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We need a political voice to fight austerity
A conference of Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) supporters meets in London on 22 September. In a significant development, the transport union RMT national executive last week elected an official delegation to represent the 80,000-strong union at the event. Clive Heemskerk, TUSC's national election agent, gives a preview of some of the issues that will be discussed.
Next steps in filling the vacuum
Video: Above, TUSC National Steering Committee member Steve Gillan, (Prison Officers Association general secretary) speaking at the successful NSSN lobby of the TUC 2012 in favour of a general strike
Developing strategies to: "overcome the blind loyalty to Labour of some trade unions" is one of the mandates given to the RMT's delegation to September's TUSC conference.
There certainly has been no shortage of denunciations of Labour's 'austerity-lite' policies from leaders of the Labour-affiliated unions.
Responding back in January to Ed Miliband and Ed Balls' endorsement of public sector real-term pay cuts to 2015, Len McCluskey, the general secretary of the biggest affiliate, Unite, denounced the "national government-like consensus where, as in 1931, the leaders of the three big parties agree on a common agenda of austerity to get capitalism - be it 'good' or 'bad' - back on its feet" (The Guardian, 17 January). But as the RMT rightly ask, what has actually been achieved to change Labour's policy?
When this year's Labour Party conference - the third now under the Con-Dems - assembles later this month there is no possibility that 'the two Eds' will be overturned. The idea that Labour can be reclaimed as a party that would stand up for working class people will once again be disproved in action.
Another case is the fate of Unite executive member and Lambeth Labour councillor Kingsley Abrams, who is still suspended from his council's Labour group for opposing cuts.
If Unite cannot get one of their own executive members reinstated with the right to vote for union policy - against sacking Unite members, for example - what can the affiliated unions achieve?
Len McCluskey also made the point that Labour's embrace of austerity "leaves half the country disenfranchised", including the half a million demonstrators on the TUC's 'march for an alternative' in 2011. That was 18 months ago and another TUC demonstration will take place on 20 October. Would marchers respond more positively now than they did (not) then to the idea that the only way they could be 're-enfranchised' is to 'join Labour to change it'?
Isn't it time for the Labour-affiliated union leaders, or at least those who oppose the cuts, to join the call for a new vehicle for working class political representation?
The key function of TUSC is still to act as a catalyst in the unions for this idea, and how to drive it home in the events ahead will be the main theme of the conference's opening session. One platform speaker will be PCS civil service union vice-president John McInally on the recent members' ballot decision to open up this non-affiliated union's political fund to back anti-cuts candidates in national elections, another sign of the mood developing in the unions.
For councillors who stand up to the Con-Dems
One way to hasten the process of developing working class political representation is to ensure the widest possible TUSC challenge in electoral contests, including those outside the general election cycle. This mainly means contesting local council elections, including byelections, which also brings into relief the clear no cuts position of TUSC compared to Labour's 'slower and fairer cuts' mantra.
The conference will discuss a draft 'core policy' platform for the 2013 local elections, which will become the minimum basis for someone to apply to be a TUSC candidate.
The platform points to the dual character of the Con-Dems' attacks on local government services, and the workers who provide them.
Councils have experienced one of the biggest 'departmental cuts' in government spending which will see, by 2014-15, a 27% fall in funding compared to 2009-10.
But also, under what the TUSC platform describes as "the Con-Dems' hypocritical banner of localism", from April 2013 councils will have new responsibilities, for health and well-being boards, social fund 'crisis payments', and council tax benefit levels - all with reduced funding.
It is not true however that councils have 'no option' but to pass on the cuts. Councillors have a choice. If even a handful of councils adopted TUSC's policy - opposing all cuts to jobs, services, pay and conditions in the first instance by using reserves and prudential borrowing powers, while mobilising a mass campaign around a budget that meets the needs of the local community and demands that the government makes up the shortfall - the Con-Dems would be forced to retreat.
Even one councillor in each local authority taking a stand, if they used their position in the council chamber to appeal to those outside, could give confidence to trade unionists and community campaigners to fight.
This session will hear from the TUSC-supporting Walsall councillor Pete Smith. Also speaking is the TUSC candidate in May's Liverpool mayoral election, Tony Mulhearn, one of the 'Liverpool 47' councillors who in the mid-1980s defied the Thatcher government and won lasting gains for the city with such a strategy.
Reviewing TUSC's structures
The final conference session will discuss how TUSC's structures need to develop.
Earlier this year the TUSC national steering committee established a working group 'commission' as part of a review of TUSC's structures. An initial report will be presented at the conference, with plans for the discussion to continue.
TUSC was established in January 2010 and has seen a greater level of trade union leadership and involvement than any other 'comparator' organisation. But the RMT is the only trade union formally represented on the TUSC steering committee, presently the final representative body of the coalition at a national level.
There are unions where there is clear support for TUSC but which have political funds that currently can not be constitutionally used to finance parties - or where the union is affiliated to Labour - where formal participation in TUSC by official union bodies is just not possible at this point.
The present structure of TUSC tries to overcome this problem by enshrining the participation of named leading trade unionists on the TUSC national steering committee in a personal capacity, with provisions to replicate this in local steering committees or branches.
Decisions are taken only on a consensus basis. This federal approach has worked well to date, with no organisation or trade unionist involved feeling that they have been 'bounced' into lending their name to an action taking place under the banner of TUSC.
However it is not an ideal arrangement as TUSC develops in the future. One dilemma is how to involve individual supporters of TUSC who are not leading trade unionists or members of the Socialist Party or the Socialist Workers Party (who both have representation on the steering committee), while not diluting the role of the trade unions as currently enshrined.
The TUSC Independent Socialists Network was established to give representation on the steering committee for individual supporters of TUSC but further development is necessary, for example, establishing a representative basis for a decision-making national conference.
But it is wrong to say, as some submissions to the Reviewing TUSC's Structures discussion imply, that TUSC is 'narrow' - out of 384 applications to be a TUSC candidate since 2010 only two have been turned down - or 'undemocratic'. What is involved here are different methods of organisation.
It is worth recalling that ex-Labour deputy leader John Prescott saw the 'one member, one vote' constitutional changes which neutered the unions' role in the Labour Party as more significant in changing Labour than the abolition of its socialist 'Clause Four'. These issues need to be patiently discussed, and the TUSC steering committee is committed to doing that.
In fact, the federal character of TUSC and its consensus method guarantees unity with equal rights to both the organisations and the serious trade union figures involved, not the domination of one group over others. And the steering committee has sought to widen the socialist organisations participating, where they represent some forces, approaching both the Communist Party of Britain, the main force behind the Morning Star newspaper, and Respect.
But these discussions should not distract from what hopefully will be the focus of the conference. That is, as the RMT argues, to work out how to secure "widespread trade union support for TUSC", which can "provide a nucleus" for "the hard, long-term task of rebuilding political representation for working class people and communities" in the harshest period for workers since the depression-wracked 1930s.
TUSC website: www.tusc.org.uk
In The Socialist 12 September 2012:
Fight against austerity
Socialist Party news and analysis
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party feature: TUSC
Socialist Party youth and students
Socialist Party workplace news
Fighting NHS cuts
Socialist Party reports and campaigns
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