Representation - crisis unresolved

As expected, the RMT's 'Crisis in working class representation' conference was almost entirely a gathering of the organised left, writes Peter Manson. The union bureaucracy has no intention of founding a new political party

The small hall in Friends Meeting House was packed to overflowing for the January 21 conference called by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers. Officially the hall holds 220 people, but every seat was taken and there must have been at least another 100 standing, with dozens unable to get in.

But this was hardly a gathering of trade union militants - the union members present were by and large political activists first and foremost and indeed the RMT had made no effort to mobilise its own members. All they would have known about it was from a couple of paragraphs advising them the conference was going to happen in two circulars - the last one in December. At the time of writing no report of the event has appeared on the RMT website.

The bureaucracy had been obliged to call the conference by a motion passed at the union's 2005 annual conference, but was clearly out to ensure that it was merely a talking shop, without any possibility of actually doing something about the 'crisis in working class representation', let alone aiding the process of forming a new party, as many - not least the Socialist Party - still hope.

That is why the RMT leadership deliberately booked a room that was far too small, kept the meeting to three hours, packed the top table and made it clear that no decisions whatsoever would be taken - president Tony Donaghey, in opening the conference, stressed this once again: "Don't bother giving me any motions - I won't be taking them."

The biggest left component present was the Socialist Party, whose comrades really do seem to believe that a new trade union-sponsored party is not only desirable, but can actually be brought into being by the likes of RMT general secretary Bob Crow. It is true that comrade Crow continually states that the Labour Party cannot be changed and that a working class party is needed, but he knows full well that the unions - or even just one or two unions - cannot deliver anything (even if they - and he - had the will to do so).

So in his own speech he stated that, while we should "continue to debate the way forward to get a working class political party again", "what we want to come out of this meeting is a national shop stewards movement across industry". This was utterly absurd, but that did not stop comrade Crow repeating it at the end of his speech. How on earth a "national shop stewards movement" was to be magicked into existence by a meeting that took no decisions, had no delegates - and no shop stewards - is beyond me.

Which road?

Bob Crow declared: "We all want a socialist society. Some people want to take the A road; some the B road - but we're all aiming for the same destination." It was Rosa Luxemburg who pointed out that reform and revolution are not two alternative roads to the same destination: they lead in completely opposite directions.

But it is not only comrade Crow who is ignorant of this basic fact. His ignorance appears to be shared by much of the left - not least the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party - who believe that a (more leftwing, more democratic) Labour Party mark two would signify a step forward along the "A road".

Both the SP and SWP have demonstrated their faith in such a dead end: in the Socialist Alliance they proposed a variation on this theme - only neither wanted the SA to become a party. The SP will only support a 'left unity' project if it is at the helm itself, while the SWP (which was at the helm) thought a reformist, Labourite alliance would be the best vehicle for attracting recruits to the already existing revolutionary party: ie, the SWP.

Just about the entire left has it in their heads that there is an inevitable stage the working class must go through - that some halfway house-type formation is necessary. It would be better, they believe, if reformists like Crow would take the lead in setting this up; but, failing that, they will paint themselves in reformist colours, since they believe this is all that the mass of workers can be won to right now. That is what the SWP is continuing to do in Respect (with the added twist that working class politics are watered down even further in order to appeal to the muslim establishment). And it is what the SP is doing with its Campaign for a New Workers' Party.

SP general secretary Peter Taaffe said as much in the November 2005 issue of Socialism Today: "It is necessary for any new formation or party to proceed, in the first instance, with a basic programme, which can unite significant left forces, appealing above all to the new generation" (my emphasis). For "basic" read 'reformist'.

Perhaps in order to counter criticism of this line, the SP leaflet handed out at the conference tries to appear more principled: "In the Socialist Party we recognise that any party which brings together important sections of the working class to fight against the big business onslaught on our conditions of life and work will be a huge step forward, even if its programme is initially quite limited. However, it is crucial that a new party, if it is to succeed, breaks completely with the existing pro-big business, neoliberal order. The Socialist Party will argue that this means the new party should adopt a democratic socialist programme" ('Time for a new mass workers' party', January 2006).

In reality, though, the SP is trying to face both ways. Does it really believe that in the unlikely event that a new party was set up by the left-led unions it would adopt a "democratic socialist programme" in the only genuine sense - ie, a revolutionary one? Of course not (and its own programme is merely left reformist in any case). What the SP would like is to constitute itself as a large left minority within such an imaginary new formation. Failing that, if it ended up having to establish a new 'broad workers' party' itself - ie, based on Socialist Party comrades plus a few hangers-on - you can be sure that it would play the role of substitute for the absent right.

The SP comrades made up not only the largest, but most coherent bloc at the conference and, in addition to Dave Nellist, who spoke from the platform, six of the 16 speakers from the floor were either SP members or close allies.

