SWP moves to embrace electoral tactic Candy Udwin, a member of the Socialist Workers Party, is the LSA candidate for the Camden and Barnet constituency in the GLA elections. These are written responses to the questions that she and the SWP were prepared to answer
Could you tell us about your record in the working class movement?
I first got actively involved in 1976 when my local hospital, the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital for Women, was threatened with closure. The 'Save EGA' campaign became a focus for people's anger, involving women's groups, trade unions and community activists. We organised demonstrations and strikes and Frank Dobson, who was then leader of Camden Council, gave his support. It took us three years but in 1979 we won, keeping the EGA open as a gynaecological hospital.
I started work at what is now UCH in 1980. In 1982 there was a wave of one-day pay strikes which shook our union leaders. Hospital ancillaries and some nurses went on strike and Camden Council came out on strike to support us four times.
The next wave of action to hit the hospitals came in 1988. A group of nurses in Manchester went on strike after a spate of horror stories about the state of the NHS. We organised a day of strike action which got a tremendous response. Nurses poured out on strike at UCH and Middlesex hospitals, setting off fire alarms in the nurses' home to make sure everyone was up on time for the picket line. Thousands converged on Trafalgar Square despite police opposition and we finally forced the Tories to put a billion pounds of extra money into the health service. And we built the union with student nurses joining Unison's predecessor, Nupe, in droves. We recruited 109 student nurses to Nupe in one week.
I was elected Nupe branch secretary in 1990 and two years later we organised a spate of one-day strikes. When bosses tried to close the only male surgical ward, nurses refused to leave. We struck and won solidarity from patients and the local community. And when the bosses threatened to cart out the patients from the occupied ward, we said they would have to move them through a barricade of staff and TV cameras. The management gave in and the ward is still open today.
In 1993 UCH was threatened with closure. Our campaign had people across Camden putting up posters and petitions in pubs and clubs, tenants associations and local workplaces and in September we struck for six weeks. Again we won and the UCLH Trust is still getting an extra £1.8 million a year of 'transitional funding'.
Why were you disciplined by Unison and what is the latest in the fight against victimisation?
Dave Carr, the branch chair, and I have been accused by the Unison leadership of implementing our union branch's democratic decisions to campaign over health funding and we are supposed to be 'guilty' of fighting the PFI scheme which was imposed on UCLH hospital workers last year. The reality is that our union leaders are not prepared to stoke up workers' anger at New Labour's neglect of the NHS and its big business policies. Instead they are trying to witch-hunt those who are prepared to fight to defend the NHS.
We had a disciplinary hearing on February 10 which ended in farce. The hearing was in a hotel rather than at Unison headquarters. The first thing the chair of the panel said was that our solicitor should turn off his tape recorder. He replied that it was essential that a full and accurate record of proceedings should be available as the issue was likely to end up in court, there was no court shorthand writer present and notes of previous meetings had been refused to Candy. The panel could give no justification for their ban on recording the proceedings, but after a short adjournment they said recording was not permitted because it was "unbecoming".
We pointed out that giving the panel total control over the record of the proceedings was a breach of our human rights and natural justice. After a further adjournment the panel then excluded Dave and me and our two representatives from the hearing which then continued in our absence and we were then asked by a hotel employee on behalf of the panel to leave the premises immediately.
Four days later I was elected deputy regional convenor at the Unison London regional council AGM and a motion of support for us was unanimously passed demanding the Unison leadership call off their political attack on us and instead to lead a national campaign for more funding for our health service and our staff.
Is there a connection between this dispute and your LSA candidature?
The Unison leadership are having a go at us because of their support for New Labour. New Labour's candidate for Camden and Barnet is Helen Gordon. She gets £66,000 a year as the director of personnel at UCLH hospitals. And she is the person directly responsible for the poor levels of staffing and for any attempts to sack staff. Moreover Helen Gordon has done her utmost to encourage Unison leaders to victimise me.
Part of what I want to do as a candidate is to highlight the crisis in the NHS, the failure of our union leaders to launch an effective response to the crisis and to argue very loudly that ordinary working class people have it in their power to fight back against New Labour's Tory policies.
What is your opinion of the LSA development?
The London Socialist Alliance is a very exciting development. There are thousands and thousands of ordinary working class people across London who feel angry and betrayed by Blair and New Labour. They are desperately looking for an alternative. Ken Livingstone's enormous support amongst ordinary Londoners is an indication of this. I hope he will get the Labour nomination despite the best efforts of the Millbank machine to stop him. But if he is Labour's mayoral candidate he will be lumbered with New Labour's 'second eleven', a bunch of Blair clones and exactly the kind of people that a Livingstone victory would represent a rejection of.
We have a great opportunity to raise the banner of socialism in this election and to persuade tens of thousands of people that there is cause for hope, that there is an alternative. The public meetings we have had so far have been very successful. People are excited about the unity and excited that we have the opportunity to go into the workplaces and out onto the estates with a message that enough is enough. And we have been getting some excellent media publicity too, although I don't know how long that will last.
What are the advantages of a united left slate, when the SWP, as by far the biggest left group, could have stood alone?
I believe socialist unity is important if we are to tap the potential support of people starting to move away from Labour. We need the London Socialist Alliance to harness the energies of the many thousands of people sick of New Labour but who are not members of any socialist organisation. Only if we do this can we make the most of the huge opportunities that lie ahead. And lots of people are very excited by the fact of the unity itself, which I think has been very impressive.
Do you equate any form of election with 'electoralism'?
Elections are important because they raise and pose political questions that socialists have answers to. Standing in elections is essentially a tactical question. The key question is how best to make the socialist case in particular concrete circumstances. The massive support for Livingstone across London and the anti-capitalist mood shown in Seattle and its echoes here makes me think we now have a very good opportunity to make the socialist case by standing in the London elections.
The government of course has emasculated the role of the assembly and the mayor's powers are very limited. I have no illusion that we would have the power directly to improve things very much merely through voting in the assembly. But the election and our assembly members, if we get any elected, can be a platform both to persuade many people of the socialist case and to give people confidence that there is an alternative, that Blair and the system he represents are not invincible. That's why I want the biggest vote possible for the LSA, to get the maximum number of people actively involved in building support for it, and why I am proud to be an LSA candidate.
The SWP's leading LSA organiser, Rob Hoveman, agreed to the Weekly Worker's request for an interview with comrade Udwin only on condition that the questions were provided in advance and no editorial changes were made to the text supplied by the SWP. Having no choice about the matter, we reluctantly agreed.
However, comrade Hoveman subsequently indicated that Candy Udwin and the SWP were "not interested" in responding to some of the questions submitted, which we reproduce below:
- How do you see the LSA, and more importantly left cooperation in general, further developing?
- Before last year the SWP/IS had not contested elections for more than two decades. Some SWP writers and many rank and file members seemed to equate any electoral intervention by a working class organisation with 'electoralism'. Do you think that in retrospect it was a mistake not to have stood candidates during that period? Or was it perhaps an error to have stood in the 1970s?
- In the May 1997 general election the SWP called on workers to "vote Labour or socialist". Might it have been better for the SWP to have stood itself or alongside others, as it is doing today?
- Do you regret the collapse of the LSA's forerunner for the EU elections in 1999, when the SWP eventually called for a vote for the SLP in London?