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Who speaks up for workers?
Next steps for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition
The battle to defend public sector pensions shows again the political vacuum that exists in Britain today, with no mass party representing workers' interests.
Ahead of the 16 July conference of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, an electoral alliance involving leading militant trade unionists from the RMT, PCS and NUT, Clive Heemskerk looks at the role TUSC could play in helping to fill the vacuum and what the next steps should be for its development.
The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) has now been in existence for 18 months. It was set up initially to enable trade unionists, community campaigners and socialists to stand candidates against the pro-austerity consensus of the establishment parties in the 2010 general election. Afterwards, however, a conference was held which agreed to continue with TUSC for future election campaigns.
By registering with the Electoral Commission, candidates can appear on the ballot paper as TUSC, or recognised variants such as Trade Unionists and Socialists Against Cuts, rather than as 'Independent' which they would otherwise have to do under UK electoral law. 42 candidates stood at the 2010 general election and 177 contested May's local council elections.
The TUSC campaigns have been an extremely modest start. Generally candidates have polled no higher than Socialist Party and other left candidates had in previous elections (see Socialism Today No 149 for a full analysis of the May results).
Overall, in the seats contested in the local elections, for every voter who backed TUSC (25,000) there were ten Labour voters (245,000).
With no enthusiasm for, or even a full awareness of, Labour's own cuts policy, nevertheless Labour is still seen at least to be a viable governmental alternative to the Con-Dems.
The main purpose of TUSC's campaigns at this stage, however, is to reach the most militant trade unionists and community campaigners with the arguments for independent working class political representation. In that regard it has had some success.
TUSC candidates have involved an impressive array of union lay branch officers. Perhaps most indicative was the position in eight council wards in which the local Labour Parties were so moribund they didn't stand a candidate or stood for less than the total number of seats up for election.
TUSC candidates in these wards included an RMT transport workers' union regional president, a Unite branch secretary, a Unison branch chair, a Unite workplace rep, and a NASUWT teachers' union treasurer - trade unionists whose only means of fighting the cuts on the political plane was under the TUSC umbrella.
Regional officers of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and the Communications Workers' Unions (CWU), and national officers of the RMT, the PCS civil servants' union, the National Union of Teachers (NUT), and the Prison Officers Association (POA), have been involved as TUSC steering committee members or election candidates.
The public sector pensions battle shows again the vacuum left by the transformation of Labour into the Blairised New Labour, from at bottom a workers' party into another 'normal' capitalist party. The symbolism is striking.
The Treasury chief secretary, Danny Alexander, the 'pension reforms' front man, is a Liberal Democrat, working with chancellor George Osborne, a Tory. The plans they hope to implement were drawn up by ex-cabinet minister, John Hutton, still a Labour member of the House of Lords. Meanwhile Labour spokespeople jostle to distance themselves from trade unionists taking action to defend their livelihoods.
In the 'age of austerity', it is clear, workers and big sections of the middle class too, lack a political voice. The capitalist politicians as a result feel less constrained in attempting to impose their policies than they would have done in the past. The steps taken - small though they are - on the road to re-establishing independent working class political representation, alone justify the establishment and continuation of TUSC.
Filling the vacuum
The Socialist Party is fully committed to TUSC. But this does not mean we see a linear progression from TUSC to a new workers' party as the most likely way that a new mass vehicle for working class political representation will develop.
The Labour Party itself was preceded by various attempts to establish a workers' party. Keir Hardie set up the Scottish Labour Party in 1888. The Bradford Labour Union, which arose out of the great Manningham Mills textile workers' strike (see The Socialist, No.668, 28/4/2011), was founded in 1891, followed by other Labour Unions across Northern England.
The Independent Labour Party (ILP), bringing together many of these organisations, was established in 1893, the political end product of the mass movement of militant 'new unionism' that developed in the late 1880s.
Yet these early attempts to build workers' political representation generally met with heavy election defeats, and at a national level the trade unions continued to support the Liberal Party. Even the ILP, the most successful 'pre-formation', did not develop into the mass workers' party that its founders hoped for, eventually becoming a component part of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), formed in 1900 following a resolution at the 1899 TUC conference.
