A real united front could organise unemployed

Mike Macnair takes a looks ahead to the SWP's 'Right to Work' conference

The Right to Work conference organised by the Socialist Workers Party meets this Saturday, January 30, in Manchester. The organisers say: "Many working people rallied round the postal workers' national fight. And many have also backed the Leeds bin workers, the BA workers, the Superdrug workers and other groups who have taken action. This conference is designed to bring together those networks of resistance and to make them stronger."[1]

They also say: "It won't be a talking shop. We want to organise initiatives from the conference. For example, some people have suggested a day of action around welfare 'reform' or a coordinated push to unionise in specific areas, or action to defend and organise migrant workers."

However, there are 12 named speakers listed, plus others "from the Fujitsu strike, Royal Mail dispute, Brighton bins dispute, BA cabin crew, Superdrug … and many more." It is very hard to see how a five and a half hour conference (which on the left's usual track record will start late) can hear all these speakers and take democratic decisions for concrete initiatives.

"Workshops include [emphasis added]: 'How can we stop the jobs massacre?'; 'Fighting privatisation, defending public services'; 'Don't let them rob our pensions!'; 'Jobs, not bombs'; 'After Copenhagen, how can we win a million climate jobs?'; 'The "lost generation"? - students and young workers fighting back'; 'Against racism and the scapegoating of migrant workers'; 'How can workers get a real political voice? - defying the anti-union laws'; 'The welfare reform agenda - fighting for our rights'."

The picture is, in fact, one familiar from other 'broad' initiatives put on by the 'children of 68' far-left leaders recently: a souped-up rally, with "workshops" providing the illusion of grassroots participation in decision-making. This sort of meeting is not wholly worthless, however. It is heart-warming and perhaps raises morale for activists to hear rousing speeches from 'official lefts' and militants involved in disputes and to see that there are lots of other people in other places with similar concerns to their own. I say it perhaps raises morale, though, because anything less than a very large hall very well filled may in reality function to remind people of the current weakness of the workers' movement and the left. Thus the more recent Stop the War demonstrations, with their noticeably declining size, have been a matter of duty rather than raising enthusiasm among participants.

Both the SWP leadership and the Reesite opposition Left Platform characterise the Right to Work 'campaign' as an application of the 'method of the united front' to the economic crisis. That is, an application of the same method they have used in the Stop the War Coalition.[2]

But what exactly is this method, as applied by the SWP? The answer is to find a lowest-common-denominator political basis on which the 'official lefts' can be persuaded to come on board an initiative. The SWP then plays the role of bag-carriers to mobilise forces to attend demos and rallies to hear the 'official lefts' speak; and of gatekeepers or left-flank guards to ensure that nothing happens in the way of decision-making or political statements which are unacceptable to the 'official lefts'. The result is the 'grand old Duke of York' type of politics which union left bureaucrats also employ with their own membership: march them up to the top of the hill ... and march them down again.

The basis upon which the conference has been called is just such a platform of vague left platitudes: "Fight for every job; organise to stop the cuts; defend services and pensions; unite the public and private sectors; demand a million green jobs; jobs, not bombs; defend migrant workers - jobs for all." It is very unlikely that the promised "initiatives from the conference" will amount to much.

The 'Smithite' SWP leadership majority initially resisted the Reesites' arguments for a 'united front' response to the crisis, arguing that unlike the war, which was a single issue, it was hard to apply the same method. The central committee has already retreated from this argument. But it was an unnecessarily timid response to the Reesites' polemic. In reality, a united front 'against the crisis' would be like a united front against the tide. Crises and recessions are a normal and necessary feature of capitalism.

To eliminate the recession - or even to eliminate its immediate consequences in increased unemployment, repossessions and so on - requires the overthrow of capitalist political rule and the beginning of democratic working class planning on at least a European-wide scale. This is not on the immediate agenda, but the basic responsibility of the Marxist left faced with economic crisis is to spread the idea. The 'official lefts' are certainly not going to agree to concrete proposals in this direction. So we get a waffly political platform and a rally-style 'conference' which will allow the SWP and the 'official lefts' to agree.

The SWP's blocs with the 'official lefts' - just like the 'official' Communist Party's very similar blocs before its collapse - are not real united fronts. They are aimed only at unity with the official left wing of the trade union movement and Labour, not with the labour movement as a whole. At the same time, they are also incompatible with the tasks of a Marxist political party - spreading the basic idea of the working class taking over to make a better alternative to capitalism - because the SWP's job in the 'united front' is to hold ideas back to the level acceptable to the 'official lefts'.

A real united front policy in response to the crisis is possible. It would start with a limited task which could in principle be agreed by the whole trade union movement, right and left, and by the majority of the ranks of Labour who still retain some attachment to the cause of the working class (though perhaps by rather fewer Labour MPs). This limited task would be to organise the unemployed and build solidarity between the unemployed and people in work. It is a long-term task, but one which is posed immediately by the effects of the crisis: unemployment has risen and will continue to rise for some time after 'output' has begun to rise.

This is a clear, practical task, though not an easy one - organising the unemployed, fighting the workfare schemes, trade unions organising branches and sections for their unemployed members, and so on. To the extent that it succeeds every union and the cause of the working class more generally will be strengthened. Because it is a clear practical task, it would be possible to organise a real, working conference to bring together activists for genuine discussion and decision-making around it, rather than yet another rally on the basis of empty slogans.


  1. http://sites.google.com/site/righttoworkconference; quotations below from this site and pages in it.
  2. See Peter Manson's article, 'Defend Rees-German and the Left Platform' Weekly Worker November 26 2009.