In spite of everything
Left illusions in cheap populist rhetoric risk splitting the vote and handing victory to the right. Paul Demarty argues in favour of a clear-sighted and long-term strategy
Unite members have been sent their ballot papers for the election of a new general secretary.
In a certain sense, the picture is familiar. Again, on the right, we have Gerry Coyne, aiming to end the union’s long service - however ambiguous - as a left-centrist ideological pole in the labour movement, as he was in 2017 at the last time of asking. That time, he faced off against long-reigning incumbent Len McCluskey and a left challenger by the name of Ian Allinson (a member of the ex-Socialist Workers Party split, Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century, who ran on a substantially left-syndicalist platform). This time, the left is divided between Steve Turner - at this point effectively the McCluskey continuity candidate - and Sharon Graham, who is rather less of a leftwing syndicalist than comrade Allinson. (A third would-be left candidate, Howard Beckett - who would have been preferable to either - dropped out early in the contest in favour of Turner.)
There is an inescapable air of diminishing returns, then. McCluskey - a former fellow traveller of the Militant and long-time official of Unite and the former Transport and General Workers Union - became general secretary in 2010 and offered a counterweight to the Blairite pressure on then Labour leader Ed Miliband, as well as making the union’s resources available to the various attempts at anti-austerity ‘social movements’. When Miliband resigned, McCluskey opted - after some delay - to back Jeremy Corbyn’s bid for the leadership, and Unite provided key institutional support for Corbyn’s leadership for the next four years. Having stretched the rules to breaking point to stay in post, McCluskey is now going, and whoever succeeds him will have a ruthless enemy of the left as a ‘partner’ atop the Labour hierarchy.
For Coyne, of course, this is no problem whatsoever. He is exactly the man of the hour, and his programme of business unionism and ‘apoliticism’ will reduce pressure on Keir Starmer considerably. Turner’s response is conciliation, vague mumbles to the effect that the Corbyn regime went ‘too far’ and we need, after all, to get the Tories out. Graham’s is essentially that entanglement in Labour Party politics is disabling and it is necessary to rebuild from the workplace.
Despite all his weaknesses, we are calling for a vote for Turner. We do so with little enough enthusiasm, but on the basis of what is at stake. There is a relatively trivial aspect to that, having to do with short-term political calculation, and a more profound one, having to do with the basics of communist strategy. It will be more illuminating to take the latter first.
Back to basics: Marxists are distinguished from other socialist trends by their high hopes for the proletariat. The latter class is constituted by an absence - by its separation from the means of the production. It is united to the means of production under the domination of its exploiters, the bourgeoisie; and, as such, not in a manner of its own choosing. The working class as such (‘in itself’, in the old language) is divided. Those who work enjoy a certain advantage over those who are unemployed; but the existence of the unemployed has a disciplining effect on the employed, forcing them to accept more intense exploitation on pain of replacement. Other mechanisms for division abound: between men and women, native and migrant labour, and innumerable others.
One inevitable response to this situation is sectionalism - the identification by sections of workers of their highest material interests with those sections. They might unite with others in their workplace for their limited common interests there - as opposed to workers employed in a different workplace, who may be regarded as rivals. Similarly, a particular group of workers - eg, engineers - may be able to gain at the expense of unskilled workers. Then there is sectionalism amongst the class as a whole. White workers fear displacement by lower-paid black workers; British workers by Poles; and so forth.
An important fact about sectionalism is that it works up to a point. You can prevent, at the level of some factory or some local industry, for some amount of time, immediate levelling down simply by excluding people who might compete with you. Yet that is only possible because of the collective power of one section compared to the others. The smaller and more isolated the section, the easier and sooner it is defeated. There is a contradiction between the immediately apparent interests of a group of workers and the interests of that same group of workers through time; the latter hinges on the ability of different sections to build solidarity together.
An elementary form of such solidarity is trade unionism. Direct struggle against the employer as such involves apprehending the reality of the class’s weakness beyond its sheer collectivity. Yet unions, too, can be sidelined into sectional dead ends. (Pertinent examples would be McCluskey’s support for Heathrow expansion and Trident renewal in the name of ‘my members’ jobs’.) At issue in even very grand industrial battles are questions of planning and economic allocation in society at large, nationally and internationally; syndical struggles by definition cannot address this overarching dimension. That must, instead, be done at the level of high politics; so Marxism seeks the independent, mass, collective political action of the working class.
The Labour Party of today represents a shadow of a shadow of such action: its name, its origins as a federation of workers’ and socialist organisations for purposes of political activity, and its remaining links with the wider movement see to that. It has, however, for more or less its entire history, been under the control of class-collaborationists and conciliators. So it represents a form of working class politics that abjures class independence, which is in the end a contradiction, and therefore a site of struggle.
In this context a vote for Turner is, at best, a vote for the shadow of the shadow of that strategic conception. But his opponents either propose to intervene in Labour politics from the class-collaborationist right (Coyne) or to deprioritise struggle in Labour altogether (Graham). However inadequate the politics of McCluskey and Turner, both Coyne and Graham would represent a political regression from the point of view of Marxist principle.
This may seem a comically over-grand claim, given the stated politics of the contenders. Steve Turner’s pitch to the readers of the Morning Star is one of the worst things I’ve read this year (and, remember, I’ve read every Socialist Worker article about football!). The headline is: “Steve Turner: my vision for Unite”, which is more appropriate than it might first appear, since his vision is for Unite’s fortunes to be revived by the heroic efforts of one ... Steve Turner. The text is merely a torrent of artless braggadocio concerning what a tireless negotiator Turner is, how he won’t back down, he’ll get a better deal for you, and you, and (pointing directly at the camera) you! A short quotation will suffice:
I’ll grow our union, fighting for investment, full employment and new green jobs with no worker or community left behind. I’ll get gig employers around a table to force them to see the sense in working with us to do the decent thing by employees or face our storm. And, when Labour strays from the path that best serves our class, I will call them out, right to the leader’s office.1
That paragraph is typical of the whole pitch in all but one respect - it is the only mention of Labour in the entire thing. It is a rather thin sliver of a difference between Turner and Graham, but the point still stands.
