Getting the politics right

Socialist Alliance union activists gather in London this Saturday to discuss the way forward for the left in the labour movement and to begin the task of rationalising and organising our forces. With the RMT challenging New Labour's monopoly over the political allegiance of the organised working class, and the right wing of the bureaucracy in a lather about the election of a number of leftwingers to senior positions, the conference could prove pivotal for our work in the period ahead. It is nearly four months since the Socialist Alliance held its successful March 16 conference to campaign for the democratisation of the union political funds. We have seen the creation of such a fund by the PCSU and the anti-democratic coup by Barry Reamsbottom in that union against SA supporter Mark Serwotka. In some instances, ordinary union activity has taken on a political hue, as New Labour continues with its aggressively pro-big business agenda on which it was elected in 1997 and re-elected last year. While militancy is not yet the order of the day, the rank and file has begun to elect leftwing representatives in the shape of comrades Serwotka and Bob Crow. The right has been shaken by this and a leaked document from the TUC has shown that there is a concerted counteroffensive by the bureaucracy. The outrageous action of Barry Reamsbottom is part of that backlash. With working class activity inching out of the depths witnessed in the 1990s, the left needs to understand its strategic tasks clearly: tackling the bureaucracy, politicising defensive strikes, democratising the unions, building a rank-and-file movement, relating to Labour, building a revolutionary workers' party. Long, patient work. The draft statement drawn up by the trade union committee of the Socialist Alliance, under the stewardship of SA partisan and union officer Mark Hoskisson (Workers Power), will help focus discussion on Saturday. The union workshops may propose amendments to the statement. In many ways, this event is a year late - it should really have taken place before the conference on democratising the funds. In 2001, the then SA executive committee debated whether to hold a gathering of SA activists or a broader conference - as actually occurred on March 16. I argued that before embarking on the campaign to democratise the funds, we need to gain some measure of our strength and organisation in the unions. We are addressing that imbalance in our work with this weekend's conference. The first session will examine the rightwing counteroffensive and how we should fight it. It will be led off by Mark Hoskisson, Candy Udwin (Socialist Workers Party and Unison) and Steve Godward (SA executive member and FBU activist). Comrades will have an hour and a half to debate the way to unite against the right. Conference will then break into union groups. This should prove to be the most crucial part of the day. It is here that we can begin to make real the decision of the executive to formalise SA union networks. We have been charged with deciding upon the specifics of the campaign to democratise the political funds for each union. Further, the network meetings should elect convenors. In unions with large concentrations of Socialist Alliance members - such as Unison and the NUT - we should elect small committees to oversee the networks. As committed as comrades like Candy Udwin are, the volume of work she faces as SA Unison convenor is too great for one individual if the job is to be done seriously. The SA union committee has appointed interim convenors for these networks, but we need to place them on a democratic footing. Just as importantly, comrades must ensure they regularly communicate, meet and become real. It seems a section of the SWP has attempted to limit our union activity to primarily concentrating on the issue of the political funds. It will have little success in pushing the genie back into the bottle, however. The very act of comrades coming together will mean they discuss all issues of concern to the particular union. And this is as it should be. We should not limit the tasks we take on in any artificial way in order to accommodate the SWP's false understanding of the Socialist Alliance as an electoral united front. The final session will be concerned with our relationship to other left forces in the unions. The CPGB has pushed for the formal establishment of Socialist Alliance caucuses. On the other hand some comrades have expressed deep reluctance. 'We will upset the broad lefts,' they say. Well, perhaps some of the business-as-usual broad lefts need to be upset. In many cases, they have become mere election machines for 'lefts' in the bureaucracy. They often operate in tiny committees, distant from an (understandably for the period) inactive membership. While many of these loose networks have kept ticking over, they do not come up to scratch for the tasks ahead and in some cases may be a hindrance to the development of healthy, militant, rank-and-file organisation. The SA should aim to unite all the socialist forces in the union movement, but on the basis of a political perspective, not just for the sake of divvying up jobs on committees. We need to overcome the deep sectarianism unfortunately still rampant on the left. Likewise, the amateurism which extends from this approach needs to be defeated. With rank-and-file bulletins aplenty, but no rank-and-file movement, the Socialist Alliance must seek to supersede the duplication and fragmentation of the left. We must seek unity with forces outwith the SA, but insist on the need for democracy. Further, we must get our attitude to New Labour right. Defeating Labourism within the working class remains a central task - and the union movement is one of the main arenas for this strategic battle. Fortunately, some unions are beginning to move. The socialist 'vanguard' needs to catch up. The RMT has put New Labour on notice politically without the ultra-left demand being made by the Scottish Socialist Party and the Socialist Party in England and Wales to 'break the link' now. Unison is debating its relations with Labour. The SA has been pushing the debate on funds throughout the unions. It is time that the Socialist Alliance adopted a correct stance towards Labour in elections. It is now in the hands of SA activists to take their responsibilities seriously. We must push forward the campaign to democratise the funds; but we must also establish the Socialist Alliance as an organised force in the unions. Marcus Ström * Building rank and file organisation * Draft statement for the Socialist Alliance trade union activists conference