The National Union of Mineworkers conference opened and concluded on Saturday July 7. Gone are the days of a week-long conference at a premier seaside resort, and agendas which covered world politics. The conference was over in five hours, including an hour break for dinner.
Seven mines remain, all in a precarious existence. UK Coal, the biggest single employer, with three of them, is on the brink. Despite this the NUM has seen unprecedented internal division and a widespread rank-and-file revolt against the sitting leadership, yet this was nowhere evident on the floor of conference. What’s it all about? It revolves in particular around the position and power of Arthur Scargill. In a nutshell the incoming leadership of the Yorkshire area under Chris Kitchen and Chris Skidmore wouldn’t play ball and let Arthur call the shots or continue to claim the expenses he hitherto enjoyed. They also resolved to discover what exactly the union was paying to whom and for what, but this has proved to be a swamp through which we are still wading.
We have seen Scargill launch legal challenges to rules (which were devised by him) in the courts, as well as a whole string of cases over what the union ought and ought not to be still paying for (these famously include his Barbican luxury flat, car allowances and astronomical phone bills). Many fear that, whatever the merits of the arguments about union functioning and democracy, a victory for Arthur would lead to him riding back into control, if not into formal office (although he certainly wouldn’t rule that out).
Apart from this controversy, the biggest issue was the clash with UK Coal over terms and conditions. At the beginning of 2011, instead of the long-awaited wage increases the company demanded reductions and the withdrawal of nationally agreed rates and conditions. It claims to be on the brink of disaster and has called upon the union to sign up to a joint survival plan. The terms of these reductions had been rejected by the national negotiating committee, but Chris Kitchen argued that the company is not in a position to stay afloat without concessions from the miners on their terms and conditions. Eventually a deal was agreed, to come into effect in November. In exchange for the withdrawal of area and local agreements on safety, working in excessive heat, etc, plus the withdrawal of a number of allowances, wage rates will rise by 4.7% this year and there will be a bonus scheme based on production targets for individual collieries. But next year there will be a total wage freeze and a 10% reduction in the concessionary fuel agreement allowance.
The NUM NEC agreed to strongly recommend acceptance of this deal and it went through by 336 votes to 184. This provoked intense anger and a campaign against the agreement, particularly in Kellingley. As a result Yorkshire NEC member Steve Mace and others have been suspended from their branch positions, and Steve from the NEC. He is demanding that Arthur Scargill be allowed to represent him, which the NEC has rejected. Whatever you think of Arthur, it is normal for the accused person to be represented by a person of their choice. Doubtless this one will end up in the courts too.
Then there are the area elections to the NEC, including for the seat vacated by the suspended Steve Mace. It was like none I have ever experienced before in more than four decades of membership, in that every candidate’s election address called for support for one of two rival slates. This marks the ongoing bitter division within the Yorkshire area between Chris Kitchen and his opponents. The bitterness partly relates to Arthur Scargill, with one side condemning the waste of union money, while the other implicitly argues that Arthur should be allowed to retain his free-wheeling influence in the union and that costs aren’t really an issue.
Chris lost the position of Yorkshire general secretary to Clint Whitehead, whose slate now has two of the three NEC positions. But the controversy was just starting. The incoming secretary then refuses to take up his position because he believes the salary on offer is too low. My first reaction was: ‘You’re taking the piss, aren’t you?’ How can it possibly be right for the secretary-elect to renegotiate the terms of the contract he was elected on?
But then I discover that the secretary’s salary is subject to negotiation. It seems we have a rule book written by Mr Scargill, who imposed it by hook or by crook on the union. The same rule book makes him ‘honorary president’, while abolishing the elected position of national president. The national chair and national general secretary were to be appointed by the NEC and their posts were in theory unpaid. But these officials could appeal to some higher authority - yes, Arthur - and argue for a salary based on their existing post. So, for example, the agent secretary in Yorkshire negotiated a payment in respect of his national position on top of his salary as Yorkshire general secretary.
When Chris Kitchen was elected as both agent/general secretary of Yorkshire and national secretary last time, he did the same thing - at that time with the approval of the trustees and the NEC. The salary was officially £48,997, but because this was less than what he earned at the pit he was allowed to negotiate an increase.
