Fight cuts, reshape the labour movement!

Submitted by martin on 27 May, 2010 - 9:02 Author: Editorial

For the fight now coming against the Tory-Lib coalition government's cuts, we need to get the labour movement into different shape.

Individual local cuts can and will be defeated by one-off campaigns. A local campaign has recently defeated plans to close the Accident and Emergency unit at Whittington Hospital in north London.

That is good and important. But by itself it will only nibble at the edges of the £6 billion cuts announced on 24 May, and the much bigger cuts to be announced on 22 June. Maybe it will only shift cuts from one area to another.

The British ruling class knows it is on new terrain, as the global capitalist dislocation which opened in 2007-8 shifts into a crisis focused on government debt. The labour movement needs to adjust to new terrain, too.

We need to adjust industrially. In the long years of muted capitalist boom and expanding public expenditure up to 2007, unions slid back into seeing "industrial action" as normally a matter of one-day strikes switched on and off by top union leaders.

Unions need to start thinking about industrial action aimed to win, not just to protest, and controlled by democratic strike committees.

Politically, most of the unions submitted passively to New Labour, with occasional motions and speeches of protest never followed through.

The unions which were expelled by the Labour Party or disaffiliated - RMT and FBU - adopted no coherent and active political strategy.

The affiliated unions made small moves to regain some democracy in the Labour Party at the 2009 Labour Party conference, but only small ones.

Despite everything, the trade-union movement in Britain remains stronger than in Greece. The movement can step up to the challenges, if activists can overcome the many ties of inertia.

A call from the unions to set up across-the-board anti-cuts committees in all cities - and to rejuvenate Trades Councils - would be the first step. Beyond that, we need to prepare a movement of industrial and political resistance.

It will start with demonstrations and protests. But we should learn the lessons from Canada's battle against drastic cuts in the 1990s, discussed in Solidarity last week.

There, the demonstrations and protests rose to the level of a one-day general strike that shut down the major city, Toronto. They stopped there because there was not the political momentum to go forward to more decisive action; and so the labour movement was defeated.

Politically, the labour movement needs to defend its very means of fighting. The BA and Network Rail cases have established a legal precedent that employers can stop or delay almost any big strike by going to court over inevitable small discrepancies in ballot procedures.

The Lib-Dems have established policy - promoted by Vince Cable during the election campaign - for new legislation to enable the government to ban any strike in public services and impose binding arbitration. The government may also legislate to require 40% of all workers eligible to vote, as well as a majority of voters, for a strike.

The cuts cannot be fought effectively without a parallel battle for a real right to strike.

The Lib-Dems and Tories also have established policy to outlaw union financing of political parties (beyond very small donations).

New Labour has paved the way for them to legislate on that, by commissioning the Hayden Phillips report. If the new government goes ahead, it will destroy trade-union leverage in the Labour Party, and reduce Labour to a rump dependent on state funding or on wealthy donors.

Some socialists may say that doesn't matter, because Labour is already so right-wing. That stance misses two points.

A legal ban on union finance for political parties will cut against any sort of workers' party based on the trade unions, not just against the current Labour Party.

And recent developments show that, like it or not, Labour still remains what Marxists call a "bourgeois workers' party", a party bourgeois in its politics and leadership but containing contradictions because it is also tied to an organised working-class base.

The rallying of working-class anti-cuts votes to Labour in the election campaign; the influx of 13,000 people into the Labour Party since 6 May (unprecedented: nothing like that happened after previous Labour defeats in 1979, 1970, 1951, or 1931); and the anxious disavowal of "New Labour" by even the most Blairite candidates in the current Labour leadership contest, all point that way.

The Labour Party still has a working-class base - misused, rightly resentful, reluctant, often disengaged, heavily gagged, but there.

Socialists who stand aside from ferment in the Labour Party are wrong.

They may say: "only industrial action matters". But politics matters too.

They may say: "the ferment will probably subside or come to nothing. Best to stand aside and appeal to workers to gather round us instead".

Indeed, there are no guarantees about how far the ferment will go. But passively to wait for it to disperse, rather than to intervene actively, is no way to build a better left wing.

Since about 2003-4 outside-Labour left electoral efforts have steadily been less successful. Their scores have dropped despite New Labour being in office and becoming more and more unpopular; and despite (or maybe partly because of) many left groups reducing their electoral platforms to the most minimal politics in a desperate attempt to "broaden out".

That decline continued on 6 May. The conditions of Labour being in opposition and able easily and cheaply to denounce the Tory cuts make it harder for that decline to be reversed in the near future.

At the Labour Party conference in September/ October 2009, under pressure from the unions, Labour leaders promised a review of all the undemocratic structures imposed on the Labour Party by Tony Blair in 1997. That review is due to start in October 2010.

If the left does not mobilise on the issue, any one of the main current contenders for Labour Party leadership may well be able to get away with restricting or postponing the review. But if the left does mobilise, especially in the unions, we can win some effective power for a Labour Party conference, where unions and local Labour Parties are democratically represented, to control the party.

The best thing now would be a coalition of union and Labour Party groups to come together to fight on the four fronts listed above. Discussions are under way.

In the meantime, however, every activist can and should seek maximum unity in their trade-union organisations and committees, and in their local Labour Party if they are a member, on those four points.

Two other things need to be done by the Marxist left, in parallel to fighting for that broader unity.

We must fight for trade-union democracy. The unions face bigger challenges than for many years, but the TUC is moving to hold a full congress only every other year, not yearly.

The Communication Workers' Union faces government plans to part-privatise Royal Mail. But it is discussing a similar shift - to conferences only every other year, and Executive elections only every other year too.

Deputy general secretary Dave Ward blurted out the thinking behind this to the Guardian (29/10/09): it will insulate union leaders more from the rank and file.

"One example [Ward] cited was that, because officials have to be elected every year, they are in "perpetual election mode" and therefore constantly feel the need to talk tough to appeal to the CWU's rank and file. He said the union was prepared to hold elections less frequently to improve relations with management."

The public services union Unison is attacking democracy by witch-hunts against left activists in the union.

We need a fight to move the unions in the opposite direction - towards greater democracy.

And, along with broad campaign work, we must work - with other Marxists where we can - to reinstate basic socialist education in the movement.

We are in the midst of the greatest global capitalist crisis for over 70 years. Capitalism is discrediting itself. Yet the basic Marxist critique of capitalism, and outline of an alternative, still goes almost unvoiced. All our campaign work will lack direction unless we can also instill in the labour movement an understanding that capitalism is only a passing historical phase, a particular economic system which can and must be replaced by a different one.