Tag Archives: GMB

Some thoughts on effective unionism (I)

Why going on strike is as effective as it ever was

by Edd Mustill

This article takes up some of the post-March 26th discussions on this blog. It is the first of a series of posts about trade unionism, what it is and what it should be. This post is written by way of an introduction.

The idea that “these days” people are less powerful as workers than they are as consumers, service users, students, citizens, or actors in “civil society” (whatever that is) is, I think, common among people who are generally left-wing.

This is reflected in the idea that unions are just a constituent part of a broad anti-cuts or anti-government alliance, and that industrial activism is just another form of protest or “resistance.”

I think there are a number of assumptions underlying this attitude:

The unions are intrinsically weak because they haven’t done anything for a long time

I’m not going to go into economics here. Workers’ Liberty have recently attempted to briefly deal with this attitude here.

I’ll just add that, historically speaking, there have been long stretches when the unions have been relatively dormant in Britain. The 1860s-1880s, 1940s-1950s, 1990s-now, and so on.

The TUC is the same thing as “the unions”

Because the March 26th demo was called by the TUC, articles that appeared since then (my own included) have sometimes used “TUC” as shorthand for the trade union movement. This isn’t the case. In fact, far from the TUC being more than the sum of its parts, at the moment, arguably, the opposite is true.

The nature and historical role of the TUC is a topic for another post, but what I will say here is that it is an umbrella (or shell!) organisation. Local trades councils are not like branches of the TUC. Member unions conduct their own affairs and have their own policies.

Incidentally, the slogan “TUC call a general strike” is not helpful in this regard because it assumes the TUC is something more than it is. Whether the General Council could even “call” a general strike is debatable. Certainly it’d be breaking some laws. Should we be making a central plank of our strategy the idea that the most moderate sections of the movement should break the law en masse, when even the most militant have so far not shown much appetite to do so? But as we know, the general strike debate is a whole kettle of fish by itself.

So, when people say things like the TUC is too slow, too moderate, and so on, they are right. But just saying that risks glossing over the fact that there are ongoing battles within the TUC’s member unions over tactics and strategy. Even at leadership level, there is a notable gap between those pushing openly for united industrial action, like Mark Serwotka of the PCS, and those who can’t even pronounce the words “industrial action,” like Dave Prentis of Unison.

People don’t work in large workplaces that make class consciousness come naturally

There’s a bit of a myth that, when Britain had a big industrial workforce, everyone worked in huge factories employing thousands of people, where a strike could easily paralyse production to a colossal degree.

Most industrial workers worked in small workshops rather than huge complexes. Today, we have our own huge workplaces everywhere. Town halls each employ hundreds of people. How many thousands of staff are on the books at every big hospital and university? What about airports? And big call centres on “industrial estates”?

The problem is that workers in all these places are divided by profession and grade, which means that, more often than not, they are divided into different unions. Lecturers will be in the UCU, other staff could be in Unison, Unite, or the GMB.

But even where workers are in the same union, the law enforces division. Perhaps the current British Airways dispute could have been won at a much earlier stage through extending the strike to other sections of the workforce, like Heathrow baggage handlers who have something of a tradition of sympathy action. This would probably have been illegal, but it could have been successful.

So there are big workplaces where class solidarity could be fostered, but organisation within them is often uneven and fragmented. More on these problems in the next post in this series.

Service workers are more easily replaceable than industrial workers, so it’s much harder for them to strike effectively

There is another myth here, albeit one that has more truth to it. There were and are, of course, many skilled workers in heavy industry. But such industries have always relied on semi-skilled workers and labourers just as much in order to function. Organising people like this has usually been the source of the most radical forms of unionism.

The most famous of the general unions which changed the face of unionism a century ago was the Dockers’ Union. Their success was based on organising workers who actually faced some of the same conditions that most young workers face now. Irregular hours, not knowing what shifts you’re going to work until the day you have to work them, little or nothing in the way of pensions or sick pay, sacking at a moments’ notice… all these are familiar to people working in the service industry today.