The LRC itself was not pre-ordained to develop into a mass party. To begin with a minority of TUC trade unionists were affiliated - 30% - and the LRC was able to contest just 15 seats in the 1900 general election. But the capitalists' subsequent offensive against the workers' movement under the new Tory government - typified in the Taff Vale court decision to open up railway union funds for strike damages - pushed the unions into political activity. By 1906 when the LRC became the Labour Party, nearly 60% of TUC trade unionists were affiliated.
The period we are entering, of growing mass battles against austerity policies, will see seismic changes in consciousness similar to those which preceded the formation of the Labour Party. Trade unions thrown into action against the cuts - or new struggles to defend themselves against anti-union laws - or mass community-based campaigns against particular aspects of the austerity agenda, may enter the electoral arena with a mass impact.
But filling the political vacuum today will most likely be as equally circuitous as the route to a new workers' party was over a hundred years ago. TUSC, which itself could make electoral breakthroughs on the road to a new mass formation, has an important role to play.
Trade union candidates
This May the PCS annual conference took the historic step of agreeing to hold a full membership ballot within the next year "to decide whether the union could stand or support candidates in national elections".
The motion agreed was moved by the union's left-led national executive committee (NEC), on which the Socialist Party has a strong but not majority presence. It recognised that "the political consensus that favours privatisation, cuts to public services and jobs" left union members with "a lack of real choice at the ballot box". On this basis, with no "voice for the interests of trade union members and other communities", the union should consider backing candidates when doing so "offers us the chance to advance our campaigns in members' interests".
If PCS members vote in favour this will be a major step forward for the whole trade union movement. The PCS has never been affiliated to the Labour Party, although a predecessor union, the Civil Servants Clerical Association, was from 1920 until barred from doing so by the 1927 Trade Unions Act (following the defeat of the general strike).
But while coming from a different tradition a yes vote would put the PCS in the same position as unions like the RMT, expelled from Labour in 2004, and the FBU, which voted to disaffiliate.
Overall there are now 1.673 million trade unionists in TUC-affiliated unions (out of a total TUC membership of 6.2 million - 27%) who pay into a union political fund which is not affiliated to Labour.
It was not an accident that the three unions with a political fund which took strike action on 30 June in defence of public sector pensions are not affiliated to, or more accurately, tied and bound by Labour - the PCS, the NUT and the University and College Union (UCU). An opportunity exists to extend unity in action onto the political plane.
Events and consciousness can develop more rapidly than may be apparent today. The idea that the most 'advanced' unions are those affiliated to Labour is clearly false. However, it is unlikely at this stage that even the left-led unions would win sufficiently wide membership support to take the lead, as at the time of the formation of the LRC, in establishing a new workers' party.
The PCS motion would allow the union's political fund to "support candidates as independents, or as members from existing parties, subject to NEC approval" - not to register a new party with the Electoral Commission.
But this would still be an important step forward. The RMT executive too decides on a case by case basis, considering requests from local branches and regional councils to back particular candidates. There are different rules also in the FBU, NUT, UCU etc on how their political funds operate.
In this situation it is vital that the TUSC banner remains available for trade unionists to take up, under their own control, when they wish to contest elections.
In February this year the ex-MP for Wyre Forest, Dr Richard Taylor, issued an appeal for candidates to stand in the local elections in defence of the NHS. "It would be possible to register a new political party" - NHS Concern, he suggested - "as a referendum" on the Con-Dems' health 'reforms'. (The Guardian, 8 February) Richard Taylor was elected as an Independent Kidderminster Hospital and Health Concern candidate in 2001 as part of a campaign to restore the local hospital casualty unit, winning a landslide 58% vote.
In the event, the government announced a 'pause' in the NHS legislation in the run-up to the elections and there were no NHS Concern candidates in May. But Richard Taylor's intervention was a reminder of how community-based campaigns could emerge rapidly from the anti-cuts movement. However it also showed that the austerity agenda has many facets with, at this stage, not one overarching 'unifying' issue as, for example, the poll tax was from 1988-91.
The aftermath of the anti-poll tax movement showed how a wider electoral challenge can emerge from mass community campaigns.
Labour, before the advent of Blair and still seen then by many workers as 'our party', was the main electoral beneficiary of the opposition to the poll tax. But local Labour councillors, in the main, went along with punitive enforcement measures against poll tax non-payers.
