Some of the major set-piece speeches by Graham Stevenson, follow:
NORTH-EAST MAY DAY MAY 3RD 2008
WOLVERHAMPTON MAY DAY 2007
DERBY SOCIALIST FORUM – APRIL 2007
DERBY TRADES COUNCIL RALLY – MAY DAY SPEECH 2007
THE LIFE & WORK OF TOM MANN & TRADE UNION ORGANISING TODAY: May 2007 – Coventry Trades Council
COMMUNIST PARTY EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE JANUARY 2007 – “Capitalism damages your health”
COMMUNIST UNIVERSITY OF WALES – 2006 – “The formation of a mass workers’ party”
COMMUNIST UNIVERSITY OF SCOTLAND – 2006 – “The British Labour Movement and the Lessons of History”
2006 49TH CONGRESS CPB: SPEECH ON “BUILDING THE PARTY” AND MOVING THE REPORT OF THE COMMISSION ON PARTY ORGANISATION
COMMUNIST PARTY POLITICAL STATEMENT: NOV 2004
RED NOVEMBER 2004: TRADE UNIONS, GLOBALISATION AND THE EU
GLASGOW MORNING STAR CONFERENCE – 2004
GLASGOW MORNING STAR READERS AND READERS GROUP – 2004
SPEECH TO YCL RALLY `RED NOVEMBER: 2003
WOLVERHAMPTON TRADE COUNCIL: 2003
SPEECH TO COMMUNIST PARTY ELECTION RALLY, PONTYPRIDD, 2003
SPEECH TO COMMUNIST UNIVERSITY OF BRITAIN – 2003: “Globalise labour’s solidarity”
46TH CONGRESS OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY SPEECH 2002
T&G MORNING STAR READERS AND SUPPORTERS’ GROUP: MAY 2000; “The economic basis for capital”
THE CHALLENGE FOR THE LEFT: TRADE UNIONS AND SOCIETY IN THE 21st CENTURY (1997)
SPEECH TO COMMUNIST TRADES UNIONISTS 1994
Speech to North-East May Day May 3rd 2008
`A Disordered Society Of Machine Men, With Machine Minds And Machine Hearts’
The biggest complaint amongst those who won’t vote, or who won’t vote the way they always did, is that politics means complacency, cynicism, false naivety or sheer nastiness. Being let down. Especially when the truth means anything that can’t be disproved and we should only ever believe a rumour when it is officially denied. No wonder we all become cynical. Lessons to learn, indeed.
If you read the red tops you’ll think that half a million public sector workers went on strike, as a Tory shadow minister said, `at the drop of a hat’ – I dare say he’d know, top hat and all. The Tories think more anti-union legislation is deserved. What’s next? Barmy Boris Johnson wants to ban public sector workers from striking, apparently. They want to take care; banning London tube workers from strike action doesn’t stop there. They’ll have to stop 30,000 London bus workers as well and Unite won’t take that lying down, I’ll tell you. London bus workers are right now quietly balloting on a demand for a single pay rate across the capital, to get back where we were 20 years ago. And we expect the Mayor to deal with us on that. I’m told by m’learned friends that’s illegal even now. Well, watch this space!
So far as I’m concerned, the National Union of Teachers should be applauded for the best lesson they could give their pupils. And UCU and the PCS. I’m almost sure I read somewhere when I was at school – “Annual inflation nearly 4%, annual pay rise around 4% – result happiness. Annual inflation nearly 4% per cent, annual pay rise around 21/2 % – result … misery.” But, you don’t need Charles Dickens to tell you that the real lesson to learn is that a bit of honesty wouldn‘t come amiss. Especially since public sector pay cuts are more to do with tax-and-spend policies than they are to do with controlling inflation.
Gordon Brown lauded the dockers of Durban for refusing to unload a freighter carrying arms for Zimbabwe; I didn’t hear him complain that such an act would be illegal in this country. Nor did I hear him applaud the leadership of the Chinese Seafarers Union that prevailed upon their employers to turn the ship back. But let’s be consistent when we applaud worker solidarity.
More than one red-top newspaper has called the Ineos oil refinery workers at Grangemouth `greedy’. Greedy? To take strike action to defend the pensions of future employees of the company? Unreasonable? To defend the non-contributory scheme because they are paid less than other refinery workers, who have to pay for their pension schemes. Yes, lots of workers have had their final salary pension scheme savaged. So, what should the Grangemouth workers have done – take a hit downwards in solidarity with everyone else? Or show how it’s done?
I, for one, unreservedly applaud the power of the Grangemouth oil refinery workers. It looks very likely that they will get a decent settlement and so they should, it’s not as if oil companies can’t afford it. It’s an odd feeling, though, hearing of government ministers running around, albeit very quietly, trying to find a means of pressing an employer into behaving reasonably. But those who are so proud of the low-waged, ill-trained economy we now host have a damned cheek to attack workers for using their muscle, when they have it, to help not just themselves but others too. I’m just as proud of the aviation workers who lined the picket lines at Gate Gourmet. I don’t call it secondary action, secondary picketing … I call it basic human solidarity.
Yet the thrice-misnamed European Court of Justice piles on the rulings that the right to business comes way ahead of the right to free association and, especially, the right to strike that makes such a freedom effective. The poor human rights that workers such as those at Grangemouth enjoy are in fact tottering on the edge of abolition. My own great-grandfather was a born around the time unions were legalised in Britain; it isn’t so long ago. How firm are our rights? As firm as the competitive free-market system will permit, it seems.
There’s a lot of hypocrisy about; here we are in one of the most developed economies of the world, in the midst of wealth, and we hear of rickets and TB making a general return in poorer communities. Yet ministers seriously come up with the idea of tagging as a means to keep track of people with dementia, instead of decent care facilities. Homes for jobs, says the Housing Minister, as if anyone lucky enough to be given social housing probably needs it. `Best when we are Labour’, indeed. They want to get out a bit more!
Who can make sense of the election that never was and the Northern Wreck, as I think you call it up here. Lame ducks! You remember them? I dunno. Who am I to judge? Alan Sugar can break the law by asking job applicants their child-care plans on TV and he’s a hero; although he did tell us we don’t have a Labour Government; according to him it’s an “old fashioned Tory” one. What do I know? Pundits now tell us that Blair, like Bush, always had misplaced self-confidence and was restless in his inattention to detail. Sounds like a psychiatric illness to me!
I’m reminded of the, maybe apophyrcal, now long gone shipyard union official who made a habit of attending meetings deliberately leaving his fly buttons open. Some wag would draw attention to it and he would turn the affair into a long-drawn out farrago, reminiscent of a music hall turn. Beware of distractions, for the magician will pull more than an egg out of your ear.
My zip’s firmly done up, comrades! Remember that old Robert Redford film, `All the President’s Men’? The young, enthusiastic reporter can’t make head nor tail of the shenanigans of high office. Deep Throat, his insider, tells him “Forget the myths! Follow the money!” Follow the money. Appalling though terrorism is, it’s a fact that global deaths from, say, malaria are more than 7000% greater every year. Solving the problem of one is highly profitable, the other highly costly. Consider this – as many people can be killed in Iraq and Afghanistan every single day – and have been every day for five years now – as were in the whole of the sad but thankfully short period of riots in Tibet.
Amidst all this confusion, where are we now as a movement? Reduced to consoling ourselves with the idea that if New Labour is crap then the Tories are just bloody diarrhoea. Some good things are done, yes. But why is it that any good that is done must be buried under a bushel but policies that appeal to greed are lauded? Rob from the poor to give to the rich? Robin Hood, my arse!
This at a time when new mortgages issued have dropped by half in a year and home energy costs have doubled in five years. There are four times as many homes empty as there are homeless temporary local authority places. In London alone, there are 40,000 people living in squats, B & Bs, or on the streets, with perhaps an equal number sleeping on a friend’s sofa, or floor. There’s a million adults with a reading age of the typical 7 year old; there’s over 5 million – one in six of us – of that of an 11 year old. 12% of children aged 11-15 suffer mental health problems.
Set against this we have an apparent consensus amongst parliamentarians on policies that are both heartless and mindless. Obey the great god of the market! All of the contradictions you can spot are firmly linked to the strange form of economics we have, which relies on the price of private homes built decades ago not to tumble; or heaves around the price of crude oil, or the massive capital flows that Russian spivs employ to shuffle their bundles away to our Channel Islands tax havens.
It seems to many as if the western world teeters on the edge of recession and gloom. Despondency appears to be the main beneficiary of our prized electoral systems; look at Italy, which has just elected its first Duce for six decades. Here, we have simply lost three million Labour voters to the don’t know party and a couple of million to the others. What did they think people voted wanted in 1997 – to dump Michael Portillo for Boris Johnson? To start voting for the BNP?
And, yet, huge numbers of the population simply don’t accept this Market God any more and there are important lessons for us elsewhere. On the one hand we can be mesmerised by the notion that only the far right can trade in radical politics, or we can take heed of the massive swing to the Left across the whole of South America, where country after country is following the lead of Venezuela, or the brightest star of all – Cuba.
We can take heart in the massive peoples’ community campaign that saved Norway’s welfare state, or the possibility that neo-liberalism will be beaten in Ireland’s coming referendum, or the smashing of the Thatcherite government in Australia’s recent general election. That government was poised to effectively legislate against collective bargaining, making it virtually illegal. The trade union movement rebuilt itself, engaged in community politics, ignored the media circus and concentrated on mobilising people. Unions won Australia for the Australian Labour Party on bread and butter issues not the obsessions of rich men. Lessons aplenty, I think. Learnt by ordinary people. It can be done.
You know why? I think most people now think that it’s gone just too far and want to sing to a different drum. The only consensus that exists over neo-liberal, free market, deregulatory, flexible labour market policies is in the White House, parliament, the banks, and the fine restaurants of Brussels. I think that most ordinary folk in Britain think that the human race is not a competition; if it was, most of the runners would be knackered, barefoot and thirsty before they started. There’s them that would get a head start though and a few would have the umpires on their side. No wonder many give up and watch the rat race with a beer, burger and chips for company.
Don’t deep down, we all want to help one another? I believe that human beings would prefer to be like that; to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery. Our way of life can be free and beautiful but we have lost our way. Technology that could give us abundance has left us permanently in want and our society become cynical, hard and unkind. I remember being told by media pundits in the 1970s that we’d all work a 25 hour week by the 21st century. Yeah, 25 hours in one job and 25 in the second job to hold your head above water!
The world has become a smaller place but the effects of this cry out for humanity, kindness and gentleness. Even now, this May Day, our voice, the voice of the international working class movement unites millions of men, women and little children throughout the world. The disordered society that is now upon us is but reflective of the bitterness of those who fear human progress. The hate of unnatural men, machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts; but humans are not computers, or calculators.
We need to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance to win a world of reason, where science and progress will lead to the happiness of all and not the death and misery of people in far-off lands.
Ultimately, it is the mass of the people who have the power. The power to serve others and create happiness; we each have the power to make life free and beautiful. Let’s use that power to unite and fight for a new world, a decent world that will give people a chance to work to fulfil themselves; that will give future and security to all.
`The Human Race Is Not A Competition’: Speech To Wolverhampton May Day 2008
A few words first on a special initiative associated with the Morning Star, given that today is not only international workers’ day, it’s also the launch of the new website… http://www.midlands-morningstar.org.uk/
Go to it to see how you can help and why you should. Unlike the rest of the media, the Morning Star is independent of big business. Why any active trades unionist doesn’t read it every day is beyond me, For anyone who thinks the Star is `left behind’, you haven’t read it in years. The Star is rightly proud of its heritage, But anybody who’s anybody on the left knows that its outlook is now very broad.
The Star tells you what it does on the tin … well on the front page – “the daily paper of the left” it says. The Morning Star is owned by its readers, via the Peoples Press Printing Society co-operative. You can own it by buying shares, as many trade unions are now doing. But no one shareholder is any more important than another. The masthead also tells you it’s “For peace and socialism”. That’s what you can expect to see in the paper. It doesn’t just enjoy support of …. and give coverage to …. the trade unions and the Labour left; you’ll find the SNP, Plaid, the Greens, SSP, Respect, the women’s, peace and international solidarity movements there.
If you want real news this is the paper for you; if you want to know what’s going on in Big Brother, or BeckenhamPalace, don’t bother with the Star! If you want controversy, you can’t do better than the Star letters’ page. Its regular columns from John Pilger, Ken Livingstone, Jon Cruddas, Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Liz Davies, Robert Griffiths, George Galloway and the marvellous cartoons of Martin Rawson make the Star the brightest spot in the firmament of the Broadest Left possible.
It’s there that you can read why the Ineos strikers at Grangemouth have been taking the action they have. `Greedy’ one red-top has called them. Greedy? To take strike action to defend the pensions of future workers in the company? Unreasonable? To defend the non-contributory scheme because they are paid less than other refinery workers, who have to pay for their schemes.
It often depends on what you choose to read as to whether you are appalled or enthused. It’s all in how you view it. Half a million public sector workers striking, as a Tory shadow minister says, at the drop of a hat – I dare say he’d know, top hat and all. Gordon Brown lauded the dockers of Durban for refusing to unload a freighter carrying arms for Zimbabwe; I didn’t hear him complain that such an act would be illegal in this country. Nor did I hear him applaud the leaderships of both the South African Transport Workers Union and the Chinese Seafarers Union, who jointly prevailed upon the China Ocean Shipping Company to turn the ship back.
You’ll not find another paper that tells you as much about the complicated events that the modern world provokes. I defy anyone to say that the remarkable briefings from Kenny Coyle on Tibet do not add to the sum of our knowledge. If you read the Star, you’d know that 10,000 Chinese citizens marched in Edinburgh to celebrate the contribution of the Beijing Olympics to world peace; and that similar huge numbers marched in several other cities. Didn’t see it on BBC News; maybe that’s why the Chinese community is currently signing up en masse to a petition against the news whitewash?
That there’s a great deal of hypocrisy about is evident to those that know that as many people are killed in Iraq and Afghanistan every day – and have been every day for five years now – as were in the whole of the sad but thankfully short period of riots in Tibet.
All of the contradictions you can spot are firmly linked to the strange form of economics we have here, which relies on the price of privately owned homes built decades ago not to tumble; or heaves around the price of crude oil, or the massive capital flows that Russian capitalists employ to shuffle their bundles away to our Channel Islands tax havens. It seems to many as if, as the western world teeters on the edge of recession and gloom. Despondency appears to be the main beneficiary of our prized electoral systems; look at Italy, which has just elected its first Duce for six decades.
If you read the Star, you will know that the thrice-misnamed European Court of Justice is piling on the rulings that the right to business comes way ahead of the right to free association and, especially, the right to strike that makes such a freedom effective. The poor human rights that workers such as those at Grangemouth enjoy are in fact tottering on the edge of abolition. My great-grandfather was a born around the time unions were legalised in Britain; it isn’t so long ago. How firm are our rights? As firm as the competitive free-market system will permit, it seems.
But, you know, the human race is not a competition; if it was, most of the runners would be knackered, barefoot and thirsty before they started. There’s them that would get a head start though and a few would have the umpires on their side. No wonder many give up and watch the rat race with a beer, burger and chips for company. Don’t, deep down, we all want to help one another? I believe that human beings would prefer to be like that; to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery. Our way of life can be free and beautiful but we have lost our way. Technology that could give us abundance has left us permanently wanting things and our society has become cynical, hard and unkind. I remember being told by media pundits in the 1970s that we’d all work a 25 hour week by the 21st century. Yeah, 25 hours in one job and 25 in the second job to hold your head above water!
The world has become a smaller place but the effects of this cry out for humanity, kindness and gentleness. Even now, this May Day, our voice, the voice of the international working class movement unites millions of men, women and little children throughout the world. The disordered society that is now upon us is but reflective of the bitterness of those who fear human progress. The hate of unnatural men, machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts; but humans are not computers, or calculators.
We need to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance to win a world of reason, where science and progress will lead to the happiness of all and not the death and misery of people in far-off lands. Ultimately, it is the mass of the people who have the power. The power to serve others and create happiness; we each have the power to make life free and beautiful. Let’s use that power to unite and fight for a new world, a decent world that will give people a chance to work to fulfil themselves; that will give future and security to all.
“We Will Keep A-Going … And Will Break Before We Will Bend.’ Speech To Derby Trades Union Council Rally – May Day 2007
What kind of society did those men, women and children of the Silk Mill Turnout of 1833-4 expect there would be, two centuries after? Don’t suppose they imaged motorcars, space travel, the internet, television, …. global exploitation and the ongoing attack on permanent, quality jobs?
This was a long lock-out, in which the working class of this city was faced with the choice of starve or give up unionism. All over the country small trade societies joined the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union and the unorganised flocked into it in joyous hope.
Hardship was borne with stoicism. The “Widow Walker” – of Court 1, River Street, had a 14-year-old son who was denied Parish Relief because he “smelt” of trades unionism. They were found eating potato peelings rather than give in. Another widow, and her two girls, spent the lockout in bed, dreaming of food in their sleep, so as to stop themselves scabbing. As I remember so well the miners’ families doing in 1984, when we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Turnout.
Perhaps the Turnouts thought that one day workers would be able to join unions without fearing for their job? That they might look forward to fairness at work and in life? Maybe they thought that pregnant women wouldn’t be locked in a room, refused the toilet and sacked by loud-hailer? As happened at Gate Gourmet. Or that sons, husbands and cousins would never again be sacked for the temerity of solidarity action. It happened in Derby in 1834 and it happened to those …. criminals – who led instant solidarity action for Gate Gourmet by BA workers.
Let me just dispel one myth about the Turnout – this was not Robert Owen’s dispute. He did meet the millocracy here – at the Kings Head, for a nice meal and a long and interesting philosophical debate about everything under the sun … except the dispute. Owen was “happy to be a mediator” but the bosses didn’t want to mediate. Philosophers, eh? In the meantime, the turnouts got to grips with what they called “black sheep”.
They’d be puzzled by today wouldn’t they? Perhaps they thought that human dignity was as valuable as a full stomach? Workers across Britain mobilised massively for Derby. No-one had heard of a little village called Tolpuddle, beside the Piddle River. The mighty Derwent then called all.
I’ve just been on a union visit to Australia. Everyone had heard of Tolpuddle; no-one had heard of Derby. Their trade unions virtually collapsed in 1992, after the framework for industrial relations was abolished overnight. They had to reinvent themselves. In a countermove, their government literally abolished collective bargaining. Really!
The union movement reached out to all; even spent £7 million on TV advertising, showing how flexible labour conditions create the disordered society. Opinion has now radically shifted. The polls have slushed to the left. At first the Australian Labor Party did not believe it could be done. Now – as their leader soars ahead in the polls – the ALP advocates the complete repeal of anti-union laws.
Here in Britain, the T&G and amicus are trying to create a new union, Unite! We see it a bit like the Grand National Consolidated. In opposition, we see the Sun threaten to sue us for monopoly! You couldn’t make it up. And… they’ve started searching rubbish bags to find dirt on Simpson and Woodley. Just as they did in the 1980s when all around signed up to the theory that the forward march of labour had ended and we had better accommodate ourselves to it, or else Rupert will have our dirty knickers all over his pages.
The TUC Public Sector Liaison Group has agreed to make May Day a day of defence for our public services and quite right, too. The T&G has too many scars – back and front – to want to look for sticking plasters now; we want a whole new approach. Don’t know about you but the notion of the Tories being the saviour of the NHS makes me want to check into the nearest care in the community reception. So, just between us, let me tell you, we think NHS boards are bonkers and contestability a code word for privatisation.
The Tory slogan, “NHS yes” saw good ol’ “Dave” backing a demo of junior doctors….whatever next? I know they won’t support a Trade Union Freedom Bill, nor see an end to the power employers have to engage in sacking, scabbing and sabotage of legitimate strike action. If it’s good enough to have free trades unionism in Zimbabwe, I reckon Britain is ripe for a dose of it. No wonder electors are cynical. Triangulation it’s apparently called … triangulation? Strangulation?
Let me regale you another tale from our past. Buried in Nottingham Road cemetery, is one Alice Wheeldon; a Derby anti-war activist who was charged just 90 years ago with conspiracy to murder the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, by driving a strychnine-poisoned nail through his boots when they were put out at night in a hotel for cleaning! At least it wasn’t the lead piping in the study. I’m not kidding you know …
Alice was the victim of a ludicrous set-up, designed to slur the anti-war movement. What really happened was that she was trying to help imprisoned conscientious objectors escape. Socialists – who were always sent to the trenches to die because they had no religion and so could not be conscientious; most of them that survived ended up stirring up revolution!
Alice was banged up for ten years. Even then she fought for better conditions for prisoners. A warder complained that she was “a damned flaming vampire”. This woman of great courage, this Derbyeian, wrote from prison to her comrades: “We will keep a-going … and will break before we will bend. So long comrade, keep the flag flying and when all loose their madness we will meet again.”
But her health was broken; Lloyd George, a master of spin, to avoid her becoming a martyr, had her released to die at home. Her coffin was draped in the red flag and her biggest supporters turned out – union militants from factories on the Clyde, in Sheffield, Coventry and, yes, Derby. Her sacrifice – and others – motivated these brave men and women to form an entirely new kind of union movement – the shop stewards’ movement, a kind of GNCTU really.
We need such a resurgence once again. Our society is broke and it does need fixing. We’re told that the market’s invisible intelligence can guide us but T&G bus workers haven’t seen much evidence of it. You don’t need to be a raving lunatic to think that transport has been a “terrible picture of failure”. Not my words, Parliament’s transport select committee chair.
A problem has been the lack of confidence in the ability of politics to mobilise hearts and minds. Road pricing will only work if public transport is massively improved. Common sense says this is a matter of local democracy and the market won’t solve that; you might get some great carrots and onions down there but you won’t find an integrated transport system for the life of you.
So, why the hesitancy? The trans-national monopolies threaten legal action. But who makes the laws that they threaten ministers on the quiet with? If we can’t fix transport, what can we fix? No wonder we’re all hysterical! We can see the disordered society all around us. If we were an individual called Brittania we’d be given a community care order.
What kind of society do we live in when violence is the most common cause of death for under 44 year old women? Whether it hysteria over terrorists and migrants, the levels of noxious emissions on our streets, or the appearance of bonded labour in Hull set against no prosecutions and poor resourcing of enforcement.
What’s changed in the last 30 years? Is it really just all Channel 5 documentary: `When Parents Go Bad’? Is the shift away from regulated labour, education and health provision to a market based approach irrelevant? Well, I don’t think so.
Poverty of the mind and poverty of the spirit go hand in hand. A doubled prison population, when crime has been supposedly falling? 20% of males and 40% of females in custody trying to take their own lives? 7 times as much spent on youth custody as on prevention schemes. Proportionately, we lock up 4 times as many young people as France, 12 times as many as Spain and a staggering 110 times as many as Finland.
The rate of drunkenness amongst youth is three times that of Holland and the rate of under-age sex is almost double, even though they have a lower age level. Stabbings in the street, where a scuffle in the school yard once sufficed; murders of teenagers drawn to prostitution….
It ain’t good, is it? It doesn’t need a sticking plaster. It needs a change of course. You know how, when you get older, you suddenly start sounding like your mum or you dad? I feel that. I feel their passion for the National Health Service, their belief in social housing, in justice for the poor, education for all, peace in the world, their concern for the underdog, their hatred of spivs….they didn’t call them “wealth-creators”!
Passion for a better world, a vision; the gleam that once inspired socialists is not dead! It shines in the power of a continental left shift in South America and elsewhere. Millions upon millions in the developing world, striving for it and it is time for Britain, for Derby, to join in. As Joe Slovo, the first Housing Minister of the ANC government in South Africa said: “if socialism is not the answer then there is no answer for the wretched of the earth.”
And are we not wretched in our over-mortgaged, debt-ridden, alienated, 4 by 4, 2.2 nuclear family-ied society? The Martyrs of River Street showed us the answer. Back to the unions and prize the strength of unity! This is … was … and will always be the message of the Silk Mill Martyrs.
THE LIFE & WORK OF TOM MANN & TRADE UNION ORGANISING TODAY’
<i>The event, sponsored by Coventry Trades Union Council, aimed to promote strong trade union organisation today and re-kindle an appreciation of Tom Mann’s life and achievements in championing the workers’ cause. The event was on Saturday, May 5th 2007 and was held at CoventryTransportMuseum, in Hales Street from 10.30 am. – 2.30 pm.
There were displays of Tom Mann archive material and material about local Workers’ Union organiser Alice Arnold) and union information and recruitment stalls.
Other speakers included Roger McKenzie – Secretary Midlands Region TUC and Mary Simpson – Secretary T&G-Unite 5/767 branch. Chair was Coventry TUC President, Paul Shevlin (T&G-Unite Vehicle Building & Automotive Group). The text of Graham Stevenson’s lecture follows:</i>
I’m delighted to speak about Tom Mann – who I first read about when I was aged 15, now’t but a lad, here in Coventry. His combination of militancy and fervour for working class unity has always been an inspiration to me – even when I find myself disagreeing with people! But there are other connections.
When I first became active in the T&G in Birmingham some 37 years ago, it was something of a joke amongst the AEU members of my family in Coventry that that I was in a `busman’s union’! Actually, the reason that BSA (where I worked) had a big T&G presence was that it was partly inherited from the Workers Union -which organised both skilled and semi-skilled workers in Birmingham, arising from Tom’s own vision. (There was even an ex-NUVB presence, due to skilled wood-turning.) And the Workers’ Union has also featured quite a bit in some of the historical research I’ve done over the years, which I’ve now managed to publish on the web. So, for all these reasons your invitation is one which I quite warmed to.
But, aside from these personal dynamics, politically, both as a life-long Communist and also as an advocate of both the organising and fighting-back approaches that have become official T&G policy in the last four years, I feel Tom Mann’s own contribution is fundamentally relevant to today’s challenges. This is especially so this very week; the historic merger of the T&G and amicus to form Unite, is in many ways the culmination of Tom’s own ideas.
The basic life story of Tom Mann can be told straightforwardly. He was the grandson of a south Warwickshire craftsman, a radical shoemaker, who lived and died in the village of Woolston. Tom himself was born in Foleshill, then on the outskirts of Coventry, on 15th April, 1856. He had only three years of education, leaving school at the tender age of nine to work at a farm and then at the Victoria Colliery. As he wrote: “The air courses were only three feet high and wide, and my work was to take away the … (dirt) … crawling on all fours, (dragging) the box along … (to) …be emptied.”
A series of underground explosions closed the colliery and, when he was 14, his family moved to Birmingham, where he began a 7-year engineering apprenticeship. The church was helpful to him in gaining something of an education at this time, which left him with a warm attitude to individual churchmen but distaste for the hypocrisy of organised religion. More significantly, in the liberal atmosphere of the time, his first political insights were gained there.
After apprenticeship, he moved to London but a major recession dominated the decade and he had to work as a porter and a warehouse clerk. It took some time to find work in engineering but when he did, it was there that he was introduced to the ideas of William Morris and he became a wide reader, essentially educating himself further in the process.
In 1881, Tom joined the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, the ASE, and not long after was involved in his first strike. For three years he was at Thorneycrofts in Chiswick, working on torpedoes, as a highly skilled engineer. Tom found it ironic that his skill was now employed for war, as the Empire geared up to climb out of the slump by defending its markets against competitors. His grasp of this negativity, took him to the reform-minded but influential Fabian Society, as well as the Battersea branch of the Marxian Social Democratic Federation, the SDF. Only a man like Tom Mann could straddle both stools at the same time, out his grasp of the need for unity in action as the abiding need for the progressive movement.
It was Beatrice Webb who, back-handedly, complemented Tom Mann by noting how different he was from other labour leaders: “he is possessed with the idea of a ‘church’ – of a body of men all professing exactly the same creed and all working in exact uniformity to exactly the same end. (But, she thought) … this stumping the country, talking abstractions and raving emotions, is not good for a man’s judgment …”!
Abstractions perhaps because Tom was a man with unexpectedly wide interests; a life-long interest in astronomy developed after he was invited to cut up a meteorite in the British Museum. This `Renaissance’-like, almost poly-mathematical talent might well have been responsible for what he is best remembered for – his innovative and strategic vision; his insight into new possibilities and a consequential passionate evocation of the interests of ordinary people that socialism pointed to.
Tom had become greatly interested in the struggle for the 8-hour day and wrote a pamphlet on this in 1886. This led to the formation of the Eight Hour League, a campaign to win support in the unions for a law on the eight-hour day. That year Tom Mann read “The Manifesto of the Communist Party”, the 1848 programme written by Marx and Engels, and declared himself won to their ideas from that moment for life. “I gladly accepted the name of Communist from the date of my first reading”, he was to later write.
Typically, he threw himself into the movement “with all the energy at my command”. The following year, he moved to Newcastle to become the SDF’s northern organiser, amongst other things managing Keir Hardie’s campaign to get elected as a working man’s candidate in Mid-Lanark. Returning to London he became a journalist for the “Labour Elector”. In this role, he exposed the dreadful conditions in what was later ICI’s (then Brunner Mond’s) salt mines and works in Northwich by taking a job as labourer under a false name.
During the 1889 dock strike for a tanner an hour and a four hour maximum work spell, Tom became the manager of funding and food distribution to strikers. This initially modest role quickly saw him emerge as one of the key leaders of the strike. Ben Tillett, the dockers’ leader from before the strike, was enormously impressed with him. Tillett wrote: “He combined the qualities of whirlwind and volcano.”
