Labour NEC debate on RMT

Submitted by AWL on 1 February, 2004 - 8:01

This is a report of the debate over expelling the RMT at the Labour Party National Executive in January from Ann Black. No official report exists. Note that three members voted against the expulsion, not two as most media reported, and that seven voted for prior talks with the RMT. The member on the NEC from the CWU (which has condemned the expulsion) was absent, but all the trade union reps present, apart from the RMT's own Mick Cash, disgracefully voted for the expulsion. An issue to take up in those unions...
In her report Ann Black cites Ian McCartney as claiming a "groundswell" in the RMT against links with the SSP. To the best of our knowledge, this claim is largely Blairite spin.

The most agonised debate was over future relations between the RMT union and the Labour party. Last July the RMT annual general meeting voted to allow branches to affiliate to other parties. Since then five of the 25 Scottish branches have affiliated to the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and another two branches and the Scottish regional council have also sought permission.

Labour's legal advice was that this put the RMT outside party rules, and they have disaffiliated themselves. This was profoundly regretted, given the RMT's historic role in founding the Labour party. The NEC's organisation committee recommended that unless the RMT special general meeting on 6 February withdrew endorsement of links with the SSP, their disaffiliation from Labour would be formally recognised and they would lose party representation at constituency, regional and national level.

Mick Cash of the RMT said the union did not believe it was in breach of Labour's rules. Branches of other unions had given money to different parties, and to Ken Livingstone. It was not helpful to issue ultimatums, and general secretary Bob Crow wished to meet the NEC to discuss the situation.

It is true that the rulebook is not totally clear. Affiliates must accept party policy and principles, but there is no explicit prohibition against supporting other parties, as there is for individual members.

However, as one RMT activist wrote to me, the political issue is clearcut: "the RMT cannot ride two horses in the same race". While other unions may have maverick branches, they have national rules against funding other parties. One-third of the Scottish RMT is already organising in opposition to Labour. Allowing this to continue would risk other unions being peeled away piecemeal.

Mark Seddon suggested that the RMT should ballot its levy-paying members on what to do, given that some branch decisions were taken by as few as seven people, but the NEC cannot tell unions how to run their own democracy. Nevertheless Ian McCartney reported a groundswell of alarm within the RMT, and I hope their leaders will represent the political make-up of their membership as a whole.

Dennis Skinner argued that NEC officers met Ken Livingstone, and the RMT deserved at least equal respect. I supported this if talks could be held before 6 February, but it was lost by 7 votes to 16, with the majority view that it would just be used for grandstanding.

Some still wanted to seek compromise, but most called for absolute clarity, so the RMT could make a clear choice between Labour and opposition. The organisation committee recommendation was accepted by 21 votes to 3, with Mick Cash, Mark Seddon and Christine Shawcroft against. The NEC also agreed that Labour would organise constituency parties in Scotland, Wales and the English regions, but not in Northern Ireland.