Saturday 12 May 2018

Enemies to the Left

At the end of this month, the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, the RMT, will be debating at a special conference whether to affiliate to the Labour Party. Readers who've been around the block will remember the union was expelled in 2004 for backing candidates that offered left challenges to Blair's programme of war, cuts, and privatisation. Fast forward 14 years and the situation in the Labour Party has completely changed. Those who ruled the roost are a cranky and, as far as party membership are concerned, reviled and despised rump. The left are now in charge and with every passing day its hold on the party gets stronger as old, establishment MPs quit the field and what remains of the Blairist activist base huddle for warmth around Progress editorials. What better time is there to reaffiliate?

Well no, it's a rubbish time for the RMT to return to the Labour Party. At least according to the Socialist Party. That's right. Even though Labour is led by the left, possesses a membership larger than all the other parties combined, saw its vote surge by nine percentage points at the 2017 general election, has spurred on a politicisation of large numbers of young people ("the youth" in SP parlance) and welcomed the Fire Brigades Union back into the fold, the RMT shouldn't affiliate. Of course, my very erstwhile comrades have an interest to declare. Should they apply for affiliation, the SP's miserable Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition loses its single trade union affiliate. It goes from being dead in the water to Davy Jones's locker quicker than you can say "Ted Grant was right". Obviously, the SP can't admit openly that their reasoning is determined by the preservation of their marginal influence, but let's see what they do have to say.

The anonymous article in 24th April's edition of The Socialist reprints a piece from the SP's London Underground bulletin, The Red Line. In all likelihood authored by someone from the industrial department as opposed to a rail worker, it pays lip service to reaffiliation but that it should be declined on the terms offered. The main issue exercising the SP is the RMT's political independence. This means the freedom to fund certain Labour MPs and endorsing struggles within the Labour Party, such as Jeremy Corbyn's two leadership campaigns, while reserving the right to stand council candidates in cuts-happy local authorities. And how effective has the exercising of this right proven? In the SP's report of TUSC's local election results, punters are supposed to be wowed that TUSC came bottom of the poll and failed to get even a tenth of the Labour vote in Waltham Forest, pleased at getting 14% in Kirklees after two years of anti-cuts NHS work, and the return of a SP councillor in Southampton who stands as an independent instead of TUSC or Socialist Alternative. Not getting elected on your party label counts as success in SP world. Yes, it's easy to take the piss out of self-serving analyses of electoral performance, but this is the metric you choose to be judged by when you pursue votes. The SP are at pains to explain that they targeted cutting councils and councillors who didn't support Corbyn, but by being inside of the selection process the RMT could have made a difference by encouraging its own members to put themselves forward and getting selected in their stead. Indeed, hundreds of former SP members have done just this and traded their party cards in for Labour membership. Exercising "independence" via TUSC has achieved nothing but humiliation and disillusion for the activists involved.

The SP then goes on to ask what collective rights would the RMT obtain. It argues Labour Party structures are largely unchanged since the days of Tony Blair, and we are treated to a litany of bureaucratic practices. Unions only have a small role on the National Policy Forum, they have 50% of conference delegates, union branches have little input into council candidate selection, and therefore the RMT should steer clear. This, of course, means ignoring how Labour isn't the finished article, it is a site of struggle. Just because the SP has a hard time thinking about changes to political circumstances doesn't mean circumstances don't change. Within the last 18 months in the West Midlands, for example, the backbone of Labour First and the old union right of Unite's WestMids office and the regional party apparatus has collapsed, leaving nothing but bones, dust and the impotent squealing of your Ian Austins and John Spellars. The party regional board, once hand-picked by full-time officials, is elected and has strong left representation. Nationally, I'm sure it hasn't even escaped the SP's notice that Labour has a left wing general secretary and right wing officialdom at Southside and in London have resigned their jobs rather than carry on. There is also Labour's democracy review the RMT (and anyone else) can contribute to, and the likelihood mandatory reselection will be in front of conference. I don't know in what universe the Labour Party structures haven't changed, but it certainly isn't this one.

