The 'Loftus affair' and the left in the unions

Submitted by Matthew on 14 January, 2010 - 2:16 Author: Ed Maltby

The behaviour of Britain’s two biggest revolutionary socialist organisations where they have trade-union positions is coming to resemble more that of the old Communist Party than any of the best elements of the Trotskyist tradition both the SWP and SP claim affinity with.

Jane Loftus, President of the Communications Workers Union and the SWP’s [Socialist Workers’ Party’s] most prominent trade unionist, recently resigned from the SWP after she supported the Interim Agreement that brought the big strike movement over jobs and conditions in Royal Mail to a halt.

The SWP’s paper, Socialist Worker, denounced the Interim Agreement as “leaving the door open for a further wave of attacks”. “Members of the SWP’s central committee met Jane”, so Socialist Worker reported (24 November), “and asked her to reflect on her position”. As a result she resigned.

The SWP has recently expelled members of its Left Platform for such things as private emails to other members deemed to be “factionalising”, but it did not expel Loftus.

Maybe Loftus’s support for the Interim Agreement was a sudden lapse? Not so. In 2007 Jane Loftus voted against the sell-out deal that ended the major strike wave of that year, but (unlike, for example, left-wing Executive member Dave Warren) refused to campaign against the deal.

Socialist Worker denounced the deal, but did not criticise Loftus. Indeed, the Postal Worker paper, produced by the SWP, toned down its criticisms of the deal, compared to what Socialist Worker was saying.

In December 2003, Loftus voted in favour of the “Major Change” agreement in 2003 which ushered in another round of cuts and speed-ups. She claimed the priority was “unity with the rest of the Executive”!

Again, Socialist Worker opposed the deal but did not criticise Loftus. The contradiction was resolved by a softening of the SWP’s attitude in the offices.

As a postal worker reported for Solidarity back in 2003, “When SWP member, Mark Dolan was elected as Area Deliveries rep in North London a couple of years ago he promised to ‘stand up for delivery members and stop Management forcing our members to take out unacceptable workloads... We should fight for no job losses, no four hour deliveries, maintaining two deliveries’. Today, Dolan is at the forefront of touting the ‘Major Change’ agreement around the sub offices of North London, with its ‘headcount reduction’, 3.5 hour delivery span and ‘Single Daily Delivery’. Offices that were reluctant to help managers’ plans are being encouraged to ‘get involved’.”

Earlier in 2003, at the peak of the movement against the invasion of Iraq, Workers’ Liberty supporter Maria Exall brought an amendment to the CWU executive, calling for the union to declare no confidence in Tony Blair. It might well have passed, and caused significant political turmoil within the Labour Party.

Loftus scuppered the amendment by withdrawing the (uncontentious) motion it was attached to.

Why, when the SWP had “Blair out!” on its posters and placards? Loftus said that she had consulted with leading SWPers and been told to “maintain the unity of the left”. In other words, not to embarrass CWU general secretary Billy Hayes, who was then speaking with the SWP on Stop The War platforms.

Although the 2009 Interim Agreement was widely opposed by rank and file postal workers, Jane Loftus was not quite alone on the left in supporting it. The Socialist Party’s paper The Socialist ran articles backing it. Why?

It looks as if the reason lies with the SP’s thinking that the way to a new workers’ party lies with getting trade union officials signed up to back-room electoral projects like “No2EU”. They may have hoped to get the London divisional committee of the CWU, or even assistant general secretary Dave Ward himself, in on the “son of No2EU” project for the general election.

The Socialist Party ended its Socialism 2009 rally, in November 2009, with a two-hour long series of speeches given almost entirely by trade union general secretaries. One of these was Brian Caton, general secretary of the Prison Officers’ Association, who has recently joined the Socialist Party.

While Caton is undoubtedly sincere in his socialist politics, he appears to be functioning just as he did before he joined, as a highly-paid trade-union official representing the sectional interests of prison officers, who are arguably as much agents of the violent machinery of the state, akin to police, as ordinary workers.

Again, there is a precedent: the SP’s decision in October 2005 to use their control over the executive of the PCS civil servants’ union to accept a wretched pensions deal that created a two-tiered pension workforce throughout the civil service, education and the NHS and scuppered a massive cross-union public sector strike to defend pensions.

In another Loftus-like episode, the two SWP members of the PCS Executive voted with the SP on that, despite Socialist Worker denouncing the pensions deal in the most violent terms.

In March the same year, Martin John and Sue Bond had voted on the PCS Executive to support calling off the union’s planned strike action on pensions, jobs, and pay. Socialist Worker condemned the calling-off of the strike, and indeed in exaggerated terms, but without mentioning that SWP votes helped to bring it about.

After the October 2005 episode, the SWP Central Committee tried to call the PCS Exec members to book. Sue Bond “apologised” and was “pardoned”; Martin John refused to apologise, and resigned from the SWP.

How much was Bond’s apology worth? A key factor in trashing the possibility of a united public-sector fightback in 2007 against Gordon Brown’s 2% limit was the decision by PCS, although it already had a live ballot mandate for action, to withdraw into prolonged “consultations” of its membership while the POA and CWU strikes and the Unison health and local government ballots came and went.

Having “consulted” and announced that PCS members supported further national strike action, the PCS leadership then... decided to call off any further national action.