Any workers we think of as having had stable work patterns, strong organisations, good pay and benefits, began as precarious, super-exploited workers. The miners are the most obvious example.

So it’s not impossible to organise service workers, it’s just difficult. But the fact that they are untouched by the rather sterilising experience of bureaucratic unionism can open up opportunities for radical unionists. Again, more on these problems will come in a future post.

Strikes are just another form of protest

For many years, the vast majority of strikes have been 24-hour, perhaps 48-hour affairs. Strikes of this nature are essentially protests. They will have a minimal economic impact even if they are solid, because bosses can plan around them, get people to work overtime in the weeks before and after, and so on.

One of the first strikes I ever raised money for was a strike of bus drivers in South Yorkshire. The strike was all-out, and won after about three weeks. Public support by no means fell away during that time.

It was effective because the company in question, First, ran the vast majority of the bus routes in the area, so they stood to lose a lot of profit and alternative transport was more or less non-existent.

Too often strikes are just seen as a way of keeping a dispute rumbling until the inevitable defeat, or compromise in favour of the bosses. What needs to be rediscovered and rebuilt is a culture of actually striking to win.

Everything gets made in other countries, all we do is buy it

Well, we do still “make things,” goods and services, commodities, in Britain. But it helps anyway to think of production lines as international.

Say, for example, there is a textile workers’ strike in Bangladesh. The clothes being made are bound for high street stores in dozens of countries, including here. Perhaps, for whatever reasons, the strike does not succeed in totally shutting down production. While the employers can get some goods out to sell anywhere in the world, the strike is undermined.

Workers in the retail industry in Britain find themselves at the end of chains of production that could have passed through several countries. Any broken link in this chain can potentially stop it completely, including at the point of sale.

A strike in the shops selling the clothes would be a thousand times more effective than an appeal for a consumer boycott, if only because a relatively small number of people need to be up for it. A picket line can keep a shop closed day after day in a way that a UK Uncut-style bail-in can do for an afternoon.

So that’s just a sketch of some of the reasons why I think we should be seriously engaging in discussions about how to mount effective industrial action.

The main problem is not that striking doesn’t work. The main problem is that strikes rarely seem to be conducted as a fight to win. Everything I’ve touched on here will be elaborated in future articles, so if you’re interested, keep checking the site in between all the hilarious comedy gold we’ve been churning out recently.


Filed under Industrial Relations, Political Strategy

Break these walls down: Some thoughts on the way forward

by Liam McNulty

Taking up from where Edd left off in his discussion of the relationship between UK Uncut, trade unionism and the shoppers of Oxford Street, it seems clear that if the government is to be defeated the gaps between different sectors of the anti-cuts movement and between the movement and the hitherto passive members of the public need to be bridged.

It has been a cliché since the late 1970s to speak of the forward march of labour halted but one does not have to look too far to see mass action by trade unions gaining results, significant despite their limitations.  Action by unions and students temporarily halted the First Employment Contract in France and though the French trade union movement has a more militant tradition, let it not be forgotten that union density across the channel is much lower than in the United Kingdom (Table 3).  It is possible that the French trade unions punch above their weight, drawing in wider layers of society.  More on this below.

Nevertheless, the patterns of labour organisation have changed, perhaps irreversibly, since the late 70s and the onset of deindustrialisation.  These ONS statistics are slightly out of date but they are a testament to several fundamental changes.  Firstly, union density is higher for women than for men (undermining the lazy media image of Teamster-style union ‘thugs’).  Secondly, this suggests a bias towards the public rather than the private sector, a trend corroborated by the relatively high incidents of union density in Northern Ireland (39.7%) and the north-east of England (38.9%).  Thirdly, ‘more than a third of employees aged 35 and over were union members, compared with a quarter of those aged between 25 and 34.’

