No alternative to reformism

Dave Vincent reports on a Manchester Trades Council debate on union support for the Labour Party and argues for breaking the link

The Labour-union link was the subject of a meeting held on Wednesday February 27 organised by Manchester Trades Council.

The top table comprised a Socialist Party member on the Unison executive, a Labour councillor who is in the Labour Representation Committee and National Union of Journalists, and another Unison Labour Party member belonging to Manchester Mental Health (the branch of sacked nurse Karen Reissmann). All were speaking in a private capacity. There were no more than 20 in the audience, including Socialist Workers Party and SP comrades.

Jenny Lennox of the LRC was the first speaker. She stated there was not a lot the Labour government has done that is defensible - but then went on to give us a list of marvellous achievements! She praised the introduction of the minimum wage, increased spending on health and education, and current high levels of employment. Labour had done a lot to help people in the workplace (comrade Reissmann might disagree with that). We were warned the Tories would break the social chapter and the Liberal Democrats will just say anything to get elected.

Comrade Lennox argued that the link between the unions and the Labour Party must not be broken and that its existence gives union members a voice. She urged those belonging to unions affiliated to Labour to join and “swamp” ward meetings - she assured us they would be “listened to”.

Next up was the local Unison rep, Ben Jackson, who became so angry about the treatment of Karen Reissmann that he did not make the speech he had prepared. He had tried approaching Labour MPs over her case and they were either hostile or would not speak out publicly. He said there were local alternatives to a party which had privatised 20% of the NHS and wondered what would happen if unions just stopped handing over their cash. He argued that members should at least demand value for money.

Finally, leading Socialist Party and Unison NEC member Roger Bannister gave his usual polished performance. He stated he had been expelled by the Labour Party in 1986 because of his “defence of Liverpool city council” (not for being a member of Militant, then?). Those expulsions, he said, had ensured the Lib Dems have held power in Liverpool ever since.

He said PCS and the NUT were unions that have recently set up political funds, but in order to do so they felt obliged to guarantee they would not affiliate or donate to the Labour Party. Comrade Bannister said the leadership of his own union, Unison, did not like questions about how many of its members are happy to have their political fund contributions going to Labour. However, figures for 2007 showed 469,000 paying the levy to Labour, but 797,000 opting for the general fund instead. This was clear evidence that the Labour-union link is increasingly unpopular, said comrade Bannister.

He argued that the complete failure of John McDonnell to get on the ballot paper against Gordon Brown proved that the Labour Party left was now so weak that there was no prospect for challenging New Labour, let alone ‘reclaiming’ the party. He cited the failure of the (much vaunted by union bureaucrats) Warwick agreement to protect union members. He pointed out how this Labour government had brought in attacks the Tories could only have dreamed about.

As the first speaker from then floor, I also highlighted McDonnell’s failure to get on the ballot - in stark contrast to the Benn-Heffer campaign of 1988 - and pointed to the sheer sleaze of the Labour government. Labour had ignored two million people demonstrating against the Iraq war - hardly evidence that we lefties joining Labour would be “listened to”. I argued that affiliated unions should have the decency to allow unfettered debate by their members on whether the link should be retained and not plough on with it regardless.

I finished by posing the question of the night that no-one answered - didn’t Labour’s entire history, not to mention more recent phenomena like the splits in Respect and the Scottish Socialist Party, prove the impossibility of the parliamentary road to socialism? Even that did not provoke any of SWP and SP members in the audience into arguing in favour of Respect or the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party (despite a CNWP petition being circulated).

There were other contributions from members of various unions, with most admitting they were in the Labour Party and arguing that the link allowed union members a voice within it. An LRC supporter said we need to look at what we can all agree on and where we can unite - without actually making any concrete suggestions. Not surprising really - after all, what can trade unionists for the link actually unite over? Having a mass strike against Gordon Brown’s public sector pay freeze? Defying the anti-union laws? Striking against privatisation (like Karen Reissmann did)?

Any of these would harm Labour’s electoral chances, wouldn’t they? Once again I found myself thinking that you really cannot be a good trade union activist fighting to defend your members against attacks by a Labour government and yet urge members to vote Labour at every election! You cannot properly defend your members against the attacks made on them if you are also devoting your energies to keeping the assailants in power.

This was an interesting meeting and well done to Manchester Trades Council for organising it. But I was really staggered to see no-one from the SWP or the Socialist Party advocating a specific alternative to the Labour Party. And it goes without saying that none of them spoke up for a revolutionary alternative.

The Campaign for a Marxist Party has its work cut out then!