The Unions, Labour, AWL, and the Crisis: a Debate

Submitted by martin on 20 May, 2009 - 1:44 Author: Sean Matgamna

In this article I want to expand on and discuss the points I made in the article in Solidarity 3/151 on the CWU situation.

In the last few months AWL has been working to put itself into a condition to make an adequate response to the radically changed situation of world capitalism and of Britain. Our conference, which is focused on rearming AWL to face the new opportunities, will mark an important stage in that work.

Implications, consequences, and changed possibilities from the capitalist crisis have been falling into place, piece by piece. The discussion of the implications and consequences of the new conditions for labour movement politics arises naturally as part of our political and organisational adjustment to the new situation.

It would be better if this particular discussion had been held earlier. It would be better if we had begun earlier to assess possible shifts in Labour/union relations which may result from the new situation and from the crushing defeat which by all appearances faces New Labour in the general election that must be held some time in the next year.

But none of us, until now, focused on the need to reassess things in this area. We do what we can to make good the delay.

It is fundamentally important that we get this question right - our picture of the broad labour movement and what is possible in it. Their cavalier attitude to the existing labour movement, essentially their blinkered and sectarian "build-the-revolutionary-party" indifference to that movement, has been one of the roots of the sectism that grips the ostensible revolutionary left in Britain - its shaping influence.

One difficulty AWL faces on this question is that there quite a few comrades who lack familiarity with the complex history of AWL on the Labour/union question. Their whole outlook has been shaped in the 15 years of New Labour dominance and AWL's step-by-step distancing from the Labour Party, step-by-step abandonment of hopes that the unions would reassert themselves within the Labour Party structures and that the Labour Party hijacked in 1994 and after by the Blair-Brown gang could be reclaimed and revived.

AWL's latest step away from any hope of the Labour Party being revived was taken a year and a half ago, when we saw the unions' acceptance of the effective abolition of Labour Party conference, as it had been for a century, as a major shift. We - on this writer's initiative - declared that a dramatic step had thereby been taken away from the very possibility of the old Labour Party being "reclaimed" or "revived".

We emphasised the size of the shift for two reasons. We needed to try to wake up the union activists to the implications of "Bournemouth", to try to shake them out of passive acceptance and fatalistic defeatism. The debate in our own ranks on the question was with comrades inclined to minimise "Bournemouth".

But previously correct attitudes and assessments can become sectarian if extrapolated in a straight line when the conditions underlying them have changed.

Another difficulty in this discussion is that every comrade feels deep disgust with the New Labour gang and the New Labour government. The disgust is right and proper; but it may also inhibit us in even seeing, or admitting to conscious assessment, the possibility that the disgusting thing which is New Labour may, just may, not be incapable of revival as a bourgeois workers' party - that the New Labour government may not have definitively put an end to the Labour Party as a force in the working-class movement.

AWL's basic “line” on the Labour Party

The correct and necessary emphasis in all our recent commentary on denouncing New Labour may even mean that some comrades have not understood our basic "line" on the Labour Party. They may think that our assessment has been identical to that of the Socialist Party - that the Labour Party is dead. That is not our position, not even in the latest AWL NC document for our conference, which (extrapolating as it does more or less in a straight line from recent years' developments) I now think to be seriously off-balance.

For an overview it is useful here to delineate four attitudes on the activist left to the Labour Party, and locate AWL's position in that framework.

ONE: That nothing has changed fundamentally. The problem is not enough "rank and file pressure" in the Labour Party to challenge what the Government does. This is the position of those who produce the monthly paper Briefing - a very small group of long-ago ultra-left revolutionaries turned reformists - and of a small segment of AWL (Tom R and Maria). Five years ago John Bloxam and I produced a large pamphlet analysing this approach in detail, "The Trade Union Movement, New Labour, and Working-Class Politics". Comrades should read or re-read it, for its exposition of AWL policy.

TWO: The SWP variant of the "nothing has changed" position. In day-to-day agitation the SWP assesses the Labour Party on its policy and Government performance only, and finds it a lot worse than previous Labour governments. Day-to-day it ignores everything else - the changes in the structures of the party and in its relationship with the unions and the working class. In its "official", "theoretical" statements, the SWP says that the Labour Party has not fundamentally changed its nature and is "still the political expression of the trade union bureaucracy... as Lenin described it, a 'capitalist workers' party'." (ISJ 90). This licenses SW, when it feels that such things "fit the mood", to switch to pretend-naive agitation about pushing Brown and Darling a bit to the left, as in "Here's how Labour could offer a real alternative to the crisis" (SW, 25 November).

