Labour and political scabbing
Defending the union link as it is falls short of the needs of the working class, argues Paul Demarty
It is obvious enough to all concerned that the union link to the Labour Party is under threat - from the usual suspects.
The Murdoch press and the Tories are extorting every last drop of political capital they can from recent pseudo-scandals involving Unite, the country’s largest union and the largest single source of funding for Labour. The Tories’ motives are transparently to spread malicious smears; the Murdoch press, meanwhile, especially The Times, has been on and off pushing forward Tony Blair’s agenda, to deLabourise Labour for good, quite apart from ‘narrow’ electoral considerations. Ed Miliband has leapt at the chance to be seen to be hard on those dreadful union ‘barons’, to whom he continues to be portrayed as too close. The result is the so far rather thin Collins review.
Under threat it may be, but the link does not seem to be in mortal danger. Miliband can rehearse all the Murdoch-placating lines he likes, but he still leads a party with a dwindling membership that is utterly financially dependent on the largest trade unions. The political levy is not going to disappear overnight. Such things rarely do, however; there will be a backroom deal over the Collins review between Miliband and the barons - and then down the line there may be another, and another, until finally union influence over Labour is quietly extinguished.
There are some on the left who eagerly anticipate this eventuality, stupidly imagining that the logical result will be for the unions to bring financial muscle and prestige to whatever no-hope pet project a given group happens to have (leaving aside those ultra-leftists who consider such matters irrelevant in any case). Of the rest - those who understand that the dissolution of the union link would be a historic defeat for the British working class, taking it from a faint shadow of political representation to no representation whatsoever - not a few, naturally, are to be found in the ranks of the Labour Party.
The Labour Representation Committee annual general meeting on Saturday voted to pursue the Defend the Link campaign already started by the LRC’s leadership. That vote was uncontroversial. Labour Party Marxists, however, moved a second motion urging the LRC to go further and commit itself to transforming the link, overturning the legal right of individual union members to opt out of paying the political levy, and fighting more generally against state interference in the internal affairs of the workers’ movement. The LPM motion, unfortunately, proved very controversial indeed, and was defeated comfortably.
Right to scab
Behind this superficially tactical difference lie, in fact, two matters of principle. The first ought to be the most straightforward for any advocate of working class political action altogether - the principle of binding collective action.
It was, in fact, put quite nicely in Saturday’s debate on the union link by comrade Gary Heather, who criticised the individualism of “liberal philosophy” - this was based on an elitist notion that the masses should not get involved in politics. Attacks on the Labour-union link, comrade Heather correctly noted, are in fact attacks on the principle of mass political action, which for capitalist ideology amounts to mob rule.
More sharply still was it put by Trotsky, sarcastically commenting on Tory encroachments on the political levy shortly before the general strike. Union funding for Labour, even then, was what we would today call a ‘political football’; a decision by the law lords in 1909 (the infamous Osborne judgment) ruled that the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS) - an ancestor to today’s Rail, Maritime and Transport union - was ultra vires in providing financial support on the part of its members t o the Labour Party. This ruling was overturned in 1913 by the Asquith government, but the right of workers to opt out was enshrined in law.
“The crux of the matter is, of course, that the workers’ organisations, by asserting their anti-Liberal, ‘despotic’, Bolshevik right of enforced collection of the political levy, are in effect fighting for the real and concrete, and not a metaphysical possibility of parliamentary representation for the workers; while the Conservatives and the Liberals, in upholding the principles of ‘personal freedom’, are in fact striving to disarm the workers materially, and thereby shackle them to the bourgeois parties,” Trotsky writes.
“It is sufficient merely to take a look at the division of roles: the trade unions are for the unconditional right to the enforced collection of the political levy; the House of Exhumed Lords is for the unconditional banning of such extortion in the name of sacred personal freedom; finally the House of Commons forces a concession from the trade unions, which amounts in practice to a 10% refund [the number of workers who opted out - PD] to the principles of Liberalism.”1
From this perspective, it is quite clear: the ‘opt-out’ rule is just as much a violation of the principle of collective political action as Miliband’s ‘opt-in’ wheeze. Moreover, it is plainly the case that such encroachments strike at the very heart of working class politics. The bourgeoisie has the means of production, the repressive apparatus of the state, legions of paid persuaders and all manner of other means at its disposal with which to fight its corner. The working class, in the final analysis, has sheer weight of numbers on its side.
