A different order

Maria Exall is a member of Communication Workers Union national executive committee and a supporter of Solidarity, paper of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty

How do you see the meeting today?

Good. It’s the fourth one they’ve had. The one last year was pretty good, but this one is of a different order. There are a lot more people here and obviously the involvement of the mainstream trade union leaders is the thing that makes all the difference.

Is that added to by the fact that Tony Woodley was talking about a new sense of cohesion amongst the ‘awkward squad’, the idea that they are going to organise action at the Labour conference, etc?

I think it’s obvious we don’t take everything they say at face value, but, yes, it is important to recognise that this does represent a change. In the context of the TGWU, Woodley is obvious a very different political animal to Morris. The Woodley stance plus the existence of the ‘awkward squad’ - with all the reservations it is still correct to have about them - demonstrates a recognition by the leaders that they need to represent their members, both industrially and in the field of politics.

Obviously, something has gone on to produce this shift at the top of the unions. An atomised rebellion by disillusioned union members in the ballot box …

… and the collapse of the right in many unions …

OK, but has this produced any stirrings amongst the Constituency Labour Parties?

That’s yet to come. That’s what’s going to be interesting. That will be the proof of the real importance of this conference.

I was in the workshop on the anti-union laws and we noted that the trade union movement is formally committing itself to actually campaigning to repeal the anti-trade union laws. But the key issue is whether that will translate into different CLPs. Will trade union activists take it along to those CLPs? Will they think there is anything worthwhile there to take it along to?

I’m optimistic, actually. Things are quite different now. Any trade unionist who is political looks for a way to express their politics. I think the fact of Blairism’s total dismissal of the union movement - either by not talking to them or by ignoring what they say - leads to some hard thinking. These people still need political representation, whatever Blairism is saying and doing.

That’s why I’m optimistic. This is a genuine attempt by people in the trade unions - from the bureaucracy and the rank and file - thinking about how that political representation is going to be remade.

But what about democracy in the party? Is there the space to do so in the structure of today’s New Labour?

I thought George Galloway made a very good speech at the Labour Against the War conference. He asked the hard questions that needed answering. His comments were very appropriate.

Obviously, the Blairites have ‘hollowed out’ the party in all sorts of ways. They treat democracy in the party with contempt. But you can only control things organisationally up to a certain point. If something is real, it finds its own expression. I would argue that one of the problems is the union’s lack of involvement within the party. They just don’t see the point of CLPs. If they brought along their problems, the local MPs take no notice of them - so why bother?

But you don’t know until you fight. In a few year’s time, if everything is still blocked in Labour, then people will have to reassess. So far, a lot of the agitation on democracy in the party has been geared more to CLP than trade union activists. Now, because of the changes in the trade unions, there is a heightened awareness of democracy and the need for it. Given the political generation they come from, there is more of a consensus amongst trade union leaders about the need for democracy in the party and CLPs, although they still have a different angle than many of us of course.

What about the left outside Labour? What should it be doing and saying about developments like today’s conference?

The key thing for the future is going to be working class political representation. That is the criterion by which we judge developments or our tactics in relation to elections. So the idea that the Socialist Alliance should simply stand anywhere and everywhere that it can, in isolation from what’s happening in the Labour Party, would be absurd. The RMT model of potentially supporting Plaid Cymru or the Greens is not the model of the future. We must have something class-based and the recognition that because of the ongoing connection between the Labour Party and the trade unions there is still the scope to fight in it.

The involvement of organised trade unionists, revolutionaries and the left in the Labour Party raises democratic questions, but they are not really separate to questions of democracy in the trade union movement itself. Part of the failure of the unions to find a voice in Labour is the fact that the unions themselves haven’t been organised in a democratic way.

You cannot separate the general question of working class democracy and that of how the Labour Party and the trade unions work - they are interconnected.