Report of Workers' Liberty conference 2012

Author: 
Sacha Ismail

Members and friends of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty met in London on the weekend of 27-28 October for our annual conference.

Some Workers' Liberty conferences see big controversy around a particular debate or debates (when I first met the AWL it was debating the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland; more recently there was an argument about raising the slogan “troops out now” for Iraq). This conference wasn't like that. There were no big disagreements about policy, with most discussion focused on assessing our work over the last year and planning for the next.



(Becky Crocker / John Bloxam)

(Daniel Randall / Jean Lane)

Policy documents

Documents and amendments discussed and voted on (which will be posted on Wednesday 7 November) included:

1. “The crisis and perspectives”

Jayne Edwards introduced this document, arguing that despite the lull in class struggle in Britain, the capitalist crisis remains feverish and new upheavals are likely. Moving to a weekly Solidarity and the stepping up of AWL street activity, public meetings and recruitment are achievements to build on, even if progress has slowed in the more sluggish atmosphere of the last year. So are the launching of new workplace bulletins, our involvement in establishing the LANA rank-and-file initiative among teachers and our campaigning, virtually unique on the left, for expropriation of the banks.

It has been harder to organise this year than last, due to the defeat of the public sector pensions struggle, the falling back of the student movement and the reactionary/militarised turn in the “Arab Spring”. But with the continuing crisis, many more Tory attacks to come and major working-class ferment in southern Europe, particularly Greece, a new series of struggles in Britain is likely. We need to use the quiet period to build on the basic routines of public activity necessary to make ourselves visible and accessible to interested people, and to develop our education and self-education, while also remaining alert to possibilities for campaigns and interventions.

Most controversy centred on our attitude to and involvement in the Labour Party. A small number of comrades felt the document was far too optimistic and put too much emphasis on this work, despite it proposers specifically arguing that we should not “immerse” ourselves in the Labour Party and proposing only work by a dedicated “fraction”. Others agreed with the broad thrust of the document, but used the opportunity to express doubts about how far struggles in and around Labour are likely to develop.

Amendment 1, from the outgoing National Committee, made the case for a campaign of demands on Labour, including seeking to build local labour movement conferences to provoke discussion of these issues in the movement; it passed overwhelmingly. So did Amendment 2, which warned against any attempts to try to fabricate a “broad” new Labour left, where none exists, by our own efforts. Amendment 3 from Daniel Randall, attempting to develop a series of proposals for Labour-affiliated trade unions to challenge the Labour leadership was remitted to the new NC for further discussion.

A number of comrades also spoke on particular issues we are active in campaigning around, or think we should become more active on, like the NHS, migrants' rights and housing.

2. Recruitment, education and training

The conference also discussed and passed documents on recruitment, education (in the sense of formal political education) and training (activist skills – public speaking, paper-selling, contact-work, and so on). This was preceded by an introduction from Martin Thomas about the fundamental purpose of revolutionary organisation – to increase and develop working-class consciousness, including by prioritising educating and organising new socialists.

The conference also passed a proposal to organise more joint-union fractions and regional and national dayschools, to help make sure more AWL members know each other and know about each other's ideas and activity – essential to both effective organisation and a well-functioning democracy.

3. Publications

In this session the conference also discussed our publications. Solidarity editor Cathy Nugent reported on the success of the new weekly paper and how it has helped spread our influence and develop AWL organisation. She also discussed the new printing technology which has allowed us to publish many more books – most recently, one as a companion to our Ideas for Freedom event, one on anarchism and one on the ideas Antonio Gramsci.

Conference passed an amendment from Bruce Robinson mandating the NC to investigate establishing a regular theoretical journal in the next year.

4. Student work

Workers' Liberty's Student Committee introduced the document on student work. This assessed the state of the student movement almost two years after the great revolt of winter 2010-11, noting both regression and lasting gains for the movement, and put forward proposals and slogans for left activists, including in the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts. It also advocated a turn towards develop a much more consistent AWL “propaganda routine” of meetings, paper sales and so on and around campuses, arguing that this is one of the keys to recruiting more young people in the period ahead.

5. Industrial document

Sunday morning began with discussion of the AWL's industrial – workplace and trade union – work, introduced by RMT activist Becky Crocker. Both Becky and the document noted important workers' struggles and some victories – including struggles by London and other cleaners, rank-and-file organising among the sparks (electrical construction workers) and significant strikes in a series of individual workplaces. Also important is the development of rank-and-file organisation in the NUT. However, all this takes place against the backdrop of the betrayal of the public sector pensions dispute. Some of the discussion focused on the reasons for this defeat, including the democratic deficit in the unions, lack of strategy, the absence of rank-and-file organisation and the failings of some sections of the left (SP and SWP).

The document put forward a number of ways the AWL can make a difference to workers' struggle in the next year, including looking for other opportunities to build rank-and-file networks, putting forward ideas for struggles in the next period and develop our workplace and union bulletins and educational initiatives. It also made proposals for strengthening our industrial organisation, by creating a proper Industrial Committee to work with the Industrial Organiser.

6. Feminist work

Esther Townsend introduced the document on feminist work. Although there were no big disagreements, this produced some of the liveliest discussion of the conference, on issues including the focus of our feminist activity (whether it has become too focused on issues connected to sex), what we think about women only meetings and educationals, involvement of women in non-feminist activity and organising among trade union and student women.

7. International links

The conference passed a report on the AWL's international work, noting that in addition to international solidarity work we are now establishing closer relationships with revolutionary socialist groups in other countries, including France, Turkey and Iran, and making proposals to develop these links, including through the “Marxist Revival” initiative.

In addition to receiving solidarity messages from all over the world, the conference was attended and addressed by comrades from the Iranian Revolutionary Marxists' Tendency, the Worker-communist Parties of Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan and the L'Etincelle fraction of the New Anticapitalist Party in France. We also held a dedicated meeting with the comrades from the IRMT and L'Etincelle the day after the conference.

National Committee elections

The conference elected a new National Committee. Once again there was a debate on electing a “nominating commission” to make a proposal (after which members would still be free to vote for anyone they wanted – we do not use a “slate” system). Like last year, the conference rejected this idea, this time by a larger margin. There were hustings at which comrades spoke for and against various candidates, as well as making broader arguments about the character and “shape” of the NC. The trend of recent years, of more newer and younger comrades being elected, continued. The proportion of women elected also increased, to 8 out of 19.

The conference elected a Standing Orders Committee for next year, and a Disputes Committee to deal with very serious personal and organisational clashes between comrades (fortunately this committee has not had any business for decades).

(For how our structures work, see our constitution.)

Fractions and caucuses

There were meetings of various fractions and caucuses at the conference to discuss particular areas of work - including various trade union fractions, the student fraction, the women's fraction, the LGBT fraction and the Labour Party fraction.

Conclusion

The AWL has not taken any dramatic steps forward in the difficult circumstances of the last year, but we have continued to build our organisation and develop our influence, as well as playing an important part in various struggles and practical initiatives. The conference put us in better shape and in a better position to continue to do this, while preparing for upheavals ahead.