The left and the labour movement in the General Election

Submitted by Matthew on 29 April, 2010 - 4:14

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.

“Set out an alternative socialist vision”

Jeremy Dear is the General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists

Sadly none of the major parties are really addressing the issues which matter to working people. The debate is framed in terms of what to cut and when as if that is the only choice.

It isn’t. Clamping down on the tax avoidance of the rich is just one alternative to cuts. Of course there are differences between the parties but Labour should put some clear red water between them and the other parties.

The NUJ is not affiliated to any party and have always made it clear we will fight the cuts whoever is responsible for them — public or private sector, Labour, Tory or Lib-Dem government. We currently have around 30 workplaces being balloted, trying to link up the issues affecting one group of our members with others and demonstrating that where attacks are successful against one group of workers the same cuts affect another group pretty soon afterwards. That way we try to build a united fight against the cuts facing our industry.

It’s not easy — there is fear, there are huge obstacles with the anti-union laws — but our job is to try and give members that confidence that if they fight they can win.

For us a Tory government would be a disaster. They would cut BBC funding further, they have ruled out any public support to fund regional and local news on ITV meaning its almost certain collapse, they would sweep away rules on impartiality in broadcasting, opening the door to Fox News style programming, they would dilute further the rules governing media ownership leading to further concentration of ownership and power in the hands of a wealthy few individuals and large corporations. The last decade has been bad, the next would be worse if they came to power.

We’ve been running a Make Your Vote Count campaign — asking candidates to sign up to a set of core union demands. We will publish the responses for all members to make up their own minds for this election. The NUJ went on a long journey — from being a craft union, to seeing itself as above politics, to finally becoming part of the TUC, to electing a left leadership.

It’s a journey that’s still continuing but we firmly now see our fundamental interests as no different from those of other workers in other industries. So we helped found the Trade Union Co-ordinating Group to bring together left-leaning unions around some key issues. We’ve actively supported a range of campaigns against the anti-union laws, for public services and so on working with others to build practical solidarity around disputes and campaigns.

For me it’s about people being accountable to those who elect them — that’s in trade unions or Parliament. I have no time for self-appointed political messiahs. I firmly believe the trade union movement has the power to bring about political change — it just has to find the will to make it happen. All those unions who pump millions in to New Labour and get nothing in return would be better off using that money to pay members to join local constituencies, deselect those who act against our interests and replace them with MPs accountable to the local labour movement.

The key issues for the labour movement in this election are the defence of public services, scrapping of the anti-union laws, economic and social justice. In terms of fighting fascism, it’s not enough for us to say Nazis are bad. We need to set out an alternative socialist economic vision. The Socialist Campaign to Stop the Tories and Fascists statement is a useful contribution to doing that.

“What matters most is how we organise”

Tali Janner-Klausner is a socialist active in the London School Students’ Union

I think the fact that there isn’t a huge amount of public enthusiasm around this election just shows that people have common sense! The mainstream media is complaining about the lack of participation and low turnout but there are good reasons for all that; the main parties offer cuts and a commitment to maintaining the status quo for business and the financial sector.

It shouldn’t be surprising if people can’t relate to that. That’s not to say the election doesn’t matter, but what’s more important is how we organise on the ground in the long-term, in our workplaces and day to day life.

A lot of my friends have recently decided to vote for the Liberal Democrats. That’s just indicative of how fed up people are, it doesn’t mean that Nick Clegg has any real answers for us. Like the Labour government and the Conservatives, they are fervent defenders of free market capitalism.

Nevertheless, which party wins power next week will have a significant effect on the conditions in which we can organise. So, I’ll be voting Labour. Conditions for trade unions and other working-class campaigns will be a lot worse under the Lib Dems or Tories. That’s absolutely not to defend Labour’s record on trade unions, but they don’t have same plans as far as banning strikes in the public sector goes.

There’s also the Labour-union link; at the moment using that link is only a potential, but it could become important in the future. If the trade union movement becomes more radical and assertive, then the link to the Labour Party could provide a political expression for that.