If those numbers are coordinated into conscious collective action, then no amount of yellow-press hacks, cops and slick politicians will save their bosses. Which is why the ‘other side’ are so very keen to make that more difficult. The right to opt out of the union political fund is the right to scab. So it has been since the days of the Osborne judgment.
It is depressing to see comrades on the Labour left shrinking from this perspective, given how utterly dependent their political projects are on the maintenance of the party’s link with organised labour. At the LRC AGM, where the argument was not the philistine one - that arguing for a better, more democratic union link was somehow incompatible with effective resistance to attempts to weaken or break that link - it was laughably timid.
One comrade suggested that getting rid of opting out would lead to a split in the union movement, because people would leave in disgust at handing money over to Labour (or whoever it happened to be). This was the argument of the scab Osborne himself! It completely internalises the degraded model of contemporary trade unionism as a sort of legal services provider to embattled individuals - or at best, ‘traditional’ apolitical unionism (which renders a political fund entirely redundant anyway).
If enforcing compliance with the political fund will cause a split in the union, the union is already split - just as much as a union needs to tackle old-fashioned blacklegs, it needs to enforce united political action. You do not accept the liberal (or even Tory!) prejudices of some union members as immutable. You destroy those prejudices. You win them over. That is the tradition of the working class movement - not liberal timidity.
The other serious aspect to this question is more insidious: the question of legal and state interference in the affairs of the workers’ movement as a whole.
It is a matter posed very well by the historic case of the Osborne judgment, although such interference is as old as workers’ organisations themselves. The argument of the law lords was that the ASRS was “a lawful society at common law”, and as such subject to legal restrictions on the demands it was entitled to put on its members. The jargon of the legal profession conceals what is from the point of view of any democrat a flagrant absurdity. The ASRS never asked to be a ‘lawful society’; its freedom of association is rendered moot by a decision of the courts which serves only to place arbitrary restrictions on its activity.
A more recent case exemplifies this problem even more sharply. Viva Palestina, George Galloway’s aid-to-Gaza initiative, never sought registration with the Charity Commission - but nevertheless, the latter unilaterally declared it to be a charity, and on that basis immediately sequestered its funds for breaking regulations pertaining to support for political causes!
Freedom of association is not a freebie that comes with bourgeois society. The “liberal philosophy” referred to by Gary Heather’s abhors the collective action of the masses for good reason, and seeks to undermine it at every turn. Allowing the bourgeois state to set the limits of working class organisation is a sure way to defeat; the judicialisation of industrial relations has closely tracked the deepening weakness of organised labour, and this is not a coincidence.
Astonishingly, even this aspect of the LPM motion was opposed by some LRC comrades. We were told that opposing state interference in union affairs was anti-working class - because, after all, we want unions to be subject to the minimum wage and health and safety legislation! Comrades, if you go down that road, we can all kiss goodbye to the pittance that is the minimum wage and patchy workplace protections altogether - because only effective working class action, in trade unions and ‘high’ politics, can get even such crumbs as those, and imagining somehow that bourgeois law is neutral in affairs of the class struggle is the surest way yet invented to disarm the class.
Lastly, it is worth noting that the cautious approach adopted by the LRC is tactically foolish on its own terms. The comrades on Saturday were under no illusions how this little ‘episode’ will end: some rotten deal will be struck between the Labour leadership and the union bureaucrats. It will be worse than the status quo ante; defenders of the latter will not get a hearing in the short time-scale at work.
So what useful role could be played by the LRC in this situation? A propaganda role. Rather than fancying ourselves to be deal-brokers now, we could be arguing for a rejuvenated labour movement; not the current set-up, where union bureaucrats and Labour hacks jockey farcically for position in places like Falkirk, but a democratised movement rebuilding, and then exceeding, its former strength. Those who defend the existing arrangements defend a situation where union bosses deliver block votes to conferences that do not matter, and wads of cash to politicians who have no reason to listen to them.
This is not an inspiring vision for the workers’ movement. firstname.lastname@example.org
1. www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/britain/wibg/ ch07.htm