The main force driving that decision was the Socialist Party, but the three SWP members on the PCS Executive, Sue Bond and two new SWPers, also voted to call off action.

Both the Socialist Workers’ Party and the Socialist Party, in the unions, have come to concentrate more and more on winning and holding high-ranking positions in trade unions, or on cementing alliances and deals with the more leftish of the officials who already hold those positions.

The “soft-pedalling” in publications like Postal Worker, the Executive votes for sell-out deals, and the cases of Executive members acting without accountability to the political organisation, all flow from that priority.

Comments

Submitted by Daniel_Randall on Fri, 01/22/2010 - 01:22

Yes, Loftus misrepresents the left and workers. But Metropolix is guilty of some pretty serious misrepresentation too; s/he grossly misrepresents the SWP's current industrial strategy to a staggering degree.

The projects that s/he cites at the end of the posting - Postal Worker, Right To Work and The People's Charter; I'll leave aside NSSN for now because, as a front controlled by a rival group (the SP), the SWP's orientation towards it is a bit different - are very, very, very far indeed from genuinely rank-and-file united front-type projects. The People's Charter is a soft-soap, left-liberal set of platitudes originating with the Stalinist CPGB that has no independent life of any kind and exists mainly as a statement for TU leaders and MPs (including several Lib Dems and one ex-UKIP far-right independent) to sign. Right To Work has a similar lack of independent life, and my experience locally during the recent postal strike was that, far from trying to set up open, local support groups, the SWPers just came down to the picket line to plug whatever latest adventure the party was (the risible 'Rage Against Labour' demo, for example) and grab a couple of interviews for Socialist Worker. Their erratically produced bulletin for the tube (I think it's called "Over The Tracks") is another good example; hardly ever comes out, no independent life (contrast that to our own Tubeworker bulletin which has regular open editorial meetings) and when it comes to the political crunch the SWP lines up behind the worst kind of bureaucrats in the union (they backed right-winger Neil Hodgson against the militant left-winger Steve Hedley for the London Regional Organiser position; fortunately Hedley won).

We'd love to get involved, "in a non-sectarian manner", in joint activity with the SWP around genuine rank-and-file initiatives. Show me the SWPer who feels the same and we'll get cracking.

As Ed's article shows, none of this is new for the SWP. Their leading trade unionists have been advocating, voting for or failing to organise against (sometimes all three) shitty, sell-out deals for years, as well as moving against other left-wing initiatives to protect some sectarian interest. The episode in the CWU where they moved against a motion of no confidence in Blair because they wanted to keep Hayes and Ward (who opposed it) sweet in order that they might be inveigled into the then-nascent Respect project was particularly nauseating.

Metropolix's central contention - that the SWP really understands the difference between rank-and-file and bureaucracy, whereas everyone else just sees things as being divided between "left and right" - is exposed as pretty nonsensical if you look at the UCU, where the SWP is particularly strong (UCU leader Sally Hunt seems to be the SWP's new favourite bureaucrat, despite never having said or done anything remotely radical in her life as far as I can tell). The SWP has run UCU Left like a party propaganda machine for their politics on Israel/Palestine, making no attempt whatsoever to build it as a genuine rank-and-file caucus around industrial issues. Their activity in the union around the serious workplace issues has been minimal, whereas their activity around the boycott of Israel has been extremely vigorous. They have helped create, and in fact are largely to blame for, a culture in unions like the UCU and others where being "left-wing" does not mean having a rank-and-file perspective, fighting for greater democracy, advocating industrial militancy etc. but rather it means talking about Palestine a lot. I was at the founding conference of UCU Left (I was on the NUS NEC at the time so it made a sort of sense for me to go) and remember Alex Callinicos talking about how young lecturers weren't interested in boring issues like pay, hours and conditions but could be brought into activity around sexy global justice issues (I think the three he mentioned specifically were climate change, Bolivia and Venezuela. Nice.). Rank-and-file perspective? Hardly.

Clearly, having a "rank-and-file" perspective doesn't mean just banging on about low-level industrial issues all the time, and clearly any healthy rank-and-file movement in which revolutionary socialists had any influence, much less were in the leadership, would lead the way on internationalism (although hopefully not in the Stalinoid way the SWP does now) and fight for the union to take action on wider domestic and global politics. But a rank-and-file perspective does require a real strategy for fighting and winning industrially on the key workplace issues, as well as a strategy for a top-to-bottom (or bottom-to-top) transformation and democratisation of the union. In the unions where they have any influence at all, the SWP offer neither.

Just to finish, it's probably worth saying a word about why we (Workers' Liberty) would bother spending any time going on about this sort of thing; why not just get on with our own rank-and-file work in the unions and let the SWP do their thing? It's because the SWP, as the biggest, most prominent and most influential group on the left will embody for a lot of workers what "the left" is and what it means to be a "revolutionary socialist". It's necessary for those of us who have a very different idea from the SWP about what "the left" should be and what being a "revolutionary socialist" means to explain that. It's not about sniping, in-fighting or arguing for the sake of it - it's about clarifying extremely fundamental differences of approach in terms of how we think the labour movement can rebuild, grow and become a powerful social force again. If the only "left" on offer is that represented by the SWP, then we're going to be waiting a very long time.