The seventh annual conference of the National Shop Stewards Network, held in London at the end of June, was strong on activism and optimism but confused politically.
John Reid kicked off the day in a promising way, reporting a decision taken at its own conference by the RMT to use all its resources to campaign for the replacement of capitalism with a democratic socialist system. According to the network’s own account of proceedings at the NSSN conference, it was also agreed there that “The struggle in the workplaces and the communities against day-to-day attacks are important, but it must also include a political expression and a socialist alternative.”
Yet, faced with the TUC’s endless (and entirely predictable) foot-dragging, the only advice that could be offered was to keep on lobbying the mulish TUC to concede a one-day general strike, meanwhile supporting the TUC’s token demo outside the Tory conference planned for 29 September.
In addition to announcing their intention to set a cap on welfare spending, Miliband and Balls are also retreating from their earlier supposedly ‘principled’ opposition to means testing, instead requiring recipients of the winter fuel subsidy to prove they are poor enough to qualify and declining to defend the universality of child benefit.
Whilst posing as an egalitarian attack on hand-outs to the privileged, these moves simply ensure that such benefits will come to be identified as ‘poor people’s benefits’ – which can safely be left to dwindle away once deprived of the support of influential middle-class opinion.
Yet despite Miliband’s very public embrace of the austerity agenda, no TUC plans were mentioned to demonstrate outside Labour’s own seaside conference in the previous week (22-25[sup] [/sup]September). Nor did the NSSN put itself forward to lead any such demo, despite the clear necessity of exposing and challenging the pernicious role of Labour in the workers’ movement.
This diffidence, despite Labour’s latest lurch from its former ‘fairer cuts’ line to a new ‘anything you can cut we can cut better’ line (not only declaring for a cap on welfare spending but also pioneering the reintroduction of means testing), suggests that the NSSN remains as reluctant as ever to undertake the difficult task of uprooting social democracy from the union movement, although Labour’s continued sway does more than anything to disunite and dishearten the working class.
In the absence of any such perspective, the assertion that “By the end of the conference delegates went away armed with the ideas and tactics to change our movement in order to change our society” sounds more like the triumph of hope over experience than any well-rooted confidence in the revolutionary future of the British proletariat.
For the record, the People’s Assembly’s organisers appear equally happy to let the Labour reactionaries have their own austerity conference in peace, concentrating exclusively on demonstrating against the Tories a week later.
SWP puts its cards on the table
If the NSSN wants a sneak preview of the political consequences of failing to break with social democracy, it need only read the following addled nonsense from the Socialist Workers Party, advertising a public meeting in Bristol.
Under the tremulous headline “Can the Labour left revive?” the Trots gush:
“For the first time in many years, the fortunes of the Labour left are improving. Totally marginalised under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the Labour left has been one of the driving forces behind the swelling protest movement against the bedroom tax. Owen Jones has gained a prominence as a speaker and a writer that we haven’t seen since Tony Benn’s heyday in the early 1980s.
“And there’s organisational muscle behind this revival, in the shape of Unite, Britain’s biggest trade union. Its general secretary Len McCluskey has pushed the union into community organising, and Unite has played a prominent role in developing the Peoples’ Assembly.
“Paradoxically, this revival of the Labour left dovetails with the enthusiastic response that film director Ken Loach’s call for a new Left Unity party. So what we have is, in effect, two different projects for reviving the reformist tradition in Britain.
“This meeting, organised by Bristol North Socialist Workers Party, discusses the prospects and possibilities for these welcome developments, and analyses how the fight back against austerity can be strengthened both in Britain and abroad.”
Forget any notion that the ‘driving force’ behind the bedroom tax protests might conceivably be a working class finally pushed beyond endurance by this final straw. No, the ‘driving force’ behind all this is the magical revival of the ‘Labour left’, led by Tony Benn wannabes like Owen Jones and Labour deadbeats like Len McCluskey! By this logic, the cork that bobs on the ocean rules the waves ...
The reality is that the left Labour luminaries who are so welcome in the eyes of these Trots serve capitalism alone, doing their utmost to keep workers safely corralled within social democracy. If their rhetoric is turning more abrasive these days, this has the simple aim of making it easier to pull the wool over the eyes of angry workers and dissipate their wrath in an endless round of lobbies, petitions and Early Day Motions.
Unite’s support for Ed Miliband in the Labour leadership contest has come back to haunt Len McCluskey, as ‘Red Ed’ calls in the rozzers to investigate allegations of malpractice against the union in regard to the choice of Labour candidate in the Falkirk by-election.
That election was itself precipitated by the conviction of the incumbent Labour MP, the self-described ‘New Labour’ man Eric Joyce, on a charge of common brawling in the Westminster bar. This paragon of law-abiding virtue has now availed himself of the columns of the Guardian to berate Unite for its “amateur, hubristic and irresponsible actions” in allegedly rigging the candidate selection process, whilst Miliband himself repays Unite’s unflagging support by unveiling plans to scrap the right of unions to automatically sign up union members as Labour party members, instead requiring that aspiring party members actively opt in to membership.