Comrade Nellist said that what is needed is a party that is "new, open and democratic" - one that is "firmly rooted in the real centre ground": the majority that opposes privatisation and wants better services. That should be the new party's "clear theme", he said. "Public ownership and rational planning of the economy is the only way." He hoped that we could all "come back again" to Friends Meeting House for a more structured conference - only next time "downstairs in the main hall".

One of the first SP comrades to intervene from the floor further expanded upon the nature of the putative new party they have in mind: "No-one wants to come to meetings to hear people like me having a go at the SWP or Workers Power," he said. In other words, it would be an 'activist' party where theory and democratic debate would be sidelined. He added: "The trade unions are in a position to re-establish the credibility of socialism."

Although this was a rank and file member of the SP, not one of its leaders, his contribution said a lot about the SP mindset. What type of "socialism" can the unions - which spontaneously limit their aims to the achievement of a better deal under capitalism - promote?

Class question

Another platform speaker with a highly questionable notion of what constitutes socialism was Colin Fox, national convenor of the Scottish Socialist Party. Comrade Fox wondered: "What is it about the air in Latin America that sees a socialist government elected in Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, Uruguay, Chile "¦?"

He asked: "Where do we go from here?" - and then answered his own rhetorical question: "It's not for me to tell you what to do." As a nationalist and reformist, comrade Fox believes that Scotland can take the Latin American road to socialism on its own - although he sincerely hopes that England and Wales will follow at a short distance behind.

Next to speak was John Marek, founder of Forward Wales - "a party that is unashamedly campaigning for the interests of the working class" in Wales. While we must aim for a socialist society, said comrade Marek, in the here and now we "must work within the market system". We could, for example, all buy a single share in various big companies in order to champion workers' interests within them. The "market is not going to go away", he said.

Similarly, he thought that a "campaign for a change in the methods of procedure in the House of Commons" should have high priority. He explained that it is virtually impossible for individual MPs to propose bills at present.

At least comrade Marek stands for a version of "working class representation" - which is more than you can say for Jean Lambert of the Green Party, which regards itself as an organisation for left-minded people of all classes. "If a new political party arrives - fine," she said. "Let's spread the competition." The Greens, after all, aimed to "break the monopoly of power" and she would be happy to form a parliamentary alliance with such a grouping. In the meantime, though, the "Green Party is certainly one of the choices on offer".

John McDonnell MP, leader of the RMT's parliamentary group, apologised for having to rush away to take his son to a football match. It was clear from his speech that he is not exactly in favour of an alternative to the Labour Party, despite his leftwing rhetoric (and he is well aware that leaders like Crow are not about to try and set one up).

For those like himself who are "for socialist revolution", things have changed "for the better" in recent times, opening up a situation that will give us "many opportunities". Comrade McDonnell was optimistic that socialism could be achieved within "20-30 years". But "instead of the organisational form we expected" there has arisen "a spontaneous movement that is almost revolutionary".

"Globalisation means exploitation for profit - people understand that now," he said. "People have identified privatisation and are mobilising against it." What is more, "Today you cannot become a trade union general secretary without being on the left and a rank and file activist."

Therefore, there was a "strong potential for a united front". We can "have the debate about the best organisational form - fine". But it was important for all the various campaigns to come together. We must "link the issues - the common factor is capitalism". In comrade McDonnell's united front, everyone would be able to "deliver their own organisational assets".

He concluded by asking: "Is the Labour Representation Committee the best organisational form? I don't know."

Dead Labour

Comrade McDonnell was politely applauded, but he was virtually alone amongst the speakers in his (on this occasion unspoken) belief that it is possible to 'reclaim' Labour for the working class. Of course, as a bourgeois workers' party, it was never really ours, but most of the contributors have a completely one-sided view on the question. For them Labour is not only 'beyond reclaim': it is dead as a site for struggle, either now or in the future.

This is to completely misunderstand the role of Labourism. For most of the 20th century it was the bourgeoisie's 'second 11', to be called on only under exceptional circumstances, when the preferred party of the ruling class, the Tories, ran into difficulties.

What made Labour particularly useful was its left wing. In times of crisis the party could be turned to, precisely because of the left's claim to represent the interests of workers, which could then be brought to the fore. Of course, the left was never able to win control, but its talk of socialism and the workers helped create the illusion that Labour really would advance the interests of our class. Such hopes were always dashed by the experience of Labour in office, allowing the 'first 11' to once more take over the reins after a relatively short period.

While right now working class militancy is at a very low level, what will happen after the inevitable resurgence? History tells us that this will produce a possible return to the party's former role as the workers' false friend and the consequent revival of the Labour left.

