Towards an election coalition

November 7 saw the latest in what now seems to be an annual conference on working class political representation, organised by the RMT union. Peter Manson reports

Just in case you were naive enough to have expected anything different, the pre-event publicity for the Rail, Maritime and Transport union’s Crisis in Working Class Political Representation ‘conference’ advised those likely to attend that the meeting would be “non-binding and non-resolution-based”. In other words, yet another talking shop.

And so it turned out to be - only this time even the ‘talking’ (ie, anything approaching a serious exchange of ideas) was severely restricted. The problem for the RMT is that, although the annual ‘crisis’ event is mandated by its annual conference, it has no official line on what it hopes the outcome will be. While general secretary Bob Crow (pictured above) and his staunch ally on the executive, Alex Gordon, want to see concrete moves towards a new party, that is not the position of the RMT as a whole - not yet in any case. In the meantime comrades Crow and Gordon are personally backing the insistent call from the Socialist Party in England and Wales for a coalition to contest the general election. But they think the place for arguing out differences and working out the next steps is in small committee rooms behind closed doors.

So the ‘conference’ was limited to a mere four hours in the middle of the day - which obviously meant that there would have to be a lunch break as well. This was due to last just 30 minutes, but somehow took up a full hour - comrade Gordon, who chaired Saturday’s gathering, explained at the beginning of the afternoon session that the delay had been caused by “difficulty with speakers”.

This comment was rather oblique. After all, there was no shortage of people hoping to have their say - scores of the 200-250 comrades assembled in the Camden Centre had indicated they wanted to speak. But in the end only 65 minutes in total was given over to their contributions and just 13 comrades managed to address the meeting from the floor - all but the very first having been pre-selected by comrade Gordon.

The speakers he was referring to were those on the platform, of course. And, since there were two sessions, it was only right to have two sets of them - in the morning they even had the right of reply! The first session was supposed to be about the “current crisis” and the second about “the fightback”, but it goes without saying that not one speaker - whether from the top table or from comrade Gordon’s predetermined list - stuck to this artificial division. Why did we need to waste time on going over the “current crisis” in any case? What was meant by this title was a combination of the failings of capitalism and the absence of a fighting working class alternative - as if this was not familiar territory to everyone in the hall.

Despite the clash with SPEW’s weekend school, Socialism 2009, there were several dozen Socialist Party comrades present - perhaps as many as a third of the total. And out of the 21 people who got to address the conference from both the platform and the floor, six were from SPEW or the Committee for a Workers’ International. By contrast, the other main political group in the ‘No to the EU, Yes to Democracy’ platform that contested the June 4 European Union elections - the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain - had far fewer people in the hall and only one identifiable speaker.

You would not know any of this, however, from the Star’s report on November 9. SPEW was not mentioned and neither were any of its speakers.

The Socialist Workers Party had just three or four comrades present and national committee member Tom Woodcock was allowed to give the SWP view from the floor. No member of any other left-of-Labour group was called - certainly not the CPGB, despite our active support for past left unity initiatives, not least the Socialist Alliance. Nor Workers Power, which has launched the ‘Call for a new anti-capitalist party’ (WP recently walked out of SPEW’s Campaign for a New Workers’ Party after the CNWP steering committee voted to support the Lindsey strikes). Understandably perhaps, RMT militants were given speaking priority over other activists by comrade Gordon.

Election coalition

With most other groups unable to speak, it was only SPEW comrades who were able to put forward anything resembling a consistent strategy. They plugged away at the need for a left electoral coalition as a step towards a new “mass workers’ party”.

It was SPEW that took the initiative to put out an unsigned leaflet headed “Coalition to stand general election candidates” for the conference. The leaflet states that this coalition has been launched “by organisations and individuals who participated in No2EU, Yes to Democracy”. As “a minimum”, it will stand against “as many current cabinet ministers as possible, together with other ministers and prominent ex-ministers who have been complicit in New Labour’s anti-working class policies”. While, according to the leaflet, SPEW and the CPB are backing the coalition, comrade Crow and other union figures are doing so only “in a personal capacity”.

The first platform speaker was Brian Caton, general secretary of the Prison Officers Association. Having been a member of the Labour Party for 40 years, he was now “proud to be a member of the Socialist Party”. Labour is different from the Tories in that it is like “the prisoner who kicks you in the face - and apologises” (the Tories are like the prisoner who attacks POA members with enthusiasm). Sporting a poppy, comrade Caton said that, while working men and women “have good trade union representation in the main”, even this is highly restricted. He thought that the POA needed to be a “proper socialist organisation”.

Like comrade Caton, Susan Press of the Labour Representation Committee had been a member of the party for a very long time - in her case 33 years. Also like Caton, she condemned the “cuts consensus” - the difference being that Labour, to quote Gordon Brown, “make cuts because we have to: they make cuts because they want to”. She tantalised the audience with the rhetorical question, “Why not leave” and “build a new party”? But all she would say was that this was “not the way ahead” - she was “happy to have that argument, but we are here today to build consensus”.

