Rejuvenating the labour movement

Submitted by martin on 22 September, 2010 - 5:36

To defeat the cuts, the labour movement will need industrial action, organised by workers in particular sectors to resist cuts in jobs and services in their particular sector.

We will also need a broad and lively network of local committees in which people from trade union branches come together with community, service-users', and tenants' groups.

The struggle will probably not be one "big bang", but a rolling, up-and-down series of smaller and bigger "bangs", some national but many local.

A network of local anti-cuts committees can be pivotal for resisting the cuts, and also for rejuvenating the labour movement.

Recent decades have seen not only a decline in union activism under the pressure of setbacks, but also a bigger decline in cross-union activism. Many of the tenacious activists who have kept union branches and committees going have also "hunkered down" into their immediate sphere of union work, venturing out less into cross-union or political initiatives.

Trades Councils, the committees of delegates from local union branches which have been the basic form of local union coordination since the 1860s, have revived a bit in several areas over the last few years. However, on the whole they are still pretty weak.

The creation of lively anti-cuts committees, linked to Trades Councils, can change that. Some energetic Trades Councils have already launched anti-cuts committees; that initiative can "feed back" to them by bringing more delegates to their regular meetings.

Anti-cuts committees should be representative, delegate bodies, where votes on policy can take place with democratic credibility. They should include delegates from community groups as well as trade unions, and encourage those delegates to report back regularly to the groups they come from.

Many local anti-cuts committees are already moving towards that model, though none as far as we know have quite arrived yet.

There are other groups which are heavily controlled by full-time union officials. For example, the anti-cuts committee in Hull meets every other week and is organising public activities.

But it is a combination of public-sector union full-timers, Labour Party organisers, some rank and file activists, and Socialist Party people wearing "Youth Fight For Jobs" hats.

Such groups need to be broadened out. It is not helpful if left-group activists instead focus on getting a niche or a corner "franchise" for their particular "front" enterprise (Right to Work, Coalition of Resistance, Youth Fight for Jobs).

Delegates from Labour Party branches and constituencies should certainly be drawn into anti-cuts committees. Some anti-cuts committees, indeed, have been initiated by Labour Party activists.

There is an issue, though, about inviting Labour council leaders, MPs, or similar figures to attend anti-cuts meetings as "dignitaries".

It would be wrong to demand a perfect "hard left" stance from such people before inviting them. If inviting them makes for a broader meeting, and gives a chance to put them under pressure and on the spot, that is good.

But it is certainly wrong to give such people an easy ride on the pretext of "maximum unity".

The Notts anti-cuts campaign recently got a request to be invited to speak from Vernon Coaker, Labour MP and former minister. A minority rightly objected, not on the grounds that Labour people should not be welcome, but on the specific grounds that Coaker recently and openly called for scabbing on the NUT's boycott of SATS, and as a result had been asked to resign from the union by his own NUT branch.

It would be macabre to have Labour council leaders who are making cuts invited to star at meetings called to campaign against those same cuts - though there may be a case for challenging them to come and face debate.

"Make the labour movement fight" should be our slogan, counterposed both to flabby unity-at-all-costs and to a routine collect-the-usual-leftist-suspects approach.