Tom Mann was virtually unique among the speakers of his generation in that he would never engage in personal abuse of anyone. Even his enemies respected his integrity. There was never anyone quite like him, said the SDF leader, Hyndman: his speeches were full of “fire, vehemence, passion, humour, drama and crashing excitement … Everything gave way before the tremendous torrents of oratory … He spoke with terrific rapidity, yet every word was as clear as a bell … (his body) suiting … the action to the word, the word to the action.” Such a man, pouring out the ideology of socialism that was at the foundation of his confidence, to strikers and their families, mostly non-union and potential scabs, amidst his white water rafting style of persistent letters and appeals to Australian wharfies for solidarity funds, was the secret weapon of this conflagration.
Avoiding starvation of the 10,000 men and their families would settle whether this would be victory or defeat. A decisive turning point was when Australia’s trades unionists sent £30,000, perhaps worth ten million today, which helped the strike reach its fifth week and demoralised the employers into a settlement. It is all too easy to overuse the word `historic’ but, without question, this magnificent victory was a decisive turning point in British capitalism’s acceptance – for the next nine decades at least – that mass trades unionism was here to stay.
Tom Mann became the first President of the Dock, Wharf and Riverside Workers Union that now emerged; it would become one of two major unions, the United Vehicle Workers being the other, that would become the core of the Transport Workers Federation, which in turn would be at the heart of the Transport and General Workers Union from 1922. In effect, this was today’s Transport Sector of Unite, the section which I am proud to lead as an official.
This struggle now stimulated a trend towards organising the unorganised that became known as `new Unionism’, from the name of Tom’s pamphlet outlining the strategy. New unions were more interested in strike benefits than funeral benefits, in good administrative systems for struggle than in tightly crafted arbitration agreements and in socialist education than in charitable `good works and deeds’. In a single year, trade union membership tripled and many new unions came into being. It is worth noting, in passing, that Tom (along with Marx’s daughter, Eleanor) was crucially helpful to Will Thorne in forming the Gasworkers and General Labourers Union, the seeds of which would grow into today’s GMB.
New Unionism immediately grasped the international dynamic of capitalism and Tom urged the formation of an International Federation of Ship, Deck and River Workers. Soon this became the International Transport Workers Federation, of which he was the first President from 1893–1896. In the international trade union world, it is universally conceded that the ITF is now the most active and militant of the Global Union Federations. Serving as I do on the ITF’s Executive Board, it was inspiring to be present at our world congress last year in South Africa, where we reviewed the continued success of a Global Organising initiative, focusing on organising the unorganised in every major country in the world. This strategy began at a congress in the ITF’s centenary year; a memorable experience for me then was to tell the congress that launched this, as a Coventry kid, that we were at long last finalising Tom’s own vision for the Federation.
Then as now, May Day was a symbol of all this and it is no accident that it was Tom who moved the motion at the London Trades Council that began the movement in Britain to celebrate May Day every year. But, ever hungry for new pastures, from 1893–1896, Tom was the elected secretary of the new Independent Labour Party, the ILP, and stood, unsuccessfully, for Parliament three times. Phillip Snowden, later to become Labour’s first Chancellor of the Exchequer, knew him in these days. Tom was, Snowden said, “the most volcanic speaker I have known … kind-hearted and generous and tolerant. I never heard him speak an unkind word of anyone”. Well, Tom did not personally attack Snowden ever, but was understandably somewhat scathing at the attacks on working people that came from the proto-Blairite gang, including Snowden, that broke the 1931 Labour Government up to form a `National’ government.
Back before the turn of the century, this brief foray into parliamentary politics by Tom was subsumed by the excitement of forming yet another new union in 1897, the Workers Union. This was Tom’s own creation and the very epitome of the united society for all workers. The choice of name was in itself significant. As a revolutionary socialist, Tom saw the union as an organisation which would be “a Trade Union and a Political Organisation for advancing the true interests of Labour”; the terms of his vision were remarkably consistent with the stated aims of the new union, Unite.
The Workers Union secured a massive presence from its earliest days in the engineering industries of the Midlands. Sadly, after Tom moved on, the union swiftly bureaucratised but its conception – that of One Big Union was attractive beyond belief. In one massive leap, as favourable economic conditions emerged in the run up to the First World War, it quadrupled its size in the two years from 1912. But, whilst the war saw the skilled engineering unions radicalise, the Workers Union turned to the right.
By 1918, relations generally between the skilled and all-grades unions were so bad that the Workers Union would advise its members not to join a national engineering strike. The union eventually merged with the T&G in 1929, ironically financially broken by its adherence to union benevolent benefits, and it is the Workers Union membership – added to the original transport base that ultimately gave the T&G its general character, much improved, I have to say, by the addition of the Vehicle Builders in the 1970s.
The demise of the Workers Union prompts the thought that, if there is any one salient criticism of Tom it is that he was simply not cut out for bureaucracy! He now went through a slightly fallow period, resorting to keeping a pub. But this `enterprise’ became a sanctuary for a motley crew of political refugees and revolutionaries from all over the world. Tom simply couldn’t square the meagre earnings from his role as a roving socialist propagandist with this and looked for fresh pastures.
At the end of 1901, he emigrated to Australia, where he became an organiser for the Australian Labor Party. It did not take long for him to become critical. He thought the ALP showed “little disposition to travel in a Socialist direction … they … attach importance to getting “more trade” … They still look to Parliament as the chief, if not the sole, agency …” Of one of the first Labour Governments in the world, which held office for about six months or so, Tom thought “they dared not attempt anything out of the ordinary humdrum rut, and no one could have told that there was any difference, except by reading that different persons filled Cabinet positions.”
In 1910, he formed the Socialist Party of Victoria and was imprisoned for five weeks in Melbourne over a free-speech campaign, after socialist meetings and leaflets were banned. Then, having led a gigantic miners’ strike at Broken Hill, he was personally banned from speaking in New South Wales, so workers organised a “Tom Mann Train”, a secret transport passage for Tom across the borders of Australia’s states, so that he could tour the country speaking. Tom also, by the way, spent a year in New Zealand on organising drives.
Australian labour militancy was so powerful that the state proposed a cease-fire and offered a statutory base for industrial relations. The movement now pinned their faith to Arbitration Acts and Wages Boards but Tom was “compelled to definitely declare that such measures are a most serious impediment to working-class solidarity; a powerful agency for hypnotising the workers …” It was an industrial relations system that “… gives the capitalist judiciary complete control …. that places the lawyer … in front of the real industrial expert.”
Having just returned from a study visit of Australian unions, on behalf of the T&G General Secretary, I can vouch for Tom’s caution. It seemed to work, whilst-so-ever the capitalist state was happy for the incorporation of unions, they had massive membership. But, after a New Labour-esque government abolished arbitration in 1992, the rationale for the captured union membership dissolved. Union density in Australia declined precipitously – halving density in a decade, the fastest rate (after New Zealand, which suffered the same fate) in the western world. Some 3,000 union organisers had to be made redundant.
The Australians returned to their history, rediscovered Tom Mann and proposed the organising model, later adopted by some American unions, notably the SEIU, and re-discovered by some in the T&G seven years ago or so. Some of us – Coventrians all – had never forgotten. It was Jack Jones who shifted the original Workers Union model into Coventry factories in the late 1930s and 1940s, evolving this into the notion of the shop stewards’ movement. I recall well his ironic comment to me the first time he heard the word “mapping” being bandied about T&G central office and my reply that it sounded to me like a common sense way of carrying out business, shop by shop, that any engineering worker instinctively understood.
One thing I will say, the Australians have performed wonders in adapting modern technology into making officer servicing more accountable, professional and more geared to the building of self-reliance in the workplace; Unite hasn’t even begun to address these questions.
Tom returned to England in 1910 to work for the Dockers’ Union. By this stage, he was espousing a new conception of `syndicalism’, which prized the strike weapon over the vote and he now created the Industrial Syndicalist Education League and its journal, the “Industrial Syndicalist”, which amongst other things, inspired the beginnings of a rank-and-file miners’ movement that would eventually make the miners a by-word for militancy and a railway vigilance movement that lay the basis for all-grades unionism that makes militancy a cultural part of RMT.
More personally, Tom was at the forefront of the 1911 transport workers strike in Liverpool, a mammoth and successful 72 day dispute. Gunboats were sent to the Mersey to pacify the natives and Tom was abused by the press as the “dictator of Liverpool”. He certainly commanded all transport – trams and lorries, docks and ferries and ships – even the Royal Mail could not leave unless he said it could.
Tom published a leaflet, the “Open Letter to British Soldiers”, urging them not to fire upon striking workers, which resulted in him receiving a six months sentence for sedition, commuted to seven weeks after massive public pressure. Even at this distance the power of the call is impossible to miss, and Tom knew very well its potency: “Thou shalt not kill,” says the Bible … It doesn’t say, “unless you have a uniform on” … Don’t disgrace your parents, your class, by being the willing tools … of the master class …. When we rise, you rise. When we fall, even by your bullets, you fall also.”
In the dying embers of peace-time before the First World War, Tom was called to South Africa to lead protests to prevent the deportation of trade union leaders. When he returned to Britain, he found that this was now a defining moment for socialists. As was the case throughout his life, Tom rose to the occasion – he was strongly opposed to Britain’s prosecution of war and joined the British Socialist Party, a reformation of the SDF and some ILP elements. In 1917, like many in the workers’ movement, he was also enthusiastic about the revolutions in Russia.
He was now active in organising seafarers but in 1919, for the last two years before his official retirement at the age of 65, he was elected as the new general secretary of the AEU, a merger of eight unions including his own, the ASE.
Having joined the Communist Party, formed in 1920 out of the BSP and other, mainly ex-syndicalist elements, Tom spent the next two decades of his life touring Britain and the world as an agitator. He was not only a founding member of the Party; he was a member of its Central Committee for much of the rest of his life. In 1921, he met Lenin for discussions about the nature of the British labour movement. From 1924-29, Tom was chair of the National Minority MovementEast Nottingham constituency in the October 1924 General Election, which was a heavily Tory place. With little preparation, Tom grabbed a more than respectable 10% of the vote. , a united front trade union formation dominated by the Communist Party. And he found time to be the Communist Party’s Parliamentary candidate in the
His role in the Communist Party, in its first two decades, is all too poorly understood by some. He was the avuncular exponent of a special brand of Communism, as part of the broad Labour Movement, that would lead to the Party being abused by enthusiasts of the more doctrinaire German Communist Party as being a “society of great friends”.
Tom had a particular belief that nurturing the talent of youth was a strategic asset. On being appointed the honorary president of the Young Communist League, the YCL, on its foundation, Tom reminded them that: “It is a quality of youth to be receptive, to be warm-hearted, to glow with enthusiasm. It is a characteristic of age to become opinionated, dictatorial…”
But Tom had also been the man who had seen the example of the Bryant and May matchgirls dispute in London’s east end, the very year before the docks strike, as the spark that lit the flame. The indominitable spirit of women, especially young women, was too powerful a resource for the movement to waste.
Now, this event also acknowledges the work of Alice Arnold, a full-time organiser for the Workers’ Union in Coventry; just a few words about Alice in the context of Tom Mann and his role in sparking a new generation into militancy. Like the rest of her union, Alice had gone into the T&G but ended up being sacked by Bevin, ostensibly after refusing to move to Birmingham. A TUC survey in the early 1930s on the state of organisation amongst women workers reported that in Coventry there was “apathy… the removal of Miss Arnold has had some effect.”
The politics behind this are instructive. The official trade union movement initially refused, in the late 1920s/early 1930s, to unionise the new light engineering industries; they said they were unorganisable. As a historian of women’s trades unionism has written: “it was the rank-and-file movement, not infrequently led by Communists, which led to the `capture’ of the new factories”.
Women’s official structures of the unions had become part of the trade union establishment; there was a big gulf between them and working women. It was very much under Tom Mann’s guidance that the Communist Party singled out the `new management technique’ of the Bedaux system – a time and motion management approach, which was sweeping industry in Britain, as the main target for anti-capitalist resistance.
Elsewhere, it was in the textile industry that this struggle unfolded. In the Midlands, the mass walkout of 10,000 unorganised women in Lucas’s Birmingham factory showed the way. In May 1931, the TGWU acquired some members at Courtaulds in Coventry after a spontaneous show of action on wages. The Communist Party produced a broadsheet “The Working Woman” which linked up struggles in Wolverhampton and Coventry of the Courtaulds workers.
By 1935, when a group bonus scheme was introduced, the first major strike in the company’s history happened. In Coventry, 3,000 came out and, as a participant recalled decades later, Q “the TGWU was called in” …yes – by the management!. Eventually, the strike was Q “settled on terms more favourable to management”. The T&G did not obtain recognition until after another strike in 1937 over a failure to give a wage rise. But it had been the autonomous organisation of women that had begun to shatter opposition. As one women recalled, “we did it ourselves”.
Aside from quietly guiding work such as this, Tom became a kind of roving global revolutionary in his last years; for example, working in 1927 in China with workers in Shanghai and assisting the Swedish Communist Party in its major challenge in the 1938 municipal elections.
He was arguably the original disreputable old man, growing more unrespectable as he aged. In 1932, he was arrested and imprisoned in London during the National Hunger March. He got three months’ almost certainly just to stop him from leading unemployed workers to Downing Street.
After a speech he made in Belfast in October of that year, when Catholics and Protestants briefly united in struggle against the means test, he was sent to prison for sedition. Two years later he was acquitted for the same offence in a trial in Cardiff, after he and Harry Pollitt [the veteran leader of Britain’s Communists] were accused of sedition in Swansea. That year, he was deported from Canada.
He was deported from, or imprisoned in, more countries than anyone else in the progressive movement than I have ever been able to discern – France, Germany, Victoria, New South Wales, Canada, and Northern Ireland and so on. As Harry Pollitt wrote of Tom: “it was just because he would never “settle down” into respectability and safety, that he lived and died a pioneer.
He was of course far too old to participate in the Spanish Civil WarAustralia. but he was immensely proud that a unit of the International Brigade, the Tom Mann Centuria, was named in his honour. This affection for him was also shown when the Red Flag was flown on Melbourne Trades Hall for his 80th birthday in 1936; after all, he was the man who first planted the Red Flag in
Tom Mann died in Grassington, about 40 miles north of Leeds on 13th March, 1941. His death was mourned widely and marked throughout the world. Harry Pollitt made the main tribute to Tom, whom he called: “a giant towering incomparably over all his contemporaries in the many years in which he played a dominant role in the working class movement”.
There is not an industry in Britain that is not better organised as a result of the work of Tom Mann. Miners, seamen, dockers, engineers and unskilled workers of all kinds owe a debt of gratitude to Torn Mann that is little appreciated by the present generation. You always knew where Tom stood; for he welcomed the Russian Revolution as “the direct action of the sort he wanted to see everywhere” – against what he always called “The Boss Class”. At mass rallies, he would command the crowd to stand and to put up their hands if they agreed with what he had said; then, swiftly taking out his handkerchief, he would wave it and call “Three cheers for unity.” Today, we ought to shout at the top of our voices: “Three cheers for Tom Mann”!
COMMUNIST PARTY EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE JANUARY 2007
There’s something very rotten in the state of Britain. Jobs, health, education and housing all display disorder; it’s a mess. Just look at what’s been happening. Battling back to work last week, many wondered once again about their miserable journey. In London, 15 million people travel by car in any one 24 hour period, twice as many as by public transport or by foot and I don’t really totally blame them.
Not when you consider that the 60% of rail fares which are set by private operators have increased by up to 7.3%, nearly three times the rate of inflation – the record appears to be 33%! Twenty years ago, we had five different types of fare, now we have the `choice’ of more than 70. It actually makes economic sense to buy two part-way tickets before you set off, matching the boundaries of different operators.
Completely ignoring the misery of packed commuter routes, a government spokesman said that it’s “a commercial decision for train operators”. No-one really believes that public transport privatisation works, not when we spend twice as much of our disposable income as anywhere in Europe on transport. But the government even feels it can get away with facing down civil servants for the temerity of demanding assurances on job security.
Some 280,000 members of the Public and Commercial Services Union have balloted for ongoing one day strikes from 31st January, as the government pursues a dogmatic policy of outsourcing. Let’s be clear, we’re not talking of the pin-stripe brigade nowadays. Over half of all civil servants get less than £20,000 a year, over a fifth get less than £15,000 and very many are on Minimum Wage; yet the private consultants advising on how to squeeze the workforce trouser over £2 1/2 billion a year.
Little wonder then that, outside of the metropolitan elite, there is little sympathy for Ruth Kelly in her latest pickle. The argument that she is not a hypocrite if she sends her child to a private school because he has special needs is informed by the notions of hard personal choices. But few electors will understand how a so-called Labour former education secretary is not two-faced. But then that’s capitalism for you – freedom of choice but absence of freedom to pay.
Every single parent of a child with special needs would like to have a spare £40,000 to hand. Almost a fifth of all children have `special educational needs’; about 60% are educated in mainstream schools, yet the number of special schools has fallen by 7% in the lifetime of this government. And it doesn’t stop there. Even the Children’s Commissioner has recently described services for three quarters of a million disabled children as `a national scandal’. Only one in 13 of their families get social service help; 55% live on the poverty line and 80% are ‘at breaking point’.
The government is to abandon its new Mental Health Bill in favour of amending existing laws to enable it to detain citizens with personality disorders for compulsory treatment even when no crime has been committed. Now personality disorder is defined as a “pervasive pattern of experience and behaviour that is abnormal thinking, mood, personal relations, and control of impulses … when this is inflexible, maladaptive, and anti-social” – sounds like our society to me!
But it’s no joke. There are more mentally ill people on incapacity benefits than the total number of unemployed people on benefit. Stress is the highest cause of absence among office workers, with an estimated 12.8m working days lost in Britain in 2003-04. Arguably, the most concrete expression of what the early Marx called ‘alienation’ in modern society is not the soullessness of work but the soul-Iessness of life. Whilst the true nature of humanity is to value community, people in capitalist societies find their material life organised through commodities. Usefulness is totally separated from its market value; a deviation the later Marx calls “commodity fetishism”.
In homage to modern capitalism, illicit drug retailing operates through the model of infinite sub-contracting; by the fifth degree of removal from the source, adulterated narcotics result in harm to physical well-being. Yet, in today’s urban narcotic sub-culture it is cheaper to score heroin than cannabis. Heroin derivatives have become virtually the working class drug of choice. Its street price is now a third of what it was 30 years ago; an ‘introductory offer’ of a wrap costing £2 can be easily obtained in former working class industrial areas. The official policy of ‘harm reduction’, which relies on prescribing methadone, hasn’t solved anything; there are half a million addicts and those closest to the problem say legalisation is needed.
It may be not too strong a point to say that capitalism ‘seriously harms you and those around you’ and is deserving of a warning from the Attorney General! One clear observation can be made — that the adulation by society of the free market is at the centre of it all and this will be defended by oligarchy with brute force if needs be.
The BNP, in its recent strategy analysis, thinks a base of 5% support can give it a chance at power “one step away from a crisis”. So, what are the chances of such a crisis? Desperately real, in fact. From its peak in mid2001 to its trough in late 2004, the US Dollar Index lost a staggering one third of its value in the world currency market. Non – American investors and central banks will have sustained massive investment losses in capital tied up in the US and they aren’t very happy!
Canary Wharf is delighted. Yet UK manufacturing output is lower now than it was when New Labour took power in May 1997. Output has grown 30% in the US and by 14.1% in France. Brown’s policies disadvantage UK manufacturing, whilst less than 3% of our exports go to the Far East and a focus on short-term returns restrains real investment. If the UK can only manage flat production figures in a period of reasonable global growth, what kind of scenario can we expect in a down-turning global economy?
Twenty years ago, Thatcher’s government presided over reforms that led to the pre-eminence of London as an international financial centre. This was fuelled by a big expansion in Britain of mainly US firms, lured by the handsome returns offered by privatisation. The result was that overseas companies bought up well over 80% of UK financial institutions. This also changed the ownership of most big industrial firms and utilities.
As this New Year began, almost in anticipation of a slump, capitalists are rushing to dump their money somewhere safe-ish. Share purchase trading has hit unprecedented heights. Indian, Brazilian, Japanese, Spanish as well as American firms are all drooling over British firms. Up for a roll of the dice on the Monopoly board are steelmaker Corus (£5.5 billion, please), the London Stock Exchange (£2bn that’ll set you back), Intercontinental hotels, the paint maker ICI and United Biscuits are up for grabs. Vodafone seeks a stake in the Indian telecom company Hutchison Essar, Ladbrokes are buying the largest on-line gambling holdings, based in Gibraltar, and private equity firms are swooping on Whitbread and Rank. Premier Food’s takeover of RHM will mean that Mr Kipling, Bisto and Hovis join with Quorn, Branston and Loyd Grossman. Japan Tobacco is gobbling up Gallagher’s fags and a Spanish company has coughed up £11 bn for Scottish Power. Que?
Five of the six dominant energy companies in the UK will be owned by foreigners. But the bad news about the massive loss of Britain’s manufacturing capacity is that faced with a slump, foreign-owned companies would inevitably shut down the subsidiaries furthest away from their home first. Whilst Britain’s economy pours away down the plug-hole, the City seems so caught up with its own success that it is totally unworried about ludicrously high salaries.
Over the past four years, the global economy has enjoyed a boom the likes of which it hasn’t seen since the early 1970s. In 2000-2, Bush and Blair’s wars helped avoid a slump by massively stimulating demand and releasing new capital flows. Now the World Bank says the “pace of expansion is already slowing and…. a weakening of housing markets in high-income countries … could generate a much sharper downturn and even recession”.
Two giant quasi-government financial institutions covering more than half of the US mortgage market have not presented any formal report since 2004 and must ask for an exemption in order to remain listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The governor of the New York Federal Reserve, warned against risks of systemic crisis and Asian investors are fast running away from US Treasury Bonds.
Meanwhile, the UK Treasury’s rule for public sector borrowing requirement limits this to a mere 40% of gross domestic product; in the EU, the figure is 65% and, even in the US, 47%. PFI keeps new hospital and school development off the books but it also allows TNCs a crack at exploiting even further the low wage, low skill, deregulation-mad, flexible labour market economy of Britain.
The rich and the corporations they own or control are all but exempt from taxation policy. The super rich use Britain as their base for work and live in tax havens such as Monaco, the Channel Islands, jetting in and out of London at the beginning and end of each week. Not just football magnates but a supposedly ‘normal’ company like Cadbury Schweppes shifts profits to tax havens to avoid paying their share. In the last two years, the firm paid 19% worldwide on its £1.5 billion profits but a mere £3 million came into the UK Treasury from it. This is par for the course.
We’re not just talking of people like Richard Branson and Phillip Green of BHS; Russian, Arab and American billionaires have made London their base. Foreign tycoons can live here without paying a penny on their wealth stashed away in other lands. This washes into politics, for this is the meaning of cash-for-peerages and the like. The pretty rich also have acquired the morals of the spiv; legal tax exemption schemes are so effective that even the Auditor-General has refused to sign off the Revenue and Customs accounts for the fourth year in a row because of unacceptably high levels of mistakes and criminal activity. The sum of £1.7 billion lost, twice as much as previously predicted, has been mentioned and that’s even without considering the completely legal dodges.
Tax advisers can make National Insurance, income tax – and even inheritance tax – vanish. Accountants get themselves up to 40% tax relief on their own home loans – while the modest 10% tax relief available for the rest of us was abolished years ago. In an aching parallel with the ancient barter system, the modestly rich have been paid in antiques, carpets, gold, fine wines, diamonds… and even animal skins, all to avoid paying tax and national insurance.
In contrast, almost 30,000 people are likely to become insolvent in the first quarter of 2007 with some 10,000 tipped over the edge by Christmas spending. Soaring energy bills and increases in unemployment have pushed more people into financial trouble and Britons owe a third of all the debt in Europe.
The outrageous announcement that average house price for first-time buyers in the north of England and Scotland has exceeded £100,000 for the first time, pales beside the fact that the average in London is over a quarter of a million. This is almost double the level of five years ago. You need an income of £40,000 a year just to enter the property ladder in London but there are no signs of the Government committing to building extra social rented homes in the next Comprehensive Spending Review.
Shocking us out of our mortgage miseries, the horrific murders in Suffolk have seen a sea-change in public mood, as the young women victims were increasingly seen as real people. “Reclaim the night” marchers in lpswich were joined by support groups from across the UK, quite rightly insisting on the right of any woman to walk the streets of communities at night, unharmed. The murders stimulated a debate on public policy on prostitution. Given that more than half of prostitutes began as teenagers, the link between family crisis, poverty, prostitution and drug abuse is increasingly clearer. The news came, just before Christmas, that Blair personally blocked moves to decriminalise prostitution because he was concerned over ‘hostile headlines’. But we should note, from the experience in New Zealand, that ‘managed areas’, similar to those in mainland Europe, leave the sex industry still in the hands of capitalistic elements.
To the fundamentalists of capitalist morality, human life is seemingly sacrosanct from the moment of conception through to the last breath, whatever the pain and suffering involved. Our Anglo-American consumerist society can countenance the artificial freezing of disabled Ashley X in the US to be a permanent child of nine years but a storm greeted the ethical recommendation to British doctors by the Nuffield Council for Bio-Ethics that babies born before 23 weeks should not be resuscitated. Now New Labour looks set to bow to anti-abortion pressure to prevent the experimental fusing of human DNA with animal eggs, thus depriving people with Alzheimer’s and motor neurone disease of hopes of a breakthrough.
To quote something written to me quite recently by a veteran Communist, one of the early pioneers of genetic conservation who long worked for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization: “for the capitalist system, if prolonging life creates ethical problems, the massive destruction of human life does not … the sort of thinking that sees it normal to ASK for (millions) to conduct a murderous high-technology war, but needs to DEBATE the ethics of “the high cost of health care” is yet another milestone along the road leading to a total collapse of social values”.
This week, even the Iraqi Health Ministry admitted that the country’s yearly death count more than tripled between the start and end of 2006, at 23,000 people. The UN talks of 30,000; both estimates pale beside the October edition of the Lancet, which said that some 600,000 people had died violently, in all.
Whether intended as a diversion or a provocation, Saddam’s sudden and botched execution, the manner of which was rightly condemned -eventually even by Blair, is clearly linked to expectations of more of the same and worse. Iraq’s prime minister has declared that he wants out, underlining the US’s loss of control over events – just as George Bush announces his new strategy on the war. The Presidency is set to face a major conflict with the Democrat controlled Senate and House on a whole range of topics. Yet, in defiance of the conclusions of the Iraq Study Group, Bush is to send 20,000 more US troops to shore up Iraq’s police and army, which are more than a third under-strength.
The misery following invasion and civil unrest won’t end until imperialism quits Iraq. Look at the so-called success of Afghanistan. Its wheat crop has failed yet again and 2.5 million people now face starvation. The only success to report is that the expanding poppy trade now accounts for no less than one third of that country’s GDP.
Talk this week by Angela Merkel of Moscow’s “unacceptable” decision to temporarily close energy supplies to Germany and Poland, must be judged against the fact that the EU as a whole relies for about a quarter of its gas needs on Russia. Britain imports gas from the EU, so that its largely oil linked price rises affect us. 30 years ago, some two thirds of our energy needs came from coal and we know what happened to that. The next step is an integrated EU energy market.
Hope for lower energy prices in 2007 must seem a little unreal given that gas prices have risen by 71 per cent during Tony Blair’s tenure as prime minister. Power and the needs of the privatised energy market of the German state lie behind much of the drive towards a super-state, exemplified by the affair of the EU constitution.
The slight fly in the ointment is that, of the 25 EU states, only 16 have largely completed ratification. It now falls to the German presidency of the EU to propose where to take the constitution. Watch out for ringing declarations this March, when the EU celebrates its 50th birthday and then completion of a text by June. The aim is for a constitution to come in force before the 2009 European elections, in case the EU’s electorate swings heavily to the left.
The danger arises since millions of ordinary working people are thoroughly confused by the state of affairs where it makes sense for a politician to dissemble. All the more surprising that a junior minister admits he is powerless to control aviation companies and calls anti-union Ryanair the ‘irresponsible face of capitalism’; I’m not sure Blair hasn’t outdone him by blaming the electorate for wanting cheap holidays abroad. Cheap holidays in Britain might be quite a surprise for many. I sometimes think it would pay the NHS to provide convalescent holidays for the millions of overworked Britons! Does it make sense for billions to be spent on destruction but not health and welfare? Where supposedly scarce resources are squandered but there’s no money for schools and hospitals. Confusion abounds about the massive numbers of people moving around the globe and Europe to find decent lives. We must say to workers – don’t focus on the massive movement of labour but on the massive movement of capital. ‘Free’ labour matched to free capital amounts to a disordered society.
It seems that our ruling class no longer has a stake in our society; a society they neither care for nor like. Further reinforcing the cesspit that passes for ‘business’ in modern Britain, the prime minister has defended Lord Goldsmith’s decision to scrap the Serious Fraud Office’s long-running investigation into British arms dealer BAE Systems due to “security concerns”. Blair said he took “full responsibility” for the decision, so that’s all right then; we agree with him – he’s to blame.
Why can’t life be better for ordinary people? Because, it’s said, that it all costs and there’s not enough money to do all the things we’d like to do — and it sounds right to ordinary people because that’s exactly the experience they have. But there’s no problem with money; it’s just a question of who has it!
The world’s richest individuals have placed $11.5 trillion of assets in offshore havens. This figure is worth 10 times Britain’s GDP. Quite how much of this is in the hands of individuals based here is anyone’s guess, since the government doesn’t issue figures. The most recent numbers (from 2003) show British firms and individuals owning about £3.5 trillion worth of abroad, and abroad owning about £3.5 trillion worth of Britain.
In the five years since 2000, liquid assets owned by Britons increased by more than 50%. 135,000 people average £6.4m owned (this does not include a first or second home) and is on average 66% richer than they were five years ago. The super-rich – the thousand richest individuals in Britain – have seen their liquid assets increase by 79% in five years, to an average £70m each. 30% of the population owns no liquid assets at all and the next 30% probably only `own’ their home.