This was an important factor in the early electoral successes of Scottish Militant Labour (SML), formed in 1992, the predecessor of the Socialist Party Scotland. Tommy Sheridan, chair of the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation, 'came from nowhere' to win second place in Glasgow Pollok with 6,287 votes (19.3%) in the April 1992 general election and, weeks later, SML won four seats on Glasgow council.
SML's success laid the basis for the development of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), which won representation in the Scottish parliament from 1999 to 2007. This position was thrown away, unfortunately, by the subsequent political mistakes of the SSP leadership, including their role in the prosecution of Tommy Sheridan.
But it remains a fact that the translation of SML's support in the mass anti-poll tax movement into electoral success laid the basis for the emergence of a broad, socialist party in Scotland.
How the anti-cuts movement develops will be different, not least because of the central position of the trade unions. Fighting the cuts is also not a 'single-issue' campaign but, on the contrary, a 'multi-issue' one.
Richard Taylor's appeal called for "current and retired health workers" to be candidates, because "the presence of councillors with knowledge of the NHS would be vital in view of local authority health scrutiny functions". But what would 'NHS only' candidates say about the massive cuts to council jobs and services? What about linking with teachers, parents, librarians, social workers, council tenants and other council service users?
That's why TUSC is important for anti-cuts campaigners who want to take their struggle into the political domain on a broader basis. TUSC's local elections policy clearly opposes all cuts to jobs, services, pay and conditions, and candidates seeking to stand as TUSC must accept this minimum programme.
But with otherwise complete control of their candidacies, all anti-cuts campaigners can use the TUSC banner to fight elections as part of a national campaign. The road to a new political voice for workers in the age of austerity is through the anti-cuts struggle, in the unions but also in community campaigns.
The next steps for TUSC
TUSC is a federal 'umbrella' coalition, with core election policies but with participating candidates and organisations accountable for their own campaigns. The national steering committee, which only takes decisions if there is a consensus, includes, in a personal capacity, leading officials of the RMT, PCS and NUT, including RMT general secretary Bob Crow.
The Socialist Party, involved from the outset, and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which joined later, are also represented.
This federal approach guarantees the rights of participating organisations, at local and national level, of TUSC candidates and, in the absence of formal union affiliations at this stage, of the individual trade union leaders involved. For this latter reason in particular, the Socialist Party favours retaining it. The importance of TUSC lies, above all, in its potential to act as a catalyst in the trade unions for the idea of working class political representation.
That is why we are not in favour of moving to an 'individual membership' organisation which removes the rights of national trade union officials on the TUSC steering committee to endorse candidates and election policy proposals. Ironically, Labour's right-wing used 'one member, one vote reforms' in the 1990s to dilute the role of union representatives in the party's structures.
The argument that the federal approach makes it hard to build TUSC's profile between elections is also false. There was no individual membership of the Labour Party until 1918. Trades councils, ad-hoc groups of miners' lodges, or branches of constituent organisations like the ILP, would be the local organising body of the Labour Party. But this did not stop it winning elections! Above all TUSC will build a profile by its candidates and supporters being involved in struggle, against the cuts and in the unions.
But there are steps that can be taken to further involve individual supporters of TUSC who are not members of the Socialist Party and the SWP while not diluting the role of the trade unions. The Socialist Party is sponsoring a proposal that the recently-formed TUSC Independent Socialist Network should also have a steering committee place and no doubt other ideas will be discussed.
TUSC is still a 'work in progress', in a period when there is sustained hostility to all 'politicians' - the 2010 British Social Attitudes survey found that 40% of people "almost never" trust politicians, up from 11% in 1987. Consciousness has not yet developed on a mass basis for the need for a new vehicle of working class political representation.
But it will do in the 'Greek-style' events ahead. TUSC is a coalition that must continue with the vital task of taking forward the argument for workers to find their own political voice.
Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition:
Conference of candidates & campaign organisers
Saturday 16 July, 11am-4pm,
ULU, Malet Street, WC1E 7HY
- 11am to 1-30pm: TUSC forum
One year of the Con-Dems: what are the prospects now for working class political representation?
- 2-4pm: Developing TUSC into 2012
Registration fee £5 waged/£3 unwaged.
In The Socialist 29 June 2011:
30 June pensions strike
Socialist Party editorial
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party workplace news
Socialist Party reports and campaigns
Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition
Socialist Party news
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party review
Socialist Party features
Socialist Party events