May elections to be contested

Pete McLaren, representative of individual members on the steering committee, reports on the January 28 conference

Standing on left reformist verities

The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition was set up in 2010. It is a federal coalition with representation on its national steering committee from the rail union, the RMT, the Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers Party, as well as individual members (independent socialists) and a number of leading trade unionists in a personal capacity.

Tusc often has its annual conference at this time of year in order to firm up arrangements for the May elections, and 2017 was no exception. However, a different question faced delegates this year: should Tusc stand this particular May, given the new situation created by Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election as Labour leader? The Socialist Party had argued in the autumn that election preparations in England and Wales should be put on hold pending discussions with Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters about new possibilities that could now open up. However, the RMT could not agree. It reaffirmed the position agreed at its 2016 AGM, which recognised that there was “no mood to re-affiliate to the Labour Party” within the RMT and that the union would continue to support Tusc and back individual candidates in elections on a case-by-case basis - Tusc, Labour or others - who “support the union’s key policies”. The Socialist Party thus withdrew its proposal and the status quo prevailed.

Saturday’s conference reopened these discussions, with the main morning and afternoon sessions about “Tusc’s role now and the 2017 elections”. The RMT opened the conference, with newly elected executive member Paul Reilly pointing to the financial and political support the union had given to both of Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, whilst continuing to back candidates who supported RMT core policies, including nationalisation and opposition to public spending cuts.

Hannah Sell moved the main motion, from the Socialist Party,1 which called on Tusc to reaffirm its support for Corbyn against the Labour right, whilst continuing with the more cautious approach adopted towards elections last year by ensuring Tusc did not stand against Labour councillors actively opposing cuts. Otherwise, Tusc must ensure that its electoral interventions were part of a serious campaign against cuts.

Hannah accepted it was a complex issue, but the key was to realise that Labour was “two parties in one”. The Labour Party itself did not oppose austerity, and Labour councillors were implementing cuts. Whilst acknowledging the significance of Corbyn’s victory, Tusc needed to enable anti-austerity candidates to stand. Opposing draconian public-spending cuts at the ballot box, which Labour either supported or did nothing to oppose, would strengthen the struggle against such cuts, and thereby aid Corbyn’s supporters, she argued.

The SWP’s Charlie Kimber disagreed. Whilst accepting that the Labour Party remained a bourgeois workers’ party, and was not the vehicle to transform society, we must work with Corbyn’s supporters and, at this stage, not stand against Labour. He could not understand why the Socialist Party had changed its position from October. We needed to allow contradictions within Labour to develop further. Tusc could continue to campaign without standing, which would make it more difficult to relate to the Labour left. The re-election of Corbyn and the explosive growth of the Labour Party were significant, and we must relate to them.

Labour hasn’t changed

The platform speakers were followed by an excellent discussion, with 25 contributions from the floor. Many spoke of the suffering caused by Labour councils - such as Newham, which had sacked its workers to re-employ them on inferior contracts; Haringey, which has massively privatised; Birmingham, where a Labour council is pushing through cuts; and Derby, where teaching assistants faced pay cuts from a Labour council.

Anti-cuts campaigners needed an electoral outlet, comrades argued. It was important to maintain Tusc’s profile - the right wing still controlled Labour. New members have not been involved in the Labour Party and may start to look elsewhere. Momentum was moving increasingly to the right and did not offer a challenge to the Labour right or a home for many new members.

Others argued that if Labour did not support workers in struggle, the class would look elsewhere - and that is how the UK Independence Party gained votes. There was a need to oppose cuts, including Labour cuts. We cannot wait for Labour to get its act together. Corbyn was not consistently pursuing socialist policies - he was not supporting London tube workers, or Merseyside metro workers opposing driver-only trains.

SWP members opposing the motion pointed to the thousands joining the Labour Party. Tusc had already stood down in by-elections. We needed patience whilst events unfolded. The key is joint activity with Corbyn supporters, and standing in elections would hinder that.

I spoke from the floor, and suggested that the Labour Party under Corbyn had not changed. Thousands may have joined, but few were active. Membership applications were not even being passed on to local party secretaries. Labour was not a socialist or even anti-austerity party, and last year’s conference decision made it policy - and a party rule - for councillors not to oppose cuts or set ‘no-cuts budgets’.

The platform speakers replied to the debate. Charlie Kimber was concerned about the cuts, but argued we should fight against them rather than standing at this point, given the hundreds of thousands joining Labour. Hannah Sell argued that there was a civil war inside the Labour Party, and Tusc standing candidates would help those supporting Corbyn. Sean Hoyle, RMT president, gave an impassioned speech arguing in favour of standing - “If you fight, you may lose; if you don’t fight, you will always lose.” People want change: it is up to us to make sure such change is progressive - not regressive, as in the case of Trump, he argued.

The motion was agreed overwhelmingly by the 200-plus delegates present, with just five votes against and no abstentions.

A lunchtime meeting of independent socialists agreed to elect Roger Charles to join Pete McLaren on the Tusc steering committee representing individual members, and to consider ways independents could be organised.

The final session of what was an uplifting and participatory conference saw Tusc national agent Clive Heemskerk outlining the coalition’s anti-council cuts campaigning tasks. He described how different the political situation would be if Labour councils and councillors resisted cuts - but Corbyn was not calling for that. Tusc had explained how councillors could easily - legally - prevent cuts by using reserves and borrowing powers to set legal no-cuts budgets as a first step towards building a mass campaign to force the Tories to retreat. He concluded by stressing the importance of this May’s elections as a way of building opposition, in particular, to the spending cuts, whilst not opposing confirmed anti-cuts Labour candidates.

Three of us from Rugby Tusc had travelled down to attend the conference, and we agreed on the way back that the debates had been comradely and stimulating. Our local experiences of Labour councillors implementing cuts, and refusing our requests to find ways to oppose them together, confirmed the overwhelming conference view that Labour had not changed in any significant way despite Jeremy’s election as leader.

Notes

1. See www.tusc.org.uk/txt/394.pdf.