That is why it is foolish to write off the Labour left and downplay the importance of engaging with the Labour membership - and, when appropriate, undertaking work inside the party. But only Hilary Wainwright of Red Pepper, amongst all the afternoon's speakers, acknowledged this salient fact.

No Respect

There was no place on the platform for a Respect representative - national secretary John Rees had twice written to the organisers asking to be allowed to speak, but had been told the top table was already very crowded. However, there was room for one additional speaker who had not been advertised - Liz Screen of the Socialist Labour Party!

Arthur Scargill's SLP was formed a decade ago as the first attempt to solve the "crisis of working class representation" following the ascendancy of Blairism. As a result of Scargill's anti-democratic control-freakery it was reduced in a very short time from over 3,000 active members, including dozens of rank and file union militants, to a mere shell of a couple of hundred paper members today.

Scargill's idea of left unity was for all the other groups to shut up shop, close down their journals and join the SLP under his command. He has always rejected each and every appeal even for electoral cooperation. Yet comrade Screen had the cheek to say: "We don't deserve to be the pariah of both left and right." She stated: "The list of grievances against New Labour is endless. But the question is, what are we going to do about it?" After running through all the SLP's virtues she added, not too convincingly: "We will try to help find a way forward."

Presumably Scargill himself had contacted comrade Crow to ask him to let the SLP have a speaker, but for some reason the RMT is not too keen on Respect - or, more likely, on the SWP.

Respect had called a caucus for its members before the conference - about 30 or so came along. At the caucus John Rees and fellow SWPer Nick Wrack outlined the correspondence between the RMT and themselves. Rees asked comrades who might be called to speak from the conference floor not to overstate their disappointment that there had been no invitation and urged them to be upbeat about Respect's achievements: "We should give a clear message: there isn't going to be a way round Respect."

While comrade Rees pointed out at the caucus that the conference was to be welcomed, it was clear that he was not in favour of adopting any kind of concrete position in relation to its subject matter. We should just be nice to everybody, while promoting Respect.

Five Respect comrades were able to speak and generally followed comrade Rees's advice.  Elaine Heffernan (SWP) and Salvinder Dhillon talked in general terms about the need to work together, while Paul Holborrow (also SWP) promoted Respect more aggressively. While he had great admiration for comrade Crow and the RMT ("If Bob Crow called for a one-day general strike, the response would be overwhelming"), he implied that there was no point in all this talk about another party: "The ship has already left the port."

Rees himself put it more modestly: "If new forces come in, that will make a difference. But we have made a start." This, of course, begged the question: how precisely does comrade Rees envisage these new forces 'coming in'? Is Respect viewed as a mere holding operation, or should everybody else rush on board at the next port of call? Well, neither. Respect, just like the SWP's other 'united fronts', is regarded as a means of recruitment and extending its own influence.

So it was left to Greg Tucker of the International Socialist Group and Respect's national council to be more concrete. While it was important to win new members, we should not "ask the RMT to affiliate to Respect". We should "ask them to build something better". While you can say that this has the merit of thinking strategically, frankly neither option is realistic.

Earlier comrade Tucker had been implicitly labelled a 'sectarian' by the SWP's very own arch-sectarian, July Waterson. Speaking at the Respect caucus, she complained that it was just "sickening" that she had had to "run the gauntlet" of "every sectarian" trying to sell their papers outside Friends House. Comrade Tucker had been standing a few feet away from me displaying the ISG's Socialist Resistance.

However, within seconds of this remark, she was advising comrades to try to speak to "normal people" during the afternoon - and, if they succeeded, "sell them a Socialist Worker" (she added as an afterthought: ""¦ or give them a Respect leaflet").

Galloway subtext

John Rees had warned the caucus to expect some flak over George Galloway's appearance on Celebrity big brother. But he advised comrades not to "be on the back foot" if people made "snide comments", as he thought they would.

He was right. The first mention came with Dave Nellist's remarks about how politics have changed over the last 30 years: "Of course, today we have computers, the internet and Big brother "¦" This seemingly innocuous statement was enough for the audience to collapse into laughter.

The same reaction greeted John Rees's comment about "meetings I and George Galloway have had" - the very mention of the second name was all it took. Comrade Rees stoically continued without even pausing, as if he had not heard the shouts of "If you can find him!" Even Liz Screen got a round of applause for saying: "We thought we'd seen it all until we saw Big Brother".

And the SLP's former doorkeeper-in-chief, Brian Heron, speaking from the floor, made an obtuse (if hypocritical) reference to the affair when, having referred to Respect, he said that in any new party, "We have to do it from the base upwards. We have to have the accountability of leaders." Perhaps we can be charitable and say he has learnt his lesson after his treatment at the hands of Scargill.

This series of comments and innuendo - even bearing in mind the make-up of the audience - must surely have reinforced comrade Rees's perception of Galloway's venture as an unmitigated disaster.