This raises problems for the trade union movement but it also gives some reasons to be hopeful.  Both good and bad is the strength of public sector trade unionism.  The cuts in places such as Northern Ireland are primarily aimed at public sector jobs, which threatens ruin for hundreds of thousands.  On the other hand, when whole families are included it brings in potentially millions of people who will be sympathetic to militant action to protect what is amongst the last bastions of trade union strength and a source of employment for whole areas of the United Kingdom.  More worryingly, however, is the prospect, as in Ireland, of the ruling class playing the public versus private card in order to divide the workforce.  The narrative of ‘gold-plated public sector pensions’ serves to cover the complete failure of the private sector to deliver a basic standard of living by stirring up resentment at the public sector’s modest pension entitlements.  This must be challenged.

The main source of weakness for the trade union movement, however, is its failure to sufficiently organise in the private sector and amongst young workers.  The private sector brings with it problems such as casualised employment, agency contracts, and outsourcing.  These problems are most pronounced for young workers, a contingent under-represented in trade unions.  One reason for this is clearly the break in tradition caused by the disruption to traditional patterns of employment in reasons once dominant by single industries, such as steel in Sheffield or shipbuilding in Belfast.  Moreover, privatisation and outsourcing has done a lot to fragment the workforce and mitigates against collective class consciousness.  At a rally during the UCU strike, one comrade related a story from Thursday morning’s picket line, unfavourably contrasting the picket-crossing private couriers in the near empty vans with the CWU member in the full Royal Mail van who remained loyal to basic ideals of solidarity.

What activist group such as UK Uncut have done is to involve lots of young people in forms of militant protest for the first time; young people who may be students or unemployed, perhaps working in sectors of the economy that are largely unorganised or who have not for various reasons felt attracted to trade unionism.  The UK Uncut maxim that ‘if the economy disrupts us, we must disrupt the economy’ has a lot of truth to it. Nevertheless, it may be unfashionable to say so but disrupting shoppers on a Saturday afternoon is not going to challenge capitalism any more than peasant riots against the gabelle salt tax threatened French absolutism.  If the RMT shut down the tube network, however, the impact on Topshop turnover will be felt; if workers occupy a factory and seize the means of production then they strike a much more high-impact blow.

This is not to say, of course, that disrupting the sphere of commodity circulation and raising consciousness of corporate greed is pointless.  Not at all.  Indeed, both a strike and smashing symbolic targets involve people combating the reifying logic of capitalism by stepping outside the roles predetermined for them by the dominant economic system, whether as consumers or workers.  Both are acts of conscious subjects engaged in political activity.  However, we must realistically assess where the locus of economic power rests.  A thousand broken windows will still not equal the disruption if the country’s workforce bring the economy to a halt. I say this not because I’m a dull Marxist for whom fun is forbidden, or because I have a metaphysical predisposition towards the idea that the working class is the most powerful agent of change.  Rather, it is because the organised workers’ movement still, despite its diminution and limitations, represents the largest cohesive collective agent in society.  Of this there can be no doubt.

Alas, haven’t I spent the first part of this article bemoaning the lack of private sector union organisation and the under-representation of young workers in the trade union movement? Yes, and this is where I think a common praxis between the trade union movement and other sections of the anti-cuts movement is important.  It is a truism that successful trade union struggles build confidence and membership- just look at the RMT.  It is also the case, however, that anti-union laws and lower trade union density have made spectacular victories in this country less common.  On the part of the unions, more has to be done to engage with young workers and organise marginalised sectors of the workforce, especially in the service sector (bars, shops etc).  The General Unions of the late nineteenth century came to prominence off the back of illegal and militant struggles yet the very general unions such as the GMB today recoil from anything like the tactics which brought them into being in the first place.

