report: conference on working-class political representation

by Chris Kane

About 120 people attended Saturday’s conference, which was called by the RMT rail union.  It was much smaller than a similar event held a few years ago and unfortunately clashed with the anti-war march and the Socialist Workers Party conference.  The event itself was not built widely with a clear agenda or purpose.  The contrast between the vibrant militant youth of the anti-war mobilisations and this conference could not have been greater: it was veterans of the left, mostly over forty, male and white.   But there was an open and extensive debate and plenty of time was allowed for contributions from the floor.

RMT leader Bob Crow opened the event by responding to criticism by a 90 year old communist who said that “this is just a talking shop”. Crow defended it on the basis that “there is a need to talk to break down the barriers of the past”.  He said that if New Labour were to found itself as a political party today there would hardly be a “trade union which would affiliate”.  It was in his view a thoroughly capitalist party and could not be reclaimed: he praised John McDonnell MP and Jeremy Corbyn MP, and pointed out that when they are gone, there will be no similar people to replace them.

Crow stated that “unless we change society into a socialist society then you will lose the gains made in times of slump and recession”  On the key question of an alternative for the labour movement Crow said there was a need for a new working class party.  He himself and others had been “in and out of more parties than Amy Winehouse” but he said this was not a failure: it was part of a “pathway to a mass political party”… which he did not know how long it would take to create. Three months, three years or twenty years? In his own personal opinion what was needed was a People’s Charter. He felt if the left could not work together around such immediate needs outlined in a charter then it is unlikely it could unite in a new party.  Crow also lambasted Ken Livingstone’s initiative “Progressive London”. Noting that nobody in the hall would be considered “progressive” enough to be invited, he reminded the fake “Red Ken” that progressive should not include “calling on people to cross picket lines when they want to fight privatisation and defend their rights”.

Brian Caton of the POA (Prison Officers’ Association) gave a militant speech focused on the issue of what had happened at the Trade Union Congress over the motion for a general strike for the Trade Union Freedom Bill – “There are people on the UNITE delegation who should hang their head in shame,  sitting on voting cards to deny democratic rights”. He pointed out that their call for a general strike was “not a joke” and they would be raising it again – but he went further stating that “rank and file trade union members need to reclaim their unions from the leaders”.  Caton was clearer on representation, arguing that the time was now to take the initiative to set something up. As part of this process he will be inviting a range of left parties to speak at a meeting at the POA conference so that delegates can hear what they have to say.

Mary Davis of the Communist Party of Britain – a leading labour historian – gave an interesting speech.  She said the crisis in working class representation was not new and that workers’ representation can taken different forms.  In particular we need to look beyond the foundation of the Labour Party; the labour movement was not always as it is now.  In particular the revolutionary tradition of Chartism, “TUC education for the commonwealth used to insist history started after Chartism” she pointed out.  Davis endorsed a new People ‘s Charter pointing to the fact that representation is not only about being in Parliament and called for building a “non sectarian movement of resistance”.

John McDonnell MP also endorsed the idea of a People’s Charter; he praised direct action as a necessary means to defend working class people. McDonnell described the steps which had taken place to form the Trade Union Coordinating group in parliament, and the united front perspectives of the Labour Representation Committee. McDonnell emphasised that he was “an optimist: you need to be or you end up in the Big Brother house”.

The question of the proposed new People’s Charter permeated the contributions from the floor.  The Socialist Party had the biggest turn out of the left groups and made a number of contributions: they pointed out that a petition as being proposed did not necessarily contradict a political initiative and called for standing at least fourteen or fifteen candidates backed by unions like the RMT. Smaller successes around the country at various times have shown there was potential to make gains.  Many speakers from various currents made this point: yes a new People’s Charter may be a good thing but we still need to mount a political challenge, especially to provide an alternative to the BNP.

