Rob Sewell reports on the debate inside the RMT on whether to affiliate to Labour and join the fight for a Corbyn government.
On Wednesday 25 April, a debate took place at the Friends Meeting House over whether or not the RMT should affiliate to the Labour Party. About 100 RMT members were in attendance.
Steve Hedley, the senior assistant general secretary of the RMT, spoke in a personal capacity in favour of affiliation, whilst Paul Jackson, secretary of the RMT London Underground engineering branch, spoke against. Alex Gordon, a former president of the RMT, was in the chair.
Before the debate began John McDonnell, Labour MP and shadow chancellor, made an appeal for the union to re-affiliate to Labour. McDonnell has long been associated with the RMT and its parliamentary group.
The left-wing MP stated that the RMT’s courage and determination as a union would be of enormous value in democratising the party under Jeremy Corbyn and would help to shape Labour policy. He said this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to elect a Labour government headed by a committed socialist. He urged the RMT to seize this opportunity with both hands and join in the fight to fully reclaim the party for socialism.
For and against
Brother Steve Hedley opened the debate by saying that he would never in his wildest dreams have believed that four years ago he would be standing here arguing for RMT affiliation to the Labour Party. He said in the past he saw Labour as no different from the Tories, and had even stood as a candidate against the Labour Party (as part of TUSC – the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition).
But there has been a major change in the party since then: the election of Jeremy Corbyn. Now is the time to reaffiliate, Hedley asserted. The RMT cannot stand on the sidelines, he said, but must get involved in the struggle. “Jeremy and John want us to rejoin and are appealing to us.” We must take up the offer that “would allow us to be at the table to shape the next Labour Manifesto”.
Brother Paul Jackson outlined the case against. He said that the party was still full of Blairites – especially the 172 in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) who had voted no confidence in Corbyn in 2016’s ‘chicken coup’. These right-wing MPs, Jackson said, were 172 reasons not to affiliate to Labour.
Jackson stated that affiliation would be a waste of money, as the affiliation fees would go to financing the right wing. Instead, he suggested that the RMT should simply donate directly to the MPs it supports. The influence of the union on the Party would be negligible, he said. In any case, Jackson insisted, we have done a very good job of representing our members outside the Labour Party.
A very lively debate followed, with many questions posed.
The main arguments against re-affiliation were that:
- Union money would be better spent elsewhere.
- The union could support local candidates standing against Blairites.
- It would give the RMT political independence.
- Affiliation would result in little influence on the Labour Party.
Steve Hedley stated that he rejected the arguments of syndicalism – i.e. that trade union struggle by itself is sufficient. If that was the case, the Labour Party would never have been created in the first place. Since then, unfortunately, the Labour Party was hijacked by careerists and right-wing infiltrators.
As trade unionists and socialists, we needed to see the bigger picture. The only way we could remove the Blairite careerists is not by standing TUSC candidates, Hedley asserted. This tactic has gotten us nowhere. Instead, we need to join the Labour Party and vote the careerists out, replacing them with genuine class fighters.
Those opposing re-affiliation were supported by a few members of the Socialist Party (SP). They were handing out a leaflet asking: “is affiliation really the best use of RMT £270k political fund?”
It seemed like they were attempting to reduce the debate to a question of union money. But the fact is the RMT had been wasting its money over the years in financing TUSC candidates, who have been universally getting derisory votes.
The SP was raising the bogeyman that union money would end up financing Blairites. If this argument is being made sincerely, then why is the Socialist Party not campaigning for every trade union to disaffiliate from the Labour Party? At least this would be a consistent position to hold.
By extension, logically, the Socialist Party should also be arguing for unions to stop paying affiliation fees to the TUC. The TUC leaders, after all, stabbed the RMT in the back by sponsoring talks between ASLEF and Southern Rail bosses during the recent dispute. But consistency has never been the strong point of the Socialist Party.
In reality, the SP are appealing to the most backward prejudices of union members. Such arguments would be pleasing to Tory and non-political trade unionists.
In any case, the money argument does not resolve the political question. It is a distraction. The proposal that the union should only give money to left candidates, like John McDonnell, would not change the balance of forces in the Labour Party. It would still leave the Blairites where they are, free to continue sabotaging Corbyn’s leadership.
Right-wing MPs and councillors will not be removed simply by only giving money to left candidates. The Blairites can only be removed by deselection. This can only happen if more people join the Labour Party, and if unions like the RMT affiliate their members as well.
As Ray from Southwark said at the meeting: “if we affiliate, I will take 85 RMT members into the Labour Party to kick out the Blairites.” This is real fighting talk.
The bigger picture
Another person said that affiliation would mean that we can’t support a local candidate against a Blairite. But, again, we must see the bigger picture. The task is to transform the Labour Party across the country. Why jeopardise that goal by supporting a local candidate against Labour? We would be sacrificing the chance to transform the whole party, just for the sake of supporting a no-hoper locally. We must have a sense of proportion.
If there is anyone undemocratically excluded locally by the right wing, we will fight for their readmission. But this fight can only succeed from inside the party. The more union members we have inside Party, the more likely we will win.
The RMT’s affiliation would mean that it would be directly involved in the battle to transform Labour into a fighting socialist party, committed to fundamentally changing society.
Moreover, the RMT would not lose its political independence by affiliating. It would still determine its own political positions and programme. But then it would be able to take these into the Party and fight for Labour to adopt socialist policies.
The Socialist Party leaflet says: “The RMT was the second biggest donor to both his (Corbyn’s) leadership campaigns, in 2015 and 2016, behind only the 1.4 million member Unite union. No one can doubt where we stand.”
No one doubts where the union stands in its support for Corbyn. The question is: with Corbyn under attack from the Fifth Column inside the party, how can we help him? How can we finally clear the Blairites out of the Party?
Join the fight
The pessimists of the Socialist Party are trying to pour cold water over affiliation in a very sectarian manner. Affiliation is not simply a question that affects RMT members. It is about the struggle and interests of the working class as a whole.
Our interests, as Marx said in the Communist Manifesto 170 years ago, should not be guided by narrow sectarian principles, but by the general interests of the workers’ movement. RMT affiliation will help these general interests by helping to completely transform the Labour Party.
Let’s get down to brass tacks. There is a massive fight taking place in the Labour Party at this time between the supporters of Corbyn and the Blairite Fifth Column. Socialists worth their salt should argue for everyone to participate in this fight within the Labour Party, in order to defeat the right wing. This struggle is not only in the interests of railway workers, but the whole working class.
The forerunner of the RMT was at the forefront of setting up the Labour Party in the interests of the all workers. Similarly, the RMT today should take their rightful place on the frontline in the fight against the Blairites inside the Labour Party.
We hope that the RMT, with its militant and fighting history, will take the decision to join the fight where it counts – inside the party.