National Shop Stewards’ Conference

The Socialist Party gets it half right

The decision taken by the National Shop Stewards Network at a special conference on 22nd January to put its growing weight behind a national anti-cuts campaign, with organised labour at its core, is welcome news.  The rising tide of popular support amongst union militants for the proposal to break the link with Labour – first brought to prominence by the CPGB-ML and belatedly adopted by the erstwhile Labour entrists of the Militant/Socialist Party (SP) brotherhood – is a tide that will for the moment lift all those who appear to be cutting the chain anchoring them to the Labour party.  The cannier Trotskyites of the SP have caught the mood of the most militant sections of the class, demanding that resistance be founded on a refusal to countenance ANY cuts, with no special pleading tolerated for the hundreds of Labour-run councils preparing to wipe out jobs and services.  By leading this charge from the front, the SP have delivered what could turn out to be the death blow to their Trot brethren in the already seriously ailing SWP, whose Right to Work (RtW) campaign is so visibly in hock to ‘left’ Labourism.  In so doing, however, the SP is also sowing the seeds of its own eventual destruction, as the working class learns to distinguish false friends from true.

The SP’s enthusiasm for “a new workers’ party” is a relatively recent development, following on from years in which the Militant line continued to parrot the notion that Labour is the “mass party of the working class” and not, as Lenin explained, a bourgeois party staffed by workers.  Many of the SP stalwarts at the National Stop Stewards Network (NSSN) conference harked back to the ‘80s, when Militant was prominent in the poll tax uprisings and a Militant-run Liverpool council ordered the building of hundreds of council homes in defiance of central government.  A great deal of individual courage and sacrifice was indeed displayed in those struggles, primarily by the working class itself, but also by some councillors under the Militant spell.  Yet because Trotskyism throughout it all continued to corral the movement behind Labour reformism – no matter how thick the ‘revolutionary’ gloss – the end result politically was to keep the Labour party afloat as the first wave of overproduction crisis started to bite.  This was a tense moment for bourgeois rule, and it was precisely in major working class strongholds like Liverpool where imperialism most crucially relied upon Labour to keep proletarian anger running down the social democratic drain.  Helping to shore up working class support for Labour in such areas helped capitalism over a very bumpy period.

Yet those in the SP who now announce that Labour cannot, after all, be “changed from within”, continue to stake their political credibility on their own supposed ‘golden age’ of the ‘80s.  In this they are in essence no different from those around RtW and the Coalition of Resistance (CoR) who still nurse dreams of resurrecting ‘old’ Labour from the ruins of Blairism.  ‘Old’ Labour enthusiasts all take as their centre of gravity the myth of post-war Labour’s ‘golden age’, when the Attlee government helped the British bourgeoisie escape the spectre of communist revolution by portraying the temporary concession of a welfare state as the New Jerusalem, simultaneously cajoling British workers into ignoring the treatment being meted out by imperialism to their brothers and sisters in Ireland, India, Greece and Malaya. The Militant myth of the glorious ‘80s is no more based in fact than the ‘old’ Labour myth of Clem Attlee’s New Jerusalem.  Further, the SP’s insistence on blinding itself to the chauvinist thread running through the more recent Lindsey protests, acknowledging only the (clearly admirable) class struggle aspect, shows how unready this Trotskyite party remains to challenge the close links between the labour aristocracy and imperialism. 

That the SP has not shifted from its fundamentally left social democratic foundations was demonstrated recently during the Unite union’s leadership election, when it refused support to the one candidate openly questioning the union’s link with Labour, preferring to support the Labour machine man on the spurious basis that this would avoid an open right winger crawling in through a split in the left.  Yet it is precisely this phony argument which is used by all those whom the SP now denounces for staying in bed with prevaricating Labour councillors: Times are hard and it’s better to be kicked by your friends than your enemies!

The struggle at NSSN conference

The foregoing precautionary notes on the SP’s glaring unsuitability for the job of leading the working class in the task of emancipating itself are not intended to obscure the progressive character of the overwhelming support – 305 to 89 – won by the resolution fielded by the majority on NSSN’s steering committee.  The majority resolution argued that

“…it is now time to … take our work ‘out to the wider community’. We believe that the way to continue carrying out our founding aim “to support trade unions in their campaigns and disputes” is now clearly centred on the fight to STOP ALL CUTS whether through redundancy, reorganisation or privatisation. We believe that two sections are key to stopping cuts:

“1) Trade unions at local, regional and national level (and trades councils) with the potential power of 6 million organised workers, who can organise mass strikes and coordinated joint action.

“2) Anti-cuts campaigns against cuts in services, and including students unions, tenants and pensioners organisations, welfare claimants and disability groups, which can all initiate demonstrations, occupations and other direct action without being bound by legal ballots and other restrictions (as shown graphically by the recent student events); or they can organise support to back up trade union actions to stop job cuts and save services.

