The left and the labour movement in the General Election

Submitted by Matthew on 1 April, 2010 - 3:56

How should the working-class left respond to the general election and the cuts that are likely to 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.

Make the unions assert themselves!

Maria Exall is a vice-chair of the Labour Representation Committee, and a member of the national executive of the Communication Workers’ Union and of the TUC General Council.

The Hewitt-Hoon-Byers affair is an index of the fact that New Labour — or, at least, that part of New Labour — is not rooted in a commitment to the working class.

Even now, people like Hewitt, Hoon, and Byers are an extreme right wing in the Labour Party. The Blairites always were the right-wing avant-garde. But the unions and the Labour Party members let those people lead the Labour Party — while not agreeing with them — because they thought it was necessary.

And even now, the main people in contention to replace Gordon Brown in the Labour leadership are people from that same political mould, even though the party members want a change of direction.

We have to remember what Peter Mandelson said in 1998: “We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.” That was before the economic crisis. He’s not talking like that now. But that is what he thinks.

We need a move towards the centre of gravity in the Labour Party, towards what the unions and the Labour Party members want. How do we get that? By the unions asserting themselves politically, and working with constituency activists.

And the Labour Representation Committee should do more focused work in the Labour Party.

Some say there is no sign of the unions moving to assert themselves politically, and that is a dead end. In my view there is no alternative. There is no alternative to developing mass working-class organisations which have their own political agenda. In the final analysis, the unions remain democratic organisations which are subject to pressure from below.

We need more political trade unionism. Even though we’ve seen a new generation of trade union leaders who are more political, or more left-leaning, a breakthrough is yet to be made on that front.

Now, if the Tories get in, they will attack the right of the unions to have a political voice. They will try to force changes in the rules governing union political funds.

What should the unions do now? All the affiliated union leaders will be consulted on the Labour manifesto for the general election. They should stand up for what their members want, on issues like an end to privatisation.

After the election, the unions need to take up issues about restoring democracy in the Labour Party. Straight after the election, everyone on the left, and even in the middle, of the Labour Party has got to make a stand for democracy.

At last year’s Labour Party conference we were offered a comprehensive review, this year, of the party structures introduced in 1997 (“Partnership in Power”). So far there is dead silence about that.

The fundamental demand has to be for a proper Labour Party conference, with motions debated, and the right to amend reports from the National Policy Forum.

We should also insist on respect for local party structures.

In my view, it’s not just about the structures. Unions have to be politically mobilised to use the union-Labour link. If unions get policies through Labour Party conference, their leaders have to be pressed to stand up and say: “That’s our policy, we have to enforce it” — not tacitly allow the Labour Party leaders to ignore the conference decisions.

Things are at a low ebb in the Labour Party, but a lot of people want things to change. There is potential for change, I think.

Tory win would be a disaster for schools

Patrick Murphy is a member of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and of the national executive of the National Union of Teachers.

A Tory victory at the next election would be a disaster for teachers and schools. Their headline policy is a promise to make as many schools as possible into Academies run by external sponsors.

They say will cut away the bureaucracy and make it much easier and quicker for schools to change their status in this way. They have also been explicit about their willingness to see sponsors of schools make a profit. One of the things that has held big business back from getting involved in the academies programme is that they aren’t allowed to make profits. Under a Tory government the privatisation of schools will be explicit and will affect the core of the education service.

Obviously, Labour since 1997 have paved the way for all this, not least by feeding the myth that comprehensive education has failed. But there is a major difference.

The biggest rebellion in the last Parliament was a Labour backbench rebellion backed by education unions and campaign groups against the Education Bill which introduced so-called trust schools. The rebellion didn’t defeat the bill but it forced the government to make such major changes that trust schools, for example, have to follow national terms and conditions and pay rates for teachers. That rebellion grew and could have an effect because there was a commitment to comprehensive education and workers’ rights in the labour movement which could find a resonance even in today’s Labour Party.

A Tory government will be subject to no such pressure or inhibition. It will be privatisation red in tooth and claw. Teachers and working class parents and pupils have every reason to want to avoid a Tory victory in the 2010 election.

Back TUSC to build a socialist alternative

Brian Caton is the general secretary of the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) and a member of the Socialist Party.

I handed back my Labour Party membership card recently after 40 years in the party. I’m a proud member of the Socialist Party and I support the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). TUSC isn’t going to make a big impact in this election but it offers people an immediate alternative.

I think we all expected a hell of a lot more from a Labour government. Even the positive things they have done could’ve and should’ve been done much quicker. They’ve gone back on so many commitments; we were given a promise by the Labour Party when they were in opposition that they would end prison privatisation if they got into government. But they’ve actually privatised more prisons than the Tories.

The Labour Party used to hand out gold roses for people who recruited lots of members to the party; I won three of them. I persuaded people from my industry to join the Labour Party, people who started off with very right-wing ideas. I persuaded them of the case for socialism and convinced them to join the Labour Party. I’m embarrassed by that now.

There’s no doubt that any of the three main parties will cut public services and wreck the welfare state. I remember what my father and grandfather fought for and believed in terms of a civil society, and it’s not just being picked at, it’s being torn to pieces.

The Tories will, of course, be no better, and the Liberals have certainly never been a friend to workers. David Cameron was Michael Howard’s advisor when we were taken to court in 1993 and had our rights taken off us. Cameron was an architect of attempts to smash trade unions. That’s his political nature. I think Cameron could be worse than Thatcher. His current cabinet is probably just a front; if he gets in he’ll fill the front bench with people from the hard-right of his party. I find their views on issues like immigration almost as abhorrent as the BNP.

We owe it to future generations to stand up against these cuts and attacks, but we owe it to previous generations too. People didn’t lay down their lives in two world wars and in conflicts like the Spanish civil war to see this happen to their country.

The left needs to get our act together. We agree on 80% of issues, so we need to set aside the 20% we disagree on and stop bickering. I want to see a new alliance of socialists to help make socialism a genuine force in British politics again. I think young people and students also need to mobilise again. In the past they’ve been able to catalyse significant social upheavals but students’ unions seem to be absent from big struggles around public services. A new movement from the left could reassert basic socialist ideas around public ownership and taxing the rich. We should be taxing the bankers, not banking the taxes! We’re never going to smash financial markets altogether but we can restrict and regulate them.

If Labour loses, that could shake things up. It could be an opportunity for us. I think the party has gone too far to be retrieved. Corbyn and McDonnell are good people but I think the party’s heading for defeat. In constituencies where there’s no TUSC candidate standing, I don’t have definitive answers but I have been impressed with some of what I’ve seen from the Green Party. We need to keep the Tories out, and if that means voting Labour in some places then people should vote Labour. But we need to hold Labour MPs to account and make sure they’re genuine representatives. The key fault line is whether they believe in the failed capitalist profiteering approach to running public services or whether they believe that our schools, hospitals and prisons should be publicly-owned.

A Tory victory in this election would mean big battles for us as a union. Put bluntly, you’d almost certainly see prison officers driven to more unlawful industrial action. We don’t want to just fight around levels of redundancy pay — we’ll fight job losses and job losses altogether.

The POA is not politically affiliated, and I think other unions like Unite need to break with the Labour Party. The RMT were kicked out of the Labour Party for backing candidates in elections who were prepared to stand up for the union’s policies and principles; they were right to back those candidates. I want to see unions backing candidates who’ll stand up and fight for trade union policies and principles; I think POA members would vote for those candidates. In the upcoming general elections, that means TUSC.

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