One foot in the grave
RMT’s withdrawal from Tusc was understandable, especially given the consistently dismal electoral performance. But, argues, Paul Demarty, this leaves SPEW, the mothership, in profound crisis too
The Rail, Maritime and Transport union is in the news again.
The cause, of course, is a new round of strikes against a series of attacks on pay and conditions, including a derisory 3% pay increase (a sizable cut, in real terms) and rumbles of ‘modernisation’ that look a lot like further job cuts when all is said and done.
Rather less attention has been paid to the union’s annual general meeting earlier this month. Among the items on the agenda was RMT’s future political strategy - not least the call to cease participation in the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition.
As its name suggests, Tusc exists as an electoral front of left groups - controversially George Galloway’s Workers Party of Britain that was recently granted observer status (splits ensured). But the mothership of the whole sorry project is undoubtably the Socialist Party in England and Wales and its determination to mimic Keir Hardie and net a whole shoal of trade union affiliates.
Here SPEW has been fleetingly successful, albeit on an exceedingly modest scale. The prison officers union, the FBU, but above all RMT, the latter coming on board in 2012 - two years after the coalition’s founding. It was not the first lash-up between the two organisations. SPEW broke with the Socialist Alliance - which had real prospects - using the excuse of the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation, an RMT-led electoral intervention in London, 20 years ago. In 2009, the two (along with the Morning Star’s CPB) contested the European elections on a Lexit ticket called No2EU.
RMT’s withdrawal, then, is a body blow to Tusc … and SPEW. According to a report in The Socialist, the question was raised in a rather dubious manner as an emergency motion; it is not clear what the ‘emergency’ was. The motion castigated Tusc for its generally dismal electoral returns. General secretary Mick Lynch - he of the viral media beatdowns - supported breaking the link, and duly got his way.
SPEW is to be commended for not sweeping this one under the rug, especially given the totemic importance of its links with RMT. It may not have gotten many in the way of Tusc affiliates, but it could be happy that one of them was probably the most militant union covering any strategic sector of the British working class.
RMT’s decision to break its historic link with the Labour Party in the Blair years was regrettable, but it was at least motivated by leftwing aspirations, under the leadership of the avowed ‘official communist’ Bob Crow. Crow’s replacement, Mick Cash, was a Labour member and perhaps thought of as more of a ‘moderate’, but we now have Lynch, who is happy to pay tribute to James Connolly on national TV. Along with its influence in public-sector unions like PCS, Unison and NEU, its comity with the RMT was the jewel in SPEW’s strategic crown.
The Socialist states that RMT’s AGM was a “missed opportunity”.1 Given the heightened likelihood of an early general election, what with all the skulduggery and blue-on-blue bloodletting going on in the Tory Party at the moment, and given the present campaign of industrial action RMT is undertaking, now is not the time to lack a political strategy. Based on the documents agreed, RMT “is adopting a fundamentally passive political stance”, The Socialist continues. This is exemplified by the perspective provided by comrade Lynch himself:
Mick Lynch said that he no longer supported the union reaffiliating to Labour, which he had done in 2018 when a special general meeting had been held on the issue. (The vote then was 31 to 25 against reaffiliation.) Instead, he reportedly argued the RMT should not be currently affiliated to any party, and that candidates seeking support should come to the union, not the union go to them.
The SPEW comrades rightly object that this amounts to no strategy at all. Nonetheless, those defending the Tusc link could only garner 9 measly votes! Presumably the humiliating result being due to a combination of derisory electoral stats for what after all were lowest common denominator politics and Mick Lynch’s skyrocketing personal authority.
Now brother Lynch will wait for politicians to come to him; he might support a Labour MP here, an ‘independent’ there; so it goes. This is no way to build a union, our SPEW writers note; why should it be a good way to build a political fraction? It is also a betrayal of RMT’s history: its predecessor, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, after all, was one of the founding unions of the Labour Representation Committee (indeed, not mentioned by the article, the motion to the Trades Union Congress that founded it came from the Doncaster branch of that union).
SPEW’s alternative to this passivity is Tusc, which we have argued all along is hopeless and doomed (see below). Yet replacing an increasingly lukewarm commitment to Tusc with this cosmic shrug of a ‘strategy’ certainly represents a step backwards. Discussing Lynch’s comic turns across the bourgeois media during the last strike, we warned that success would not be repeated indefinitely - the bourgeois media is, by definition, in enemy hands, and it will adapt. What we lack are effective countermeasures - that is, a labour movement media worthy of the name. And we lack that because we lack a party worthy of the name.
This does not seem to bother Mick Lynch and his RMT allies.2 Instead, according to the SPEW report, there were complaints from the floor about the use of union funds for hopeless political projects: perfectly valid complaints if the proposal is to use them for something better, more coherent - but otherwise not a proletarian, but a philistine shopkeeper’s, attitude.