We don’t need mirages on the horizon to show us how to move forward out of this morass of corruption, greed and avarice. We only have to look to the new situation developing in Venezuela to learn the simple lesson. Chavez now proposes strengthening the state’s control over banking and oil production and he seeks constitutional reforms based on “popular power”. It is neo-Iiberalism that is the basis of the power of oligarchy; as Chavez calls it – “individualism and egotism”.
This is the backcloth to the agenda item that will follow debate over this report. In implementing the Party’s programme for growth and renewal, we do the most significant thing we can do when we relate our own experience to working people, as Communists, in the workplace and in communities. Our analysis makes sense; the need is to channel the confusion and uncertainty of working people into action. When we promote the Left-Wing programme, which can provide the basis for left unity to proceed to begin to fight back, against the plain injustice of a wealthy country that cannot provide a secure and prosperous future for the overwhelming majority of its citizens, then to that extent we lay the basis for that fight back.
APPENDICES: MISCELLANEOUS FACTS FOR COMMUNISTS………
Migration – capital and labour
o A quarter of all global foreign direct investment went into the UK in 2005, half of the EU’s total.
o HSBC pay 24.5% tax on its profits worldwide but threatens to leave the UK over the £371m it pays to the Treasury. But this UK Corporation tax is a mere 13.7% of their tax bill; as a percentage of pre-tax profits it is around 3.3%. The engineering company, Tomkins, similarly pays 21.2% worldwide of its profits in tax, last year it paid £1 million tax in UK; Cable & Wireless – 17.4% – but not a penny of late to UK Treasury.
o npower and Powergen belong to the Germans, EDF Energy is owned by the French. Scottish Power and Scottish and Southern Energy will be Spanish, leaving Centrica, a gas retailer, as British.
o Corporation tax at 30% is the lowest of any major EU economy
o One popular UK tax avoidance device is the “employee benefit trust”, payable through a trust, often offshore that forwards regular doses of cash in the form of very long term, often interest-free always tax-free loans. “Lend and forget” schemes, they are called.
o Accountancy firms sell artificial “losses”, to set against clients’ incomes, with income apparently wiped out, there’s no income tax to pay, whilst paying cash into a private pension scheme, which can be used as capital for loans and the like, avoids tax.
o Only 18 months ago total net lending to individuals passed £1 trillion. Now the total is nudging £1.3 trillion and rising by Lim every four minutes. Little wonder that the number of people opting for individual voluntary arrangements (lVAs) to avoid formal bankruptcy will double within two years. The number of IVAs has exploded nine fold since 1998, whilst personal insolvencies are 63% up on the 2005 total.
o A third of the world’s major trans-national corporations have a British base
o Undoubtedly, population movement into the UK, since May 2004, has seen the largest single wave of migration in our history
o Even the most severe estimates suggest that only I % of the population is ‘non-compliant’ (i.e. without valid leave to remain in the
o The overwhelming majority work in construction, agriculture, food processing, hospitality, cleaning and care.
o It is not due to immigration restrictions but because of the government’s obsession with a ‘flexible labour market’ with weak mechanisms for enforcing standards that problems of illicit working are not dealt with. Between 1998 and 2003 only nine single employers were prosecuted for illegally employing immigrants.
o A flexible labour market results in an insatiable demand for migrant workers at the low skill end of the labour market.
o Distributional impacts and social costs of 600,000 new entrants to the labour market cannot be discounted.
o Unlike in the UK, the number of labour inspectors in the Republic of Ireland has recently been tripled
• The UK needs to create around 4.5m new households over the next decade to cope with an expanding; new house building just can’t meet the demand. At the current rate of construction only be two million new homes will be built in ten years.
• Yet there are vast numbers of redundant houses, unused shops and offices that are crying out for renovation. We have amongst the oldest housing stock in Europe; over one quarter was built before 1914 and half before 1945. Some 6.3m homes in England are “non-decent” – almost 30% of the entire housing stock. To bring these alone up to a reasonable standard would cost around £46 billion. At the current rate of improvement it will take over 27 years to put right.
• And yet there is a huge backlog of homeless people waiting for a permanent home, 93,000 households of people are trapped in the nightmare of temporary accommodation – more than double the number in 1997.
• Some fifth of a million homeless children are having their health, education and future chances ruined by the lack of a safe, permanent home
• One adult in five in this country is not functionally literate — measured at being less than the skills an eleven year old child should have – and far more people have problems with numeracy, perhaps as many as 60% of the population.
• A quarter of adults cannot calculate the change they should get from purchasing three items of grocery from a defined sum offered at the till.
• The percentage of adults with low literacy and low numeracy in Britain is two to three times as severe as Germany for example. This sad reflection on past decades of education policy is one of the reasons for relatively low productivity in our economy, and it cramps the lives of some eight million people.
• One in six of all people suffers from depression or chronic anxiety, which affects one in three of all families.
• Depression and anxiety are reported to account for 40% of people who are claming incapacity benefit and unable to work.
• Only a quarter of those who are ill are receiving any treatment — in most cases medication.
• Modern evidence-based psychological therapy is as effective as medication and is preferred by the majority of patients.
• In most areas, waiting lists are over nine months, if therapy is available at all.
• A course of therapy costs £750 and pays for itself in money saved on incapacity benefits and lost tax receipts.
• Nearly 30% of employees will have a mental health problem in any one year, the majority of which will be anxiety and depressive disorders
• 91m work days are lost every year due to mental ill-health
• Mental health problems now account for more incapacity benefit claims than back pain
• 200,000 children depend on a parent with severe and enduring mental health problems. Perhaps half of these children will themselves suffer related difficulties during their own adult lives as a consequence.
· Marx argued that “capitalist production moves through certain periodical cycles. It moves through a state of quiescence, growing animation, prosperity, over trade, crisis and stagnation” (Value, Price and Profit, chapter XIII).
· He showed that capitalism’s drive towards expansion is not a straight upward line but goes in cycles. Whilst a general upward trend occurs this is dented by periods in which production fails.
· Whilst the ratio between the unpaid labour of the working class and the sum of capital investment and wages as capitalism progresses technically diminishes, impels a tendency for the rate of profit to fall. Thus, the source of surplus value relatively declines. Countering this impels capitalism’s drive to intensify work, or lengthening the working day.
· Only when technical progress in capitalism and the proportionate increases is both rapid and huge, as has been the case in the past twenty years, will this tendency clearly contribute to crisis.
· The internationalisation of the mobility of the working class to replenish a reserve army of labour is also needed, especially if the family wage has been assaulted in the name of quality enabling millions of women workers to flow into the labour market.
· Utilising cheap labour markets for production and avoiding large stock-piles of commodities that no-one can buy which can lead to a crisis of overproduction has been achieved by the strategy of flexible specialization in production, coupled with computerized logistical distribution.
· Capitalism does not operate production for use but only when goods can be sold on a market with the expectation of profit But the operation of capitalism is not planned at the level of the whole economy only decided by the market; thousands of competing enterprises operating independently of social control. This anarchy of production explains why the system is beset by crises and depressions.
· Capitalism causes disproportionate investment patterns. It occurred in key industries in the consumer goods sector before the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and it has recently occurred in a number of those enterprises and industries that expanded at a fast pace in the 1990s, particularly in micro-electronics and computing.
· The operation of crisis and depression is no aberration but an entirely necessary feature of capitalism; the only lasting solution to crises and depressions is production for use under socialism whereby production can be regulated without the invisible market.
• Apples, which with our perfect climate for them, we used to grow in abundance here, now travel 7,000 miles from Argentina.
• New potatoes travel well over 2,000 miles from Israel, or even the occupied territories, when we used to grow a rich variety here in the
• Why? 80% of food in the UK is bought in supermarkets, which buy in bulk and look for economies of scale, cheap labour and all year round supply.
• Fuel is comparatively cheap – the cost doesn’t reflect the impact on the environment, or the health problems it causes.
• 12% of the UK’s fuel consumption is used for food transportation and packaging
• Large scale production encourages monoculture, which uses more dangerous chemicals.
• Food poisoning costs £1bn a year.
• Diet-related diseases, such as coronary vascular disease, cost more than £l0bn a year.
• Obesity rises, yet retail planning makes it hard to walk or bike to the shops
• It is becoming ever more expensive to buy healthy foods rather items which are bad for us
• One in five children eat no fruit in a week and three in five eat no leafy green vegetables
• Under current policy, if people eat as much fruit and vegetables as the government says they should, this will merely lead to a rise in imports.
• Farming and food policy should give equal weight to both human and environmental health and…
• encourage diversity of foods and biodiversity in fields the food supply chain should decrease its reliance on non-renewable energy
• Food costs should more fully reflect their real costs of production and distribution
• Food supply chains should be as local and as short as possible
COMMUNISTUNIVERSITY OF WALES – 2006
The formation of a mass workers’ party
The Labour Party’s origins lie in the late 19th century search for democratic expression of the interests of working people, towards the end of the nineteenth century opinion consolidated towards the need to have a political and industrial wing of one movement after half a century of political consensus.
In 1885 Engels had written that “during the period of England’s industrial monopoly the English working class have, to a certain extent, shared in the benefits of the monopoly’ but they ‘will lose that privileged position’. The forces that led to the First World War began at this time to erode Britain’s privileged trading position and hence the ability of its ruling class to make concessions to workers.
In 1887 a strike of Lanarkshire miners saw flagrant state brutality, the Liberal Party lost much support by its inaction and, the following year, Keir Hardie set up the Scottish Labour Party. Friedrich Engels was quick to spot the possibilities, for he argued that if a workers’ party with an independent class programme would “relegate to a back seat both the SDF and the Socialist League”, these of course being the Marxian parties then in existence.
But Marxism had been a valuable training ground for many of the mass trades unionism, New Unionism, of the 1880s. In 1889, the then SDF member, Will Thorne, organised a meeting of gas workers in East London to form a union that would truly fight for workers. The movement spread like wildfire, including dock workers, with tens of thousands organising and striking with the demand for an eight-hour day granted through parliamentary action as the focus.
This was a mass movement of unskilled workers, very many of whom were young women. In one year, the number of trade unionists more than doubled from around 860,000 in 1889 to around 2 million in 1890. In a comment that recalls the sudden recent rise of the `Awkward Squad’, Engels wrote: “The masses here are not yet socialist, but on the way towards it, and are already so far that they will not have any but socialist leaders”.
A dispute in Bradford, just before Christmas 1890, over a wage cut of 33% saw mostly unorganised textile workers strike for six months, eventually being forced back to work. The bosses were Liberals and this led to the formation of the Bradford Labour Union, which stood independent candidates. A mass appetite for a new political formation grew organically from a class conscious, fighting movement that saw winning in the workplace, a fighting back union with an organising ethos as the key objectives.
In 1893, Hardie’s Scottish Labour Party joined with others to form the Independent Labour Party, the ILP, founded in Bradford. This did not deem itself socialist as such, although its programme was anti-capitalist. A confused but class conscious formation, it was an ill-assorted bunch of assorted oddballs in alliance with a tribalised movement of angry urban working class in mostly northern mill towns. Six years later, the main railway union, the ASRS, initiated a call for the TUC to convene trade unions and socialist societies to form a body to sponsor Parliamentary candidates. Local Trades Councils up and down the country had, for some time, been doing just that in particular areas.
A special conference was held in London on February 27–28, 1900, attended by a broad spectrum of left-wing organisations and trade unions representing about one-third of the membership of the TUC. The SDF, after initially being involved, voted to withdraw at its 1901 conference from what was now called the Labour Represention Committee. This should not surprise us; for the SDF, Engels thought, sought to force Marxism “down the throats of the workers at once”. It was propagandist, sectarian and hostile to unions. Yet, oddly, many of the new breed of trade unions leaders had passed through its ranks and gained a taste for militancy.
Support for the LRC among the trade unions was massively boosted by the 1901Taff Vale Railway case, which saw the ASRS ordered to pay £23,000 in commercial damages after a strike, a development that effectively made strikes all but impossible. It was a colossal, sum worth perhaps many millions in today’s terms.
For quite some time, many unions, especially the miners, were reluctant to break away from their long-term allegiance to the Liberals. Even when the LRC won 29 seats in the 1906 election, this was only because it was helped by a secret anti-Tory pact made in 1903 between Ramsay Macdonald and Liberal Chief Whip Herbert Gladstone that largely prevented the LRC and Liberals competing. It was only after the first meeting of the 29 MPs that group took the name, “The Labour Party” and this gives us the 100th anniversary of the PLP. But this `party’ did not have an individual membership until 1918 and continued to operate as a federation of affiliated bodies until then and to an extent afterwards.
It was the 1909Osborne judgement that first prevented unions from holding funds for political purposes. Labour gained another dozen or so seats in 1910 and wages for MPs were introduced by a Liberal government the following year, a move that enabled working men to enter Parliament. Two years later, the Osborne judgement was overturned in 1913. From here onwards, for much of the rest of the 20th century, unions became wedded to turning to Parliament to overturn judge-made law that inhibited their functions.
Support grew for Labour during the 1910-1914 period as a result of an unprecedented scale of strike action before the first world war and, despite Labour’s participation in the coalition war cabinet, the radicalisation that accompanied the aftermath of the war. It took from 1900 to 1924 for Labour to become a realistically electoral force and effectively supplant the Liberals. The key, as always, was how unions perceived events.
As for the radical left, the SDF went through a series of internal wrangles, which saw it change its name to the SDP, then a major element reconstituted itself as the British Socialist Party (BSP). In 1916, the BSP affiliated to the Labour Party and was to form the main basis for the newly formed Communist Party from 1920.
Lenin thought the question of affiliation to the Labour Party a “highly complex” matter because of its unique character. But he had no doubt that those who try to keep revolutionary purity independent of reformism “will inevitably fall into error”. For such an approach would be “merely a repetition of the mistake made by those French revolutionaries, who, in 1874, “repudiated all compromises and all intermediate stages”. Our task, he tells us, is to “apply the general and basic principles of communism to the specific relations between classes and parties, to the specific features in the objective development towards communism, which are different in each country and which we must be able to discover, study, and predict”.
The young Communist Party applied for affiliation but this was not only rejected, throughout the 1920s Communists were gradually edged out of the party. Attempts by the right began in earnest in the run up to the 1926 General Strike. The 1925 Liverpool Conference of the Labour Party confirmed a ban on Communists being individual members of the party, although they could still operate as delegates of affiliated trade unions. A National Left-Wing Movement (NLWM) was launched in December 1925, bringing together Communists and socialists in Labour, the ILP and the unions. Around a hundred constituency parties backed the campaign and as many as 1,500 Communists were still active in Labour in 1926. Even a year later, after the despondency following 1926, delegates from 54 constituency Labour Parties representing 150,000 members were at a NLWM conference. The Sunday Worker, a paper supporting the NLWM sold as many as a million copies and was massively influential.
This period was one in which the fight for hegemony within the British labour movement was heatedly contested. The 1920s began with Communists arguing fiercely over what strategic position to adopt as regards the Labour Party. The specific example of Britain was very much on Lenin’s mind as he contemplated these questions. In his `Left-wing Communism’, Lenin stressed that revolutionaries are not made powerful just by dedication and discipline, they should also seek mass support. Temper “alone” is not enough for hatred for the system doesn’t dismantle it. Voting for Labour is not a “betrayal of Communism”, not if it brings us closer to its voters. To do anything else just “scatters our forces”. Not much point in getting a few hundred votes here and there when you need millions to win. I may paraphrase into modern speak here but read what he says carefully and with historical insight and you’ll see he says, in effect; `sure, they’re all bloody war criminals. But anti-socialists seek accommodation with them, to strengthen the capitalist system; so, we need to tilt the balance our way a bit. This is where the oft-quoted phrase about supporting Henderson, the Labour leader note – not the party, like a rope supports a hanging man comes in.
Britain is Britain, and elsewhere is elsewhere, concludes Lenin. He’s a practical politician as well as a revolutionary, with his feet firmly on the ground. You’ve got to think about how to work in such a way that you take the struggle to a point where “the inevitable conflicts” mature. No one, he ends, can say what turn events will take. But it’s our duty to carry on preparatory work until an “immediate cause” rouses the people. Revolutionary politics is indeed a “difficult” business; but this is nothing compared to the task of revolution itself!
The most signal reason for us in Britain to support the continuance of a single labour movement party and to work for its reclamation is the fact that we have a single trade union centre. This single centre is relatively unique in the world, especially in its organic relationship with a parliamentary political party. Famously, Communists have rarely sought accommodation outside of the official trade union and labour movement. Much a-historical negative comment has been made of the period when Communists labelled Social Democrats as “Social Fascists”. It is difficult to grasp that there was once a time when the notion of a corporate state, whereby capitalism was defended by a strong central state machine, was something that united President Roosevelt and Chancellor Hitler. Social Democrats in Britain were stunningly afraid of mass struggle as the rush by the TUC General Council to end the 1926 General Strike testifies.
Yet, aside from the fact that Prussian Social Democrats were more comfortable with machine-gunning Communist demonstrations than they were with even expressing disapproval with those of the National Socialists, what was it that gave rise to the seeming fracture between Social Democracy and Communism before the heady days of the Spanish Civil War?
The theoretical underpinning of the left turn was provided by a new periodisation of the class struggle since 1917. The “first period” had been one of revolutionary upsurge following the October Revolution; the second had been characterised by a retreat under the slogan of the united front; the “third period”, now opening, was one of a “renewed offensive”, in which Europe “was obviously entering into the period of a new revolutionary upswing”. If we continued in this vein we might see the United Front of the early 1930s, a kind of left-wing unity notion, as the fourth period. The fifth might be the Popular Front and Anti-Fascist periods, the sixth being the Cold War and today we are truly in the seventh hell, not heaven that’s for sure, of trans-national corporations and globalised open markets. This question of stages of forward and backward motion will later become important as we consider the future and not the past.
As this see-saw of the balance of global power between the working class and its allies and the capitalism has unfolded, Social Democracy has become increasingly compromised and marginalised in bourgeois liberal democracies. Whilst it is clear that New Labour represents something quite different than traditional right wing reformism, an ideological stance that jettisons class analysis is not new. The manifesto of the National Left Wing Movement of the 1920s concluded that the Labour Party was “no longer a working class party but a party representing all sections of the community”.
The logic of that position led inevitably to the National Government of 1931-5, formed when the Labour cabinet split over unemployment benefit cuts. This event put in doubt the very future of the Labour Party. It was the trade union movement that rescued Labour in the 1930s and placed it in pole position to benefit after the war. The trade unions buttressed the right wing during the period of intense anti-communism of the late 1940s, early 1950s. Paradoxically, from the late 1950s, the unions pulled Labour to the left for a long time until they backed the dash for electability in the mid 1980s. Even the period of the 1974-79 Social Contract, under the Wilson and Callaghan Labour governments, did not see calls for disaffiliation but a struggle to oppose policy. Once again, since 2000, the unions have appeared as a voluble helmsman for the Labour Party in seeking to steer away from the New Labour course.
Currently, the majority of large unions remain affiliated; unions such as the PCS, the NUJ and NUT are not affiliated and never have been. Only RMT has been disaffiliated for allowing its branches to affiliate to political parties other than Labour. 7 RMT branches in Scotland and the Scottish Regional Council have affiliated to the Scottish Socialist Party, while one branch has voted to affiliate to Forward Wales led by former-MP John Marek, now an AM; ten branches in England have affiliated to Respect.
In the case of the FBU, it disaffiliated from Labour in circumstances that hardly suggest a strategic plan. Only its London Region and a few branches have voted to support Respect, while the Scottish Region has even leant towards the SNP. Some, but few, formations in the Communications Workers Union have backed the SSP or Respect. This record underlines the fact that the overwhelming bulk of the unions are solidly set for the ‘reclaim’ Labour course, largely because they sense that ‘new’ Labour is a clique with few roots in the party. Indeed, the level of Labour Party membership and activity is so low that in fact the balance of power has shifted towards affiliated unions. Clearly, at best, any thoughts of a major realignment that links unions with a new left formation must be viewed as conjectural and at that only for the long-term, assuming little else changes.
In any case, the electoral system works against new formations, indeed the founding of the Labour Party was itself in the shadow of the Liberal Party; this was perhaps a key factor in allowing it to largely supplant that party and become a mass electoral force. It has also time and again revealed Labour’s greatest weakness, its denial of the importance of theory. Yet its greatest strength is an undoubted, if increasingly residual, mass loyalty amongst masses of people. The effect of this has been to sometimes force the party towards progressive positions, although the last decade has not permitted much of such impulses to show!
Historically, however, these factors make it difficult to categorise Labour. It has more than once been termed the “third capitalist party” – and who would argue that this is not now the case? But it has also been seen as a potential vehicle for radical social change. Invariably, which side of the pendulum swing Labour is at (and its firmly stuck to the right just now) has depended on the level of union confidence and militancy. Now we have looked back, what can we say about the journey to form a mass workers’ party by looking ahead? If we can’t speculate at a Communist University then what is the point of them!! And it might focus our minds on a more intriguing debate, namely whither Labour? Especially if we consider that if there were no mass party of labour in Britain we have would to create one. Is this to be done out of the ashes of the old, or by redirecting it, or by means of an entirely new formation? The answer will lie in the future of the workers’ movement itself.
There is currently some debate amongst professors of industrial relations as to what part of these cycles we are at. In Britain, our difficulty is that anti-union laws cloud the picture. The universal application of strike ballots has actually created a situation where employers and unions test the water and employers cave in if they feel a sufficiently strong indication that a strike will occur. Unions also reach for non-striking forms of industrial action and when they do, one day demonstrations of outrage can be highly effective. In the 1950s-70s, this was known as the unofficial walkout! Some struggles have faded because some sort of alternative exists, closures and lay-offs for example; workers in general judge their attitude on the basis of how good the package is. Young workers in marginal employment merely quit their jobs in individualised form of rebellion and look for another, when they collide with management or simply get fed up. None of these indications will feature in official records. But who is to say that a relative return to militancy has not already happened but is masked by other factors?
It is perhaps a commonplace that different generations endure or enjoy different fashions or trends. It is however often as difficult for one generation to grasp the sense of what was happening half a century or more ago as it is for us to fast forward in our imagination to the middle of the 21st century. But if we look at labour unrest over a longer period than we as individuals because of our relatively short life span, tend to, it is apparent that strike waves accompany long cycles of economic upswings and downswings and, really, it is no surprise that this should be so.
These cycles imply an ebb and flow pattern of workers’ power rather than a straight line rise or fall. Not so much forward march as undulating bob and weave! Over the last two centuries, capitalist countries have followed a rhythmic pattern of business cycles of boom and depression across approximately half a century. The implication seen by supporters of capitalism was that long wave forecasting by the State could enable the planning of correcting mechanisms to avoid the general crisis of capitalism. Beveridge, a Liberal proposer of the welfare state discovered half century cycles dating back to the year 1260! It was the very basis for the corporatism as a corrective against revolution of as diverse figures as Mussolini and Franklin Delano Roosevelt!
As anyone who has ever worked on a production line can testify workers become hypersensitive to the state of trade. They sense upswings and downswings and this is the genesis of spontaneity in industrial relations. Major strike waves can be discerned towards the end of cyclical economic upswings (1860-1875, 1910-1920 and 1968-1974) as workers sensing the imminent loss of power extract the last possible concessions at the highest peak of expansion. Minor strike waves (1889-1893 and 1935-1948) emerge as workers seek to protect and retain any gains achieved during the upswings. Of course, there are factors that impair or encourage the trends but, given these variables, the model appears to hold for almost all countries and almost all periods of time.
Long wave cycles have been linked to demographic variations, the birth rate is lower in recession and higher when the economy is stable. These fluctuations imply baby booms and age. The capital formation associated with even small population changes is very dramatic, for example the economic effect of migration can cause an enormous increase in demand for all capital stocks – housing, jobs, cars etc. that takes about 10 years to catch up on. Normally, at the start of adult life there is a process of domestic capital formation and at the end of working life there is the challenge of loss of employment and wages. It so happens that these two periods of higher expense and less production are about 50 years apart. In a period such as the depressed 1930s, the birth rate is much lower than at other times and the effect is then felt about 20 years later.
Four main long waves are discernable across the lifetime of internationalised capitalism. The rise of the British trade union movement originates with the fight back against a period of rising prices following the Napoleonic wars. A radical turn to revolutionism, can be dated from the beginning and end of this long wave. Toward the end of this first wave, the establishment of national trade union bodies, even all class ones, arises, as does the first partially successful struggle for an extension of the franchise. The beginning of the second long wave sees the lifetime of Chartism; a plateau for a decade allows for an extension to the franchise and the introduction of new forms or bargaining (conciliation panels) and `new model’ unions to accompany this.
The current revolution of the Kondratieff Wave began after the global economy pulled out of a deflationary depression in the 1930s, prices began to accelerate until a `blow-off’ stage in 1980. (As South Wales can especially testify, Britain experienced two government inspired restructural recessions in the 1980s.) After a recession of 1990-1991, the global economy has been treading the secondary plateau. Disinflation became the buzz word but sure as night follows day, contraction will follow. During the 1990s, it was the Japanese economy that slid first, the stock market mini-crash of 1997 followed. If this continues, Europe and North America will fall into deflationary contraction, with these economies peaking in the next eight years before sliding downwards to a trough over the next thirty years.
This supposes that no great cataclysm arises, not a straightforward conclusion by any means. The theory that capitalism has found means to permanently resolve its crises seems more out of synchronisation with the reality than it ever did. The 21st century does not seem set to be the New American Century at all. Not if the regionalised new power blocs in Latin America, South Africa, India and China develop alliances that face the North Atlantic Alliance and if the Pacific Rim reconciles itself with the phenomena of China as seems increasingly likely. Having over-reached itself by exporting free market liberal capitalism to as much of the globe as it can, the American centred global capitalism of the late 20th century now faces serious challenge. By the middle of this century Britain is more likely to have returned to its pre-capitalist post of outrider to larger continental forces and none of this looks remotely comfortable for the elite of our nation.
Consensus politics in Britain has demoralised and alienated the mass of voters. Yet for the foreseeable future, perhaps the next five to ten years, the main focus will continue with the reclaim Labour project. After that, whether the specific formation that has currently been the worker’s party can remain so may be open to question. It is perhaps presumptious to predict how the workers’ movement will proceed in the future but I for one can see little to suggest that the focus of future generations will be to attempt to create a force that unites parliamentary representatives of working people and their extra parliamentary formations.
COMMUNIST UNIVERSITY OF SCOTLAND – 2006
The British Labour Movement and the Lessons of History:
A clearly observable pattern of swinging from industrial action to parliamentary action exists throughout the history of our labour movement. The key lesson from this variable pattern is the need for parliamentary representation to work hand-in-hand with extra-parliamentary action.
The failure of the 1832 Reform Act to bring any benefit to the working class contributed to the development of trade union struggle in the succeeding years, which was truncated by legal repression. Later in the decade, the Chartist movement fought against the harsh exploitation of early capitalism by putting forward demands exclusively in terms of parliamentary reform.
This movement, the first mass workers’ party in the world, according to Engels, was cast into two wings, the physical and the moral force elements, or revolutionary and evolutionary. The British labour movement has wrestled with this tension ever since.
The 1860s saw developing pressure from the unions for safety, contractual and trade union legislation, along with the further extension of the franchise, which was followed by significant social reforms. In 1868 the TUC was formed and its executive was known as the Parliamentary Committee. Whilst the 1869 Labour Representation League had the sole objective of promoting the registration of working men as voters and to secure the return of workers to Parliament; trades union MPs were little more than a wing of the Liberal Party.
It’s not often acknowledged that both Marx and Engels not only wrote about deep theoretical questions, as long-term `asylum seekers’ in Britain, they also observed and participated in our labour movement. Engels was able to see for himself the development of mass trades unionism in Britain late in the 19th century and learnt important lessons from this. Only a short while before he died, Engels wrote of the British unions that they were a “sleeping giant”, slow to rouse but powerfully ferocious when on the rampage. He had seen an early form of this half a century before in Manchester; workers could not attack the existing order of society at “any sorer point than this”. But even in 1844, he thought that: “Something more is needed than unions and strikes to break the power of the ruling class.”
No-one admired the British trade union movement more than Engels. “As schools of war they are unexcelled”. The French, with their revolutionary tradition had it easy, for “what is death … in comparison with gradual starvation” in the massive and solid strikes of the British working class. Surely, he thought, a people that can endure so much “to bend one single bourgeoise will be able to break the power of the whole bourgeoisie”.
Marx posed the historical significance of trade union struggle sharply in his `The Poverty of Philosophy’. (The title of this work was a pun on a dreadful anarchistic thing called the `Philosophy of Poverty’!) Here the argument was that a rise in wages merely put up prices and strikes were a blind alley. But for Marx, while trades unionism could take on a political character in the “veritable civil war” for higher wages, the notion that it could just be hitched up to the revolutionary wagon was dismissed as naïve ultra-leftism.
On the other side of the spectrum, right-leaning theorists in Germany twisted Marx’s economic thinking and put forward the notion of the `iron law of wages’. In essence this suggested that workers could never improve their lot no matter what they did; only winning elections could help. (Sounds familiar!) Marx countered that capitalism did operate a physical minimum, which kept workers alive, but that a social element also existed that reflected the balance of power between capital and labour – strikes could make a difference, for a while at least. To make the most of this, we needed unions that were mass in character, not semi-political revolutionary organisations.
But, in `Value, Price and Profit’ Marx wrote that even if unions “work well as centres of resistance” they “fail generally by limiting themselves to a guerrilla war against the effects of the existing system”. In addition to their original tasks, trade unions needed to become “focal points for the organisation of the working class”, to rally around them even workers still outside of their ranks. Collective agreements won by unions from employers could “only be considered a truce” and whilst unions needed to act politically, Marx fought against piling unions and workers’ political parties into one heap. The aims might be the same but specific methods of working towards this needed to be recognised.
