will the rmt fight?

Ahead of today’s RMT conference on political representation, Steve Freeman responds to our very critical coverage of its “No2EU: yes to democracy” initiative.


The Rail Maritime and Transport Union has fought the bosses. It has taken industrial action many times. It has opposed the policies of New Labour. The union has built a reputation as a fighting union. At the last European election the RMT entered the fray taking the fight into the political arena. The RMT opposed the pro-capitalist EU and the main capitalist parties, Labour, Tories and Lib Dems. It provided a militant working class alternative to the BNP.

The RMT has given a lead to the political left. A weak and divided socialist movement was pulled into greater unity than at any time since the Socialist Alliance in 2001. Around the banner of the RMT stood the Socialist Party, Communist Party of Britain, Socialist Alliance, Alliance for Green Socialism and part of Respect. The RMT should be recognised and given credit for the lead it has given to the working class movement. In the future we need more of this and better next time.

Should RMT contest the election?

Neither the trade unions nor the working class will win the general election. The capitalist class will continue in power either through a Labour or Tory government or a hung parliament and capitalist coalition. If the RMT stands in whatever guise it is highly unlikely to win a seat. Elections cannot be won without years of political work in local working class communities and without a national political profile.

The purpose of an RMT general election campaign is not based on false hope of victory. It is based on political realism. The biggest threat facing the working class is the capitalist crisis. Billions have been spent pumping up zombie banks. The capitalists are determined to make the working class pay. Their next government Labour or Tory will be determined to extract every pound of flesh from working class people. All capitalist parties prescribe the same medicine – major cuts in the public sector, redundancies, mass unemployment, privatisations and tax hikes.

All the capitalist parties will use the election to win the support for a programme of cuts. Each rival party will try to prove its plan for cuts and privatisations is better for business and deserves electoral support. The aim of the game is to soften up the working class and win the argument that there is no alternative. The working class must be ready to accept the nasty medicine or things will get even worse.

The next government will claim a new mandate to attack workers and their trade unions. Capitalist economic policies have to be fought politically and not just by trade union methods. The election is an opportunity to campaign against cuts and mobilise and organise national working class opposition. It is an opportunity to build a more confident and militant movement ready for battles that will follow. Making a powerful case against cuts, privatisation and unemployment and against capitalism itself is one aspect. This is not enough.

The best form of defence is attack. The legitimacy of their political system must be challenged. It supports and sustains capitalism. The rotten and corrupt parliamentary system must be attacked. We must mobilise against it. There must be no more trust in the parliamentary constitution built on the rule of the banks and not the democracy of the people. The reform of parliament must become a great working class crusade. The election is an opportunity to launch the crusade.

Yes 2 Democracy

Many workers agree it is madness to make cuts, redundancies and privatisations at a time of serious economic crisis. It is extremely wasteful to pump money into failed banks, fund imperialist wars and pay for the huge burden of national debt. The alternative is to declare war on unemployment and poverty by redistributing billions to invest in jobs and communities. Action must be taken against failed bosses whose have corruptly stolen millions in pay bonuses.

None of this will be possible under the present parliamentary system. The ‘constitution of the Crown’ enforces the rule of the City and the bankers. Ministers and Whitehall mandarins implement the policies of the City through a powerful executive which effectively controls parliament. Parliament has proved to be corrupt, feeble and ineffectual. Without radical reform which transfers power to the people, the rule of the banks will continue unchecked. Without real democracy the people will continue to be robbed on a huge scale.

Workers need to be organised in trade unions to defend their rights. Anti-union laws must be scrapped. Even so there is no trade union solution to the lack of democracy and the powerlessness of the people. The solution is political and begins with political struggle for radical democratic and social change.

The RMT was pointing in the right direction when it raised the slogan “Yes2Democracy” for the Euro-elections. However we are entitled to ask whether the RMT was serious about democracy. The slogan implies the RMT intended to fight for it. Has the battle now been won? Has the RMT given up on democracy and surrendered? Or was the RMT just being opportunist – simply adapting an easy populist slogan to win a few votes but without serious intention behind it.

The RMT must continue the struggle it began in the Euro election by forming a Y2D alliance. This would be an alliance of trade unionists, socialists, environmentalists and progressive campaigns standing in the general election in defence of democratic rights and civil liberties, against the anti-union laws, in defence of public services, against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and for the radical extension of democracy and public ownership in all areas of our lives.

Towards a republican socialist party

Today Britain has a broken society, broken economy and a failing parliamentary democracy. There is a crisis of democracy. The MPs expenses scandal has exposed corruption. There is now a widespread distrust and lack of confidence in parliament. The BNP is ready to exploit this situation. But it brings possibilities for a new movement of the left to win the case for republican socialism.

