Chartering wrong course

RMT conference fails to raise its vision beyond another halfway house, reports Will Pragnell

Around 120 trade unionists attended the January 10 conference to discuss the crisis in working class political representation. Organised by transport union RMT following a decision by its 2008 AGM and open to all trade unionists, it unfortunately and unavoidably clashed with both the national Gaza demonstrations and the Socialist Workers Party’s annual conference.

Despite the resulting poor attendance, it is clear that the crisis of representation runs far wider than the absence of a parliamentary voice. The lack of any significant rank and file presence indicates a serious democratic deficit within the unions - and this reflects badly on the left.

On the top table were RMT general secretary Bob Crow and president John Leach (chairing); Mary Davis (Communist Party of Britain) in her capacity as head of the Centre for Trade Union Studies; Prison Officers Association general secretary Brian Caton and John McDonnell MP. PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka sent apologies and a statement of support. The bulk of the audience were, of course, members of the various left groups, with the Socialist Party having the biggest presence.

John Leach explained that the conference was not a policy-making forum - there would be no resolutions or votes - but there would be a thorough debate. However, it soon became clear from the opening speeches that there had already been discussions and a basic policy agreement to promote a ‘People’s Charter’ (not to be confused with the SWP’s People Before Profit Charter).

The original idea comes from the Morning Star’s CPB, fitting neatly into its reformist Alternative economic and political strategy and leaving the question of party, at least superficially, open. Hence the Labour left can sign up to it, as ‘reclaiming’ the Labour Party is not excluded - this suits the traditionalist wing of the CPB and leaves the door open to win pro-Labour union tops like Tony Woodley to a broad campaign. A Labour Party mark two is not excluded - which suits the ‘innovator’ CPB faction and many more besides. In reality the CPB charter has very little to do with political representation. It defers the party question in favour of ‘all things to all people’ campaigning and the establishment of local representation committees. There seems to be agreement around this between John McDonnell, the heads of RMT, PCS and POA, and the CPB. It is this that frames the ‘debate’.

Bob Crow in his opening speech admitted that a trade union “can only go so far - unless you change society, all the gains won in boom times are lost in a slump”. Voicing his belief that New Labour cannot be changed, he expressed his personal view that we need a “new political party down the road”. Bob would not commit to the type of party needed, however, because “If we all sit down and argue about what the political shape should be we won’t agree.” Taking a swipe at sectarianism, and admitting he, like all of us, has political baggage, he said we have a duty to work together. Campaigning around a People’s Charter “that put an alternative and put politics back into the workplace again” was the way to do it. “If we can’t work together on a charter what chance to get a political party?” he asked. At this stage it was not clear what would be in the charter (unless you had seen the provisional draft published in the Morning Star last autumn).

Brian Caton is the most militant of the union general secretaries. Still visibly angered by the contemptuous rejection of the POA’s general strike resolution at last year’s TUC by most union leaders, he thinks that it is not possible to get a good political party until the unions get their act together. He is still a member of the Labour Party, he declared, “but not for long”. In keeping with what turned out to be a consistent theme of the day, he rued the fact that “we are so bad on the left” and made the forlorn plea: “We need to join together.”

Comrade Caton thinks that a charter is a good first step, but, slightly at odds with other top-table speakers, he added: “But we have got to push for a workers’ party.” However, his conception of such a formation is based on illusions of a former golden age of Labour - or perhaps an improved version of it. Interestingly, though, he said that he wanted to get a range of left parties together at the next POA conference.

It was left to Mary Davis to make the historical case for the People’s Charter and explain, in what turned out to be fairly vague terms, what it was. Mary gave a potted history of the fight for representation and highlighted the hidden history of the Chartist movement. How did they build such a powerful movement? The crucial element in their success was “unity around a charter, not a political loyalty test”. Likewise the current charter “being discussed” was “not sectarian”.