There was a sense of frustration coming over from many speakers, expressing the desire that there could be  agreater level of unity achieved.  Colin Fox of the Scottish Socialist Party reminded the conference of what had been achieved in Scotland, giving us a snapshot of what could be done: we are, he argued, “punching beneath our weight”.   Despite calls on the RMT and others to take the initiative to found a new workers’ organisation, whether a workers’ party or workers’ representation committee, there is little indication this is about to happen in the immediate period.

To lay the blame at the door of the RMT for this situation would however be completely wrong.  It has done more than anyone to address the question, whatever its limitations.   If we are to look to the unions to solve the crisis of workers’ representation, and indeed save the left from itself, then we also need to consider the role of the other radical unions.  The Trotskyist Socialist Party control the leadership and machinery of the civil service union PCS, none of whose leaders or leading figures attended this conference.  Here is a union which could also take the initiative on workers’ representation, but so far the Socialist Party has done next to nothing on the question through PCS and has indeed sabotaged some efforts.

The main focus seems to be with the People’s Charter initiative to be launched at the end of the month.  Of course if it remains a bureaucratic top down initiative, which denies participation and involvement of those it seeks to represent, it will wither on the vine like other traditional left failures.  However if this initiative can unite the radical trade unions and the left of the labour movement, social movements etc. then it may increase the potential for a new formation which can cohere into an alternative to New Labour. The RMT itself has a policy to convene regional conferences on workers’ representation and select candidates for elections. The original Chartist movement born in 1838 was built through mass rallies and mobilisations which elected delegates to the Convention of the Industrious Classes, which was to oversee the struggle for the original People’s Charter.  If the existing RMT policy can be fused with the new Chartist proposal, then we will be learning well from the experience of the most revolutionary movement the English working class has ever seen.

10 thoughts on “report: conference on working-class political representation

  1. It seems to me that the Conference was made up of people who are completely remote from the real working class in Britain today. You can tell the frustration present from the report, and the fact that the solution is seen as yet another BIG new idea, this time a People’s Charter, which will magically transform the situation.

    I watched the TUC Conference, and the debate over the Trade Union Freedom Bill. It would be nuts to call a General Strike for that under present conditions. Trotsky had to warn against raising the demand ofr such General Strikes in Germany when no real basis existed for them, and when their inevitable failure to mobilise anyone only demonstrated the weakness of the movement, and demoralised those who did take part.

    Not only have the last few years, even in Scotland, demonstrated that the British working class is not some militant, revolutionary force, just waiting for the right leaders to come along, but where the Left has put up candidates they have been humiliated, usually scoring far fewer votes even than the BNP. I speak to ordinary workers every day, former miners, production line workers, people who live on run down Council estates. There is not a single proposal discussed here that any of those people would have any affinity to whatsoever. They are not looking for some BIG new idea, they would settle for not for small, but practical solutions to the problems they face in their everyday lives, be it on their housing estate, or in their workplace. Those are the solutions the left should be addressing itself to if it wants to break out of the current situation, and that will not come from BIG actions and ideas, but from day to day building of workplace organisation that wins small vistories, building communty organisations that rely on their own strength rather than pointless campaigns to demand the bourgeois state “does something”.

    Of course, some of these things also require attention to the BIG issues. Effective Trade UNion organisation at the workplace level is made more difficult by the anti-union laws. But its necessary to put the cart before the horse, to begin building that union organisation from the base up, and showing to workers that fact before simply calling on them to campaign on what to many remains an abstract issue, not directly connected to their daily problems. Its important here not to confuse the ordianry real workers with that tiny minority of union activists who DO understand that link.

    And, of course, Bob Crow is right, the LP is a Capitalist Party. It has always been so. But, the tens of thousands of ordinary workers who still make up its grass roots at the Branch level are not Capitalists. Usually, they are pretty poorly off workers who simply want to do something for their community – I make a distinction between these workers at the Branch level who engage in such activity and the politicos – often middle class – who engage in what they think is REAL politics at the CLP level. Nor are the millions of workers who still vote Labour capitalists.

