Scottish socialists debate trade union links with the Labour Party

November 22, 2013 -- Links International Journal of Socialst Renewal -- The Scottish Left Review (issue 79) published this roundtable of the relationship of the trade unions and the British Labour Party.

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Gregor Gall reviews Len McCluskey’s Jimmy Reid Memorial Lecture and concludes that the Unite leader is perhaps too generous in identifying signs of real change in the Labour Party leader Ed Milliband’s Labour Party.

At the second annual Reid Foundation lecture, Len McCluskey, general secretary of the largest union in Britain, Unite, proclaimed that at the September 2013 British Labour Party conference Ed Miliband had delivered the most radical party conference speech for 30 years. The reason for this, McCluskey argued, was that Miliband had broken with neoliberal dogma of "New" Labour.

If this is true, it has massive ramifications for politics in Britain, and specifically for the debates on Scottish independence and union affiliation to Labour. Simply put, the case for independence bringing about social justice would be torpedoed and no union would think of leaving Labour now – and all because the son of a Marxist had moved towards his father’s politics by being on the side of working people and being prepared to stand up to the rich and powerful by using the state against them and the market.

"All these moves to the left are undeniably positive advances from a Labour leader and Labour Party which have consciously chosen not to more vehemently oppose the Coalition and neoliberalism. But it is a very grave over-estimation indeed to see Miliband’s speech as a break with Labour’s own version of neoliberalism or even the beginnings of it."

What was the evidence McCluskey cited for this massive and unequivocal statement? First, there was the policy of a 20-month price freeze on energy bills if Labour won the next general election. Second, there was the plan to build 200,000 new homes by 2020 (again, if Labour won the next general election). And, third there was saying no to attacking Syria and stopping the Coalition from rushing to war. (He could also have mentioned pledges on the enforcement of the minimum wage, support for the "living wage", action on blacklisting and abolition of the "bedroom tax" in the days running up to the speech.)

All these are undeniably positive advances from a Labour leader and Labour Party which have consciously chosen not to more vehemently oppose the ruling Conservative Party-led coalition and neoliberalism. But it is a very grave over-estimation indeed to see Miliband’s speech as a break with Labour’s own version of neoliberalism or even the beginnings of it.

Just to put the situation into some perspective first, let’s remember the manifesto Labour fought the 1997 election on. Among the pledges was a a windfall levy on the privatised utilities to fund training for under-25s, a national minimum wage, a statutory union recognition law, nursery places for all four year olds and so on. This manifesto was the high tide of Labour’s neoliberalism (i.e. Blairism) but it did include some elements of progress (even if they were inadequate compared to what was needed).

So historically, and without even looking at the earlier election manifestos of 1987 and 1992 when Neil Kinnock was leader, McCluskey’s claim does not stand up. But let’s move to what wasn’t in Miliband’s speech such as the renationalisation of the railways, ending the Tory anti-union laws, providing a proper statutory union recognition law, bringing back into public ownership the utilities, placing proper regulations upon the financial system and so on and so on, and all of which are Unite union policies.

Then there’s the practice of what Miliband and Labour do. Within days of the Labour conference voting to take the Royal Mail back into public ownership, Chuka Umunna, Labour’s shadow business secretary, disavowed this as too expensive. Then there’s the small matter of Labour policies on austerity. There is no rejection of austerity but a version of it, dubbed "austerity-lite" by Mark Serwotka, Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) union general secretary. This means no reversal of public sector spending cuts, maintenance of effective wage freezes for public servants, means testing of benefits and so on. After some Blairites were dumped from the shadow cabinet after Miliband’s speech, the new appointees Tristam Hunt and Rachel Reeves announced support for performance-related pay for teachers, academies and further tightening of eligibility for benefits. Just to make the obvious point – there was no talk of raising income tax on the rich, closing the evasion and avoidance tax loopholes, or hiring more revenues and customs  staff to collect billions unpaid in tax.