There needs to be a convergence between those young people who are attracted to disrupting Oxford Street and the union members who remained on the march.  This requires direct activists joining trade unions, suggesting militant tactics at branch level and pushing from below at rank-and-file level.  We must break down the dichotomy between dull, legalistic trade unionism on the one hand and direct action on the other.  As Edd writes below, sabotage, machine-breaking and others forms of disruptive activity are not alien to the trade union movement, they are integral to its history.  There have already been incidents such as when CWU members blockaded the streets of London and some reps threatened occupations of sorting offices facing closure.  We have also recently seen factory occupations at Vestas and Ford-Visteon.

The anti-cuts movement needs to become like an octopus, with one body and many limbs linking together activists, community groups and organised workers in common struggle.  This requires militant trade unionists to be less like the dour-faced CGT stewards separating Parisian workers from the students of ’68 and more like the radical CNT members whose strikes in Barcelona involved whole communities through food protests, student pickets and confrontations with state power; it also requires groups such as UK Uncut to engage more with trade unions and concentrate less on secretive stunts.  The movement in the UK is on a scale not seen for years and it would be idiotic to squander the creativity and ingenuity of new forms of protest.  Rather, we must harness our collective forces and wage struggle against the government on every conceivable level.


Filed under Current Affairs, Political Strategy

Matthew Parris and the unions

by Edd Mustill

In yesterday’s Times, Matthew Parris issued a new year’s rallying cry to the supporters of the coalition government.

The article is significant because it cuts through the PR of the government. Criticising the TV character Jim Royle (played, of course, by socialist actor Ricky Tomlinson), Parris acknowledges:

“When we must hack away at benefits that people have come to expect as their right, there must be losers. They will organise. It is futile to think you will not be seen through the prism of which side you are on.”

He quoted an article by Giles Coren from earlier in the year: “Of course the poor will be hit hardest by the spending cuts. The poor are hit hardest by everything. That’s why they’re called ‘poor’.”

To this, Parris added: “We are not, in short, all in this together: or not all as deep as each other. Some of us are in fear of our livelihoods, others only of our luncheon.”

With his reputation as a liberal conservative, popular with the party’s grassroots, and his independent position as a commentator, Parris can spell out with complete honesty the true nature of the Cameron project.

But the article also betrays a deeper Tory attitude. Basically, his message is that being unpopular with the working class means that a politician is doing something right. He acknowledges that Thatcher, a politician he greatly admires, “was never really popular except briefly after the Falklands conflict.”

He is reassuring the Tory grassroots that their pro-ruling class offensive must be carried out with the old mantra beloved of Tories and Millwall fans through the ages: “No-one likes us, we don’t care.”

Tories have never cared about public opinion. This is a party that has resisted every advance of democracy in the history of this country. Even within the last century elements of the Conservative Party have conspired to overthrow the parliamentary democracy that they claim to be defending, for example, when students smash windows at the Treasury and the cops are sent in.

Because what Parris is describing, quite nakedly, is class rule, the lesson we draw from it is this: the government cannot be persuaded, they cannot be won over if only we have cleverer arguments, they cannot simply bow to the weight of public opinion. They must be forced to back down, and ultimately brought down.

So asking gets us nowhere, but the joint new year’s message from the Big Three unions, Unite, Unison and the GMB, does just that. They want to “inspire and support resistance to cuts,” largely by making “the Spring elections the first referendum on the government’s austerity programme.”

The unions want to promote an alternative Keynesian programme of investment, it seems, first to their own members, then to the wider electorate (and presumably the Labour Party, which currently seems to have no policies).

Absent is any mention of the co-ordinated strike action that the TUC has rumbled about previously. Or any strike action at all. This is not to say the position of the unions is hopelessly static. Unite and the GMB have backed the demo called by student groups on January 29th, when the UCU and PCS will also be demonstrating. Bringing the members of the big unions out two months before the TUC planned to do so is significant, but nowhere near enough in itself. Waiting until a March demonstration and the May elections to do anything would be fatal.

We need to keep pushing the unions into fighting. Unfortunately, articles like this by Gregor Gall warning against the use of unofficial strike action don’t help. Left-wingers should be attempting to popularise tactics like that (not, obviously, advocating them indiscriminately), rather than warning against them.

