Peter Pinkney, President of the RMT union spoke to Kevin Ovenden about his decision to stand for the Green Party in May's general election in the once Labour heartland seat of Redcar
The electoral advances by Syriza in Greece and Podemos in the Spanish state tend to evoke a twin reaction among much of the radical left in England.
There is naturally great enthusiasm, acute interest and solidarity entwined with hope. There is also the often self-deprecating rider that we want to have a Syriza here, but look at the state of us.
Modesty is a fine thing. And the English radical left has much to be modest about. But left at that it can all to easily lapse into an abdication of initiative.
The best becomes the enemy of the good – the as yet to exist “English Syriza” is held up as an ideal with the effect of side-lining real developments which are taking place in radical politics, ones without which nothing as grandiose as a radical left party with potentially governing levels of support is likely to emerge.
The decision by Peter Pinkney, president of the RMT union, to stand for the Green Party in the iconic seat of Redcar in the traditionally solid Labour north east of England is one such development.
An interview with Peter, which turns into a directed but ever branching conversation, reveals not only how much thought he’s put into the decision, but how much it is shaped by a deeper strategic view.
Peter is an unreconstructed socialist and working class militant of the type embodied at its best in Bob Crow, the deeply missed RMT general secretary whose untimely death last year was mourned throughout the socialist and progressive movement.
The Communist Party and its influence in shaping British trade union culture were Peter’s point of entry into the socialist movement. “I’m still a Marxist,” he says, “and am reading Capital again – now’s a good moment!”
For too many on the socialist left the very idea of a self-proclaimed Marxist standing for the Greens provokes the same reaction as a Presbyterian minister’s to people dancing on a Sunday.
While acknowledging his own preconceptions, Peter refreshingly explains why the Greens are so obviously a party of the left.
“I was asked to attend the Greens conference two years ago to represent the union,” he says. “We had worked with Green MP Caroline Lucas on issues such as the renationalisation of rail and a properly funded public transport system.
“Two things struck me and the other RMT officials who were there. The first was the debate on transport and renationalisation.
“There was an impassioned and excellent speech making the case for not renationalising in a way that returned us to British Rail. Instead, the speaker called for the democratic running of the industry by those who work in it and those who use it.
“I thought, ‘This is the old Marxist policy of nationalisation under workers control.’
“Secondly, as we wondered around the stalls and the refreshments area one of the RMT delegation pointed out, ‘Doesn’t this just look like how Labour conferences used to be?’ There were trade union and campaign stalls. There was radical literature. And as for ‘class composition’, it was no more middle class or eccentric than the socialist left.
“I’m not saying it is a Marxist party or anything of the sort. But it is clearly of the left.”
And in talking about what it means to be of the left and a socialist Peter rapidly scotches the kind of “union baron” sectionalism which the right wing media like to paint the RMT and other effective trade unions as.
“Of course, a part of the socialism I learned was workplace strength and union organisation. But it was about much more than that. And that strength itself was at its best when deployed to help those who were weaker.
“If local strength mattered, internationalism was crucial. Even before the levels of intercommunication that we have today the principle of internationalism for me was paramount. I just cannot get excited about coming from one country rather than another. The basic recognition of common working class interests across the globe is the bedrock of anything deserving the name socialist.
“That doesn’t mean just preaching unity. It means fighting division – like the poison that’s coming from Ukip.
“But socialism is also about a vision of human liberation. The global transformation of society away from the injustices which are built into capitalism. There’s something else. When you read Marx and Engels and Capital you find that they spoke not only of human beings being alienated from themselves and each other. They also spoke of human society being alienated from nature.
“What Engels saw in the destruction of the immediate environment in Manchester in The Condition of the Working Class in England was as nothing compared with the scale of environmental devastation now. That is a socialist issue. It always has been, though for most of the time most socialists tended to relegate it.
“I think it’s an important step forward that over the last few years there have been more and more analyses linking Marxism and the environment. Derek Wall writes very well, for example. And it is through the Green Left network that I joined the Green party.”
This broad and internationalist socialism rapidly leads to a reflection on the stunning success of Syriza in winning the general election last month in Greece.
“I’m very supportive,” says Peter, “And I really hope they can break the cycle of austerity. They are offering hope. That’s important. And they are also providing inspiration for the left uniting to be effective.
”Look – no one should be surprised that the Tories and parties of the right attack working people, unions, the downtrodden and oppressed and so on. They are parties of the rich, for the rich. So that’s what they do.
“The real question is why Labour doesn’t fight for the people it represents in the way the Tories do for a theirs. Or at least that was once the question. Now people don’t really have any expectation of Labour doing that at all.
