COR conference: Missing perspective

Ben Lewis attended a workshop on 'Unions and the anti-cuts movement'

It is a shame that the discussion at the workshop on ‘Unions and the anti-cuts movement’ was so brief. Following interesting openings from Joe Malone (Fire Brigades Union), Cat Boyd (Public and Commercial Services Young Members) and Jon Duveen of the National Union of Teachers, the brief exchanges broached some of the important questions with which the anti-cuts movement is grappling.

The PCS and NUT comrades noted the mass pressure from the rank and file to name the next day of action following June 30. Excellent. Cat Boyd spoke about the “industrial and the political battle”, yet she proposed rather little by way of the latter, beyond organising ex-students now working in the public sector and taking up the question of youth unemployment.

Comrade Malone wondered whether one-day strike action would be sufficient. This prompted an excited response from Jeremy Drinkall (Workers Power). Upholding the need for a general strike to kick out the Con-Dems, he brought news of a new joint strike committee in Lambeth, aimed at raising strike support funds through a levy. Again, excellent. But the comrade seemed to imply that this could simply be replicated up and down the country at the drop of a hat, and that that “people can go out indefinitely” (ie, until the government falls). As another WP comrade put it, this could “deliver the general strike without the TUC, if necessary”. Drinkall breathlessly told us to do “what they did in Tunisia”.

The rightist mirror image of this position came from Stuart Richardson of Socialist Resistance. He argued for more of a focus on the attack on pensions (“Unless we defeat the pensions drive it will be difficult to stop anything”), and questioned, as many of us must have, whether he was actually living “in the same Britain” as the comrades from Workers Power. As later became evident though, he and his comrades are even opposed to calling for 24-hour generalised protest action in the autumn. Maybe this reveals what he means by a “focus on the pensions”: ie, an approach dictated by some of the more conservative layers of the bureaucracy.

I was one of the first to indicate my desire to speak. Yet workshop chair Chris Bambery (fresh from his free transfer from Right to Work and the central committee of the Socialist Workers Party) took me as one of the last. Plus ça change ... I stated that one-day, generalised protest action is certainly on the agenda. Dismissing it overlooks the real anger that exists, as was seen on March 26 and June 30. However, I argued, this was different from calling for an indefinite, all-out general strike (cue looks of incredulity from WP and SWP comrades). We should not play with slogans. What we agitate for must intersect with real masses of people and be informed by a strategy that is designed to develop the strength and confidence of the class. The posturing of sects is no more than clowning. It will have no effect in the real world.

Of course, “one day will not be enough”, if by that we mean the fall of the Con-Dem government. But this is the wrong way of posing the question. Against the SWP comrade Ray Morrell, who naively suggested that the News of the World debacle jeopardised the “weak coalition”, I argued that this government could not simply be “blown over.” We have to rebuild the workers’ movement from the base upwards following decades of retreat.

I then asked the trade union speakers - all from non-Labour-affiliated unions - how they felt that rank-and-file anger could be manifested politically. As we had heard, it was making itself felt to the trade union leaders. But could it not also be expressed in the Labour Party? Would it not be an idea to join with other unions and have an impact on  Labour itself, fighting against the scab approach of Ed Miliband and arguing for a pro-working class leader like John McDonnell?

There is a tendency in those in and around the Coalition of Resistance to downplay the significance of the trade unions and the Labour Party. In response to comrade Richardson, for example, one comrade from Glasgow spoke of May Day as the near irrelevant preserve of the “unions and the old left”.

By the end of the session, the FBU speaker had already left, and Cat Boyd’s short response did not deal with the Labour Party question. However, comrade Duveen did respond. He said that affiliation currently had “no mileage”, and that the “history of the Labour Party shows that it will not be the vehicle for change”. As a member of the CPGB, I am well aware of the record of the Labour leadership. But that was a rather different point to the one I was making. Seemingly oblivious to the utter disasters of the recent past, Duveen was convinced that the unions needed to establish a “new workers’ party” - ie, a Labour Party mark two.

And so the workshop ended and we traipsed back to the main hall - all very frustrating. It should be obvious that these sessions are no use in facilitating a serious exchange of views. Comrades are spoken at, different left groups and tendencies put forward a few pinched points and then off we go again - none of us much wiser.

For me, the discussion underlined the absence of the left’s political strategy for the anti-cuts movement. On the one hand, there are those who endow almost every action with revolutionary content (SWP and Workers Power). On the other, there is the popular frontism inherited from Stop the War Coalition (Counterfire, Socialist Resistance, Green Left). Quite apart from their short-termism, both of these approaches fail to put forward concrete proposals to rebuild the workers’ movement from the base and connect that with a long-term, political vision.