Some of this theoretical analysis touched the rising workers’ movement in Britain. In the first half of the 1880s, socialism began to take root. The best known of the early organisations was the Democratic Federation, founded in 1881. By 1884 it had adopted a socialist programme and become the Social Democratic Federation. In 1888, Keir Hardie stood unsuccessfully as an independent third-party candidate in a by-election in Mid-Lanark. His role in the eventually successful effort to establish an independent party appealing to working-class interests and with substantial trade union support was very considerable indeed but at the outset he did not proclaim a clear socialist message.
His Scottish Labour Party was not a major force and was eventually overtaken by the formation of the Independent Labour Party in January 1893 in Bradford. First and foremost this was to be a party independent of the Liberals and Conservatives. It included in its programme a range of demands of direct and immediate concern to workers, including an eight-hour day and the abolition of sweated and child labour. This was a historic step forward, albeit that the socialist message was vague and not a single national trade union was involved.
In 1899 both the Scottish TUC and the British TUC adopted resolutions calling for new efforts to secure an increased number of (small `L’) labour MPs. The TUC decision was passed by a far from unanimous vote of 546,000 to 434,000. The successful resolution called upon the cooperative, socialist, trade union and other workers’ organisations to join in convening a special congress ‘to devise ways and means for securing the return of an increased number of labour members to the next Parliament’ and this became the Labour Representation Committee.
The decisive factor came not from debate on ideology but from the Taff Vale railway strike of 1900. The House of Lords held that the funds of the main railway union were liable for damages arising out of a strike of its members. The uncertainty impelled unions into demanding more say in parliament and, at the 1906 elections, no less than 30 labour members were elected and there were also 24 successful trade union candidates, who fought as Lib-Labs.
The 13 SDF, or otherwise outright socialist candidates, who fought independently were all defeated. The SDF withdrew from the LRC in August 1910 and thus isolated itself from a growing number of unions. Despite its sectarianism, the SDF helped to train many who played an outstanding part in the development of the labour movement.
Among the rank-and-file of the SDF there was a significant body of opinion at various times in favour of unity with the ILP. In 1911 the SDF’s successor organisation, the Social Democratic Party, was joined by a breakaway group from the ILP and a number of independent socialists to form the British Socialist Party. After an internal faction fight against chauvinism, the Marxist BSP affiliated to the Labour Party in 1916. It was not until 1918 that the Labour Party finally formally asserted its socialist commitment. The Russian revolutions of 1917 had opened a new era in world history. But the Communist Party, partially formed from much of the BSP was denied the right to affiliate.
In October 1925, the Labour Party conference rejected the Communist Party’s application for affiliation and confirmed that its members could neither represent their unions in Labour Party organisations or be individual members. This was a signal to the Tory government. A few days later it arrested 12 Communist leaders on a charge of “seditious conspiracy”. Five were sentenced to a year in prison and the others to six months, to keep them out of the battle to come.
Far from being intimidated, the party’s activities intensified. Its press circulation grew and new members were made. Above all, it worked to get the movement to prepare for the next round of struggle, warning again and again that the government was determined on a showdown with the miners when coal subsidies expired in May 1926. The employers were well-prepared for the contest, but the right-wing TUC general council made no plans. Rank-and-file pressure forced the decision for a general strike in support of the miners, locked-out for their refusal to submit to a wage cut. The nine days of the General Strike by more than three million workers uniting in tremendous class solidarity and initiative, in which Communists played an outstanding role, were among the most glorious in British working class history.
Well in advance, the Communist Party had initiated the call for Councils of Action. They were set up in many areas, representing the whole working class movement, organising picketing, co-ordinating activities, issuing publicity materials and in some cases controlling transport. The Party issued a strike sheet, the Workers Bulletin, reaching a circulation of 200,000. Over 1,000 Communists were arrested out of a total of some 2,500 arrests. One result of the party’s contribution to the struggle was a big increase in its membership from 5,000 before the strike to 10,000 by September 1926.
But its influence was not great enough to prevent the betrayal by right-wing leaders, who called off the strike when it was strongest and closest to victory, without any concessions to the miners who battled on alone for a further seven months. Communists continued to fight for solidarity with the miners, campaigning for a levy on wages to give them financial support and for an embargo on the transport of coal. Whilst the titanic struggle came to a tragic end, it stimulated the demand for dispossession of the private coal owners of the mines, which finally became irresistible. It was Welsh Communist miners’ leader Arthur Horner who wrote: “If there had been no ’26, there would not have been such a tremendous feeling for nationalisation after the Second World War.”
For the Communist Party, the lesson of the strike and its betrayal was the need to strengthen the unions, to step up the fight against collaboration, to work for a new leadership of the labour movement and to build and strengthen the Party itself. For the right-wing, the lesson was “never again.” They had not wanted the strike, had been pushed into it and called it off as soon as possible; Communists now had to be removed. So, the Labour leadership set about a great purge of the Communists and the left in the Labour Party. This led to a reactive opposition from Communists, a left turn that some have in retrospect decried but which was unavoidable and actually led to a growth in Party membership.
Whilst it is clear that New Labour represents something quite different than traditional right wing reformism, an ideological stance in the party that jettisons class analysis is not new. The left-unity “National Left Wing Movement” began in June 1928 with the conclusion that the Labour Party was “no longer a working class party but a party representing all sections of the community”. Communists now organised unemployed workers’ activity around Labour Exchanges, fought benefit cases on behalf of the jobless and mobilised for the great marches of the South Wales miners in 1927, the Scottish unemployed march in 1928 and the national Hunger Marches of 1929, 1930, 1932, and 1936, all predating the establishment admired Jarrow March of that latter year.
They also pioneered the campaign for colonial liberation at a time when a quarter of the world’s population were living under British rule in a vast Empire. British Communists, sent to India to help build the trade unions, were jailed for conspiracy in the famous Meerut Trial of 1929-33. The young Will Paynter got four months in jail for his part in an anti-British Empire demonstration, and 20-year old John Gollan, later the party’s general secretary, got six months for anti-militarist activities.
In 1931, when the bankers demanded a 10% cut in unemployment benefit, the Labour government split. Its leaders, MacDonald, Snowden and Thomas, went over to the Tories and Liberals to form a National Government, another betrayal which had a devastating effect on the Labour movement.
In the 1930s, British Communists’ leading role in building militant rank-and-file movements among engineering workers, railwaymen, miners and London bus crews, strengthened the party’s industrial base, all described by Harry Pollitt in 1935 as “a revolution within the party”. The fight against fascism and war became dominant and the Communist Party built mass opposition to Fascism. Its finest hour was in October 1936 when Mosley’s attempt to stage a march through East London, well-protected by masses of police, was crushed in the historic Battle of Cable Street. Right-wing advice was to ignore the fascists and keep away from anti-fascist activity. The Communist response, that retreat before fascist aggressiveness only increased its appetite, was proved again and again.
The struggle in Spain became the focal point of the fight against fascism, and millions of people in Britain rallied in solidarity while the right-wing Labour leadership adopted a policy of ‘non-intervention’. The Aid for Spain movement, in which Communists played a leading role, was organised on a national scale for sending medical supplies and food ships. Of the British Battalion of the International Brigade, composed of 1,500 volunteers, about half were Communists, as were half of the 533 who were killed.
The labour movement’s official leadership rejected all Communist approaches for united action, and indeed intensified its anti-Communist campaign by banning Party members from being delegates to Trades Councils. Communist policy and leadership attracted many people who were deeply concerned about the drive to war. By 1939, Daily Worker circulation had grown to over 40,000 daily, with a weekend average of nearly 80,000. The party’s membership reached nearly 18,000 just before the war. During the war, Communists led the fight for adequate air raid protection and led the building of a powerful shop stewards organisation and Party membership more than doubled. At the spring 1945 Labour Party conference, the Engineering Union sponsored the proposal to allow Communist affiliation, registering the closest vote ever recorded on such an issue, loosing only by vote of 1.3 million to 1.2 million.
A few weeks later, at the 1945 general election, a Labour government was swept into power by a landslide victory. The Communist Party’s 1945 congress noted that unless Labour changed its foreign policy, “which is simply the continuation of the imperialist line of the Tory Party and the reactionary monopoly capitalists there can be no fundamental social progress in Britain”.
Needless to say, Labour waged colonial wars in Kenya, Malaya and Cyprus, supported the US war in Korea, the French war in Vietnam and the Dutch war in Indonesia. It joined the NATO cold war drive, backed West German rearmament, turned Britain into a US bomber base and fought for its own nuclear weapons. The consequence was chronic economic crisis, wage restraint, cuts in living standards and the social services that led to a Tory comeback at the 1951 general election and 13 years of Tory rule with prices, rents and profits rocketing amidst the ever-present menace of nuclear war. Communists influence in the labour movement helped play a decisive part in the intensive struggles of the late 60s and early 70s that released the Pentonville 5, supported the UCS work-in and waged the successful miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974. Out of the experience gained in these struggles came the development of a left alternative economic and political strategy.
Labour’s 1973 programme reflected the mass struggles by urging ‘a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of the working people’. But first the Wilson and then the Callaghan governments pursued a course which placed the burdens of resolving the chronic crisis of British capitalism on working people.
The Social Contract of 1974-1979 under Labour governments did not see calls for disaffiliation but a struggle to oppose policy. But ideological confusion about the nature of the labour movement, the role of the State and strategies for the future was by no mean confined to the Labour Party. Major theoretical ambiguity set in during this period even in the Communist Party. The term anti-monopoly alliance in the Party’s strategic programme was replaced by broad democratic alliance, on the assurance to congress by the executive committee that its main content was intended to be anti-monopoly. After that, revisionists in the Party increasingly presented its notion of alliances as a unity of single issue new social forces, which were said to have no basis in class society or class interests. The labour movement was treated as no more than just another movement, and not the leading force in struggle. Not surprisingly, Party membership began to crumble even before the fractious period of the 1980s saw it slide to destruction.
So, where are we now? The majority of large unions remain affiliated to Labour; unions such as the PCS, the NUJ and NUT are not affiliated and never have been. Only RMT has been disaffiliated for allowing its branches to affiliate to political parties other than Labour and FBU has voluntarily left, in circumstances that hardly suggest a strategic plan. The overwhelming bulk of the unions are solidly set for the ‘reclaim’ Labour course, largely because they sense that ‘new’ Labour is a clique with few roots in the party. Indeed, the level of Labour Party membership and activity is currently so low that in fact the balance of power has shifted towards affiliated unions. Clearly, at best, any thoughts of a major realignment that links unions with a new left formation must be viewed as conjectural and at that only for the long-term, assuming little else changes.
The electoral system works against new formations, indeed the founding of the Labour Party was itself in the shadow of the Liberal Party and we have our own version of the response to Taff Vale, the Trade Union Freedom Bill, on hundred years on. But Labour’s greatest weakness is undoubtedly its denial of the importance of theory, even if its greatest strength is mass, if rather strained, loyalty. Invariably, which side of the pendulum swing Labour is at has depended on the level of union confidence and militancy.
There is currently some debate amongst professors of industrial relations as to what part of these cycles we are currently at. In Britain, our difficulty is that anti-union laws cloud the picture. The universal application of strike ballots has actually created a situation where employers and unions test the water and employers cave in if they feel a sufficiently strong indication that a strike will occur. Unions also reach for non-striking forms of industrial action. Some struggles have faded because an alternative exists, closures and lay-offs for example; workers judge their attitude on the basis of how good the package is. None of these indications will feature in official records. But who is to say that a relative return to militancy has not already happened but is masked by other factors.
It may seem optimistic to ask how trade unionism can be harnessed to revolutionary ambitions. But it is how gains are won and losses conceded, and how the inter-mix is generally perceived, that determines whether unions can act in a political or revolutionary way. The gains or losses in themselves are perhaps in historical terms of limited significance. At root, the potential for change is intimately related to the requirement that organised workers translate their sectional consciousness into a collective consciousness. Organised workers, with or without trade union bureaucracies are quite capable of discovering (once again!) rank-and-file militancy. But revolutionaries cannot be satisfied with spontaneity.
Without socialist consciousness, workers inevitably end up “solving” their problems within the existing system, on the terms of the existing system. Revolutionaries have an obligation to contract into the mass movement, since the spontaneous struggle of the workers will not become class struggle unless it is channelled by an organisation of revolutionaries. Unions can indeed be “schools of war”, as Engels had it. Our concern has to be how we start the school year, at a time when the trade union movement restricts itself to “realistic” struggle.
Industrial militancy is by no means a thing of the past, but ebbs and flows with the tide of boom and slump. Strike waves generally occur at the conjunction of such economic changes, either as workers strive to hang onto gains or struggle to achieve them. Only if unions can be won to act in tandem with a mass socialist movement can we contemplate progress to substantive demands of the movement. Hence, the question of how we can locate a renewed confidence of the left within the trade unions as an integral part of a reconstituted left in the political sphere assumes central importance.
Some questions for discussion, then:
Is the Labour Party simply a bourgeois party?
Should Communists be active in the Labour Party?
How should we attempt to build a bridge to the Labour left?
Should trade unionists pay the political levy?
How should political funds of union be used and controlled?
2006 49TH CONGRESS CPB – SPEECH ON
BUILDING THE PARTY
AND MOVING THE REPORT OF THE COMMISSION ON PARTY ORGANISATION
The notion of a strategy for Party growth and development, which is at the heart of EC Resolution 3, came out of the report of the Commission on Party organisation, which at the outset I need to formally introduce. The written report is in the Congress documentation but you will readily appreciate that the main, self-evident weakness before us was the small size of the Party. But you should note that what really concerned us were two things:
· Firstly, the fact that the CPB is not a truly national organisation, given that there are vast swathes of Britain where there is not a single Communist within miles of each other.
· Secondly, the massive gender imbalance arising from the relatively low level of involvement of women in the Party when we consider their comparatively high level of involvement in the contemporary labour, peace and progressive movements
We started from the political assessment that the building of a stronger Communist Party is an essential pre-condition for wider advancement of our class; but also that the weakness in Communist Party membership is in contradiction to the positive nature of the growth in Party activity in the past few years. It follows from these considerations that both recruitment and organisation and issues of membership retention and involvement must become critical political concerns for the whole Party.
We punch well above our weight but few on the Left give recognition to this by joining us. The Party, its activists and leadership – whilst by no means a gerontocracy – is hardly the fountain of youth. Yet Communist iconography is more popular than ever amongst young people and the grip of cold war anti-communism that repelled many from us has long since melted.
Whilst our `unique selling proposition’ is one that is truly special to the international communist movement; Communists can be found in virtually every country in the globe. Whilst our ideological and political positions vary, a sense of commonality does unite us – more than is the case with any other single political tendency on the planet. Communist Parties are huge and growing in many eastern and southern countries. Some are parties close to us, bound by historical ties. Our South African comrades have doubled their Party’s size in a mere four years, our Cypriot comrades are now the largest party in their land and our Indian comrades have outstripped all records in recent electoral successes.
Communists are the most consistent and clearest opponents of war, racism and poverty; we are the proudest supporters of internationalism and are fearlessly courageous in the face of oppression, generally the first to sacrifice ourselves for others. And, unquestionably, there are tens of thousands of people in our own country who consider themselves a Communist of sorts but who do not hold a CPB membership card.
Yet, of the huge number of genuine expressions of interest in Communist Party membership received by the Centre, few are translated into membership. Many members hold a `disassociated relationship’ to Party structures, turn-over and retention is problematic, whilst the focus of Party work is to service existing structures.
We need to create outward-facing, fighting organisations that attract the attention of those seeking a dynamic, revolutionary alternative. It can be done! Yet we should not be hidebound by tradition as to what form of organisational structure is best. A magnificent leap forward in Party organisation and materials has already transformed our image. But we need more and better use of modern communications throughout the Party. We all need to be using e-mail and a range of interest networks should be built; we should better use DVDs, laptops, camcorders, our own website and those of others, texting and mobile phones.
Are all our meetings really necessary and is there another way to organise? Is the branch the sole possible focus and how are we to enliven them anyway? A chance for all members to be active has to be made. What is our development plan for each and every member, let alone Party organisation? Older comrades really should think about whether they should now at long last make space on committees and leadership roles for newer members. Let go. They won’t mess it up, you know. This is not 1984 and we are not the Communist Party of Great Britain. The events of those dark days are a matter of history to an increasing number of our members. History should provide lessons but we do not need to relive it blow for blow.
A more formal leadership role for Executive Committee members than merely attending its meetings is needed. We always have the finest political analysis but at times it seems that organisational questions are not considered to be political; yet organisation is the very stuff of politics.
The Party, across the whole country, in the nations, districts, branches, localities, workplaces, in its work in broad organisations, needs a clear and achievable plan for its own growth. Such a plan needs to recognise a number of key changes in society, changes that suggest a high priority for our identity as a part of the international communist movement. Above all, we need to note:
- The prominence of black and ethnic populations, especially in the major cities, which contrasts with the absence of the Party from this arena.
- The consequences of a shift from a core workforce to a `peripheral’ workforce, which implies challenges for our conception of the organised working class.
- The domination of trans-national corporations in an ever more connected internationalised economy, which has implications for the internationalisation of our industrial work.
- Recent advances of a more vigorous YCL and the open-mindedness of youth about Communism, which suggests possibilities for a systematic plan to rejuvenate the Party over time.
A Communist approach to Party growth will be based upon an outward-going strategy of realistic and measured outcomes. Whilst such an approach needs to strike a balance between central planning and devolved activity, we must recognise that we live in an open society, in a compact country with relatively good communications and that we are a tiny party. We may need an expanded central organisation `department’ and even roving recruitment teams. We may need to target specific localities for planned explosions of growth.
The most far-reaching previous Commission on Party organisation, some three quarters of a century ago, ushered in what is often termed `Bolshevisation’ into a Party that had roots as a federation of autonomous propagandist societies. It made us a Communist Party and a revisionist onslaught nearly brought that reality to an end. We are now at a new stage in our history.
This Commission focused on the same objective; and both the EC and now, during the amending process, Party organisations have largely followed its course. I, for one, am proud of our Party. I’m proud of those branches that have opted in the amending process to signal that they too call once and for all for a more rigorous Communist approach to organisation.
The sheer magnitude of the scale of the reverses sustained by British Communism in the last twenty years is simply not sufficiently understood outside the ranks of mainly veteran members of the Party. We have to be brutally honest to ourselves and those outside our ranks just how devastating these reverses have been and how weak we are. The enemy knows it, our friends do not; and we will not grow until we stop being embarrassed about ourselves.
We need to make it abundantly clear to potential members that they should step in, for it will make them grow tall as well as bulking the Party up. For this is a Party that we can all be proud of; the maturity of our ideological and organisational unity has been a significant factor in maintaining what we have today. But our commitment from hereon to a strategy for growth can be the hallmark by which we will know the true quality of our revolutionary zeal.
Those amendments that call for more flexibility and creativity in applying ourselves to this task have captured the spirit of this resolution entirely. This resolution is all about utilising imaginative styles of work. Indeed, it’s time for us to make a few risky decisions, even to make a few mistakes in the course of innovating, refreshing and renewing our work.
But it is a salutary lesson that, in seeking to highlight our deep concern at the marginalisation of women in our Party, the original resolution neglected the even more difficult task of how we relate to minority and ethnic groups. Strangely, whilst the Communist Parties of many domiciled parties here in the UK are very strong in their homelands, we have failed to attain a wider reach in relevant communities and localities.
The amending observation on the need for a National Organiser is an interesting one and, personally I’m inclined to the notion. It will be interesting to hear views, although I’m sure comrades will understand why it should be for the new EC to consider the specifics of such a proposal. In a similar vein, the new EC will want to consider its own meeting arrangements but it is only right that we all begin to think carefully about whether our style of work is fit for purpose or purposely frightful.
Those who argue for local development plans make a valuable point, as do the calls for recognising the need to plan for the solidity, but excitement too I hope, of sound Marxist Education for new members.
The resolution, with its supportive amendments, represents the most effective analysis for building the Party for two decades and more. The newly amended version that we can all unite around will set many aims for the Party but it boils down to four key areas in a wide range of achievable but ambitious targets.
- Firstly, the building of a truly national Party with a leadership that fulfils its role under our constitution to closely monitor and control the work of all Party organisations in a [g1]national plan of regeneration. We should not dilute this need in any way; the absence of effective organisation, the denial of accountability and performance, simply makes us less effective Communists not nicer ones!
- Secondly, Congress will signal to the new EC that the gender imbalance in the Party is a [g2]major political issue for it to address; that there needs to be continuous improvement of our organisational work and a cadre development plan; with maximum support to the YCL in the context of a joint approach to growth. [g4]
- Thirdly, we want more! More of everything. More action, more presence. More and better Communist Universities, even more of a Party profile on demonstrations and similar events; with further priority for Communist Review and the Morning Star. [g6]
- The good work that does go on must be more widely publicised and we need a publishing plan for books, pamphlets, leaflets, stickers, posters, internet and e-mail facilities, T-shirts, etc., etc., and a collective to develop this.
This Congress must make abundantly clear to our allies that a stronger Communist Party, in terms of its membership, finance, organisation and sales of publications, would have a qualitatively powerful impact upon the struggle to win a significant turn to the left. As the resolution itself states: “In short – the building of a stronger Communist Party is an essential pre-condition for any advancement of left politics.”
Forward to a united, stronger and more audacious Communist Party of Britain! A growing and confident Communist Party, rooted in all the communities of our nations. Building a bigger, better and bolder Communist Party is our most important current political task, that’s the message this Congress needs to take away from today. I move.
The Current Stage In State Monopoly Capitalism: COMMUNIST PARTY Executive Committee POLITICAL STATEMENT – NOV 2004
Since the Party’s last EC meeting, events in Britain and the world seem to confirm an assessment that the current stage in state monopoly capitalism is a profoundly serious one.
We are, it seems a severely unwell nation! The very quality of life we have it as risk. Wherever we look, there are signs. Even soldiers, it seems. Lord Lloyd’s inquiry into Gulf War syndrome has brought the first good news for the 6,000 sufferers of this condition in the past 13 years. War does make you ill! But no matter, the use of depleted uranium continues.
It’s difficult to be curmudgeonly about the regular arrival of ceaseless new Government proposals on health. But all of these – on smoking, on school meals, on food labelling and so on – sit uneasily with wholesale surrender to lobbying by the vested interests of the big corporations. Being obsessed with denouncements of unhealthy life styles avoids the need to address the high price of foodstuffs, the monopolisation of distribution and the elimination of alternatives. Fat teenagers are surely made all the more likely when there are 52,000 16-24 years olds homeless or in make-shift accommodation.
Perhaps it’s the style of seeming to be busy about governing but actually doing nothing of substance that accounts for some of this? For all one’s aversion to the snobbery and cruelty of hunting with dogs, the irrelevance of the fox hunting saga might be yet another manifestion of this foible of electoralism. The latest Charlesgate furore is another sign of the Government seeming to mobilise class feeling without challenging capitalism.
It’s clear that evidence about the simple correlation between length of life span, where you life and what you do for a living is abundant. Yet tinkering with the NHS to provide the illusion of choice does not address these questions. Post code lotteries, reveal the absence of a social policy on health, an absence of workplace health provisions, of community health centre screening – for the estimated 1 million who have diabetes but do not know it, for example. Collective solutions that address the root cause of social inequalities or weaknesses are anthema to the Bairites.
Only in one year out for the last ten has there been no major rail accident. There have been several relating to level crossings recently. No major railway nation, in an area as built up as Britain, fails to segregate road and rail. As ever, it’s a case of profit before people.
The lobby of parliament by public sector workers in defence of their pensions is indicative of the continued significance of the issue of workplace related schemes. Even public sector schemes are now vulnerable to market based investment planning and this is related to the strategy of European capitalism, so clearly marked out in the Lisbon summit.
Whilst all of this amounts to a picture of neglect of social infrastucture and a decaying of the value of human needs, it is the state’s increasing reliance on authoritarian solutions that needs our immediate focus. Recent examples abound. Measures to prevent “economic sabotage” are justified on the grounds of preventing animal rights activists’ targeting the homes of directors of testing laboratories. Yet this could easily be widened, in the courts, to inhibit trade unionists and others engaged in anti-monopoly activity. The new law curbing the right to protest on the grounds that Brain Haw’s long-standing peace protest is “visually unattractive” is more than a blow for one class’s version of aestheticism.
Both the continued failure to shift Blair and Bush’s re-election signal more than an assault on progressive politics, these failures confirm the strengthening of reaction across the globe and the failure of liberal bourgeoise democracy to address the real needs of ordinary people.
Downing Street’s vulnerability to popular concern over the safety of UK military was well illustrated when it tried to prevent relatives of soldiers who have died in Iraq from laying a wreath. The demand of bringing British troops home is the key to further anti-war action. This is a weak spot in the chain of capitalism and we need to strike as hard as we can at it.
Across the Atlantic, despite the death of more than 1,000 US soldiers and countless (and uncounted) Iraqis, the absence of weapons of mass destruction and Abu Ghraib, the Bush administration won the approval of a majority of the American people.
A nation drunk on the spoils of war applauds the aggression of those closest to it. Hardly a day goes by without more evidence of Israeli brutality, as with the savage onslaught against a refugee camp in the south of the Gaza strip, leaving 17 dead Palestinians, including many children, and another 84 injured.
This is no passing phase, a product of hanging chads. There is now an element of political polarisation even in the US, with the likelihood of the Christian fundamentalism of the so-called moral majority unravelling a 50-year settlement that has asserted the rights of women, blacks and, more recently, gays. Opposition to affirmative action, or abortion rights, could win out with a conservative takeover of all three branches of the American government. They say that if the US sneezes, the rest of the world goes down with flu.
Yet, contrary to the anti-historical announcement that the end of history is upon us… “No-one is forgotten. Nothing is forgotten,” as a new memorial to the million-plus victims of the siege of Leningrad says.
The stance of the US offers prospects for its isolation. This is not a unipolar world, with one major power. Not only is there the potential for inter-imperialist rivalry, the other major power in the world is progressive public opinion, anti-imperialism. Just one example: Washington’s blockade of Cuba has, yet again, been condemned by the UN general assembly, now for the 13th successive year.
The rapidly rising powers of India and, above all, China raise very serious questions about the future of global politics. China’s economic growth rate is still at a staggering level. In the last couple of weeks, serious questions have been raised by a number of states on the future of the UN, an issue we have debated but perhaps will need to keep under review?
A certain consequence of Bush’s re-election will pave the way to the arming of space. In the last couple of weeks, it has become clear that the US air force has, for the first time, adopted a doctrine of ‘space superiority’. This means research into ‘space-based interceptors’ and a programme to site weapons in space capable of pre-emptive strikes against satellites. The plan is for up to six spacecraft in orbit. The 1967 outer space treaty, which outlaws the use of weapons in orbit, will be ignored.
The US is encouraging Britain to become involved. US interceptor missiles will be based at Fylingdales and the MOD has already sent experts to work on this to the US. In contrast, Jacques Chirac insists that the globe is more multi-polar than ever and expressed fresh doubts about the invasion of Iraq saying it had left “the world more dangerous”.
Turning to domestic matters, it is a measure of how desperate the situation must be, to see the valiant attempts by many in the labour movement to maintain enthusiasm for Gordon Brown, probably the likely successor to Blair. His own pronouncements become more Blair-like every day. Forget the government solving the pensions crisis, he tells the National Association of Pension Funds. Then he denounced the European Commission’s proposals for a 35% increase in its budget. Then, he launched a campaign against proposals to axe Britain’s EU rebate, which would cost the exchequer an extra £3.5bn a year.
One of the undertakings given by the government at the National Policy Forum at Warwick was that it would support domestic manufacturing sector. There’s precious little sign of it. French-owned Alstom announced that a thousand jobs will be lost from what used to be Metro-Cammell in Birmingham to Spain. In response, Brown played his EU card by announcing a Treasury inquiry into the French and Spanish practice of insisting on quotas for nationally produced goods and services, for example trains used on their national rail lines. The next step would be to ask the Commission to ban the practice. But this will be of little use to Britain if it has no domestic train making facility left. Where are the measures to safeguard British industry?
Isn’t all this no more than positioning by Brown to convince big business he is a safe bet? The orthodoxy of the Treasury is legendary. It also chimes perfectly with Brown’s politics. His recent fiscal handling has seen a cut back on planned spending on current infrastructure costs to meet his self-imposed `golden rule’ of matching current and capital expenditure with tax receipts; whilst borrowing is only allowed on long term infrastructure projects. It is also interesting to conjucture that the recent subtle distancing of Brown from aspects of the European project betrays more than a hint of an Atlanticist strategy.
After last month’s rise to £4.85 an hour, the CBI says that it wants the already meagre minimum wage frozen and increased only to just over £5 an hour in 2006. Such a rise would be well below the average rise in earnings, leaving the low paid to fall even further behind the national average.
It’s hard to decide whether to assign the stupidity of the business decisions of Royal Mail more to the aching desire of the logistics, mail and parcels transnationals to spread their tentacles across the developed world than to the widespread culture of arrogance and greed of Britain’s fat cats. Both are tangible evidence of the nature of contemporary capitalism.
Jaguar’s chief executive has told the trade and industry select committee that the future viability of the firm, and all its 8,000 workers, was under threat unless the closure of Brown’s Lane goes ahead and that they will not heed the joint unions campaign to save 1,150 Jaguar jobs. The dramatic drop in demand for Jaguars in America, partly due to the strong pound, has supposedly prompted Ford to demand sweeping cuts.