THREE: The Socialist Party position. To crudify their position ever so slightly, they used to believe that the Labour Party was everything. The Labour Party would be transformed and "evolve", step by step, through the development of a revolutionary organisation (themselves) within it, up to the point where the chrysalis of old Labour would burst asunder and "the revolutionary party" would step out of it fully-grown. The fundamental thing about the politics of the old Militant tendency, the forerunners of the SP, is that they were held together by a dogmatic commitment to a "perspective" that the labour movement, including the Labour Party, the party of the trade unions, would move like a train on laid-down tracks. The chief concern of revolutionaries should be to stay aboard the "train". They ruled out even the possibility of any serious setbacks or fundamental defeats that could nullify that "perspective". They were vulgar evolutionists, people who substituted their own strange version of "mechanical Marxism" for a dialectical Marxist approach.

The initial document of what is now AWL was a detailed criticism of Militant's "vulgar-evolutionist" and "mechanical-Marxist" ideas. We had to insist against them that things were less simple than they thought, that the Labour Party was a complex and contradictory thing, not just "the workers' party" but a bourgeois party, a bourgeois workers' party.

When the Militant were driven out of their established niches in the Labour Party, in the late 1980s, most of them flipped over into the notion that the Labour Party was now no longer any sort of workers' party, or bourgeois workers' party - that social democracy was entirely dead. (A segment rejected that conclusion: that is Socialist Appeal now).

Having for decades criticised the foolish vulgar-evolutionist ideas of Militant/SP, we then found ourselves telling them that they were premature in declaring social democracy definitively dead.

The long, slow evolution of AWL's line over the last 15 years or more has been in the direction of the SP's conclusions. But our understanding has been shaped by concrete dialectical Marxist analysis of the real Labour Party as it has changed, not by the extrapolation of straight lines. We have taken into account the complexities and countervailing elements in the situation. Our conclusion has not been identical to the SP's flat dogma: "the Labour Party is definitively dead".

FOUR: AWL's position. Our fundamental view throughout our tendency's history has been that the Labour Party is a "bourgeois workers' party". The formulation is Lenin's. In this context, it means that the Labour Party is a party based on the bedrock labour movement, the trade unions. It was generalised political trade-unionism, that is, reformism. It was a party financed by the trade unions - even now, that is still true - but functioning as the "reform" wing of bourgeois-democratic politics.

Mass working-class reformist politics was expressed in and through the "bourgeois workers'" Labour Party, whose structures allowed trade-union and rank-and-file working-class involvement at every level of the party.

Here it is worth recommending to comrades the little pack of articles - from excerpts from WWAWWMB right through to this decade - available on our website.

The last 15 years

We have registered at every stage ver the last 15 years or so the evolution of the "bourgeois workers' party" by way of massive and successive shifts, within the contradictory phenomenon, towards the bourgeois pole and away from the working-class or labour-movement pole. We located those shifts not fundamentally in the right-wing politics of New Labour, but in the successive structural changes made in the Labour Party after the New Labour coup of 1994-7.

In history, the Labour Party's policies have always moved in line with bourgeois thinking. The first (minority) Labour governments, 1924 and 1929-31, were old-style Liberal in economics and politics. The 1945-51 and 1964-70 governments were in line with the new Keynesian bourgeois consensus; the New Labour government, with neo-liberal market worship.

The decisive change has been that all the structures of the old Labour Party have been clogged up or destroyed, including Labour conference and the National Executive. Things with the old names, but fundamentally different, have been substituted. All the channels of working-class involvement have been systematically blocked off. Everything that made revolutionary socialist participation in the "bourgeois workers' party" fruitful has been destroyed.

At the same time, a fundamental relationship with the unions remained, even though it was not the old relationship with the unions. The New Labour coup was possible only because the then trade-union leaders backed it. The unions retained, and retain still, a great weight at what is still called Labour Party conference. (Even after Bournemouth, they have the power, more or less at will, to vote through change in the Labour Party rules and constitution).

The unions - in practice, the union leaders - could have pulled the labour-movement "rug" from under the feet of the Blair-Brownites. New Labour has, all through, rested on trade-union support or acquiescence.

Such a right-wing role for the unions was, in general terms, not new - though the politics of the New Labour government, a species of Thatcherism or neo-Thatcherism, were new in Labour history. All through the Labour Party's history, with few exceptions, the unions were the bulwark of the right wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

For instance, in the period of mass rank and file activity in the Constituency Labour Parties with the Bevanite movement in the 1950s, the rank and file left found their opponents heavily backed by the trade-union "barons" such as the TGWU's Arthur Deakin. Even in their "left" period in the 1970s, the trade-union leaders supported the right-wing Labour Party leadership on decisive questions. The two main "left" union leaders, Jack Jones (of the TGWU) and Hugh Scanlon (of the AEU) were the main labour-movement bulwark of the Wilson Labour government which demobilised the working-class upsurge that had toppled the Tory government in February 1974.

