Sunday, September 30, 2007

As Much About The Unions As About The Labour Party

The decision of Labour Party conference to stop trade unions (and CLPs) submitting contemporary motions to the conference should tell us as much about the union bureaucracies as it does about the Labour Party.

Agreeing to give up their own right to even raise issues was a gobsmackingly spineless thing to do. If Gordon Brown said "Come on, lads, we can't have a row in the run-up to a General Election", the least they could have said was "Good point - withdraw your bloody proposals then".

Gobsmacked maybe. But on another level, we should perhaps not be surprised that the union leaders willing to give away the pension rights of future generations are also willing to give away the political voice of workers.

Those people and groups who argue for trade unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party will gain a new impetus. More rank-and-file union members will be prepared to listen to them - and who can blame them? I will doubtless continue to argue against this (although my union, RMT, has already been kicked out of the Labour Party, it is still by rule affiliated, and there may be a new drive to change this), although I feel less impassioned about taking a strong stand against disaffiliation.

The problem with 'disaffiliate' as a response is that it is one-sided. Not only is there is no replacement workers' party to affiliate to, nor a strong movement in the direcion of one, the disaffiliation call implicitly demands that union members draw conclusions about the Labour Party but not about their own union leaderships. It implies that if Unite, CWU, GMB etc. leave Labour and set up something new, then that something new will solve all our problems. But it seems to me that a 'new workers' party' set up by the very people who gave away the workers' voice in the old one would be doomed to repeat the 100-year history of the Labour Party. And perhaps if Stroppyblog is still going in 2107, my grand-daughter can post a blog entry saying "we told you so".

So attempts to re-found a working-class party have to also take on the bureaucratic nature of the unions. When unions set up a political party, they do so in their own image. If you want a socialist, rank-and-file-controlled, accountable, militant, no-sell-out workers' party, then you need socialist, rank-and-file-controlled, accountable, militant, no-sell-out trade unions.

So yes, there should be a fight in the Labour-affiliated to condemn the leaders for voting away their democratic rights. But that should be part of a fight to break up the power of the bureaucracy, democratise the unions, and put the unions in the hands of their rank-and-file members.

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