    The root to the real working class runs through those ordinary Branch level LP members, it doesn’t run around them into yet another diversion up a blind alley.


  2. From what I recall the POA were proposing a one day general strike, if it had been passed it is possible it could gave generated a great deal of movement in key sectors during the campaign to biuld support on the issue. That in itself may well have developed, and been a focus for other issues of discontent. I have had to lead a number of disputes which were very difficult to deliver, but some times if you dont fight the only guranatee is you will loose as the saying goes.

    I agree Labour Party has always been a capitalist party, but it is certainly a different bourgeois party from the old one and as an arena of struggle it is much much diminished. Communists should not relate to it with fixed positions we need to be flexible in our approach.


  3. The CWI is hostile to entering formations as the Labor Party, on principle. They are waiting for a perfect, pure formation. They certainly aren’t the only ones.

    In the US, we’d kill to have even a corrupt labor party.


  4. Chris,

    The Stalinists too in Germany were proposing one day General Strikes it didn’t stop Trotsky arguing against them under the conditions, because they were bound to have the opposite effect to that desired. I am sure that there is a lot of anger amongst Trade Union activists that could have been mobilised, but, unfortunately, and this is the point, those activists constitute a tiny proportion of Trade Union members. Trotsky’s objections were basically two-fold a) the Stalinists were proposing general Strikes when the movement was in retreat, and b) they were calling them without any groundwork having been done beforehand to see if they might take-off.

    The Labour Movement in Britain I don’t think can be considered to be in retreat, but only because it is still trying to recover from being battered for the last 25 years i.e. there is little room left to retreat to. Now work has been done to prepare for or to determine whether such a strike would have any possibility of success. In fact, no such work could be undertaken. The work cannot be left to Trade Union burueacrats, and no workplace organisations exist that could undertake it. We have assorted “Broad left” groupings, but these are little more than election machines for various Trotskyist groups – which is one reason that fracture so easily when one group thinks its electoral chances are better on their own or in some other alliance – and are completely the wrong type of organisation to do such work. It is one thing I agree with Jim Denham about in some of his comments a while ago about the need to build rank and file organisations at the base which are capable of leading action.

    I see no more chance of any sizeable section of the working class supporting a call for a General Strike, even a one day General Strike on this issue, than there is of a sizeable number of workers voting for Left-wing candidates as an alternative to Labour. The sooner the left stops day-dreaming and fantasising about such things the sooner it can get on with the real job or rebuilding the Labour Movement from the grass roots upwards in the workplaces and in the LP Branches.

    We need to build the bedrock organisations not envisage some coup d’etat at the higher levels, or some St. Paul like conversion of large masses of workers. That means Marxists building not even Trade Union branches, but first of all building workplace rank and file organisations even of just a half dozen people to begin with that stimulate self-activity and reliance in the workplace, and which can be scaled up to the Branch and higher structures of the union providing a solid basis. We need to build the LP Branches by tuirning them outwards to the communities of which they are an integral part, to encourage the building of Tenants and other community organisations that again stimulate self-activity, and which can be brought together within a geographical area to support each other, and to present an alternative power base to the local Council Chamber.

    But, that requires an orientation to what Marx and Engels argued for, building the Labour Movement and the Workers Party, and that stands in complete opposition to the mentality of the sectarian Marxism of the last 100 years which has instead focussed on “building the Party”.


  5. Renegade Eye,

    But you do have the Democrats. If you concentrate on the kind of grass roots activity I have set out above it is not the political orientation of the Party that is important, but its connections to the masses. The political orientation of the Party does not prevent you working in locals to encourage ordinary workers there to encourage workers self-activity by setting up tenants groups, housing co-ops (apparently even Bernie Madoff lives in a Housing Co-op), and other such basic forms of workers ownership and control. And such activity is dialectical in my experience. You get a few existing activists to engage, and from it you recruit several more, which widens and strengthens you ability to engage in further such actions. It also means that in action you get to speak to ordinary workers and explain, look I don’t agree with the bums who run this Party, but lots of workers look to it for now for a lead, so here I am.