What was new in the trade unions' relationship with New Labour - for practical purposes, the trade union leaders' relationship - from 1994 was that they backed Blair and Brown in systematically destroying all the living elements of working-class or trade-union rank-and-file involvement in the Labour Party. The character of the relationship between the Labour leadership and the trade unions changed in the "New Labour" era, but a trade-union relationship remained one of the pillars of the Labour establishment under New Labour as under old Labour.

While recognising that, AWL registered each stage in the New Labour shift away from Old Labour allegiances and residual loyalties. We registered the Government's retention of anti-union laws; its open and very vocal contempt for the labour movement; its open alignment with, financial links with, and systematic courting of the interests of, the rich and very rich; and the step-by-step destruction of the structures which gave life to the old Labour-union link.

We had used the image of an "open valve" to describe the old relationship of the trade unions at all levels with the Labour Party, which allowed a flooding of trade-union and working-class activists into the Labour Party structures. In the New Labour era, those valves were closed, sealed, most of them cemented over.

In the old system, the Labour Party rank and file could counterpose itself as a body to Labour governments and, notably, did so through most of the later stages of the Wilson-Callaghan government (1974-9). With the "valves" clogged up, it could no longer do so. That structural change was for us a far more important determinant than Government policy - though of course the New Labour stifling of the old Labour structures gave the Government an unprecedented freedom to pursue right-wing policy.

Even before the 1997 general election, we faced and discussed the fact that victory for Blair in that election would mean an effective suppression of the old Labour Party. That created a dilemma for those like AWL who advocated a vote for New Labour against the Tories. It made our position contradictory. Not wrong or self-contradictory, but suffused with awareness of the contradictions in reality.

Response to the Blair-Brown coup

What did we think needed to be done? We advocated that the trade unions should oppose New Labour government policy and act to undo the structural mechanisms of the New Labour coup. We advocated that the unions assert themselves and, if necessary - we said it would be necessary - organise union-loyal Labour MPs to split off from the Blair-Brown careerists and self-serving scoundrels.

As the coup solidified, we pointed out that arguably the working class was less represented under New Labour than it had been through the so-named "Lib-Lab MPs" of the decades before 1910 - trade-union-financed MPs elected under the Liberal Party umbrella. Analysing the effect in working-class disenfranchisement of the Blair-Brown coup, we called on the unions to act to restore working-class representation by restoring a working-class-based party.

The major problem here - and we recognised and stated it openly - was that any such policy depended on the union leaderships. When a new generation of union leaders were voted in, such as Tony Woodley in the TGWU from 2003, we called on them to take up the fight against the Blair-Brown New Labour which the previous leaders had supported.

We argued that even if a union-based restored Labour Party would be reduced in an ensuing General election to a rump such as Labour was after the Labour Party and the trade unions split with the old Ramsay McDonald Labour leadership in 1931 (52 seats in the October 1931 election), that would be better than the continuation of a union/Labour relationship that was one of donkey to brutally contemptuous and ill-treating rider. We pointed out that without "1931" there would have been no "1945", no seriously reforming Labour government.

Why not the SP line?

In Solidarity and Workers' Liberty we told the truth about New Labour. Why did we not simply conclude that the old game was over, and the Labour Party definitively dead? Why did we not call for a clean break of the unions from Labour, rather than advocating, as we did, union self-assertion within the Labour structures, which we said would probably lead to a split? Why, in short, did we not adopt a policy in the style of the Socialist Party?

Because we kept the whole reality in mind. The union-Labour links had been radically changed, but not broken. The unions still had great weight in the Labour structures - an unused weight, a potential weight, but a real one. Trade union support remained an essential prop of the New Labour establishment.

The best course of action for the unions and the working class would be not to walk away and start afresh, but to cleanse and revive the structures that the New Labour leaders had cemented over. The image which we used, "cemented over", implied that, perhaps, the old "valves" had not been removed.

As and when rank and file trade unionists began to want to assert themselves collectively in politics, on any scale, that could not but be the better, more economical, option for them, a very much quicker route to restoring a real Labour Party.

Because those considerations were real, it would be easier to convince rank and file trade unionists, and the remnants of real Labour activism within the withered structures of the New Labour party, along those lines, and, perhaps, easier to shift the unions in that direction. It was the "natural" path, the line of least resistance, for a trade-union movement rousing itself on any large scale against New Labour.

Until the latest AWL NC document (drafted by MT), we opposed proposals for trade-union disaffiliation, in part on the grounds that if the left could bring about trade-union disaffiliation on a large scale, then it could also bring about the better course - reclamation and refurbishment of the Labour structures, though not without a split.

