The past three years have seen a shift to the left in the ranks of Unite the Union, reflected in a similar shift in the union’s leadership. Now, prior to the union’s 2014 policy conference, it is an appropriate occasion to draw a balance sheet of these last three years. We must appraise the victories, but in particular we must be honest in assessing our mistakes so that the necessary corrective can be applied.
The past three years have seen a shift to the left in the ranks of Unite the Union, reflected in a similar shift in the union’s leadership. Three years ago we saw the election of a left general secretary, Len McCluskey, and two years ago the adoption of radical policies at the union’s last policy conference, including calls to nationalise the banks.
Socialist Appeal supporters will be hosting a fringe meeting at the Unite Policy Conference in Liverpool, with John Dunn of the Justice for Mineworkers campaign speaking on “The Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-85: lessons for the labour movement today”. We invite all our readers to attend and join in with the discussion on this important episode from the class struggle in Britain.
SOCIALIST APPEAL FRINGE MEETING @ UNITE POLICY CONFERENCE 2014
John Dunn – Justice for Mineworkers
Date: Tuesday 1st July
Time: 6.30pm (or straight after the conference)
Venue: Suite 10, Jurys Inn Hotel (opposite the ACC conference venue)
We have also seen the outline of a political strategy take form, with McCluskey repeatedly making calls for the trade unions to reclaim Labour from the right-wing Blair acolytes that dominate it, with the mantra of: “win working people to the Labour Party, and win the Labour Party to working people.”
These steps forward have been welcomed by Socialist Appeal supporters for placing Britain’s biggest union in a good position to play a leading role in the labour movement in the fight against the Tory-Liberal Coalition and their programme of austerity. However, we have also repeatedly pointed out that a shift to the left on the basis of harboured illusions in the possibility of reforming capitalism contains dangers of its own.
Now, prior to the union’s 2014 policy conference, it is an appropriate occasion to draw a balance sheet of three years of left leadership in Unite. We must appraise the victories, but in particular we must be honest in assessing our mistakes so that the necessary corrective can be applied. In this way Unite can be turned into what everyone, including the bosses, knows it can be: an advanced, heavy battalion of the British working class, uniting workers across all major industries with the necessary muscle to bring the entire system to a halt, to bring this government to its knees and to fight for socialist policies.
Is “Radical Reformism” an alternative to Tory austerity?
At a meeting last year in Leeds, Len McCluskey was asked whether the union should be fighting for the reinstatement of “Clause IV” of Labour’s constitution – the party’s famous socialist clause, removed by Blair, which committed Labour to bringing the means of production into common ownership. In his response McCluskey argued that this demand was too bold and rather that he envisaged transforming Labour into a “radical reformist party”.
However, as we have argued repeatedly, any programme of reforming capitalism bit by bit is utopian. In Venezuela we have actually seen sweeping reforms that have improved the lives of working people without breaking fully with capitalism – and this example proves to be instructive when we consider whether capitalism can be reformed out of existence. Reformists hope that by not going to the “extreme” of abolishing capitalism that the class struggle can be blunted. In Venezuela, however, we have witnessed how the capitalists and landlords have reacted with rabid fury towards the Bolivarian Revolution. Lockouts, hoarding and economic sabotage are accompanied by the murder of workers’ and peasants’ leaders, riots and repeated coup attempts.
Were a programme of partial reforms, including progressive taxation and partial nationalisation of industry, to be implemented in Britain today we can imagine the reaction of the capitalist class, which would be equally rabid. But unlike in Venezuela, the British ruling class are better prepared to meet the threat of socialism, having at their disposal a state apparatus which has been perfected over centuries to defend the interests of big business.
Rosa Luxemburg once commented that if theories and ideas are only images of phenomena in the exterior world reflected in human consciousness, then reformism shows how these images can end up being inverted. Arguments in favour of reforming capitalism – those of McCluskey, as well as those of a whole layer of left activists and union leaders – are being raised at precisely the moment that capitalism is in its worst crisis. Today, it is no longer reforms but counter-reforms that are on the cards. In no manner do we, as Marxists, reject genuinely progressive reforms that improve the conditions of working people, and of course we join the fight to prevent previous reforms won from being taken away. However, we simply point out that any serious reform today comes immediately into conflict with the limits of a worldwide capitalist system that is in crisis.
