The 2009 Alliance for Workers’ Liberty conference (30-31 May) took place as we see the further development of the political crisis following on from the economic crisis of capitalism. Our debates mapped out the tasks we face in the changed political situation and how we need to improve our ability to intervene.
Sean Matgamna opened the conference:
“We are in process of shaping up the AWL to face the biggest crisis since 1930s, a crisis that has shattered mystique of capitalism in the same way that idea of socialism seemed to have been discredited by the collapse of Stalinism in the early 90s.
“For the first time in decades, socialists have an open field to argue for a rational world, a working-class run socialist society. To argue for a workers’ government. To point out that blind worship of the market is demonstrably crazy.
“The leaders and experts of capitalist economic policy are clear that the neo-liberal orthodoxy of the previous era is shattered. They do not have a clear alternative. There is much talk about more and better regulation, but it will be regulation designed to make markets work better — with the key economic decisions still left to the markets, rather than regulation in the sense of conscious planning of direct economic decisions.
“The AWL must shape up for the crisis without delay. Even while the dominant reaction to the crisis is one of being stunned or intimidated, there will be a sizeable minority set thinking about broad social issues.
“Millions of young people already morally repelled by modern capitalism are having its crisis ridden nature and the intellectual pretensions of its neo-liberal ideologues exposed to them for the first time. The progress we can make in winning such people over to socialist politics and the fight for a workers’ government will depend our capacity to intervene effectively in the bigger convulsions to come.”
In the debate Jill Mountford talked about the forthcoming general election (see box). Gemma Short reported on our student work.
Bob Sutton pointed out that we aren’t popular on the left if we argue for our ideas, people will listen. We shouldn’t be sectarian, but look for left unity. Education of new comrades is essential to help go out and argue for those ideas.
Cathy Nugent reported on the activities of the Feminist Fightback network in which we are involved. It was proposed that we have a women’s commission at Summer School to co-ordinate our work and discuss producing literature.
Tom Unterrainer introduced a debate on “The unions and the crisis”.
We are witnessing the death of neo-liberalism, Tom reported, but the trade union movement has failed to put forward any alternative. The union leaderships’ ties to the bosses have affected class struggle, and hence we have not seen any serious fight to defend jobs or working conditions.
But as the crisis intensifies we will see further action which we need to build support for; at the same time we need to fight for a broader rank and file response within the unions.
The unions must fight to impose their policies, against privatisation, for workers' rights, on the Labour government. We must rally the activists to build — through the trade unions, Trades Councils and other working-class organisations — a movement for independent working-class representation in politics, as the basis for a new workers' party. Its aim should be a workers’ government, based on mass working-class mobilisation and accountable to the labour movement — a government which serves our class as the Tories and New Labour in power have served the rich, and reshapes society in the interests of people, not profit.
Janine Booth proposed an amendment on initiating a rank and file campaign against management bullying.
In many workplaces employers have ratcheted up persecution of workers. Their mechanisms include: ever-harsher sickness absence policies; petty discipline clampdowns; de-staffing and increased workload; numerous hard-to-achieve targets; constant pressure and micro-management; direct and indirect harassment and discrimination to emphasise the master-slave relationship between boss and worker. We need a national, cross-industry, rank-and-file-led campaign to resist management bullying, and a Marxist explanation of why this happens and how to fight it.
There was also an amendment on the recent engineering construction strikes. Mark Sandell argued that our very first response to the dispute was correct but that the editorial and leaflet produced a couple of days later downplayed the massive threat of nationalism to our class; we behaved in a similar way to the Socialist Party who fail to adequately challenge racism in the working class.
Rosie Woods spoke about how in disputes like the miners’ strike racism and sexism were tackled as the strike progressed — the sexism by the women involved, and by miners seeing they were getting support from black, anti-racist and LGBT groups. It was was possible to support the economic demands of the dispute while at the same time as challenging reactionary ideas. The same approach was required here — we are against employers trying to break agreed pay and working conditions by bringing in non-union labour, but we challenge nationalist slogans and the racism that exists towards migrant workers. Conference did not back Mark’s amendment.
At this conference we began a debate on our approach to the Labour Party, trade union disaffiliations from Labour and voting Labour.
After a debate it was agreed that “Our main focus in elections should be to campaign positively for our own candidates and other socialist and labour movement candidates, but tactically it will still be best for the time being to favour a Labour vote as the default option in contests where there is no positive better option.” An amendment calling for us to vote only for left Labour MPs was defeated.
Tom Unterrainer highlighted the discussion in the civil service union, PCS, and other unions over standing candidates, and how we need to respond to that. He said this was clearly a shift in the right direction.
It was also agreed that we hold a further AWL conference later in 2009, focused on reorienting the AWL in the new conditions opened up by the big capitalist crisis. It will vote on further issues as regards the unions’ relationship with the Labour Party, but will not be limited to that question.
We agreed the AWL’s National Committee policy on this issue will stand as AWL policy in the meantime. This states — among other things — that “we should support Labour-disaffiliation motions in the unions, while (a) explaining that the consequences of disaffiliation are not necessarily positive; (b) seeking to link disaffiliation proposals to positive measures by the union to advance workers' representation.”
The debate, which will continue, showed some differences in assessment on what the Labour Party now is and what potential exists, if any, for a revival of the influence of the trade unions within it under the pressure of the crisis.
Sean Matgamna argued that a Labour general election defeat and the pressures of fierce Tory cuts could produce shifts within the Labour Party in which we may see the trade unions assert themselves. There are only fragmented groups outside of the Labour Party; we should hold off on calling for unions to disaffiliate from Labour until we’ve seen what happens.
Cathy Nugent argued that the trade unions have not used their residual power in Labour for a long time. The structures have been closed down. Even with e.g. a split after the general election, all the signs point away from a Labour revival.
This debate will continue until the November conference. In the meantime we were unanimous about campaigning for our candidate in the next general election, arguing for a new “socialist alliance” and campaigning for the trade unions to assert independent working-class politics.
Our last debate, on “What kind of anti-fascism?”, was introduced by Dan Randall, who argued that anti-fascism was inseparable from our fight for working class struggle. He highlighted the dire inadequacy of the mainstream anti-fascist groups and emphasised that comrades have to be prepared to follow through the policy in our unions and in our communities: no class collaboration; direct action against the BNP.
Through lack of time, conference was able only to note a document from the National committee covering Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. It was positive, however, that, after last year’s differences on Iraq, this year’s AWL conference had before it no amendments or counter-motions to the National Committee’s conclusions on the issue.