The reaffiliation of unions like the railworkers’ RMT and the firefighters’ FBU to Labour, and new affiliations from never-affiliated unions, could help Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, and the left in our effort to politically and organisationally transform Labour.
Reaffiliation could counter the immense rightwards pressure still weighing on Labour from the MPs, from the party machine, and from the media and the whole society around us.
Argument: “There’s no need to rush into reaffiliation.”
There has already been a kind of “rush” into the Labour Party. Tens of thousands of people, most of them working-class, many of them young, some of them members of our unions, flooded into the party, as members and supporters, around Jeremy Corbyn’s election campaign. They saw in it an opportunity to transform politics and reforge Labour as a vehicle for working-class political representation. The people who made up that “rush” will now find themselves engaged in a struggle for the soul of the party — against the Labour right wing, the Blairites who still control much of the party machine, and, indeed, sections of the union bureaucracy. Yes, our unions should hurry — “rush”, if you like — to help them! There are other reasons to proceed with urgency. At least a section of the Labour right is now hoping that Labour does badly in May 2016 local elections, and preparing to try to unseat Corbyn after that. A fight is already on inside party structures. To contribute in a structural way, our unions must be affiliated.
Argument: “Nothing has really changed”.
To make this argument, and really believe it, one must have been living under a rock for several months. Corbyn’s election has completely transformed political discourse, and the tens of thousands who flooded into Labour to support him represent an immensely energetic, dynamic force that could completely transform the party. Sure, the Parliamentary Labour Party remains riddled with right-wingers; much of the party machine remains in the hands of the Blairites; although Unite and Unison backed Corbyn, the leaders of the major affiliated unions remains forces for rotten compromise rather than radicalism. But Labour leaders now openly back strikes. The party calls explicitly for public ownership. The national Labour conference voted to support the right to take secondary action, and the Scottish Labour conference voted against Trident renewal. Labour has been more radical in its opposition to the Tories’ Trade Union Bill than many trade union leaders! And, above all, the Labour Party is now in ferment, bubbling with revolt.
Argument: “We can support Corbyn without being affiliated to Labour.”
RMT, for example, supported Corbyn by backing his leadership bid, helping fund the campaign, and supporting his policies. All good. But the political battle needs to be fought hand-to-hand as well as at a distance. If insufficient forces rally behind Corbyn to enable him to re-empower Labour Party conference to making it the party’s sovereign decision-making body once again, then he will be a prisoner of an undemocratic party structure, unable to properly fight for the policies on which he stood. To win in the country, Corbyn must win in the party. Winning the leadership election was only the beginning (and in some ways, “the easy bit”). If our unions affiliate, we can have delegates to local Labour Parties that can propose radical policy and democratic reform. We can contribute directly to selection and reselection battles. We can propose policy at Labour conference. We will have guaranteed representation on Labour Party committees. RMT and FBU representatives on the Labour Party NEC could be at the forefront of challenging the expulsion of socialists from the Labour Party. If Corbyn goes down to defeat, or if he capitulates politically under the pressure of a right-wing onslaught, it will be because there was not a strong enough organised movement within the party to support him and hold to him to political account. In such an eventuality, there will be no honour in having remained unaffiliated and on the sideline.
Argument: “We’d lose our independence”.
RMT and FBU, affiliated to Labour or not, would remain independent unions — with their own democratic structures, their own policies, their own campaigns, and their own activity. Our unions would not become mere appendages of the Labour Party. We would not be compelled to endorse, or silence our criticisms of, Labour Party polices we didn’t agree with; indeed, a large part of the purpose of affiliation would be to act within Labour against right-wing elements of the party. The reason affiliated unions like Unite and Unison have not been more combative against the New Labour project is not that Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis are secretly revolutionaries who are gagged by their unions’ affiliation to Labour, but that they are compromise-happy bureaucrats! The problem is not that these unions have not been structurally “independent” of the Labour Party, but that within the Labour Party they have not fought for an independent political project against Blair’s and Brown’s New Labour. Lack of political will, and not the fact of their affiliation to Labour, has held them back. Perhaps what those who worry about the loss of “independence” mean is that our unions would no longer be able to support electoral challenges to Labour. As it happens, the Labour-affiliated Communication Workers’ Union backed Socialist Alliance candidates in 2001 and remained affiliated, and the FBU also backed left-of-Labour challenges while affiliated. Several unions backed Ken Livingstone against Labour in the London mayoral election of 2000, and remained affiliated. The RMT might even have been able to defend itself from expulsion if it had mounted a fight: in fact its leaders really wanted to be expelled. In any case, there needs to be some sober assessment here: is having the option to support this or that TUSC candidate who will score 1% or so in a local election really so worthwhile that we should sit out the fight inside Labour? No.
Argument: “Affiliated unions have no influence anyway.”
Unions can use the Labour conference as a site to raise issues. It is true that the big unions dominate the selection of the four union topics for debate. But a smaller union can submit its own motion on one of those topics, and press its views in compositing or on the floor. It can have its motion on one of the four topics likely to be prioritised by CLP delegates. That already happens, and can happen more as Corbyn changes the party. In the TUC, smaller unions like RMT have sometimes been able to get more radical policy passed, often against the wishes of the bigger unions. It can be the same within the Labour Party. Unions can propose emergency motions. RMT did that effectively on the Iraq war in 2003, making its campaign for the motion to be debated the central issue of the start of Labour Party conference that year. Affiliated unions have reps on Labour Party committees, from its National Executive Committee all the way down to Constituency Labour Party level. This means they can submit motions, and take part in votes. They can intervene in selection battles for Parliamentary and council candidates, putting forward union-backed candidates and organising for them in a systematic way. Unions can also get reps on the Conference Arrangements Committee (CAC), the body that determines how Labour Party conference is run. The undemocratic running of conference has been largely a product of the compliance of union reps on the CAC with pressure from the apparatchiks. RMT and FBU already have parliamentary groups comprised almost entirely of Labour MPs, and will be better placed to hold MPs to account if they are affiliated to the party that almost all of those MP represent. In fact, the biggest immediate limitations on what smaller unions can do in the Labour Party is what the bigger, more powerful unions do. But that’s not absolute or fixed. McCluskey and Prentis felt under sufficient pressure from the surge around his campaign to back Corbyn, so the trajectory of the bigger unions can change. RMT (and the other rail unions, which are all Labour-affiliated) should make more effort, for example, to turn the Action for Rail campaign from an occasional tag for relatively low-key actions into a vibrant, living campaign. But Labour affiliation gives every union an additional structural channel to raise union policies and demands at the level of national politics.
Argument: “What if it all goes wrong?”
What if Corbyn is deposed, and a right-winger elected in his place? What if party policy is dragged back to the right? What if Corbyn fails in his attempts to democratise the party? What if he moves to the right politically? What if a Labour government is elected in 2020 and betrays its working-class supporters? What if? What if? Best stand aside... All of those tragic outcomes are possible: none are certain. How this story ends is not yet known. Let’s not wait to watch our opponents write it the way they want to; let’s pitch in and write the future ourselves.