Neither sheepdog nor premature defeatist

We rejected the variant that would assign to AWL the role of opponents of any limited positive trade-union break with New Labour - for example, the breaking of the RMT, over support for the SSP - before the other unions were ready to break too. We rejected the policy of fetishising the preservation of trade-union "unity" within the Labour structures. To adopt that policy would have been to make a fetish of our "best scenario" and to try to make of it a prescriptive plan; we were not strong enough to impose that prescriptive plan, anyway, so to adopt it would have lined us up with the New Labour/ union status quo, as its defenders (albeit on the grounds that we had a "better" scenario in our heads). It would have turned us into allies and outriders of the right against the left - made us seriously stupid, in the manner of Briefing.

We understood that our idea of what would be best could not be a rigid "perspective", because we were not remotely strong enough to carve out that perspective. The rigid insistence on keeping the affiliated unions together come what may would be a variant of the bone-headed old Militant (SP) fetishising of a projected scenario. What we had to do was build up the revolutionary organisation and "tack" and "turn" while steering through the uncharted rocks and rapids of an unprecedented situation. All this is explained in the pamphlet debating with Tom R and Maria,

There was in all this an underlying attitude. Suppose the Labour Party had been definitely destroyed - how should revolutionary socialists assess that? Should we say: oh, good, that is the big reformist organisation out of the way; that is a bit of ground cleared of debris? Some such attitude was for a long time implicit in the denunciations of the Labour Party by the SWP about specific shifts in government policy.

No, we should not say that. The destruction of the old Labour Party, not by the splitting-away of a sizeable revolutionary organisation, and the competition of that revolutionary organisation with the Labour rump, but by way of Labour's replacement by the species of bourgeois liberalism that New Labour was - that would be an immense historical defeat for the working class, a massive regression. Indeed, however we label and assess it "theoretically", the partial destruction of the old Labour Party by New Labour has been that - a great regression.

While we spurned pretence and wishful thinking in the style of Briefing, we also spurned and rejected its twin: the SP attitude. Prematurely to accept defeat is one of the most self-destructive and disorienting things a revolutionary socialist organisation can do.

The experience of the SWP should warn us on that. After 1979 it rushed prematurely to proclaim a historic "downturn" in working-class militancy. Thereby it travelled a great deal further down the road to becoming a depoliticised "build-the-revolutionary-party-as-a-machine" sect - one capable of filling the political vacuum with an alliance with Islamic clerical fascists and general "anti-imperialism of idiots" policies. And it utterly disoriented itself for the first six months of the miners' strike in 1984 (and, in part, throughout the strike).

To refuse to calibrate finely where things were at in union-Labour relations, what was still possible given militant union (or union-leader) activity and what was really ruled out - that was and is a species of premature defeatism. We fought the wistful thinkers not in the name of SP crudity and subjective hatred for New Labour, but of honest and precise Marxist analysis.

The capitalist crisis and the new situation

The question now for us is to understand the implications of the new situation that is, or may be, now shaping. Its elements are:

  • Slump in the world and in Britain;
  • For the first time in twenty years, sharp differences between New Labour government "neo-Keynesians" and the Tories, who counterpose public-spending retrenchment and cuts;
  • Looming defeat for New Labour; and
  • The fact that the working-class movement will no longer be able to go on in the old way in the situation of slump and New Labour defeat.

At all times, Marxist analysis has to be situated within the parameters of the big “objective” developments; otherwise the would-be Marxists can be guided only by raw subjective wishes, desires and anticipations, fears and hopes, and fleeting impressions. The latter “method” in politics is a treacherous one; in any case, it is not the Marxist approach.

There is a new situation. In this new situation, the unions cannot remain where they are now, politically and socially. They will either retreat downwards to new depths of prostration, and surrender to attacks far worse than New Labour government policy in the years of relative boom; or they will begin to rally and begin to fight back, even if patchily and inadequately.

It is only too possible that the union leaders will want to continue as they have been doing - only, in the changed circumstances, with far worse consequences for the working class. We need to say that plainly to those in the labour movement whom we can reach. But any a priori acceptance by us that the further retreat and further destruction of the working-class movement is certain and unavoidable would be premature defeatism. It would be a self-disorienting and politically self-destructive variant of the SWP's approach of embracing - and propagating in the labour movement - the idea of the "downturn".It would be fatalistic resignation in advance to defeat and cumulative defeat.

That is not our politics. That is not our proper role. That is not compatible with what AWL has been and much continue to be. We must seek the most realistic possibilities for working-class action, self-defensive and self-bettering action on both the trade union and political level. We must elaborate "perspectives" for a struggle and try to group the militants around that.

