Friday, June 4, 2010

The first steps of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition

THE EARLY EFFORTS to establish working class political representation did not meet with easy success. In his first contest as an independent labour candidate, in the 1888 Mid-Lanarkshire by-election, Keir Hardie sometimes lost the then standard ‘vote of confidence in the candidate’ at his own public meetings. At a time when most trade unions supported the Liberal Party, the governmental alternative to the Conservatives, workers would frequently shout him down for ‘splitting the vote’. That was not the response received, however, by the candidates of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) in May’s general election, even if the votes they won were no greater than the pioneers of the early Labour Party.

Clive Heemskerk

That TUSC’s vote would be squeezed in the context of a polarised general election was recognised by its participants when it was formed in January this year. The ‘Americanisation’ of British politics, with the capitalist New Labour party no longer seen by workers as ‘our party’, has created a deep sense of powerlessness amongst millions of working class voters. A report by the Department for Communities and Local Government, published without comment during the election, revealed that just 22% of people now feel they can at all ‘influence decisions affecting Britain’. (The Guardian, 30 April) What is this if not an expression of the effective disfranchisement of the working class, in the absence of a mass workers’ party that had the confidence of the working class to fight on their behalf?

An upsurge of workers’ struggle, which will come, could dramatically transform that consciousness – and create the basis for a new workers’ party to develop with mass traction. But, in this election, TUSC could not fill the vacuum. Those workers who did come out to vote – and the turnout rose in this election from 61% in 2005 to 65% – plumped for ‘the lesser evil’ against the threat of the Tories. Creditable votes were won by TUSC candidates in Coventry North East (1,592), Tottenham (1,057) and Glasgow South West (931) but generally TUSC polled no higher than Socialist Party and other left candidates had in previous elections.

The main purpose of TUSC, however, was to reach the most militant workers, in the trade unions and the unorganised as well, with the arguments for independent working class political representation. And in this it achieved some important successes. Twenty-one TUSC candidates were officially endorsed by the executive committee of the most combative industrial trade union in Britain today, the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers’ union (RMT), and a similar number of RMT branches backed and donated to local campaigns. Outside the RMT, support was won for individual candidates from branches of the Communications Workers’ Unions (CWU) and the GMB and UNITE general unions, and the Scottish region of the Fire Brigades Union. This follows – and, indeed, deepens – the process started by the formation of the No2EU-Yes to Democracy coalition, backed by the RMT, which contested last year’s European elections.

The TUSC steering committee includes, in a personal capacity, the RMT general secretary Bob Crow, and fellow executive member Craig Johnston; the assistant general secretary of the PCS civil servants union, Chris Baugh, and the union’s vice-president, John McInally; the vice-president of the National Union of Teachers, Nina Franklin; and the recently retired general secretary of the Prison Officers Association, Brian Caton. Amongst the TUSC candidates were nine branch officers of the UNISON public sector union, a CWU branch secretary and an assistant secretary, a University and College Union branch secretary, and three RMT branch officers. These latter included Bill Rawcliffe, the RMT senior steward at Jarvis Rail, who only decided to stand, after a mass meeting of rail engineering workers, when Jarvis went into administration on March 25th and made 1,200 workers redundant.

Significantly, it was not until the Jarvis workers decided to stand a candidate that Bill received a concerned phone call from his local New Labour MP Ed Miliband! This fear the capitalist politicians have of workers taking ‘politics’ into their own hands is just a hint of what a trade union-based workers’ party could achieve in the future, in beginning to change the balance of forces in favour of the working class.

TUSC exists precisely to be a ‘Doncaster on a national scale’, in other words, a banner available to be taken up by workers moving onto the political plane. The steps that were taken in this election – small though they were – on the road to re-establishing independent working class political representation, alone justify the TUSC campaign.

The outcome of the election, with a Tory-Lib Dem government and the Labour Party now in opposition, does not change the task that TUSC has set itself. The character of the Labour Party, transformed in the 1990s into New Labour, has not been changed by the election vote. There was, in some areas, a return – very limited at that – of its working class vote, out of fear of the consequences of a Tory government. A detailed survey of voters conducted by Greenberg Research confirms this, concluding that people “voted Labour to defend public spending” but that there was no “ideological content” to this, “no vision that brought people to Labour”. (The Guardian, 17 May). How could it be otherwise after 15 years of New Labour consciously counter-posing itself to ‘Old Labour’ as a pro-market, ‘business-friendly’ party? The actual result still saw the biggest fall in seats for Labour since 1931, the lowest share of the vote since 1983, and 4.9 million fewer votes cast for Labour than in 1997.