But now Chris Kitchen has been defeated by Clint Whitehead, the new agent/general secretary, so surely Clint can now renegotiate his salary in the same way as all secretaries have in Yorkshire since the Scargill rule book was imposed? Yes, in theory. But Clint insists that Scargill be allowed to represent him in the negotiations, and this has been refused by the NEC. Secondly it’s not just the salary. New terms and conditions have allegedly been imposed, which greatly restrict the role and general authority of the post.
One would have thought, returning to conference, that Mr Whitehead would have stormed to the platform to challenge Nicky Wilson, the national chair, over his report on the debacle, but he didn’t. None of these matters were discussed on the day. It is clear that the newly elected officials and NEC members feel the whole apparatus is weighted against them and that they do not have skills and articulation of the old guard - which is why they demand that Arthur Scargill be allowed to represent them. For those of us who fear not these newly elected, raw pit lads, which the membership has chosen to represent them, but the return of the Scargill autocracy, this is not a good sign. If you feel unable to argue your own corner without Arthur how the hell will you argue ours? It suggests that Arthur could be brought back in one capacity or another - not to represent the new leadership, but to be the new leadership.
Where did it all go wrong? First, with the imposition of the new (Scargill) rule book, and then with the ad-hoc, out-of-sight negotiations over the posts of national secretary and president - as well as the nod and wink to improve the terms at area level over and above what the rules stipulate. These practices are clearly open to favouritism and abuse and are not accountable to the members. Instead of this being resolved at conference, some fool of a judge with a sheep on his head will decide what’s best and fair for the NUM - and at considerable cost to the members.
I am hoping to bring out a consultation document outlining draft rule changes, which will secure proper, democratic functioning and accountability of officials at every level. The idea is to copper-bottom some democratic structures and rank-and-file control into the union. On salary the rule ought to clearly spell out what the salary is - if you don’t think its enough, don’t stand. The level of that salary ought to be fixed at the level of the average wage of the miners represented, with the payment of actual expenses, not a fixed, notional fee as a perk. No purchase of cars or houses - they should be paid for by the officials themselves out of their salary, in the same way as we pay for ours.
Finally, one positive change was agreed by conference - our withdrawal as a union from the phantom ‘International Energy Miners Organisation’, which Arthur had set up years ago and over which we had never had any control - only masses of endless payments and expenditure. It was a victory a long time coming for me, since I had campaigned for years against this monolith of bureaucracy and financial scams.
I am sure readers will agree that all of this is a long way from the militant, principled tradition of the miners and the NUM.
Peter Manson’s letter (July 5) supports the orthodox definition of sectarianism: that “Sectarian groups put the interests of their own organisation before those of the working class as a whole”; and asks me for my alternative.
On the first point, the passage Peter criticises in my article (‘Liquidationism and “broad front” masks’, June 28) was directed to simply cutting away the support of the ‘proof texts’ from Marx used by broad-front advocates. It was not directly addressed to criticism of the orthodox definition of sectarianism.
The formulation quoted in my article was Dave Spencer’s 2006 variant of the orthodox definition. I agree that Peter’s version is more orthodox. The reason is that Dave had modified his version to make it less vulnerable to criticisms I had previously made of the orthodox version in an e-list discussion in which we had participated.
The underlying criticism is a point Peter makes himself against me (mistakenly): “Mike’s first objection appears to conflate the interests of (and ‘process of developing’) the whole class (and ‘movement’) with the interests of its current misleaders.” The point is that the interests of the class as a whole are not the same thing as the current wishes of the class in its majority, or of the leaders of the workers’ movement. This is as true of an individual as it is of a class or a social group like the labour bureaucracy: it would plainly be in my objective interests to stop smoking, but I don’t want to stop strongly enough to actually do so.
The problem this poses for the orthodox definition of sectarianism is this. The whole Marxist left (and a significant part of the non-Marxist left) can all agree without hesitation that the interests of the working class as a whole are primary, that communists “have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole” (Communist manifesto). The problem is that we disagree among ourselves as to what the objective interests of the proletariat as a whole are.
