Everything from the top

Laurie Smith sees the question of unity being further depoliticised

The May 22 Right to Work campaign meeting at Friends Meeting House in central London was a big success organisationally. Over 600 attended. They were, however, in the main, members of the Socialist Workers Party, although ex-SWPers Chris Nineham and Lindsey German, who are now part of the Counterfire group, were also there, as were a handful from other left groups.

The RTW meeting was far from being the ‘emergency conference’ the SWP claims it to be. It was a rally, and this was reflected in the top-down, undemocratic organisation of the day characteristic of events organised by the group. No motions were allowed because, according to the agenda, “This is an emergency conference to discuss resistance to austerity, not Right to Work’s annual policy making.” In fact there was no ‘discussion’, as there was zero time for contributions from the floor in the opening or closing plenaries, and, while the anodyne workshops in the middle of the day could relay ‘action points’ to the closing rally, chairs were instructed to “rule out attempts to move lengthy resolutions”. There was, in fact, one motion delegates could vote on - from the steering committee. Evidently any ideas on the best means of resisting austerity were not meant to extend beyond its supportable, but very narrow horizons. The ‘conference’ was worthless then as a forum for debating politics.

In the opening plenary the chair called platform speakers one after the other at breakneck speed, so there was not much time for anything beyond sound bites. First speaker, Tiago Gillot of the Portuguese Left Bloc, who talked about the need for public investment, defence of the health service and an end to privatisation, was typical. Next was Jeremy Corbyn MP, who believed that deregulation of the banks had caused the economic crisis, but, probably correctly, pointed out that tax increases would deepen the recession and throw many more people out of work. Adrian Ramsay, deputy leader of the Green Party, received a rather cool welcome. He said we need to be “fighting the recession”, not worsening it by making cuts. Other highlights included protecting and “where necessary” increasing the funding of public services, and achieving a stable economy by pulling a “million green jobs” out of a hat. We needed to go back to manufacturing and, yes, clamp down on tax evasion by the rich. Ramsay ended by saying we needed a coalition of the left against the cuts.

Next up, John McDonnell MP thanked those who had helped in his Labour leadership campaign, and asked comrades to contact their MPs and trade unions in support of his bid, saying diplomatically that he did not want to discuss Diane Abbott’s announcement of her candidacy. The proposed cuts would devastate communities, he said, and it was our job to mobilise and resist in every way possible. We had to make this an international struggle, and stand in opposition to capitalism and for socialism.

A BA cabin crew worker and Unite member, ‘Dave’ (not his real name), also addressed conference, to a standing ovation. Describing the workers as having “love and loyalty” for British Airways, he said the intransigence of management was ‘very frustrating’ and detailed the tactics of harassment and intimidation used to cow the workers. ‘Dave’ said that he would nonetheless be on the picket line as soon as the next strike was called. SWP member Candy Udwin of the steering committee said there had been a “mood of resistance” at the previous week’s conference of the PCS union and now we needed to build “practical solidarity” with Greek workers. A speaking tour of Britain had been arranged.

Then the workshops. Some were about banal, practical stuff, which I suspect very few people had come along to be lectured on, such as ‘Organising a campaign against cuts’. Others were posed as political questions like ‘Should we defy the anti-union laws?’ and ‘Immigration: myths and truths’, which were clear no-brainers for the leftwingers present, and I cannot imagine that comrades attending these sessions learned an awful lot. Better, surely, to use such an event to have a genuine debate about the future of the left post-election, as our strategies, so far, have manifestly failed?

I went to the workshop on education cuts, which was being held in the main hall, along with two others. This made hearing the speakers nearly impossible - this was surprising, as the SWP usually does well with organisational tasks. I did hear Sean Vernell (UCU/SWP) getting excited about a Facebook group with over 5,000 members protesting the scrapping of maintenance grants in further education. The comrade pointed to strikes at UCL and other campuses and said we needed a united front and more demonstrations.

