The Sun and the Daily Telegraph have continued their hysterical anti-union scaremongering with a couple of delightful pieces picking up on an interview that Dave Quayle, chair of the National Political Committee of the Unite union, gave to Solidarity in our last issue.
In the interview, Dave explained the union’s recently ratified political strategy, an attempt to increase democracy and accountability within the Labour Party by giving members of Unite, and other trade union affiliates, more control over the political direction of the party and its work. From Workers’ Liberty’s point of view, the strategy is not perfect, but it does represent an important attempt by a major national union to shift the debate about working-class political representation onto some new ground.
For years, the debate about our unions’ relationship to “official” politics and specifically to the Labour Party has hinged almost entirely on the financial relationship between unions and Labour. The level of the debate has deteriorated to such a degree that the question is now conceived of almost purely in financial terms — we are asked to consider whether our unions’ affiliation fees represent “value for money”.
This financial conception of the relationship is alien to the political basis upon which the Labour Party was established. It is not a pre-existing political force, external to the organised labour movement, to which our union choose to give money in the hope of receiving political favour in return. It was set up by a radical minority of trade unions to give organised labour a voice in the political sphere. It was set up to be the political wing of organised labour.
From its inception, middle-class and bourgeois forces within it fought working-class elements for political control. It has never been a straightforwardly working-class party, and as such cannot be “reclaimed”. But the debate about how our unions relate to the party must be about more than the “value” of an annual financial transaction, and Unite’s new strategy represents an important move towards a more meaningful debate.
The hysterical response of the Murdoch press is predictable. The Sun describes Dave’s statement that “we want a firmly class-based and left-wing general election campaign in 2015” as “a chilling warning” (“chilling” for whom, exactly?) The Telegraph quotes Tory chair Baroness Warsi, denouncing “Unite’s bosses” for “openly boasting of turning the Labour Party into an instrument of class warfare.” (It is worth pointing out that unlike the bosses of the Sun and the Telegraph, Unite’s leaders were actually elected).
A class war is being waged in Britain, and it is Baroness Warsi’s class which is currently on the offensive. FTSE 100 Chief Executive pay grew 10% this year, at the same time as the NHS suffered a 7% spending cut. Bob Diamond has walked away from the Barclays Libor scandal a richer man; workers across the economy face wage cuts and lay-offs. Benefits claimants face destitution, the corporate profiteers circling to snap up privatised public service contracts face increased profits (even when, like G4S, they prove themselves utterly incompetent). To resist that offensive, our class does need an “instrument of class war”.
Unite’s political strategy will not magically turn the existing Labour Party into that instrument. But it can play an important role in helping reinvigorate active working-class engagement with politics, and reignite a fight for independent working-class political representation.
That fight needs to take place inside the Labour Party, against its New Labour leadership, as much as it does against the Tories.
The response to Dave Quayle’s interview on Labour Uncut, an influential Blairite blog, from Atul Hatwal, showed that — despite Ed Miliband’s platitudes and overtures at the Durham Miners’ Gala — New Labour is still, if not quite “well”, unfortunately alive.
Hatwal wrote: “Unite’s plans for Labour, backed by the millions of pounds at their disposal, can be summarised: yes to class conflict; no to the free market; and forget about the votes of businessmen, Tory switchers or the centre ground. Anyone in the party disagree? Lump it.” Frankly, that sounds pretty good to us.
Hatwal used his piece to red-bait the AWL: “Comrade Quayle recently gave an interview to the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty... This would be the AWL that defines itself as an organisation committed to the ideas of ‘Marxism and revolutionary socialism’”. Yes, Atul, it would.
And presumably you would be the Atul Hatwal who runs the PR agency “Fifth Column”, which helps businesses “place [themselves] at the heart of the news agenda”? For too long, people like Hatwal — people from the ‘business sector’, with little or no background in the labour movement at all — have set the agenda in the Labour Party. They have turned it into a political space where “electability” is the only concern, and where the basic principles upon which the party was founded are jettisoned.
A palpable air of fear pervades Hatwal’s piece, and he is right to be scared. Unite’s new strategy puts it and its labour movement allies on a direct collision course with people like Hatwal and those that think like him in positions of power within the Labour Party.
The Coalition government functions openly as a government by, of, and for the rich. To oppose their rule, our movement needs to be capable of forming a government by, of, and for the working class. In short, the labour movement needs to make itself fit for power. Taking on the free-marketeers within our own organisations is a good place to start.