The rail unions jointly hosted a well-attended fringe meeting outlining the case for bringing the railways back into public ownership. The three General Secretaries - Bob Crow (RMT), Keith Norman (ASLEF) and Gerry Doherty (TSA) - plus Frances O'Grady (TUC Deputy General Secretary) and Tony Benn delivered what is surely an unanswerable case for reversing the disastrous rail privatisation.
Nearly a hundred people packed into the Labour Representation Committee fringe meeting on Wednesday lunchtime, entitled 'Privatisation: a New Labour obsession'. Billy Hayes told us the gory details of New Labour's threats to privatise the Post Office. He also quipped about the number of Labour MPs glad-handing their way around Congress, obviously trying to win support for higher office. "It was like speed dating", he said.
Bob Crow really has to put his joke about gas, electricity and water to bed now. I don't think there is anyone left in the labour movement who hasn't heard it. Still, his speech was interesting. He began by, rightly, berating those unions which declare that they want to reclaim Labour but have not joined up to the LRC. (Only the RMT, Bakers, FBU and CWU have affiliated as unions.) He also explained how the RMT has reorganised its Parliamentary group by inviting Labour MPs to join up to it if they supported four key union demands. Now there's an idea that other unions could take up - sponsor MPs who actually agree with you!
He ended by saying that you have to "fight to change the Labour Party, and if you can't change it, set up something new". I agree with that, but think it needs fleshing out with some detail about how the first bit leads to the second. It should not be a case of putting up a token fight, then giving up and setting up something new which is likely to repeat disastrous experiences like the SLP. Rather, it needs a serious fight to change Labour - combined by action outside it and, where necessary, against it electorally - which is pursued vigorously until as much as possible of the political labour movement splits with the Blairites, either driving them out of the Labour Party or setting up something new.
Personally, I think it is highly unlikely that this would 'reclaim the Labour Party' (and there are questions as to the extent to which we can 'reclaim' something which has always been flawed). But the only real prospect for a new workers' party is to forge it in the heat of a fight within the old one. It needs to be born out of assertion, not dejection.
The other issue is how effectively the RMT is actually carrying out the strategy that Bob outlined. He talked a lot about direct representation for working-class people - but how does this square with setting up Parliamentary groups in Scotland and Wales with non-working-class, nationalist parties?! And the union has quietly dropped its legal action against its expulsion from Labour. Had it been serious about gaining re-admission, RMT would have appealed to the rest of the Labour-affiliated unions to drive out the Blairites not the rail workers.
Mind you, the union is now finally moving to implement its AGM decision from last year to organise a conference on working-class political representation. Bob didn't mention it at the LRC fringe, but I'll make sure I post up the details as soon as I know.
After Judy McKnight, General Secretary of the probation officers' union, had spoken about creeping privatisation in the justice system, John McDonnell MP spoke, pointing out that the best-attended fringe meetings in Congress have been on those on the key issues of contention within the labour movement - privatisation, pernsions, and others.
He emphasised the need for those who oppose the Blairites to "get our act together", and described the LRC as being "based on the Labour Party rank and file and progressive movements outside who we can work with".
Whilst saying that this fight is not just about Labour's impending leadership election, he also stated firmly that he will not vote for any leadership candidate who voted for the war, supports privatisation or won't repeal the anti-union laws. Which, of course, excludes Gordon Brown, and Peter Hain, and Alan Johnson. Good stuff.