It did not seem to occur to the comrade that we can only achieve consensus by openly expressing our differences - and a forum on working class representation might have been a good place to argue out this particular difference. Instead she thought the most important thing was to unite behind trade union disputes and campaigns against climate change and war and defending council housing.

John Foster of the Morning Star’s CPB - introduced as representing No2EU - was even more reticent about the subject we were supposed to be debating. In fact he did not touch upon it at all. No2EU, he said, had achieved “unity across the left and across communities”. What planet is he living on? Planet Europhobia perhaps. He was pleased to say that, while the UK Independence Party “always raised sovereignty” during the EU election campaign, only No2EU also took up working class questions like EU-driven privatisation and cuts.

The campaign had been just the ticket, but now we “can’t just let it lie until 2014" - he was referring to the next EU elections (the fact that another election - to be held a little sooner than 2014 - was rather more in the forefront of people’s minds was of no concern to comrade Foster). Brussels is planning all sorts of new attacks and the way to combat them is by rallying behind the People’s Charter, he said. However, not one of the charter’s six sets of demands can be won “within the confines of the Lisbon treaty and the EU”.

And that was it. Absurdly comrade Foster could not bring himself even to outline the CPB’s official ‘twin-track’ policy on working class representation - leaving the door open for a new, trade union-backed “party of labour”, while at the same time backing any move to ‘reclaim’ the genuine article. Of course, comrade Foster is four-square behind the second option and hates the thought of lining up with the likes of SPEW in an overt campaign for a replacement Labour Party (which is how he regards anything more than the usual CPB token general election intervention), as opposed to a campaign against the EU.

After the only randomly chosen speaker - Gerry Byrne of the Socialist Alliance - had finished her rather unnoteworthy contribution, Pat Sikorski, RMT assistant general secretary and former witch-hunter in chief in Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, came to the microphone. He asserted that New Labour had “gutted and assassinated what Labour used to represent” and now we are left with “maybe four socialist MPs”. They should debate with us about the fight for a “new mass party with roots in the community”. We should unite around policies which have a “social democratic current”, but nevertheless provide a “cutting edge” against the current attacks.

Rob Williams of SPEW said that 2009 had been “a year of workers fighting to defend themselves”. The National Shop Stewards Network, of which he is a partisan, was “now the beginnings of a genuine rank and file movement”. But there was also a need for an electoral platform campaigning under a “left, radical, pro-worker banner”. We have started to see the industrial vacuum being filled - now we must fill the political vacuum.

At this point another platform speaker arrived - Joe Higgins TD from the Socialist Party in Ireland. His view was that, just like across the Irish Sea, it would take only “one large union like the RMT” to make possible the launch of a new party.

Dave Hill, No2EU’s lead candidate in the South East in the EU elections, ridiculed the notion of resting our hopes either on “powerless left Labour MPs” or the People’s Charter. Instead there had to be a “party offering a socialist perspective to the working class”.

Peter Daniels, an RMT member and Labour councillor, said that there were two options - “reclaim or form a new party” - and he was now convinced that “the latter is the one we’ll have to do”. For him Labour MPs are “all career politicians”.

The contribution from Roger Bannister (SPEW), lead No2EU candidate in the North West, was in my view a complete waste of time. He devoted his entire speech to refuting the old allegation that the campaign in the North West had split the vote, thus preventing a left Green Party MEP being elected and letting in Nick Griffin of the British National Party.

Communications Workers Union militant and LRC member Peter Firmin lambasted the simplistic view of those who looked to the unions in their current state to lead a break from Labour. He pointed out that the London district committee of the CWU has recommended ending the Labour link, but it also recommended calling off the strike and accepting the CWU-Royal Mail sell-out ‘truce’. The conclusion comrade Firmin drew was that if we “don’t address the rebuilding of the unions” the kind of trade union-based party being proposed would be “no answer”.

Apart from Dot Gibson of the United Socialist Party and National Pensioners Association, who was given time to plug a demonstration the NPA has organised for April 2010, there were no more speakers from the floor in the first session. So the platform speakers were called back. Comrade Press was annoyed at the idea of MPs like John McDonnell being “comfortably ensconced” in parliament, as comrade Daniels had implied. She reminded the meeting that the alternative to Labour in the general election will not be a left party, but the Tories. But her call for positive support for “Labour’s socialist MPs” got a mere smattering of applause.

John Foster droned on some more about the EU, although for the first time he mentioned the “crisis in working class representation” - but only to agree with comrade Firmin that it was “also about ensuring … the trade unions do reflect the interests of their members”. Then it was back to the EU’s iniquities yet again. Comrade Higgins, without addressing anyone directly, pleaded with the RMT not to “leave it until the last four weeks to stand in the election”.