It is, unfortunately, exactly the same kind of attitude employed by SPEW in its endless, third period Bernsteinist, arguments against union affiliation to the Labour Party - why should unions give good money after bad to a party that does not act in their interests?
Which brings us to the other half of this question: where does this leave SPEW?
RMT’s decision, it should be said from the off, is only the latest of a catalogue of disasters to afflict the comrades since especially 2015. SPEW’s origins are, of course, in the Militant Tendency - it is the wing of the Militant (the majority) which decided to break from the Labour Party joined-at-the hip work in the early 1990s. In doing so, it fell foul to that worst temptation of any Marxist organisation - overtheorisation. The Labour Party was not merely an unpropitious environment for Militant’s politics: it had been transformed decisively into just another bourgeois party. (So, it seemed, had all the other social democratic organisations SPEW’s affiliates had entered around the world as well.)
In that decade, as Neil Kinnock paved the way for Tony Blair, the analysis at least had a superficially commonsensical appeal. SPEW’s response was substantially to turn to building up its strength in the unions and fighting for them to break with the Labour Party and form a new workers’ party, by which seemed to be meant a re-run of 1899, but with a better outcome this time. (We say ‘better’, but the flipside of the analysis of the changing class role of Labour is a failure to see the party’s history as very much an instrument of the bourgeoisie the whole way along - a ‘bourgeois workers party’, as per Lenin’s phrase. And SPEW’s policy has in effect been for Tusc to create a Labour Party mark two.)
Then 2015 came along, and Jeremy Corbyn captured the leadership of Labour. SPEW’s perspectives were, in fact, utterly destroyed by this single event. And, of course, SPEW never really got to grips with the Corbyn phenomenon - the problem being that its ‘theory’ had effectively ruled out such a possibility. (Ironically, the old Militant theory - that in a time of crisis the masses would flock to their ‘traditional’ parties and revolutionaries had to be ready in situ to direct their energy - fitted the bill better than many other analyses.) For the four years of Corbynism, SPEW professed friendship and support, but could not bring itself to actually participate, which would have meant winding down Tusc completely and accepting that its obsession with councils setting illegal no-cuts budgets was merely a shibboleth. More grievously, as noted, SPEW obstructed attempts to expand union affiliation to Labour. Like many other left groups, it bled members - why deceive yourself that Peter Taaffe and his organisation of 1,000 or so has all the answers, when history might be happening right in front of your eyes, thanks to Jeremy Corbyn?
In the name of the “red-1990s” comrade Taaffe broke with auto-Labourism and split Militant Tendency in order to pursue the big time by chasing after every fad and fashion (the rump continues as Socialist Appeal that has recently dropped its r-r-reformist Labourism for r-r-revolutionary millennialism). In the process comrade Taaffe managed to lose the absurdly named Panther UK to black nationalism, no surprise, the once moderately impressive Liverpool base area and the overwhelming majority of his Scottish organisation. Derek Hatton and Tommy Sheridan have long been airbrushed out of SPEW’s official history.
Against this fractious background, an aging comrade Taaffe, his authority steadily draining away, finally forced through a split in his oil slick ‘international’, the Committee for a Workers’ International. Why? Because he unexpectedly found himself in a minority. The result? He lost Socialist Alternative in the USA and numerous other mini‑me versions of SPEW in Europe and Asia. SPEW itself split. One talentless editor of The Socialist departed. Another even less talented editor was appointed.
When comrade Taaffe finally handed over the reins to long-standing deputy Hannah Sell she inherited a shrunken outfit nationally and internationally. Now she has managed to lose RMT ... it is surely ever further downhill from now on. Comrade Sell, it should be added, is a political lightweight, a dull as ditch water bureaucrat, a temporary leader if ever there was one who is utterly incapable of independent thought.
True, Tusc was a useless appendage for the period of the Corbyn leadership; with Starmer in charge and ‘normal service resumed’, some unprincipled left electoral front is at least conceivably on the cards (or, dare we dream, a principled left electoral front, with a view to a party … ). Suppose Tusc had actually taken off prior to 2015, then maybe it might have revived somewhat. Yet it never did. The SPEW report complains of the AGM motion against Tusc that it engages in mathematical dishonesty: it states that Tusc got 0.2% in May’s local elections, which does not take into account that Tusc only stood in 268 seats. But really, comrades! This thing of yours has been going for 12 years - if you can only stand in a couple of hundred council seats, how much progress is being made? The trouble for Tusc is that it could never evolve beyond a flag of convenience, because its politics were always decided by veto, to keep RMT on board. But now that RMT is no longer on board, that trade-off is revealed for the shabby abandonment of principle it always was - and for what?
‘Mick Lynch meets the media’ Weekly Worker June 30: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1401/mick-lynch-meets-the-media.↩︎