As for the Tories they are in deep trouble. They are eight points behind Labour – the biggest gap since May 2003, when Duncan-Smith was leader. Michael Howard has achieved the distinction of becoming even more unpopular than Tony Blair in the country at large – and even less popular among Tory voters than the prime minister is among Labour supporters. Yet two-thirds of his party members cannot name a credible alternative. Howard admits to being frustrated because he faces a prime minister whose main feature is to “look and sound like a Tory”. Well tell us something we don’t know!
The dominating theme of Tony Blair’s recent Mansion House speech is instructive: “We have a unique role to play,” he said. “Call it a bridge, a two lane motorway, a pivot or call it a damn high wire, which is how it often feels; our job is to keep our sights firmly on both sides of the Atlantic.” Perhaps it is as much our internationalist duty to do the same thing? The encouraging report given to the EC about our links with like-minded parties, indicating a broadening and deepening of our relationships must surely apply as significantly to our links with the CPUSA as it must of European Parties.
There can be not truck with the concept of `our imperialism’. In the way that the European TUC has contrasted the EU with the USA. There is no `better’ capitalism. The looming clouds of war have visited Europe in Yugoslavia. It is up to the progressive movements across the developed world to make sure our ruling classes do not bring it once again to our continent.
RED NOVEMBER 2004 – TRADE UNIONS, GLOBALISATION AND THE EU
With globalisation, trade unionism is increasingly taking an international dimension. This raises questions about how UK industrial relations practice, which evolved from 1860s to the 1st WW, and contrasts to, especially, other European Union states.
We have a tradition of “collective laisser-faire”; even though the extension government powers in two world wars and a favourable period of low unemployment 1945-72 led to period of comprehensive state-directed national industrial relations, much of this tradition remains.
It’s useful to compare British and French trades unionism:
The UK: has one trade union centre – TUC (note only a Congress – after 1926, it had/has no directing power)
France: many trade union centres – principally three:
CGT: originally anarcho-syndicalist, is now mostly Communist (still!)
FO: splinter alliance of ultra-left and ultra right from CGT in 1947.
CFDT: social catholic originally, from 1960s left to right socialist, some ultra-leftists, which has been too close to governments (even right wing ones) in last ten years
It’s important to realise that things are not better or worse but different. Just like unions, the French and English languages are different but both help people communicate. Like the languages, the grammar of industrial relations is different if the purpose of the exercise is the same.
In France it’s not really important to be a member; in contrast in Britain, you don’t get help at work if you’re not a member. French workers vote for representatives of one of the federations to represent on an employers’ works council – like voting Labour or Liberal in municipal election. In the annual round of Works Council elections, you could get reps who are not in a union elected. Members are more like shop stewards, or those who attend branch meetings: “militants”, or activists. Few people (only about 10%) hold a union card but pulling a general strike of most workers is not difficult!! In Britain, members sign up to a union, the union negotiates agreements with employer and members vote for a rep who is subject to instant recall. Union density has been historically quite high, now it’s somewhat challenged at 28%.
In France, state laws oblige employers to consult with employees and to adhere to a tripartite negotiated national agreement. In Britain, individual contracts employment become collective contracts of employment, where a union is recognised.
In France, national legal labour codes (social charters, workers charters) lay down the main terms and conditions expected at work and this is also true of most southern Europe. This has its origins in Catholic orientated social conservatism; essentially it’s a different way of achieving encorporated unions with state backing. Britain relies on the ideology of reformism to achieve the same end. In Britain, agreements are not legally binding and are entirely “voluntary”, with an emphasis on local negotiations. Legal rights lay down minimum standards to cover those left out.
The French Napoleonic legal system is quite distinct from the British “Anglo-Saxon” tradition, producing, roughly, a southern versus northern European approach. In most of the EU, workplace employment relations are conducted through “Works Councils” not unions as such, especially in the “Latin” countries. Mostly, anyway, an anomoly is the German trade union movement – created from scratch in 1945 on the basis of a mix of models.
For this reason, the EU, in dealing with the growth of trans-national corporations forced European Works Councils on them. Largely talking shops, EWCs have some value in enabling the co-ordination of workers, paid for by employers. A tension in the European model is increasingly likely to be how the Anglo-Saxon model, with its extreme version in the USA, relates to this consensus. Expect the Commission to seek means to bridge the gap in some way, so as to more effectively compete with the US. Speaking of US industrial relations, leads on to role of trade union internationals. These are now becoming increasingly relevant and there are signs that even the US unions are grasping the vital importance of international contact and solidarity. In the US, union density is now very low at around 9%. Though one should note that a construct that may be imagined as a new state of “USA-Canada”, in the north, and the east and west and west coasts, experiences quite high densities; whereas what we might call Jesusland (!!) – the centre-west and the south is a virtual no-go area for unions.
US unions have been historically isolationist; during the cold war, the US State Dept funded their major involvement in world trades union structures from 1948-70, as an extension of US foreign policy but now the CIA has little interest, enabling the trade union internationals to be cleaned up.
The World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) was founded in 1945 it united all trade unions across the globe for the first time, except for the World Confederation of Labour (founded by the Catholic Church in the late 1880s). This was a tremendously important basis for socialist/communist unity but was destroyed by the Cold War in a post-war split from WFTU by western trades unionist who formed the ICFTU, which received considerable attention from the likes of the State Dept or Britain’s Foreign Office. But many Communists in western Europe were able to maintain influence in unions that did not affiliate to the ICFTU.
The European TUC created from 1973 was not a “region” of ICFTU, unlike in South America, Africa etc. This was a deliberate attempt to create a united force. Key here was France, Italy and Spain, where the biggest “TUCs” were Communist. The British TUC (especially under the influence Jack Jones of the T&G and others in the 1970s) was more sympathetic to Labour-Communist Unity at the European level.
In a sense this was an ideological trap; the Cold War division set the world into the socialist camp and an imperialist bloc and forced labour with a choice. Now, with socialism restricted to a few (mostly) peripheral lands and with no clear central force, imperialism has retreated to the fault lines of 1914. With the exception that the British Empire has been absorbed by the USA and that the rival powers of West and Central Europe have coalesced into a single bloc. There are three or four major power blocs in the world now.
The view since Margaret Thatcher in the British TUC has been that the European labour model was superior to the American and that is the choice for both TNCs and unions. Up to 1945 Europe was a continent of competing imperialisms; British, French, German, Russian, Austrian, and late in the day, Italian. Or, if we go back far enough, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch. The outcome of the second world war was that the US took over Britain’s role and these competing European powers decided to pool their resources. The temptation to support “our” imperialism is an old one and the workers’ movement has been here before, with John Bull etc.
After Jacques Delors came to British TUC 1988, opposition to EU faded, it was said to be the “only card game in town” by Ron Todd of the T&G, and John Monks has single mindedly pursued the notion that Europe provides a better deal for unions than the US model. For much of the 1990s unions put their faith in the Social Charter (but recall the different systems). The Charter? Carta del Lavoro , le Chartre de Travail – the Labour Codes of France and Italy are very different things from that of the UK. Indeed, the Italian labour movement has virtually given up on resistence to privatisation and is seeking a minimum standards approach, whereby set labour conditions are seen as a price for contracting out and outsourcing.
It is a matter of fact that 85% of the ETUC’s funding now comes from European Commission. If the EU was a nation state we would say that it has its union movement under state control; such encorporation was last seen under fascism! There are signs that the ETUC is beginning to break away from just a lobbying role into campaigning but it is too little and far too late. There are, it is said, 3,000 consultants firms in Brussels and as many restaurants to match!
The draft European constitution assigns a role for a particular economic system (that of capitalism) and even a particular economic model within the system (laisser faire, minimum regulation, deregulated/outsourced.) This proposed hybrid model between Anglo-Saxon libertarian capitalism and Social Catholicism end the very concept of “social Europe”. Big companies will be free to pillage public services in the expanding European internal market. An attempt by the ETUC win recognition in the constitution that Services of General Interest (public services) not be subject to competition rules and the internal market failed completely. The constitution seeks a “single market without restriction or disorder and recognises and respects market access to services of general interest as a right”.
This constitutional guarantee of a particular form of economics (neo-liberal) is unprecedented in west European history since 1789. Pressure from big business has been responsible in its keenness to gain windfalls from privatising formerly protected public services. Inside the European Commission, the Competition and Internal Market Directorates believe that all goods and services should be opened up to competition, in line with the GATS philosophy, regardless of their social role and value. Trade unionists committed to the protection of public services should be very wary.
The constitution is about very much more than flags, anthems or federalism. It is the cutting edge of the strategy of capital to marginalise organised labour. There is no labour friendly force linked to the EU, which is not open to anything other than increasingly `flexible’ labour markets.
Figures Don’t Lie But Dissemblers Can Surely Figure – GLASGOW MORNING STAR CONFERENCE – 2004
I hear that rail staff was put on special alert to avoid delays when Labour ministers travelled by train to the Labour Party conference. Obviously, this injunction has faded by the time I went down. Being and hour and a half late, on a train wrongly advised to be non-stopping, erratically diverted, with filthy or locked toilets and no explanations as to the reasons for delay, I overheard a man explaining to his young daughter that it was because `we have a crap service, thanks to Tony Blair’!
The fact that Virgin had just announced that they have moved into offering space tourism, at £100,000 a ticket on the very day that their much vaunted tilting train from Glasgow had to travel at 50 miles and hour seems not to have provoked appropriate conclusions.
It’s perhaps a sign of the personalisation of politics that this should be so. But simply removing Tony Blair from the premiership (which in my view would virtually guarantee Labour a decent general election win) is not going to reverse seven years of New Labourism, which is seemingly now wedded to big business, war and authoritarianism.
It’s structured to be this way throughout government. The Department for International Development is now compromised in a revelation that it uses aid to force expensive, inappropriate and failed privatisation on the developing world. Electricity in Kyrgyzstan, water in China, sewerage in Malaysia, hospitals in South Africa…
It’s said that figures don’t lie but dissemblers can surely figure. At the risk of being accused of negativity, the quality of life of ordinary people in Britain today is pretty poor. What’s the reality?
- The price of university education is such that so as to encourage poorer people to apply, as I have only recently discovered. Despite having a very good employer, I’m having to go for a second mortgage to get my two offspring through university.
- There are more than 300,000 people without a home in Britain, yet there are 700,000 empty private houses. The modest victory at the conference on social housing was, you’d think, akin to pulling the leadership’s fingernails out.
- We have a minimum wage half that of the EU’s decency threshold. 5 million people earn a mere £250 a week; 3 million are not currently paid for Christmas Day. A fifth of all workers put in an average of 7 hours a week unpaid overtime.
- Three times more children today fall beneath the poverty threshold than in 1970.
- Since contracting out, 62% of public sector workers earn less and 73% have fewer holidays.
- The bottom tenth of the workforce by pay level got rises of 4.5% last year, whilst the top tenth averaged 7.3%.
- A clear shift from general, progressive taxation to regressive, flat rate charging is evident. In terms of distribution, the richest 1% of the population had 20% of the nation’s wealth in 1996. By 2001 this had risen to 23%. The poorest 50% had 7% and now they have 5%.
- Crime is focused on areas of deprivation, where slightly better off people live cheek by jowl with slightly worse off people. Most offences are committed within 1.8 miles of the offenders’ front door. The rich don’t even come into it. At any one time, 1% of the population suffer 59% of all violent crime. 2% is hit by 41% of all property crime.
- For the five years up to 2002, 55% of final salary schemes were closed to new entrants and three quarters of those now entering the labour force for the first time can be expected to be on means-tested benefits when they retire. 40% of pensioners who are entitled to receive means-tested benefits fail to do so.
- Every year 22,000 pensioners die prematurely of cold related illnesses. I know that politicians have a notoriously short attention span, but what are we to make of a health minister who blames the UK’s high winter death rate on the fact that “winter takes us by surprise”?
- One million jobs in manufacturing have been lost since 1997, about a fifth of the total we had.
- 20% of Antarctica’s sea ice has melted in the last 50 years yet the UK’s biggest contibution to easing global warming was to virtually close down domestic coal extraction.
People are beginning to catch on to 21st century double speak, where a military adventure has become a peace-keeping operation, `choice’ equals `privatisation’, `business handouts’ have become `initiative’ and a `spiv’ is now an `entrepreneur’ (except in France apparently since according to President Bush, the French have no word for this concept!)
I’m a patient man, I understand that it’s not easy to change course at a stroke. But as the leader of the Chinese Revolution once said, it’s not the speed with which a river flows that really counts but it’s direction.
As we approach the Morning Star’s 75th anniversary next January, it is right and proper that we recall the extraordinary contribution of Scottish working class leaders, men and women, to both establishing and maintaining the only English language daily socialist newspaper in the world and to building the remarkably robust machine that is our labour movement.
The pioneers of socialism were not ashamed to focus on what they called the `gleam of socialism’ hovering over our `sunlit islands’. Nor should we be. Even arch-manipulator Harold Wilson recognised that `the Labour Party is nothing if it is not a crusade’.
For far too long we have allowed ourselves to become ashamed of the attempts of socialists and communists at government. Some would cement the notion that socialism has failed into the very body politic. Witness, historian Tristram Hunt in the Guardian, astonishingly accusing Robert Tressell, author of the `Ragged Trousered Philanthropist’ for peddling ideas that led to mass murder. Or David Aaronovitch arguing with himself in his columns that his father, a noted Marxist economist, would have agreed with him if he knew all the crimes against humanity committed in the name of socialism. For a dead idea, socialism certainly needs a lot of effort to keep down if it needs to be buried in a locked vault.
For socialism’s credo is simple. That work creates wealth and those who employ siphon off extra value from that wealth for personal gain. Capital does not expand the economy, labour does. Our belief in socialism should be visionary; it need not be dreamlike. It’s not a case of hating capitalists, especially; or wanting to do them personal harm. Individual capitalists are probably nice and kind to dogs and children. It’s just that the system, especially in its neo-liberal, rampaging free market, deregulated labour form does harm to people.
As the secretary to the Stagecoach national shop stewards’ combine observed, his tongue firmly planted in one cheek, after Brian Souter invited the committee to his castle in Perthshire for a personal discussion: “You have a beautiful house in wonderful surroundings. We are glad that all our hard work has enabled you to enjoy this.”
Capitalism criticised the East European economic area, Comecon, for assigning roles to countries; wine from Bulgaria, cars from East Germany, arms from Czechoslovakia. How short is memory. What’s Britain’s assigned role in the capitalist world? Finance and defence. All else is to go elsewhere.
The contrast with the story of how Blair sent Mandelson to Germany to plead for a special favour on the Information and Consultation Directive and the way unions were courted at the Warwick policy forum could not be greater.
That Directive was obscured and delayed by Blair’s personal plot to trigger four objecting countries. By this summer, he was stretched to pleading and promising. But only because he is on the ropes. Time is short for an election looms.
Don’t get carried away with the idea that the leaders of the new left majority in the TUC think that they have all they can get. This is just the start. As Tony Woodley has written in the Morning Star:
“The argument between new Labour, with its pro-business and warlike tendencies, and the left will continue.”
The trade union movement currently represents the best chance for defeating the neo-liberalism of the Blair Government. Both the Liberals and the Tories are part of an unholy alliance amongst mainstream politics to out-Thatcher Thatcher. About tilting the balance of forces to the left, the slide has already begun and all our efforts need to be focused on shoving it further. It is vital that trades unionists think beyond piece meal reforms and promote an alternative to the neo-liberal consensus.
It’s not rocket science and it’s popular.
- Full employment with decent wages, conditions and pensions.
- Public ownership of public transport and the utilities.
- Rights for workers and their organisations based on ILO conventions.
- Boosting public services.
- An international policy based on the rule of law and the sovereignty of nations
In contrast, what’s on offer?
- Flexibility in the labour market – for the boss but not the worker.
- The Bransonisation of public services
- Fear of the law causing ineffective unions
- `Might is right’ diplomacy
Given this, it looks doubtful that Labour (new or otherwise at this juncture) with the existing leadership and existing policies can command a sufficient majority after the election to maintain a full five year term and win a fourth term. With the possible exception of the European constitution, there now appears to be a consensus within the trade union movement on the need to shift the government to the left.
Even the EU’s own monitoring service, Eurobarometer, reveals that a majority of its citizens have no faith in its institutions. Democracy is a much-abused word. Think how in the US – and now in the UK – very low turnouts are the norm. Half of registered electors can’t be bothered to vote. Blair’s latest wheeze, to admit that the reason for going to war was invalid but the outcome was serendipitous is just what we would expect from a shyster lawyer. I wonder if he tries that at home?
“Honestly, Cherie. I did do the washing up… OK, I may have promised to scour the plates individually and the act of dumping them all in the swing bin may have resulted in breaking them, but it has at least eradicated the eyesore of a full washing up bowl – and I think everyone will thank me for that.” It was Hitler who said, “The broad mass of a nation will more easily fall to a big lie than to a small one”. Does Blair really think he has done the trick?
Three, four and five generations ago, our forebears had to force change, which only came about incrementally. One-person one vote only came to Britain in 1945. Here in Scotland, such force for democratic change was, at times, by modern standards even violent – but it was always mass based. An understanding of the potency of such a politics is at the heart of the British Road to Socialism. As the Chartist newspaper put it in 1852: “irresistible power – the power of PEACE armed with knowledge, before which War turns pale and flies!”
The project to turn Labour into a version of American political parties has still not succeeded. At this moment in time the replacement of New Labour into a reforming Labour government – even a rather moderate one – would be a progressive step forward. As one of the grand old men of British Communism, Harry Pollitt, wrote: “the abandonment of the Socialist aim is the road to destruction of the labour movement.” There is a better way, but it needs inspiration, confidence and understanding to win the conditions for advancement; namely, and finally, again quoting Pollitt: “a people ready to fight for it, a capitalism that cannot go on in the old way and a … leadership that can really organise and lead”.
`Has the link been broken?’ Glasgow Morning Star Readers and Supporters Group – 2004
Has the link between Labour and the mass organisations of the working class been stretched so far as to break decisively? That’s the big issue for socialists of all stripes. Every previous Labour government began with some progressive policy reform and then capitulated, usually within a year. Arguably, new Labour capitulated even before it was elected!
But our anger at the craven attitude to the trans-national corporations, and their attendant imperialist strategy, is not enough to justify a conclusion that we should desert Labour as the mass electoral expression of working people. Things have been pretty bad before, different perhaps, but bad certainly. Time and time again, the Labour Party has sought to purge its way to respectability, eliminated left opposition, compromised with capital, created despondency and harvested the results. It was the unions that reclaimed the party after 1931 when Labour’s NEC actually backed Ramsay MacDonald. The block vote then kept the right in harness for most of the thirty odd years following.
Much of the argument over the possibility for redemption of Labour arises from the Iraq War. But Labour Prime Ministers have always backed a bi-partisan position on war. Consider the precedents; Korea, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Aden, the southern Gulf statelets and Northern Ireland. In 1951, a £4.7 billion military spending programme, caused budget cuts in the NHS and the resignation of ministers. Gaitskell initially attacked Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal as ferociously as did Eden. Wilson would have sent British troops to Vietnam if he could have got the move through Parliament.
For a period before and after 1970s, trade union leaders were no longer playing to the rules and the nature of British social democracy was challenged. Yet, the miners’ strike of 1984-5 proved to be a watershed of gigantic proportions. Many wrongly viewed its outcome and the resultant period of retreat with demoralisation. It is no accident that an assault on the left followed and led directly to the Blairite agenda.
Yet New Labour’s roots are very shallow and a crisis could yet shift Labour towards realignment. How best to assist this process, to leave the battleground, or to force the traitors more firmly towards their true home? Reclaiming the party is still a feasible if difficult task. New Labour is perhaps different to previous Labour leaderships precisely because the left is weaker than it has ever been.
The ejection of RMT as an affiliated organisation was conducted with seemingly little regard to the consequences. But perhaps it suited the leadership, just as state funding for political parties is pursued. The fact that unions still provide a third of the party’s funding is a worry for the leadership, now that they are reasserting themselves.
Until there is clear evidence of wholesale desertion by the unions of Labour, there is still a basis for a strategy of reclamation. We need to focus on how to make New Labour desert the party rather than seeking the desertion of the unions.
The measure of the task before us is indicated by the slump in Labour Party membership, to almost half what it was seven or eight years ago. But the biggest obstacle is the tightly controlled structure of the party, ostensibly there to present a disciplined face to the electorate, but in reality acting as a break on a turn to the left.
Both CLPs and unions need to regain some of the influence they lost under “Partnership in Power”, which allows a well-organised bureaucracy to act as an effective faction. Reversing the process will not be easy but the unions are perhaps the only force capable of performing this task.
Presently, a Prime Minister acquires the privileges of the monarch, patronage allowing him to stack the odds in his favour. Yet 139 Labour backbenchers rebelled against the Government on Iraq – the largest Parliamentary revolt against an incumbent government for a century. The new leaderships in the unions have constituted themselves as the New Left Majority and pressure is on the TUC to drop social partnership.
It may well be that, as the bureaucratic hold of New Labour is tight but weakly based upon the membership, its hold will slip all too easily if an alliance between the unions and the constituencies can be welded. A look at voting trends at Labour’s conference over the past three years reveals a common picture: unions to the left of most of the CLPs; unions prepared to vote against the leadership on one or two key issues; a fairly even 30-40% of CLPs voting for left positions. By no means a small base to build from.
In 2000, in the first sign of a fight-back, there was the vote on pensions-earnings link, with 60% for 40% against the platform. In 2002, the call for ‘an independent review of PFI’ achieved an overall vote of 67%. Votes for the Grassroots Alliance in the constituency section of the NEC have steadily improved. Last year, the votes on foundation hospitals and the government’s health policy were significant policy defeats for the leadership.
The big unions now promise to `punch their weight’ but the disconnection between the constituencies and unions is a problem that can only be resolved by unions taking left policies into the CLPs, to supplement the developing national connections between the New Left Majority and progressive MPs.
A new National Left Wing Movement is needed to co-ordinate the disparate elements of the wider progressive strain within the labour movement. The proposal for local Labour Representation Committees, based on local union branches working together with Labour Party members offers real possibilities. These would include non-affiliated unions and union representatives who may not be individual members of the Labour Party. Links with non-party single-issue campaign groups are proposed. Communists will surely want to be part of this process, for we are affiliated members of the Labour Party, if not individual ones.
The likelihood is that the balance of forces in the PLP will change considerably after the next general election and the very fact of a narrower majority may force the leadership to listen more carefully. Opinion polls suggest that the present party membership is thoroughly pragmatic and most still regard Tony Blair as an electoral asset. Yet the virtually unanimous support that once existed has now much faded. The level of dissent is strong. 33% think that the party has drifted to the right; whilst 38% think that Blair’s claim to be `ruling for the many not the few’ has not been successful. Moreover, a majority are against the Euro and two thirds are for an increase in the top rate of tax from earnings of £100,000.
Voting intentions of the public in a future general election in all opinion polls now show only a fairly narrow lead over the Conservatives, at a mere 2%. Much could change of course, especially as we near the election. But there is absolutely no sign of a significant hole opening up on Labour’s left flank on a national basis.
With only a 60% turnout at the 2001 general election, there is clearly a big element of mass suspicion of all parties and it will worsen. It’s seemingly less a question of apathy, more a question of rejection of the status quo. But this rejection is largely formless presently. In the whole of Europe the danger of the far right is there for all to note: Haider in Austria, Flemish blocs in Belgium and Holland, the Northern League and others in Italy, le Pen in France, the BNP in northern England. It may be too much for some to stomach voting for the worst elements in the government and there will be attractive options in some localities. But the plain reality is that most effective electoral bloc to beat fascism is actually Labour.
Summing up, if only two things are focused on, real progress can be sustained in winning better and more progressive policies from Labour. Firstly, the development of Labour Representation Committees at grassroots level, broader even than the founding bodies from 1900 that gave their name eventually to the Labour Party. Linking voting Labour with progressive politics is the best safeguard against future demoralisation and a turn to the Tories amongst the electorate.
Secondly, a different relationship between government and unions needs to be found. An excellent model is that provided by the STUC’s memorandum of understanding with the Scottish Executive. As Bill Speirs has put it, this “provides an opportunity for the trade union movement to seriously impact on our Government”. The agreement has enabled genuine dialogue on employment discrimination, health and safety and violence at work. Small signs of a willingness to consider a move in this direction are beginning to emerge in national government but it is still limited.
An optimist stays up until midnight to see the New Year in, whereas a pessimist stays up to make sure that the old year leaves! Judgements that Labour is irredeemable have a similar basis as the Hogmanay pessimist. The Labour Party still exists, its constitution still provides for mass affiliation and voting rights for the unions, the dominant view amongst trades unionists is to stay and fight, large numbers of the party’s MPs want to see change, along with at least a third of its membership. The fight to revise Labour’s internal democracy has only just begun. Now is not the time for any section to be isolated from this coming struggle. There is still everything to play for.
The Slogan Of ‘Quality Of Life’needs To Be Our Watchword For The Future – Speech To YCL Rally `Red November’ 2003
Elections are being held in Russia and the media has been beside itself, trying to cope with the apparent contradiction that most Russians now say that they would have supported the Revolution had they been alive in 1917, as they freely vote in multi-party elections.
Whatever the puzzlement of highly paid columnists, there’s no question that democracy is both the challenge and the solution for the left’s apparent powerlessness after two decades of reaction. Socialism without democracy will always be a stunted phenomena – but democracy without socialism is pointless.
It is our only salvation, the only recourse, to achieving a fair and equitable society. The rich and powerful have always feared this. For, as Cromwell’s son-in-law feared, democracy should mean that “the majority will take my riches”!
Britain gave rise to not only the earliest democracy but also the earliest trade unions and that’s no accident. Arguably, almost everything positive, from the point of view of a revolutionary, about our trade unions has origins in the period of the struggle for democracy for the working class.
For good reason, the 19th century Chartists sought “democracy not only in government, but throughout every industrial department of society”. Democracy has never been an abstract ambition, most Chartists saw the struggle as a essentially a “knife and fork” question. Nor was it a parlour game. The right to vote would be won: “peacefully if we can, forcibly if we must”.
The 21st century will however surely offer us the prospect of extending democracy from politics into economics, if only we will grasp the opportunity. For the “main cause of poverty is that the rich are very rich”! Low inflation, low public expenditure, low tax rates and continued Labour market flexibility may be good for business. But is it good for ordinary people?
The post war years saw the dangers of a strategy of corporatist inclusion of unions in a tripartite alliance – ultimately leaders can’t control their members! That led to Thatcher’s (and now Blair’s) strategy of on the one hand excluding unions from the realm of the State and on the other seeking incorporation of labour at the lowest level – the so-called ‘new management techniques’ of the 1990s. Based on winning the ideological acceptance of capitalism amongst workers, companies used a panoply of techniques: quality circles, delayered management, employee share holding, local bargaining, Performance and Profit Related Pay, along with the personal appraisals approach.
The workplace became once again a dictatorship – of the bourgeosie of course. We are in a new era of absolution, even at the level of the nation state, which capital seeks to place at the disposal of transnational business interests. With market dominance of regional power blocs instead of formal territorial empires
Not without good reason, it was George Meaney (head of the American AFL/CIO, or “TUC”) who said in 1974: “You can’t dictate to a country….unless you control their means of production…..whether you control them through ideological methods or control them by brute force, you must control them.”
From 1985 onwards, the trade union movement adopted so-called New Realism, recently termed Partnership, as its guiding philosophy. This has resulted in a clear shift in power and wealth towards those already in possession of these things.
The bottom 50% of the population now owns only 1% of the wealth, in 1976 they owned 12%. A clear illustration that `freedom for the pike is death for the minnows’ (as R H Tawney put it); we have not a trickle-down economy but one based on torrential up-tows.
It’s the creation of two-tier society, whether it’s health, employment, or anything. Whether its foundation hospitals, innocently named, just as the term `Trust’ earlier entered the vocabulary of the NHS, or pensions holidays for employers. Companies have siphoned off a potential £19 billion from workers’ company schemes that could have been really useful to have right now as the value of investments are challenged.
The significance of 1917 is the struggle for democracy in ownership. The contradiction today is that technological advances in electronics, communications and transport mean that these forces are increasingly social in character, but ownership and control is decidedly private.
No-one can cannot wish struggle out of existence, just as we cannot conjure it out of thin air. Struggle is a feature of all life – of all human life. Existence is impossible without struggle. Struggle to be born, to breathe to learn speech, to learn social skills.
In the context of the world of work, it is a feature of the achievement of democracy that labour has the right to withdraw its co-operation; at its highest this form of struggle is the strike weapon, a remarkably high form of democracy.
The main gains of 1917 have been the gains of all working people worldwide, just as the French Revolution ushered in a century of struggle to end absolutism, so the Russian Revolution fired the imagination of workers to win material benefits for all. The welfare state is itself ultimately a child of the revolution.
For 15 years, British trades unions have been quiescent, cowed by the cleverness of anti-union laws. Afraid that the very existence of their union could be challenged by law, workers representatives have gritted their teeth and tolerated the employers’ offensive. Unions are now straining at the leash, looking for a government that will act for working people.
It is sometimes forgotten that unions ditched ‘their’ party – the Liberal Party – because it was unreliable in the campaign to liberalise the legal shackles on trade unions. This was the very rationale behind the creation of the Labour Party – or Labour Representation Committee as it was significantly called for the first six years.
Trade unions in Britain have historically been infuriatingly honest, loyal to the law! But change is upon us. More and more workers bravely take spontaneous illegal industrial action. British Airways workers, Post Office workers and now firefighters have all shown their mettle.
But spontaneous movements of workers are not revolutionary in character. In “What is to be Done?” – a contemporary polemic against Russian political trends more than a century ago, Lenin criticised views that excessively identified spontaneous strike waves as a basis for revolutionary action. His starting point is the idea that `there can be no revolutionary movement without a revolutionary theory’.
