Debate on political representation
One of the eagerly awaited workshops at the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) conference on 28 June, was a debate about political representation. Giving introductions from the top table were: Dave Nellist, chair of the Campaign for a New Workers Party (CNWP) and Unite member; Unjum Mirza, Left List and a RMT member: and John Rogers, Labour Representation Committee (LRC) and Unison member.
The way forward for working class political representation is clearly a key issue facing trade union activists today, with New Labour driving through privatisation and attempting to hold pay below inflation in the public sector. In May, Labour suffered its worst local election results since records began, and more recently a 17.6% swing to the Tories in the Labour heartland of Crewe and Nantwich and a humiliation in the Henley-on-Thames byelection.
Dave Nellist spoke of the need for a new independent party of working people saying: “It’s not so much what direction for the Labour Party, but how to build an alternative”. He listed some of New Labour’s crimes, including: “Seven wars, the consolidation and extension of private ownership in health, education, prisons and council services”. They protect the rich, while abolishing the 10p tax rate and they means test those who claim benefits.
To have any chance of reforming the Labour Party, Dave estimated it would need the injection of at least 50-100 activists into each constituency and 30-60,000 overall. But instead of this, the reality is: “A sclerosis within the organisation of the Labour Party and a haemorrhaging of members with 200,000 leaving since 1997. Neil Kinnock expelled socialists in the 1980s and Tony Blair expelled socialism itself. Today we have one party of capitalism divided into three and they all protect and extend the influence of big business”. Blair and Brown have “consolidated and codified Thatcherism”.
Dave warned that the growing political vacuum is not guaranteed to be filled in a progressive direction and pointed to the threat of the BNP. Issues such as immigration are used by right wing parties. As recession bites and public services are contracted, these parties could grow.
For these reasons the CNWP was launched some years ago to begin the process of building a party for working people. But he explained it will be experiences that will significantly change the situation. For instance the Fire Brigades Union left the Labour Party after fire fighters had torn up their party cards during their dispute. He also explained how attempts like the Socialist Labour Party, the Socialist Alliance and George Galloway’s Respect were lessons on how not to build among working people.
Dave said that a call from trade union leaders, such as Mark Serwotka of the civil servants’ PCS union and Bob Crow of the rail workers’ RMT: “To organise a serious conference on building an alternative to Labour, would get a response”. He also explained the importance of popularising the challenges to the Labour Party such as the FBU member who stood in Gloucester and the NHS campaigners in Kidderminster and Huddersfield.
The Left Party in Germany has 57 MPs. Although they have the advantages of a national figure, Oskar Lafontaine, and an election system of proportional representation, a new party could also grow rapidly in Britain. He described left Labour MPs as: “Prisoners of the New Labour machine smuggling notes out”. If left MP John McDonnell called for a new workers’ party “he could fill the Albert Hall with activists”.
Unjum Mirza, from the Left List, which was formed after the recent split in Respect, said: “The crisis of political representation is part of the wider crisis”. He talked of food riots while the price of basic foods shoots up, the housing crisis and the rising cost of oil, saying that ‘who pays for the crisis, is the backdrop to the crisis of political representation’.
He said: “The key goal of fighting for political representation comes from the mood from below”, adding: “The primary task is to generalise the mood to fight back, it’s not for us to pay for the crisis it’s to raise the combativity of our class”. He mentioned the Left Party in Germany to illustrate the potential for political representation. Quoting the 1916 Clyde workers, he said: “We are with you as long as you represent us, if not we act independently”. Political representation is not just the electoral front but is linked to war, housing and other issues.
John Rogers from the Labour Representation Committee, a left grouping within the Labour Party, and Lambeth Unison, said: “The bosses have three parties and the working class have not got one”. Admitting that “workers have almost no voice in the Labour Party”, he said it was not worth starting on the government because he would never finish. He went on: “So what do we do? I don’t think any of us really know”. Later, he said: “Somehow we’ll work out the answer”. But he claimed that: “Our lack of understanding is nothing compared to the confusion of the trade union leaders”. Mentioning the motion at Unison’s conference calling for a review of the political fund, he said it was not about disaffiliation from the Labour Party.
He used the examples of a rally for the RMT cleaners and a speech in Parliament by victimised trade unionist Karen Reissmann to show that the LRC still has a role. He said the handful of socialist MPs in the Labour Party can help to boost morale in an industrial dispute and the LRC can be used to book rooms at Westminster.
Various people then spoke from the floor. Roger Bannister of Unison explained that the union’s rules blocked any call for disaffiliation at Unison conference, with those that campaigned for it being witch hunted. But the resolution that was put forward would lead to a pro and anti Labour Party debate. He said the leadership of Unison knew that “if the members were allowed to debate the issue of disaffiliation, the tide would be against the Labour Party”.
Nancy Taaffe from Unison said the question of political representation has to be resolved and that Unison has to put the interests of members before the interests of the Labour Party. Gary Clarke from the postal workers’ CWU asked how many last chances his general secretary Billy Hayes wanted to give the Labour Party. Workers Power member Jeremy Dewar, a vice chair of the CNWP, said if John Rogers believes the bosses have three parties when workers have none, the obvious answer is to form one. Alec McFadden said: “Without a new workers’ party, the next generation will suffer”.
Tony Mulhearn, a member of PCS and a leader of the Liverpool Council in the 1980s and Terry Pearce from Unite, both asked if John Rogers still believes the Labour Party can be reclaimed. Tony said that by staying in the Labour Party, left MPs only legitimise the role of the right wing. Several delegates asked: What is happening in the Left List; what are its aims; what has happened with Respect; and where is it going? Unfortunately no answers were given and an opportunity was lost to draw further lessons from the shipwrecked Respect project.
NSSN delegates were inspired by the compelling case put for a new workers’ party but were left with more questions than answers from those speakers who as yet do not support this call.
(all trade union members spoke in a personal capacity)