“To be frank, even among officials of unions which bankroll the Labour Party there is little expectation that if Labour wins the election then things will change in any significant way. We’ve already been told that austerity will continue.”
The RMT was, in effect, expelled from the Labour Party in 2004 because its Scottish region voted to give money to the election campaign of the Scottish Socialist Party.
It was a watershed moment. The forerunner of the RMT had moved the resolution at the TUC Congress a century ago which led to the setting up of the Labour Party.
“I don’t think the RMT will ever again affiliate to a political party. In any case, that historical model was pretty unique to Britain and there’s no reason to expect it to be the norm.
“What the union has done since 2004 is to support candidates and campaigns which are in line with our policies and values and which can get support through the union’s democratic structures.
“My own branch will be asking the national executive to endorse my candidature in Redcar.”
That pragmatic approach was in a sense forced upon the RMT and evolved as a consequence. But in circumstances where there is no single electoral expression – even in embryo – of class-based and socialist politics it seems a prescient approach.
The RMT is central to the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). The electoral support it enjoys, however, is nothing like the Greens, even before their recent surge in membership and support.
Peter’s quick to point out that he has had nothing but encouragement from friends who are committed to TUSC for his candidacy for the Greens in Redcar.
And here something very significant emerges which places this fight in Redcar on a strategic trajectory rather than a cycle of one off, stop-start, which has characterised to many efforts on the left over the years.
For many years a member of the Communist Party, until the 1980s, and a well known socialist union leader Peter Pinkney – the Green candidate for Redcar – has a crossover appeal which is about more than making him a strong candidate in this seat once represented by the much liked Mo Mowlam, and then lost for Labour to the Lib Dems five years ago by Vera Baird.
This election campaign points to the kind of process of recomposing the elements of the left – old and new – into a more effective force.
“And it’s not reducible to the question of a party,” says Peter. In standing for the Greens he’s not claiming that that party is the singular vehicle for advancing the left and working class interests.
“Instead, it’s about piecing together all sorts of strands. We are talking about coalitions, alliances out of which deeper unity can be forged. That’s not a soft option. You have to work very hard to build and extend those alliances. But I’m clearer now than ever that this way of doing things is central to rebuilding a left.
“So too is democracy. Younger people especially are not prepared to be lectured by leaders. They want to engage and will do given the chance.”
One realpolitik version of alliances and coalitions is simply pulling together different groups into one electoral pact. There’s merit in that. But the last few years have shown it not to be the basis of a lasting political intervention by the left which can have real effect in shaping the course of society and government.
Peter and a strand of thinking inside the RMT see things more broadly. “We have to look at where people are actually organising and engaging in politics, not where we want the to be or are used to them being.
“We are talking as much about left political culture as we are political party.
“Your reporting from Greece was one example. I’m really impressed with the events and approach of Philosophy Football. It brings together different components which will need to be there if we are to have an effective socialist force again. And we are all the better for that interaction.
“Another example is the London region of the RMT in 2012, London Olympics year, organising to get the US Black liberation icon John Carlos over to speak over to speak. He was one of the two Black athletes who gave the Black Power salute from the winners’ podium at the 1968 Mexico Olympics.
“There are some people who think that has nothing to do with socialism and fighting trade unionism.
“I think it does. Because we need to find all sorts of ways to introduce new generations to the idea that the left and socialism are something for them.
“We are about ending world hunger, global injustice and saving the planet – the only one we’ve got.”
It is a breath of fresh air to hear someone on the socialist left articulate a strategic vision, particularly in relation to a foray into the electoral arena where our efforts are all too often not joined up but begin serially at square one.
And it casts the next two months of campaigning in Redcar in a new light. Peter’s a great candidate, the Greens have made a modest breakthrough in public consciousness as a result of the dismal consensus between the establishment parties, and the Green’s campaigners in Redcar come mainly from old, socialist Labour and trade union backgrounds.
There’s also something of the Labour complacency verging on contempt for its base which I remember vividly in Bradford three years ago when George Galloway spectacularly won the by-election there.
No one knows how well Peter will do in Redcar at a general election, not a by-election which is usually better territory for an outside left candidate.
But two things are clear. First, this is a serious campaign deserving of support. Some of the attempts by tribally Labour loyalists to rubbish it are a backhanded recognition of that.
Second, it is part of – and could be crucial to – the creation of the kinds of networks, alliances and ongoing cultures of cooperative resistance which not only today, but a century ago in Labour’s pre-history, provide the foundations for lasting political effect.
Kevin's dispatches in 2015 from Greece continue plus reportage on the British, Spanish and Portuguese General Elections too. Funded by Philosophy Football to help promote journalism for the radical media. Please support this venture in practical solidarity by buying our fundraising Syriza: Greek for Hope T-shirt
Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.
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