But what are trade unions for ? Marx and Engels saw them as excellent “schools of war”. They show the working class how to organise, they sharpen political consciousness and militancy. But if they engage in mere haggling with capital over the price of labour how do we reconcile this with the metaphoric need to pick up the gravedigger’s tools?
Revolutionaries have an obligation to contract into the mass labour movement, since the spontaneous struggle of the proletariat will not become “class struggle” unless it is led. For Marxism seeks to abolish the wages system. Not always an easy objective to explain to a trade union audience!
For all the claims that socialism is dead, or that Marxist analysis has no more to offer, we still live in a capitalist society. In a global, historical sense it is still a relatively young phenomena. Planning is a its most challenged when it comes to costing resources. But capitalist money economics only touches those parts of the economy which shareholders are interested in. Humanity needs the vision to rise beyond this narrow focus. State budgets are a poor mechanism for evaluating priorities. For example, the construction of roads is based upon limited costs benefit analysis. The cost to society of human poverty, need, ignorance and squalor is ignored or marginalised. Productivity need not be a dirty word, but neither should it be a code for over-work, stress and fatigue.
The ailing economic system in Britain will not be abolished in favour of a socialist system without revolutionary transformation. Such a transformation cannot be steered through by trade unionism alone.
Militancy is not enough. Achieving a revolutionary transformation of society requires a conscious and clear body of revolutionaries. Inevitably, to understand the character of society they live in and seek to change, they will need to study, analyse and theorize upon it in order that they can guide isolated grievances into a coherent revolutionary struggle.
The challenge for capitalism is that science provokes revolutionary change. The present epoch has seen the forces of production outstrip the relations of production. In contrast, socialism is both the science and poetry of the future. It asks not what is true for some people, but what is true for all mankind. As Marx put it, as long ago as 1844:- “the self-confidence of the human being, freedom, has first of all to be aroused again in the hearts of (the) people….. Only this feeling… can again transform society into a community of human beings united for their highest aims into a democratic state”.
New Labour ministers and capitalists alike know the cost of everything but the value of nothing. Our aim is not merely to take more for ordinary people but to make their lives better too. Education, for example is in itself a good thing, it is not `for’ anything other than for interest. Asked what use his invention of the then quite unuseable electric dynamo was, Michael Faraday, replied: `What use is a baby?’
The Left has always stood for Liberty, Equity and Community. The plain fact is that commodity production, the system of providing manufacture and service for sale after syphoning off value generated by the labour utilised to generate the product sold in the hypothetical market place, is not an efficient use of society’s resources.
WOLVERHAMPTON TRADE COUNCIL – 2003
Tony Blair has been off to tell the President of Russia that it’s a unipolar world now. Like Vladimir Putin, I’m not so sure about that, perhaps for different reasons. Maybe there are two centres of power in the world? On the one hand, the Anglo-American imperial project and their supporters, on the other – international public opinion. We may not have prevented military intervention in Iraq, but international opinion has proved to be a potent force indeed. Whilst the “coalition of the willing” has flouted all opposition, it still acts nervously with an eye to world opinion and is eager to direct media attention in the `right’ direction. The force of the incredible level of mobilisation of popular opinion, is best illustrated by the co-ordinated day of global demonstrations of 15 million people in 60 cities, as the earth revolved on its axis, beginning in New Zealand and circling the world. Nothing can be the same again.
The failure of the US and Britain to get UN support for their actions means that Bush and Blair have no cover with which to hide their true motives. Even more significant than that the fact that this was an illegal war, it had the lowest level of support of any in modern times. In Britain, over 70% of people in opinion polls – taken just after the unprecedented and massive February 15th demonstration – said that they opposed war without UN support. To see well over a million people out on the streets was truly inspiring.
But we should feel even more elated at the breadth of the support we had. Every race, colour, creed, and most philosophies and politics to the left of the Tories and the far right showed their support. Some may well have subsequently concluded that, with the war started, they may as well go along with it. The distaste for the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein that many felt, perhaps accounted for a measure of ambivalence. As someone who actively campaigned in the early 1980s against this dictatorship, I am still waiting for someone in the US or UK governments to apologise for their policy of `appeasement’. The name `Tony Blair’ was noticeably absent from the many critical Commons motions in the 1980s.
But millions are still opposed and more millions are still awaiting the justification for war. This matter has not gone away. Where is the evidence that Iraq posed a real danger to the UK? The only weapon of mass destruction in Iraq appears to be the US military, which can’t let a day go by without re-enacting Bloody Sunday. A crowd shot on here and there, a dozen killed, scores injured. Like so many cowboys holed up in a stockade, they take pot shots at circling natives. Does nothing change?
The US position is fundamentally a creation of the Cold War, when the major powers outbid each other by building vast stocks of weapons of all kinds. I can’t think of any that were not built to do anything other than to destroy masses! This epoch has left a profound mark on the nature of our world. From a period just before the Second World War, when the US had a quarter of its workforce unemployed and its economy was in severe crisis, an economic system developed, binding industry and the armed forces closer together than in any other society. It can be said that American prosperity is intimately linked with military production and that its dominance of foreign markets is directly related to this. The USA `beat’ the Soviet Union in the arms race precisely because it actually helped the American economy to devote so much of its resources to arms production, whist the Soviet economy – with its emphasis on social welfare provision – was shattered by the effort.
We were told that the collapse of the Soviet Union was supposed to usher in a new period of peace and prosperity, the phrase `peace dividend’ being coined to describe this rather brief period of idyll. However, a more enduring legacy has emerged. America now believes that it has an inalienable right to maintain US business and military interests by the use of force.
Most people, apart from Tony Blair in full televisual mode, accept that the politics of oil influence the geo-politics of the Middle East generally. The announcement that the US is now to move its bases from Saudi Arabia says more about the war aims of Bush than any of his blithe comments. Control over the combined oil reserves of Iraq and Saudi Arabia are critical to the US economy, more particularly to the price of oil. The siting of US bases in Saudi Arabia was one of the key propaganda arguments of Osama bin Laden, indeed many of the September 11th suicide squads were Saudi citizens. Now the US will be freer to act and the rulers of Saudi Arabia will feel more at ease.
Moreover, American and British strategic considerations have long been dominated by the needs of Israel, which gets much of its military spending as a direct subsidy from the USA. The mess created by this policy for the citizens of the region can logically only be `solved’ by one of two ways, either by disarming Israeli aggression or by reinforcing it. The former would minimise US influence in the region. But the present course will result in the sidelining of the two-state solution and be the end of a dream of an independent Palestine. At the core of the Iraq adventure is a desire to leave Israel as the only power in the Middle East region, other than Britain and America, with weapons of mass destruction and to turn the region into a safe market for the goods and services of US trans-national corporations, with the UK acting as a junior partner in the process. In short, an imperialist project.
The entire exercise has been motivated by cynical self-interest. We have rightly learnt to ridicule President Bush himself. But he, and those around him know that a President elected in the land of the free, without popular legitimacy, had little chance of a second term. Not until he took the gift handed to him by September 11th to manufacture support in the face of external hostility. For a British Prime Minister to hitch his wagon to such a despicable set of motivations is sickening. Winning support for the war in the House of Commons was a neat trick, considering that so many Labour MPs said that they would never vote for war unless there was UN approval. What changed their minds? Blair’s threat to make the matter an issue of confidence, implying the very existence of the Government was at stake was central. We must ensure that popular pressure on these waverers is kept up by local campaigning.
`New Labour Pole-Dances Its Way Around US Imperialism’:
Speech by Graham Stevenson to Communist Party Election Rally, Pontypridd, April 2003
When people say that the war is over, I wonder when it started, and when it finished. It seems to me that, ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world has been visited by one long and bloody conflict. If globalisation is an extension of business by other means, is not the new imperialism its political and military arm?
We hear lots of pie in the sky about `humanitarian’ aims. That was the excuse for the war in Kossovo. The news last week that around 400 publicly owned enterprises there are about to be sold off by the UN occupation mission should not surprise us. Serbia, of which Kossovo still legally remains a constituent part, opposes these privatisations. The very concept of the inviolability of the rights of sovereign nations, which was the big gain of the anti-war movement of the 20th century, was first breached when NATO unilaterally abrogated this in its strategy of dismembering Yugoslavia.
Arguably, the fragmentation of the anti-imperialist, socialist and national liberation bloc that once dominated a third or more of the world has allowed the capitalist powers to also fragment. Colin Powell warns France to expect “consequences”. Just as there was a `scramble’ to partition Africa in the latter part of the 19th century, transnational corporations seek to plant their logo on every territory available to them. Have we once again to struggle energetically to prevent economic warfare from becoming bloody?
One encouraging thing gives hope. The international working class movement, in the form of the trade union global federations, is once again largely united. And it is beginning to engage in action, even solidarity, facing up to the assaults of the transnational corporations. In the run up to May Day, it is pleasing to be able to report that the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions has called on its affiliates to support a world day of action on the theme of Dignity at Work, the first time for a very long time that we have seen such a thing.
And the world trade union movement has been solidly anti-war, this time, as the statements of the ICFTU and its individual Trade Secretariats, such as the International Transport Workers Federation, show. As the Vice-President of the 2 million strong European Transport Workers Federation, I am especially proud that its Executive Committee resolutely and unanimously opposed the war in Iraq.
Even the British TUC, under pressure from the Left, shifted significantly from its muted, `all-thing-to-all-men’ approach at the September Congress to as firm a position as you could expect. I look forward to a firmer consolidation of the leftwards swing in the British trade union movement, already so evident in election after election. Such a trend has so bothered the Guardian columnist, Polly Toynbee, 20 years ago one of the foremost media advocates of the anti-Labour splitters of the SDP, that, in a recent article, she sought to draw a distinction between the so-called `awkward squad’ of Bob Crow, Mick Rix and many others and the newly elected General Secretary of the GMB, Kevin Curran and her candidate for the T&G leadership, Jack Dromey.
Sadly, for her, no serious contender for a union election these days can incline to the right. When a Labour Government, a Labour Government, in response to the fire-fighters, can threaten the right to strike, to impose working conditions and introduce casualisation we must surely know that it is time to call a halt. Such a position is now generally accepted across the trade union movement. Even Kevin Curran has not only called for a return to the closed shop, but the abolition of all anti-union laws; he will only back GMB sponsored MPs who endorse union policies and also seeks to democratise his union. Sounds pretty sensible to me, don’t know about Polly Toynbee!
Jack Dromey will not win the T&G General Secretary election, the odds on favourite is clearly Tony Woodley, who she despises as being `awkward’. Well, if the definition of awkwardness is defending jobs in British manufacturing, then count me in. If it’s fighting to preserve the NHS, free at the point of delivery, I’m awkward. If it’s campaigning for an end to the two-tier society, for decent pensions and a minimum wage, for universal and free education, I’m positively bloody-minded! The UK has the highest relative poverty, after the USA, in the developed world. We need a war, too right, a war on poverty! And such a war will need to be global.
These trends to the Left are more than straws in the wind, they are hugely significant. Here in Britain we have a special responsibility. Ever since Britain mortgaged itself to the US to pay for the Second World War, we have been a satellite state. Jack Straw, the corporal to Blair’s role as generalissimo, warns France not to seek a “separate pole in what is a unipolar world”. It’s a true statement that the US military is larger than the entire armed forces of the next six nations combined. But it doesn’t make it right. One of the most satisfying things about the public reaction to this war has been the growing understanding about imperialism, indeed even the use of the word is now almost respectable.
Maybe the increasingly multi-cultural nature of the British population has something to do with it? If your parents or grandparents have experienced the chaos that results from imperialist intervention, you are going to be more open to challenging Britain’s role in the world. I’ve seen the impact that appealing to today’s young people can have. I’m hugely proud of my 16 year old daughter, a member of the Young Communist League, who, in her school, organised 75% of the largely Asian and black school students to strike as war broke out. 5,000 young people walked out of schools and six form colleges in Birmingham that day. That’s a good advert surely for anyone here who can aid the already impressive growth of the YCL in the last 18 months.
Being America’s junior partner seems to have given the New Labour cabinet some really grandiose ideas. Are we to see a breakdown of the peace process in Northern Ireland? As Blair’s arrogance expands, the Unionists sense a return to eminence of their historic veto on any change to the odd status of the six counties – a living memorial to Britain’s first colony. Now, I admit that I have never understood the televisual attraction of Tony Blair. I must be missing something. Because I hear him talk and I wonder what he really thinks. There’s so much hypocrisy about him. Recently, I wondered, when he announced that Sinn Fein was not doing enough to ensure that the IRA was disbanding, had he said: “Now look, Gerry, you know that you can’t just get your way, y’know, with using armed might in an illegal way.”
Whilst New Labour pole-dances its way around US imperialism, the beast begins the process of moulding Iraq to its conception of civilisation. During the war, I read with amazement an interview with a US marine in a village half a mile away from the site of the ancient city of Ur, the site of the discovery of the first evidence of writing in the world. “Gee, these people haven’t even got a MacDonald’s or a Burger King, they got nuttin,” he complained. Well, they’re going to be all right now. Pizza Hut has announced it is to open in Baghdad! In maybe an unconscious slip, Jay Garner, the US ruler of Iraq, says that his government will have “Iraqi faces” in it. At least he didn’t say `brown faces’.
Meanwhile, Iraqi children enjoy themselves by swearing coarsely in Arabic at US troops whilst smiling broadly as if they were being friendly. In a desperate endeavour to stimulate scenes of joy, the lumpen elements of Iraq were encouraged to experience the joys of free enterprise by literally helping themselves to the contents of the nation’s public buildings. But US marines made sure that they protected the Iraqi oil ministry.
So committed to this process of looting were the US forces that they permitted the `liberating’ of the contents of the Iraqi foreign ministry. But not, apparently, a few shelves of documents on a few unimportant countries and two boxes on Britain. There, a `journalist’ for the `Torygraph’ `happened’ to find a single letter, apparently incriminating the most vocal opponent in the UK of the war.
I don’t know if George Galloway has done anything to be ashamed of. I do know that Tony Blair and his cabinet have – one and all, including `Bomber’, sorry, `Brummie’ Short’. Whenever someone says something or does something in politics, I try to apply my class-consciousness to understand the problem. In who’s interests is it for such and such a thing to happen? That’s what I ask myself. Not – do I like or trust this or that person. A wise man with a beard once wrote something about history repeating itself, the first time as tragedy the second time as farce. This surely is truly a case of “Carry on Imperialism”.
You see, we have been here before. The so-called Zinoviev Letter, published in 1924 by the Daily Mail, purported to be instructions to British Communists to prepare for an armed uprising by making the most of their ability then to be members of the Labour Party. This outrage heralded a push to the right for British capitalism. Only a few years ago, government papers were released confirming what Communists had been saying all along – that it was a blatant forgery.
Only some 15 years ago the Daily Mirror published documents `proving’ that Arthur Scargill had taken money from the Libyan leader, Gadaffi, and had used some of it to pay off his own mortgage. The former editor of the Mirror now admits that it was a completely false charge.
Oh, and then there was the `evidence’, leaked by British secret police, that Michael Foot, the former leader of the Labour Party, was a KGB agent, with the improbable name of “Boot”! False again. Now Hans Blix confirms that the so-called `evidence’ that Iraq was seeking to buy 500 tonnes of uranium oxide in the Republic of Niger is a fabrication. This `evidence’ was a key part of Blair’s dossier last September, justifying war, and Bush referred to it as one of his main arguments in his State of the Nation address to the US Congress in January. So arrogant were those in the British security forces who produced this `evidence’ that the name of Niger’s foreign minister, cited in the forgery, had been out of the job for several years.
Well, you can fool some of the people some of the time, but it’s not pleasant to recall that it was Hitler who said that “the broad mass of a nation will more easily fall to a big lie than to a small one”. It’s said that now that the invasion is over, Blair has done the trick of turning public opinion. Yet Labour is contesting only 64% of the seats in the English local elections, compared to the Tories’ 84% – although they had to top up their candidates list by advertising in local newspapers for volunteers! Mainstream politics has disillusioned far too many voters. Me included!
I’m jealous of anyone lucky enough to be able to cast their vote with enthusiasm in the local elections. I wish I could have been able to mark my cross against the name of a Communist candidate. I genuinely had to remind myself that three, four and five generations ago, our forebears had to force change, which only came about incrementally. One person one vote only came to Britain in 1945. Here in Wales, such force for democratic change was, at times, even violent – but it was always mass based. An understanding of the potency of such a politics is at the heart of the strategic programme of the Communist Party, the British Road to Socialism. As the Chartist newspaper put it in 1852: “irresistible power – the power of PEACE armed with knowledge, before which War turns pale and flies!”
Contemplating this, the fact that I only had the choice of voting Labour, Liberal or Tory made it easier. As did the fact that the Labour candidate was known for being untainted with the corruption that so bedevils local politics. Even so, it rankled to voting for the party of war. I was asked to vote for litter-busting squads, railings in entries and CCTV cameras on the main streets. Don’t mention the war, then?
It cannot go on this way. I for one do not accept that the game has been lost. The Labour Party is just still recoverable, whilst so ever the trade union link remains, along with their voting strength. Watch out for the next TUC Congress, even more so the 2004 Congress, as the new breed of General Secretaries take office just before a General Election. A new leadership in the T&G, certainly the most significant of Labour’s affiliates, will call a separate conference of like-minded unions together to reclaim the party as the mass electoral vehicle for the British working people.
The project to turn Labour into a pale version of the US Democratic Party has still not succeeded. At this moment in time the transformation of New Labour into a reforming Labour government – even a rather moderate one – would be a progressive step forward. As Harry Pollitt wrote: “the abandonment of the Socialist aim is the road to destruction of the labour movement.” There is a better way, but it needs inspiration, confidence and understanding to win the conditions for advancement; namely, and finally, again quoting Pollitt: “a people ready to fight for it, a capitalism that cannot go on in the old way and a … leadership that can really organise and lead”.
`Globalise Labour’s Solidarity’: Speech To Communist University of Britain 2003
Recently, I was part of the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF) delegation to the 10th Congress of the European Trade Union Confederation. The ETUC, founded 30 years ago, represents 60 million workers in 35 countries, the ETF 2½ million of these. The ETF is the European arm of the International Transport Workers Federation (the ITF). The ETUC Congress is a big, rather anarchic affair. 80 organisations were represented at the Congress, 11 of which were sectoral bodies such as the ETF, the rest being national confederations of trade union bodies across all national states in the Continent of Europe, both EU and non-EU. This was Secretary-General, Emilio Gabaglio’s last Congress and the first for his successor in this role, John Monks, formerly British TUC General Secretary.
Now, the main slogan of the 10th Congress was “Make Europe Work for the People”. Given that attendance by some trade union confederations, notable the Austrians, was disrupted by necessary preoccupation with the mass struggle for decent jobs and pensions, the key theme of Congress was more than well illustrated. The Austrian General Strike was echoed by a massive German DGB (“TUC”) demonstration on pension rights, a repeat of the mass mobilisations of the Italian working class on social security rights and the stoppage of the entire French transport system against Government welfare cuts. This, then, was the core theme of the Congress: mobilisation of the movement in defence of the peoples’ rights. John Monks even declared himself ready to build a future strategy of taking the ETUC to the streets over higher wages and the defence of pensions.
Meeting in Prague, the Congress could hardly fail to focus on the interests of Central and East European (CEE) workers. The Czech Republic expects to be able to join the EU next year and a significant number of states in this region are lining up to join the ‘club’. Personally, my main worry was that there seemed to be an incredible level of naivety about the future positivity of the European social model: from the almost plaintive eagerness of affiliates from these states to join the EU, to the general assumption that the quality of the European labour market will always be revised upwards.
The backcloth to all this is the global free flow of capital and its demand for the utmost flexibility of labour in servicing this, conceding only the most limited set of accompanying rights. Yet the final version of the Congress Action Programme contained an essential contradiction. The EU’s adoption of the “Lisbon Strategy” for full employment, based on a ‘knowledge-based’ society and annual growth of 3%, is welcomed and reaffirmed. But the main reason for impending recession is considered to be inertia – the Commission is implicitly criticised as being inactive, even inept, in promoting stronger fiscal and political strategies to avoid economic regression. It is as if the EU has somehow “misunderstood” the European Social Model, in its search for competitiveness based on deregulation. Moreover, the ETUC posits the main objection as being that such an approach, of deregulation, is “economically ineffective in the long run”.
The Governments of the EU Member States and the European Commission place much hope in expansion to the east, or ‘enlargement’ in the jargon. But the main reason that the Lisbon Strategy is floundering is not a matter of ineffectiveness but an unwillingness to challenge the vested interests of the European based trans-national corporations. These seek an expanded market of sufficient size to enable a boost to profits, resulting in increased investment and a consequent sharpening of a competitive edge that may be employed against North American based TNCs. Placing the trust of organised labour in this unspoken strategy is at best problematic.
The ETUC has engaged in intense pressure to formulate social consensus on workplace related issues. The position whereby negotiation of supra-national agreements, that can become common legislative rights or obligations, is clearly a unique feature of the European industrial relations framework. But is it working in the interests of workers? The workplace information and consultation rights directive has been extended but looks like being variably applied in Member States, not the least in the UK. Two voluntary agreements have been reached with European employers’ federations on regulating telework and promoting training but are beset with many difficulties on enforcement. An agreement on temporary agency work was not forthcoming and enormous challenges lie ahead on negotiations on a stress at work directive and a common position on corporate governance.
It is not surprising that Europe wide bargaining has faltered. There is in truth no single model of European industrial relations. In joint meetings, the French CGT has rightly declared itself worried at the T&G’s recent past justification of “partnership” as a version of the peace treaty between labour and capital that union recognition implies. The T&G is set to be clearer about so-called partnership after electing a new leader. However, the CGT conducts industrial relations through the agency of contested elections for state sponsored works councils, surely a mark of incorporated unionism? Moreover, in the southern countries of Europe, this widespread system results in low union density, membership approximating to activism. Yet union victories in such elections over non-union candidates and popular sympathy for mass strike action points to a real depth of support for trades unionism. In Germany, a similar, so-called `co-determination’ system results in a more serious ability for non-union candidates to defeat union opponents in elections for works councils. If strike action is always ponderously slow it is at least thoroughly prepared for.
Contradictory consequences arise. In the case of the Skychefs dispute in the UK, involving T&G members dismissed by an aviation catering company, the fact that it was ultimately owned by Lufthansa was significant in achieving an element of resolution, following the intervention of German union-elected worker directors. In a more recent dispute in Brussels airport, arising from the anti-union dismissal of a trade union activist by air-freight parcels firm DHL, the response of affiliates to an ITF orchestrated campaign, to prevent the re-routing of parcels across the whole of Europe, was coloured in each state by its own unique system of industrial relations.
The British organised a workplace meeting in protest at DHL’s treatment of their Belgian colleagues. (It was the best we could do under our draconian legislation.) As for the Germans, DHL had secured an agreement from the works council two weeks before to handle extra parcels in Cologne, in anticipation of an unexplained expected surge in volume. Since their unwitting agreement was subject to statutory enforcement, the union representatives on the board were unable to find a way out of handling the scab parcels. Meanwhile, the French DHL workers simply went on immediate solidarity strike!
The argument that the European industrial relations system is somehow `better’ than that of other parts of the world is seductive but misplaced. Capital adapts to the circumstances it faces. Its strategy in the face of the consciousness-raising potential of militant trade unionism is to create frameworks that force trade unions to embrace the prevailing economic system. Some once hoped that European Works Councils would offer the prospect of some element of co-ordination amongst workers in the same transnational corporation (TNC). But most have gone the way of the car industry’s World Corporation Councils, evolved as part of the 1970s ‘Detroit Psychology’ of industrial relations. That’s to say, top heavy, bureaucratised talking shops, which have never achieved multi-national bargaining. In contrast, despite recent revitalisation of some American unions, industrial relations in that country are still dominated by a legalistic incorporation of trades unionism. Without a clear adherence to the need for an independent role for trade unions, perhaps all industrial relations models inevitably lead to encorporation in one form or another?
In the UK, in the recent past, capital has engaged in a deliberate strategy of excluding labour from the realm of the State. It has been perceived that real dangers existed in the policy of corporatist inclusion, which predominated in the post war years. Now, a strategy of incorporation at the lowest level has been embarked upon. So-called ‘new management techniques’ are predicated upon the presumption of an ability to win ideological adherence to the capitalist system. Quality circles, delayered management, profit centre bargaining, deregulation and even employee share holding are all sought where unions refuse the new role mapped out for them. Performance and Profit Related Pay, personal appraisals; all are part of the desire to avoid the obvious truth. That capital and labour are mutually antagonistic.
Finance capital, in the face of the rise of democracy, has acclimatised itself to a new strategy, one of placing the nation state at the disposal of transnational business interests. Power block rivalries become ever more evident. Whilst the all too obvious democratic deficit within the EU, works to alienate ordinary people from its institutions. Relying on a strategy of supporting `our’, supposedly benign, European version of imperialism is as misplaced as an uncritical allegiance to the new American Empire. The gloomy reality is that a new era of absolution is potentially upon us, if we will allow it.
Imperialism has moved into a new stage of development, in which formal ownership of external territory is not deemed necessary. But market hegemony, through deregulation and privatisation, is vital to the TNCs. These are invariably allied to a particular nation state, but are active in many. The model for this has been American imperialism, which historically only weakly followed the classic 19th century European colonial mechanism. George Meaney, the leader of the American AFL/CIO as long ago as 1974 made the position clear:-
“You can’t dictate to a country …. unless you control their means of production ….. whether you control them through ideological methods or control them by brute force, you must control them.”
The former International Trade Secretariats, now renamed Global Union Federations (GUFs), are a form of international trade union structure across a range of sectors – transport, metals, chemicals and mining, food etc. etc. These have now long lost the cold war mentality. In practical ways, they are obliged to respond to the needs of their affiliates in global terms. They provide for the possibility of directing the internationalisation of the trade union movement into global dimensions, less inclined to “fraternal” relations and more organically linked to real working class solidarity on issues of direct concern to union members.
A GUF such as the ITF, once a quagmire of security force activity, has found itself impelled towards a core strategy of building global solidarity. It congress policy, entitled “Mobilising Solidarity” has resulted in the organisation being almost exclusively devoted towards that. Clearly, the international nature of the transport industry has lent itself to this development. For example, dockers throughout the world have historically acted to safeguard the interests of exploited seafarers. But transforming the GUFs into centres of struggle against the worst excesses of TNCs and moulding their role into one of a qualitatively different kind requires more strategic thinking than most trade unions have yet engaged in.
Interestingly, workers have practically spontaneously found their way towards engagement in international solidarity. The dismissed Liverpool dockers, in their herculean two year dispute, arising from their dismissal for refusing to cross a secondary picket line, found their own way, via the internet and e-mail, to stimulating solidarity action in almost forty ports across the world on more than one occasion. The most effective day of action was when the ITF made an official call for support, although ultimately the organisation adopted a low-key approach, since its relevant British affiliate was concerned at the consequences of major damages. Nonetheless, a positive by-product of this experience has been the conscious development of direct links between workers in different countries employed by the burgeoning TNCs in public transport.
Members of the Teamsters Union in First America’s school bus network are instantly better aware of, say, the T&G’s current strike in First South Yorkshire Buses as they are of similar activities in their own country. A campaign designed to embarrass and harass a TNC such as Stagecoach over its failure to provide decent workplace facilities in its Hong Kong subsidiary (we’re talking of bucket for toilets here!) was waged by East London bus workers. A qualitative change has come upon the ITF in the past decade in the face of capital’s onslaught. Global alliances of airlines have resulted in global solidarity of aviation unions. In the British Airways dispute of 1999, our inability to engage in secondary action in this country was offset by the grounding of its planes by solidarity in Zimbabwe, the US, Finland and elsewhere. The constitution of the Finnish state still provides for the right to pay when engaging in international solidarity strikes!
The truth is that we need a thorough-going process of internationalising the labour movement. Unless this is pursued with some ideological clarity, it will degenerate into interesting travel experiences. Capital has always been international, but technological developments have enabled it to pursue a more focused global strategy. Serious trades unionists need now to be clearer than ever that effective domestic bargaining always has an international dimension. Whilst the uneven and messy development of capitalism does not make regional trading blocs a good substitute for confronting capital, either at the domestic or even the global level.
Finally, negotiating rules of engagement between labour and capital does not alter the essential truth of their antagonistic relationship. Proletarian internationalism is as essential as ever. It’s a case of `Solidarity Forever’! The First Workers’ International, founded by Marx and Engels, pursued – amongst other things – a policy of preventing the use of imported labour to strike break. Global Union Federations have the potential to make practical solidarity between workplaces across the globe a real and vital force in the 21st Century.
`Militancy is the next step – but in itself it is not enough’: Speech to the 46th Congress of the Communist Party – 2002
The political, economic and legal framework of the past 20 years has engendered a cautious way of working amongst trade unions, timid even. What the TUC has called “the missing millions” of unorganised workers will not be mobilised without a bolder approach.
Many unions are preoccupied with providing new and adventurous welfare benefits. Yet it is the prospect of organised defence at the workplace, which features most prominently in the list of reasons given by new members in surveys of why they join.
It’s very simple really. When unions are known for standing up for workers’ rights, then they become strong. Opinion polls tell us that the trade union movement was unpopular in the 1970s. Yet, paradoxically, that’s when it was at its strongest, 12 million compared to 7 million today.
Clear signs of life are now out there! The FBU conference decided to gear up for a national battle on pay. Despite recent strange developments, the PCS conference earlier called for a national TUC demonstration on public services. The movement continues to affirm the importance of the trade union link with the Labour Party. For to do otherwise would be to leave the field clear for anti-working class politics, effectively for trade unions to retreat to non-political insularity or ultra-leftism, resulting in fragmentation.