There are some legitimate sectional concerns RMT members might have. In a very heavily slanted report on an affiliation debate (which does very little to confer the flavour or set out the contending positions), it notes RMT members in Scotland would have issues with Labour considering what has happened there since 2014. True, Scottish Labour does have serious problems and despite its leadership being won from the left, plenty of scabby dregs remain. A job of work has to be done, and the transformation of Scottish Labour into something that can articulate 21st century class politics would be massively helped by the affiliation of and participation in the party by the most militant trade union in the land. And what does the RMT gain? Another means of exerting pressure on the behaviour of Labour MSPs and councillors, just as other unions do - see last year's victorious Birmingham bin dispute, for instance.

The sad fact is even if these excuses, because that's what they are, for not affiliating didn't exist the SP would invent some others. What they want is to be allowed entry into the Labour Party on their terms. Even when they were pushing their Campaign for a New Workers' Party, the only model for a new party they would countenance was a federal affair in which they had full freedom to do as they please. It's almost as if they cannot conceive any other immediate future for their organisation than re-enacting its Militant days, despite being out on their tod for nearly 30 years. A parasite without a host, independent life has been a cruel and bruising affair and only hugging a parent organism can deliver the sustenance the SP craves.

That Karl Marx was a perceptive fellow, and in The Manifesto he noted that communists have no interests separate from or opposed to wage earners as a whole. Quite. Except here we have a Trotskyist outfit, a latter day communist organisation ever keen to advertise its formal adherence to Marxist ideas but studiously unwilling to apply them to their practice. Class struggle is the reality of British politics, and uniting the strength of the labour movement with the millions of people newly won to the left Labour Party would be a major milestone in the rebuilding of socialist politics. And yet we find the Socialist Party, a small group doing everything it can to earn its 'sectarians on the fringes of the labour movement' epithet by obstructing this process of recomposition. And for what? To keep a pointless electoral coalition unknown to most RMT members, let alone members of the public on life support? To flatter the self-importance of the terminally dull SP exec and its general secretary of 54 years? To validate its ridiculous perspective that Labour was lost to the working class and could never be claimed for socialist politics? Whatever, the reasoning doesn't matter. The SP are standing in the way and deserve to be given short shrift by RMT members and the rest of the labour movement. Old Kerensky, the unlamented moderate head of the provisional government of revolutionary Russia was wrong. There are enemies to the left.


John thatcher said...

Difficult to argue with the analysis here.

Norbert Lawrie said...

Spot on!

Unknown said...

Loved this article.

Jim Denham said...

Excellent piece: can I reblog (with a link, etc) at Shiraz Socialist (Second Run)?

Phil said...

Of course!

Anonymous said...

There has already been a coalition of trade unionists and socialists in British politics for 100 years before TUSC came along; It's called The Labour Party

Anonymous said...

Whatever you want to say about the SP, are you not being reductive in reducing independent class politics, or Marxist politics, to whether one supports or is joined at the hip of the Labour Party or not? Does this organisation consistently - or even inconsistently - represent the interests of wage earners? The real test of Labour Party policies and promises is when the Labour Party is in power, and its record on that account is very mixed, at best. I think one can be very skeptical as to whether it even represents in embryo the 'real movement which abolishes the present state of things' in any sense, even with all the recent political upheaval within Labour. Obviously the Labour Party is connected to the trade union bureaucracy, and with such a low level of class-struggle (which has been the case over all the years of the Corbyn insurgency) in Britain perhaps they can be equated with the labour movement itself. But the labour movement is not reducible to its representatives or its official bureaucracy. How many British wage-earners are in the Labour Party? I'm guessing maybe 1% of the British working population. So, that leaves 99% outside of the Labour Party, and who have yet to see a reason to join. Does that not say something about the state of class politics - even if you equate such class politics entirely with the Labour Party - in Britain? I actually say all this not out of rancour, but skepticism. I think the Ted Grant position of the Labour Party actually has some merit, and seems to have met with some vindication in recent years. How deep that vindication is - only time and events will tell.