Parris and those like him show us how determined the class offensive against us is. We need to be able to return fire.


Filed under Current Affairs, Industrial Relations

Industrial Unionism and the BBC

by Edd Mustill

The National Union of Journalists has announced that its members at the BBC will be holding two 48-hour strikes in November, after they voted to reject the latest pensions offer.

According the the Guardian, NUJ members voted by 70% to reject management’s latest offer while members of Bectu, the biggest union at the corporation, voted 65% in favour. Members of three other unions which represent smaller numbers of BBC staff – Unite, Equity, and the Musicians’ Union – also voted to accept the latest offer.

The leaderships of the two biggest unions had decided to not recommend to their members to vote a particular way, but the statements the unions gave during the ballot tell that the leaderships of Bectu and the NUJ are seeing things differently.

Bectu said: “In BECTU’s view this is the best that can be achieved through negotiation and we believe that to try and improve this offer would take substantial and lengthy industrial action from all our members with significant loss in salary.”

At the same time, NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear predicted a “winter of growing discontent” at the BBC.

This may lead to an undesirable situation where enough people are working to make sure all shows go out. Without breaking any union rules, members could find themselves rendering a strike by other union members ineffective.

More than one union is present in workplaces in most industries. On the rails, while the RMT is the best-known and biggest union, TSSA and ASLEF have many members. Public sector workplaces could employ members of Unison, the GMB, the PCS and Unite, as well as more specialist unions like the FBU.

Perhaps it’s time for the Left to once again start talking about industrial unionism – the idea that everyone in a particular industry should be in the same union. This helps advance class consciousness and fosters solidarity among “all grades” – people who may be on different contracts or work very different jobs, but still work for the same employer or set of employers.

The beginnings of our modern unions lie in this idea. Many were formed in the periods of industrial militancy before and after the first world war. Industrial unionism, and the consequent merging of unions, was the idea of a movement on the offensive. While the mergers were not a purely “bottom up” phenomenon in this period, syndicalists in the Amalgamation Committees Movement should take much of the credit.

The National Union of Railwayman, which later became the RMT, was founded in 1913 when several smaller rail unions came together. The Amalgamated Engineering Union, forerunner of Amicus, was formed in 1920. Most famously the Transport and General Workers’ Union was constituted in 1922 from a disparate array of, well, transport and general workers’ unions.

These latter two recently merged to form Unite, the biggest union in British history. But what we have seen in more recent years is union amalgamation as a defensive measure, as a method of survival rather than a sign of confidence. Unite is a product of this.

Today’s big “superunions” are not industrial unions. Their memberships overlap. For example, the GMB recruits some dissatisfied nurses from Unison, or vice versa. During the Lindsey dispute, a GMB nurse expressed his frustration to me that, although he was in the same union as a lot of the Lindsey engineering construction workers, he could do little more to support them than if he hadn’t been a GMB member.

An industrial union has its potential drawbacks too. In the case of broadcasting, for example, it would encompass incredibly well-paid star performers. The results of this have been seen in the BBC dispute, where several big-names signed a letter criticising the NUJ’s earlier decision to call a strike during the Tories’ party conference. Of course, in the latest BBC vote, if all the workforce were in the same union, there would have been a majority accepting the offer and there wouldn’t be any strike action at all.

Another question is how far the inclusion of “all grades” would climb up the sometimes complicated structures of management. Many lower level “managers” are in fact just workers with slightly higher pay and more responsibilities, and having them in the same union can, over time, have positive effects on unity in the workplace. But obviously a line should be drawn, as it is now, before higher-end managers.

However, in a period where we want unions to be more aggressive, and where the TUC is at least nominally committed to joint strike action, we should be thinking about ways to break down the historical reality of sectionalism which is still a defining characteristic of the trade union movement.

