Building rank and file organisation

At an abstract level there is much that unites the left. Of course we all agree that we have to engage with the rank and file. Everyone agrees that we should have democracy from below. Nobody denies that united action is a good thing. However, doing it is not as easy as saying it. During the Thatcher years the working class suffered a truly strategic defeat that completely neutered the most experienced, best-organised and most militant sections. Only a few industries escaped this fate. It was also this period that marked the demise of the old 'official' CPGB, which, despite its reformist programme and many other failings, maintained a significant base amongst core workers for 50 years. As a result of these defeats the working class has remained demoralised, fragmented and apathetic - removed from effective class struggle for over 20 years. This has meant that most of the current generation of trade unionists has virtually no direct experience of serious industrial struggles. As for the left, no current group has any significant base amongst workers and most have never had such a base. Moreover they are ill equipped for the tasks confronting them. Only now are workers beginning to reassert themselves, in those industries not destroyed and in the service sector. However, these spontaneous developments are not the result of a mass upswing. I think there are three factors at play: * Spontaneous defensive struggles in those few more experienced sectors with a fighting tradition not destroyed by Thatcher. * Top-down initiatives by both left and right bureaucrats, firing warning shots across the bows of New Labour and, in the case of the right wing, to constrain activist pressure. * Equally top-down initiatives by a layer of activists mainly in broad left formations. In the first we mainly have a resurgence of tradition. In the other two we have layers of functionaries and activists operating largely over the heads of workers, pushing or pulling them this way or that. There is of course nothing wrong in principle with initiative from leaders, especially following 20 years of demoralisation and apathy. However, the key to progress is building bottom-up - ie, democratic - self-activity and rank and file militancy. It is here that the inexperience, impatience and lack of an open, democratic culture amongst most of the left is exposed. The largest union, Unison, also contains the largest organised left presence and so is a useful benchmark for judging its performance. At its national delegate conference last week the national executive council was censured for failing to act on the 2001 conference decision to carry out a review of the political fund. The executive's attempts to remove the censure motion from the agenda were successfully fought off by the United Left. Very good - a blow struck for union democracy in what Candy Udwin of the Socialist Workers Party has described as "the most undemocratic union in the country". Unison United Left, like other union broad lefts, is quite good at getting people elected and passing motions - that is, engaging with the mechanics of the union bureaucracy. However, when it comes to engaging with rank and file union members, we see a whole number of problems. United Left produces a broadsheet under the banner, "The voice of the rank and file". Unfortunately, most of the rank and file have never heard of it, let alone read it. Its circulation appears to be mostly confined to activists - although I am sure there are exceptions in some areas. It contains some very useful information, but its tone and method amounts to special pleading, cheer-leading and the generation of enthusiasm. It woefully fails to follow Trotsky's advice to always speak the truth to workers and instead paints rose-tinted pictures with all the depth of a washed out watercolour. Like some other left papers it contains banalities that insult the intelligence ("Our strike was brilliant"). No amount of gushing, hyperbole or excitation can substitute for an in-depth, concrete analysis, linked to a strategic programme that informs a correct tactical approach. The recent London weighting dispute is a good example of inexperienced and impatient activists building a euphoric bubble of activity without any apparent strategic or tactical consideration, only to have it burst. Failing to recognise the strategic importance of an unprecedented opportunity for united action with other public sector unions, Unison pre-empted that potential by unilateral action on the grounds of 'showing them the way'. Maybe the ACTS and GMB were dragging their feet, as some claim. But the key was to win the hearts and minds of rank and file members - much easier to achieve through democratically agreed united action than through picket line appeals to union principles. Sometimes unilateral actions are necessary, but here there was already an alliance. The Unison action displayed an unnecessary contempt for the democratic rights of ACTS and GMB members. Even on its own sectional terms this action was ill conceived. There was no mood for a fight of any length amongst the majority of Unison members. The first one-day strike was relatively successful, but not the raging success claimed by many on the euphoric left. In real terms about one sixth of the workforce was out. The second two-day strike was slightly less successful, and marked by serious rumblings from the rank and file and some activists that the tactics were wrong. The expected three-day strike has not materialised amid reports that most branch secretaries are not confident of getting members out. We are now in a period of vacillation and confusion over what is to happen next. Initiative and momentum have been lost. Demoralisation is setting in and it will be more difficult to get Unison members out again. Unity is now more difficult. The failure of this action may undermine the potential for strike votes in GMB and ACTS, thus damaging the national pay claim. In this dispute we saw the left posturing and acting over the heads of a passive rank and file. The left blindly ran off excitedly, pleading for the rank and file to follow. They did follow for three days and now we do not know where we are or where we are going. It could have been very different. You cannot build unity, resolve or trust on the basis of one-sided glossy accounts and misplaced enthusiasm. First, you must be honest and tell workers how things really are. They have to know about weaknesses and potential problems, so that they are prepared for difficulties and thus better placed to overcome them. Second, the rank and file have to be actively involved in every aspect of the struggle, not just cast as the passive recipients of wisdom from above. You cannot do this by relying on leaflets, broadsheets or poorly attended branch meetings. You have to get out amongst them and openly debate every aspect of the struggle, good and bad. You have to listen. Holding back, spurious nonsense about delicate negotiations, half truths, manipulation - these are all the death of rank and file democracy. You must have the patience and discipline to wait until you can take the masses with you and not run off half-cocked as soon as anything moves. You must have a good grasp of the situation and how it has developed. For this you need an analysis that delves below the surface appearance of things. Knowing where you are, you can work out a strategy for getting to where you want to be. From this your tactics to achieve your strategic aims follow and are constantly adapted to each new situation. You must consider the employers' strategy and tactics. What is the strength and morale of our forces - can they be enhanced? What is the strength and morale of the enemy - can they be weakened? Is a strike the best action? Is escalation best now or later - is it even necessary? All of this and more is far more impressive and inspiring than some excited person telling us it is "brilliant". It is easy to discuss quite complicated political, strategic and tactical questions with the rank and file. It is not so easy with most of the left, which remains mired in a rigid top-down culture. It seems their role is not to think, but to unquestioningly carry out the line decided by the wise ones above. There is no real possibility of building any significant influence amongst workers unless the left develops a far more open and democratic culture. Would you trust an enthusiastic automaton? Alan Stevens * Getting the politics right * Draft statement for the Socialist Alliance trade union activists conference