She added that we should not “run before we can walk” - rather than talking about creating a political party now despite all the different agendas, we should unite “around what we can all agree on”. Comrade Davis went on to list what in her view should be included in a charter: a “fair economy”, nationalisation of the banks, more jobs, investment in new technology, public housing, improve services, stop privatisation ...” That is, a wish list of reformist demands, and not at all a proposal for independent working class political action. In truth it is a recipe for repeating all the errors of the last century.

Later comrade McDonnell made a case for such a charter as a means to build unity in action. He too argued there was not sufficient support to move to a new political party, so it was necessary to build up confidence, out of which “some new political formation may emerge”. Referring to the “real world, not electoral politics”, he argued that the task of the day was to unite for specific goals - over jobs, stopping the third runway at Stansted, etc. He said that the one consistent organisational form through 200 years was trade unionism and therefore union coordination is key. So trade union politics, which may be expressed in ‘some new political formation”, is unsurprisingly the limit of John McDonnell’s horizon.

Inviting contributions from the floor, John Leach said he wanted to get as many people in as possible and hoped people would be mindful of that. However, speakers were not constrained to the usual three-minute sound bites and were allowed time to develop their points. So, while it was the top table that had framed the parameters of debate, at least they were not frightened of a bit of controversy.

A common refrain, however, was hardly controversial in this company: the parlous state of the left and the need for a vague “unity”. Unfortunately there was no analysis of why the left was in such a mess and hence not a clue about what to do - other than “We must unite”, “We have a duty to unite” and other such passionate calls. Most drew the patently false conclusion that political differences must be buried, issues that may provoke them should be deferred, etc. The pernicious ‘80-20 rule’ - the idea that we agree on 80%, so let’s not bother with the 20% that divides us - is constantly trotted out despite all the evidence that it serves as a cover for sectarianism, disunity and eventual splits - just look at all the failed ‘unity projects’.

Elaine Jones (Unite) was one of the few who did not go along with 80-20. Yes, “we’ve got no choice but to unite,” she said, “but it might be messy”. There are political differences, so “we have to allow for a big row”. Obviously someone seeking the truth.

A number of Socialist Party speakers argued that there should be no contradiction between campaigning around a charter and setting up a political party. Of course, they had in mind their own Campaign for a New Workers’ Party as a suitable vehicle, but this was effectively sidelined by the top-table agenda. Dave Nellist wanted the unions to “organise a serious conference to begin the process” rather than have things organised top-down. This did not strike me as a call for rank and file democracy, but rather a means of giving the SP some influence over developments.

A comrade from the Spartacist League mounted the usual one-sided attack on the involvement of the POA, but at least had the merit of calling for a revolutionary party.

In response to the discussion Mary Davis argued that the charter is “not the last word in socialism, but a method of getting people mobilised. It is not revolutionary - we are not there yet.” Bob Crow thought that having three unions with 300,000 members behind the charter was a start, but not sufficient: “What about Unite, etc?” So the charter is likely to be watered down to suit the large pro-Labour unions.

It is possible that, as the recession deepens, a charter - whether this one or the SWP rival - will attract workers, but I doubt it. What is needed is a global political alternative and that requires, as a first step, the rapprochement of the revolutionary left around a Marxist programme. Everyone seems to recognise that the situation is dire, but instead of trying to analyse the cause and chart a solution the left run around like headless chickens and the likes of Bob Crow decide they have to get on without them (except that they might be useful as campaign foot soldiers).

Comrade Crow wants to bypass the sects and win over ‘ordinary’ workers who will counterbalance or, better, outnumber the organised left. It is tempting to say, ‘Who can blame him?’

In the most propitious objective circumstances for a working class alternative in decades the left continues to decline and remains in complete disarray. But a previous RMT attempt to overrun the left through the National Shop Stewards Network has not exactly worked out.

The working class remains atomised, demoralised and completely disenfranchised - even in their main organisations, the unions. Bob’s strategy is not a solution, but an accommodation to a weak position. But what else should we expect? The major fault lies not with the likes of Crow, but with a left that continues to seek salvation in yet another halfway house.