Class, union, party

Submitted by martin on 3 November, 2003 - 9:43

1. The Labour Party is still what Lenin called it in 1920, a bourgeois workers' party. In the last decade, there has been an enormous shift within this contradictory phenomenon towards its bourgeois pole.
2. New Labour differs from Old Labour in these respects.

The trade union share of the vote at Party conference and of direct and indirect representation on the National Executive has been substantially cut.

The role of both Annual Conference and the National Executive in the affairs of the Labour Party has been changed qualitatively. Essentially, they no longer control Labour Party policy, or what happens in the party, even in theory.

Through a series of procedural checks and controls, it has become the norm for New Labour that regional and even national conferences no longer discuss political issues. With these new structures, the Labour Party 'in the country' cannot counterpose itself politically to the Government.

Thus, the forums in which and through which the political life of the Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) expressed itself have been cemented up.

The leader of the party, elected by the plebiscitary pseudo-democracy of one person one (postal) vote, has been raised above the party and its affiliated trade unions into a Bonaparte figure with enormous political power. The leader's 'office' - lieutenants, advisers, spin-liars, etc. - financed by big capitalist donations and state funds, is the real centre of the party. All key policy and other decisions are taken there, outside all possible control by the party or the unions. When the leader is also Prime Minister, his power vis-à-vis the party is vastly increased.

Central control over and vetting of Labour candidacies at parliamentary and local government level has been greatly increased. The possibility of rank-and-file control through selection and deselection of candidates has been greatly reduced.

3. The New Labour Party in government has openly repudiated any working-class allegiance in explicit and brutal words and in such deeds as keeping the Tory anti-union laws on the statute books.

3a. There has been a considerable erosion in traditional working class support for Labour, particularly amongst young people. Symptoms include the increase in electoral abstention, particularly in inner-city areas, and the growth of the BNP.

4. For these reasons we have advocated independent working-class electoral challenges to New Labour. We never saw such things as ruled out on principle. We rejected them previously only because of the practicalities, chief of which was the open nature of the Party and what socialists could do in it.

5. A mass revolt by the CLPs and the trade unions - crucially, by the mass of the unions - could, of course, quickly re-open, cleanse and democratise the New Labour structures.

The most important fact for now, and calculably, is that nothing short of a large-scale general revolt can break the hold of the New Labour machine. New Labour can see off partial revolts, even large and important ones. Only a large, determined and simultaneous revolt could swamp the breakwaters.

Constitutional formulas, legalities, and rule changes are never all-decisive, in the Labour Party or in the class struggle at large. Some struggles can break through undemocratic rules; or entrenched leaderships can find ways to suppress the rank and file even if the formal rules are democratic. But rules matter.

To say that the rule changes in the Labour Party do not signify much would be as wrong as saying that the anti-union laws do not matter much for the industrial struggle, or that the different Labour Party rule changes of the early 1980s, in favour of democracy, were a diversion.

6. The transforming changes affect precisely those areas where the political life of the old Labour Party, that is of the old labour movement, expressed itself, and into which socialists could intervene as we did.

If there is some political life in a local CLP it cannot now - short of a very large-scale simultaneous revolt in other parties and the unions - go beyond local opposition. Nor can it feed into the old national forums like National Executive and Conference, and thus stimulate and coalesce with other local groups. The pockets of local life bear the same relationship to the old national Labour Party life that rock pools bear to the receded sea.

7. The political life of the CLPs is at a low ebb.

8. The trade unions should oppose Blair within the Labour structures, push things to a break with New Labour as in 1931 they broke with James Ramsey MacDonald, and refound a trade-union-based Labour Party.

9. It can be calculated that only a not-very-big minority of the Parliamentary Labour Party - which has no working-class roots worth recording - would split from Blair in those circumstances.

10. Disappointment with Blairite control of the Labour Party and the trade unions has taken the form of the election of a wide range of new trade union leaderships committed at one level or another to defending their members' immediate interests - that is, of a drive to recreate real trade unionism.