If Miliband is to make the necessary break with neoliberalism and Labour’s adaption to it, he must become a social democrat and adopt social-democratic policies (such as those outlined above). This won’t make him a socialist because social democracy is about maintaining capitalism while regulating the processes and outcomes of the market in order to ameliorate its excesses. It’s about Keynesianism – tax in the boom years in order to be able to spend in the bust years so as to reflate the economy. Key to all of these is using the state to regulate capitalism.

Of course, to be fair to McCluskey, he did say in his lecture that Miliband hadn’t gone far enough, that more was needed and Unite would press for it. He also reiterated several times that the challenge is for Labour is to show that it is on the side of working people. All this, he said, was based upon Labour being – despite everything – "the only game in town". Yet McCluskey has not presented a credible strategy for achieving more from Miliband. And the danger is that he will sow the false seeds of hope in a leader that is not anything close to a social democrat.

So what is going on? Is it all part of a McCluskey long game to bring Miliband under his wing by calling him a "saint" where previously he went to war with him by calling him a "sinner" – who is under the control of the Blairites? It’s more likely that Unite is doing a trade-off with Miliband – not opposing the reform of the union-party link for policy pledges. This is a dangerous exercise. Not only have the pledges been few and weak but no Labour government has a particularly good record on abiding by its promises when made in opposition. For example, Tony Blair allowed the Confederation of British Industry to turn a simple manifesto pledge on union recognition into an extremely weak mechanism in practice.

Returning to the opening issues, where to stand on the issues of Scottish independence offering a relatively better prospect of gaining social justice and the Union under Miliband being the right road to social democracy? Unfortunately and depressingly, no different to where they were before. This is not to sow alternative illusions in independence or the Scottish National Party. Independence or the Union will only offer avenues to substantial social progress once the left gets its act together and starts growing again.

[Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford.]

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Richard Leonard argues that the best way for unions to influence politics is to maintain its close links with the Labour Party

The role of the union in fighting for justice for its members is not confined to the workplace. Nor should it be. The standard of living goes beyond the monthly salary or the weekly wage. It is about quality of life, both inside and outside work and from the cradle to the grave. The noble and enduring aims enshrined in my own union’s rule book include industrial democracy and collective ownership, an equal society, as well as extended legal rights to trade unions and greater social and economic welfare and environmental protection. These all require political action.

So the trade union movement needs a political voice. Anyone who thinks that trade unions and politics can be separated doesn’t live in the real world.

"It is impossible to be an effective democratic socialist without working in combination and solidarity: these are defining principles. To win change we have to build, organise and persuade as well as stir emotion. The principal vehicle for doing that is still the Labour Party."

That’s why over a century ago the GMB’s forerunner the Gas Workers and General Labourers Union worked with other new unions like the London and Liverpool Dockers and the Amalgamated Railway Servants to establish the Labour Representation Committee to secure “independent working class representation”. Founding conferences in Edinburgh and then London were convened following resolutions carried at the Scottish and British Trade Union Congresses of 1899.

A year before Keir Hardie had called for “the same kind of working agreement nationally as already exists for municipal purposes in Glasgow”. So Hardie’s vision and the pioneering role of trade unionists, socialists and co-operators in Scotland became highly influential in the new political formation.

Of course down the years there have been those who claim that the decision by Hardie and the other Independent Labour Party members to create an independent working-class party built on the trade unions was a mistake. During my lifetime in politics this "historic mistake" tendency defected from Labour to help found the anti-trade union Social Democratic Party in 1981, later the Alliance. It then returned to help create New Labour a decade and a half later, all too commonly and without shame comprising many of the same individuals.

And now this same tendency with some of the same people again founded Progress the limited company, and brazenly “New Labour” (capital “N”; capital “L”) pressure group. Progress is busy falsely accusing the trade unions of the domination of everything from candidate selections to the decisions of the party’s National Executive Committee. Its supporters are now baying for the collective disaffiliation of trade unions from the Labour Party.

