The left and the labour movement in the General Election

Submitted by Matthew on 18 February, 2010 - 9:25

How should the working-class left respond to the general election and the cuts that will inevitably follow, whichever party wins? Solidarity spoke to a range of activists (all in a personal capacity) from across the left. We will continue the discussion in future issues.

We need to lift our gaze up from the mire of party politics

Andy Littlechild is Chair, RMT London Underground Engineering branch and a member of the Solidarity Federation.

My views about the particular details and outcomes of this general election are probably much the same as those of most people on the left. However, views that are at the same time gloomy in terms of what we’re about to have to face after the election, as well as circular views that are bound within the constraints and defeating context of electoral liberal democracy.

Our current unions are social democratic, so are stuck needing to pursue their members’ interests by campaigning for the most progressive, or (more likely) least harsh party/candidate etc.

Boris Johnson and his GLA lackeys have intimated that they will frame specific anti-union legislation against strikes on the tube; that would put further rules on how ballots are to be conducted. The proposed process will render both balloting and taking any meaningful action virtually impossible, and will impose strictures that, if applied to parliamentary elections, would mean no government could be elected. (Which in itself may not be such a bad thing!)

Though initially aimed at the tube unions (i.e. RMT), it could spread to other public sector industries and eventually across all employment.

In the absence of a credible alternative, with the big unions and TUC completely sold out to the to the Labour Party and the employers’ agenda, I guess there is no other choice than to campaign for “better” Labour candidates and/or a new workers’ party, even if just to contrast to or oppose the Labour Party.

I think that this is not a meaningful possibility though, but rather a pitiful situation that the working class are in.

The unions will need to get ready to defend against the coming mass attack from employers, whichever government gets elected.

There is really no scope for trade unionists to choose which issues to fight around, the employers have that prerogative only. Ours is just a defensive class struggle against the class war which is being waged against us by the ruling class.

No doubt there will be attacks on public sector jobs, pay, conditions and the services they provide to the public, along with the same and further casualisation, etc., in the private sector, with increasing exploitation/demonisation of migrants.

Economic or workplace/industrial organisation is not sufficient, but a separate political organisation — meaning a party — has been tried and proven to be a cul-de-sac for workers. The separation of politics from economics is an artificial division that has lead to workers only being trusted to deal with workplace issues, with political power handed over to a political elite (the party), who without fail consolidate that power unto themselves, looking to their own interests, that become increasingly opposed to those of the workers!

What are really needed are mass proletarian organisations that deal with all political and workplace matters — self-managed by the workers themselves, federating to each other according to necessity, to resist and overcome the current system., on to organising and jointly facilitating genuinely free communism.

Your questions [about the workers’ party, etc.] were framed in the depressing way that accepts the status quo to the point of being swallowed by it, but that accurately depicts the limit of debate on the left generally.

At some point we need to lift our gaze up from the mire of the parties left or otherwise; and begin to draw up a programme of strategy and tactics to extract ourselves as socialists and communists from the trap we’re emeshed in. This will be the real beginning of the necessary grand work.

Sadly though, the forces of the left seem addicted to the increasingly futile contest with capitalism on its own ground; with its ever diminishing returns, and with sectarian competition with itself through endless left division, rivalry and back biting, driven by “vanguard party” aspirations.

All this occurs at activist level, and activists all seem to love (love/hate!) the company of other activists with its intrigue, controversy, etc., much more than the company of working people.

This activist party drama desperately needs to end, and, once ended, the activists supported by their current parties return to build real workplace and community self-organisation.

People’s Charter and Labour Representation Committee can be focuses for unions

Mick Shaw is the national president of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU)

The election is not one we approach with any enthusiasm. Whatever happens and whichever of the major parties forms the next Government, it’s clear that there’s going to be large cuts in public expenditure.

From the point of view of the FBU and the fire service, a Tory government would be the worst possible outcome. The cuts will be much deeper and more rapid under the Tories than under a Labour government or a hung parliament.