So it is that Miliband, whose own elevation to a leading position in any large organisation could only conceivably be explained by a prevailing culture of degeneracy and bureaucratic sclerosis, is now posing as a champion of transparency and accountability!
If Miliband’s craven eagerness to demonstrate his party’s immunity to influence from the organised working class actually translates into a weakening of the bonds that mutually sustain the labour-aristocratic union leaderships and the Labour imperialists, this can only be heartily welcomed by class-conscious workers.
The real scandal in Falkirk is not whether or not Unite packs Labour wards in order to lever its chums onto the parliamentary gravy train. The real scandal is the fact that Unite has squandered getting on for £9m of its members’ hard-earned subs on propping up the Labour party – and that’s just in the period since Miliband took over.
Lobbying bill: a ConDem stunt
The recent scandal over peers of the realm eager to peddle their political influence for hard cash has prompted the ConDems to table a face-saving bill on lobbying. Whilst ostensibly aimed at rooting out corruption, the bill also sneaks in a couple of other clauses with a very different intention.
The first is the end of self-certification by unions of their membership lists. Henceforth, unions would be required to submit to an annual audit of their members under the supervision of a certification officer appointed by the state and empowered to conduct investigations into the numbers produced.
The usefulness of this fresh intrusion of the state into the way unions organise themselves will not be lost on corporate lawyers earning their living by finding technicalities with which to subvert democratic strike ballots.
The second bolt-on measure aims to reduce the scope trade unions have for giving material support to the Labour party. At present, for example, if Labour asks a union to print an election leaflet, it need only include in the declaration of expenses the bare cost of printing. Under the new dispensation, the declaration would have to include all the overheads like staffing and office rent.
George Eaton’s New Statesman blog on this issue is unintentionally comical. Arguing that union hand-outs to Labour should be a badge of democratic honour, not shame, he cites in support the words of the Tory MP for Harlow, Robert Halfon. Unions, he gushed, are “essential components of the Big Society. They are the largest voluntary groups in the UK. They are rooted in local communities, and are very much social entrepreneurs.”
Anything, in short, except fighting organs of the working class!
Let Tweedledum and Tweedledummer squabble over who gets to sign the cheques to fund their respective campaigns in 2015. Meanwhile, let the unions break with Labour, free themselves from the shackles of social democracy and get on with fighting for the class interest of the members upon whose subs they depend.
Unite’s response to Rigby death
In the course of a public statement commenting on the death of British soldier Lee Rigby, issued by the Greenwich branch of Unite with the stated intention of promoting “unity in the fight against racism, division and terror”, the union includes the following intriguing health warning:
“We ... recognise that there will be many other groups and organisations who will wish to seek to organise against the forces of racism and division. While welcome, there will be those who may not have roots in the area.
“Our request as a large, representative trade union that organises working people in this area is that there is a recognition that the trade unions based in the borough will along with others play a lead role. Therefore, let us unite and work together against those who seek to terrorise and divide.”
What can this mean? Who are these mysterious folk without ‘roots in the area’ whose ‘welcome’ must be tempered with caution? What are the mysterious ‘other groups and organisations’ which, it is hinted, might disrupt the even flow of Unite’s campaign against racism? This we are not told.
Is the worry perhaps that someone, anyone, might actually stand up and point out the elephant in the room: the obvious connection between Rigby’s death and the death of so many millions of Iraqis, Afghans, Libyans and others at the hands of imperialism?
Or that someone, anyone, may point out that the union’s chief beneficiary, the Labour party, has itself been the architect of much of this slaughter, and now actively supports the attempted subversion of independent Syria from the opposition benches?
The absence of even the slightest reference anywhere to imperialism’s global racism – played out in an endless string of criminal wars and assassinations – is indeed remarkable in a statement intending to unite workers in a struggle against racism, and can only be explained by the pernicious influence of Labour on the union.
After scurrying in the first paragraph to “totally and without any reservation condemn the senseless and barbaric murder” of Rigby, not a peep of condemnation is to be heard of the innumerable war crimes that bloody the hands of British imperialism, and which inevitably bring in their train such individual acts of terror.
The truth is that the biggest obstacle to working-class unity in the struggle against racism is the way that social democracy keeps the proletariat tied to the war chariot of imperialism. If anything can be said to undermine Unite’s efforts to push back the tide of racist panic, it is above all the influence of the Labour party.
If ‘large, representative trade unions that organise working people’ like Unite are serious about fighting racist divisions in the working class, let them take the bold step of initiating a campaign of active non-cooperation with British imperialist war crimes. Let them instruct their own members to refuse to shift war supplies, print war propaganda or assist in any way with the imperialist war effort, and support them when they are penalised for taking this principled stand.
And let them thereby demonstrate in practice, by their own actions the superiority of collective class struggle over individual acts of revenge.