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Break with New Labour, break their anti-trades union laws!

Socialist Labour & the trades union movement

The founders of the SLP in May l996 understood that things in the workers’ movement in Britain were changing. Being the oldest working-class movement in the world, and possibly the slowest, the ideas of gradualism are deeply ingrained. The British Labour Party has always been, is today and will always be – so goes the dominant view. But clearly the Labour Party is in the process of changing from what Lenin called a bourgeois workers party into an openly bourgeois party. The class nature of the Labour Party is undergoing decisive changes!

As the Labour Party dumped its working-class base, the trades unions who historically founded it and its socialist constituency activists, the founders of the SLP saw that our class and all the oppressed under capitalism must have a political voice. The vast majority of working people must have political representation. The SLP must fight to oust and replace the Labour Party as the mass socialist party of labour!

Blair’s New Labour dumps trades unions

It is only 100 years ago that working women and men gave up on the Liberal Party and struggled through their trades unions to create the Labour Party. It was a resolution from the ASRS (forerunner of todays RMT) delegates to the 1899 TUC that led to the founding of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, and the Labour Party in 1906. This represented a step forward to working class independence from the bosses’ parties, although it did not adopt any type of socialist programme until 1918, and then only enough to stem rallying support to the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. The British Labour Party remained wedded to capitalism, but its working-class base was able to pressurise for reforms.

Today the Labour Party leaders are rewinding history and going back to bourgeois liberalism, and this is the key lesson we must take out to the wider workers’ movement, the trades unions, Labour Party members and the left groups. Blair is not just another right-wing Labour Party leader like Jim Callaghan or Harold Wilson. Blair himself is clear and honest about his big project to transform New Labour into a SDP/Liberal Democrat bourgeois party. ‘I want a situation more like the Democrats and Republicans in the US. People don’t even question for a single moment that the Democrats are a pro-business party. They should not be asking that question about New Labour.’ (Financial Times, 16 January 1997)

So New Labour not only will not restore trades union rights lost under the Tories, but further wants to become free of trades union influence altogether, including trades union money! Hence New Labour is keen on the capitalist state funding of political parties, and mega donations from millionnaire businessmen like Formula Ones’s Mr Eccleston. Could such donations influence policy?

The potential strength of the SLP lies in the following: how much longer can the excessive tolerance of trades unionists accept pouring a reported 11 million pounds into New Labour? How much longer can we tolerate sponsoring New Labour MPs like Deputy Leader John Prescott who wants to attack London Underground workers by privatisation! The SLP must intervene to change this, and build a mass socialist party of labour based on the trades unions.

New business unionism at TUC

Despite decades of betrayals and defeats there are still 8 million organised workers in the trades unions. Of course, these masses of sisters and brothers have many different political views, but still they have combined in defensive organisations to resist capitalist exploitation. But what about the leaders of the trades union movement?

The 1996 TUC at Blackpool was notable for disillusionment among delegates as Blair wanted no worker to embarass his wooing of ‘middle England’ in the run up to the the general election last May. The newly founded SLP drew over 150 delegates to our fringe meeting, recruiting many of them, notably comrades Jimmy Nolan and Joe Marino.

By this year’s TUC last September in Brighton, the first under a Labour government after 18 years of Tory rule, there was even more disillusionment. Delegates were greeted by the Congress slogan of ‘Partnership for Progress’, i.e. class collaboration deals between the TUC, CBI and the New Labour government, working hard together for greater capitalist exploitation.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Director of the CBI and Mr Blair all lectured delegates on the so-called ‘social partnership’ of bosses and workers. SLP members at the TUC supported a good resolution to campaign to repeal all the anti-trades union laws passed since 1979. Unfortunately the NUM delegates failed to move this key resolution so it wasn’t discussed. The RMT delegation resolution to oppose the Private Finance Initiative in public services got lost in a UNISON fudge which rendered it meaningless. So while nothing much happened inside to upset John Monks or Tony Blair, the striking, locked out and sacked workers from the Liverpool Docks, Magnet, Critchley Labels and Hillingdon Hospital weren’t even allowed inside!

For one, united Trades Union Congress!

At the SLP fringe meeting at the TUC in Brighton on Monday 8 September, comrade Arthur Scargill correctly denounced the TUC leaders for failing to represent working-class interests. But he also raised the bizarre idea of a breakaway alternative to the TUC. The organisational unity of all trades unions in one trades union confederation is a strength and a gain. We do not need so-called ‘Red’ unions – an old Stalinist mistake from the 1930s. Marxists and all socialists should fight alongside their millions of brothers and sisters in the mass trades unions, and not separate themselves in ‘pure’, sterile unions. The SLP should fight in the trades unions as they are, and politically fight to change the trades union and TUC leaderships. The TUC is not equivalent to a political party which must be evaluated on the basis of its political programme. Trades unions are organisations built along class lines for the organisation of the working class.

