Trades Councils and anti-cuts committees

Submitted by martin on 19 October, 2010 - 4:49 Author: AWL conference

1. Prior to the 2010 general election it was clear that whatever the exact political complexion of the new government, significant cuts would be made to public sector spending. The only open question was and to a degree still is, how deep will these cuts be? and to what extent they will affect the wider economy.

We now know that the Tory-Liberal government will make cuts of up to 40% if not more, across all government departments excluding health. The effects of these cuts are easily imagined on the human scale: the vast bulk (sometimes up to 80%) of departmental spending is on salaries and wages. Such cuts would see teachers, social workers, care workers and legions of less visible public sector workers disappear in drastic numbers.

The effects of these cuts will not be felt in rising unemployment alone. The cuts will spell a significant downgrading of direct social provision to scores of elderly, sick, young and vulnerable people. Whereas employment law makes mass redundancies of those on permanent contracts a longer process than employers would like, no change in the law and no drawn-out legal processes are required to cut funding, cancel short or fixed-term projects. Benefits claimants are also immediate early victims of the cuts, and are also easily made scapegoats. The most immediate effects of the cuts being made now and the new round of cuts to be announced in the government's first budget are likely to be felt most sharply in working class communities and amongst the groups already mentioned.

The Tory-Liberal government is shaping the terms for an onslaught against our class in defence of their own class interests. In response, we should be preparing the grounds for class war on our own terms.

B. In a period where the efforts of the "awkward-squad" trade union leaders have borne fruit in one-off and often very limited industrial action; where the current set of union leaders are conspicuously quiet in the face of a promised cuts onslaught and where a general sense of low confidence of and in the membership shapes union strategy both nationally and locally, trades councils can offer a structure within the working class movement where socialists can effectively intervene.

Trades Councils have a valuable place in the structures of the labour movement. This helps to make them a ready tool to seize for workers looking to resist the government. They are not likely to regain the status they once had in the movement: indeed, the trade union leaders are already resisting that. However, we should look for opportunities to use the formal structures, including the higher tiers of county association and regional TUCs, to advance working class struggle more generally.

The characteristic interventions of many on the left so far consist of promoting and gaining financial and political support for particular sectarian projects. Whilst we should build support for campaigns for working class solidarity - both international and local - within trades councils as within the wider workers' movement as a matter of political necessity and fight against the squandering of money and good-will, our measure of effective intervention is based on moving the class struggle forward. In short, we should fight and organise for trades councils to become central hubs of struggle and coordination. The AWL should seek to make trades councils take some initiative in re-educating and developing rank and file coordination and militancy in our class.

Trades Councils do and should become forums for discussing working class political representation. We should adhere to our policy on this in such discussions: generally, we advocate a vote for Labour but, where it is useful in order to organise the fightback, we advocate that TCs should support genuine independent labour movement candidates in elections.

C. In response to cuts announced prior to the general election, a number of specific anti-cuts campaigns emerged. These typically formed in response to particular service closures. In some limited number of areas, broader anti-cuts committees formed, with the involvement or absence of the organised left. With the extra cuts already enacted or broadly promised by the new government, new anti-cuts committees have emerged in most major cities. The political character and origins of these committees varies: some have been launched by trades councils or groups of individual unions, others on the initiative of already existing campaigns or the left. AWL members have been actively involved in initiating at least some of these campaigns.

Whatever their exact nature or origin, the emergence of these committees and their future work is a key indicator of the future shape of resistance to the cuts. Such committees will attract layers of trade union and working class activists from a wide and rich layer of the movement, they represent a chance to rejuvenate and renew the labour movement in terms of personnel, ideas and initiative.

We should note the immediate possibility and potential dangers of sections of the existing left attempting to "coordinate" the work of these committees by engineering affiliations to their own front organisations. This is already the case with the SWP's Right to Work campaign and we should expect the Socialist Party to operate on their "successful model" forged during the Poll Tax rebellion.

We should encourage the involvement of Labour Party representatives in anti-cuts campaigns, but should not trim our activities, or limit our criticisms of Labour in order to keep them on board. We should use any such involvement to pressure Labour to adequately resist the Government.