Networks of shop stewards can play a role in this. If committees of reps from all unions in a workplace are established and strengthened, this can lead to unity at the “point of production” for dealing with many issues. But as long as separate unions exist in the same industry, the constant threat of division at crucial moments will keep resurfacing, as it is now at the BBC.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Industrial Relations, Political Strategy

Ed Miliband and Lenin

“The differences are so slight between the two brothers, indeed between all of us.”
– Andy Burnham

“Let me say, I believe strongly that we need to reduce the deficit. There will be cuts and there would have been if we had been in government. Some of them will be painful and would have been if we were in government. I won’t oppose every cut the coalition proposes. There will be some things the coalition does that we won’t like as a party but we will have to support. And come the next election there will be some things they have done that I will not be able to reverse.”
– Ed Miliband

by Edd Mustill

Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour Party conference on Tuesday was no funeral service for New Labour. He defended the alteration of Clause 4 and the “spirit of 1997,” talked of making Labour “the party of enterprise and the party of small business,” and gave nods to supporting further welfare “reform” and public service “reform.” Anything more positive, such as a foreign policy “based on values,” was so vague as to render it meaningless (which values exactly?).

There were a lot of Cameronish “I met a man who told me…” sort of anecdotes. There were a couple of references to the Good Society. I suppose they will see how that one plays out in focus groups before they decide whether to keep using it, but it smacks of the Blairite logic of beating the Tories by using Tory political language.

Tellingly, Miliband stated out-and-out that he wouldn’t be supporting “irresponsible strikes.” We are not given any indication as to which strikes are “responsible.” It was “the unions what won it” for Ed. But this is no sense means that he stands, or could stand, in the interests of militant trades unionism.

Some on the far left see Ed’s victory as a significant defeat for Blairism and the Right of the party. Workers’ Power and the Socialist Workers’ Party take this line. Workers’ Power go as far as to claim that it will be hard for Labour to ignore the wishes of the union rank-and-file, because it was the rank-and-file that delivered Ed as leader. But was it?

The breakdown of votes from affiliates shows that “Spoilt ballot” came third in the Big Three unions, GMB, Unison, and Unite. This has been blamed on the inability or unwillingness of union members to tick a box on the ballot paper confirming that they were eligible to vote.

Spoilt ballots in some unions
Aslef: 12.61%
CWU: 17.07%
GMB: 14.74%
TSSA: 18.82%
Unison: 15.75%
Unite: 14.32%
Usdaw: 15.32%

I’m not sure what could account for 6% more TSSA members than Aslef members spoiling their ballots unless there was at least an element, albeit an unknown quantity, of deliberate spoiling going on.

Nevertheless, the biggest sign of union members’ disengagement with the Labour Party is the turnout among the unions. Aslef, among whose members Diane Abbott came first, posted by far the highest turnout at 25.2%. Turnout in the Big Three was 7.8% (GMB), 6.7% (Unison), and 10.5% (Unite). Usdaw brought up the rear with a whopping 4.3%, within which David Miliband won a landslide victory.

The Unison figure is even lower than it seems when you take into account that only 419,142 ballots were sent out to a union claiming a million members. This suggests that the majority of workers in local government and the NHS disenfranchised themselves by opting out of paying the Labour levy, for whatever reasons.

The vast majority of unionised workers are totally disengaged from the Labour Party, even at a time when it is electing a leader for the first time in sixteen years. Within the party, we shouldn’t forget that more individual members preferred David than Ed. We may expect the Parliamentary party to back the most right-wing candidate, but for the membership to do so after fifteen years of experiencing Blairism is, to say the least, thoroughly depressing. Given all this, are we to see Labour as still, on some level, a working class party?

When is a workers’ party not a workers’ party?

For those in the Bolshevik tradition, the idea of Labour as a workers’ party that Marxists should affiliate to and work within dates back to 1920. The formative Second Congress of the Comintern held a session to discuss this question, the only session which dealt exclusively with the politics of just one country. This shows how important the Labour Party question was deemed to be. But due to time constraints Zinoviev, chairing the session, only allowed two speakers from each side.

