Rail Unions in Politics: the Future

Submitted by Janine on 28 June, 2004 - 12:00

One of the reasons that Blair was able to push through PPP is that the trade union bureaucracy allowed him to. RMT's Vernon Hince gave Blair an easy ride during his years on Labour's Executive. Although there was more protest noise during Mick Rix's reign, ASLEF has put up little fight within Labour. And TSSA has been so compliant that the Government has rewarded its former General Secretary Richard Rosser with a seat in the House of Lords.

This weak and deferential betrayal of rail workers looks set to continue with TSSA's and ASLEF's new General Secretaries, unless members force a change. These unions continue to back Blairite Labour MPs who act against the interest of Tube workers. But in the RMT at least, things started to change after Bob Crow was elected General Secretary in 2002.

RMT stopped sponsoring Labour MPs who defied union principles, like Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. It evicted Prescott from his RMT-owned flat. It set up a new RMT parliamentary group, headed by Labour left-winger John McDonnell. At the Labour conference in 2003, it led an (unsuccessful) fight to get a proper debate on the Iraq war.

Not everything was done right. Right-winger Mick Cash voted for the Iraq war on Labour's National Executive, but RMT allowed him to continue as its representative. RMT reduced its affiliation to the Labour Party to just 5,000 members - though in fact the union's 65,000 members had one of the highest rates of paying the political levy to Labour of any union. That, for the sake of a small cash saving, signalled both to the Labour Party and to other unions that the RMT was not fully serious about using its leverage in the Labour Party.

The RMT Annual General Meeting in 2003 agreed a rule change which allowed branches to ask the Executive's permission to back non-Labour candidates. In February 2004, the Labour Party expelled the RMT because some of the union's Scottish branches, and its Scottish regional council, supported the Scottish Socialist Party. The Communication Workers' Union condemned the expulsion, but every other big union let its members on Labour's National Executive support the expulsion with no protest.

But RMT has linked up not just with the Scottish Socialist Party. It has formed a group in the Welsh Assembly, consisting mainly of Plaid Cymru (Welsh Nationalist Party) assembly members, together with one Labour AM and ex-Labour maverick John Marek. Bob Crow has also talked about supporting the Greens - and, in fact, any party not openly racist or fascist that would support rail renationalisation. A handful of branches have asked to support the 'Respect' coalition of George "I need £150,000 a year" Galloway.

Having opened the door to supporting other parties, the union needs to set firm, principled rules about who it should and should not endorse. Whatever has happened to the Labour Party of late, the reason for its creation still holds: the working class needs its own political party, independent of all parties of the bosses and the rich. Instead of the non-working-class, non-socialist groups that the RMT is now courting, the unions should only back candidatures that represent a step towards the re-creation of a genuine workers' party.

Bob Crow's policy amounts to a variant of 'syndicalism', the doctrine that holds that trade-union action alone is enough to win socialism and the emancipation of the working class, without the systematic building also of an authentically working-class political party.

Worse, it is 'single-union' syndicalism. More radical versions of syndicalism, like the one that was dominant in of the French trade union movement before World War One, saw a need to weld different unions, from different trades and industries, into a united force for economic and political struggle. Bob Crow has directed the RMT's political affairs as if the RMT can go it alone, conducting its own industrial action, sponsoring various election candidates here and there, with scarcely any reference to other unions.

This 'single-union syndicalism' - which is by no means Bob Crow's idea alone - had a bad effect in the struggle against PPP. If the union is not moved on to something more advanced and comprehensive, it will have a bad effect on future struggles too.

There is an opening for something more advanced and comprehensive. In the last few years, the trade union rank and file has begun to stir again, slowly but unmistakably. Candidates committed to genuine trade-unionism - collective action to improve workers' pay and conditions, in place of 'partnership' with employers - have been elected to lead most unions. The left has won new majorities on the Executives of PCS and TGWU, and 23 out of 48 seats on the Executive of Amicus.

Industrial action has revived slightly. The years 2001-3 showed an average of 700,000 striker-days per year. That is still very low compared to the 1970s or 80s, but is well above the 200,000-odd striker-days per year typical of the 1990s (other than 1996 with its postal strikes).