Union after union conference has called for activists not to desert Labour, but to reclaim it for the left. ASLEF and the RMT have rejected the “gesture politics” of walking away and BECTU rejected a call for a referendum on disaffiliation. Even the Tribune Group has been re-launched, after a decade in the doldrums, with the aim of reflecting Labour’s core values.
Friedrich Engels once referred to the British labour movement as a “sleeping giant”. Clearly, it has been dozing fitfully during the long period of reaction of the past two decades. A palpable and growing mood is now evident amongst union members. There is no shortage of courage, but cynicism and mistrust abounds. Even so, there is an increasing willingness to take strike action and join trade unions. But workers in struggle very quickly sense when their dispute is poorly resourced, or when their union is uncomfortable with it. They feel untrustworthiness or mendaciousness. The cry of “back to the unions” will fall on deaf ears, without honest and effective trades unionism. That surely is the basis for the recent spate of firmer support in union elections for left-leaning candidates.
Let’s be clear, unions are essentially defence mechanisms at the workplace. They are not revolutionary organisations. Yet, because they confront capitalism at its weakest point, the capital-labour relationship, they offer the real prospect for becoming (as Engels also put it) “schools of war”. For Communists, experience and history advises us that any hoped-for resurgence of the anti-monopoly struggle can be discounted if it relies on the disparate, single-issue campaigns that so attracted young people in the 90s.
Winning the trade unions to contract into both economic and political activity is key to welding these isolated, yet progressive, social forces to an anti-monopoly alliance. Imagine the effect on the recent, powerful anti-war demonstrations if the official trade union movement had seriously mobilised in support.
The Party has a decisive role to play here. We are, after all, the original anti-capitalist movement! Limited though our resources are, we have a choice to make on how and where we apply them. We need to win and develop a new generation of militants to understanding the dynamic role of a revolutionary party. Without such a priority, the thousands of brave, but isolated individuals who daily labour to shift the movement to the left will ultimately see their efforts dissipated.
We have to say to class-conscious workers everywhere: “No matter how left-wing you think you are, without being part of the Communist Party you are simply a disorganised protestor!” For we bring a qualitative difference to trade union struggle by virtue of the robustness of our ideological and organisation practice. Let’s be proud of our strengths, especially the clarity of our strategic programme, the British Road to Socialism. Where else can you find such an insight into how the working class movement can see its way through the present fog of reformism, revisionism and collaboration?
If there’s thing the Party should do between this and the next Congress, it is to focus on engaging more of our existing comrades in the battle to wake this slumbering power. Secondly, we need to reach out to those outside of our ranks who are ready and willing to come on board. Militancy, as many are discovering, is the next step. But in itself it is not enough.
The Communist Party has a proud history of engagement in the labour movement. There is a reservoir of respect there for us – still. Let’s build on that, before it is too late! We need more pamphlets, more leaflets, more meetings directed towards workers in struggle. A Party member should be known as the best agent for trade union recruitment that there is. More of our resources need to be focused on union conferences and events. We need more comrades to become more organised and more active, where it can really count.
For such a course will bring us closer to the mass of the working class. It will directly aid in reviving the strategy of the anti-monopoly alliance. Historically, when the Party has been closest to the organised working class movement it too has been strongest. Comrades, I support the motion as the start of something really big.
`The economic basis for capital’: T&G London Morning Star Readers and Supporters’ Group – May 2000
What are trade unions for? Marx and Engels saw them as excellent “schools of war”. They show the working class how to organise; they sharpen political consciousness and militancy. But if they engage in mere haggling with capital over the price of labour how do we reconcile this with the metaphoric need to pick up the gravedigger’s tools? Capital, and the state – its state – saw labour as a revolutionary threat in the early 19th century. But British capitalism, under pressure, evolved a new system that encouraged unions to become part of the process; part of the problem not part of the solution.
British unions evolved separately from the evolution of working class political parties and they show the stamp of that. As British imperialism flourished, they too flourished but the underlying weakness of commodity production, along with the increasing crisis of British imperialism evident since the end of the First World War, has provided for a historic tug between two philosophies; revolutionary and reformist. The former stresses the need for class and political consciousness and the irreconcilability of capital and labour; the need for a rupture in the political power basis, both state and civil society. The latter stresses harmony in the challenges brought by irreconcilability, moderation and co-operation in dealing with capital. Modest methods and modest aims. Reformist ideology has seen this co-operation to benefit labour. Capital met this challenge half way but ruthlessly rejected revolutionary challenges.
The process of democratic reform had once marginally narrowed the scope for commodity production. Notably in socialised health, housing and education. But incorporation also was largely based upon national relations. The unions were harnessed to ‘police’ their members. Centralised control was looked for to weaken local power. The roots of the Shop Stewards’ Movement were located back in the 1915-17 period with links to syndicalist upsurge of 1911. Before even that unions were local in character and the dichotomy between ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ movements largely absent. That localisation made sense when capital was also largely local. Workers knew who ‘their’ capitalist was, often in person. In two spurts of qualitative and quantitative change before and after the Second World War, the Shop Stewards’ Movement grew phenomenally.
So, by the time it was clear that British imperialism was in rapid decline and during a period of worldwide capitalist downturn we observe a watershed in labour-capital-state relations. The period 1966-9 revealed a view process underway. A massive growth in public sector and white-collar employment (the proletarianisation of the bulk of British society). This was borne out of a technological change in the nature of work.
Even more, labour began to contest the power of the state, often from within the state. Between 1970 and 1978 there were no less than 25 major national public sector strikes. Five states of emergency were declared between 1970 and 1974 (almost half of those ever declared!). The Labour Government of the 60s had sought to reinforce encorporation by proposing state control (‘In Place of Strife’) and had sought a wide-ranging review of the official-unofficial tension in unions (The Donovan Report). In the 1970s, the Tories tried a firmer approach with the Industrial Relations Act, whilst Labour tried voluntarism with the Social Contract. Initially, this had pretended to be a political settlement giving unions a real say in Government policy for the sacrifice of submitting to state control over wages. But it degenerated into merely the latter.
The period was characterised by high expectations from workers. A strong degree of class-consciousness coupled with notions of solidarity. Political, even revolutionary consciousness was high. How gains are won and perceived determines whether unions are political. Trade unions are only genuinely political in so far as they address the need to transform society and in particular the economic system. As Engels put it: “something more is needed than trade unions and strikes to break the power of the ruling class”. Unless motivated, unions will normally only act in the political sphere to protect their members’ interests by placing demands on the State. This generates the response of neutralising their potential for instability by integrating them into the system. Periodically, workers will act in a spontaneous fashion. Without theoretical analysis workers inevitably slide into trying to improve their conditions within the system. Only strong organisation, with class-conscious ideas, can enable this analysis to be injected into sectional consciousness, making it an obligation for the left to contract into the labour movement if it is to be serious about its aims. Not that the organised working class is by any means the only section of society available to be thus motivated. But the autonomy of workers’ workplace organisation is deeply alarming to the system.
A single struggle in one workplace to win shorter hours is a purely economic movement. But a social movement to force legal controls over hours becomes political. Yet the movement has always known betrayal, poor leadership and corruption in this process. The estimate of Trotsky and others that bureaucracy is inevitably conservative, largely due to its privileged economic status, misses the central point of the duality of the trade unions. Structurally buttressing capitalism at its weakest moments, yet knocking away at the keystone in the next. The tension between achievable reform and demands unachievable within the system informs this process.
As long as unions are only about improving the present, it is almost inevitable that union leaders will be forced into the pattern of secret diplomacy. Vital to a regeneration strategy for British trade unionism is the injection of political insight into the movement. We will not see political change that benefits the working class unless there is a mobilisation process of our class. Winning millions of people for action is difficult but by no means unprecedented. Ideas become reality when they assume the virtue of common sense.
The prevailing ‘common sense’ of the epoch is always the ideology of the ruling circles. It was ‘common sense’ that so-called uneconomic mines be closed. ‘Common sense’ that public transport subsidies be slashed. What is it that maintains the huge and unsustainable farming subsidies? Not common sense, surely. Arguably class identity and common interest of capital are at work; the same interest that impels corporations to seek enormous grants to maintain or open production, or more likely, assembly facilities.
But there can be confusion over the common interest of capital and labour. Yet the tension between reform and revolution has expressed itself in the development of a strategy of encorporation of labour, i.e. corporatist relations between capital, the state and labour. This emerged first during the First World War, a Ministry of Labour only being created in 1915. Unions were brought into the capital-state axis inch by inch over the next few decades.
By 1937, Ernest Bevin was able to boast at the TUC that “the trade unions movement has become an integral part of the State”. By the late 1940s, unions were represented on no less than 37 tripartite bodies. Yet there was hostility from the CBI’s ancestor (the oddly named FBI!) when the then President of the Board of Trade, one Harold Wilson, sought to bring unions into a state planning role. Even so, in a truncated version of the strategy, the Tories set up the joint NEDC in 1962 with a brief to concentrate on “efficiency”. In a piecemeal fashion, a system of tripartite relations was set up.
The post war period saw concern over local wage drift, though shop floor control over piecework and productivity, which became a double-edged sword. Between 1948 and 1978 there were no less than 15 Government pay policies: statutory freezes, pay pauses, percentage limits, flat rate increases, with unions often collaborating in a process of policing their members.
Whilst the period 1919-20 and 1026 are the sharpest examples of class-consciousness veering towards political and even revolutionary consciousness, 1972 represents the most recent instance. The struggle against State controls over trade union rights reached its height in the inspiring campaign to free the five dockers imprisoned in Pentonville jail that summer. Despite it being a holiday period, ¼ million dockers, print, bus, car, road haulage, construction, mining and steel workers engaged in one or two days strike action. An example of a spontaneous response harvested and orchestrated by revolutionaries, predominately the Communist Party. The clearest demonstration of how intense the mood was is that the TUC General Council voted 18 to 7 for an official General Strike for Monday 31 July 1072. The Labour Party NEC endorsed the call without dissent, Wilson being absent from the meeting! The subsequent release by the Tory Government of the dockers let the TUC off the hook. Even so, the Coventry and Birmingham car and engineering industries still came out en bloc, so fierce was the mood. Five months earlier a mass strike in Birmingham had seen tens of thousands join a miners’ picket line at the Saltley Gas Works, closing the operation. Effectively the Industrial Relations Act was dead. As Bert Ramelson, the CP’s Industrial Organiser, put it this law had been “rendered inoperable”. This, coupled with successful Dockers’ and Miners’ strikes was sufficient to bring Labour back into office.
The State learned quickly from this. The Civil Contingencies Unit was set up in 1972. Three years later, in opposition, the Tories backed the Ridley Plan that sought privatisation, the downgrading of the Welfare State and a breach in labour-state relations. Professor Hayek gave intellectual credence to free market ideology. “Unions insist on wages higher than the free market”, he pontificated. Since unions are coercive, they need effective coercion to moderate their demands.
The period from 1979 saw the State playing a more obvious role, with the Government now seemingly neutral. The policy, civil service and the courts did the job for them. Key was the assault on British Leyland, beginning with the sacking of leading Communist Derek Robinson. There then followed a litany of one by one sectional assaults on state employees: Steel; the Civil Service; the NHS, BR, Water, Telecom, Mining (twice), Print, Docks.
The background to this was the declining rate of profit, the end of the Empire and the structural weakness of capital. Macro-economic matters were at the base. There was essentially, a world recession from the early mid-1970s. The trade union response to this State mobilisation was initially on the surface strong, exemplified by the decision at the special conference in Wembley in 1982 to defy anti-union laws. But the State took time to move inch-by-inch and ideologically weakened Labour in the process. A retreat to sectional consciousness and business unionism occurred. The courts wore down resistance.
The miners’ strike of 1984-5 saw the full role of the State in strikebreaking activity. The entire panoply of the structure devoted to this is still available, should the need arise. 12,000 were arrested in the course of the dispute. 14 million extra police hours were expended. The total cost to the State, including electricity subsidy, was £3 billion. The Thatcherite period saw, not the end of encorporation but the removal of the strategy to the local level, all the more to boost sectional consciousness, as distinct from class consciousness, in the unions.
We are still largely with this period, but both Major and Blair moved to a moderated version that has tentatively allowed national unions to move marginally away from the sidelines. This phase of encorporation is markedly similar to the period from the late 1920s to the mid 1930s in this respect at least. It is characterised by intensive theories of management techniques that seek to win ideological adherence to capitalism. The point is that patterns of industrial relations emerge appropriate to periods of restructuring.
A historical analysis of British unionism indicates around a dozen periods of upswing, downswing and transition over the last 150 years. Each down and upswing has lasted about two or three decades, with special transition periods leading in and out of them. We can observe what is truly new and what is merely a re-run of earlier experience. Workers struggle to defend gains at the end of a downswing and strive to win them back at the beginning of an upswing. Major strike waves tend to be associated with the former and minor strike waves with the latter. Only modest rises in union membership occur during upswings and losses are registered in downswings. (We are familiar with this!!)
Two big questions: are we about to enter a transition to an upswing via a slump or not? Or has capitalism got to the point where it can control itself indefinitely. Certainly it has shown remarkable resilience. But the pattern of history may be too strong a piece of evidence. The new century before us may offer enormous opportunities if we recognise that unionisation it made more popular by strategies to reclaim lost gains. Union membership has historically phenomenally risen during strike waves at between 5 and 10 times the growth during upswings. Economic climate is not everything but struggle is.
A workforce emerging from a downswing is significantly different from the one that enters the downswing. A generalisation change is repeatedly at work in union history. Academic studies have well established that members and officers of unions usually have different expectations. Meshing those expectations is key. About 3,000 fulltime officers, whose average age is nearer the 50-age bracket than 40, staff British unions. But this means that they first entered the labour force in the late 60s and early 70s, around the time of the last great strike wave. Not only had the leadership of unions during the 1980s and 1990s been through a period of demoralisation, arising from two major recessions and five deadly pieces of anti-union legislation, they were generally aged 50-65 and had entered the labour force in the 1950s consensus period. Their perceptions of cataclysmic and irreversible decline (the last two decades) led them to be receptive to the compromising and defeatist philosophy to which the movement’s leadership is historically inclined. The question of leadership – or agency – is fundamental. An emerging leadership stamped with an outlook acquired in a different era can make a difference if (a) it acquires political insight and (b) it can chime with the current generation of 20-40 year olds who dominate the labour process. If it becomes evident that the New Left Majority in the unions is defined by these factors, they will lead a newly confident working class to action.
The re-emerging period presents us with many opportunities. `Globalisation’, or more accurately, a more intensive internationalisation of the commodity production economy, is a step towards a more socialised system, which had inherent contradictions by virtue of private ownership. A paralleled process of internationalism of the trade union movement is under way and clearly we have to be more international in our work.
Observations that class divisions have been minimised are sociologically driven and fail to recognise that the scope of the working class is now greater than it had ever been, if we define this as working for a wage and not living on interest from capital. Since this huge majority no longer live in communities directly connected with huge enterprises it raises the question of how unions relate to workers. Community orientated trades unionism is a must and this raises big questions now that the giant fortresses of labour are now atypical.
The nature of work is now largely fragmentary production and decentralised services. Low pay, high labour turnover and flexible hours are the norm. This is not new. The labour process prior to the long period of corporatism was similar. The absence of the classic Fordist workplace simply reinforces the need for a more inventive approach. But opportunities arise to make gains out of the contemporary labour process, especially leisure time.
The end of the concept of the Family Wage – so intrinsic to encorporation – and the entry of women into the labour process in such large numbers urges the feminisation of unions. Unorganised workers are predominantly women and youth. Reformist trades unionism has been guilty of a historic neglect of both sections of the working class. Ethnic minority workers have similarly suffered, albeit that their adherence to trade unionism has been more spontaneous. Even so, their spirit of self-identity so evident in the community has hardly been tapped.
The last 20 years have seen unions increasingly accept that bargaining has to be about more than pay. Unions have been forced to accept that they must seek legitimacy for the campaigns. Tactics have become more creative.
So, reasons to be cheerful: internationalism, community, flexibility working for us, feminisation and a wider bargaining agenda. We are on the verge of maybe, just maybe, being able to turn to tide. Organisation of the unorganised has to be our watchword. But we need a focused strategy in this period of opportunity.
The classic, uninventive, theory of union mobilisation sees a five-fold process.
1. Groups of workers to have an interest
2. Unions seek to mobilise
3. Then organise
4. Then seek opportunities
5. Then find effective and realisable forms of action.
But a more politically specific framework inclines us to think of:
1. Injustice – a perception rising above dissatisfaction
2. Agency – the need for leadership
3. Identity – as a sense of a distinct group
4. Attribution – an explanation for the circumstances
The former relates to a theory that seeks to locate Trades Unionism in exploring employer responses to marker pressures and channelling that into collective bargaining. The latter locates unions into focusing on achieving a sense of injustice and channelling that into group solidarity. Newer Unionism with a political edge to it?
Regular patterns in prices, output and profits across countries approximating to 25-year upswings and 25-year downswings are evident in any historical analysis. There are often transition periods of half or a whole decade across the divides. An understanding of this helps situate labour-capital relations in a historical perspective, delineating what is new and what echoes earlier restructuring periods. The period of movement from one to the other releases struggle and contention to defend gains, even to reach for new gains by employers and employees. Major strike waves represent attempts to hang on to gains; minor strike waves attempts to resurrect them. Such an analysis is not necessarily widely accepted but common ground is that the world economy has seen the following patterns of up and downswings:
Late 1840s – Early 1870s
Growth of unions
Late 1870s – Early 1890s
Union growth static or decline
Struggle of New Unions
Early 1900s – World War I
Growth of shop stewards’ movement.
World War I – World War II
Unions in decline and then static
Growth of shop stewards’ movement and left politics
World War II – Early 1970s
Encorporation v rank and fileism
The state challenges unions
TU retrenchment and decline
Static unionism due to capitalist offensive. Invigorated unionism next?
There are major strike waves observable towards the end of upswings (1869-1875, 1910-20, 1968-1974) and of downswings. (1889-1893,1935-1948). The transition periods between upswing and downswing are historically the turning points for union growth. Even more dramatic is that these are always associated with dramatic ruptures to the prevailing patterns of industrial relations. A positive economic climate is not necessarily the key to understanding the behaviour of labour.
Clusters of innovation are present as well as periodic arises in rates of profit. The mid 19th century upswing was associated with the development of steam power; the turn of the century upswing with gas and electricity; the mid 20th century upswing with nuclear power and automation. The puzzle in this is why the electronic revolution is associated with the late 20th century downswing. Only a political answer must apply. Each upswing has seen stupendous growth in labour’s power, especially with the existence by 1960 of a powerful world socialist bloc and a revolutionary liberation movement unfolding in the Third World. In each downswing, it has been the ability of the working class to minimise the effect of defeats and the learn lessons from them that has been decisive to the ability to come out of the downswing in the transitional period fighting.
Unions now need to adopt a political philosophy in which such understanding can be more comprehensively grasped. Strategies that fail to recognise the nature of the economic system that prevails will come to naught. Strategies that recognise history and learn from experience have the capacity to succeed. To the extent that we succeed in injecting such insights into the labour movement, we shall succeed in rebuilding organisations of the working class able to turn challenges into opportunities.
`The Challenge For The Left – Trade Unions And Society In The 21st Century’ Speech To Communist Trades Unionists weekend school (1997)
Democracy is both the challenge and the solution for the left’s apparent powerlessness after two decades of reaction. It is our only salvation, the only recourse we have to an effective political challenge to the capitalist consensus. It has always been thus. As far back as Cromwell’s revolutionary army, the demand of ordinary folk has been for democracy a means of achieving a fair and equitable society. The rich and powerful have always feared this. As Cromwell’s son-in-law put it democracy would mean that “the majority will take my riches”!
It was no accident that the most thorough-going advocates of democracy at the time of the Civil War, were called ‘Levellers’. The spirit of wanting to achieve equity goes deep into the psyche of the left and walks hand-in-hand with a determination to achieve this by a collective approach to ownership. As the New Model Army’s advocates had it “nothing will go right….until property is held in common”. Their political heirs, two centuries later, the Chartists sought much the same thing: “democracy not only in government, but throughout every industrial department of society”.
We think of ourselves as the cradle of democracy, but rather we should realise that the nations of these isles were the first to see organised political power used by the mass of people to achieve democratic aims. Moreover, that democracy came to Britain rather later than an popular imagination has it. Universal suffrage only came to my great-grandfathers, whilst their wives had to wait for their daughters to enjoy the fruits of electoral democracy. Bismarckian Germany introduced the popular vote seven decades before Britain. Whilst our own rights were only achieved after intense struggle. The vote was only grudgingly and gradually conceded after ordinary people made it clear that the right would be extracted: “peacefully if we can, forcibly if we must”. But democracy was never any abstract ambition.
Many Chartists saw the struggle as a “knife and fork” question.The notion of adult universal suffrage is the starting point of modern democracy – it pre-supposes an equal say for everyone in public affairs, despite the plain fact that we are by no means equal human beings. And yet the voice of the electorate is heard only periodically. This is part-time democracy. Capitalism has learnt to dominate civil society, to mould mass opinion to its will, in an endeavour to avoid such earthy considerations. The lesson for the whole Left arising from the experience of the 20th century is that socialism without democracy is deficient and democracy without socialism is sterile. The 21st century will however surely offer us the prospect of extending democracy from politics into economics, if only we will grasp the opportunity.
Sophisticated social and economic analysis is not necessary to judge that the overwhelming majority of Britain‘s population relies directly or indirectly on salaries and wages for their livelihood. Class interest can easily be discerned by life-styles which six-figure ‘earnings’ bring! “The main cause of poverty is that the rich are very rich”! This simple, obvious and yet profound statement was made by a right wing Labour Cabinet Minister 30 years ago. How different things are now, as all rush before the hideous sweep of the maxim that `there is no alternative’.
A strategy of low inflation, low public expenditure, low tax rates and continued Labour market flexibility may be good for business. But is it good for ordinary people? It is a commonplace that the British character is strongly motivated by a desire for equity, fairness. The moral authority, by which capitalist society dominates, conflicts with this notion. Each generation develops its own “common sense” It is apparently “common sense” that we cannot ‘pay ourselves’ that which we cannot afford. That the country can only sustain a limit number of inhabitants. That a country without a highly developed set of armed forces is defenceless. You can probably think of you own list of “common sense”. But there are notions that no longer apply so ‘self-evidently’. Britons no longer ‘rule the waves’. It is not considered very fair to have to pay for unexpected and extensive medical treatment. A common sense consensus if the overwhelming majority of the British people needs to be fought for that is based on a high waged, ‘lightly trained, productive workforce, with rights and responsibilities to and from society at large, Of all rights which capitalism cannot guarantee, it is the right to work; the right to obtain sustenance and livelihood which most eludes it.
The victory accorded by Labour in the General Election is a turning point, not because it represents general recognition of this new common sense, but because it provides an opportunity to tackle the ideological struggle for such an acceptance into new terrain. Partnership between unions and employers could mean many different things to many people. If it constitutes acceptance by capitalism of the right of workers to collectively bargain, to independently combine, it represents an enormous step forward for democracy. If it signifies that big business concedes the role of unions in representing the immediate and often conflicting interests of workers, it enables us to build and extend our role. Extending the range of issues which are collectively bargained into business decisions themselves does not necessarily imply theoretical accommodation with the capitalism system.
In the recent past, capital has engaged in a deliberate strategy of excluding Labour from the realm of the State. It has been perceived that real dangers existed in the policy of corporatist inclusion, which predominated in the post war years. A strategy of incorporation at the lowest level has been embarked upon. So-called ‘new management techniques’ are predicated upon the presumption of an ability to win ideological adherence to the capitalist system. Quality circles, delayered management, employee share holding and deregulation are all sought where unions refuse the new role mapped out for them. Performance and Profit Related Pay, personal appraisals; all are part of the desire to avoid the obvious truth. That capital and labour are always potentially mutually antagonistic, in the context of private ownership of the means of production and service.
Finance capital, in the face of the rise of democracy, has acclimatised itself to a new strategy, one of placing the nation state at the disposal of supranational business interests. Power block rivalries still exist, but the picture is contradictory and diffuse. The unspoken question behind the Maastrict Treaty is: `can the EU find any other way to compete with Japan and the USA other than by depressing wage levels and welfare rights? The European Monetary Union has the potential to become a deeply reactionary axis, around which conflicting interests will spin. As it stands at the moment, the limited achievements of democracy will not really extend to the EMU and its ramification. The gloomy reality is that a new era of absolution is potentially upon us.
Capitalism has always operated beyond national frontiers, but a global economy requires the dissolution of frontiers. Technological advances in electronics, communications and transport have aided this process. An essential contradiction for the system is that these forces are increasingly social in character, but ownership and control is decidedly private. In this context, the relative fading of the power of the nation state minimises democratic control over the levers of economic control and downgrades its role as a means of addressing issues of equity. A paradox, which highlights the fact that Imperialism has merely moved into a new stage of development, in which formal political control over territory is not deemed necessary is that trans-national corporations (TNCs) are often allied to a particular nation state, but are active in many. The model for this has been American imperialism, which historically only weakly followed the classic 19th century European colonial mechanism. A seeming contradiction is that it seeks hegemony and yet fears competition from other regional power blocs. This is unarguably clearer now that the Soviet bloc has disappeared. George Meaney, the leader of the American AFL/CIO as long ago as 1974 made the position clear: –
“You can’t dictate to a country…. unless you control their means of production…whether you control them through ideological methods or control them by brute force, you must control them.”
The World Trade Organisation seeks to remove national obstacles to the TNC’s. Their power to decline to invest in a particular country is a tremendous disciplinary measure over national parliaments. The fluidity and the ease with which capital can move undermines the very financial powers of the state. National trade unions, national parliaments, national political parties are thus pushed into an all-excluding consensus which is subordinated to the needs of the TNCs.
The International Trade Secretariats (ITSs) across a range of sectors – transport, metals, chemicals & mining, food etc – are increasingly breaking out of the cold war mentality. In practical ways, they are obliged to respond to the needs of their affiliates in global terms. Increasingly, national unions are thinking along the lines of continental or trading bloc co-ordination. There is the chance here that this could become a diversionary trend, in which labour follows “its” regional trading bloc. But it also provides the possibility of directing the internationalisation of the trade union movement into global dimensions less inclined to “fraternal” relations and more organically linked to real working class issues.
Transforming the ITSs into centres of struggle against the worst excesses of TNCs and moulding their role into one of a qualitative different kind requires more strategic thinking than most trade unions have yet engaged in. The truth is that we need a thorough-going process of internationalising the labour movement. European Works Councils offer the prospect of translating the struggle for equity into European dimensions. But will they go the way of the World Corporation Councils, evolved as part of the ‘Detroit Psychology’? Top heavy, bureaucratised talking shops, which never achieved multi-national bargaining? EWCs are by no means necessarily a Euro-centric phenomena. It need not end there, some EWCs have already agreed to include subsidiaries outside of Europe.
The intense dissent within capitalist circles in Britain over the process of Europeanisation should prompt the Left to the tactic of widening these splits. The big (TNCs) view European integration as vital to their future. Other sections of business opt for Britain‘s role as a cheap labour base for the Pacific Rim. Facing the challenge ahead, British trade unions have to recognise that a Left coalition of extra-parliamentary forces, allied to the best elements of the Parliamentary Labour Party is needed. The composition of such elements needs to be as wide as we can conceivably relate to. For the agenda is potentially open – if we will make it so. One thing is clear, that the historic division of the socialist movement into revolutionary and reformist camps has faded. Wishing it back is no way forward, or even a desirable one. The problem before us is how to regenerate an understanding that the socialist solution is the alternative. The left has acted like the proverbial rabbit, frozen in the stark glare of the headlong rush of the motor of the capitalist system. We need not accept the verdict of history as final. Indeed, there is an obligation upon us to strive to make the phase capitalism is currently passing through as brief an interlude as possible.
The OECD judges that the world economy is entering another of capitalism’s cyclical phases. The major stock markets of the globe have all experienced escalating prices. But don’t shares rise and fall?! The strategy of exclusion of Labour from corporatist agreements of the post war period has led to a seemingly unstoppable process of ever-greater labour ‘flexibility’. In this context, ‘flexibility’ means the undermining of the gains achieved by labour over the past five decades. And yet enormous struggles are unfolding…. in Germany, France, Greece, Italy, Japan, South Korea…and then there is the climactic achievement in South Africa, albeit with more chapters yet to read in that colossal struggle.
To deny the possibility for such a development in Britain is the defy the experience of history. Labour will struggle to gain its rights in the new context. No one can wish struggle out of existence, just as we cannot conjure it out of thin air. Struggle is a feature of all life – of all human life. Existence is impossible without struggle. Struggle to be born, to breathe to learn speech, to learn social skills. In the context of the world of work, it is a feature of the achievement of democracy that labour has the right to withdraw its co-operation; at its highest this form of struggle is the strike weapon. We know this to be true because Mrs Thatcher, the guru of all modern politicians told us so when Solidarnosc faced Polish military rule!!
Such a tactic has not become obsolete, by any means. There is no doubt that the coming years will give testament to the liberating effect that the election of any Labour Government has on working people – however right wing or centrist it might be. The character of the working class has not so much changed as become more extensive. Trade unions today more fully recognise that the economics of the workplace are as equally valid as the economics of the community to their member. The nature of labour today opens up the possibility of the ‘molecular’ process of welding new forces to the increasingly atomised working class. The ‘proletarianisation’ of the so-called ‘middle-class’ has occurred simultaneously with the breaking down of the historic community basis of what is usually perceived as being ‘working class’. This is as much a threat as an opportunity to the Left.