If we do that, in a spirit of strict but not supine realism - of revolutionary realism and realistic "optimism" - and group people around the perspective, then even if the worst defeats engulf us, we will be better able, with the comrades rallied for the fight to reorient the movement, to meet those defeats.

I repeat: premature defeatism, rushing to embrace the worst-case scenario before reality forces it on us, is a variant of political suicide, or “partial suicide”, for revolutionaries. Even if such an approach helps - as Cliff's policy did - to "preserve the cadre", it will make of the organisation an onanistic self-regarding entity rather than one oriented to reshaping the labour movement. If there would be organisational advantages in having a "clear-cut" anti-Labour line - as there are, indeed - but the line is not based strictly on truthful and exact assessment of reality, then it will have sectarian effect. The SWP of around 1980 and the SP now show us twin reefs on which we can wreck ourselves as a revolutionary organisation. Even if organisationally we should grow with false policies, politically we would wreck ourselves.

Of course, a policy of fine calibration and "tacking" is less emotionally satisfying than a more "clear-cut" anti-Labour line. That is not a legitimate concern of revolutionary Marxists. We orient to reality, to the existing labour movement and working class, as it exists.

Can reformism revive?

Another very important aspect of the labour movement and New Labour has also to be taken into account.

Has the experience of New Labour and the trade unions' subordination to New Labour, the mass working-class disillusionment with and hostility to New Labour and the whole New Labour experience, meant the destruction of the old mass reformist consciousness of the labour movement? The experience of Thatcher and New Labour, the social changes in Britain over 30 years, have certainly shifted that old reformism and changed it. In broad terms there has been a shift from reliance on social/state welfare to self-reliance on the basis of prosperity and the hope of greater prosperity. In a way it is a continuation of the shift in the 1950s and 60s away from state-reformist perspectives towards a militant (mostly localised) trade-union focus on wage rises.

The question is, have the shifts banished the old reformism, cauterised its growth? We cannot assume that they have, and for two reasons.

One: if trade unionism is the "natural", easy, line-of-least-resistance form taken by working-class organisation, focusing on the wage relation between the worker and the buyer of labour-power, general reformism is an extension of it onto the field of politics, the overall arrangement and governance of social affairs: state reforms, state benefits, state amelioration.

That will continue to be an ever-springing-up aspect of any working-class movement or organisation, including any political working-class movement that might theoretically group itself around unions disaffiliated from the Labour Party such as the RMT. That will be so until we replace that "natural" militant working-class consciousness with Marxist political ideas and perspectives. Unless we are in a position to shape things politically on a large scale, the best outcome from even a regrouped militant cluster of trade unions would be a refurbishment of reformism.

Two: in the slump we see government intervention to regulate the banking system and to substitute the bourgeois government for the fumbling and failing bourgeoisie. That inaugurates a new situation in which there will be a new focus on government action of a “state-capitalist” sort. That can not but influence the labour movement towards reformist demands on the state, especially in an era of very large scale unemployment.

Reformism is not going to fade away until we destroy it and replace it with class-struggle Marxist ideas.

It is not ruled out - to put it at its weakest - that there will be a resurgence of older-style reformism in the Labour Party - perhaps pioneered by the affiliated trade unions- after the New Labour defeat. We have seen a sharp jump from New Labour and Thatcherite dogma about markets to major government intervention (and in the USA, too). To say that this is a "lurch to the left" would be stupid. These are state-capitalist measures, initiatives, of the sort that were very familiar throughout the 20th century under governments of many ideological hues. It is however a major shift.

Such things as New Labour's apparent determination to privatise Royal Mail contradict the new statism, but are far from eliminating it. They are on a relatively minute scale compared to the new interventionism, in banking for instance. The natural "corollary" in the working class and the labour movement is demands for state reforms, and state responsibility for welfare, unemployment, housing, and so on.

The matrix of labour-movement reformism is still in existence. The slump and the likely Tory government attacks on welfare will sharpen and clarify reformist responses. Trying now, in advance, to work out precisely how this factor might affect the Labour Party after a New Labour defeat would be foolish. That it will be a massive pressure and influence, on the trade unions and on the working class, is certain.

As the New Labour government slides to what seems to be an unavoidable end (though, of course, between now and the General Election, assuming it is a year from now, New Labour's position may improve), the process of union separation from New Labour is still very limited. A relationship stands, despite such things as the RMT's disaffiliation.

The idea that in opposition New Labour, with new leaders, and perhaps hiving off some of the present MPs to the Lib Dems, cannot refurbish a reformist face is naive in the extreme. If you doubt that, look at the shift of the neo-Thatcherite Brown government to state intervention, higher taxes for the well-off... It is not a matter of taking such things at face value, or of neglecting to see what is wrong about them. That is, or should be, common ground with all AWL members. The point is that change is possible, reformist renewal is possible, even likely.