In terms of the issues unions should be campaigning on, I think that the People’s Charter is a useful basis for that campaigning. Public spending cuts, public sector pay freezes and attacks on public sector pensions are all very important issues for us and the People’s Charter links those to a wider political and economic context, making clear who has caused the current economic situation and demanding that workers should not be required to pay the cost. The fact that it’s attracted support from some right-wing MPs shouldn’t be made too much of; Bob Spink is just a loose cannon, and if the Lib Dem MPs who’ve signed it genuinely support its demands then that’s to be welcomed.

The FBU is no longer affiliated to the Labour Party, so we would not be able to take part in any attempt by the unions to assert themselves inside the party before or after the elections. We do think it’s very important that socialist MPs such as John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn are re-elected and that there is the biggest contingent of socialist MPs in Parliament.

Some people look to the FBU to take part in independent electoral initiatives, but anyone who imagines that the FBU is going to be supporting any attempts at left-wing electoral initiatives in the near future is very wide of the mark. There’s no significant enthusiasm for that inside the FBU. Maybe particular individual local candidates with strong local bases and track records could successfully appeal to our local officials for support, but they’d very much be the exceptions rather than the rule.

My judgement is that it is still possible for trade unions to assert some influence within the Labour Party, but up to now it’s been very uncoordinated and unsuccessful. The People’s Charter and the Labour Representation Committee are initiatives which the FBU supports, and we’d like to see more unions backing those initiatives and organising around them both before and after the election.

There needs to be a reconnection between the Labour Party and the labour movement

Mark Chiverton is a public sector worker, a Unison activist and the Labour Party PPC for the Isle of Wight.

We’re running a strong Labour Party campaign on the Isle of Wight. We’ll run on a traditional Labour platform; we don’t want the election to be a contest to see who can cut public services the most.

There’s a worry that that’s what the election will turn into, and I’m absolutely opposed to that. The provision of public services is an absolutely essential component of any civilised society and it’s very important that the Labour Party connects with the aspirations of working-class people around those issues.

As a public sector worker and trade unionist, a Tory government would be a disaster for my industry. Some of the lines being pushed by right-wing groups like the Tax Payers’ Alliance around issues like public sector pensions are outrageous. With a Tory government, we’d see more externalisation of services, we’d see de-recognition of trade unions in the sector.

There are still opportunities for trade unions to assert an independent voice in this election. The Labour Party has an organic link to the organised working class. What we need is a new model for that relationship where workers put forward their views and there’s a more responsive relationship to those aspirations on the part of the party leadership and any Labour government.

It’s about reconnecting with people in the workplace and the community. There are considerable aspects of government policy which are a considerable worry for people I’m meeting, so it’s about bridging that gulf and making those reconnections.

I’m involved in Unison’s “Million Voices for Public Services” campaign. I want to see a reaffirmation of traditional labour movement values, embodied in campaigns like that — ideas of publicly-owned, democratically-controlled services. Those ideas should be central to the mission of any future Labour government. We need to see an end to things like the banking bonus culture.

But in order for unions to express their voice in the party, there’s also a need to make the Labour Party conference a more representative and influential policy-making forum. There has been a frustration in recent years that Constituency Labour Parties and trade unions don’t have any real influence any more. That’s not to hark back to some mythical golden age in the past, but there does need to be a reconnection between the Labour Party and the labour movement.

Get active in the community

Ben Sellers is Co-President of SOAS students’ union.

The National Union of Students are asking people to pledge to only vote for MPs who will not raise tuition fees. It’s a sad state of affairs that a big part of the NUS’s campaign is to get students to vote in the first place. That shows how disenfranchised students feel from the voting process.

Most main political parties show a bleak outlook for the next ten years. They all supported the bailouts of the banks and therefore support a system that doesn’t work. And no-one who looks like they’ll win will be relocating that money to education or health spending.

Rather than encouraging my members to vote, I’ll be encouraging them to go and engage in communities, get active politically in other ways, and go out into working-class communities to make the arguments against the BNP. We need to create a proper alternative that can show a way to bring down the system that disenfranchises people and creates so much misery.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.