It’s also true that there’ll be a real impact on day-to-life if Labour loses. For example, if you rely on Sure Start, if you or a relative are in sheltered accommodation, or if you receive benefits, then the Tories would make life worse for you.

However we should keep in mind that Labour is talking cuts because they want to protect the system that created the financial crisis, and not have any illusions that a Labour government would mean that we have less to fight for.

In the struggles around education that I’m active in, the implications of a Tory government wouldn’t necessarily be that different. Labour’s track record in this area is appalling. They’ve used the National Union of Students, which their student section has historically led and controlled, to try to silence the student fightback. It was Labour who brought in tuition fees and they’ve enthusiastically rolled out academies.

But the key thing is the potential to subvert and put pressure on a Labour government which exists through the union link and simply wouldn’t exist under the Tories.

I think that the key thing in terms of building a movement capable of exerting that kind of pressure will be industrial action. There are significant UCU strikes coming up as well as strikes in transport. Industrial action not only expresses the problems of a given dispute but highlights more general frustration and discontent, and strengthens the fightback against cuts.

“Fight for workers’ representation”

James Nesbitt is the Scottish Socialist Party candidate for Glasgow Central

My work around this election has been the most enjoyable campaigning work I’ve ever done. We’ve had people queuing up to sign petitions and stop to talk to us about all sorts of issues; the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan has been a big focus.

There’s a huge amount of anger and disillusionment with the political class in general but we’ve been able to win some of those people round with arguments like a worker’s MP on a workers’ wage and the right of recall for elected representatives.

There are areas of Glasgow where our election campaigns have been specifically well-received because of our involvement in local campaigns like Save our Schools. This election has also reactivated some old members, so it’s been very useful for rebuilding the SSP.

The mood in the SSP compared to a couple of years ago is a lot better. We’ve been looking at new ways of campaigning and putting a focus on youth issues like unemployment.

I think there’s also a growing recognition that the SSP isn’t the revolutionary party that’s going to lead us to proletarian revolution, so at some point down the line there will have to be some sort of realignment. But for the here and now we’re the best thing going for the left in Scotland.

There’s also been a bit of a thaw in our relationships with the rest of the left. TUSC is standing some candidates in Scotland, but at a recent PCS-sponsored hustings one of their candidates called for a vote for me in Glasgow East because there’s no TUSC candidate standing. However, I think we’d need to see some significant improvement in terms of the democracy in the way projects like to No2EU and TUSC came about.

The left is punching well below its weight not just in elections but generally. We need a coordinated strategy around a fight for workers’ representation. Work in the unions, using tool like rank-and-file workplace bulletins, is key but we also need to look at wider community work including anti-fascist campaigning. Essentially we need the consistent adoption of a united front strategy.

The SSP has been active in building militant, direct action anti-fascist campaigns against the mobilisations of the Scottish Defence League. That’s led to the formation of the Scottish Anti-Fascist Alliance, although some of that work has stalled due to tensions between socialists and anarchists.

The most important points of unity in that work have been a rejection of working with the police and a rejection of the whole model of responding to fascist mobilisations by having tame counter-rallies with establishment politicians speaking at them. Scotland United [Scottish equivalent of UAF] had the Liberal leader of Edinburgh council speak at its anti-SDL rally in Edinburgh at a time when the council was engaged in vicious attacks on public sector workers’ pay, conditions and jobs. We’re clearly against that; it’s those kind of policies that allow the BNP and the SDL to grow. There are debates within the SSP about what attitude to take towards Scotland United, but there is a clear position from the SSP against making establishment politicians the focal point of anti-fascism.

My experience of talking to worker-activists on picket lines is that there’s a greater understanding than ever that the Labour Party is failing the unions. For those unions that remain affiliated and continue to bankroll the Labour Party’s campaigns, of course they should put demands on the content of that campaigning and fight for pro-union policies. But I also think there’s a growing appetite for arguments about breaking that link and creating a new workers’ party.

The general situation is very different in Scotland because of the SNP factor. The SNP obviously has a very mixed character — it’s funded by people like Brian Souter, a right-wing transport oligarch! But it also has a programme that’s been to the left of Labour and in government it has introduced some positive reforms.