Workers and “facts”

In his discussion with C L R James, Trotsky responds to a question from James: why, since we were right on so many enormous questions - Germany, the Spanish revolution of 1936-7, etc. - are we still very small? Why haven't we grown? Workers, says Trotsky, learn above all from facts.

Intellectuals may learn from the reflection, processing, and generalisation of facts. Workers learn mostly from the cruder aspect of facts. The facts of defeat for the working class in Germany, Spain, etc. loom much larger than the fact that our policies would, if adopted by the working-class movement, have avoided defeat.

For sure, the mass revulsion from New Labour counts for a great deal now with the working class; so do the cumulative defeats for so many years. After the election, however, the big facts will be the slump, the Tory government - once again, as in the past, everything obnoxious to the labour movement will be described as "Tory" policy - and the pressure of financial retrenchment. Saying that New Labour, if it continued in government after 2010, would make cuts too will have little weight in face of the fact of a "Tory" offensive - and the big fact of the Labour Party and the main trade unions remaining as the big political-social formation to the left of the Tories.

There is no remotely comparable competition on the left. If the existing activist left groups united on socialist policies that would be a great step forward, but it would not be a credible alternative to the working class and the labour movement on the large scale.

In recent years we have seen the most shameless Labour and Tory political manoeuvring and "triangulation" (political gazumping of rival parties). For a while the Cameron gang in the Tory party seemed to be experimenting with re-branding themselves as old, "caring", "One Nation", pre-Thatcher Tories. But now the "neo-Thatcherite" New Labour government has turned economic-interventionist with a vengeance, and the Tories have chosen the pitch of "stability to the British economy and responsibility to our public finances".

The possibility that New Labour in opposition will refurbish its politics as reformism in tandem with the unions is far from unrealistic. Rigid insistence that it is certain that they won't even try is the elast realistic expectation, and it is simply another way of saying that the labour movement - which mostly remains tied to New Labour - will collapse prostrate before the Tory offensive.

It is possible, indeed, that the union leaders will collapse prostrate. It is not something for us to accept in advance, still less for us to orient to - for all the reasons above.

The big fact is that the core union-Labour link remains. The process of breaking off unions from the Labour Party has not gone far enough to be irreversible. The outright break-aways have, all in all, been marginal. The least that can be expected is that relations will change and evolve. The balance within the relationship, now vastly favouring the Government, will shift.

In these conditions, we have to adjust the policies of AWL. In this situation, to support CWU disaffiliation is to support the withdrawal of that union from the most likely arena of hammering out a working-class political response (or, if you insist, a labour-movement, trade-union political response) to the new situation.

In the past we rejected the policy of indefinite wait-and-see; rejected the idea that our role was to act as guardians of the existing union-Labour links (see the pamphlet). That was not wrong. What has fundamentally changed is that it is no longer a matter of indefinite wait and see. There is a fixed time for a general election - at most a year away - and probably a short time for sorting out afterwards.

Things tend to happen after General Election defeats - autopsies, balance-sheets, attempts by the defeated party to rally and reassess itself.

CWU disaffiliation

Thus, it would be simply stupid to say that there is anything wrong in adjusting AWL policy now to say to CWU militants who want to disaffiliate: don't do that now. For now, focus instead on the things AWL has recommended in previous years, about the CWU asserting itself in Labour structures and trying to break up the New Labour “cementing-over”.

Conditions may soon be much better for rallying other unions and activists to such a fight. It may be that in two or three years' time we will have to conclude that even the unprecedented pressures of huge economic crisis and heavy election defeat could open no real cracks in New Labour, that nothing real is to be lost by disaffiliating. But what is gained, in a situation of crisis and flux, by ruling out the possibilities in advance? By assuing, in such a situation, that the “cementing-over” is bound to continue more or less in a straight line?

To refuse such an approach amounts to the idea that, faced with steering in uncharted and treacherous waters, we should lock the steering tiller in place - cement it in, so to speak, as New Labour cemented over the old "open valve" of union-Labour relations, so that adjustments and tactical shifts are ruled out.

The idea that we should relate to CWU militants by going along with their understandable urge to break with the New Labour government and express that as a break with the party to which the mass trade unions are affiliated and within which they are likely to work out a balance-sheet of the New Labour experience - that is a species of Apparatus Marxism", the idea that we derive our programme, propaganda, and agitation from what "catches a mood" and allows us to suck up to militants on their own level. It is the SWP approach. Coupled with the premature acceptance that the labour movement will not respond to the new situation with any life, it is a compendium of the decisive traits of the SWP that have shaped it into what it is over the last three decades.