Sylvia Pankhurst opposed working in the Labour Party, saying:

“… all members of the parties which belong to the Labour Party are subjected to the strictest discipline and when it is a question of making a showing in parliament on this or that question then they are officially subordinated to Party discipline.
In the elections, too, a local organisation can choose its candidates, but when it is a question of being put up as a candidate one must be confirmed by the Labour Party headquarters. It is the same with the individual speeches and votes.”

William McLaine, and engineering shop steward who had been heavily involved in the workers’ committee movement during the war, supporting affiliation to the Labour Party because, he said, the unions were being pushed leftwards by the course of events. McLaine went on:

“I insist on two points: first of all that the Labour Party is the political expression of the workers organised in the trades unions and must be conceived of as a political organisation, and secondly that within the Labour Party the supporters of another party retain their complete freedom of movement and of criticism.”

We can see that both his and Pankhurst’s arguments are still put forward today in very similar terms. Sylvia’s arguments about the power of the party machine are arguably even more relevant now. No one could argue that the modern Labour Party would allow revolutionaries complete freedom of action inside it, but McLaine’s view of the party as somehow organically linked to the working class due to the influence of trade union leaderships is at the bottom of the analysis of many who hold that Labour is a “bourgeois workers’ party.”

Lenin, while pushing for Communist affiliation to Labour, strongly opposed the idea that there could ever be anything as simple as the “political expression of the trade union movement” that McLaine had spoken of. He said, famously:

“whether or not a party is really a political party of the workers does not depend solely upon a membership of workers but also upon the men that lead it, and the content of its actions and its political tactics. Only that determines whether we really have before us a political party of the proletariat. Regarded from this, the only correct point of view, the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie. It is an organisation of the bourgeoisie

At the time, the Communist International was attempting to mark itself as a clearly revolutionary alternative to the Second International, famously putting stringent conditions on parties that wished to affiliate. Lenin’s attitude to the Labour Party was therefore contradictory, and was based on the following belief:

“the British Labour Party is in a very special position: it is a highly original type of party, or rather, it is not at all a party in the ordinary sense of the word. It is made up of members of all trades unions, and has a membership of about four million, and allows sufficient freedom to all affiliated political parties.”

This is where I think Lenin went wrong, and where we can come back to the present day. No-one, especially given the level of trade unionists’ participation in the leadership election described above, not to mention the policies of the Labour Party towards the trade union movement, would today argue that the party’s membership included the millions enrolled under the banners of the affiliated unions. The Labour Party is not the political expression of the will of these workers.

Comintern tactics in the revolutionary period following the First World War were geared towards the ruthless splitting of the working class away from the reformist movement. For Lenin the point of Labour affiliation was never to build up a “Labour Left”, and the building of an independent revolutionary Communist Party was certainly not to be subordinated to any manoeuvrings inside the Labour Party. His idea was simply that the revolutionaries eventually leave the party in a stronger position than when they entered it. Lenin argued that if the Labour leadership moved to expel the Left, this would be a victory for revolutionaries and would win them support among the class. History has since shown this not necessarily to be true, as the experience of Militant and others shows.

In Left Wing Communism, published just before the Second Congress, Lenin argued for the revolutionaries to support a Labour victory over the Tories and Liberals on the grounds that the working class had not experienced a Labour government before. Such an experience would shatter illusions in Labour and lead workers to revolutionary conclusions. Again, history tells us differently. Our class has experienced numerous Labour governments and their betrayals, and it has not increased consciousness towards revolutionary levels. On the contrary, it has served to demoralise.

The idea that workers will look to Labour in a crisis is not borne out by historical experience, or anything much more than wishful thinking. A party of liberal Fabian types and trade union leaders who have accepted social partnership instead of class struggle, cannot itself be a vehicle for class struggle. Ed Miliband represents no more than a toned down version of the right-wing liberal strand within the Labour Party which realises that it can no longer get away with openly calling for its most dogmatic excesses, like further privatisation of the public sector. He is not, and cannot be, a workers’ candidate, just as Labour is not, and cannot be, a workers’ party.