Most important, however, is the fact that the nature of a party is not determined just by the composition of those of vote for it – otherwise the US Democrats would arguably be a workers’ party (and the 19th century Liberals too). Another critical factor in the dual character of ‘Old Labour’ as a ‘capitalist workers’ party’ were the possibilities that existed in its structures for its working class base to assert their interests against the party’s pro-capitalist leaders. Those channels were systematically destroyed in the past two decades and the election result has not changed that. The crisis of working class political representation persists and will be starkly revealed in the events ahead, as the new government unleashes its ‘savage cuts’.

While all analogies are limited, because different conditions effect how social processes unfold, Hardie found himself contesting the 1888 by-election as a local miners-nominated independent labour representative because the Liberal Party, then in opposition to a Conservative government, refused to accept him as their candidate. Other ‘labour representatives’ had been allowed as Liberal candidates on other occasions but Hardie’s candidature had developed out of bitter strike movements against local Liberal-supporting mine-owners and was not acceptable to the Liberal Party leadership. In the ‘Greek-style’ battles to come, with the new wave of Labour-controlled councils, for example, passing on Tory-Lib Dem cuts, the prospect of independent trade union and anti-cuts candidates will grow.

TUSC emerged out of discussions by those involved in the No2EU election coalition – launched, it should be remembered, just 15 months ago – which in turn was a response to an upsurge in workers’ struggle in early 2009, particularly the Lindsey oil refinery construction workers’ strike and RMT battles against European Union directives undermining workers’ rights. No2EU, involving the RMT, the Socialist Party, the Communist Party of Britain, Solidarity–Scotland’s Socialist Movement, and others, worked on a ‘federal’ basis, with decisions being reached by broad consensus while each participant had the right to produce their own material supporting the coalition. The Communist Party, which was an active member of No2EU, eventually decided not to be involved in TUSC – while the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), after some debate, was invited to join in March – but the consensus method of organisation was carried on into TUSC. While discussions will no doubt take place on the best way to organise the coalition as it develops in the future, certainly for the next period the federal approach must continue.

By continuing to group together in an electoral coalition the most militant leading trade unionists in Britain today, TUSC can be an important catalyst in furthering the process towards independent working class political representation.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Discussion on structures and democracy


The last CNWP Conference eighteen months ago agreed a resolution from the Socialist Alliance which committed the CNWP to start the discussion as to how we develop from a campaign for a new workers' party into that actual party. The full text of the resolution is below.

Briefly, the resolution recognised the urgent need for the left to get its act together and campaign for a new workers' party given Labour's shift to the right, the vacuum that leaves, and the threat posed by the Far Right. It was agreed this would be achieved by bringing the left together whilst building the party within the wider working class, and that therefore the time was right to start moving towards a pro-party alliance or a pre-party formation that would begin work to determine the structure and rules for such a party. Part of that process would be to turn Declaration signatories into members, with branches where there are enough members.

So why did the SA want the CNWP to move forward in his way? There has clearly been some frustration at the gradual rate of progress since the Campaign for a New Workers Party was launched in March 2006, nearly four years ago. That Launch Conference asked the CNWP Steering Committee to start considering “which type of structure would best suit a Campaign for a New Workers' Party that would encourage supportive left groups/alliances, unions, independents, tenants, community groups and others to work towards unity at their own pace”. A Steering Committee meeting in September 2007 agreed to begin “longer term discussions on the structure of a future party.”

However, these discussions have not yet started. This is partly because the CNWP, quite rightly in my opinion, put most of its energies in 2009 into 'No2EU-YestoDemocracy' and subsequent Post-No2EU developments. Both represent a huge step in the right direction - Left Coalitions with Trade Unionist backing for both the Euro and next General Election moves the whole party building process significantly forward, and, indeed helps shape that Party. This puts renewed pressure on us as the campaign for a new workers' party to start sorting out exactly what sort of party we want - and what sort of party would work.

