3. Why argue now for a union fight in the Labour structures?

Submitted by AWL on 9 July, 2009 - 5:16 Author: Sean Matgamna and Martin Thomas

Over the last dozen years AWL has argued for activists to fight in the unions for those unions to raise the banner of revolt against New Labour, rally those who could be rallied to recreate the old, relatively open, Labour structures that Blair and Brown cemented over - and hive off the New Labour element.

In fact over those dozen years things have moved on a more or less straight track towards ever-greater sealing-off of the New Labour machine from the unions and from any species of working-class activism.

Now, new factors indicate a serious possibility that in the next few years things may move in a different direction.

The Labour Party has become an organisation in which the openings for combatting the New Labour government are very much closed off short of a concerted revolt by the leaders of the big unions.

With Labour in opposition - joint opposition with the unions - to fierce Tory cuts, however, the choices will be posed differently.

To workers disgusted with New Labour's record, Labour will nevertheless appear as the big union-linked opposition to the Tories.

An influx of activists motivated by fighting the Tories may then stimulate loosening-up of the cemented-over structures, and opening-up of space for recrimination about New Labour's record.

If the historic possibility remains open of rallying forces in the Labour structures, and reclaiming sections of those structures from the New Labour hijackers, then that is by far the better, most economical, quicker way to move mass working-class political development forward, compared to the path of building working-class political representation anew from the scattered bits and pieces which will be left by a piecemeal peeling-off of the unions from Labour.

If such moves by the unions can be made to happen in and through a fightback (in alliance with a new-faced Labour Party) against the Tory government, it will enormously shorten the perspective for the re-emergence of a union-based party fighting, even minimally, for the working class and with it.

Of course it does not therefore follow that this will be the outcome in the next few years! Of course we should beware of wishful thinking.

But in terms of the evolution of present realities, an orientation in that direction is a lot more firmly grounded than the fantasy that the kitsch left and Bob Crow will form even a roughly adequate "pole" around which working-class politics can be reconstructed in segregation from and in competition with the "big" labour movement.

Therefore, we should for that next period stay with an orientation of pushing for the unions to fight in the Labour structures, rather than rush to declare in advance that defeat is signed and sealed, that all possibilities for a fight are shut off for the assayable future.

To campaign for disaffiliation now would be a complete abandonment of, a complete (and not at all "flexible!") turn away from, any advocacy of the unions "sorting out" Labour. To do that in a developing situation in which a union/Labour revival is, to put it at is weakest, not ruled out, can make no political sense whatsoever.

It is always good in politics not to tie our tactics too closely to our predictions. Predictions cannot but be imperfect, and may - even if they were the best predictions possible at the time they were made - turn out to be seriously wrong.

All the advantages of such "flexibility" here belong to the position which recognises the serious possibility of a Labour revival, as against the "disaffiliation now" dogmatists.

Does refusing to concede defeat in advance as regards the big unions mean shutting off other paths for real progress? No, it does not!

Our position does not rule out AWL election candidates, AWL campaigning for a new Socialist Alliance, or AWL participation in a Socialist Alliance if we can get it set up. In 2001-3 we opposed disaffiliation, and responded to the rise of the new "awkward squad" generation of union leaders by agitation for them to fight in the Labour structures, while also participating in the Socialist Alliance that existed then.

If a sizeable left-of-Labour party should, after all, somehow emerge in the next couple of years, then we would participate, as the British Trotskyists in the mid-1930s worked in the Independent Labour Party while thinking (rightly) that the ILP's split from the Labour Party in 1932 had been wrong.

If pessimism proves well-founded, and there is little or no revival in the labour movement in the next few years, then opposition to disaffiliation will not disable us, any more than it has done in the last 12 years of labour movement retreat.

The disaffiliationist line, by contrast, "locks the tiller", making impossible the essential work of manoeuvring and tacking in relation to developments. It commits us, come what may, to go on steering in a straight line. It rigidly rules out a whole dimension of politics - battle within the Labour structures - and locks us into a single scenario: building up a "pool" of disaffiliated unions and propagandising for them to form a party. If there is even a mild Labour revival, the disaffiliationist line will set us seriously askew.

Disaffiliation

We need to face the fact that disaffiliation by any union in the near future is almost certain to mean a move towards political disengagement or a political policy of "shopping around" for supportive politicians of different parties. It is almost certain to mean that even if the disaffiliation motion is initially, on paper, linked to the desire for a new working-class political party to the left of Labour.

If the serious left in the union cannot push the union leadership into any political fight inside the Labour structures, then disaffiliation cannot miraculously so strengthen that left as to make it able to push the union leadership into the far more demanding tasks of building an even halfway-adequate new party from scratch and stopping the union leaders engaging in diversionary and reactionary political idiocies such as "No2EU".