Fight for Marxist leadership in the unions

The political problem in the trades unions is the pro-Labour leaders like the TUC’s John Monks, the GMB’s John Edmonds, UNISON’s Rodney Bickerstaffe, TGWU’s Bill Morris and the RMT’s Jimmy Knapp. They may complain that they are being treated badly by Blair, like the ‘Old’ Labour politicians like Roy (sorry, Lord) Hattersley. But they are tied politically to New Labour and they claim they have no alternative. This is the importance of the SLP. We stood up against New Labour at the general election last May, and we do have an alternative, unshackled from New Labourism and New Unionism.

The SLP began its industrial organisation seriously with a trades unionists weekend school in Scarborough in February 1997, although this was unfortunately not widely publicised inside our Party. This school discussed the ‘Industrial Strategy’ document by comrades Bob Crow and Arthur Scargill. Much of what it advocated organisationally was fine – the need for an industrial organiser; an industrial committee; Socialist Labour forums in individual trades unions; sector committees in Health, Energy, Transport etc.; and using Socialist News more politically. Given the political background of the authors it was not surprising that they looked back towards the former CPGB’s industrial organisation in the 1950s to 1970s, which was a powerful machine.

Today we can learn lessons from how they used to organise, while we should be highly critical of their Stalinist politics. The essence of Stalinism, a degenerated revision of real communism, are the theory of socialism in one country and peaceful co-existence with capitalism, strategies which supported their position as a parasitic caste on top of the gains of the October revolution. The need to protect their own positions led the Stalinised Communist Parties to outright attacks on the working class – helping to crush the Spanish revolution in 1936, and to break strikes during the Second World War! The old Stalinist CPGB’s strategy was The British Road to Socialism, and in the 1970s they hoped to pressurise the Labour Party and influence ‘left’ trades union bureaucrats like the AUEW’s Hugh Scanlon and the TGWU’s Jack Jones. That strategy was bankrupt then, and today it is meaningless!

The SLP must build on our history of militant trade unionism, such as the leading role of Arthur Scargill in the great miners’ strike, and take this militancy further. We cannot ‘pressurise’ New Labour to the left, nor hope to influence the likes of Lew Adams or Bill Morris. The SLP must fight New Labour all the way seeking to win its trades union and activist bases away from it. We must win trades unionists at all levels to the SLP and fight to replace the New Labour leaderships with leaders who will fight for our class. The last things the SLP needs is old social democracy or old Stalinism! Social democracy is transforming itself into liberal democracy, and the Stalinists (those who havn’t already left the workers movement like the Euros) no longer have state power in the Soviet Union and the deformed workers states to support their dangerous policies.

Should we defend the trades unions/Labour Party link? No, we should fight for the political independence of the trades unions from New Labour and campaign for them to affiliate to the SLP.

Should we focus on a ‘rank and file’ strategy towards shopfloor workers? While it is correct to aim at all unions members rather than trying to win ‘left’ bureaucrats (who usually move rapidly rightward once moving up the hierarchy of power), rank and filism without a clear political alternative is a failed strategy that will only create a new generation of the same ‘left’ bureaucrats. No, we need to launch a political fight against the misleaders, the New Labourites in and out of the trades unions, based on a programme of class struggle, not class-collaboration.

For Marxist leadership in the SLP

There is a desperate need to begin to rebuild the trades union movement, to win youth, women and as yet unorganised workers. Socialist Labour must become more focused on the political fight against New Labour and social democracy in the trades union movement, and reject harking back to defeated Stalinism.

Our SLP must be more confident and democratic to succeed. We must debate the content of comrade John Hendy’s proposed major pamphlet on the nature of the anti-trades union laws, before taking it out to the wider, workers movement. Our Congress should debate and elect a strong editorial board for Socialist News that is unafraid of debate amongst comrades, and able to produce a militant, trades union pull-out in the next issue of Socialist News. We should convene meetings of all SLP supporters in each individual union

to sort out how we can advance the SLP. We must build our major trades union conference, next March, to appeal to all active trades unionists. We should work with all those in the trades union movement who agree that fighting Blair and New Labour is our key task.

At the same time, we need to study and debate Marxism so that we don’t just proclaim our aim as socialism, but can work out concretely how we can get real socialism. The SLP Marxist Bulletin exists to build the Socialist Labour as the mass socialist party of labour open to all communists and socialists. We want to build the SLP as a party that can ovethrow capitalism, with other parties around the world.