This is not about declaring a new workers’ party now. It is about starting the discussion about what that Party should be like and look like so that we are ready when the base has been built and/or conditions dictate that we move a lot faster.

Present conditions are indeed making the need for a new left party more urgent. On the one hand, workers are suffering from the worst Recession in living memory. All establishment parties are striving to make workers pay for the crisis. With no left alternative being offered, workers are turning to the Far Right in significant numbers as a protest vote, many of whom could be won back if there was that working class alternative. On the other hand, there is a new mood for unity across the left, not seen since the high point period of the original Socialist Alliance around the time it stood 98 candidates in the 2001 General Election. Calls for the left to work together, and for a unified left electoral challenge, have been made recently by a number of Trade Union leaders, including Jane Godrich (PCS Pres), Bob Crow (RMT Gen Sec) and Mark Serwotka (Gen Sec PCS). Leaders of socialist organizations have gone further, calling for a new workers’ party. Bob Crow stated in a No2EU Supporters Bulletin on June 8th that we “now need urgent discussions with political parties, campaigns and trade union colleagues (e.g. CWU) to develop a political and industrial response to the crisis.” Dave Nellist has been more explicit in calling for a new party. The SWP called in the summer for a left conference to discuss a "single, united left alternative to Labour”, and the AWL have called for a new Socialist Alliance.

With growing support for the notion of a new left party, we really do need to start discussing the type of structure we would prefer. We have already agreed a new Party must be open, inclusive and democratic, representing all strands of the movement – including left organizations, trades unionists, those opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those campaigning on environmental issues, pensions, racism and tenants rights, encouraging all such organisations to work towards unity at their own pace. The only structure that could possibly reflect and represent such diversity would be federal, recognizing the traditions and backgrounds of each ‘sector’ whilst campaigning together on agreed policies and projects – around the 80 or 90% we can all agree upon. That may, especially in the short term, mean accepting that organizations would act in their own name whilst making it clear they are also a part of the Party as a whole. In elections, for example, if an organization has built roots under its own electoral title, it may wish to retain that title – taking the Socialist Party as an example, this could mean standing as ‘Socialist Alternative (the SP’s registered electoral title) as part of the 'Left Workers Party’ or whatever.

We have also agreed to become a Membership campaign and that process has begun with a number of the 4,000 CNWP Declaration signatories having formally become members. Membership itself confers rights and responsibilities which need to be defined in a set of rules or some sort of Constitution. We have already agreed a minimum membership fee and to organize regional CNWP meetings at which all CNWP members will be entitled to vote. We have also agreed to set up local branches where sufficient membership exists. What we now need to do is to encourage more and more supporters to become members, to hold the regional meetings on a more consistent basis, and set up the local branches of the CNWP. We will then need to define the relationship of these branches to the regional meetings, and vica versa, and the relationship of both to the national Steering Committee. That will be the first steps towards defining a structure that suits the Campaign for a New Workers' Party and be able to evolve as we move into a being an actual Party.

It is also CNWP policy for no single group or organization to be allowed to dominate a new Party, and to put in place mechanisms which ensure that full and frank discussions are allowed and a wide range of opinions are represented on all policy making bodies. This was agreed to prevent any takeover as happened within the original Socialist Alliance in 2001. Decision making bodies thus need to represent all opinion by including representatives from each affiliated organization, and I suggest representation, along with affiliation fee, be proportional to size, and representation for independents elected directly by independents. There also needs to be agreement that whereas it would be hoped decisions would be made by consensus, if consensus did not exist nothing could be progressed without the formal approval of, say, 51% of affiliated organizations and 51% of the representatives of independents. This may sound cumbersome, but more often than not decisions would indeed be by consensus. In any event, with such a diverse number of organisations being represented - political organisations, trade unions, tenant and community groups, women, black groups, organisations opposed to racism and other forms of exploitation, and, of course, independents, all separately and in their own right, no one group is so likely to dominate anyway.

