP (if you have one)? Lobbying Parliament? Getting left-wingers elected to Town Councils, Parliament etc? No doubt it is all these things and more.
Personally, in a lifetime as a trade union activist and a Labour Party member (for about 20 years) I have been involved in many of these activities and, to be frank, only rarely did it have any effect. Look at the historical record. Socialists have been doing this since the birth of the Labour Party and the situation today is as bad, if not worse, than it ever was. At some point you have to learn the lessons of history and the effectiveness of the “conduit” has been patchy, to put it mildly.
This debate could go on... and on. However, I’ll finish with a quote from the only member of the male side of the Miliband family worth reading: “[...] the absence of a viable socialist alternative is no reason for resigned acceptance or for the perpetuation of hopes that have no basis in political reality.
“On the contrary, what it requires is to begin preparing the ground for the coming into being of [...] an alternative: and one of the indispensable elements of that process is the dissipation of the paralysing illusions about the true purpose and role of the Labour Party”.