‘Strong strand of socialism’

After the extended lunch break (for once most people were back in their seats well before the chair called the meeting to order) we had the second raft of platform speakers. SPEW’s Dave Nellist claimed that there was now only one bourgeois party in Britain, “artificially split into three wings”. He talked about the £90 billion-worth of annual cuts that some had predicted after the election - “they will be coming for the equivalent of our national health service every year”. Yet without a party we will be fighting with one hand tied behind our back.

For those with high expectations he pointed out that the electoral coalition would not mean the “establishment of a new party before the election” - it “isn’t broad enough”. Even if the RMT comes on board, the Public and Commercial Services Union is still in consultation. Nor is it “an attempt to stand in every seat”. No, not quite.

Comrade Nellist talked about the necessity for the process to be conducted in a “sober and serious way” and at a pace that would lead to a new working class party. “Revolutionaries”, he said, hope that there would be a “strong strand of socialism within that organisation”. Such ambition! Here was the clearest indication yet that a Labour Party mark two is the very most SPEW is aiming for.

Bob Crow’s speech was an impressive one. He too pointed out that it was not merely through the absence of a party that the working class was not being represented. The unions too were sorely lacking. He strongly criticised the role of the TUC in the postal workers’ dispute - instead of rallying solidarity and generating support for the CWU, it had brokered a deal which, he implied, left postal workers in limbo.

“So what are we going to do about it? Just have meetings like this and chat?” We either “give Gordon Brown a blank cheque or stand an alternative”. He asked, “Do you want to be hanged or knifed to death? I want my own political party to fight for the working class.” That was why he was backing the proposed electoral alliance - in a “personal capacity”, he reminded us once again. However, he urged everyone to campaign for MPs like John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn, who are members of the RMT parliamentary group: “Back those who back us and stand against the others.”

In my opinion that is exactly the slogan we ought to be raising for the general election. In other words, place conditions on every Labour candidate: come out against all anti-working class cuts, demand immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan and we will vote for you. If not we intend to stand against as many of you as possible.

By contrast Matt Wrack’s speech was disappointing. He said nothing about the possibility of Fire Brigades Union support for any election coalition - except that the FBU had been observing “other initiatives” and “will have to talk about it”. He was much more interested in the People’s Charter - “let’s get stuck into a campaign which is about building a movement”. While the TUC “sit on their backsides and do nothing about motions passed, the People’s Charter won’t sit around”. What on earth is he talking about? How can six sets of (rather modest) demands constitute a movement or substitute for working class political organisation?

Jeremy Corbyn summed up the approach of New Labour as “Ditch the Labour Party, ditch the union link, embrace the market” and develop an “obsession with going to war”. However, “some of us have stood against that”, he said. So far, so good. But after that comrade Corbyn’s speech drifted into a series of platitudes. There was no indication of any strategy to be adopted. Just a vague call to “stand together” against a range of evils and be willing to engage in “big debates”. Not that he was prepared to do so.

There was now just 20 minutes before the ‘conference’ was due to end - time for five more speakers from comrade Gordon’s list. John Milligan, the RMT executive member who fronted his union’s walkout from the Scottish Socialist Party following the 2006 split, talked about having written to “every left political party in Scotland” calling for electoral cooperation.

He was followed by another SPEW speaker, Andrew Price, who talked about Labour’s “abandonment of every socialist principle”. For him, No2EU had been a “small step”. But this conference was a “huge step”, with the “endorsement of a coalition by most speakers”. Now, now, comrade Price: the ‘conference’ was “non-binding and non-resolution-based”, remember? For him, it was not a question of voting for Labour candidates like John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn. Instead, they should join with the general “endorsement” of the anti-Labour coalition.

After two speakers from the Save the Tyne and Wear Metro campaign, and an RMT comrade from Portsmouth, who reported that local activists had agreed to stand a candidate in Portsmouth North on the basis of the People’s Charter, Tom Woodcock announced the SWP’s support for an electoral challenge. As someone who had been a socialist general election candidate in the past (he did not say that he meant in 2005, for Respect), he thought the “platform is already written for us” - all we have to do is bundle together all the slogans from the various single-issue campaigns and lots of their supporters will come on board. After all, election work is “massively important”.

Well, that’s good to know. Following the Respect split the SWP leadership was telling its members that a left electoral challenge would just not be viable again until “after the general election”. Mind you, the SWP’s own “open letter to the left” initiative launched after the EU elections is no longer spoken about, and the promised “autumn conference” conveniently forgotten.

However, it is certainly positive that there is now reasonable support for a “federal coalition under a common name” (‘Coalition to stand general election candidates’ leaflet). Had I been able to speak on Saturday I would have stated the CPGB’s willingness to finance candidates standing on our own communist programme under such a coalition.

In closing, Alex Gordon announced that he would be putting a report to the RMT executive on the day’s proceedings. The implication was: watch this space; expect our union’s backing.