4. Instead, build an alternative "pole" by way of disaffiliations?

Submitted by AWL on 9 July, 2009 - 5:29 Author: Sean Matgamna and Martin Thomas

After the defeat at the Bournemouth Labour Party conference of September 2007, which banned political motions to future conferences from unions and local Labour Parties, AWL began to propose a fallback option in addition to our basic line of pushing for the unions to fight within the Labour structures.

We argued that politically dissenting unions (some affiliated, some disaffiliated) should regroup, creating in the political field something like (in the industrial field) the Congress of Industrial Organisations which organised the mass unionisation in the USA in the mid-1930s.

We proposed this at the conferences in 2007 and 2008 of the Labour Representation Committee, to which those dissenting unions are affiiliated. We said that the LRC should broaden out into a Workers' Representation Movement linking up with local Trades Councils, etc. which might run local independent working-class candidates.

We did not propose that the politically dissenting unions launch a new party. In general, we do not give a blank cheque to union leaderships which are more militant than the others, but remain politically a long way from adequate working-class politics, to launch a party on our behalf.

Neither the "dissenting" unions (RMT, FBU, CWU, etc.) nor Trades Councils have moved in the direction we advocated, in the recent period of stark conflict between the New Labour government and the unions. The No2EU campaign, and any likely follow-up general election effort around the RMT leadership, do not correspond to what we think the working class needs and what we therefore advocated.

To extrapolate from that "CIO" idea into the idea that our effort should now be to assemble a "pole" - a party or quasi-party - of disaffiliated unions would be politically foolish.

Our original "CIO" idea made a grim fallback-position sense in the conditions of relative boom; Labour possibly continuing in power to 2014 or beyond; the union leaders playing donkey-to-rider with New Labour; etc.

The "pole" extrapolation means something radically different in the changed conditions now and, foreseeably, for the next few years. It would, under the Tory government that is likely soon, pit us not against a New Labour government and its union-leader backers, but against the mainstream organised labour movement.

It would pit us against the main body of the unions when they are, most likely, the main force of opposition to that Tory government. (It is bound to be timid, inadequate, possibly treacherous opposition - but opposition nonetheless, and the opposition that will be visible and audible to the working class at large and to others seeking a plausible counter to the Tories).

Moreover, advocacy of the "pole" could never, for AWL in its present size and influence in the labour movement, be other than propaganda for it. That line of propaganda, in the new circumstances, would turn us into a project-mongering sect needlessly counterposed to the activity of the broader labour movement.

There is no possibility in the calculable future that electoral efforts, either by the small socialist groups that exist now, or by a couple of unions or a single union (and, at that, one with gammy and even, on the EU, reactionary politics), can burgeon to a scale that can bypass or short-circuit a revival of the affiliated-unions/ Labour complex.

It defies logic and historic precedent to hope that a couple of sectional unions, as unions, will initiate a substantial party-type "project", in the next few years.

As Trotsky put it: "Trade unions do not offer, and in line with their task, composition, and manner of recruiting membership, cannot offer a finished revolutionary programme; in consequence, they cannot replace the party".

The main forces outside the Labour Party and to its left are the kitsch-left socialists of whom we are so critical. Long ago a Roman republican gave us this bit of concise wisdom: "Can there be greater foolishness than the respect you pay to people collectively when you despise them individually?"

Even united, "the left" will, politically speaking, remain what it is - unless we transform it.

The idea that this left and such trade-unionists as Bob Crow of the RMT (a CPB sympathiser) will, "united", form a viable, even roughly adequate, left-wing "pole" is a-political delusion, an attempt to escape the limitations imposed on AWL by our size and condition into an imaginary world in which "the left" will magically have been transformed into something which does not exist. To escape in fantasy, and in fantasy only.

Fantasy politics is passive politics - changing things in your head when the "the point, however, is to change them" in reality.

Opposition to questioning disaffiliation comes from a number of radically different conceptions and approaches.