I repeat: defeat, perhaps defeat without a serious labour-movement fight, is indeed all too possible. It is not something we can accept in advance, and still less what we should orient to now. The political world we operate in is complex. Relating to it by false simplicities that fail to take the complexities into account will not allow us to change that world: it will mean changing AWL into another branch of the know-nothing kitsch-left.


Submitted by Daniel_Randall on Sat, 23/05/2009 - 13:25


Sean's entire position is predicated on the possibility - not even the likelihood - that some "openings" in the Labour Party will emerge following a 2010 general election defeat. But the nature of these openings is never made concrete - Sean's entire hopes are pinned to the mast of some vague, indeterminate "fight back" by "the unions" (not something it really makes sense to talk about as a bloc when it comes to New Labour; more on this later), supplemented by an influx of angry anti-Tory workers into the Labour Party.

In the interests of continuing to exist on Planet Earth, I think we can ditch the latter potentiality straight away. Even if there was anything going on in the class now that suggested the potential for such an influx (there isn't), there wouldn't actually be anywhere for such people to go. CLPs ceased having any life long before a revival was formally, structurally precluded by the Bournemouth changes. An "influx" from our point of view is useless unless it has the potential ability to make some changes in how the Labour Party functions as a social force. The influx Sean imagines is not only almost-impossibly unlikely but, even if it were to take place, would amount to a headlong charge into a very sturdy brick wall.

As for the former potentiality - the "fight back" by "the unions" - this is the small bit of Sean's argument that might have some grip, so it's rather a shame that he dresses it up in vagueness and mystery rather than being concrete about what form it might take. I'm a generous guy, though, so let me throw Sean a bone. Here's some concrete ways in which the unions could "fight back":

a) The bureaucracies of the GMB, Unite, Unison and (assuming it doesn't disaffiliate) the CWU could put constitutional motions to the Labour Party conference to reverse the Bournemouth changes.
b) All unions could withdraw sponsorship/funding from all Labour MPs unless they agree to a basic programme including at least some reformist species of anti-capitalism and some commitment to an idea of workers' representation.
c) The unions could launch concerted, national industrial battles against the Tory government and challenge the Labour Party to back them, threatening disaffiliation if they refused.

Is this the sort of thing you're imagining, Sean? I guess it probably is. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

I'm not opposed to the unions doing any of the above; far from it. But can we base our orientation for the next period - Sean imagines a duration of three years for this "wait-and-see" experiment - on what is essentially a gamble that any of these things might happen? No, we cannot.

Option a) would not constitute any kind of "fight back" as we would meaningfully understand one. It would be leftish bureaucratic maneuvering at best, and to rely for it on the very people who puffed their chests out and promised to oppose Bournemouth to the hilt before meekly committing suicide would be madness. In the 1980s, when the unions were a more significant social forces than they are now, their (limited) attempts to "fight back" against Kinnock rarely got them anywhere. Why does Sean expect that (necessarily even more limited) "fight back" by the unions (atrophied, shrivelled, decayed) now will be any more successful?

I'll return here to my point about the inadequacy of referring to "the unions" as a bloc when dealing with New Labour; the sort of "fight back" we'd positively want in a situation of Tory government is a rank-and-file one that takes its lead from struggles like Visteon. The sort of possible "fight back" that Sean wants us to put everything else on hold for is actually one that would necessarily be carried out by the trade union bureaucracy. That's not a "fight back", it's a power play.

Option b) was a good immediate orientation for 1997-2007, and might remain a useful tactical lever in unions where disaffiliation is a non-starter, but its usefulness is in the amount of propaganda it allows us to make around workers' representation, not in the likelihood of it being enacted by the bureaucracy. In the debate around something like this issue at the 2008 GMB congress, senior GMB leaders (it might even have been Kenny himself, I can't quite remember) motivated their opposition by presenting a scenario in which the union sponsored a senior Minister of State, and reminded delegates to remember that "MPs sometimes have to answer to something higher than GMB policy". That's where the trade union leaders are at on this question; is a Tory government likely to embolden them, or cause them in fact to fall properly into line and become more loyal?

As for option c)... if we had a labour movement that was in sufficient politico-organisational good health to be launching serious, national industrial battles I rather suggest that we might not be mired in this debate at all.

My point is that, to the extent that Sean's hope for a "union fight back" against an opposition Labour Party has any grip on concrete possibilities, they are not ones that appear in reality likely to carve open space enough for Marxists to reorientate to the Labour Party as something like the site-of-struggle it was until the 1990s.