The idea of “radical reformism” is a mistake in the realm of theory, which imagines that we can appeal to the better nature of the capitalist class to exit the stage of history gradually and in peace. The consequences of this mistake are, however, very practical for the day to day struggles of the union as much as for its broader strategy. If the purpose of theory is to act as a guide to action, then mistaken theories inevitably lead to mistaken actions.
“Normal” industrial relations during capitalist crisis
There are two psychological sources from which a reformist outlook tends to grow. The first is a lack of confidence in the working class – a lack of confidence in the possibility of breaking with capitalism and constructing a socialist society, by taking control of the means of production and administering them in the general interest of all. How often we hear about how the level consciousness of the working class is too low; how workers are too right-wing; how they are too ignorant; how they are duped by the Murdoch press etc. etc. – and therefore how the labour leaders must moderate themselves so as to be understood by ordinary workers?
The other source is an over-confidence in the goodwill and sympathy of the ruling class. The two usually walk hand in hand. After all, if the working class does not have the ability to take its destiny into its own hands, then surely the general conditions of working people can only be improved by appealing to the better nature of the bosses?
This formed the basis of the perspective of the Utopian Socialists of the early 19th Century such as Robert Owen and Charles Fourier. For these thinkers, socialism was not envisaged as the result of class struggle against an exploitative capitalist class, but as an ideal form of society possible on the basis of making moral appeals to the bosses on behalf of the poor and working classes.
This point of view contains a certain naivety for which Owen and Fourier can be forgiven: the workers’ movement was as yet weak and in its infancy, whereas they were themselves intellectuals of bourgeois stock without roots in the working class. As such they are rightly regarded as great forefathers of the socialist movement. However, we cannot be so forgiving when modern trade union leaders at the head of immensely powerful mass organisations share the same naive view.
And yet we see signs that this naive conception – basing itself on what is “moral” rather than on an understanding of the conflicting interests of social classes – remains at the core of the industrial strategy of Britain’s biggest union. On the official Unite website we read the following description of the union’s “leverage” strategy:
“We ask all interested parties to make moral and ethical decisions about their future relations with an employer who we believe is acting immorally. Unite will make sure all are aware of the true facts behind an employer’s poor treatment of our members. We will ask those who object to the behaviour of an immoral employer to conduct in lawful protest against the actions of the employer…” (our emphasis)
The idea is that there is a distinction between “moral” and “immoral” employers and that moral pressure can be brought to bear on them and their commercial partners. The website cites a number of examples where it claims this strategy has brought gains to groups of workers including electricians involved in the BESNA, workers at Mayr-Melhof, the London bus workers and others. The leverage strategy of course has a role to play in making the lives of the employers and their commercial partners uncomfortable, and we can only welcome any action that gives the employer food for thought; but these disputes were all decisively won, in the final analysis, not by moral appeals but by militant industrial action or the threat of such action.
During the BESNA (“Sparks”) dispute, the kind of pressure brought to bear on interested parties came in the form of site invasions and direct action disrupting construction projects that directly impacted on the commercial relations of the big construction firms. These rank and file guerrilla actions in themselves, however, were still not a replacement for industrial action, and it was only the threat of national strike action – brought about due to pressure from below – that finally brought the big six construction companies tumbling down.
On the other hand the leverage strategy brought zero fruit during another very important dispute in the last period: that at Grangemouth. Ironically it was precisely here that the right-wing press came out with the most bluster and vitriol against the union’s strategy as part of a concerted campaign of lies and distortions. Why was it, however, that the union’s strategy prove so injuriously unsuccessful at Grangemouth? Precisely because it was not followed up by militant industrial action aimed at bringing the refinery to a grinding halt. In the end the leverage strategy was supplementary to pure bluff.