Without the support or tolerance of the trade union establishment, the Blair-Brown-Mandelson New Labour coup in the political wing of the British labour movement could not have been made, or not without a major 1931-style split in the Labour Party.

Many of the leaderships that supported Blair in his coup are now gone or going. To the new trade union leaders we say: counterpose the unions to New Labour immediately, and take the fight if necessary (as we think it will be necessary) to an open break and a refounding of labour representation.

11. We are, however, nowhere near the possibility of controlling what happens. The new leaderships are not doing what we think the situation indicates.

The absence of a coherent, co-ordinated union response is a result of our weakness as a force in the labour movement; but we are where we are.

Centrally, we advocate that the unions fight within the Labour Party against New Labour, and fight - if necessary, as we think it will be - all the way to a break and the refounding of a real Labour Party. But that is not all we do. In the actual situation of flux, we break down that central idea into immediate tactics. And we relate to inchoate responses as militants, not as 'inspectors-general' of history or of the labour movement.

12. Our central political 'demand' on the unions - that they fight Blairism within the Labour structures, right through to a break, and found a new working-class trade-union-based party - does not oblige us to oppose everything short of that. It does not oblige us to oppose any 'tactical' fragmentation of the union political funds.

Advocacy of our 'epochal' concern - the mass trade union break with Blair and move to a new workers' party - should not shade into a conservative defence of and support for the Blair-serving status quo against immediate limited initiatives, left-wing or labour-movement electoral challenges to the New Labour party; things which, on their merits, we should support here and now.

13. The situation is further complicated by the activities of sectarians like the SWP and the Socialist Party. The SWP has no strategic overview and uses elections in a catchpenny, opportunist "build the SWP" spirit. The SP have a wrong assessment of the situation, believing that the entire process of destruction of the old Labour Party has been completed.

14. The phrase, 'democratise the political funds' was initially used to express the correct broad idea of the FBU May 2001 decision - that the union, nationally and regionally, should critically examine election candidates seeking its support, and consider backing independent working-class candidates against New Labour. That broad idea always involved accepting the risk that a drive to reassert independent working-class representation will, in the given circumstances, involve, or open the door to, some fragmentation and false starts. But the SWP, in particular, has cumulatively reinterpreted 'democratisation of the political funds' as positive advocacy of fragmentation and 'diversification' of the political funds. They have proposed having money allotted branch-by-branch or in proportion to different parties' support in the membership. We are against fragmenting the funds in such a manner, which will end up (i) providing a safety-valve for the bureaucrats, freeing them to back Blair with the bulk of the political funds as long as they allow a few branches to give money elsewhere; (ii) drifting towards business-unionism, i.e. giving money to whatever mainstream party candidate seems friendliest or most susceptible to lobbying.

15. However, a policy of no changes in the distribution of trade union political funds until either the Labour Party has been won back from the Blairites, or a new workers' party is launched by the trade unions, would for socialists be a policy of long-term inertia. It would be a de facto acceptance of Blairism as working-class politics for the foreseeable future, and, by way of that, a long-term policy of de facto abstention from electoral politics. Under the guise of strategic thinking we would adopt a policy of passive waiting for 'something big' to happen. Such an approach is not a conceivable option for us. It would destroy the AWL as an interventionist political force.

16. Against ideas such as the RMT backing Plaid Cymru, we counterpose the principle of independent working-class representation, not the idea that the union must stick to exclusive support for New Labour candidates.

17. We should advocate local labour movement political action committees, and where possible treat Trades Councils as potentially such committees. We support any solidly-based moves by trade unions to counterpose themselves electorally to New Labour.

We are in favour of winning support from Labour-affiliated unions, or (the more realistic option now) from local or regional union bodies, for authentic independent working-class electoral challenges to New Labour. Obviously how and when this is done is a tactical question, but in general we favour it.