Trade unions have invested heavily in new technology, especially in the computerisation of membership records. They can now potentially relate to communities as they now are. Every locality has its own postal code. Targeting trades unionists not only on the basis of what job they do, but where they live is more than feasible. Community activity, complementing traditional workplace based organisation is now a must. The notion of community action in defence of workplace needs is a long and honourable one. Chartist women used “exclusive dealing” to discipline middle-class elements to support working class demands. More recently, we have seen the growth of ethical purchasing and corporate pressure campaigns. Such weapons are not just for the developing world, we have seen trade unionists in Sweden and Denmark successfully target American TNCs such as Toys-R-Us and MacDonalds.
At the same time as building the muscles of corporate campaign tactics, unions need to relate to capitalism as it now is, not as it once was structured. National and sectoral bargaining has been severely undermined. Recognising that capital currently relates to labour at the lowest base of production or service is key to the future of the trade union movement. Mergers based on ‘industrial logic’, matching up sectors of the economy organised by more than one union is more important than ever. But of even more paramount importance is a campaign: ‘Back to the Unions!’
At a recent international meeting of dock workers, I referred to the ‘recruitment’ of employees by the union, to the confusion of an Indian delegate. The military connotation of the word implies dragooning people into membership. When the expression was rendered into ‘organising the unorganised’, clarity broke through. Recruitment, for Indian trade unionists, means the employment of workers by companies!
But ‘organising the unorganised’ has to be seen as more than a slogan. It is a cultural attitude a step away from the experience of half a century or more of receiving new members by virtue of ‘recruiting’ the employers’ cooperation by recognition agreements. ‘Newer Unionism’ is a more accurate description of what is needed than the fashionable retreading of the old dockers’ and gas workers’ slogan of ‘New Unionism’.
Trade Unions began to acquire the enormous memberships we think they are entitled to in the 1930’s. The basis of production was the classic ‘Fordist’ factory. But the option (if I can continue to be unfashionable and provide a minuscule quote, not from a spokesman of `Old Labour’, but an `Old Marxist’!) of making what Lenin called working class ‘fortresses’ of the factory-system is no longer really open to us. There are innumerable large-ish workplaces unorganised by unions, but something different is needed for a different epoch.
Even so, the experience of sixty years ago is still relevant. Then workers spontaneously organised themselves, without unions initially. Women and youth were seen as a docile, more compliant labour force. Capital had a surprise in store! So had the trade union movement. Indeed, amazingly some unions positively refused to organise `Fordist’ workers. The T&G owes its non-transport membership to the fact that, belatedly, and sometimes only with the compliant assistance of employers, that it was prepared to do so. The 1930s were marked by the ethos of “agitate, educate and organise” – oddly a slogan popular with the AEU which refused to admit women into membership until 1942, when they had to!
But the whole experience was a staged process, in which actual membership recruitment came long behind much dedicated application to helping workers with immediate difficulties. Today’s new jobs – low paid and with a high labour turnover – are more often than not part-time, casual, temporary. They are largely reserved for women and youth. There are not just historical resonances here, the main lesson is that when the time is ripe, workers will respond. Mass adherence to unionism need not be a pipe dream. If we work to make the most of the opportunities. This has to be more than making organising a central core of the culture of unionism. It is a newer culture which is needed.
A weakness of trade union strategic thinking is its short-scale character – perhaps paralleling capitalism itself. Understandably so, since a union’s strategy reflects, maybe, the personal span of any given leadership, or likely leadership. But is this enough? Too much credence has been given to the personal vision of Ernest Bevin, in creating the T&G. However, what is unarguable is that he and his generation had the vision to see decades ahead.
Measures whereby trade unions seek legitimacy in their campaigns amongst the community are commonplace. Bus workers no longer simply engage in industrial action and leave it to their employer to explain to passengers why they are in the predicament of having to seek alternative means of transport. It was only by linking up with passenger and other campaigning groups in a massive publicity campaign that the extension of bus deregulation to London was prevented. The 105 sacked Chelmsford strikers ran their own alternative service for passengers, when their employer sacked them and introduced a new labour force. Similarly, Liverpool dockers have not merely engaged in traditional struggle, but proposed their own, constructive solution to their herculean dispute involving a labour supply co operative, a move which has won the support of a wide variety of church leaders, the business community and academics. Trades unionists have had to face up to the fact that a wide variety of tactics and strategies need to be employed to promote their aspirations. An excellent example of this approach (outside the T&G) was the successful campaign against Post Office privatisation.
However, the trade union movement is still slow to recognise the full implications of the collapse of the concept of the “Family Wage” which underpinned the long years of corporatist recognition. In effect, this means that women are now a full and increasing part of the workforce. Enormous strides have been made in the direction of “feminising” the trade union movement, but it is still intrinsically masculine in its organic structure. It was with amazement that the T&G learnt that no union has yet produced a negotiator’s guide for local bargainers on equality issues. We are remedying that omission by the production of just such a publication for the bus and light rail industries. Childcare is a workplace issue.
But more is needed, until unions face up to the need to dramatically alter the face of their internal and external image they will not attract women and youth. An immediate first step has to be to press down hard on the accelerator of change. Proportionality – i.e. reserved seats and positions for women at all levels of the movement – is the only guarantee of forward movement. A massive influx of women and young people into membership can only be presaged by such a shift in leadership and influence in the first instance. Only then can unions address the severe cultural mismatch between our everyday practices and the world at large. This is no panacea for change, it is the precondition for it.
Until unions perceive that they are going to have to organise entire communities – especially women and young people – they will not grow. That elusive new plant in Luton or Liverpool or Leith is no longer going to appear. But enormous numbers of working people in those communities need the strength of union organisation.
Trades councils are too narrow, too much the preserve of the political left. To say this is not heresy, it is to recognise a weakness. The organic link with the official, local trade union movement needs to be sharper, more focused to these general perspectives. A massively important first step would be to structure representation at the annual congress of the movement – the eponymous TUC – to provide for Trades Councils, Women’s TUC and Black Workers Conference representation. Perhaps the STUC could even have observer status? Such as step would allow for Congress to be more lively, if nothing else! In the pre-Fordist era, so like our own except that capital is international and not regional, Trades Councils had such representation and were seen as the focal point of organising efforts.
To borrow a phrase used in the call to create the amalgamation that created the TGWU – “only vested interest stands in our way”! In this context, union must extend the offer of a compact with communities. Regional and district organisations of unions have a vital role to play here. They have to be seen to be concerned with community issues, not just membership ones. Trade union education is facing a crisis. The development of outreach education, going beyond traditional training for shop stewards – but not undermining it – is a real opportunity, but needs enormous vision to encourage it.
Extending the constituency of unions beyond the annual wages and conditions review, or the mediation of employers’ disciplinary codes, has to be the ambition for the Left. The election of a Labour Government is at once an opportunity and a challenge for these who see this. In the realm of politics words can have flexible meaning. Trade union ‘reforms’, labour markets ‘reforms’, mean different things to different people. It is sometimes forgotten that unions ditched ‘their’ party – the Liberal Party – because it was unreliable in the campaign to liberalise the legal shackles on trade unions. This was the very rationale behind the creation of the Labour Party – or Labour Representation Committee as it was significantly called for the first six years. The word `labour’ does not just stand for a few hundred members of parliament.
The maximum unity of the Labour movement is vital to ensuring the success of the next Labour Government. That much is unarguable. Avoiding a breakdown in confidence and trust requires patience and comprehension on the part of affiliates and individual members in the tasks which confront a new government. But it also requires a sense that a Labour Government is different from a Tory administration. The decisive difference is that Labour cares about the needs of communities, taxpayers, employees and social benefit receivers. Delivering on the aspirations of ordinary people will be decisive.
For working people and their families, the T&G’s constituency, this has to be in the field of social and economic justice. A flexible labour market need not be based on a cowed and dispirited workforce. The best guarantee of a mismatch between the expectations of Britain’s labour force and Labour Government is a willingness to accept that the trade unions do mediate and represent the aspirations of millions of ordinary people, in a way that few other forces in civil society can. The representational value of trade unions has improved immeasurably over the past two decades. Ballots are a feature of everyday life in the workplace in a qualitatively different way. Political levy payers of affiliated organisations are consulted much more effectively than ever was previously the case.
Given this it has to be recognised that the full participation of affiliated trade unions is central to any concept of stake-holding in the partnership of power. Whilst any ideas to improve and de-bureaucratise the Party’s internal structures are welcome the document “Labour into power”, effectively challenges the essential concept of representative democracy upon which the trade unions are themselves constructed. To downgrade the role of trade unions in the internal process of the Labour Party would be a catastrophic mistake at any time. But to seek it in the early days of a new Government is folly writ large.
In the past twenty years we have all had to learn the grammar of modern electoral politics. It is not entirely disreputable to modify programmes to the stern test of popular opinion. Even the Bolsheviks recognised the need to present their programme simply. “Bread, Peace, Land”, in the context of 1917, meant revolutionary change precisely because the alliance of capitalism and feudalism could not deliver it. Again, the experience of pre-war Britain can enlighten us. The successful struggles against Fascism, the victory for equity which the Second World War exemplifies and the enormous gains for social, political and economic liberty which the post-war period is justly noted for were all a product of the Popular Front period. Even “left-wing” Tories, some Liberals, right wing and left wing Labour and Communists – maybe even some in the ultra-left tradition in all its hues, whatever the attempts to distance themselves – found themselves in an uncertain, but nonetheless distinctive alliance. We need to replicate the re-alignment, away from the politics of `no-alternative’. But how?
Labour has potentially sown the seeds of its own downfall, unless it can rapidly translate the clear message now coming through that social consciousness can be squared with personal advantage. Sadly, the policy of having few policies means that no clear mandate exists. In a sense, this ties the hands of the new Government in ways which sometimes the Shadow Cabinet has fought against. The result is perverse. If the consequence is genuine and positive debate, engaging millions of people about The Way Ahead (the title of the 1945 manifesto), this can only be good. Then, in retrospect, 1997 may be seen as much a seminal year as 1906, when Labour first became an electoral force; and 1945, when it first had the chance to make a difference. It is up to us. Unity in this process is not a luxury – it is the pre-condition for success. In this sense, every action, every thought, must be skewed to maximising the base which can be characterised as the Left.
In the current debate about the structure of the Labour Party, continued support and respect for the principle of the sovereignty of the Labour Party Annual Conference, the equal partnership of affiliated organisation and CLPs, the maintenance of the present level of trade union women’s representation, the right of affiliated trade union branches to elect delegates to CLP General Committees are all essential. The creation of a more coherent left alliance based on a radical agenda is not only possible, it is vital. It needs to be a red, green, pacifist, anti-racist alliance which transcends party political disputes – party politics even. New Labour has a tall order before it. There is so much to do and so little enthusiasm to do it. Those who would seek a more radical breach into the established order are only too conscious of this.
The challenge for capitalism is that science provokes revolutionary change. The present epoch has seen the forces of production outstrip the relations of production. In contrast, socialism is both the science and poetry of the future. It asks not what is true for some people, but what is true for all mankind. As Marx put it, as long ago as 1844:- “the self-confidence of the human being, freedom, has first of all to be aroused again in the hearts of (the) people….. Only this feeling… can again transform society into a community of human beings united for their highest aims into a democratic state”.
For all the claims that socialism is dead, or that Marxist analysis has no more to offer, we still live in a capitalist society. In a global, historical sense it is still a relatively young phenomena. Planning is a its most challenged when it comes to costing resources. But capitalist money economics only touches those parts of the economy which share holders are interested in. We need the vision to rise beyond this narrow focus. State budgets are a poor mechanism for evaluating priorities. For example, the construction of roads is based upon limited costs benefit analysis. The cost to society of human poverty, need, ignorance and squalor is ignored or marginalised. Productivity need not be a dirty word, but neither should it be a code for over-work, stress and fatigue.
The Left has always stood for Liberty, Equity and Community. The plain fact is that commodity production( the system of providing manufacture and service for sale after syphoning off value generated by the labour utilised to generate the product sold in the hypothetical market place) is not an efficient use of society’s resources. Moreover, the obstacles to removing such an influence are two-fold. The fetish which consumers indulge in over these commodities is understandable in terms of individual self-indulgence, but not in terms of social well being. The market mechanism may be an impersonal and relatively unbureaucratic delivery system, but it is by no means free, of limitations.
Rationing the pleasures of modern society by the use of plastic of paper credit is only efficient for those who have access to such means. Property rights invoke strong opinions – just ask your neighbour if its alright to stretch the boundary line between your gardens to your advantage! Or consider the reaction of two competing siblings over the unauthorised use of a treasured personal possession! It is one thing to meditate such tensions on a personal level, quite another to handle it in the social context.
It’s the slogan of ‘Quality of Life’ which needs to be our watchword for the future, the key to any political and economic ambitions the Left may have. What are the current concerns of ordinary people? A fair access to education for all, jobs or training for all, fairness at work, an accessible transport system, a decent and pleasant community to live in, unhassled and moderately reasonable conditions for old age. Pensions, stress, hours of work and job discipline are the biggest issues facing any union negotiator, at local, corporate or institution, or national level. Maybe this is our `Bread, Peace and Land’? Can unchecked capitalism provide this? I for one doubt it? Can New Labour deliver the goods? The challenge is before each and every one of us to strive to make it work – or pick up the pieces, if it fails. Watch this space!! In this context, a way for us to judge progress is the old Chinese aphorism. ‘It’s not the ripples in the water that matter, but the direction the river flows in!
<B>SPEECH TO COMMUNIST TRADES UNIONISTS 1994</B>
Perhaps at a time when the trade union movement has been running hard to stand still, whilst the metaphorical (and actual!) conveyor belt has been speeded up to breakneck pace, it may seem optimistic to ask how trade unionism can be harnessed to revolutionary ambitions. But it is how gains are won and losses conceded, and how the inter-mix is generally perceived, that determines whether unions can act in a political or revolutionary way. The gains or losses in themselves are perhaps in historical terms of limited significance.
At root, the potential for change is intimately related to the requirement that organised workers translate their sectional consciousness into a collective consciousness. Organised workers, with or without trade union bureaucracies are quite capable of discovering (once again!) rank-and-file militancy. But revolutionaries cannot be satisfied with spontaneity. Without socialist consciousness, workers inevitably end up “solving” their problems within the existing system, on the terms of the existing system.
Since Marxism seeks to abolish the wages system, a strategy of seeking a betterment within the wages system cannot satisfy us. This does not mean luxuriantly sitting on the sidelines, waiting for the game between capital and labour to become so frustrating that, several lifetimes hence, the working class decide to change the rules of sport. Revolutionaries have an obligation to contract into the mass movement, since the spontaneous struggle of the workers will not become class struggle unless it is channelled by an organisation of revolutionaries. Unions can be “schools of war”, as Engels had it. Our concern has to be how we start the school year, at a time when the trade union movement restricts itself to “realistic” struggle.
Trade union consciousness can all too often be parochial, not only in a sectional sense, but it can lack a wider national or even international perspective. Militancy is not enough, but the need for an organisation which seeks to focus the work of local activists is paramount. The working class movement has long recognised that something more than unions is needed to face the power of capital, the need for our own political party.
But the experience of the last three decades has soured the relationship between Labour, the unions and the working class. The long, Micawber-ish wait for a returned Labour Government (the “something will turn up” school of political philosphy), most in the movement will now concede, has clearly failed. An expression of this is the strategy of the TUC leadership to turn its face to all the stars in the galaxy, in the hope that one bright light will be seen. Not that the movement has espoused the cause of non-politicism as such, although there are unions comfortable with this line, rather it is the aggressive pursuit of respectability which should concern us. It is not the act of wanting to talk to a Tory government or the CBI which should concern us, it the denial of a policy of struggle which must be roundly condemned.
Where is the clarion call for a crusade to organise the massively growing number of part-timers? Where is the aggressive TUC campaign amongst the mass of the people for the positive role which trades unionism can play in their lives? The TUC march against racism in the East End of London is a good start, but where are the unions to be seen in the black working class communities of Britain? Where is the struggle to win reactionary unions to understand the value of the Black Workers Conference? Why are not even the left unions campaigning hard to win an extension of representation at the TUC – the annual congress itself – to Trades Councils, the Women’s Conference, the Youth Conference and the Black Workers’ Conference? Along with a big extension in the democracy of Congress and the involvement of lay delegates.
As Marx put it, “trade unions must…learn how to act consciously as focal points for organising the working class in the greater interests of its complete emancipation.” There is not a shred of evidence that the TUC General Council has even an inkling of such a notion.
There is a dichotomy about trades unionism which any good revolutionary needs to be clear about. Unions do not contest the fact that labour power is a commodity, rather they seek to obtain the highest price for it. They structurally buttress capitalism at its weakest points by addressing the need for reforms, yet also knock away at the keystone of the system by posing demands which would create fundamental weakness, the campaign for full employment is a case in point. Contradictorily, unions reinforce the wages system by the very process of bargaining over wages. Yet they are also a mass social force of considerable compulsion.
Leader writers in the Guardian and New Times are just beginning to realise that, having once written them off, they must now reconsider such a prediction. A massive restructuring of capital has taken place in the UK, but for all that this re-ploughing of the furrows has turned over the soil, the sturdy roots of trades unionism are largely untouched. The question before us in the next decade is: How we can reinvigorate a militant trades unionism, which is relevant to the mass of the working class as it is now constituted?
Different demands at different times and in different places can be revolutionary, the limits of trade union consciousness can be lifted dramatically in relatively short periods of time, but it will surely demand a major transformation of the political scene. Industrial militancy is by no means a thing of the past, but ebbs and flows with the tide of boom and slump. Strike waves generally occur at the conjunction of such economic changes, either as workers strive to hang onto gains or struggle to achieve them. Are we now heading for such a conjuncture? The degree of state intervention in phases of industrial militancy is critical to the development of political consciousness. Perhaps that is why the apparent aloofness of the state in the last 15 years has been such a master card. For the 1970s must have been a nightmare decade for the ruling elite in this country.
The pursuit of consumerist demands is hardly revolutionary, i.e. jobs, homes, decent wages, quality goods and services, leisure for all, but little else will motivate masses of workers. Only if unions can be won to act in tandem with a mass socialist movement can we contemplate progress to raising concerns of a substantive nature as mass, popular demands within the movement. Hence, the question of how we can locate a renewed confidence of the left within the trade unions as an integral part of a reconstituted left in the political sphere assumes central importance.
Are the new signs of growing unity between the Tribune Group and the Campaign Group of Labour MPs, exemplified by the “What’s Left” conference on June 25th, of significance and can we find means of linking these developments up with the trade union world? A realignement in the movement appears to be on the horizon, with increasing common ground between the left and the centre over the need to defend the welfare state and promote full employment. Hostility to the so-called “modernisers” in Parliament and in the constituencies dovetails with trade union concerns. Can the growing demand for Unity of Communists impinge upon this process?
For us, solidarity, which goes beyond sectional concerns, is the most basic expression of a new society in embryo. Whilst the democracy of the workplace instills new notions of political involvement. The autonomous character of shop floor organisation, with its device of instant recall of representatives, alarms capitalism and union bureaucracy alike. But class solidarity – a thing many trades unionists instinctively have – is not the same thing as class consciousness, which is rooted in Marxist understanding. Workers are bogged down in their day to day problems and usually fail to see the inter-connnections which Marxist theory highlights. A localised, short-term gain can be a palliative or a stimulus to action.
It can only become the latter if we are able to challenge the ruling ideology. The prevailing “common sense” of the epoch is the ideology of the ruling class and this will need to be swept away before we can even contemplate building a new society. Much as the common sense that once concluded that, `of course the ground under our feet is nice and flat’, gave way to mass understanding that the world is round only as mercantile capitalism needed to exploit resources and to engage in trade across the globe. What passes for common sense in our present epoch is centred around the concept that everything can be turned into a commodity, even labour itself. We hear today the common sense that we must ensure that businesses, even state owned ones, even co-operatively owned businesses, “pay their way”. Remember Mrs Thatcher’s homily that running the state’s budget was “like managing the housewife’s purse”? Then there’s “subsidy is a bad thing” and there is a limit, it is said, to what the state can pay for. Only paid employment, it seems, contributes to the sum total of human good. The free market is a `good thing’, but when labour uses it’s strength to up it’s price in the free market, that’s extortion! Then there is the old one: `You can’t get something for nothing’, or that wealth is created by cleverness, trickery or good luck.
Before we can seriously think about winning mass support for a real grasp of how capitalism manages the `Great Money Trick’, we have to find means of transferring the preoccupation of unions with bread and butter issues into a wider perception of struggle. This is not impossible , even in a period of reaction, just very difficult! Arguably it is all the more necessary in such a period. Period of reaction it may be, but capital is hardly in a totally unchallengeable position. Statistically, the economic recovery in Britain has already lasted as long as the recession which preceded it, seven quarters. The problem for the government is that the growth rate is so slow as to be indiscernible to most people and so small as to nurture a “feel-bad” factor. Growth in the economy is uneven and many economic indicators are contradictory. Inflation has been low but all the predictions are for it to rise dramatically.
So despite two years of so-called recovery, most people think their personal financial situation will worsen, and the government’s tax plans are sure to deliver upon this promise. All this, and disillusionment with the past 15 years, has engendered a political hostility to the government which is manifested in diverse ways, its policy on health and education being widely criticised. The misnamed Child Support Agency is almost universally despised and individual ministers are contemplated with deep loathing or total indifference. There is increasing evidence of fight back. College lecturers, Girobank workers, telecommunications and Post Office workers, Middlebrook Mushrooms, council benefit workers in Birmingham and of course the Tower colliery workers showed that miners still retain enormous reserves of militancy. Tyranny and blackmail can ultimately never stem the tide, the future owners of a privatised coal industry will soon discover that. Even students were recently back on the streets, after an absence of a decade or so, when massive demonstrations greeted the announcements of cuts in student grants.
For pundits of the right, perhaps even some of the left, Mrs Thatcher’s major achievement was her `defeat’ of trade unionism. Whilst it is clear that the last 15 years have seen a decisive re-assertion of the pre-eminence of the authority of the state over unions, it is by no means clear that trades unionism has been historically ended, it’s “March Forward” permanently halted. The role of unions in the national political process has been much reduced, that is true, but management-union relations at the workplace have changed much less. Unions may be weaker in size and societal influence, but at the level of the workplace things remain substantially as they were, only altered at the margins and by degrees. The much vaunted management offensive against unions has been patchy and piecemeal. Little fundamental restructuring of the British industrial relations climate has actually occurred, for all the talk of the pundits about flexible working, new management techniques and derecognition. Employers are pragmatic and opportunistic about what they can achieve.
So-called new management techniques are fashionable, but the evidence is that companies, and even the state, have tended to apply them as they suit local conditions, taking this bit or that bit out of the wider package as is convenient. What is certainly common to all employers’ policies is that insecurity for their employees and a speed-up in the pace of work has resulted in a deteriorating quality of life for the vast majority of working people, the consequences of which is a massive rise in suffering from stress-related conditions.
Twenty years ago the state had a highly organised relationship with trades unionism, but this was found to be too dangerous for capital. Labour-state relations have now been minimised, capital seeks incorporation at the place of work rather than in the corridors of power. Capital has concluded that corporatism, or the embodiment of unions as a semi-detached arm of the state is of limited value, particularly when the state itself became an arena for struggle. Incorporation of labour using “human resource management” would seem to be a lesser evil. The motto they now plug is not “I’m Backing Britain”, popular in the 1970’s, but “I’m-Backing-The-Fiscal-Success-of-My-Employer’s-Business, Because-Without-It-I-won’t-Have-a-Job.”!! Exclusion of unions from tripartite activity at the macro level is a narrowing rather than an ending of corporatist strategies, which are alive and well at the workplace or in localised relationships with full-time officials. Decentralised bargaining is the industrial relations equivalent of exclusion of unions from the macro-economic scene, the freezing out of unions from direct consultation with the government.
But the latter has been a more successful tactic than the former. In the brief period of boom which began to fade towards the end of 1989, we saw a sudden and violent surge in industrial militancy, quickly snuffed out it is true by the present recession. But then as now, if militancy proves to be dangerous to the employer, the use of the old-style relationship with the union full-time corps can become valuable once again in policing the intransigent. For the truth is, that after 15 years of threats of closures some workplaces have become immune to the tactic. It simply doesn’t work anymore. Moreover, wages levels in some industries have taken such a dive that it no longer makes sense to be bothered by appeals to keep wages low to enable yourself to keep in work. There is perhaps a marked difference between the public and private sectors here. We must have surely one eye on each. But I have a sense that there is a simmering cauldron of discontent brewing in both sectors.
The bureaucracy has found itself without a role in this period, hence John Monks’ fondness for seizing upon the fact that Tory ministers are now prepared to at least meet with union leaders. The tripartite scheme of the past was sharply focused upon the problem of wage drift, coupled with a declining rate of profit, such a project demanded the active intervention of the state. But achieving a capital enhancing environment at the workplace was what it was, and is, all about. The Thatcherite project has been largely achieved. So any minuscule shift now, represents not a thawing of the relationship, but a marginal recognition that the anti-union hostility of the past is no longer an electorally safe line.
The approach of the British State over the last 15 years and possible more, perhaps even back to 1975, is to back capitalism’s strategy of a cheap labour policy, enforced through open market competition. The only serious opposition to this being projected by the Labour and trade union leadership is a watered-down version of Keynesianism. This political economy implies an acceptance of deficit finance by government, a managed labour market and controlled foreign trade. The Labour Party leadership presently falls short of even Keynsianism, being wedded to a policy of fiscal rectitude. Even so, almost without realising it, the NEC of the Labour Party has found itself committed to mounting a campaign for a charter of employee rights, including the minimum wage and the right to strike. A draft before the NEC currently talks of “the restoration of the right to strike, including sympathy action where there is a direct interest, with protection against dismissal for those taking industrial action”. If the NEC endorse the idea of such a campaign, it will be the first time for a decade that Labour will be appealing to the masses rather than the media.
A £4 an hour minimum wage demand can be corporatist, inhibitive even, at a certain stage in the historical process. But the use of such a figure as a campaigning point is vital. It may only represent the price of a large gin and tonic in the bars of Parliament, but to millions of working class people – especially women – this could be a magical stimulus. In the context of capital’s low wage strategy, centred upon the use of “flexible”, largely female labour, it is powerfully full of mobilising potential. Arguments for strategies involving redistribution of wealth may ultimately merely tinker with the balance of power, but at this precise moment they address fundamental questions. The rationale which resists redistribution: “I’ve worked for my money, they haven’t – so why should I help them”, in speaking of the poor, is bound up in the “common sense” of capitalism!
A new “common sense” must be nurtured; the right to work or paid training, universal benefits, a restoration of the link between pensions and average earnings, public control of the utilities and public transport, a £4 minimum wage, proper child care facilities and an end to homelessness. What a programme!
The suggestion in the 1970s that the Foward March of Labour had been halted came as a reaction to the failure of the social contract. The thesis that class consciousness was in decline in proportion to the growth in sectionalism occurred just as the strategy of a detached labour-state relationship began to be accepted in business, politics and the media. For all the coaxing and cajoling of unions which governments from 1945 had engaged in, the 1970s seemed to suggest that it made no difference, that the official movement, the bureaucracy, could not effectively corral the mass of its members into coat-tailing the needs of the State. Along with the central aim of maintaining full employment, the notion that unions can be a social partner took a real knock with their sidelining following the first Thatcher government.
What is perhaps surprising is how little the industrial relations map of the UK has changed. Yet corporatism is still capital’s strategy, although certainly collective corporate bargaining is not part of that. Unions are effectively cut out of governmental relations and are likely to be so perhaps even under a Labour government. Governments will perhaps increasingly turn to more business-like relations with unions, whether we see this as a good thing or not the potential is always there. A number of factors are likely to reinforce this, the pressure to engage in the convergence process arising from Maastrict will force the social partner concept.
After all, many trans-national companies, some primarily based in the UK, will find themselves obliged to engage in the works council shenanigans. It is possible that they will throw all of their eggs into the one basket of social partnership, since the bulk of their capital will be tied up in a market based on such a strategy. European policy is clearly a matter of deep division in the Conservative Party and may well result in dramatic changes in our domestic political landscape, even more profound than any recent changes in industrial relations practices. There is also the looming crisis in occupational training, borne out of 15 years of neglect, whilst finally there are serious inflationary tendencies burgeoning and the state has yet to develop a public sector pay policy which can survive the point beyond which privatisation can go little further. Finally, we have a massively enhanced state machine, an even more clearly class-orientated weapon of struggle, as the 1984-5 miners’ strike graphically showed.
For all the problems and decline in global union membership there is still a remarkably buoyant movement. The end of tripartitism is be no means the end of trades unionism, the question is what kind of unionism will it be? Is it inevitable that union leaderships become ossified bureaucracies? I believe, only to the extent that we allow them to become so. The role of the individual, reforming, energetic and dedicated trade unionist, committed to left politics is important. Lefts and Communists should always strive to be three times as capable and honest as our opponents within the movement, and we can play a vital role in radicalising the mass of workers themselves. We should never under-estimate the value of electing or appointing lefts or revolutionaries to key union positions. But, if they are isolated from a political perspective, they will degenerate into left or revolutionary sounding rather than acting trade union leaders.
The former Communist Party of Great Britain has much to be ashamed of, but our detractors are even better than we are at describing its faults. One thing which the CPGB – or at least that core of it which prized industrial work – can be proud of was the cadreship of the labour movement which it nurtured. There are still many scores of key trades union and even Labour Party leaders who owe their pre-eminence to the Party. That potential leadership needs linking up with political consciousness, especially that which can aid the development of Marxist analysis which takes into account the here-and-now, with the comprehension of the fundamental nature of the capitalist system which is still so ringingly clear in the work of theoreticians of the past.