Bob Crow, RMT general secretary and NO2EU on the on the 'Put People First' demo, photo Paul Mattsson
OVER RECENT months meetings have taken place of the participants in the 'No2EU-Yes to Democracy' European election coalition to see whether another alliance could be constructed to contest the forthcoming general election. Informal discussions have also been held with some left trade union leaders not involved in No2EU.
No2EU was a coalition of the RMT transport union, the Socialist Party, the Communist Party of Britain (CPB), the Alliance for Green Socialism, and others, explicitly assembled early this year to fight June's European election.
This was the first ever national election challenge by a trade union, the RMT, since that union's predecessor helped establish the Labour Party over one hundred years ago. It attracted as candidates important representatives of workers in struggle, including Lindsey oil refinery strike committee members and Visteon convenors fighting closure of their plants.
The coalition won 153,000 votes which, along with the vote for Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party, was 2.2% of the total poll (one third of the BNP vote). While not a breakthrough, No2EU was still an important first step towards independent working class political representation.
With the added support this time, in a personal capacity, of Brian Caton, the general secretary of the Prison Officers Association (POA), and leading national officers of the PCS civil servants' union - and with other union figures likely to come on board - the basis is there for a credible general election challenge.
THE DISCUSSIONS so far have revealed differing appraisals of the political situation in Britain, in particular the question: what is the attitude of workers to the Labour Party and the prospect of a Tory government? But while there are differences between the potential coalition partners, these should not stop an agreement being reached.
The Socialist Party believes that Labour has been transformed from a 'capitalist workers' party' (a party with pro-capitalist leaders but with a democratic structure that allowed its working class base to fight for its interests) into the capitalist New Labour. This does not mean, however, that in the general election many workers will not vote Labour as the 'lesser evil' in the absence of a clear left alternative (in contrast to Germany, for example, with the existence of Die Linke to the left of the SPD).
This reflects the fear of what a Cameron government would mean - similar to someone instinctively raising an arm to ward off a blow. But unfortunately, a fourth-term New Labour government will offer no effective protection against the effects of the capitalist economic crisis. With New Labour now fundamentally no different to the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, the only certainty is that workers will face a torrent of blows from whichever party, or combination of parties, forms the next government.
To put it another way, there can be quantitative differences between the parties' policies, for example on exactly how deep public spending cuts will be, when they will be made, and where the axe will fall. But to effect a qualitative change in British politics, to provide a vehicle to resist the coming 'savage cuts' and the other effects of capitalist crisis, requires the development of independent working class political representation.
The debate between the capitalist parties over the role of public spending in a cyclical economic downturn is not completely phoney. It reflects conflicting positions within the capitalist ruling class on how best to attempt to preserve their system. But that is different to a clash between parties committed to defending capitalism and a party that starts from the interests of the working class or at least, in the case of 'old Labour', which could potentially be forced by its working class base to resist the capitalists' demands.
The existence of such a party today would transform the political situation, including forcing the capitalist parties to shape their actions in relation to it. New Labour's timid 'Keynesianism-lite' (at least in comparison to the Tories) does not make it a vehicle for workers' representation, revealed once again by its efforts to break the Communications Workers Union as a prelude to the casualisation and privatisation of Royal Mail.
A general election challenge building on the No2EU coalition, while it will be able to attract significant new support, will not fully provide the necessary alternative. But it would be another important step forward. It would also have an impact on post-election developments. Whether there is a Labour victory or defeat there will be a reckoning in the trade unions on how workers' interests can be defended, and possibly even a pale reflection of this inside the rump Labour Party in the event of a crushing defeat.
An election coalition potentially drawing in the most combative sections of the working class in defence of jobs, public services and workers' rights, would be well placed to shape this discussion. There are differences amongst the potential coalition participants on how far Labour, even after a general election defeat, could be pushed to change its pro-market policies. The Socialist Party believes the adoption of more 'radical' policies is not the most likely development, such is the depth of the transformation of Labour into New Labour.
Moreover, even if more 'radical' policies were adopted, this on its own would not signify Labour's reconstitution as a party within which the working class could organise to fight for its interests. But one thing is clear: a general election challenge against New Labour would not cut across that possibility, however remote it may be, but would enhance it, by reaching at least an important minority of workers with an outline of what the alternative could be. The task now is to act to get an election challenge on the road.
