Disaffiliate or democratise

At the end of the Socialist Alliance union activists' day on June 29 (see report), Liz Davies, SA chairperson, assured us that there was no difference between the position of the Socialist Alliance and the Scottish Socialist Party on the question of union affiliation to the Labour Party. This was in response to a contribution from the floor by SSP member Sarah McDonald, who criticised her party's unsophisticated approach. Its call for an immediate break from Labour weakened the working class in its struggle for a united fight against New Labour, she said. Liz Davies is clearly wrong on this issue. Certainly, there is common ground between the SA and the SSP. Both organisations actively support the democratisation of the unions' political funds. However, when it comes to the question of the link with Labour, there are substantial differences. The SSP openly calls for trade unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party. It calls for branch autonomy regarding the political fund. It calls for a multiple-choice approach to where the political fund goes. By contrast the Socialist Alliance opposes disaffiliation at this time. It does not campaign for it. It calls on union members to use the union link to fight for working class politics. The SA wants the union-Labour relationship to be a headache for Blair, while at the same time exposing his party for the anti-working class organisation it is. The SA supports the tactical approach adopted by the RMT to Labour. It supports debating the union link alongside building a mass alternative to the Labour Party for the working class. I spoke to Richie Venton, SSP industrial organiser, on the matter this week. I asked him to clarify what he thought of the SSP position regarding union affiliation and whether he saw a difference with the Socialist Alliance. Comrade Venton emphasised that at this stage in most unions the point was to fight for the democratisation of the union funds. However, he said that this must be linked to "broad propaganda" calling on the unions to "make the break" from New Labour - or "Blair's new Tories", as comrade Venton called them. While he said that in most cases it was "premature" for there to be concrete motions calling for disaffiliation, it was important for the SSP to be "unequivocal" that it was demanding just that: "Why should we stick in the Labour Party?" he asked. Indeed, by not calling for disaffiliation, he said, we were only creating illusions that the Labour Party could be reformed for socialism. The case of the Communication Workers Union was brought up. Comrade Venton told me that at the CWU conference this year the SSP had called for the union to implement its conference decision of 2000 to "cut all support - moral and financial" to New Labour if moves were made to privatise the Post Office: "This would effectively mean disaffiliation," he said. Although he welcomed the decision of the RMT to scale down its financial affiliation and to transfer funding to left Labour MPs, comrade Venton described this as a halfway house. He imagined a call to disaffiliate now would have been "quite appropriate" for the RMT. Comrade Venton was quick to assure me that he opposed disaffiliation being linked to any moves to depoliticise the trade union movement - his party had called on unions to affiliate to the SSP. While this may be a propaganda move at this stage, it was important to make a clear call, he told me. All this was explained - verbally and in a leaflet - at our March 16 conference by comrade Venton himself. The SSP's approach, despite some common ground, is clearly not the same as the SA's. It is clumsy and wrong. Of course we want to break the political allegiance of the organised working class from the Labour Party. However, this must be linked to building an all-UK political alternative - a mass revolutionary workers' party. This does not yet exist. The SSP opposes this and, by accepting the division of organised socialists along national lines, the majority of the Socialist Alliance does not point in this direction either. The Socialist Alliance has come to a reasonable position - after an initial ultra-leftist 'disaffiliate now' wobble by the SWP. However, this position seems only to hold relevance for the SWP in England and Wales - what do its Socialist Worker platform comrades say in the SSP? According to comrade Venton, there were objective and subjective reasons for a slightly different tack in Scotland. This is undoubtedly linked to the SSP's claim that the achievement of an "independent socialist Scotland" would spark working class advance in more 'backward' areas - particularly England and Wales. In reality workers in Scotland are no more combative or class-conscious than their counterparts south of the border. The historical unity of the working class in Britain is under threat if we do not fight to build a common socialist perspective in England, Scotland and Wales - and that must include a common approach on our relationship to the party that has traditionally held the allegiance of workers throughout Britain. Marcus Ström