The SNP candidate standing against me is a socialist; if I wasn’t standing, I’d vote for him. Any SNP vote I’d advocate would be critical, but I do think they represent something to the left of the Labour Party.

“Socialists should join Labour”

George Owers, 21, has been in the Labour Party for six years. He is a Labour & Co-Op Party candidate for the Abbey ward in the Cambridge City Council election

I am left of the leadership [of Labour], but was never interested much in the extremely useless, futile factionalism of the far left. Hopefully at some time we will have a proper leadership election, and Labour will have the first real opportunity since 1994 to choose a leader.

We cannot allow another New Labour person in; I think for this reason that socialists of all stripes should join the Labour Party and fight for change within it. The Labour Party is the only way that a real democratic, socialist programme can be realistically put forward.

I do not support the government on lots of things, such as the Iraq war, Private Finance Initiatives (PFI), the contracting out of public services and so on. I think that the best strategy of the left is to reclaim the Labour Party, as it is the best vehicle for holding government. I see why people ripped up their Labour membership cards after the Iraq war, but it is not the best way to affect change.

Would I support a campaign such as SCSTF? You need to differentiate on a candidate-by-candidate basis; within the Labour Party there will be a range of politics. I obviously can’t advocate against a New Labour candidate, but this would be much more acceptable. I am very worried about splitting the vote; this could allow the Liberal Democrats or the Tories to get in. It also depends upon the political situation in the ward or seat. I am glad to hear that Workers’ Liberty is taking a pragmatic view on it.

I have been following the major disputes and support all of them. Why shouldn’t working-class people fight to save their jobs?

A lot of these unions are striking not on pay, but conditions, and often just to uphold agreements that they had already made, such as the CWU modernisation agreement. It is crucial that unions stay affiliated to the Labour Party; a lot of unions who disaffiliate are emasculated even more. If there is to be a leadership election within the Labour Party soon, then unions need to be involved.

The Labour Party grew out of trade unions, and to break the link would be crazy. Labour need to start honouring their side of the agreement. If the Tories get in, they will certainly attack party funding, and it will become more difficult for unions politically.

If you had asked me last year I would have predicted a Tory majority of 50-70 seats, but now I am not so sure. Perhaps the best we can hope for is a Labour majority in a hung Parliament. I think we may have a small majority of perhaps 10 seats. Two elections in a year will be tough for Labour, especially in terms of funding; it could really screw us over.

“Unions must get more political”

Vicki Morris is the Publicity Officer for Barnet TUC

Barnet TUC had a debate last September about our attitude to the council elections. We couldn’t agree on whether to back Labour, back someone else, or stand our own candidates — strictly speaking, trades councils can’t stand or back anyone in elections, but we could have stood as trade unionists in Barnet.

However, we did agree that we need to act more politically, by publicising our views on national and local political issues and leading local grassroots campaigns.

Through our campaigning to date — for example, against sheltered housing warden cuts, and the Tories’ “easyCouncil” plan — we believe we have pushed the Labour group on the council to the left. Then again, in loony-right, Tory-led Barnet there wasn’t really anywhere else for them to go if they wanted to be noticed!

Personally, I will be glad if my local Labour MP Andrew Dismore is re-elected — I don’t like him, but I totally buy the SCSTF argument that the best political conditions for a fight against cuts and privatisation would be under a Labour government.

However, as the election campaign has worn on and we have been out campaigning against a BNP candidate in one council ward, I have strongly wished that we had stood some candidates in a Tory ward, as a way to get our message across better. We are the only ones saying what we are saying, and what we are saying needs to be said. I think there is scope for standing candidates where you are not letting another party in besides Labour. It would have felt good to make Tory Brian “Mr Toad” Coleman work for his council seat!

“Challenge the consensus”

Martin Booth is an NHS worker, Unison member and TUSC candidate for Cambridge

Cambridge Socialists is a coalition of socialists from existing parties and none (like myself); we weren’t aware of TUSC until after we had decided to contest the local and national elections.

I agreed to be a candidate because I believe it is necessary to challenge the consensus between the Tory, Labour and Lib Dem parties that working people have to pay for a capitalist crisis that is not of our making.

