Labour's defeat has been followed by Blairite attacks on the union link and on Unite and Len McLuskey in particular. Richard Allday looks at how socialists should respond
Labour’s defeat in the general election, the resignation of both the leader of the UK party, and the Scottish party has left Labour’s high command reeling, but still determined to learn nothing. For Unite - Labour’s biggest financial backer and the country’s biggest union - it presents problems of equal, or greater significance.
Despite the tantrum of Jim Murphy the ex-leader of Scottish Labour, there can be no dispute over the fact that Unite pulled out all the stops to promote Labour in the election, and maintained the argument, over considerable cynicism and disillusionment amongst activists, that there was no realistic progressive alternative in this election other than Labour.
That is now sour in our mouths, made sourer by the incontrovertible evidence that a clear anti-austerity, anti-racist argument is a vote-winner. A major factor in Murphy’s unhappiness is the concrete fact that the political analysis he pushed (that Labour had to concede ground to the establishment, that to push radical policies would fracture the ‘centre-ground’ coalition necessary for electoral gains) lies in ruins. The SNP victory, which has enthused so many Tory-haters south of the border as well as in Scotland, has infuriated the Westminster ‘elite’.
But this is not the conclusion that Labour’s Blairites have drawn. Their fury has turned on the link with the unions, and with Unite in particular, and its General Secretary, Len McCluskey, personally.
For Unite the rampage of the Blairites has serious implications. We know how hard it was to motivate our workplace reps to take the ‘Vote Labour’ message into the workplace, and the sight of an openly Blairite roster of candidates for leader can only make this worse.
To be brutal, last time round Unite supported a leadership candidate who was the best of a bad bunch. If Unite does not amend its political strategy, we will be in the position this time of having to support a Labour leader who doesn’t even reach that low standard. On top of which, we have to find a way of relating to our activists in Scotland who have emphatically voted with their feet, and deserted the car crash that is Scottish Labour.
Changing the rules
In little over a month, in July, Unite holds its Rules conference. There are a number of proposals to amend the union’s relationship with the Labour Party, ranging from outright disaffiliation, to allowing the Scottish region the freedom from constraint allowed to the Irish region, to remaining affiliated but allowing the Union to support non-LP candidates where they support Unite policy.
The problem facing delegates (and the Executive) is to formulate a strategy which accepts the need to operate in the political sphere, which reflects both the long term interests of the membership, but also the reality that the level of disengagement from, and disillusionment with, the Labour Party is now so widespread that the current constitutional obligation to exclusively support the Labour Party is unsustainable.
The adoption of fudge that would allow the right of the Scottish region to pursue an exceptional strategy which would leave us in the ridiculous position of having a general Unite political strategy, which refuses members in other regions a right that it grants to Scottish or Irish regions.
It is time therefore to return to the proposal presented to the last rules conference, which ‘devolved’ political campaigning and funding to the Regional and senior constitutional committees of the union. The vote last time on this was an absolute tie – which caused much consternation at the top table, until it was pointed out that in the event of a draw, the status quo prevailed – i.e., “We may not have won the vote, but we didn’t actually lose it”. This runs the risk of Balkanising union strategy.
A better alternative is to retain the present structure, but to open up the Political Committees of the union to anyone who pays the political levy, thus ending the exclusive condition that only members of the Labour Party may be delegated. This has the advantage of retaining the strength of a union-wide strategy, while making it more responsive to the membership at large.
It has the added benefit of allowing us to respond to a changed political landscape. The explosive growth of the SNP, and to a lesser extent, but still significant, the emergence of a Green Party with national traction, combined with the consolidation of a national anti-austerity movement in the Peoples Assembly, means there are new players appearing on the political stage.
We ignore these at our peril. We should be free to support those Labour candidates who support trades unionism, and our (*buzz word alert!) aspirations, whilst also free to support realistic, grounded, anti-austerity movements, which emerge.
This should not be read as a green light to support any candidate who presents themselves: a strategy which in effect agrees to use members’ monies to pay lost deposits will prove neither popular, nor effective. But it should be read as an absolute refusal to use members’ money to back candidates who do not support our members in struggle. It should be a precondition for gaining Unite backing that a candidate backs Unite policy.
The SNP landslide was not so much an expression of resurgent nationalism, as a defiant demand to break the fetters of the Westminster elite – and this finds a resonant echo south of the border as well – but done, as it was, under the banner of nationalism tends to blur the real class differences that obtain in the Scottish nation as they do everywhere else.
We (the trade union movement) can play a constructive role in relating to the well-founded anger building in all our communities, but to do that requires the will, and the ability, to relate to the social movements that will emerge as a consequence. The forthcoming anti-austerity demonstration in London, called by the Peoples Assembly movement for June 20, is promising to be one of the biggest demonstrations for a decade.
Our challenge is to relate to the growing anti-austerity movement, whether in specific campaigns as those around the NHS, housing, energy and transport, or generalised campaigns as the People's Assembly movement, to work with our allies in the trades unions, the political sphere, and the campaigns.
So it seems to me that we have only two choices: we abstain from the political challenges facing us, and by inaction betray those we represent, or we seek to work with those forces now emerging who want to shake the current establishment til our interests are represented. That means being free to work with all forces who share our fundamental values: anti-racist, anti-war, anti-austerity, and defend the democratic rights of organized labour, free association and assembly.
In effect, therefore, we need to accept the following points
1 the current political strategy has failed
2there is a mood of anger and disengagement out there that we ignore at our peril
3we need a strategy that can unite activists around common aims, whatever the region or nationality
4we need a strategy that union members can understand, and buy into
This can be achieved, providing we listen, and act to democratize our decision making process. In order to achieve this, we should:
1 open up our Political Committees to the same standards as all our other committees, i.e. to any accountable representative of workers.
2allow the union to support candidates who can demonstrate:
a. they endorse a political stand in accord with union policy
b. they can expect a significant degree of electoral support (as a minimum, that they will retain their deposit)
3that only candidates that can provide evidence of the two qualifications above will be eligible for union support.
This would allow us to continue to support some of the outstanding fighters for our side in the Labour Party, both as MPs and councilors, but would allow us as well to work with forces emerging from outside the traditional political moulds, which represent their communities
We should be looking for allies in this project, and seeking to work with other comrades in the trade union and labour movement. 90 years ago, Scotland sent their ‘Red Clydesiders’ to Westminster, the first tranche of working class representatives to shake up the political order. There were wise voices in the trade union movement of the day who had argued against organized labour setting out its own political agenda; that argued cross-class alliances were essential, that we were too weak on our own. The Red Clydesiders demolished that argument, and rooted the emergent Labour Party in the working class.
Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage. A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.
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