This would require a structure that included a large enough Steering Committee type body for all affiliated opinion to be represented. I would suggest one representative each for those organisations affiliating with less than 100 declared members, two representatives for those with up to 250 declared members, and one additional representative for each additional 200 members above that number - with an affiliation fee that reflected those declared numbers. For example, the affiliation fee could be set at £50 for organisations declaring up to 100 members, and an additional £30 per additional 100 members. That would mean an organisation with 50 members would pay £50 affiliation and have one representative; an organisation with 350 members would pay £140 affiliation and be entitled to three representatives. An organisation with 1,000 members would pay £320 and have five representatives. These figures are purely suggestions.

In addition, independent individual members should be entitled to elect one representative for every 100 individual independent members. An 'individual independent member' being a "Party" member who is not also a member of an affiliated organisation. Each local branch should also be able to elect one representative per 100 members up to a maximum of three representatives. Branches could elect on a similar basis to Regional meetings to be held when necessary, there being no need for Regional bodies to themselves send representatives to the Steering Committee. Regional views could be articulated by Branch representatives within that Region.

There will need to be an agreed minimum number of national and local meetings. Given the importance of 'bottom upwards democracy' within a new left party, there should be regular Branch meetings, monthly or bi-monthly, an annual Conference open to all members and at least one other national meeting of members each year. Conference and national members meetings would be the supreme decision making body, with the Steering Committee responsible for policy between Conferences and national meetings. Annual Conference should directly elect functional Officers as deemed necessary by Conference following recommendation from Branches and the Steering Committee, with nominations from individual members, Branches and the Steering Committee. Conferences and national meetings should be open to all fully paid up members, with voting weighted as within the Steering Committee, and not individual, so that voting becomes proportional to declared size of organisation, with the same proviso that 51% of both organisations and individual independent members would need to support a policy before it could be enacted

The CNWP has already agreed a number of initial steps towards determining a structure for a new workers' party. The crisis of capitalism, and growth of support for the far right, make the need to develop such a Party that much more urgent. Events, including the experience and performance of No2EU and its successor, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, will help promote and shape that Party. We must be ready to be able to suggest the outline of a structure for such a Party which has already been debated, modified and broadly supported by those at the forefront of campaigning for that Party. The ideas expressed here are very much open to debate within our ranks over the next few months - they are but the start of a lengthy process. Their essence is federalism based on consensus and proportional representation of all traditions and backgrounds which become part of the new formation, and is very much part of the process of moving from a campaign for a new workers' party into a pre-party formation which, shaped by events, could become the prototype for the real thing.

The actual resolution passed which commits us to start this debate
1. This Conference welcomes the initiative of the CNWP Officers in organising a Discussion Forum on the Way Ahead for the Left at the start of Conference.
2. Conference recognises there is an urgent need for the left to get its act together given the fact that:
Workers increasingly accept that Labour can no longer be reclaimed
Labour’s shift to the right – or far right - means there is a vacuum which the left could, and should, fill.
Recent election results would, if replicated in a General Election, return a Tory Government with a large majority, its policies influenced by an increased vote for the far right
There is the growing threat posed by the racist/fascist BNP
3. Conference confirms its view that the best way to confront these issues is to campaign for a new socialist party – a new workers’ party. In fact, that is essential. Conference agrees that, as part of the process of building a new workers’ party, it is necessary to bring together as many of the disparate left forces as possible, in addition to the work being done to build the Party within the working class – within Trade Unions; tenants and community groups; the black community; women; youth; and all those oppressed by capitalism.
4. Conference therefore agrees that the time is right to start moving towards a pro-party alliance or a pre-party formation that, as well as campaigning for a new party, will also begin work to determine the structure and rules for such a party. Conference recognises that this not only requires that declaration signatories be more involved in the work of the CNWP, but also requires a democratic legitimacy that the present signatories/supporters based system fails to give. To address this, the CNWP will become a membership based campaign, with branches where sufficient membership exists. This is part of the process which will lead, sooner rather than later, to the formal launch of the new workers’ party.
5. Existing and new Declaration signatories/supporters will be asked to take out membership of the CNWP, the fee being determined by Conference or, between conferences, the Steering Committee.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Launch of Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition

LAST WEEK saw the culmination of a series of discussions by participants in the 'No2EU-Yes to Democracy' European election coalition to see whether another alliance could be constructed for the forthcoming general election.

The result is that there will now be an election challenge, under the newly-registered electoral banner, Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC).

