Unions and politics: getting lost?

Submitted by Janine on Tue, 12/05/2006 - 21:35

A resolution on political candidates that my (then) RMT branch passed in the summer finally made it to the Regional Council last week. It was defeated. I understand that it might not be everyone's cup of tea, and that there might be political differences, but some of the content of the debate has sent alarm bells ringing.

The resolution proposed that the union establish a 'panel' of candidates for public elections eg. for Parliament, Councils, GLA etc. Branches would nominate members onto the panel, who would have to be activists, socialists, and supportive of the union's key policies (eg. public ownership of the railways, repeal of the anti-union laws). The union would then provide them with education and training. It was about taking forward the union's voice in politics - not about which political party it does or does not support.

If panellists were Labour Party members, the union would try to get them selected as Labour candidates. If not, or if they were carved out by Labour, the union would consider standing them as candidates anyway, using the procedure that is already laid down in our rules.

The mention of the Labour Party seemed to make it impossible for some people to support it. In a way, that's not surprising, given what New Labour in government has done to Tube workers and to the rest of the working class. But opponents apparently overlooked the idea that attempting to get RMT people selected as Labour candidates does not mean supporting Blairites (the conditions about being socialist and supporting the union's key policies prevent that). Rather, it would mean that if good union activists who are Labour members fancied a fight with the right wing in a candidate selection, the union would help them do it. It was not a "pro-Labour" resolution - in fact, it would be a nightmare for the Labour leadership, and if Tony Blair had a vote at our Regional Council (?!), he would certainly vote against it.

But "the suggestion that we should have anything at all to do with the Labour Party is a disgrace", said one speaker, though he didn't explain how that fitted in with the Regional Council's support for John McDonnell's campaign for Labour leader. The fury at the very suggestion seemed to blot out the fact that this proposal, if passed, would almost certainly lead to the RMT standing several of its members as independent socialist candidates. I got the impression that for some people, hating Labour was more important that positively advocating working-class political representation.

Perhaps even more disturbing was the Socialist Party's argument that establishing a panel of candidates would encourage careerists and that therefore RMT should not do it. What - so the union should leave the political field free for genuine careerists instead, then?! Remember that this was a resolution for the union to stand its own, socialist activists as political candidates. My breath is rather taken that the SP should hold such people in such contempt. This is inescapably an argument that unions should not consider putting forward any candidates and thus an argument against direct working-class political representation (although I doubt it was intended as such). Not only is it a major exercise in throwing the baby out with the bathwater; it is also apolitical, and astonishing from a party that places such importance on, erm, standing candidates in elections.

Mind you, it got a cheer, so the SWP repeated the same argument. And thus, the SP and SWP voted down a proposal that would have given them their best chance of getting their own candidates officially endorsed and supported by the RMT. Which, in the case of the SWP, was a considerable consolation to me.

Trade Unions