Among the Marxist left it is common ground that the working class as a whole needs a political party. Thus Peter: “the party which alone could provide the movement with the leadership that meets its objective interests”. But what sort of party could do so? Pretty much everyone except the Spartacists agrees that the Spartacists are a sect. But the Spartacists could perfectly properly say - and do say - that the objective interests of the working class demand a Bolshevik-Leninist - ie, Trotskyist - world party, and that the only such (proto-) party in the world is the International Communist League - ie, the Spartacist international.
The result is that to charge someone with ‘sectarianism’, meaning that they “put the interests of their own organisation before those of the working class as a whole”, means no more than to say that you disagree with them about what the interests of the working class as a whole are. ‘I am strong-minded; you are obstinate; he is pig-headed’; ‘I defend the interests of the working class as a whole; you are mistaken; he is a sectarian’.
The point of my discussion of the Communist manifesto text is to demonstrate that the passage which is the ‘Marx proof-text’ of the orthodox definition does not say what the modern usage makes it say. Moreover, it is addressed to a specific phenomenon in the workers’ movement which is quite marginal to modern sectarianism: that is, the existence of trends (Fourierists, Owenites, etc) which argue against the existence both of trade unions and of workers’ parties like left Chartism. There are groups of this sort in the modern left, like (in their different ways) the Socialist Party of Great Britain and World Revolution. But the far left groups in general are not sects in the Communist manifesto sense. The attempt to draw a broader meaning out of the Communist manifesto text produces a mere empty insult.
What alternative definition? I cannot offer a ‘finished definition’, but a rough formulation is: ‘Sectarianism is the rejection of united organisation and common action where it is possible on the basis of partial common ground.’
The ‘classic’ sectarians were sectarian towards the basic mass movement for elementary demands: they refused common action on basic demands. The ‘sectarians’ Trotsky complained of in the Transitional programme were sectarian variously towards the trade unions, the mass reformist parties, the USSR and the ‘official communist’ movement: they refused common action on basic demands, or the attempt to intervene in left-right fights in the socialist parties, or the defence of the USSR.
The modern sectarians are sectarian chiefly towards each other: they refuse the common party which would objectively be possible on the basis of their very extensive common programmatic ground, if they were only to abandon bureaucratic centralism. This refusal produces a disorganising role even in the movement for elementary demands, in the form of sectarian broad-front ‘unity projects’ - Right to Work, National Shop Stewards’ Network, Coalition of Resistance, Anti-Capitalist Initiative - with utterly trivial political differences between them, deriving from the ever so slightly less trivial political differences between the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party in England and Wales, Counterfire and the fragments of Workers Power.
Open to abuse
As a regular reader of the Weekly Worker and sympathetic worker regarding your engagement and discussion with the existing left and working class, I was surprised to read about the proposals for non-voting rights for new members of your organisation (‘Taking membership seriously’, July 5).
This appears undemocratic on the surface, but is made worse by the fact that Provisional Central Committee members will be allowed to cut short the candidate membership of those they see fit. We can only presume this will mean in practice some new members will not have full voting rights within the organisation, while others chosen by the leaders of the organisation will. This, in my opinion, opens up the whole organisation to abuse by the leadership, who could tactically and opportunistically recruit in their specific interest and that of their personal ideas and perspectives.
This seems to be not a method for encouraging new debate and ideas within the organisation, but a potential safety valve for the current leadership to stop any drastically different perspectives gaining hold of the organisation ... like left communism, perhaps?
Open to abuse
Open to abuse
Readers of this journal may have learned the distressing news that, at its annual general meeting last week, the magazine Labour Briefing was taken over by John McDonnell’s Labour Representation Committee in a brilliantly organised coup.
Circulated by disgruntled members of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty for reasons best known to themselves (www.workersliberty.org/story/2012/06/13/labour-briefing-double-coup), the rumour is utter nonsense. The idea of linking up with the LRC originated within the LB editorial board. The resolution to the AGM was publicised and discussed openly prior to the event and, on the day, had already been endorsed by most members of the editorial board. In the event, it was passed by 44 votes to 37 at an unusually well-attended AGM.
If there was a ‘take-over’, it was a matter of long-standing Briefing supporters (most of us with overlapping membership of the LRC) ‘taking over’ ourselves - in other words, getting our act together in readiness for the momentous challenges facing us in the months immediately ahead.