As Turner’s choice of platform suggests, the Morning Star and its Communist Party of Britain back him - albeit principally on lesser-evil grounds; a Star editorial reminds readers of the closeness of the 2017 result, the backing Coyne has from the bourgeois media, and the disastrous consequences for the left if he should win. Turner is the only really plausible contender; and the first-past-the-post system in place means that splitting the vote is badly irresponsible.2
All true; but suppose Graham was a principled, communist candidate who was not abstentionist with regard to Labour politics. Then a vote of (say) 30% for her would be a great victory, even if it threw the overall election to Coyne, and would provide a real basis for rejecting Coyne’s faceless ‘service provider’ model of trade unionism and rank-and-file base-building in Unite and Labour alike. She is not anything of the sort, of course; and in truth the ‘communists’ of the CPB are not either. But one of the things we mean when we say that the ‘communists’ of the CPB fail to meet this bar is that they fall short of the ambition to achieve more than keep the Blairite out, and so a principled candidate for general secretary of one of Britain’s major unions remains something of a pipe dream.
Graham’s backers use something like that calculus, although for them her nudges in the direction of rank-and-filism suffice as a substitute for political principle. A Socialist Worker piece - of the genre in which SWP members are referred to as if they were ‘ordinary workers’ who merely happen to agree with everything the group says - quotes a certain Joe Pisani of Glasgow: “Graham is my candidate for general secretary because she will reinvigorate it to where it should be. She will make it more focused and driven to organise in the workplace.” Kathy Taylor, a Bristol-based branch secretary, concurs: “Graham says she is for action above rhetoric … I’m sick of people giving us a whole spiel about doing things differently, but things stay the same. And it would be fantastic to have a woman in charge.”3 (Both names are common rent-a-quotes in Socialist Worker, in Taylor’s case for 10 years or more.)
The Socialist Party in England and Wales had been agitating for a united Beckett-Graham ticket; but with Beckett plumping for Turner instead, it has stuck to Graham. Rank-and-filism combines in SPEW’s case with its shibboleth about defying all local authority cuts at the level of local authorities themselves (which admittedly makes far more sense as a trade union position than as an ultimatum to Labour councils):
We agree with Sharon’s desire to make the union more industrially organised and ready for action, including building and extending shop stewards combines. We also support her promise that Unite should “oppose any local authority, including Labour, if they attempt to force through cuts to jobs and services after Covid-19 and beyond … and support candidates who oppose cuts to Unite members’ jobs and services, and councils and councillors who fight against them”.4
A revival of rank-and-file trade unionism in Unite and the wider labour movement would, of course, be welcome in and of itself. It is hard to know exactly what lies in wait for workers the far side of the ‘new normal’, but with Boris Johnson and his cronies in charge, it is unlikely to be good; we are in dire need of reminders that concerted and disciplined industrial action works, that it can garner public support, and (perhaps most of all) that tyrannical legal restrictions can be defied. The trouble is that, while general political organisation is not required to get started on this path, it certainly comes in handy further down the pipe, when funds are sequestered and comrades face jail. Rank-and-filism is not a sufficient remedy for the low ebb of rank-and-file organisation.
Indeed, Sacha Ismail of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty also supports Graham for rank-and-filist and ‘she’s a woman’ reasons - a position from which Ismail does not openly dissent. Nonetheless he offers a thorough and sharply critical examination of Graham’s proposals for ‘workers politics’:
Graham argues for “working with local people on practical projects in communities and doing this on a large scale. Why can’t we deliver foodbanks or help find solutions for childcare if needed? … Why can’t we provide spaces for community groups that have nowhere to meet because of austerity?” These are good ideas - if connected to political campaigning with positive and transformative demands, not an alternative to it …
Those who disagree that struggle in Labour is an important mechanism for building up working class politics still need to address how such politics should be built. That Graham is not doing this is illustrated by the graphic at the end of her document. It shows Labour, Green, Lib Dem and Ukip candidates pledging to exclude the NHS from the now defunct TTIP trade deal, with a tick by each - but a cross by the Tory, who did not make the pledge … Whatever you think about this as a single-issue campaigning tactic, it is not a model for developing working class and socialist politics.5
Thus rank-and-filism - for all its workerist rhetoric - ends up trapped in the same serial, single-issue politics as the liberals. It is difficult to read Ismail’s piece and conclude that a vote for Graham is a terribly good idea at all. But that is for him to work out.
A true revival in industrial militancy will require a coterminous political movement - to attack the tyrannical legal regime that governs trade unionism, for a start, but also provide a meaningful political way out of the most poisonous kinds of sectionalism, so that migrant and native workers solidarise rather than undermining each other, and so on. These are irreducibly the job of parties, and above all of a Communist Party.
We do not have one of those; instead, we have a Labour Party, which is a site of struggle - a struggle which we are currently losing, badly. Turner’s bureaucratic manoeuvring in Labour politics provides some protection for the left, though not a lot. Graham’s cheap populist rhetoric provides nothing.
We urge all Unite members to vote for Turner - in spite of everything. The fight for a truly democratic and militant trade union movement, inseparable from the fight for a real Communist Party, remains - regardless of the result.