Thursday, June 18, 2009

No2EU: A step towards a workers' political voice

No2EU-Yes to Democracy held its launch seven weeks ago. Initiated by the railway workers' union - the RMT - this hastily constructed electoral alliance succeeded in winning 153,236 votes in the European elections on 4 June; 1% of the total cast. The combined left vote across Britain was 340,805, 2.25%.

Hannah Sell

No2EU-Yes to Democracy brought together the RMT, the Socialist Party, the Communist Party of Britain, the Socialist Alliance, the Alliance for Green Socialism, supporters of the CNWP, some branches of Respect, and others. Amongst its candidates were leaders of the most militant struggles in Britain this year including the convenors of the Enfield and Basildon Visteon plants, members of the Lindsey construction workers' strike committee, and Rob Williams, victimised convenor of the Linamar car components plant.

Many workers reached by No2EU were enthused by it. In the short time of its existence however, especially given the media blackout it suffered, No2EU was only able to make a very limited impact on the political consciousness of the mass of workers. No2EU has had more coverage in the capitalist media since election day than it had in the whole campaign!

Of course, no new left formation will be able to instantly gain the confidence of workers, even once it has gained visibility or 'recognition', workers will still rightly want to test it out in action over a period of time. The RMT is one of the most militant trade unions in Britain. Many of No2EU's candidates, not least the Socialist Party members, have a long and proud record of campaigning in the interests of the working class.

However, the campaign itself was very new. In these circumstances, convincing more than 150,000 people to vote for it indicates the possibilities that exist for the creation of a fighting left alternative. In areas where candidates had an established electoral record No2EU received higher results, polling 4.5% in Coventry, for example.

Given the little time there was to establish No2EU's profile, the name of the campaign was a certain disadvantage with some. It was very attractive to a layer of workers who are angry with the way European law is being used by employers and the government to undermine their pay and conditions - including the Lindsey construction workers who raised £400 to help fund No2EU. However, there were other workers - consciously looking for a left or socialist alternative - who if they had not heard about No2EU did not realise that this was what it represented. Undoubtedly some of these voted for Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party (SLP), which polled slightly more than No2EU.

While still modest, the combined vote for the left was the highest ever on a national basis in a European election, and represents a step towards building independent political representation for the working class in Britain.

Many workers looking for a left alternative to New Labour will be understandably disappointed that there was more than one left list standing. Sometimes such clashes will be unavoidable; unfortunately the SLP were unwilling to come together in a common campaign for the European elections. However, the desire to create the strongest possible electoral voice for the working class is completely correct. No2EU was an electoral bloc that aimed to do just that - bring together different organisations around a common programme in order to maximise its electoral impact. The programme of No2EU was inevitably limited as a result, although not, as some have suggested, nationalist. On the contrary it called for 'international solidarity of working class people'.

At the same time, the different component organisations had complete freedom to produce their own material. The Socialist Party, for example, produced leaflets putting forward our socialist programme and explaining that our candidates, if elected, would only take a workers' wage.

A similar approach is needed in the general election. We want to make sure that - in as many seats as possible - socialist and working-class fighters are on offer as alternative to the establishment parties. The CNWP appeals to all trade unionists and socialists, including the SLP, who want to see such a challenge to work to create an electoral bloc on a bigger scale than No2EU was able to achieve.

Opposing the BNP

One of the main motivations for No2EU was a desire to provide a left alternative to the far-right racist BNP. It is clear that, in some working class communities significant sections of the population were so angry with all of the pro-big business establishment parties that they turned to the BNP, which is falsely posing as a party of the 'white working class'. In Barnsley, for example, traditionally a strong Labour area, the Labour vote collapsed from 45% to 25% and the BNP vote increased from 8% to 17%. In reality, as their opposition to last year's public sector strikes and the historic miners' strike shows, the BNP is anti-trade union and anti-strike, nor does it effectively challenge the domination of Britain by a tiny, massively wealthy, capitalist class.