“We therefore propose to … launch an ‘NSSN Anti-Cuts Campaign, bringing trade unions and communities together to save all jobs and services’…”

The arguments against this were many and varied, but certain common themes emerged in the course of the day. One such was the plaint, started by George Binette of Unison and echoed by various RtW and CoR types, that the labour movement is so much weaker than it was in the ‘80s and the Labour party so much further to the right that the NSSN would simply fall apart if it failed to find a way of accommodating wavering Labour councillors.  Insofar as this argument has any logic, it simply asserts that the only way to maintain unity in a period of reaction is to become more reactionary oneself! The vice president of the NUJ darkened the gloom by arguing that, with only 27% of the working class unionised, it was wrong for the majority to talk about the “sleeping giant of organised labour” – no such giant at present existed.  This ignorant view, which assumes that all those workers not currently enrolled in unions run for the most part by labour aristocrats are beyond redemption, again uses the weakness of the labour movement to justify toning down the attacks on Labour, instead of recognising Labour as the prime architect of that weakness. In one truly comical moment, a fellow proclaiming himself to be a “Marxist-Leninist-Trotskyist” (a mythical beast indeed) warned the conference not to follow the SP line against Labour lest we find ourselves back with the CPGB’s Class Against Class politics of the 1920s. Whilst this gives far too much credit to the SP, the poor chap might have actually succeeded in giving the conference ideas!  

Another recurring theme amongst the minority was the notion that any kind of political struggle within the NSSN threatened to deliver the shop stewards’ movement back into the sectarian morass, killing off the dream of a united struggle against capitalism waged by workers with actual shop-floor experience. This fear is of course not groundless, insofar as all the most vocal trends within the NSSN are Trotskyite, revisionist or Labour reformist in character.  All are varieties of social democracy, all spread disorganising ideas in the working class, and so all have a track record of disuniting the labour movement.

The SP is no exception to this rule, however hard it currently blows against Labour. But it is itself a workerist illusion to suppose that the best safeguard against such disunity is to make every political party leave its ideological guns out in the lobby and rely upon a gut consensus based on what Dave Chapple of the CWU (and for four and a half years chair of the NSSN) referred to as “the spirit of the unofficial walk out” which had boosted the confidence of his workmates in Royal Mail.  In what sounded like a resignation speech, Chapple said that if he walked away from the NSSN, it would be because his union branch would not take orders from an NSSN in which all major decisions would be taken previously at SP meetings. But this ignored the fact that a clear majority on the leading body endorsed the SP’s stand on the question of giving leadership in the anti-cuts movement. In an even stranger effort to turn things on their head, an RMT sister spoke of what she saw as a division between “domination” by the SP and the “democracy” of the rest – an original method of evading the discipline of accepting a majority vote that goes against you, and an odd way to promote unity. Whilst she correctly drew attention to the sectarian “turf wars” between rival Trots as a force for disunity, the solution is not to marginalise partisan struggle but to raise the political maturity with which it is conducted.  Breaking the stranglehold of Labour upon the unions is a crucial first step in raising the level of political struggle in the labour movement. 

Tony Mulhearne of the PCS gave a straight answer to the complaints about SP “imposition”, pointing out that anyone who tries to change somebody else’s mind could be accused of trying to “impose” his point of view.  To which we should add another thought, at the risk of comparing a small development with a much larger development.  For much of 1917, the Soviets were dominated by the Mensheviks.  During this period Lenin’s Bolsheviks did not threaten to withdraw their support from the Soviets, or raise a hue and cry about the Mensheviks “dominating” the Soviets and “imposing” their own reformist line.  Instead they persisted in their struggle to build the vanguard party of the new type, confident that as the revolutionary crisis matured the workers and peasants would in decisive numbers come to recognise the Bolshevik watchwords of Peace, Land and Bread as their own, and would learn to transform the Soviets into instruments of proletarian revolution.

Where next for the NSSN?

A week after the NSSN conference, police in Manchester felt obliged to surround the NUS President Aaron Porter in order to defend him from the wrath of his own demonstrating student members.  The free political lesson this provided for students – on the true role of Labour careerists who pretend to ‘lead opposition’ to cuts whilst relying upon capitalist state protection when that pretence is rumbled – is the same lesson currently being rubbed home in hundreds of local councils where ‘ConDem’ cuts in jobs and services are being implemented by Labour councillors. The first obstacle blocking the resistance of students and workers to the capitalist cuts is the fifth column of Labour influence.