Many people from a variety of socialist backgrounds, are involved as well as some who have not been involved in political activity before.

The main issue on the housing estates where I have mainly been canvassing is the economy, and the threat to public services and jobs. Amongst students there are also a lot of questions about the environment, and to a certain extent electoral reform and civil liberties. There is huge support for ending the war in Afghanistan.

The biggest unions are not in a position to support non-Labour candidates, but we’ve had £100 from FBU Eastern Region. There is also plenty of support from individual trade unionists.

In Cambridge, Tory, Labour and Lib Dems are doing what they generally do — play at political conflict whilst hiding their consensus against the working class. The Green Party is making a strong effort, making it all the more important for us to stress the class-based, socialist nature of our campaign.

[We asked Martin: “We would criticise TUSC, certainly at a national level, for not being very democratic or open. What’s your view on this?]

I wouldn’t want to take a view on this at this stage, as we have not really been involved in TUSC in any organised way. If it develops after the election I think it will need to develop democratic structures in order to have a future.

In general I support the idea, where there is no socialist standing, of a vote Labour combined with a union fightback. There may be occasions where votes for another party are best for tactical reasons, e.g. in Huntingdon where there is a huge Tory majority which Labour won’t overtake, and there is an independent candidate who opposes the privatisation of Hinchingbrooke Hospital.

“We need more than Old Labour”

David Braniff-Herbert is a labour movement activist and community organiser, currently working for the Hope Not Hate campaign against the BNP

The big issues in this election are not necessarily what you’d want them to be. Knocking on doors you hope people will raise the living wage, what we’re going to do about housing, the nature of policing.

In fact there’s a lot of personality politics, focused on the party leaders. There’s also a focus on whatever the Murdoch press is putting out, and the biggest issue is immigration. That wasn’t helped when most of the TV foreign policy debate was actually about immigration!

The BNP is growing because of that, because of apathy, and because the three main parties have failed to provide answers on issues like jobs and housing. Communities are let down, and working-class people are disenfranchised from politics. In some traditionally Labour areas, the Tories destroyed local industry and New Labour has failed to provide new jobs and services. A lot of these areas haven’t had much immigration, but the BNP are convincing people that’s the issue, and presenting themselves as a radical alternative.

I don’t know if the BNP are going to win a seat. At the moment a lot of our activity is just firefighting, stopping them at the ballot box but not in the community. On the other hand, we’ve run a strong campaign — more than 500 people out one weekend in Barking and Dagenham.

I think there’ll definitely be a hung Parliament. It’s good to see the Tories aren’t going to win despite the press. It’s the Sun wot lost it. We’re supposed to have a free press, but it’s totally dominated by the rich, and people are saying “Fuck you”. The other thing it obviously shows is the need for electoral reform. The current system is a joke.

As an activist on the left of the Labour Party, I find it embarrassing that the Lib Dems could bring up Trident, ID cards and so on. Labour is the only party that can deliver for working-class people, but the leadership is deeply misguided, doing stupid things like marketisation of public services even when it loses them votes.

New Labour is dead. For thirteen years we’ve had not only policies which fail the working class, but a negative attitude to the class — opposing strikes and supporting big business. That’s why Labour is so unpopular. Yet the left outside Labour has failed to build a new working-class party, despite the capitalist crisis. If the choice is Galloway, I’d rather have Brown!

If you’re in an area where there’s a Labour MP who has shafted the labour movement, and an independent working-class candidate standing, you should seriously question whether you’re going to vote Labour. But the main fight we need is in the Labour Party.

Groups like the LRC and Compass are becoming much more organised and vocal, and after the election we’ll have a situation where we can try to take back the party. We should aim not for Old Labour, but for something completely different!

We can’t wait for another left leadership challenge, by McDonnell or whoever — we need to start organising at the grassroots. That also means challenging the leaders of our unions. Look at the Labour-affiliated unions, which nominated Brown so he could attack the BA workers! They’ve also helped undermine Labour Party democracy. Workers need an independent voice, not reliance on the union leaders.

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