However, the BNP will not be defeated by just pleading with workers not to vote for it. It is necessary to begin to create a mass party that genuinely stands in the interests of all workers, regardless of nationality. No2EU was a step towards creating such an alternative. In response to the results, Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT and No 1 on the London list, put the blame for the BNP's gains firmly at the feet of the big "pro-business, pro-EU" parties and went on to point the way forward:

"Along with our colleagues from the SLP and other left groups we won nearly a third of a million votes. From No2EU we won over 150,000 supporters from a standing start in the teeth of a media blackout. That gives us a solid platform to build from. We now need urgent discussions with political parties, campaigns and our colleagues in other unions like the CWU to develop a political and industrial response to this crisis."

The CNWP believes that the next step has to be to build a workers' challenge to the establishment parties in the general election. Yet some have argued that No2EU was wrong to stand in the European elections, particularly in the North West, because, it is suggested, had No2EU voters voted Green, the racist BNP would not have been elected.

The reason that the BNP won two MEPs was the complete collapse of Labour's vote. As a result the BNP took two seats despite having a lower vote in both the North West and Yorkshire than in 2004.

Moreover, it is wrong to suggest that No2EU should have stood aside for the Greens. The Green Party nationally has never been willing to reach electoral agreements with socialist or left candidates, despite attempts by organizations on the left to discuss doing so with them.

If No2EU had simply stood aside it is wrong to image all of its voters would have transferred to the Greens. The majority of those who did vote Green undoubtedly saw them as a left alternative. At local level Green councillors have supported neoliberal anti-working class measures, but on a national basis, unlike in Germany or Ireland where they have entered neoliberal governments, they are as yet untested and are seen by some as 'left'.

However, in the North West, despite New Labour's vote collapsing compared to 2004 by more than 230,000, the Greens were only able to increase their vote by 10,000. In Yorkshire the Greens only increased their vote by 14,000.

Nationally the Green vote increased by more than half a million, but this was disproportionately concentrated in areas with a larger urban middle class. Across Yorkshire, Greens polled 104,000 compared to the BNP's 120,000.

However, the picture is not the same in the working class, deprived South Yorkshire towns where the BNP made the biggest gains. In Barnsley, where the BNP received 17% of the votes the Greens received 6%.

This is a reflection of the fact that the Greens are not seen by most workers as a party that stands in their interests, and are therefore not capable of cutting across the growth of the BNP.

No2EU was only one step towards creating a new mass workers' party that could cut across the BNP, but it was nonetheless important for that.

For the first time since the foundation of the Labour Party, a national trade union took the decision to stand, alongside others, in a national election on a left programme.

It was the duty of socialists to support such an initiative. The RMT has now established the idea that the labour movement can stand its own candidates in elections.

The civil servants' union, PCS, is currently discussing moving in a similar direction. All such steps should be encouraged.

When workers begin to find their own political voice it is the duty of socialists not to stand on the sidelines criticising, but to engage and work to make sure that those first steps can develop into a mass movement.

CWU members need a political voice

The return of Mandelson to the Government and the proposed privatisation of Royal Mail emanating from the Hooper Review should be the final confirmation to the leadership and activists in the CWU that the Unions relationship with Labour is an abusive one.

Judy Griffith, CWU (personal capacity)

For a decade the issue of funding of Labour has been the subject of discussion at the Communication Workers Union (CWU) Annual Conference. Varying degrees of support have been won for breaking the link with the Labour Party culminating in the 2008 conference agreeing to ballot CWU members over support for Labour if the government moves to privatise Royal Mail.

In light of Labours intent to carry privatisation through, conference policy should be implemented immediately with a recommendation by the NEC to vote to withdraw funding.
The issue of “what alternative?” has always been used by the leadership as the cover for remaining affiliated to Labour.
In moving Composite 101 calling for support for the CNWP from The Welsh Valleys and Coventry Branch at the 2008 conference I referred to the number of motions and rule changes appearing on the agenda that were critical of Labour and made the point that this government has acted as viciously towards the trade unions and workers rights as had the Tories.
In the postal dispute Brown made it abundantly clear to the CWU whose side he was on when he told striking postal workers to go back to work.