THE SOCIALIST Party, a founding sponsor of the Campaign for a New Workers' Party (CNWP), believes that a mass workers' party is a vital necessity to fill the vacuum of working class political representation in Britain today. But the coalition that is likely to take shape for the general election will not be a new workers' party, or necessarily a precursor of one.
As the discussions have shown, the case has still to be won including in left unions like the POA and the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), for even an organised electoral challenge to New Labour. The PCS also, having only recently established a political fund, will not have completed the consultation necessary within the union to enable it to formally back general election candidates. Needed, in this situation, is precisely a vigorous political campaign for a new workers' party, but also some 'propaganda of the deed'.
It would be wrong to underestimate what a clear move by the RMT, and other left trade union leaders (even acting in a personal capacity) could achieve as a catalyst for a new party. But it is also the case that a coalition to contest the general election would still be a significant step forward.
So far the discussions have recorded agreement on standing, as a minimum, against New Labour cabinet ministers. Also there is agreement that the coalition should have a 'federal' character, with a steering committee of participating organisations and key individuals that operates by consensus.
The coalition will agree some critical core policies but every participating organisation will be able to produce their own supporting material. This approach worked well for the No2EU campaign, allowing the different organisations involved to collaborate under a common banner.
The RMT annual general meeting in July overwhelmingly backed the union's participation in No2EU and agreed to convene a labour movement conference to take forward the discussion on the lack of political representation for the working class. Since then the RMT executive has authorised RMT representatives to discuss with other organisations on this issue and has organised a conference in London for 7 November. Now, with the general election at most just six months away, concrete steps need to be taken to put together an effective challenge.
THIS INCLUDES deciding the coalition name to go on the ballot paper. This is restricted by electoral law to six words and could be ruled out by the Electoral Commission if too similar to already registered names. The Socialist Party would prefer a name that includes 'socialism', for marked ideological contrast to New Labour, and also one that makes it clear that the coalition is a working class alternative.
With agreement in the discussions that the threat to the planet that capitalism's continued existence poses should also be reflected, we have proposed 'Trade Unionists and Green Socialists Alliance' as one possibility.
One argument has been that 'trade unionists' in the name would be too 'narrow', not appealing to pensioners, students etc, outside the workforce. However, the fact that the working class content of the No2EU coalition was not apparent from its name was an undoubted weakness that should be avoided if possible this time. Also, while only a minority of workers are union members today, surveys show significant underlying support for trade unionism amongst non-members.
Also, some trade union supporters of the coalition have suggested that 'socialism' might be 'too far ahead' of workers' consciousness today, although it is the best popular description of an alternative to a capitalist system which offers only a 'decade of austerity' to the working class.
Sometimes it is necessary to be apparently somewhat ahead of consciousness, to explain the reality of the situation facing workers. And consciousness, of course, is not static, especially in the turbulent times that lie ahead. The Isle of Wight Vestas workers, for example, who occupied their factory when faced with its closure, were not union members before their struggle began.
Nevertheless, securing a coalition drawing in the best union fighters, anti-cuts campaigners etc, as long as it is on an inclusive, federal basis, is the main concern of the Socialist Party. With the capitalist parties unanimously insisting on an assault on public spending, a coalition name reflecting this key dividing line, such as 'No cuts! Defend jobs and services', would be acceptable to us.
If a coalition cannot be assembled, the Socialist Party will stand candidates under our own banner as we have done previously; at the same time coordinating our campaign with local RMT branches, anti-cuts campaigners, other socialist organisations etc.
But, if there is agreement on the need for workers' candidates to contest the election, the key task now is to properly establish the widest possible coalition.
Not to attempt to do so would allow the vacuum in British politics to remain unfilled, with all the dangerous consequences there to see. The journalist, Aditya Chakrabortty, commenting in The Guardian on Nick Griffin's Question Time appearance, correctly pointed out that the other panellists were unable to land telling blows on the BNP leader: "What was missing was a working class voice" to tell Griffin that "he didn't represent the constituency he claimed". That sums up the crisis of working class political representation in Britain today. The time has come to act.