18. We are against disaffiliation, which in practical terms could only mean the Labour-affiliated unions ducking out of the fight-to-a-break against the New Labour machine which we advocate.

19. But we must fight for working-class politics in the labour movement. We do not fight in the most advantageous, still less ideal, conditions. We cannot let fear of damage that will be done during that struggle stifle the will of the rank and file to fight. We cannot fetishise the existing links and relations between the New Labour Party and the trade unions. We must advocate a fight on every level, and now.

It is not at all certain that New Labour would rush to cut off its trade union sources of income because local trade unions backed non-Labour candidates. Or if it was inclined to rush, that it would not back down faced with a widespread trade-union revolt against its moves to disaffiliate a dissident union.

In any case, we cannot let ourselves be blackmailed into passive acceptance of the political dominance of the Blairites. We must fight our way out of the political impasse of the labour movement.

20. We should propose in each union a national policy which would establish a framework for the union's political activities and use of its political fund set by union policies and the principle of independent working-class representation in politics.

In pursuit of this national approach, we should argue against automatic support for New Labour and its candidates, and for the possibility of supporting independent working-class candidates. We explain openly that we want the unions to consider support only for working-class and socialist independent candidates, not for any independent candidates sympathetic to the policies of the union, and that our aim is not 'diversification' but the recreation of a trade-union-based workers' party. We argue for decisions about such alternatives to be taken, where appropriate, at regional and local level in the unions, subject to the fullest democratic control (e.g. workplace and membership ballots).

We are also for:

Reducing union contributions to the Labour Party to the flat affiliation fee, ending extra donations, as the CWU has done. (We are not for reducing the level of affiliation).

Making union representatives in New Labour structures fight for union policy.

Withdrawing union sponsorship to MPs who flout or oppose union policies (as the RMT has done).

Challenging, expressing no confidence in, and where possible de-selecting councillors, MPs and leaders who refuse accountability to the labour movement and oppose working-class interests. No confidence in Blair as Labour leader!

Using union funds for independent working-class political campaigning - e.g. for referenda on privatisation, for a European workers' charter rather than supporting bourgeois yes or no campaigns on the euro.

Where we come across motions in the unions expressing some of these ideas, but in an inadequate framework, we should seek to amend them so as to set them clearly within the framework of the fight for independent working-class representation.

Where our amendments fall, or circumstances prevent us from proposing them, the way we vote on such motions must be judged tactically in each case, in the light of both their wording and the meaning given to those words by the conditions and balance of forces in each union. Such tactical judgements should be made by our union fractions in consultation with the Industrial Committee and the EC.

21. The fight on the different fronts - to get the trade union leaders to fight Blairism within the Labour structures, and to get the trade unions to back working-class and socialist candidates against New Labour - is inseparable from the work of building a cross-union rank and file movement. The trade union leaders who will not fight for working-class and trade-union interests now, within the structures of the Labour Party, are not likely to support the formation of an anti-Blairite working-class party to replace New Labour. Here too, on the question of backing anti-Blairite working-class election candidates, the old watchword offers guidance: if the leaders won't lead, then the rank and file must.

22. We should pay more attention to the Labour Party. We should improve our efforts in pushing affiliated unions to fight the Blairites - that is, get our trade-union work better organised and fight systematically to get our own resolutions on political funds to the union conferences. Socialists should reorganise and reactivate our Labour Party fraction, but not, unless there is a major change in the condition and levels of life of the CLPs, significantly increase the number of comrades assigned to such work.

23. The central conclusion from the reality of the fragmented responses to the Blairite coup is that only a coherent Marxist organisation can in itself act to co-ordinate in any thoroughgoing way the different responses evoked in the labour movement. We, as a living organisation, have to respond to the 'fragments'. AWL has to co-ordinate our different fields of work - trade union, youth, students, No Sweat, SSP, Labour Party - integrating them both politically and organisationally.

[Clause 3a. is an amendment added by the NC of 27/03/04].