Chartism was the first working class ‘Yes2Democracy’ party. Chartism was able to mobilise a mass popular movement for democratic rights. It was highly political because it aimed at changing the distribution of political power in favour of the working class. The struggle started by Chartism has not been completed. The system still excludes the working class from power.

Building a mass democratic movement for genuine representation for the working class is now a prime task for the post Labour politics. A new Chartist party for the 21st century will have to go further than the old Chartism and embrace republicanism and socialism. The general election will provide an opportunity to prepare the ground for a new working class party to organise against the next government whoever it is.

10 thoughts on “will the rmt fight?

  1. Steve is wrong in two counts in his analysis of the RMT taking a lead on workers representation. The Commune has long argued that the radical trade unions could take a lead on workers representation, we argued that organised labour could substantially subdue the damaging sectarianism of the socialist organisations. Indeed the RMT adopted a policy at its AGM originating in the miitant LUL London Region to organise a democratic decision making conference on workers representation with regaional conferences selecting candidates etc. Howeve that is not what happened: Steve writes that “The RMT was pointing in the right direction when it raised the slogan “Yes2Democracy” – this is not accurate. The RMT did not organise anything – RMT branches and members had no say, it was all done behind very closed doors. THIS WAS NOT AN RMT INITIATIVE.

    Furthermore it was not called “Yes2Democracy! It was called NO2EU – “Yes2Democracy” – counterposing not the politics of class to the EU but the supposed advantages of the UK state, a body forged for the purposes of British imperialism. Any comparison between the internationalist, militiant class struggle movemenet of Chartism which besieged the British ruling class for a decade is frankly hyperbole. No2EU-Yes2Democracy represents all that is insular, narrow and parochial in the traditions of English socialism. The road to either workers representation or communist recomposition begins and leads nowhere near this political swamp!


  2. “The RMT opposed the pro-capitalist EU and the main capitalist parties, Labour, Tories and Lib Dems. It provided a militant working class alternative to the BNP.”

    No more than did the SLP. And what does ‘militant’ mean when it refers to electoral politics? Whatever it does mean, it evidently cannot mean ‘socialist’.

    “The solution is political and begins with political struggle for radical democratic and social change.”

    What does it mean to assert that the strugle “begins” in such a way – when what is meant is the struggle for a constitutional assembly. How does the author know that it will, or why does he believe that it must, begin in such a way?


  3. I’m sorry but this piece makes no sense at all – what does all this have to do with the shambolic NO2EU campaign? And would campaigning under a ‘Yes to Democracy’ slogan really work? Isn’t this just capitulation to the predominant discourse around Whitehall?


  4. Chris – “The Commune has long argued that the radical trade unions could take a lead on workers representation, we argued that organised labour could substantially subdue the damaging sectarianism of the socialist organisations.”

    I think it’s true that some of us have argued that… but some have also said that we shouldn’t rely on the official unions, radical or otherwise. David B, for example, has pointed out that outside Britain and it former colonies, few working class parties have been set up by the unions, and that there is therefore no a priori reason that such a path be considered the only available one.


  5. He is wrong. Even if it were the case it proves very little unless you have a linear view of historical development that excludes various possibilies.
    The Commune has argued in various publications in favour of this possibility such as at the previous workers representation conference and the last LRC conference. I dont know what you mean by “rely” on official unions, are you saying we take a sectarian approach to the actual organisations workers themselves have created and look to socialist organisations, largely middle class and motly sectarian, as the path to workers representation today? Or await spontainous combustion to solve the problem of the driving of the working class out of the political life of the counrty?


  6. There is a very nice letter from Engels to Florence Wischnewetsky about the American labour movement which I think has some interesting points of relevance to this whole question of working class political representation:

    My preface will of course turn entirely on the immense stride made by the American working man in the last ten months, and naturally also touch H.G. [Henry George] and his land scheme. But it cannot pretend to deal exhaustively with it. Nor do I think the time has come for that. It is far more important that the movement should spread, proceed harmoniously, take root and embrace as much as possible the whole American proletariat, than that it should start and proceed from the beginning on theoretically perfectly correct lines. There is no better road to theoretical clearness of comprehension than “durch Schaden klug tererden” [to learn by one’s own mistakes]. And for a whole large class, there is no other road, especially for a nation so eminently practical as the Americans. The great thing is to get the working class to move as a class; that once obtained, they will soon find the right direction, and all who resist, H.G. or Powderly, will be left out in the cold with small sects of their own. Therefore I think also the K[nights] of L[abour] a most important factor in the movement which ought not to be pooh-poohed from without but to be revolutionised from within, and I consider that many of the Germans there have made a grievous mistake when they tried, in face of a mighty and glorious movement not of their creation, to make of their imported and not always understood theory a kind of alleinseligmachendes dogma and to keep aloof from any movement which did not accept that dogma. Our theory is not a dogma but the exposition of a process of evolution, and that process involves successive phases. To expect that the Americans will start with the full consciousness of the theory worked out in older industrial countries is to expect the impossible. What the Germans ought to do is to act up to their own theory –if they understand it, as we did in 1845 and 1848–to go in for any real general working-class movement, accept its faktische starting points as such and work it gradually up to the theoretical level by pointing out how every mistake made, every reverse suffered, was a necessary consequence of mistaken theoretical views in the original programme; they ought, in the words of The Communist Manifesto, to represent the movement of the future in the movement of the present. But above all give the movement time to consolidate, do not make the inevitable confusion of the first start worse confounded by forcing down people’s throats things which at present they cannot properly understand, but which they soon will learn. A million or two of workingmen’s votes next November for a bona fide workingmen’s party is worth infinitely more at present than a hundred thousand votes for a doctrinally perfect platform. The very first attempt–soon to be made if the movement progresses–to consolidate the moving masses on a national basis will bring them all face to face, Georgites, K. of L., Trade Unionists, and all; and if our German friends by that time have learnt enough of the language of the country to go in for a discussion, then will be the time for them to criticise the views of the others and thus, by showing up the inconsistencies of the various standpoints, to bring them gradually to understand their own actual position, the position made for them by the correlation of capital and wage labour. But anything that might delay or prevent that national consolidation of the workingmen’s party–no matter what platform–I should consider a great mistake, and therefore I do not think the time has arrived to speak out fully and exhaustively either with regard to H.G. or the K. of L.
    London, December 28, 1886


  7. On the ‘trade union based party idea’

    – Well, yes, it is true that such formations are rare except in Britain and ex-dominions like New Zealand and Australia.

    – The talk of the middle class left vs. the unions is all well and good. But firstly I have never advocated simply merging existing groups with their current structures and politics, that would fail for the same reasons the Socialist Alliance did. But the union party is not much of an alternative. There is no such thing as “working class political independence” if the politics espoused are statist and undemocratic. Even if emerging from the labour movement, a programme which supports the British state is not an “independent working class” standpoint, it supports part of the ruling class.

    – Those who advocate union-based parties and are trying to build it now are quite explicitly trying to build a Labour Party Mark II, the idea is that the union subcontracts part of its activities to some electoral party, creating a division between industrial and parliamentary wings.

    – Even a union like the RMT has some pretty undemocratic cliques in it, such as that which ran No2EU. It is not enough to say that this is not an RMT initiative… it is very true indeed, and important to say, that the mass of the membership were not consulted or involved, but the people who got it going were among the committees of the union, not some outside force. In fact, in each union are the representatives or fellow-travellers of such groups, but the problem is their statist and elitist politics rather than the mere fact of belonging to one or another party.

    – Of course we should not ignore the existing labour movement, that would be folly. But there is a difference between seeking union backing – as in the case of the SSP – or trying to win over members of unions to a party programme, than a party which is organised through the structures of unions. The first two cases allow anyone to participate in discussing and elaborating its programme, whereas the latter is limited to only unionised workers (and indeed, therefore, the employed) in certain unions, and most likely with not too much control over it. I would not like to see, for example, a union which pulls the stunts Unite does having control over a socialist or working-class party.

    – That Engels quote is vague and could be used to justify just about any initiative so long as it comes from within the labour movement, what it does not demonstrate is whether there is any particular dynamic within the RMT/No2EU thing towards anything decent. Where is the “process of evolution” here? The fact that Engels expressed the sentiment is also neither here nor there, we have to work it out for ourselves.


  8. “Those who advocate union-based parties and are trying to build it now are quite explicitly trying to build a Labour Party Mark II, the idea is that the union subcontracts part of its activities to some electoral party, creating a division between industrial and parliamentary wings.”

    Can someone tell me when I have ever advocated such a thing????????????


  9. Of course you have not Chris, you have regularly argued against a Labour Party Mark II. But the point is that you are not among:

    “Those who advocate union-based parties and are trying to build it now”

    By which is clearly meant the RMT-CPB-SP initiative which held the conference yesterday and ran No2EU.


  10. thinking about it, I think it’d be much better for any party to have roots in branch affiliations, rather than national unions. This would involve much greater accountability, and make it much easier and more appealing for grassroots members to influence or get involved in any such party’s activities – including by withdrawing support if necessary.


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