No2EU was an alliance for a specific election, registered as a party as required by electoral law, involving the RMT transport workers' union, the Socialist Party, the Communist Party of Britain, Solidarity - Scotland's Socialist Movement, the Socialist Alliance, the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party and others. This time the RMT is not formally backing the coalition. However, RMT branches and regional councils will be able to apply to the union's national executive to support, politically and financially, individual candidates in their area. And Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT, is supporting TUSC in a personal capacity, and will serve on its steering committee.

Places have been reserved on the committee for the core organisations which participated in No2EU, who will now decide on their involvement in the new coalition. Also involved in a personal capacity are other prominent trade unionists, including Brian Caton, the general secretary of the Prison Officers Association (POA), and leading national officers of the PCS civil servants' union. While there is no formal involvement of a national trade union, this is still an important coalescing on the political plane of the most fighting trade union leaders in Britain today.

A number of local RMT branches, and other trade unionists too, have already declared that they intend to stand candidates in the general election but have not registered a 'party name'. Now, if they wish, such candidates will be able to appear on the ballot paper as Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition rather than as 'Independent'. Candidates from community campaigns, and other socialist organisations that have not been involved in the discussions to date, will also be able to stand under the TUSC banner.

The coalition has agreed a core policy statement which prospective candidates will be asked to endorse. As a federal 'umbrella' organisation, however, coalition candidates and participating organisations will also be able to produce their own supporting material. This was the approach successfully adopted by the No2EU campaign, which allowed the different organisations involved to collaborate under a common banner.

The core policy statement reflects the differing perspectives of those involved in the discussions leading to TUSC's formation. It recognises that amongst potential coalition supporters there will be "different strategic views about the way forward for the left in Britain, whether the Labour Party can be reclaimed by the labour movement, or whether a new workers' party needs to be established", the latter being the position of those in the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party.

But with the coming ferocious attacks on public spending, wages, living standards and workers' rights, regardless of which party (Tory or New Labour) forms the next government, the coalition aims to bring home the urgent need for "mass resistance to the ruling class offensive, and for an alternative programme of left-wing policies to help inspire and direct such resistance". The coalition is also needed to check the growth of the Far Right by providing a socialist anti-racist alternative for those who are fed up with the politics of the establishment parties and are looking for ways to protest

Core policies
The core policies include, amongst others, opposition to public spending cuts and privatisation, calls for investment in publicly owned and controlled renewable energy, the repeal of the anti-trade union laws, and the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

The statement makes a clear socialist commitment to "bringing into democratic public ownership the major companies and banks that dominate the economy, so that production and services can be planned to meet the needs of all and to protect the environment".

Coalition candidates will offer a credible challenge to New Labour, for example, in the contest between Socialist Party councillor and former MP Dave Nellist and the defence secretary Bob Ainsworth in Coventry North East. But while in some cases its vote may be squeezed, in the context of a polarised election the coalition will still have a significant impact particularly inside the trade unions in forcing a debate on the crisis of working class political representation. This itself is important preparation for the events to come.

The lack of formal endorsement of the coalition from even left-wing trade unions like the RMT, the POA, the PCS or the Fire Brigades Union will be a disappointment for many workers.

The trade union leaders involved in the coalition, who enthusiastically back it in a personal capacity, felt that more time is needed to convince a broader layer of their memberships to take such an important step at this stage. This is a reflection of the ambivalent consciousness of many workers about the coming election, with a deep hatred of New Labour but also fear at the prospect of a Tory government. But we can be confident that big events, both before the election and after, will at some point compel the unions to move decisively onto the political arena.

What is clear is that without a qualitative change in the situation in Britain, through the development of independent working class political organisation to initially at least check the pro-capitalist parties, the ruling class will have a freer hand to impose their austerity policies. Many commentators have referred to the 2010 election as a 'turning point' contest and for the working class it will indeed herald the onset of a new age of 'savage cuts', whichever establishment party wins. The launch of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition is a modest but important step in the development of a movement of resistance.

To sign up as a launch sponsor of TUSC, in a personal capacity, send the necessary details (name, address, trade union/position, etc) to TUSC, 17 Colebert House, Colebert Avenue, London E1 4JP or e-mail the