‘full and democratic debate’: but when?

by David Broder

London’s Camden Centre was packed to the rafters on Saturday for the RMT conference on working-class political representation. The enthusiasm of its participants was, lamentably, much at odds with the dire initiative likely to be spawned by the event.


While RMT has conference policy to convene workers’ representation committees across the country to select candidates, this event, like a similar one in February, was a mere rally for the follow-up to the No2EU European election campaign. There were no resolutions or votes; there was minimal debate and no-one who had opposed or criticised No2EU was allowed to speak. As with the June election’s initiative, it seems that a small clique in the union around Bob Crow and Pat Sikorski, along with allies in the leadership of the Morning Star/Communist Party of Britain and the Socialist Party, will set the agenda for a General Election coalition.

According to an email circular sent to Socialist Party activists before the conference, on Tuesday the “post No2EU liaison group” agreed on the text of a leaflet entitled ‘Coalition to stand general election candidates’ and explicitly representing itself as the successor to No2EU. Although Crow endorsed this coalition in a personal capacity, he reportedly commented that the RMT is yet to discuss supporting such an initiative, and it was the SP and CPB rather than the union itself who distributed the leaflet on Saturday.

The purpose of the conference was therefore, apparently, to persuade the RMT to commit to supporting this campaign, on which all speakers except Jeremy Corbyn MP and Susan Press from the Labour Representation Committee were agreed: there were however differences in focus and tensions brought out in some of the speeches.

Love Labour’s lost

Former Militant/Labour MP Dave Nellist opened his remarks by commenting that there were not three mainstream parties, merely one pro-privatisation and cuts parties split into three wings. He said given the cynicism about the political class we ought not “leave it to the Esther Rantzens” to represent an alternative, but rather a new working class party.

Despite the apparent shoddiness of the No2EU lash-up, launched just a few of months before the European election, Nellist said that he had a “serious strategy: a serious attempt to start something new” and appeared to mean it. The plan is to bring more unions on board, such as the PCS civil service union and the Prison Officers’ Association, and build a new broad party based on trade union affiliations. For this reason, given the constitutional hurdles that had to be surmounted in PCS before it could take such an initiative, Nellist said we would not see “the launch of a new party with a full democratic structure before the election”.

He then went on to explain how the formation of the “original” Labour Party had taken some forty years and the process of union affiliations had been difficult before, but he hoped this initiative would be rather faster paced. These remarks were surprising in their frankness as to the fact that the party the Socialist Party wants to create is a Labour Party Mark II: not trying to win people to the idea that there is a communist alternative to capitalism and social alienation as such, but rather, a parliamentary wing subcontracting the political campaigning of the existing trade union movement. Nellist explains the party would stand for  “renationalisation of public services and reducing the gap between rich and poor”, but he “personally hoped there would be a strong socialist strand within it”.

Similarly, the RMT’s assistant general secretary Pat Sikorski had said we should not be ashamed to run on a “social-democratic” platform because today that “cuts against the logic of capitalism”. It cuts against the current plans of the ruling class, yes: but heating up the leftovers of Labourism once again is hardly likely to imbue working people that an alternative is possible, and standing on politics other than our own for electoral viability’s sake does little to challenge the idea that we should vote for the least-worst ‘alternative’ able to beat the Tories, which means Labour.

No2EU, no to the causes of the EU?

The CPB’s John Foster, lead No2EU candidate in Scotland, hailed the great successes of June’s  European Election initiative, which he (entirely falsely) claimed to be the most successful left-of-Labour initiative since sliced bread. Indeed, even Arthur Scargill’s pet Socialist Labour Party, which as Foster commented had no-one ‘on the ground’, just a TV broadcast presented by Ricky Tomlinson, won more votes than No2EU in this year’s election. Drawing on this experience, Foster advocated a similar coalition for the general election: he had less of a ‘big picture’ vision of strategy than Nellist, with his own group divided over whether to make a firm break with the Labour Party, historically defined by the Stalinists’ British Road to Socialism as the principal agent of socialist transformation.

The Morning Stalinist speaker ladled lashings of anti-EUism onto his comments, and also appeared somewhat keener to use the People’s Charter as the basis of an electoral platform than the Socialist Party. Foster hailed it as a programme of “economic and social democracy in the fullest sense of the words” which “could not be fulfilled within the framework of the Lisbon Treaty” and thus could help “build resistance to the EU”. Britain could supposedly then nationalise its banking and insurance sectors  and rebuild its manufacturing base. He of course said nothing about the capitalist state, why the EU is something special and separate from the capitalism of its member states, or quite why statification of finance is meant to be socialist.

And never mind the cynics who will tell you that the British state is the most direct agent and advocate of neo-liberalism in Europe; never mind the fact that British ‘self-determination’ from the EU amounts exclusively to fighting for opt-outs on working-time-directives and the like; our beloved comrade knew that if only the British state could cut the umbilical cord to the Brussels sprouts, it could enact socialist utopia on behalf of the working masses, no doubt with a mural of John Foster on every public building in homage to his strategic nous.

Hanged or stabbed?

