RMT and SSP: Some Thoughts

Submitted by Janine on Sun, 10/29/2006 - 11:22

RMT has disaffiliated from the Scottish Socialist Party. You can read the union's press release here, and Workers' Liberty's report here, but I'd like to add a few comments of my own.

The union's Executive carried out the wishes of its Scottish regional council, which voted by 7 branches to 5 to disaffiliate from the the SSP. But a previous meeting of the regional council, before Sheridan broke away to form his 'Solidarity' group, had voted unanimously to back Sheridan in the row about his libel case and to back him to be leader of the SSP.

I disagree with the Scottish regional council about that. I think that Sheridan prioritised his own personal reputation over the party and the socialist cause, and the results have been disastrous: if he had simply shrugged off the News Of The World's scandal-mongering, we might still have a united SSP making steady progress in Scotland.

However, it reflects very badly on the SSP's leadership majority that it had not convinced even one RMT branch in Scotland of the justice of its stance on this issue. It makes me wonder - from a distance - about how well the SSP built a real relationship with its only trade union affiliate at rank-and-file level. I strongly suspect that the answer is: not nearly as well as it should have done.

That could have been different from the outset if the RMT had held a referendum of its members about its original affiliation to the SSP. I argued for that at the time, but most RMT people opposed the idea. Rather than see an opportunity to explain the issue and promote the SSP to every member of the RMT in Scotland - winning new members and activists in the process - the union (and the SSP) were happy to see the decision taken through branches, the regional council and the Executive. There is nothing particularly undemocratic about that, but it's a missed opportunity to convince and involve people, and I suspect the reason for some people was fear of losing the referendum.

Had the affiliation been decided by referendum, it would have been logical for this disaffiliation to be decided that way too. But no.

So that may be one reason why RMT branches in Scotland were inclined to back Sheridan - without a day-to-day relationship between union and party, people are likely to feel more attached to the individual "charismatic leader" with the big public profile. And loyalty to leaders - particularly those with some record of fighting for the working class - is part of the culture of the RMT. That's good a lot of the time; but can be too deferential at others.

Another factor is that, although most of its activists are committed anti-sexists, RMT does not have a serious culture of developing feminist politics, so it may simply have missed the feminist angle on this issue: the way in which Sheridan's court case abused many of the women involved.

RMT's disaffiliation from the SSP - and its decision not to affiliate to Sheridarity - does leave the door open for reaffiliation to the Labour Party.

One factor in this is the legal settlement between Labour and the RMT. After Labour expelled it, the union took legal action. This seemed to me like a token exercise, and an inadequate alternative to what the union should have done but did not - rally the rest of the labour movement to kick out Blair not the RMT.

However, a court case it was, and it was settled without going to a full hearing, with both sides agreeing a document that was, it seems, more a formal separation than a decree absolute. As I understand it, the settlement leaves the door open for RMT to reaffiliate to Labour if and when it ceases its adulterous liaisons. It would be good to see this legal settlement and work out how it may lay out a route to reaffiliation.

By the way, as the one anti-Labour candidate who has received RMT official endorsement in an election in England, I would happily see the union rejoin Labour and cast its vote for John McDonnell.

Comments

Submitted by Janine on Tue, 10/31/2006 - 16:07

I agree with most of what you say, Rick, and certainly on the central idea of attempting to get RMT re-affiliated to Labour and encouraging members to join Labour and vote McDonnell. I also think you are spot on about the various socialists who jumped ship prematurely.

But, I think things have changed since the rise of Blair that mean we have to qualify things a bit. We have to face the fact that a mass sign-up campaign to Labour does not have the grip that it would have had, say, ten years ago. In particular, we will have a very hard job persuading those workers who have suffered most at Blair's hands - eg. Tube workers, firefighters, victims of immigration laws etc - to join up. We can't write off all the people who refuse to join as ultra-left sectarians.

We also can't expect that New Labour will simply allow left-wingers and genuine pro-working-class trade unionists to simply walk in and take over, even if you could get the numbers. They have stitched up Party 'democracy' so much that even when Party conference passes five resolutions against them, they just ignore them. I don't think with the best of efforts we could straightforwardly 'reclaim' Labour, but we could push it to split away from the right wing and lay the basis to refound a genuine workers' party.

With those qualifications, I agree with you.