As well as cuts, the Tory-Lib Dem project (continuing the New Labour project) will be to push for other anti-working class measures, such as outsourcing and privatisation of public services, and establishing academies. Some people will accept the propaganda that privatisation, by saving money, is an alternative to cuts in services. We should argue against this. We should build anti-cuts campaigns, uniting public sector workers with the users of services, that fight such attacks as well.

In such conditions and given the very real opportunities to renew, develop and shift working class organisation forward, revolutionary socialists must intervene with energy, political clarity and organisational flair. The AWL nationally, locally and on the level of individual members must therefore:

(a) Argue and organise for trades councils to become local centres of labour movement coordination and education with all AWL members
(i) seeking delegation from their respective unions;
(ii) arguing for and organising trades council meetings which are truly representative of the local labour and working class movement, including seeking delegations from unrepresented union branches and working class organisations;
(iii) proposing that trades councils run regular public meetings, highlighting and building solidarity for industrial action, highlighting the effects of cuts, discussing strategy etc... ;
(iv) proposing regular, perhaps small-scale, education sessions where the movement can "re-learn" some basic ideas and concepts;
(v) arguing for the trades council to coordinate separate, regular meetings of workplace reps and shop stewards;
(vi) intervening to either build links with, initiate or maintain appropriate trades council involvement with local anti-cuts committees;
(vii) relating to new and already active trade unionists with a view to winning them to the AWL's politics and recruiting them as members.
(b) Vigorously intervene in local anti-cuts committees with all AWL members
(i) ensuring the greatest possible trade union, trades council and working class movement involvement;
(ii) proposing and helping to organise lively, visible and dynamic campaigns that prioritise organising in working class communities and developing real structures capable of building protests, pickets and coordinated action against cuts;
(iii) ensure that such activity includes regular street activity - stalls and petitioning;
(iv) organise a regular medium for updates and narrative - including 'politics' - in at least the form of a website/blog and where possible regular leaflets and newsletters;
(v) arguing for our full perspective - for independent working class politics - and highlighting and developing our ideas around working class representation and the Labour Party;
(vi) arguing for the greatest possible levels of democracy within the campaigns.
In addition to these actions, the AWL and our individual activists must maintain a clear view of the attempts already being made and any future attempts by sections of the left to develop a "national coordination" of anti-cuts committees.
Objectively, such coordination has the potential to strengthen - both organisationally and politically - anti-cuts campaigns. However, the actual reality of already existing efforts shows them to be nothing short of an out-and-out sect project (as is the case with Right to Work - RtW) and another sect's attempt to gazump their former comrades (the Coalition of Resistance - CoR). We should note that a number of trades councils and anti-cuts campaigns have already affiliated to RtW on the initiative of SWP members and that CoR could well be a more attractive home for independent, non-aligned or otherwise affiliated activists.

The AWL and our individual activists should argue against affiliation to either of these sect projects. Rather, we should highlight the benefits of such coordinations in the context of natural growth and development from the local democratic campaigns. We should not shirk from pointing out the origins of either RtW or CoR and their political problems/limitations.

The AWL should, where possible, encourage the active exchange of ideas and materials between local anti-cuts committees as an example of how coordination and cooperation can strengthen such campaigns.

We will score victories during our campaigning. However, we also need to protect against demoralisation after defeats. Win or lose, the best outcome from the struggle is to help working class people to see their activity in a broad historical and political context, to become conscious of themselves as a class, and to consolidate the lessons they learn for future struggles. It is therefore essential that in addition to organising activity, anti-cuts campaigns and trades councils are places where people can discuss the overall political situation and their orientation to it, and become better educated.

We should seek to initiate debates, political discussions and historical "talks" (e.g. Clay Cross, Poplar Council) around the theme of "working-class political representation and socialism" in local labour movements (e.g. through Trades Councils). Those debates could help develop and where necessary "put on the spot" new activists, left, Labour Party activists etc.
We need to do this:
a. In order to promote our political fight in the Labour Party and unions to open up democratic channels for political decision making.
b. To give answers to activists who understand that the workers' movement does not have an political vehicle that represents its interests and want to know how that situation can change.
c. To raise the level of politics in the fight against the cuts. Answers to the cuts will not be based on vaguely social-democratic policies about "fairness" (Greens, centre-left Labour, even sometimes the so-called revolutionary left) but will come from inside the labour movement, and will be based on adequate working-class policies.
d. In order to promote the best political and ongoing campaigning basis on which independent socialist candidates in e.g. local elections would stand.