Uphill battle for McDonnell

With in all likelihood only a couple of months to go before Tony Blair steps down as Labour leader, the campaign to elect John McDonnell as his replacement is still unable to gather enough steam to ensure that, at the very least, his name appears on the ballot paper. Peter Manson reports

Comrade McDonnell is now facing even more of an uphill battle since the announcement by Michael Meacher on February 22 that he was joining the leadership race. The McDonnell camp is taking comfort from the fact that Meacher does not have huge support - even Ian Gibson, who chaired his press launch, is a reluctant backer - or so says the McDonnell camp. But as a former cabinet minister Meacher is much more part of the mainstream - his is a "centre-left" challenge - and is viewed as a safer candidate for those who may wish to indulge in a little tactical voting. So there is no doubt that Meacher's announcement, however expected, comes as another obstacle in the way of making it onto the ballot paper.

In order to make this first, basic step, comrade McDonnell needs to be nominated by 44 other Labour MPs, but John for Leader campaign people admit that they only have around half that number. Possibly others will add their names. But clearly the campaign is floundering at the moment. What would be of enormous help therefore is a firm declaration of support (and some arm-twisting) by the big unions. This would pile up the pressure, particularly on union-sponsored MPs, to enable McDonnell to stand on his (minimalist) platform of pro-working class demands.

However, the big three - GMB, Amicus and the TGWU - will not openly back comrade McDonnell, however much their leaders say they favour his policies. That is, not unless there is a huge rank and file campaign to force them to do so. Of all the Labour-affiliated unions, only Aslef has come out for him. So have the RMT and FBU - two unions which, of course, are disaffiliated and will have no vote in the leadership contest (although they can still exert some pressure on a handful of MPs).

The only other big player which may still back McDonnell is the CWU, and supporters of the John for Leader campaign are also hoping that the leaderships of the Bakers Union and even the now tiny NUM will be persuaded to announce their backing.

But, for now, apart from Aslef, the RMT and FBU, the campaign can only boast the support of various union broad lefts and local branches, the Scottish Labour Party Campaign for Socialism, Welsh Labour Grassroots, Labour Representation Committee and a number of constituency Labour Parties.

So why won't the left-led unions declare for John? The thinking of Amicus general secretary Derek Simpson - whose membership, like that of the TGWU, has just voted overwhelmingly for a merger of the two unions - was revealed in the Morning Star last week. Interviewed by Star editor John Haylett, Simpson agreed that there would be a "healthy debate" if comrade McDonnell could only get his name on the ballot paper. However, "all the indications that I've seen are that that won't happen," he said. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy!

Simpson continued: "I agree with most of the points raised by John McDonnell, but I don't see the point of going out on the field for a glorious defeat. We already support the policies he's putting forward. We've been doing that for as long as John has, but what is the point of our union declaring in favour of John if he isn't able to stand? If you can win or you have no alternative but to fight, then fight. If you don't have to fight and you don't think you can win, why expose weakness?" (Morning Star March 9).

Comrade Haylett himself sums up this point of view: ""¦ since Gordon Brown is a shoo-in, there is no point in trade unions opposing him directly". In other words, Brown is going to win, so it's best to keep on the right side of him. At least that way a few crumbs might be thrown in the direction of the unions. A declaration of weakness, if ever there was one.

But Simpson makes a show of facing left by offering his union's support to Jon Cruddas in the deputy leadership contest: "If you can't get McDonnell on the ballot paper and you could get Cruddas with an approximate agenda on and there's a possibility that he could win, then that's a fight worth having."

Simpson explains that Tony Woodley of the T&G takes exactly the same position, so the two leaders of the new, merged union are in concert on this one. Paradoxically, Woodley is known to be very close to McDonnell, personally as well as politically, but he has been convinced by his political advisors that to commit the union to supporting him would be "suicide".

The miserable behaviour of McDonnell's 'friends' in the big unions is akin to sabotage. Instead of asking what the point is of "declaring in favour of John if he isn't able to stand", the union tops should consider what effect such a declaration would have.

But what about the TGWU Broad Left, which does back comrade McDonnell? Incredibly, its members and supporters on the executive will not go against Tony Woodley. It seems they never raise the matter at EC meetings. For example, on March 6 the TGWU Broad Left organised a John for Leader meeting at Friends Meeting House in London, at which comrade McDonnell himself spoke. Tom Cashman, a T&G executive member in the orbit (although not a member) of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, was challenged by the AWL's Martin Thomas to explain why the TGWU leadership would not come out in favour of McDonnell - they had, after all, just participated in an EC meeting that lasted several days and apparently the matter had not been raised.

Comrade Cashman stated that the officers, as usual, kept a tight grip on the agenda and it never seemed to be the right moment to bring up the Labour leadership contest in any case. The truth is, these comrades are too cowardly to go against Woodley.

The TGWU Broad Left was originally necessarily secretive, since 'unions within a union' have historically been banned in the T&G - members may formally still only organise through official union structures. However, although the ban is still in the rule book, Woodley has stated that he has no intention of enforcing it. Indeed, there is now a ludicrous situation where a majority of the TGWU executive are either members of or close to this banned component. Yet still they will not show their hand. Perhaps they too think it would be "suicide".

Who needs the right to act as policemen when the left has shown itself so capable of policing itself? But it is not just the T&G Broad Left. The leaders of the John for Leader campaign, for example, are anxious not to be associated with those like the CPGB and Weekly Worker right now. No doubt readers will recall how Owen Jones of the Socialist Youth Network scoured the internet to check on the names of comrades he thought might be members of left organisations that stand against Labour. He was particularly keen to deny supporters of Communist Students who are also Respect members voting rights in the SYN (see Weekly Worker January 11, 18).

But it is not the likes of Communist Students and the CPGB who are to blame for the failure of the John for Leader campaign to really take off. We have given comrade McDonnell our full, if critical, support. We know that if he got on the ballot paper, that would give the entire left a boost. But we also know there is no quick fix to be found in the Labour left any more than in Respect, the Campaign for a New Workers' Party or any other such formation. We will work in any of them only in as much as that aids our struggle for the formation our class actually needs - a single, united Communist Party.