Which way for the unions and Labour?

Submitted by Anon on 16 June, 2009 - 9:05 Author: John Bloxam and Martin Thomas

What should socialists conclude from the debate at the Communication Workers’ Union conference on the union’s political relationship to the Labour Party (where no policy was passed)? The AWL’s National Committee favours disaffiliation moves where they are linked to positive moves for independent working class politics. We are also conducting a debate on this issue in the AWL ). Two responses.

Activists should back working-class candidates

By John Bloxam

Events at the CWU Conference on Monday 8 June says much about the wretched state of the union leadership and the urgency of pushing the fight for independent working class politics.

The resolution seeking to deny financial and physical assistance at the General Election to any Labour MP not opposing Royal Mail (RM) privatisation was lost after the union leadership did a volte-face, recommending opposition if it was not remitted.

General secretary Billy Hayes is reported to have led this move. The only credible explanation of the sudden change was pressure not to embarrass New Labour, including ex CWU general Secretary Alan Johnson.

Opposing RM privatisation was a main plank of the Warwick Agreement, between the Blair/Brownites and the leadership of the main union affiliates. It is Labour Party Conference policy. Nevertheless, RM privatisation remains the clear policy of the New Labour Brown/Mandelson government.

The CWU leadership had said that RM privatisation is their “line in the sand”. Now, instead of committing the union to using one of the limited points of pressure still available within the hollowed out New Labour structures, they have backed off using left posturing.

Hayes is quoted as saying: “If the Government is foolish enough to go ahead with this plan we will ballot our members on whether we continue to finance the party at the next election”. This has a hollow ring, coming immediately after defeating a proposal on targeted action against MPs supporting RM privatisation.

Resolutions not reached included a “Reclaim the Labour Party” resolution, focused on regaining the limited right to put “contemporary” political resolutions to Labour Party conference, given up at Bournemouth in 2007; and a number of disaffiliation resolutions.

That there was little or no chance for union members to discuss the political alternatives is par for the course in the affiliated unions, but it is especially damning a day after the European election results.

Two of the disaffiliation resolutions linked the break from New Labour with fighting for a working class political alternative. For example, from the large Coventry branch: “Conference instructs the NEC to begin talks with other Trade Unions and Socialists in an endeavour to work towards the creation of a new political framework in order to provide genuine political representation for working people at the next election and provide an electoral alternative to the racist BNP.”

The AWL National Committee’s policy is that CWU disaffiliation now offered an opportunity for strengthening the urgent fight for independent working class political representation and a recomposition in the socialist and labour movement. Comrades opposing this have argued for “wait and see”, based on the possibility and even expectation of a big bang via the affiliated unions in the aftermath of the general election, seeing little chance of progress outside that.

The CWU leadership would have tried to bureaucratically squash any disaffiliation resolution had it been carried; nonetheless it would have allowed CWU branches room to participate or initiate broad Workers’ Representation Committees or to back independent working class candidacies in the general election.

What happened beyond that would depend on a political struggle; we would argue for generalising the perspective of broad Workers’ Representation Committees, linking up with other non-Labour Party-affiliated unions and fighting for a class struggle programme linked to a workers’ government.

Given the urgency of the political situation and the need for a clear working-class, socialist voice in the forthcoming election, CWU activists should still argue for their branches to support such candidates and socialists should actively seek their support. The fact that CWU remains affiliated to New Labour removes a “free rein” in doing this; it cannot and should not override the political necessity.

Disaffiliation is no magic trampoline

By Martin Thomas

The bad news from the CWU conference session on Monday 8 June is that the union leadership got the delegates to go along with a line of “leave it to the leadership to do a deal with the Government”.

A motion to withhold CWU financial and physical support from Labour MPs who won’t back the union on Royal Mail privatisation was defeated. The conference reached neither the proposal for a drive to restore the right of unions and local Labour Parties to put political motions to Labour Party conference nor the proposals for CWU to disaffiliate from the Labour Party.

The rumoured pro-disaffiliation emergency motion from CWU postal sector leaders didn’t appear: they were too busy persuading delegates to offer Royal Mail a “freeze” on industrial action for three months.

The smaller-scale good news is that the “hot” issue of CWU disaffiliation now being off the agenda means the AWL has leisure for debate on the broader issue: should we reckon with a possibility of revival around the Labour Party and the affiliated unions after the heavy Labour general election defeat which is almost certain within the next year? Or should we rule that out, as something as improbable as winning the lottery? Or, at least, insist that any revival must be so slow that it cannot affect calculations now?

The Labour Party and the unions will be mechanically rammed together by common opposition to a fiercely-cutting Tory government. There will be recriminations and post-mortems about the record of Blair and Brown.

For socialists, an intervention, activity, is better than passive withdrawal. To get unions to fight in the Labour structures (even on limited issues), rally forces that way, and face expulsion or split if the struggle demands it, is better than having them just quit.

That is why the AWL has until very recently opposed disaffiliation; why we opposed disaffiliation when the Socialist Alliance was at its height in 2001. CWU branches have often backed independent socialist candidates, with the CWU affiliated, and we should push for more of that. Disaffiliation is a different question.

Disaffiliation becomes a lesser evil only if all active possibilities are rigidly shut off. We should not base our tactics on insisting in advance that the big unions are certain not to stir against the Tories.

Some disaffiliationists have argued that CWU remaining affiliated will “trap” it. The pressures of crisis will not be able to radicalise it. If it disaffiliates, however, kaboom! The mechanical pressures of the crisis will transform negative disaffiliationist disillusion into a trampoline so taut with positive socialist class-consciousness that it will bounce CWU, with RMT, over the head of Labourism and into launching a big new workers' party or quasi-party — “a substantial working-class political project”!

But the vote to “leave it to the leadership” to haggle tells you that disaffiliation now would mean the CWU becoming less political, not more.

There is no such magic trampoline. Only our own muscles will raise us politically.

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