The union leadership gave in without a fight. It was not because of a lack of industrial strength on the part of the workers: the Grangemouth complex supplies 70% of fuel to Scotland. If the boss’ lockout had been met with some form of action – such as the occupation of the installation – there is every probability the workers would have won. At any rate, a defeat following a fight is far less demoralising than a defeat without a fight. Instead, the failure of the union leadership to correctly assess the situation lead to defeat at the hands of a vicious, yet class conscious, employer. The shock of the Unite leadership at the aggression of Ineos was expressed by McCluskey himself:
“We have a situation where a company has come along and has put down an ultimatum and we have to respond to the ultimatum. That’s not the way 21st century industrial relations should be conducted.” (our emphasis)
This is a very telling comment. How “should” employers conduct industrial relations? The “normal” industrial relations of a given period under capitalism are dictated not by its norms of polite behaviour but by its balance of class forces. The period we have entered is decisively different to that of the last 20-30 years. The crisis that began in 2008, and which has proven intractable for the capitalist class, has exploded any equilibrium that existed between the classes. A death blow has been dealt to the possibility of peaceful class relations based on clever negotiating. Decrepit, senile, parasitic capitalism of the 21st Century is leading humanity into a dead end and all of the gains of the past period are being sacrificed to prop up profitability.
The vicious aggression of Ineos in this sense is more typical of the coming period than of the previous period. The bosses are testing the way: testing the weaknesses of the labour movement in preparation for bigger assaults in the future. After Grangemouth the bosses will act more boldly in attacking organised labour, and woe to the labour movement if we fail to learn the lessons. Class struggle is on the order of the day in Britain and on a world scale.
There is little chance of capitalism being able to establish any equilibrium capable of guaranteeing peaceful class relations for any significant period of time in the near term. The coming years and decades will involve deep crises and weak recoveries. Permanent mass unemployment, which never truly disappeared even during the upswing that capitalism experienced in the 1990’s and 2000’s, will become an increasingly cankerous sore on society. The cupboard will continue to be bare, and the ability of the trade unions to win concessions and reforms on the basis of small scale action will be limited at best.
Despite these difficulties on the purely “economic” front, the inability of capitalism to improve people’s living conditions will put a question mark over the continued existence of the system itself. It is precisely now, therefore, that the trade unions need a clear political programme aimed at putting an end to capitalism once and for all.
The fight to reclaim the Labour Party
All of the contradictions of a reformist approach that have expressed themselves on the industrial front for Unite have also expressed themselves on the political front: in particular in the mixed results that the union has achieved in its strategy to reclaim the Labour Party.
Two years ago Unite pledged at its last policy conference to reclaim Labour for working people. The union has since attempted to put this policy into practice by recruiting 5,000 new members into the party and by pushing to get union-backed candidates selected as council and parliamentary candidates. The union has clearly had some success that have rattled big business – hence the hue and cry over Falkirk where big business, the capitalist press, the state and (shamefully) the Labour leaders themselves joined in an ugly chorus against Unite’s influence in the Labour Party.
What Falkirk showed, along with a thousand other episodes, was that despite the union’s success in influencing the selection of some of its favoured candidates for parliamentary seats, the Party remains largely dead from the neck up. The particular curse of the Labour leadership is that, whilst they want to woo big business, they have been forced to make some mild criticisms of capitalism’s excesses. However, whilst the mildness of Miliband’s policies will do little to improve his position in the eyes of most ordinary working people (hence his continued personal lack of popularity), even the mildest of his remarks have earned him the serious distrust of big business, who feel the need for a steady pair of hands – after 2015 – able to apply vicious policies of austerity:
“Mr Miliband insists he is pro-business but his prescriptions of energy price freezes, bank dismemberment, land seizures, rent controls and increases in the minimum wage have convinced many corporate leaders otherwise. He expects to go into the next election without the endorsement of a single FTSE 100 boss.” (“Labour and the City”, The Financial Times, 12 June 2014)
The reformist Labour leaders offer a programme that is able to satisfy neither their working class base nor big business. Crushed between two millstones, the Labour finds itself in front in the polls purely by virtue of the hatred for the Tory-led Coalition.