Presumably Sean doesn't actually want us to “wait and see” if the unions fight back, and then flood into the gaping “openings” their heroic struggle will rend in New Labour if such a fight back takes place. Presumably what he actually wants is for the AWL to adopt in the labour movement a kind of “reclaim the Labour Party” perspective, and agitate for the kind of fight back he believes necessary to bring it about. To that extent that such a fight back would be based on my options a, b and c above, I have hopefully demonstrated how making our ability to set such fight backs in motion the central focus of our activist orientation is a recipe for inertia and bogging-down. If, however, this isn't what Sean really means and he really does want us to “wait and see”, this renders his position even more mind-boggling.

Wait and see for how long, Sean? Wait and see for who to do what? And what do we do in the meantime? Suppose we adopt some version of Sean's position as national policy, and suppose that after the European elections the RMT revisit the debate about electoral strategy and end up adopting something more like the perspective we first proposed for it; this is a far more likely possibility, as far as I can tell, than anything Sean envisages, particularly given that it has a real and recent precedent - the RMT, remember, backed the candidacies of AWL members Pete Radcliff in the 2005 general election and Janine Booth in the 2006 council elections. Sean's policy would hold us back from meaningful engagement with any new direction, compelling us instead to either counsel that RMT members sit on their hands and, like CWU militants, “wait and see” if the big battalions of the labour movement bureaucracy decide to lumber into life against Brown. Or, it would counsel us to oppose outright any moves towards independent electoral challenge or reconstitution of a working-class political formation and advocate RMT re-affiliation to the Labour Party on the basis of “potential openings”. I think this would be madness.

As I said in my first response to Sean (see the comment here), his policy offers us very little in
the way of concrete activist direction but a great deal in the way of long-term inertia.


I think there is an issue in that I don't think Sean, who admitted himself in the speech he gave at our March 21st dayschool that he's been entirely divorced from the activist life of the organisation for some time, really has much of a grip on where people's heads are at in terms of their attitude to the Labour Party.

I don't claim much more of a grip myself; I'm not an experienced trade unionist or a workplace militant or anything like it. But I do spend my time in campaigns with people who are, and no significant body of them are saying anything that would indicate their readiness to enact Sean's policy.

The residual reformist consciousness of the labour movement and a historical affinity/identification with the Labour Party, the evidence upon which Sean's gamble for the influx/openings is in some part based, is not the certainty it once was. The affinity/identification with the Labour Party has, I would contend, for all but a layer of still-surviving trade union officials who cut their teeth in the 1970s or 80s, pretty much evaporated.

For young workers, certainly, who have no conscious memory of the Labour Party as anything other than a bosses' party of privatisation (which it shows no signs of ceasing to be, no matter how much sub-Keynesian or soft-social democratic clothing it might adorn itself with), the historical affinity simply does not exist. It's not something that gets into you by osmosis or by drinking the water in working-class areas; it has to have some grounding in objective reality, and the objective reality when it comes to the Labour Party now is not one that is going to induce any worker to develop even a gut-level, instinctual identification with it. Okay, says Sean, but that reality might change post-2010; yes, it might, but is he sufficiently confident in the means by which it might change actually coming about to set the AWL off down the path of two, three or more years of being shackled to what might turn out to be a corpse after all?

There are other possible openings elsewhere. We have already seen how the effects of the crisis have led to a limited upsurge in radical forms of working-class direct action – that is an opening in itself. If a coalition of workplace/school occupiers and anti-cuts campaigners launch candidacies in 2010, we should support them and advocate that unions support them. We should do whatever we can to see that such candidacies come about.
Presumably Sean doesn't disagree, but if so how does this tally with a perspective of “waiting and seeing” for any openings in the Labour Party? CWU support for such an initiative would very likely lead to its expulsion; is there so much difference between such an outcome and disaffiliation on the positive basis of seeking to establish such initiatives alongside other unions and campaigns (the basis on which we've initiate disaffiliation procedures ourselves)?

We are not fortune-tellers; nothing is guaranteed, everything is “possibility”. But some element of our assessment of possibilities has to be their relative likelihood. Is the “possible opening” of a new political formation being drawn together from below by workplace struggles, anti-cuts campaigns, school occupations etc. to be discounted? Why is it less likely than a big influx into the Labour Party? And how much more likely would it be made if we were able to win RMT and newly-disaffiliated CWU support for it?

If we continue to advocate disaffiliation, as I believe we should, and it turns out in year or so's time that we have made no headway in terms of independent political initiative and that Sean's predictions come true – then fine. Nothing stops us then from admitting that we made a tactical call that didn't work out and reorientating. But, for now, continuing to act on the policy we have spent the last two years developing (and which Sean doesn't believe we need to retroactively break from) is a better way to use our activist resources than the one Sean proposes – to reduce the AWL to the preachers of caution, inertia, and “waiting and seeing” in the labour movement.

Submitted by AWL on Tue, 26/05/2009 - 14:54

Submitted by Daniel_Randall on Tue, 26/05/2009 - 19:33

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