Stop blocking trade union affiliation

Unique and historic opportunity

There is no reason to be pessimistic about the struggle in the Labour Party. Peter Manson replies to Ian Birchall

It seems that the main thrust of my article, ‘Defend Corbyn where it really matters’ - published in this paper on July 14 - has been badly misunderstood.

In the course of that article I pointed out that both the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party in England and Wales “have refused to call upon people to join the pro-Corbyn fight where it really matters” and wondered: “… what is stopping the comrades from making the call for working class activists to join the Labour Party?”

Note the phrasing. The article was not suggesting that the SWP and SPEW should liquidate themselves and instruct all their members to sign up to the Labour Party, as comrade Ian Birchall clearly understood it to mean (see Letters, July 21). Instead that general call should be made to “working class activists”.

Comrade Birchall is, of course, a former member of the SWP, but has a history in that organisation going back to its beginnings. Anyway, he says: “The SWP has a core of grey-haired activists, who for decades have been known (often to their credit) as SWP members in their unions and localities.” He asks: “Are they supposed to now publicly renounce their past and declare they are genuine converts to the Labour Party?” Well, er, no, that is not what my article was suggesting.

As I pointed out, our aim should be “to transform the Labour Party into a genuine instrument of the working class, one to which all working class organisations and left groups can affiliate”. In other words, a party within which the SWP, SPEW, etc can legitimately play a part. But right now, as comrade Birchall states, if their members joined Labour, many would be spotted immediately, while others would pretty quickly fall foul of the party’s compliance unit.

Of course, there are some smaller groups which are indeed operating within the Labour Party. Others have officially closed down their own organisation in an attempt to avoid the scrutiny of the Labour machine, and both tactics are perfectly legitimate. As I have said, the aim should be to remove the various bans and proscriptions preventing affiliation, as part of the struggle to transform Labour into a permanent united front of the whole class, as Trotsky proposed.

Comrade Birchall is not opposed to such an aim, but he is highly sceptical as to whether such a transformation is possible. He writes:

People have been trying to do that more or less since the Labour Party was founded; they have all failed. Indeed, the present-day Labour Party is considerably further from that model than it was in 1945-51. Does the CPGB have some magic formula that will enable it to succeed where all its predecessors have failed?

It is not a question of a “magic formula”. Surely we should recognise the huge possibilities that have opened up since the election of Jeremy Corbyn. For the first time ever, Labour has a leftwing leadership, which in turn has mobilised tens of thousands in support of Corbyn and the small group around him. We now have a unique situation, in which much of the Labour machine, in alliance with the Parliamentary Labour Party majority, is doing its utmost to thwart and defeat both the Corbyn leadership and the mass of the membership. I fail to see how all this means we are “considerably further” than in the post-war years from the aim of transforming Labour.

In fact this situation provides us with an historic opportunity - one that we must grasp with both hands. There are a number of things we can do. Why not urge all those who have registered as supporters, as well as ordinary Labour voters, to actually get involved by becoming full members? Start attending their constituency and branch meetings in order to defeat the anti-Corbyn right and the self-serving bureaucrats.

And what about the trade unions? Why don’t organisations like the SWP and SPEW strive within, for example, the Public and Commercial Services union, the National Union of Teachers and the Rail, Maritime and Transport union to win them to pull their weight within Labour? For a start those unions could affiliate - or, in the case of the RMT, reaffiliate.

As recently as May this year, both the SWP and SPEW voted against a motion at PCS conference that wanted merely to review the union’s “relations with the Labour Party, including the issue of affiliation”. Do they not think that the PCS, with its 200,000 members, could actually help influence the internal Labour battle in Corbyn’s favour?

Just one year ago the Socialist Party was still attempting to get unions like Unite to disaffiliate and sign up instead to SPEW’s very own Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition - a dead end if ever there was one. Would it have been an advantage to Corbyn if there had been no Unite representative at the July 12 meeting of Labour’s national executive, where it was narrowly agreed that, as current leader, he should have the automatic right to be on the ballot paper for the forthcoming contest?

Waste of time?

When comrade Birchall worries that “perhaps Corbyn will be defeated”, leaving “thousands” of his supporters “demoralised”, I must confess that this reminds me of the Socialist Party’s line. Like comrade Birchall, SPEW points to how the odds are stacked against the left (or so they say!). As late as October last year an article appeared in The Socialist which pointed out that “The party machine is still in the hands of the Blairites.”