Thanks, as ever, to the Marxists Internet Archive for making the relevant sources readily available.


Filed under Current Affairs, Labour History, Political Strategy

Trade unions attacked over the proximity and opacity of their envelopes

by Anne Archist

Over at our friends The Third Estate, Owen’s been defending the right of the Labour party to choose their leader however they want. I generally agree with his article, but I think he was too soft in conceding that “yes, the GMB dubiously got round the rules about not endorsing candidates, and they probably shouldn’t have done”. Apparently these accusations have abounded everywhere, even from the supposedly left-wing paper; but GMB didn’t “get around” any rules, they clearly stuck within them!

The rules stated that you cannot put endorsements in the same envelope as the ballot paper, but that you can put them in the same mailing, in a different envelope. The GMB ballot paper envelopes didn’t contain any endorsement; they were inside a larger envelope that carried an endorsement – so they clearly followed the rules. Some people have argued that although this isn’t against the rules per se, it violates their ‘spirit’.

Look at it this way – how can the spirit of rules which explicitly allow for endorsements to be contained in the same mailing be in any way interpreted as suggesting that endorsements shouldn’t be contained in the same mailing? That’s not the ‘spirit’ of the rules, that’s a completely different set of rules!

Those criticising GMB are not openly critical of the unions’ right to endorse candidates in the first place, yet they seem to become very concerned when that endorsement is put within a few inches of the ballot paper. Do they think that some as-yet-undiscovered gravitational force will transmute a union leadership’s recommendation into a member’s obligation? This clearly isn’t the case – many members frequently dissent from their union’s recommendation in labour leadership contest, most notably in 1994, when every major union recommended Prescott or Beckett, only to have their members disregard this and vote for Blair.

I’m not saying that no criticism of the rules themselves is valid, but any such criticism would not reflect badly on any single candidate or affiliated body. It’s certainly not the fault of GMB or Miliband that the rules are as they are. Personally I wouldn’t care if affiliated bodies were allowed to include the endorsements in the same envelope – it wouldn’t make any real difference and would save some trees, at least. As long as nobody is strong-arming members into voting a certain way by disadvantaging those who don’t, controlling the casting of the votes directly, or otherwise coercing individuals, I see no reason why leaders shouldn’t be allowed to offer whatever opinions they want – let us not forget, after all, that they are elected by their members in the first place!

There is an important distinction, though, between accusing someone of cheating or otherwise being ‘unfair’ (‘unsportsmanlike’ at best) and criticising the party rules, not least because – rules being what they are – you don’t generally need to give a reason why breaking the rules is a bad thing. Is it the desire to conceal their true motives that causes all of these apparently concerned citizens to criticise GMB rather than the rules they followed to the letter?

Recently the media have been thrusting left, right and centre at the labour movement, whether it be over union funding, affiliated members or whatever their next bugbear is. And yet at the same time, they pass by without comment the disproportionate electoral power of MPs within the party, funding from sources far more egocentric and self-interested than those representing millions of working people, etc. It’s also worth noting that similar accusations (this time involving “transparent envelopes”) are being levelled at Unite, and I’m sure this won’t be the last we’ve heard of them.

For what it’s worth, it should be evident that I don’t support Labour in any meaningful sense (except perhaps as the least bad alternative in dire circumstances) – in fact, I’ve never voted Labour. I do think, however, that it’s worth defending the basic principle that Labour and Labour-affiliated organisations ought to run their own affairs without undue and misleading scrutiny (such as the false claim made by some that the unions decided the election by block vote – they don’t have block votes any more). After all, “then they came for the trade unionists”…

I suspect this is just another chapter in the media onslaught against ordinary people exercising any kind of power or representation that is accountable to them as workers, especially when this is done collectively.

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