When NSSN campaigners at a Coventry against the Cuts meeting suggested putting pressure on the local council not to implement cuts, Labour councillors popped their heads up to protest.  By all means have a crack at the ConDem government, they said, but leave the Labour councils alone. Opposition to council cuts was not realistic as there was nothing local councillors could do. According to an SP report (which we have no reason to disbelieve) this resistance to a campaign against all cuts was then backed up by the SWP, who protested that “there are many Labour voters and most people aren’t opposed to all cuts”, so “for us to demand we’re opposed to all cuts at this stage would be a mistake”.  The report continues: “Emboldened by this attitude from those opposing the NSSN, the Labour councillor announced that the local Labour Party had coordinated with local trade union leaders to launch a joint Labour/Trade Union anti cuts campaign in Coventry” – a campaign, that is, NOT to fight all cuts, and designed to drive a wedge into the existing Coventry Against the Cuts effort!

If the NSSN sticks to its guns and faces down all efforts by Labour careerists and their allies to sow division in the anti-cuts campaign, this will be a major step forward in the struggle to break the link between organised labour and the Labour party.

Role of the RMT

A word remains to be said concerning the role of the RMT, which took the leading trade union role in founding the NSSN back in 2006.  Bob Crow’s attacks upon the anti working class record of Labour have not lost their edge since the collapse of the last Labour government, and he has repeatedly called for a campaign of non-cooperation with the cuts involving both unions and local communities.  The General Secretary was not present at the NSSN conference, however, his place being taken by the union’s President, Alex Gordon.

It certainly helped the majority cause that both Crow and Gordon gave the seal of approval at the eleventh hour, but Gordon’s speech served to remind us that breaking organisationally with the Labour party – the RMT has long been disaffiliated – does not neatly equate with breaking ideologically with social democracy.  Gordon earned warm applause by saying that the NSSN should remain inclusive and non-sectarian in line with its founding principles, and should not “take a spectator seat” in the campaign to resist the cuts. But when the NSSN spurns the spectator seat and enters the anti-cuts fray, what should be its attitude to those whose continued promotion of ‘left’ Labour threatens to weaken and disunite the working class, as is threatened for example in Coventry? Should it lead the rout of the Labour sectarians?  Or should it link arms with them – in the name of “non-sectarianism”, naturally.

Gordon appeared to suggest that the central purpose of founding the NSSN was to lend support to a campaign, led by the ‘left’ Labour MP John McDonnell, to push through the Trade Union Freedom Bill (TUFB).  The idea was to persuade parliament to moderate some of the worst aspects of the union-bashing laws put on the statute book by Thatcher and refined and consolidated by Blair.  This snowball in hell had as much chance of hitting its target as the latest left-Labour wheeze, a Bill to close some of the legal loopholes through which company lawyers are able to secure court injunctions against strikes.  In all such cases now the only real purpose served is to send militants off on a wild goose chase organised by ‘left’ Labour, distracting attention from the need to build workers’ resistance without kowtowing either to the courts or to Labour.

The TUFB distraction did indeed detain the NSSN briefly at the start of its life, but to suggest that it was the NSSN’s defining issue is to skew history somewhat.  If all that the NSSN had been set up for was to do a little parliamentary campaigning on behalf of the starlets of ‘left’ Labour, it would not have survived and grown as it has.  The spark which has kept the NSSN alive and kicking so far has been the crying need to build unions that are prepared to fight for the working class.  In practice, this can only happen by facing down opportunism within the unions’ leadership, and that cannot but entail a struggle to uproot Labour party influence – not a path down which the McDonnells and Corbyns of this world are about to lead us.  

However, Gordon’s skewed version of NSSN’s genesis will of course suit those who, despite RMT’s disaffiliation from Labour, set great store by the union’s special relationship with its “friends” at Westminster like McDonnell and company. The quid pro quo for the occasional union-friendly early day motion engineered by these friends in high places is, of course, the steady backwash of social democratic influence exercised upon the union.

Gordon shares with the SP a common refusal to acknowledge the existence of the “British Jobs for British Workers” chauvinism which compromised the class-struggle thrust of the Lindsey protests, preferring to flatter the spontaneity of workers rather than help release them from the burden of chauvinism put on their backs by Labour imperialism.  Worse, he is on record as supporting an Iraqi trade union federation which actively canvassed delegates to Labour conference NOT to call for the immediate withdrawal of British troops.  He is also on record as dismissing the Iraqi resistance as “shadowy bodies of armed men”.  Indeed, he actually managed to bounce his own union branch (Bristol Rail Branch) out of affiliation to the Stop the War Coalition for a year by his fanatical portrayal of anti-imperialist forces like Hizbollah as “terrorists”. 

All this makes it clear that, Labour party or no Labour party, Gordon’s track record of “awkward squad” militancy needs to be understood firmly in the context of his continued enslavement to social democracy. Whilst the RMT’s leading role within the NSSN is to be welcomed, workers will be well advised to remain vigilant against attempts from any quarter to steer the movement back onto the social democratic rocks.