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Editorial of the Socialist
Disaffiliate from pro-capitalist Labour
In a speech at the 2013 congress of the TUC, PCS president Janice Godrich set out the reality of Austerity Britain: 13 million people live in poverty, up by a million since the Coalition came to power; 1.8 million families are on housing waiting lists; half a million people are now reliant on food banks; one million workers are languishing on zero-hour contracts; 2.5 million are unemployed and 6.8 million more people are looking for more work.
This is the context for a key debate at the TUC congress - the question of coordinated action against austerity and the general strike - and the reason why the right-wing trade union leadership cannot smother it.
Ed Miliband's speech at the TUC has brought another issue to the fore - the relationship between the unions and Labour.
It follows a summer which has seen debate on the issue rumble on, sparked by the Falkirk dispute which saw Labour accuse Unite, Britain's biggest union and Labour's biggest backer, of unfairly attempting to influence the outcome of the selection process.
No case of wrongdoing was found against Unite either by the police or by an internal inquiry. But that did not stop Miliband launching a terminal attack on the trade union bloc affiliation to the Labour Party, dancing, as he does, to the Tories' and big business' tune. He wants individual trade unionists to 'opt-in' to supporting Labour.
This is to be debated at a special Labour conference in the spring.
The Falkirk affair was not just an outrageous attack on the unions. Ending trade unions' collective voice within the Labour Party represents the conclusion of the political transformation of Labour from a party based on workers but with a pro-capitalist leadership, into an out and out pro-big business party.
Trade union affiliation (when democratically exercised by union members) enshrined the ability of the working class through the unions to control its political representatives.
While Labour will undoubtedly miss the significant amounts of money it receives from the unions - the GMB for example is to cut its affiliation from £1.2 million to £150,000 - the proposals pose a much more fundamental question: how can the working class control its political representatives? How can workers, through the unions, their main organisations, have a collective political voice?
The trade unions still have a 49% share of the Labour conference vote (down from 90%). However, changes have meant conferences no longer have any say over party policy.
But Miliband is under pressure from the Tories and the Blairites to remove even these vestiges of the affiliated trade unions' collective voice within the party.
In a recent article left-wing writer Owen Jones calls on Labour to dramatically change its programme and to provide "more radicalism" and "bread-and-butter socialism".
But he sets out no mechanism by which the Labour leadership can be forced to change course from its current position - which is to maintain the Con-Dems' devastating cuts if Labour comes to power after the 2015 general election.
In the past trade union branches would send delegates to constituency Labour parties, which were a forum to debate policy and influence national decisions.
The introduction of 'one member one vote' in 1994 and other measures overturned this democratic structure.
Since then party membership has fallen dramatically, particularly following the Labour government's invasion of Iraq, but contributed to by Labour's introduction of tuition fees, initiation of privatisation in the NHS and maintenance of the anti-trade union laws.
Unite at least had a plan of recruiting thousands to the Labour party in order to try and reclaim it for the working class.
But the union's strategy was seriously challenged when the small number of Labour councillors who defied the local leaderships and voted against cuts were suspended or expelled from Labour groups and the party. In Falkirk this strategy of Unite came across a further barrier.
The Socialist Party believes that the Labour Party cannot be reclaimed. New Labour has closed all the democratic avenues that once existed.
We argue that a new mass workers' party is needed to give workers a collective political voice.
Unfortunately, despite all the abuse from Labour leaders towards the unions, the Unite leadership has not come out clearly against Miliband's attempts to destroy the remnants of a collective voice for the trade union movement.
However, Unite leader Len McCluskey was correct when he recently said: "The relationship that we have with the Labour Party is on a collective basis.
"That's what trade unions operate on - collectivism - and it's important that people don't try to [change] collectivism to individualism".
Len needs to draw the necessary conclusions from this and lead his union in opposition to Miliband. The members of affiliated unions should be allowed to debate the question of disaffiliation and all trade unionists should debate how the political funds are used. Non-political trade unionism is not the answer.
Len is not the only leader of an affiliated union to react to Miliband's attack. GMB general secretary Paul Kenny responded to the right-wing press, smashing the idea that it is somehow undemocratic for the unions to affiliate to Labour.
He correctly made the point that trade unions have many more members than all the main political parties put together!
Miliband has attempted to paint the proposed move to individual affiliations as a beautiful flowering of democracy within the Labour party. But it is a deliberate step to remove trade union influence inside the party.
Given the degree to which political parties are discredited and distrusted most people will struggle to share Miliband's mass membership vision for his party.
According to the latest British Social Attitudes survey more people are saying they are interested in politics while scepticism towards parties has also increased.
Only 18% said they trusted the government to regularly place the country's needs above their own party's interests.
One indication of support for building a workers' political voice within the affiliated unions came at the 2012 manufacturing conference of the GMB.
Socialist Party member Tony Mulhearn received a standing ovation when he addressed the members. In his speech he castigated Labour for offering no alternative to Tory cuts and said: "If they are not prepared to fight to defend our class with the same determination that Cameron and Osborne defend their class then the trade unions should break the link and set about creating a genuine party of the working class.
"Already candidates standing on the no-cuts platform of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition are making their mark in elections.
"I stood in the Liverpool mayoral campaign, and won nearly 5,000 votes, coming ahead of the Tories and Ukip.
"Such a party could be dedicated to defending the gains established in the post war period, repealing trade union laws and fighting for the establishment of a just civilised socialist society where everyone could share in the fabulous wealth currently in the hands of the top 1%."
All Miliband's talk of a 'different vision', of 'one nation' and about 'working people' cannot hide the fact that Labour is committed to maintaining the capitalist system which means anti-working class policies.
Only fundamental change to how society is run in a socialist direction and the building of mass organisations of the working class to make that change can bring relief from this misery.
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