Two years ago when Unite set out to reclaim Labour we welcomed this turn, however, we pointed out then that we should expect little if we do not fight to reclaim the party on a clear socialist platform:
“Socialist Appeal supporters welcome this bold turn to reclaim the Labour Party, but add one further point: it is paramount that we aim to win the Party to a clear programme of socialist policies. It is the strategy of the ruling class to ‘use and discredit’ Labour by getting them to carry out policies of austerity and by then bringing in the Tories when Labour become a spent force. If the Labour Party comes to power on a programme of “responsible capitalism”, then they will very quickly find themselves carrying out cuts on behalf of the ruling class.” (“Britain’s biggest union supports nationalisation of the big banks”, Socialist Appeal, July 2012)
What we saw in the wake of Falkirk was that the union leadership, by backing the “Collins Review”, has effectively sought an organisational solution to a political problem. These changes neither further the cause of party democracy, nor do they tackle the underlying issue, which is fundamentally a political question of reclaiming the party to a programme which represents the interests of working people – a programme of socialist policies.
The fact that the Labour leaders have remained under the spell of big business and have seemingly committed themselves to maintaining most of the cuts after 2015 has lead to certain understandable frustration on the part of the Unite leaders, and Len McCluskey in particular, who has gone as far as threatening the Labour leadership with the withdrawal of funding if they fail to get elected in 2015:
“Unless Ed and the Labour leadership demonstrate that they are on the side, then I can envisage a debate taking place. If Labour lost the election next May, I fear for the future of the Labour party.”
McCluskey is right to point out that, if Labour does not shift to the left, many Labour voters will stay at home in disgust; but it is nevertheless likely that even on the austerity-lite programme that they currently espouse, Labour will still be elected.
The point is though that we cannot wait to 2015 and then decide whether we will or won’t support Labour based on their “electability”. 2015 will already be too late for many: thousands will have lost their jobs, homes, and even lives because of capitalist austerity. The fact is that such a weak Tory-Liberal coalition government ought not to have even survived a year; and had some semblance of opposition been posed, it would have collapsed long ago.
Instead of tampering with party rules we need a complete overhaul of Labour that would clear out the Blairite usurpers. It is all very well to “reclaim” the party; but we will reiterate – to what programme? We believe that such a programme must contain as an absolute minimum:
- The restoration of party democracy, starting with a return to a democratic decision making party conference.
- The pursuit of a policy of de-selection of all MPs who oppose union policy on questions such as the repeal of the Thatcherite anti-union laws, and the nationalisation of rail, utilities and the banks under democratic workers’ control.
- The reinstatement of Clause IV, or a similar clause, committing the party to tackling the root of austerity, namely the capitalist system, which cannot be solved by modest reforms, but only by taking the commanding heights of the economy into democratic public ownership.
A simple programme such as this could be understood by the ranks of the union, the Labour Party and the labour movement at large, yet would draw a clear red line between those genuine socialists fighting for the interests of working people in the party and the careerist bureaucrats who deserve nothing more than to be booted out.
Some might argue that we mustn’t rock the boat so close to a general election. To those people we answer that a Labour government is worse than useless if it bases itself on Tory-lite policies, and that the probability of even forming a government is reduced so long as the current cabal of pro-business careerists remains at the helm.
For a militant, fighting union with socialist policies
The growing mood in Britain is one of anger and bitterness at the policies of the Tory-Lib Dem government. There is an increasing hatred of all the rotten pillars of the establishment. The police, the media, bankers, big business, and above all politicians are loathed – a phenomenon reflected in a distorted way by the growth of UKIP in recent elections. There is a swelling anti-establishment and even anti-capitalist mood developing in society. A recent “social attitudes” survey showed how little faith ordinary people have in the market: approximately 70% of the population are in favour of nationalisation of Royal Mail, the utilities, railways and banks. This is a mood that exists not only in Britain but across Europe and the entire world – it is a growing mood full of revolutionary implications.
That this mood exists though is not enough. It must be harnessed and channelled by the leadership of the mass organisations of the working class into a force capable of changing society. Unite has a key role to play in this respect and its leftward shift has to be welcomed. However, even the most militant stance will not suffice if we do not deal with the actual problem, which is the continued existence of the capitalist system.
The ruling class will only concede something when they are threatened with losing everything. This was the case in the 1940’s when the very reforms which are now being rolled back, such as the NHS and the welfare state, were first introduced. A weak and discredited ruling class faced a confident and militant working class who came back from the war, arms in hand, determined to build a better future. What is needed now is a clear understanding on the part of the trade union leadership that it is not a piecemeal approach to reforming capitalism that is needed, but a root and branch approach.