RMT General Secretary Bob Crow’s intervention was rather sharper in many regards than those of the Socialist Party and CPB, although his criticisms of the EU and call for nationalisations were equally flat-footed.

Commenting that the working class has no political voice, he explained that this disenfranchisement was “not just at the level of parties but also in the trade union movement”. While he sidestepped giving his thoughts on the CWU-Royal Mail deal, he slammed the TUC’s failure “even to send me a letter or email asking what we can do to support the strike” and pointed to the lack of democracy in the workplace given harsh anti-union laws.

The central message of Crow’s speech was directed against those who repeat the “same old drivel” that socialists should keep silent for fear of letting the Tories defeat Labour: in fact it would only be Labour who had themselves to blame, and we have to organise whoever is in government. Crow mocked the constant call to ‘keep your head down so Labour stay in’, only to be followed by years of ‘keep your head down so we can get the Tories out’, the self-defeating demand on the workers’ movement to silence itself in the interests of Labour’s electoral fortunes. He wittily explained the difference between the two parties: “You know your enemy when you’re coming home at night and they beat you up. This lot Labour buy you drinks all evening and then beat you up!”, and explained their cuts packages as “being asked whether you want to be hanged or stabbed to death.”

Crow also addressed the question of ‘letting the BNP in’, an accusation levelled against No2EU after it was perceived as dividing the ‘left’ vote and allowing Nick Griffin to claim a slim advantage over the Greens in the North West England region this June. Crow argued that it was the collapse in Labour’s vote and its abandonment of its core support which had in fact allowed Griffin to win a European Parliament seat.

Other speakers had commented that No2EU was the only party apart from the BNP which had really been ‘on the ground’ before the election: a noble sentiment and an important task, if indeed it were true, but one of the other characteristics of the BNP and why it has been able to win ex-Labour votes is that it plugs away with consistent door-to-door leafleting work, over a number of years, under the same name, while No2EU surfaced as a new organisation with no profile just a few months before the election, after years of left coalitions under a variety of names. It looks like the general election initiative will also be a fresh start at short notice.

Diversity and debate

Much is still to be settled, with Crow repeatedly referring to the electoral initiative as an ‘alliance’ but also saying that there should “at least be a pact not to stand against each other”, and was unsure what his union would approve for the election. Given the CPB’s half-in, half-out attitude to the Labour Party the conference was unlikely to result in anything comparable to SPers Dave Hill and Rob Williams’ call for the immediate establishment of a new party.

Some Socialist Party members had aggressively denounced those socialists “safely ensconced in Parliament” and called on them and others to ditch the Labour Party, one asking “If Crow can endorse [the election coalition], why not Tony Benn, John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn?”.  But Crow marked what appeared to be the general consensus that the left ought to support those two MPs, hailing their work in the RMT Parliamentary Group and saying he would campaign for them.

While some quite hostile and impatient comments were made towards Corbyn, in general political differences were papered over with the constant invocation of the idea that the most important thing is unity in action, never mind if the political framework is wrong; or else, in Rob Williams’ words, “yes, we can debate programme and the name but let’s launch the electoral platform here today”. Matt Wrack said that he appreciated that some felt the People’s Charter was not what we should be saying “but the most important thing is that we’re out there saying it”. Irish Socialist MEP Joe Higgins was sure that the RMT would decide what to do “after a full and democratic debate” and we heard many speeches in favour of an “open and democratic” organisation: of course, the debate was for every time but right now, the democracy for everyone except the people who had already come to this conference; the openness merely the fudging over of never-spoken disagreements.

The CPB and Socialist Party do not take criticisms on board: they merely patronisingly tolerated the idea that some people might have concerns (which should be kept private) and no-one cared to explain why the programme for the election or the People’s Charter had to be written up behind closed doors before any debate or discussion in the wider movement: or even why the mass of RMT members were not involved in the elaboration of the union’s election campaign. Gerry Byrne’s very mildly worded concern at the coalition’s position on migrant workers was simply slapped down by another speaker who claimed they were “against the exploitation of migrant workers”: but in reality uneasily silent on immigration rather than standing up for no borders.

Perhaps a more sophisticated argument might be made to excuse the lack of democracy in the conference on the basis that the RMT, CPB and SP are not all pulling in the same direction and they therefore have to maintain a ‘consensus’ in order to be able to work together: namely, not to go beyond temporary electoral fronts or embark on a new party project. But this straw man I have erected can easily be torn down. Why can these reservations not simply be expressed openly and taken into consideration by others involved in the project? Why can the CPB or RMT not come along to the event and explain that their organisation will only go so far? And again, if the working class is disenfranchised, why should an initiative meant to give them a voice, not hear their voices in an open forum to debate its policies. Instead we see mimicked the undemocratic and top-down processes of mainstream bourgeois parties, with policy decided in secret and then greeted by acclaim by the foot-soldier membership.