Arthur Bough seems to live in some sort of alternate reality, where capitalism is not in crisis - and, to the extent that it is possible to speak of crisis, it is of no consequence. He says that I have yet to prove that peaking oil production will undermine the current long wave (Letters, June 28).
My reply is that the question of proving is not a matter of debate and theory, but one of practical experience. This is why I won’t be calling on Arthur to prove that the long wave will continue to work. In other words, Arthur’s method is wrong from the start. The present euro zone crisis and the austerity imposed by the coalition government in Britain are, at bottom, an expression of the world oil production peak, since it relates to economic growth.
The next point relates to Arthur’s account of the transition from wood-based energy to coal in England, which led to the industrial revolution. He takes a one-sided view, when he says that the transition resulted from rising industrial production. There were other factors at work, such as the little ice age bringing on a colder climate. As people struggled to keep warm, the demand for wood rose. There was also rising population which increased this demand. As wood became more costly, a cheaper source of energy was needed - ie, coal. Arthur argues that this earlier energy transition did not lead to “the kind of Malthusian calamity which Tony Clark envisages” in regard to oil depletion. But wood could be replaced with cheaper, superior coal, oil and gas. Where is the cheaper energy to replace these latter? In any case, I have never argued that calamity was inevitable. It would only be inevitable without the transition to an ecologically sustainable socialism.
Arthur now writes: “I do not at all believe that the long wave can necessarily overcome such problems, still less in worshipping demand and supply economics.” Recognising that rising prices, including fuel, can end a boom, Arthur claims that we are a long way from that in the present cycle. He ignores the fact that many economies have been in recession since 2008. He has yet to develop an understanding of the relationship between capitalism, energy and economic growth and is unable to see that, without the ability to raise global oil production to support economic growth, capitalism is faced with a long-term crisis.
Arthur compares the oil shocks of the 1970s and rising oil prices in the 1990s, which led to recessions, with more recent spikes in oil prices, where the global economy continued to grow at around 4%-5% annually. The explanation for this is that cheap oil made globalisation possible, which in turn gave access to cheap labour. It is mostly in the low-wage economies that growth was possible with rising oil prices. For a period low wages made it possible for these countries to afford expensive energy.
Arthur turns to nuclear fusion as a possible saviour. Whether it is possible or not, since the 1950s scientists have been saying this technology was 40 years away. They are still saying the same today. Arthur also says my claims about gas production were factually and dramatically wrong. What people believe about oil and gas depletion depends on what organisation they trust most. Since governmental organisations and business corporations usually lie about energy to keep share prices high, I prefer to go along with organisations like the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas, which projects a gas peak around the year 2020.
Arthur, not yet grasping the essence of the oil and gas depletion issue, doesn’t realise that Britain faces a potentially serious problem. His view is that we can buy cheap energy on the market from anyone who wants to sell it. The problem is that energy prices are set to increase, as decline sets in. Cheap coal, oil and gas are the foundations of capitalism, and with declining fuels and rising energy costs there is not going to be a lot of economic growth around.
Arthur believes that peak oil will not be a problem for the reasons Marx set out against the Malthusians. The law of value will save the day. Arthur uncritically adopts Marx’s view that the law of value has operated throughout human history and its basic requirement is to reduce labour time, and spur on innovation and development of new productive forces and relations of productions. And Arthur claims that this is why we moved from wood to coal. The truth is that for thousands of years humans hardly made any technological progress at all. In pre-Roman times carriages were pulled by horses, and this remained the same for thousands of years, right up until the industrial revolution. It was utilising a new source of energy which made the difference, not the law of value.
As his thinking is based on old-style economics, which does not take account of the role of energy in production, Arthur says that during the last long wave, Japan, a country with limited energy resources, became the most dynamic, fastest-growing economy in the world. The last long wave was also a time of cheap, abundant oil, which goes a long way in explaining Japan’s success. His point about Iceland, which has plenty of energy, but is still dependent on fishing, makes little sense. Iceland is a country with a tiny population with little to export.
Finally, Arthur should know that it is only on the basis of intensive, industrial agriculture that it is possible for the world to sustain a population of over 7 billion people. What he ignores is that modern industrial agriculture is completely based on oil and gas production. As these deplete, food prices are rising, and this is already sparking riots and revolutions around the world.