It is an important matter of political principle that trade unions affiliate collectively to Labour. Trade unions are not a random collection of consumers in a market. We refuse to be run according to an iron law of individualism, indeed the very point of trade unions is that we live and breathe democratic collectivism. Our aspirations are collective ones, and devised for the common good not to feed individual greed but to advance the greater social and economic welfare of all. Trade unions not trade unionists affiliate to the Labour Party. That is democratic, it is also right and keeps alive the collectivist tradition upon which Labour was also built and should live by.

The distinctive nature of the Labour Party as a party of democratic socialism founded by the trade unions should not be supplanted by a version of the US Democratic Party stripped of its commitment to socialism and robbed of its trade union roots. The GMB and other unions are not merely donors to the Labour Party but affiliates. The link is first and foremost not financial but constitutional. To move to a US-style system where the donor with the biggest buck chooses the policy, and the candidate, puts the political process itself up for sale. This would not be a change for the better but a change for the worse.

So too the idea floated of US-style primaries with Labour "supporters" voting to select Labour candidates will not herald the end of a so-called "politics of the machine", it would institutionalise it. For anyone to become a candidate in a primary-style system demands not reduced but significantly increased financial backing.

It is impossible to be an effective democratic socialist without working in combination and solidarity: these are defining principles. To win change we have to build, organise and persuade as well as stir emotion. The principal vehicle for doing that is still the Labour Party. Affiliation to the Labour Party and the TUC and STUC is a direct expression of solidarity and an overt act of combination with other unions. It is also a declaration of the union’s identity, that it is part of the wider Labour Movement with sister parties across the world.

And what is the alternative to this solidarity and combination? A place in the political wilderness of non-engagement? A dalliance with a political group to the left of the Labour Party liable to end in bitterness and recrimination, doctrinal faction fights and splits? Either way it represents a false trail. There is no evidence past or present that a breakaway has brought with it greater political effectiveness.

The link between Labour and the unions is forged by shared interests and a common understanding that for the quality of working people’s lives to be improved there must be radical social and economic change. That will require a renewal of political education, a commitment to be transformers not simply reflectors of public opinion, active not passive, with a new intellectual edge alongside the old tradition of pragmatism.

It was Aneurin Bevan who observed that “our movement is based primarily on the industrial masses. It is not based so much upon ideologies, as upon social experience.” He also famously said “There is only one hope for mankind – and that is democratic Socialism. There is only one party in Great Britain which can do it – and that is the Labour Party.”

I make no apology for remaining on the side of Keir Hardie, those courageous women and men, those trade union and Independent Labour Party pioneers who founded the Labour Party, or for evoking the spirit of Nye Bevan. For this is not to look back to a heroic golden age but to understand better the eternal challenges and the defining purpose of Labour’s link with the trade unions today. It is also an important reminder that the future of the Labour Party is well worth fighting for.

[Richard Leonard is GMB Scotland political officer and was a Labour Party candidate in the 2011 Scottish Elections.]

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Bob Crow looks at his union’s influence in UK politics today and concludes that disaffiliation to the Labour Party was one of the best things that happened to it.

The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) was expelled by the Labour Party in 2004. Our crime? Allowing our regions, branches and members to have a democratic say on what political parties and candidates they chose to support.

The expulsion centred on Scotland. RMT’s executive had agreed to support requests from the Scottish Regional Council and a number of Scottish branches to affiliate to the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP). An RMT AGM decision in 2003 had already cleared the route to create a more flexible political fund, freeing the union up to support candidates in addition to Labour.

"By freeing ourselves from the shackles of automatic Labour support, RMT’s political influence is thriving with political groups established in the British, Scottish and Welsh parliaments and assemblies that involve a base of supportive Labour representatives, Greens and SNP. The condition for joining is that elected members must sign up to the core political priorities laid down by the union."

The SSP decision provoked a huge political furore with the likes of Ian McCartney wheeled out across the media to denounce RMT and to issue dire warnings that the union was consigning itself to the wilderness.