Some advocate no Labour vote even as a fallback, arguing that the Labour Party can be treated as completely dead. Some differ from the present writers essentially only in saying that a possible Labour revival will be some years in the future rather than sooner. (Though meanwhile we go on advocating new disaffiliations? Yes, that's what they seem to want to say.)

Some disaffiliationists say little about the new "pole", but largely confine themselves to the view that the structural changes in the Labour Party rule out any revival there.

Those who invoke the new "pole" as an immediate project for the sake of which disaffiliation is necessary use various words - "project", "coalition", "formation", "alignment", etc. But, to make any sense at all, what's involved must be a formation which runs candidates in elections; has a political life between elections; and has some internal democracy (local groups, committees, conferences).

In short, a party, though maybe a loose, inchoate one. A large and more or less adequate new workers' party or quasi-party! A tall order? Indeed! And taller still when, for what they say to add up, it must all happen within the next year or so!

Or is it that the "new pole" is not an immediate practical proposition but rather a long-term aim which we propagandise for?

That indicates a perspective that we seek to chip away bit by bit, disaffiliating unions one by one, building up a "pool" of disaffiliated unions. In that "pool", we make propaganda for a long-term perspective of the disaffiliated unions constructing a new party.

It makes the position more, not less, nonsensical.

If a RMT-CWU party had really been immediately possible around the time of the CWU conference, then there could have been a reasonable discussion about whether we should promote or seek to work in it, and how.

To say that there are no such immediate possibilities, but we should write disaffiliation into our programme as the mandatory next stage towards the fairly distant future "pole", is an even purer form of nonsense than the idea that an RMT-centred party is immediately possible and can be "our answer" to the Labour Party.

We should refuse to make a fetish of disaffiliation, to see it as a necessary precondition for working-class political revival. To do that would make us a stupid mirror image of our former comrades who fetishised affiliation, seeing the preservation of the old union-Labour bloc as the precondition for revival of mass working-class politics.

It is impossible to calculate in advance, with certainty, that there will be no fightback by the big unions. And it is wrong in principle for us to give up on it now, and orient to the prospect of further defeats for the labour movement.

Our approach should be (in Romain Rolland's phrase which Gramsci would quote): "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will".

The equilibrium with the unions have with the New Labour government under conditions of relative prosperity cannot be maintained. For some years past, and now, the union leaders have indulged in the fantasy politics of backing Brown against Blair. An election defeat will give them a jolt of political reality.

If the labour movement does not fight back against the coming Tory cuts, it will not stand still. It will be pushed further back.

The assessment made by some who disagree with the ideas expressed in this article that the Labour Party may well revive in five, six, seven years' time, but absolutely not in the next couple of years, cannot be rooted in any observable trends and factors around us.

It is arbitrary and artificial: an attempt to combine our analysis with a timeframe eclectically chosen to bridge the gap between our analysis and the views of those who say flatly that no Labour revival is possible.

If the bureaucratic cementing-over of Labour structures rigidly rules out all significant Labour revival in the next few years, then what will have changed in five, six, seven years' time?

If the "big" labour movement sits out the fierce Tory cuts submissively, then the obstacles to revival created by labour-movement demoralisation and bureaucratic sealing-up in the Labour Party must surely become worse, not better.

A delay in Labour revival is possible. The New Zealand Labour Party, as we understand it, did not hit bottom and start to revive immediately when it lost office after trashing the NZ welfare state, Thatcher-style, in 1984-90. The revival came from 1993-4, after three years of very right-wing government by the National Party.

But there seem to be special explanations there. There was a large left split from NZ Labour in 1989, forming "New Labour" (so-named!) and then the Alliance. In the early 1990s the Alliance had a bigger membership than the NZ Labour Party. NZ Labour's revival started with another split-off from it (to the right this time), a change in Labour leadership, and the fading of the Alliance.

There is nothing like the NZ Alliance in Britain. If Labour is going to revive any time soon at all, that should become visible within a year or two of the next general election.

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