Challenge the new Labour left

Delegates at the annual conference of the Rail Maritime and Transport union have given notice that there will be no more blank cheques for the Labour Party. They voted to withdraw financial support from 13 RMT-sponsored MPs, including John Prescott and Robin Cook. This follows the failure of currently sponsored Labour MPs to give a commitment to support union policies - in particular the renationalisation of the rail network, opposition to the privatisation of the London Underground, the repeal of the anti-union laws introduced by previous Tory governments and left in place by New Labour and, in the words of newly elected general secretary Bob Crow, "stopping this destruction of our seafaring members' jobs". Instead the union will switch its financial backing to a slate of 14 leftwingers, including Diane Abbott, Jeremy Corbyn, Ann Cryer and Alan Simpson. This follows an initiative from comrade Crow, who wrote to every Labour MP asking for their endorsement of an 'RMT charter'. Correctly, the union has decided that those who cannot even bring themselves to back such basic union demands were not worthy of support. "Our union believes in political representation in line with the aspirations of our members," said comrade Crow. The RMT also agreed overwhelmingly to reduce its financial contribution to Labour from £110,000 to £20,000 and gave approval to a measure that will scale down its affiliation level from 56,000 members to just 10,000. Affiliation fees look set to be halved, with the RMT diverting the rest of the money into its own campaigns. In March, the Communication Workers Union announced it was slashing its funding of the Labour Party by £500,000 over the next three years in protest over plans to axe 15,000 Royal Mail jobs, and the GMB has also substantially cut its financial support. Addressing the conference in Southport, comrade Crow accused New Labour of betraying working people. The newly sponsored MPs would "roll up their sleeves" and campaign for working class interests, he said. "The patience of many of our members and traditional Labour supporters is now wearing thin, but for the trade union movement to abandon the Labour Party would be a serious mistake. Labour was created as the political voice of the trade union movement and our members have the right to expect our political representatives to take up the cudgels on the issues that affect workers." Whatever we may think of comrade Crow's own political orientation - a former member of the Morning Star's Communist Party of Britain and until recently prominent in Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party - he is absolutely right to warn against disaffiliating from Blair's party - a proposal that was decisively rejected by conference. Clearly there is still a fight to be had in Labour's ranks and, while Crow himself may not view the question in this way, premature disaffiliation might, in the absence of a working class party, lead to depoliticisation amongst union members. Nevertheless, an historic step has been taken. A new Labour left is in formation and with union backing could rapidly grow. There is also the possibility that, in the future, money could be used not just to finance the union's own campaigning, but to back working class formations other than Labour. Greg Tucker, leading London RMT member and secretary of the London Socialist Alliance, told me: "This is the start of the process, not the end. It poses the question of an alternative political voice to Labour." That was a theme taken up by Matt Wrack, author of the SA's excellent pamphlet Whose money is it anyway? Comrade Wrack, a leading militant in the Fire Brigades Union, said: "I welcome this move. But it leaves open the question of what the RMT says to its members in, for example, Prescott's and Cook's constituencies. Presumably, if they are not worthy of union members' sponsorship, they are not worthy of union members' votes either. "The logical conclusion must be that the members need other political representatives. Maybe the RMT should approach other working class organisations with a view to standing candidates, or stand candidates itself. And if this is the approach of the RMT, what about other unions? It should persuade the labour movement to consider alternatives - which could be organisations like the Socialist Alliance." Comrade Wrack told me that RMT militants ought to raise the possibility of local labour movement conferences, where such questions could be discussed. "If you accept that the sitting Labour MP is undeserving of support, then the various organisations - whether unions or political groups - could be asked to put forward their candidates to such conferences." In view of the development in the RMT, this weekend's trade union conference, sponsored by the SA, takes on added significance. The opportunity must be used to make SA union caucuses a reality. Our comrades must be to the fore in taking up precisely the kind of question highlighted by the RMT decision. We must relate - above all with a political paper - to the new Labour left and those trade unions rebelling against the Blairites. Our concern is not getting hold of their money, but giving strategic direction to what is an unfolding struggle within the labour movement. The SA itself ought to take a leaf out of the RMT's book, when it comes to our attitude towards the Labour Party. Like the union, we should challenge Labour candidates - particularly those on the left - to back a minimum platform of pro-working class demands. The reward for their backing would not be SA cash, of course, but an undertaking to withdraw our candidates in their favour at elections. Ironically, Diane Abbott, the 2001 general election candidate for Hackney and Stoke Newington, was publicly challenged in precisely this way by a CPGB comrade last year. At a pre-election rally she endorsed the SA's priority pledges, just as she has now endorsed the RMT charter. But she should have been asked to do so by the SA itself, not by an individual comrade. An enthusiastic Socialist Alliance campaign to support her - as opposed to the majority of anti-working class Blairite candidates - could have given Millbank a big headache. In the same way, just as the Prescott, Cook et al have been exposed to the RMT membership as opponents of union policy, so those Labour election candidates who refuse to even pay lip service to working class interests would be shown up as unworthy of our votes. The problem is that, after decades of automatically voting Labour, most of the left has reacted to Blairism by veering in the opposite direction - towards auto-anti-Labourism. The RMT decision has pointed to a more sophisticated and fruitful way forward. Peter Manson Socialist Alliance union activists conference Conference, Saturday June 29, 12 noon to 4pm, South Camden Community School, London NW1. Admission £5.