Another CPGB comrade attended the aforementioned session on the anti-union laws, along with around 60 others. Chair Paul Brandon answered the titular question about defiance in the affirmative, unsurprisingly. The rest of his contribution focussed on the technical and legal aspects of the BA and Johnston Press disputes. Socialist Worker editor Charlie Kimber said we needed “a network of resistance and solidarity” and a political trade unionism.

The closing plenary started with Tiana Androu, a Greek civil servant, who received a warm welcome and told us how public sector workers in her country had defied their trade union leaders to take strike action, encouraged by the Communist Party (KKE).  Pete Murray, president of the National Union of Journalists, had some interesting analysis of the general election in terms of the increased role played by the media, particularly News International, owned by Rupert Murdoch, who was, he pointed out, the first person invited into Downing Street by its new occupant. The comrade railed against the anti-trade union laws and pointed out the consistent bias of the courts and state apparatus towards the owners of capital. We need coordinated union action, more “demonstrations on the streets” and a tax on bankers. He also mentioned the “alternative of workers’ control”, but had no time to explain what that might look like or a strategy for getting there.

Dot Gibson, secretary of the National Pensioners Convention, veteran Trotskyist and former member of the Workers Revolutionary Party, said those groups who have “kept the flag flying” for socialism must unite “on the issues that matter” - a list of demands such as an end to privatisation and anti-racism and other things we were all against. Interestingly though, Dot said that instead of “simple opposition to the EU” we had to “build international solidarity”. The strong vote for socialist Labour candidates showed that there was a hearing for the left, she concluded.

National Union of Teachers president Gill Goodswen argued for a broad-based campaign to defend public services, and for working class activists to join the Labour Party and “reclaim it at the grassroots”. Former Socialist Worker editor Chris Bambery, now secretary of Right to Work, spoke last and was bombastic in his denunciation of the new government - “We’re not all in this together.” he claimed that the new government is weak and “hasn’t got a mandate”, so what we need is “a Greek-style response” requiring “coordinated action” - he meant in Britain, not across Europe. Comrade Bambery was glad that John McDonnell had addressed the conference, but did not address the question of political representation. He did, however, concur with McDonnell that we need to “build the resistance”.

What received far more media attention than the conference itself, of course, was the SWP’s disruption of talks between British Airways head honcho Willie Walsh and the leaders of the Unite union. This event is reported below and suffice it to say that it was quickly and widely condemned as substitutionist and really lame. But the conference and the stunt quite nicely captured the contradiction between the constant SWP craving for political alliances with those to its right and the need to inspire its young cadre with such anarchistic actions.

Despite all the SWP talk about proving themselves the “best fighters”, the fact is that it can do no more than hold up a mirror to workers in struggle - and at worst, as at Acas, substitute themselves for those workers. More often than not - and the Right to Work ‘conference’ was an exemplary case - the left is seen as being irrelevant and having ulterior motives (or would have been seen in that way had there been any ‘ordinary workers’ present).

There is a role for Marxists in pushing such struggles forward, but our fundamental task, in unions, or genuine united fronts (in which Marxists would be a minority), is political. The problem of the trade union bureaucracy will not be overcome by substitutionist actions, but through an openly fought political struggle against reformist trends in the workers’ movement. Organisational independence must be accompanied by political independence.

Overall the day showed how far the leadership of the SWP is from being able to pose this alternative vision, and how the question of unity is being further depoliticised; yes, we need a “network of resistance and solidarity” but what about political unity, or even discussion of the question?

Conference overwhelmingly passed the steering committee motion, which opposed making working people pay for the crisis, expressed solidarity with the people of Greece, called for a protest to coincide with the queen’s speech and another demonstration at the Conservative Party conference, and aspired to coordinated nationwide strike action. Proposals from the workshops that were also agreed included organising meetings on immigration, producing pamphlets on different topics, and adopting the call for a “million green jobs”.