  6. The Democrats get 90 percent of union cash but that’s only a tiny amount of their total. The unions have much less control over its policies than corporate lobbyists do, and there’s no structural links making it a classic labour/social democrat party. Some unions also support right wing candidates, eg. firefighters supporting pro-war Joe Lieberman against the Democrat Lamont in the 2006 senate race.


  7. I’m not a member of the Democrats. I live in England, and I’m a member of the LP. To Redtrev, my point is that the majority of workrs in the US – to the extent that they look to anyone – look to the Democrats. As I said above, to me the issue of what the politics of the Party are at the top is irrelevant compared to who makes up the Party at the bottom, and from whom it derives its support.

    The German Democrats were an openly bourgeois party with none of the things you describe as making a classic/social democratic or labour party. Yet, Marx and Engels and their supporters joined them, becoming as they described it, its Left-Wing. In defending their actions and recommending a similar approach to US socialists at the end of the 19th century, Engels said that their reason for joining was that it was the Party the German workers looked to at that time, and Marx and Engels wanted to use it as a means of being with, and speaking to those workers.

    I think Marx and Engels were right in their approach, and their statement in the Communist Manifesto that the Communists do not form separate parties to the Worerks Parties. I think that Lenin, and his followers since have been wrong to abandon that approach, and the fact that both the Labour Movement and the Marxists are in a far worse position now than they were even in Marx’s day is clear evidence of it.


  8. Arthur I agree with you that communist must avoid sectism and self-isolation, though I dont agree with your interpretation of Marx and the Germany Democrats, this was in 1848 Germanyin the course of a revolution against absolutism. The communists also changed their views in the course of the revolution, (learning what the Chartists had already learned from 1832), the need to forge an independent workers party. Also reflected in the theory of the revolution in permanance. I dont think it would be right to take a fixed particular of this tactic and turn it into a universal. After all Marx did not have a unilinear view of history but a multi-linear one.
    Similarly our attitude to social-democratic/labour parties is not something a-historical, these formations have also evolved and changed in history and we need to think critically about our relationship. Participation in things like the John4leader campaign, intervention in arenas of struggle which exist is absolutely essential but we also need to recognise what is new and what is not. Marx was wrote in the programme of the French Workers Party that “That this collective appropriation can arise only from the revolutionary action of the productive class – or proletariat – organized in a distinct political party”. The existing Labour Party is a far cry from an independent workers party.


  9. Chris,

    I have dealt with these arguments at length here . Anyone interested can read them to save space here.

    To summarise, yes, of course, we are in favour of an independent Workers Party, but the question is how do you get it. I think the notion of what the workers Party is has been distorted by Leninism to mean an exclusively Marxist Party, and that certainly is not what Marx meant by it. It is not an a-historical concept as you quite rightly say, which is why the Leninst view is wrong. What it is will vary in time and space depending upon the development of the working class, and the class struggle. It may be that as at the beginning of the twentieth century with the growth of “Marxist” ideas – though I would agree with Draper that what passed for Marxism in the main Workers parties (including the Bolsheviks) was more akin to lassaleanism than Marxism – that such parties would be for all intents and purposes Marxist, that it would be a backward step to water down the program of such mass parties already based on such a programme simply for the sake of a few more members. But, that time has long since passed. We have a new reality to deal with much closer to that faced by Marx and Engels in the 1840’s to 1860’s, and that requires us to give up on the idea that a Workers party has to be some programmatically pure Marxist Party, or even close to it, and instead work with what the reality is, Workers parties with bourgeois, even right-wing bouregois programmes. You cannot simply skip around the problem of the development of workers class conscioussness.

    I know that the AWL used this argument about Marx and Engels and the German Democrats, about them changing their minds and so on. Its bunkum. Read Engels comments about it towards the end of his life, and trhe way he recommends the same approach to the US socialists. That’s how much he and Marx had changed their minds about it.


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