Propaganda of the deed

John Foster had claimed that the No2EU election campaign in June was “propagandistic, rather than electoral”, implying that it had not sought to win seats but to stand up for socialist principle. A criticism often made of the SWP in Respect was that they voted against their own principles, on issues such as no borders, republicanism and women’s and LGBT rights, in order to court votes. Part of the problem with relating to the SP or CPB is that this initiative is an ‘honest’ meshing of their politics: they really do have a reformist and statist vision of socialism, and really do want a Labour Party Mark II if not the Labour Party itself.

In that sense the current initiative appears as the worst of a long run of left electoral fronts over the past decade, from the Socialist Alliance to the Scottish Socialist Party to Respect, with ever-worse politics and ever-poorer electoral results as well. Small communist groups like our own are politically very, very far from the leaders of the initiative, and the nature of the project is such that there are no channels (local committees, conferences with resolutions, publications with open debate) by which we could get a hearing or significantly alter its course. The democratic deficit is in our own movement, not just in bourgeois society.

Nor do we believe that electoral politics are necessarily of central importance for communists, for the left, or the labour movement as a whole, and are a poor substitute for building real resistance in workplaces and communities. What most of those speaking at the conference took as their starting point is the idea that the workers’ movement is suffering because it has been abandoned by the Labour Party, so therefore we need to try and create the same thing again. In truth, from the general strike to the miners’ strike,  the workers’ movement was never reliant on support ‘from above’ by the party it funded.

The speakers also avoided explanation of the problem that the movement in general is very weak; why most large unions are still hand-in-glove with Labour and explicitly support the social partnership agenda; and that the original Labour Party did not end up where it is today just because of a few bad leaders, but because of the defeats of our movement and the convincing of a wide layer of the class that there is no alternative. All election campaigning will fail on that basis alone if resistance to the recession on the industrial plane does not take off.

The argument to be made, therefore,  is in the RMT, which is making efforts towards the recomposition of the movement on an industrial level – not only its general militancy, but also its moves to incorporate migrant worker cleaners, for example – but also to make some effort at political representation for the working class. The case needs to be made that these initiatives are really a dead end for the union unless they pull in wider layers of working-class activists; they do not contribute to its industrial strategy but rather flatter the egos of the left group leaders, desperate to catch the wind of some ‘real’ labour movement support; and that the union should fulfil its conference policy of convening workers’ representation committees open to free and open discussion of policies, areas of collaboration and, if it is so desired, election candidates.

7 thoughts on “‘full and democratic debate’: but when?

  1. so there’s no problem about having the prison officers on board, although there’s a big debate on the far left about them and the relationship they should have to the organised Labour Movement – the POA represents part of a repressive arm of the capitalist state, after all!


  2. There is not a big debate on the far left, there are tirades from some small sectarian groups such as the infamous Spartacist League, hardly serious politics. Those who call themselves communists and oppose trade union rights for Prison Officers and other arms of the state will simply never see a revolution and have no idea what one looks like. No doubt they would have opposed the Police strike in 1919, despite it being a clear symptom of the growing unrest of the period. Any serios effort at a revolution will reqiure causing dissension in the ranks of the state. The POA have paradoxically taken a far more leftwing stance on resisting the anti-union laws than any other union in the TUC.


  3. well said chris.
    the article doesnt kno what to suggest; first the initiative is not communist enough; then its top down and needs rank and file and wider left participation (fair enough, but we need to establish it in the first place, which is the touble with the people’s charter); then its not needed at all becuase elections aren’t the best way to build socialism! (it also assumes the participants are abandoning industrial work for this initiative)


  4. Jon,

    The points are quite clearly linked.

    The lack of seriousness of the initiative, its lack of radicalism and the very low likelihood of it achieving anything is entirely bound up with the lack of democracy of how it is organised. Why can it not be established openly ‘in the first place’? The article calls for the RMT to set up open local workers’ representation committees to decide if, when and on what political basis to stand candidates. That is its conference policy.

    My comment that electoral fronts are usually unproductive can hardly be used as an excuse for the lack of democracy of this particular one. If there were more open discussion, not just back-room deals, then we could discuss precisely why any such initiative should not just be pulled out a couple of months before each election.

    They are not/not necessarily abandoning industrial work, for sure, but there is a disconnect between the two. Political priorities of the CPB like anti-Europeanism have nothing to do with the industrial interests of the RMT, nor indeed the democratic demands of the labour movement.


  5. The lack of seriousness of the initiative, its lack of radicalism and the very low likelihood of it achieving anything is entirely bound up with the lack of democracy of how it is organised.

    Just out of interest, do you really think there is a causal link there or is simply a piece of rhetoric?


  6. “do you really think there is a causal link…?”


    And even if I hadn’t, wouldn’t it have been better to have it open/democratic anyway so we could tell for ourselves what its potential is for uniting the left?


  7. Well there may not be a ‘big debate’ but there is a small but angry one and it is odd that you don’t mention them/their speaker/presence at all. The issue about the POA is not whether prison officers do or don’t have the ‘right’ to be in trade unions, but about the character of the POA and how those who are simply keen to applaud any sign of militancy ignore or excuse not just the relationship between prison officers and prisoners, or prison officers and the state, but the very specific and constrant pronouncements of the POA against prisoners, prisoners’ rights, prisoners’ self-organisation etc.


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