Tipping the union leadership into disaffiliation by way of a membership or delegate vote which can unite all the elements of political disengagement, frustration, etc. around the negative proposition of disaffiliation, can be read as a shift "to the left" only if one makes a stupid fetish of disaffiliation.

In fact, in 2007, after the SSP split, we advocated (unsuccessfully) that RMT reaffiliate to the Labour Party. That same year, the FBU's left-wing leadership successfully proposed that FBU open a discussion with a view to reaffiliating, though since then the FBU Executive has conceded that for now FBU members are in no mood to do that.

And what about the attack on the union-Labour link that may happen in the coming period if a Tory government outlaws union payments to political parties? We can't judge how likely that is, but it has been discussed and is a possibility. It would have the same meaning as the Osborne Judgement of 1909 (forbidding unions to use their funds for political purposes) which, together with the Taff Vale Judgement of 1901 fuelled the drive to create a union-based Labour Party.

What would advocates of a campaign for union disaffiliation say then? Anyone with our general politics who would say in that eventuality, "Oh, good! We didn't want the link to continue, either!", would be a hopeless political dim-wit.

Or do we campaign for disaffiliation, and then, if the Tories try to legislate to force disaffiliation, switch sides and campaign against disaffiliation?

None of this means that a revival of the affiliated-unions/Labour complex will necessarily take a left-wing character, even by "old Labour" standards of what is left-wing. A big Tory election victory, heavy Tory attacks, and mass unemployment are not necessarily good conditions for mainstream politics shifting to the left, or left-minded people becoming more confident and ambitious.

Even when the mass labour movement is conservative in tone and mood, it is still the only one we have got! And it is the only one the working class - workers faced with fighting the Tories, against whom will stand an opposition bloc of the main unions and the Labour Party - has. All our hopes of socialism rest on the working class. We have a duty to seek leverage in the existing mass labour movement, as it is, however uncongenial, and to adapt tactically to that concern; a duty both to stand firm on our political principles and to be flexible in our tactics.

A left-wing tone to the revival will of course create better conditions for our task of building AWL and AWL influence. That possibility is likely to depend on rank and file working-class combativity against the Tories.

But union leaders' agitation, even hypocritical agitation, can foster rank-and-file combativity; and that in turn may push the union leaders to more serious moves.

It was internal labour-movement revolt that stopped the Labour government in 1969-70 putting anti-union legislation on the statute books. By contrast, it was working-class activity on the streets and in workplaces that disabled the law which the Tories put on the statute book in September 1971.

The long agitation at trade-union leadership level, first against Labour's proposed laws and then against the Tory law, was an irreplaceable part of the conditions that generated the rank and file revolt and the big strike wave triggered by the jailing of five dockers under the new law for illegal picketing in July 1972. It was then the TUC's decision, under pressure of that strike wave, to call a one-day general strike, that broke the will of the Heath Tory government.

In the event of big working-class battles, all currents of the left (broadly defined) are likely to be augmented; but, starting from where we are now, there is no possibility in the next few years that such an augmentation would simply bypass the Labour Party, or pull the big affiliated unions away from the Labour Party without any prior process of conflict within the Labour structures.

For that to happen, the Labour-union link would have to be shattered, and the Labour Party break up and begin to disappear. That has not happened. In the new situation emerging, it is extremely unlikely that it will happen.

We advocate the perspective of a fight by the unions within the Labour structures, up to a split if necessary. After the general election the Labour leaders will probably first seek to re-knit relations with the unions. A 1931-style rupture of unions and Labour activists from New Labour recedes somewhat into the future in the new situation shaping up.

There is a strong network of personal ties, contacts, and consultations between the unions and the Labour Party. A New Labour hack like Charlie Whelan (an AEEU official from 1981 to 1992, then an aide to Gordon Brown, now back with Unite) is an example of the interchange of personnel here. With Labour in government, these ties have served to make the unions subservient to the government; with Labour in opposition, some of them will, maybe and to some extent, serve an opposite purpose.

The idea that a union remaining affiliated to the Labour Party "traps" it politically is radically false. It is one thread in a skein of attitudes that fetishise either the union-Labour link or its opposite.

Union leaders go for lobbying and haggling with governments, rather than mobilising, because of their politics, not because of Labour affiliation. Never-affiliated unions do that as much as affiliated ones.

Being affiliated does not stop a union fighting the Labour leadership politically; in fact it can make such a fight easier and more effective.

Events point to new possibilities for that fight - not for an immediate showdown, but for the revival of some life and movement - within the next few years.

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