It continued:

It is to the current Labour’s undemocratic structure that unions would be reaffiliating, where the constitution has been fashioned by the Blairites to maintain their pro-market policies. They would be spending hundreds of thousands of pounds for a tiny proportion of votes and influence ….

They would also be giving up their independence at this stage, where the die hasn’t been cast, rather than use the possibility of supporting anti-austerity candidates against the Labour right as an important lever to supplement the struggle against the Blairites from outside.

We think it would be more productive for these unions to use their resources to directly aid Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign against the right wing by, for example, financing organisers. A future discussion on reaffiliation must be linked to the right of the unions to organise collectively within Labour, which was finally ended by the Collins review.1

The comrades were seriously claiming that it was all a waste of time. Apparently unions cannot even “organise collectively” within Labour, let alone hope to change anything. Much better to watch from the sidelines and then, if - miraculously - the right wing were to be defeated, the RMT, PCS, NUT can safely take part in a “future discussion on reaffiliation”. And in the meantime you can claim that you are helping to “supplement the struggle against the Blairites from the outside” by standing Tusc candidates!

It is true that comrade Birchall does at least consider that “perhaps Corbyn will win”. But even then he is unduly pessimistic: “Perhaps the Labour Party will split” and then you would have just “a small left party with at best a handful of MPs, and the youthful followers of Corbyn increasingly alienated, as the various Marxist grouplets battle for control”.

It is true that such a split would temporarily reduce Labour to a parliamentary rump. But what would happen at the general election that followed? The Corbyn-led Labour Party would have the freedom to select leftwing replacements for the current PLP gang and surely the unions would stay on board. Isn’t it at least possible that such a scenario could produce a reinvigorated mass party, within which Marxists could hope to gain influence? It is not very likely that a rightwing split would pick up a huge part of Labour’s current vote, is it?

But what does comrade Birchall say we should be doing to help defeat the Labour right? Does he agree with his former comrades in the SWP that we can somehow do this by mobilising for ‘the next demonstration’ and in effect abstaining from the internal Labour battle?

The latest internal bulletin for SWP members, Party Notes, claims that “a victory for Corbyn will be guaranteed only by a broader movement of resistance. Corbyn himself pointed this out on Saturday”.2 To back this up Party Notes refers SWP members to an article on the SWP website, in which the Labour leader is quoted as saying: “What happens in parliament is important. But change comes because people want that change to come.”

The only other Corbyn quote is the following:

Labour’s membership has surged - we are a social movement. We have become a mass party, a mass organisation. Our party is changing - politics is changing. It needed to change. You are that change. You are the ones that will change politics.3

Does the SWP really think he was suggesting that “change comes” not by boosting the surge in “Labour’s membership”, but by creating a “broader movement of resistance”, SWP style?

In case you were wondering, Party Notes informs SWP members of three main things to do in the short term. Firstly, “build for the Stand Up To Racism event on Saturday October 8 in London”. Secondly, “Prepare for and build the demonstration at the Tory Party conference in Birmingham on October 2, called by the People’s Assembly.” Thirdly, “Every branch needs to maintain its meetings and pay attention particularly to newer members.”

Yes, if everyone just did that, they would be helping to create the “broader movement of resistance” that will ‘guarantee’ a Corbyn victory, wouldn’t they? Well, of course, building this or that SWP-approved demonstration or event will hardly damage Corbyn’s chances. Even if they actually happen a month after the Labour leadership election is over. But the SWP has absolutely nothing to say about the higher form of class struggle that is taking place in the Labour Party. That shows the SWP is mired in a particularly dumb form of economism.

No, the left needs to actively campaign for all unions to affiliate to the Labour Party. For all trade unionists to pay the political levy. For all Labour voters to join the Labour Party as full members. For all full members to attend CLP meetings, to vote for the Grassroots bloc in the forthcoming NEC elections, to vote in new GMCs locally. We certainly want to win Labour’s massively expanded membership to secure the mandatory reselection of MPs, to end the bans, to abolish the compliance unit, to subordinate the PLP to the NEC, to put all Labour MPs on an average skilled workers’ wage, to adopt a new, implicitly Marxist, clause four, etc.

Such a programme would not only bring victory for Jeremy Corbyn in September. It would transform the Labour Party and the entire political terrain in Britain.



1. The Socialist October 14 2015.

2. Party Notes July 25.

3. https://socialistworker.co.uk/art/43119/Corbyn+in+Manchester:+Politics+is+changing.