The Government pushed through ‘market freedom’ for the break up and privatisation of Royal Mail -something even Thatcher was scared to do. This allowed cheap-labour delivery firms to cream off profitable business, leaving Royal Mail with unprofitable parts, leading to the attack on pay and conditions.
From the minute MPs’ voted for that, a battle between the workers and government appointed bosses was inevitable as they sought to close Mail offices and reduce the workforce. The ‘relationship’ with Labour got us nowhere except a life or death battle for our union and jobs.
Now, precisely when the bankers ‘free market’ is most discredited Labour propose to privatise the Royal Mail! They want to leave the taxpayers with the debt and hand the profitable parts to private companies. They want to further hammer our conditions and our union.

Labour has voted for and continue to close Post Offices. Closing 2,600 by April 2008. We have to witness the hypocrisy of Labour MP’s (and now even Tories who closed 3,542 while in office) turning up to ‘protest’ at closures they have voted for! Like Tony Soprano when he covers his backside by attending the funerals of people he’s had bumped off! Saying one thing, but doing another, the government is at the forefront of these attacks on our union and it’s members.
Whilst the issue of Royal Mail Privatisation and Post Office Closures are key issues for the CWU so too are the wider issues of the Anti Union Laws, Privatisation, Cuts In Public Spending , Tuition Fees, Prescription charges, Privatisation of NHS Services and the lack of decent council housing.

In addition, BT which was privatised by the Tories has been left in private hands under Labour to be run by fat cats resulting today in cuts in pensions for BT employees, the proposed loss of 10.000 jobs in the industry and a pay freeze just to add to the misery. Agency workers have been dismissed overnight with a weeks notice, so much for the ‘Power Up For Agency Workers’ campaign. Workers in the outsourced and divested sector face the same attacks in many cases from a weaker position as they struggle to retain union recognition.

The unions’ policy on Public Ownership of the Telecommunications Industry once again has been ignored by the union when considering its political strategy.

Any remaining doubt that the funding of Labour is in any way beneficial to our members in the CWU must now surely be cast aside. While some in the leadership may still believe that there is no alternative, this position is becoming more and more difficult for them to defend.
If individual members and activists in the CWU wish to remain in the Labour Part
y, including the General Secretary who has stated that he “will die in the Labour Party” then that is their prerogative, however it should not be the determining factor in relation to the political strategy of a union that faces thousands of job losses across the Postal, Telecoms and Financial Services Sector.

The leadership of the CWU in referring to the proposed job losses and the financial position of the union have raised merger with other unions as the solution to secure the unions’ financial stability.

The real alternative surely would be to stop financing Labour to the tune of millions of pounds, and to launch a huge political campaign jointly with other unions such as the RMT, PCS, FBU and POA etc to begin to construct a New Workers Party to contest elections. One that could provide an alternative to the current main parties who all ultimately defend capitalism and the private sector which is so spectacularly failing the working people of Britain and the world.

This is the alternative that is required to provide our members and workers generally who have not bothered voting or have turned to the BNP to protest at being ignored by Labour.
Given EU laws are the fig leaf Labour ministers hide behind to justify privatising the Post Office it would clearly have made sense for the CWU to support the RMT-initiated No2EU – Yes to Democracy European elections list with its anti privatisation and pro workers rights stance and mobilise our members behind it. The CWU should be at the forefront of ensuring that a workers’ alternative such as this is offered at a general election when it comes.

Dave Ward the Deputy General Secretary of the union made the point at the National Protest against Royal Mail Privatisation in Wolverhampton on the 14th March when he said that “there is a need for a political alternative to what is currently on offer and it doesn’t necessarily have to be through Labour” this to huge cheers from the crowd.

The issue will be on the agenda again at the 2009 conference, by then however the union should already have carried out the mandate from 2008 conference and have balloted its members. Failure to do this would be extremely damaging for the current leadership of the union as the onslaught of job cuts and privatisation takes its full hold.

Unions no longer have a political voice and face 3 establishment parties who oppose us. Currently the union gives money to the Labour Party, but what for when they vote to attack us? When they keep the most anti union laws in the western world that make it harder for us to fight to defend our conditions?

Trades Unions should work for new party to stand up for working people, a party that would stand up for the millions not the millionaires. The CWU should be playing its’ part in building such an alternative.