The revival should not be exaggerated. There has not yet been a general revival of activism in trade union branches, stewards' committees and Trades Councils comparable to the revived demand for activism by union members casting postal ballots in union elections. There have been union election defeats for the left - Kevin Curran won GMB general secretary in April 2003, and Shaun Brady defeated Mick Rix in ASLEF in July 2003. Some of the new left union leaders have performed badly in industrial battles, losing their nerve as Andy Gilchrist did in the firefighters' pay dispute.

Nevertheless, the shift is real and important. The CWU and the FBU have supported the formation of a new Labour Representation Committee, to promote within today's neo-liberalised Labour Party the cause of working-class political representation pioneered by the first Labour Representation Committee, which was set up as the forerunner of the Labour Party in 1900 by the ASRS, other militant unions, and socialist groups.

Other union leaders, notably Tony Woodley of the TGWU, have talked favourably about the idea of a new Labour Representation Committee, though they have refused to put their names to the actual initiative. ASLEF and TSSA have not supported the new Labour Representation Committee. The RMT Executive has supported it, but so far only nominally, without sending an RMT representative to participate actively in its meetings.

Despite his plans in 1994-7, Tony Blair has not in fact closed up all channels for trade unions to assert themselves politically in the Labour Party. Now - seriously discredited and facing repeated backbench revolts - he is not likely to. If even two or three of the big unions start a fight, using their positions in the National Executive, the Policy Forum, and Conference systematically to advance causes like trade-union rights and public ownership, then the whole structure of New Labour will be seriously shaken up.

Given the clear record of Blair, Brown, and the army of political operators around them over the last ten years, it is very unlikely that they would quietly cede to union pressure. Almost certainly the unions would have to choose to back down or to go for an open split, creating a new workers' party based on the unions.

They would draw with them many smaller unions, some left Labour MPs, and a lot of constituency Labour activists and ex-activists. Probably some right-wing unions would stay with Blair, and so, at least initially, would most Labour voters. The new workers' party would probably be a hotch-potch politically, requiring serious debate to sort itself out.

There would be a risk it would go the way of New Zealand's New Labour Party. That (left-wing) party was formed in 1989 as a split-off, with extensive union support, from a New Zealand Labour Party pursuing ultra-Thatcherite policies in government. It expelled its left wing, plunged into mergers with middle class groups. By 2002 its successor, the Alliance, was down to less than 2% of the vote and very bland policies.

But an open, concerted, political trade-union break with Blair would again be a usable opening for working-class politics to develop, for workers to select and vote for our own representatives in politics. The rail unions should get actively involved in the Labour Representation Committee, with that aim in mind.

It would be folly for activists to build our political perspective on waiting until Tony Woodley, or Derek Simpson, summons up the courage to confront Blair head-on. Maybe they never will. It would be greater folly for the rail unions to call on their members, or other workers, in Scotland to keep voting for Blair's Labour when they have the alternative of the Scottish Socialist Party, a party with definite socialist policies and some working-class roots.

Outside Scotland, there is not yet a credible working-class socialist party which provides an alternative to voting Labour. But rather than wait for one to appear, our unions should take the initiative. And in the meantime, there are individual candidatures that we can and should back. Unless the Labour candidate is a decent socialist, we can support - or stand - independent candidates who have socialist principles and a record of fighting for working-class interests, and provide the sort of co-ordination which might bring them together in a national network. We can promote the idea of workers' representation and a workers' party.

Back in 1900, the Labour Party only had the support of unions and Trades Councils representing (with double-counting) 353,000 out of the two million trade unionists in Britain at the time. If the more combative unions had been unwilling to take a lead, and instead had waited until the big unions were ready, then the Labour Party would never have been formed.

The process of forming a new workers' party in the 21st century will probably be a long and complicated one, and the rail unions should develop policies to suit. They should continue to affiliate to the Labour Party; seek to work with Labour-affiliated trade unions to challenge Blair; support the Labour Representation Committee; work with a parliamentary group only of Labour MPs who support the union's policies; and support and/or stand socialist candidates where it would be a clearly better alternative to Labour.

The basic aim must be the same as the ASRS's in 1900: independent working-class representation in politics.

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