Nearly a decade on nothing could be further from the truth.

By freeing ourselves from the shackles of automatic Labour Party support, the RMT’s political influence is thriving with political groups established in the British, Scottish and Welsh parliaments and assemblies that involve a base of supportive Labour representatives, Greens and SNP. The condition for joining is that elected members must sign up to the core political priorities laid down by the union.

In many ways, RMT’s decisions from 10 years ago put the union well ahead of the game when it comes to the relationship with the Labour Party. This year, major unions have said that they will be cutting their affiliation fees to Labour to reflect the number of members who genuinely support the organisation. Others are reorganising their parliamentary groups to clear out the opportunists who take the union support and then back policies that are clearly anti-worker and anti-working class communities.

But the biggest leap of all remains supporting candidates other than those from the Labour Party. It is both inevitable and essential that that issue remains firmly on the agenda. The RMT judges candidates solely on their merits as advocates of policies that match the union’s own programme and which would deliver for our members, their families and their communities. Let me pull out a couple of examples.

First up, the anti-union laws. Part of the reason why RMT made the decisive changes to our political funds that led to out expulsion from Labour in 2004 was that halfway through its second term the Blair government had not a lifted a finger to repeal any of the anti-union laws introduced under the Tories in the wake of the miners’ strike. Not only had they not made any moves to unshackle the union’s but we had the grotesque site of the Labour prime minister touring the world boasting about how we had the most lightly regulated workplaces in the EU – a boast designed solely to encourage bad bosses, the exploiters and the "filthy rich".

The latest attack on our basic rights under this current government is the levelling of huge fees on those seeking redress in the Employment Tribunal, designed to deter those seeking a fair hearing and loading the whole process even further in the direction of unscrupulous, wealthy and bullying bosses. It is surcharge on justice. What has Labour done? Nothing. Running scared of the employers’ organisations and the right-wing press they have allowed the ConDems to force through measures that allow hiring and firing on an industrial scale and which is solely designed to hammer workers and their unions financially.

Running parallel to this betrayal was the stance on privatisation. Even after the smashing up of British Rail in the name of profit led to the avoidable carnage of Hatfield and Potters Bar, Labour, with the power to act, refused point blank to renationalise the railways. Far from it, it was under John Prescott himself that the PPP privatisation model was rolled out on the London Underground until Metronet went bust midstream plunging the system into chaos and forcing a reluctant retreat. How could a rail union sign a blank cheque for Labour against that backdrop?

Even now, after losing an election and seeing polls showing that 70 per cent of the people support renationalisation, Labour offers little or nothing. They talk about the possibility of retaining the successful, publicly owned East Coast/DOR under state control but only as a "public sector comparator". On the simple and straightforward question of full public ownership Labour remains in total and abject terror of the train companies and the Tories.

If you can’t even walk the talk in opposition we know exactly what that means from a potential Labour government in power – absolutely nothing. Ed Miliband blew it the moment he fell into the old Blairite trap and pledged that a Labour government would stick to this administration’s spending levels. Boxing yourself in to a spending straightjacket laid out for you by the most right-wing government in a generation highlights both a poverty of ambition and a total lack of concern for the lives of those you are depending on to bringing you to power.

There has to be an alternative. The RMT has supported, and will continue to support, Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) candidates and our union is pledged to encourage rank-and-file, working class candidates wherever the opportunity arises. Next year, RMT will play a leading role in fielding a full slate of “NO2EU – YES TO WORKERS’ RIGHTS” candidates in every seat with the exception of Northern Ireland. That is a major political operation that will challenge both the neoliberal, pro-boss agenda of the EU and the cynical opportunism of far-right UK Independence Party head on.

At this year’s Durham Miners Gala, we issued a call for a new party of labour. The RMT has every intention of keeping the debate and discussion going across the broad sweep of the labour, trade union, environmental and social justice movements about what that new political operation should stand for and what it should look like. I hope that you will engage with us in those discussions.

[Bob Crow is the General Secretary of the RMT.]