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One of the most heated debates at the Covid-delayed Communication Workers Union (CWU) online conference was over the union's political strategy, and particularly its relationship with the Labour Party.
Undoubtedly, this session was affected by the tumultuous political developments over the last two months. Keir Starmer used Labour's conference in September to show that his party was safe and reliable for big business. In the face of this rush to the right, and the auto-expulsion of its national president Ian Hodson, the Bakers' union BFAWU voted to disaffiliate from Labour. Weeks later, at the first Unite conference under the leadership of Sharon Graham, the union passed motions calling on Labour councils to move no-cuts needs budgets. This at the same time as Sharon has called on Unite's executive to only back candidates in elections that support Unite's policies.
A number of motions from branches wanted the union to face up to the reality of Starmer's Labour Party. Unfortunately, two motions initiated by Socialist Party members, from Scotland No.2 branch and the United Tech and Allied Workers (UTAW) branch were placed down the agenda, with a high chance of being knocked off by a long executive motion placed before them. This resulted in the two higher-placed motions becoming the key battle ground on political strategy of the CWU.
First up was the Kingston motion calling for "funding to the Labour Party should cease with immediate effect... until such time as a future CWU annual conference decrees that the Labour Party has returned to its traditional values and is in alignment to promoting trade unionism and workers' rights in this country".
Socialist Party members supported this motion despite its limitations, and the three members who spoke used their time to explain the need for such steps, but to also go further by taking up the demands and proposals in the later motions that called for the "other Labour-affiliated trade unions to convene a conference of affiliated and non-affiliated unions, trade unionists, socialist organisations and individuals to discuss the need for a political vehicle that fights the Tories on socialist anti-austerity policies and can provide a future to workers, rather than the pro-business agenda of Starmer and his cutting Labour councils".
Scotland No.2 branch, whose secretary is Gary Clark from Socialist Party Scotland, highlighted how the Labour Party has been busy expelling trade unionists and left wingers, while in Aberdeen forming a coalition with the Tories. He pointed to the RMT transport union which, although expelled from the Labour Party, has been free to support only candidates in their members interests.
Judy Griffiths from Coventry boldly stated the clear facts of how, with Starmer's new rules and its repealing of policies like nationalisation that are key to the CWU, Labour has become even more incapable of being reclaimed by the union. Judy explained what Liverpool City Council did with a no-cuts budget in the 1980s as an example of what Labour is not doing now.
Deji Olayinka, UTAW branch, embarrassed a number of the speakers who oppose any changes to the union political policies, by reminding conference of their current or former status as Labour councillors.
The motion was lost, and the executive motion was passed after a curtailed debate. Nevertheless, the executive motion had to reflect the changing the mood of anger toward Starmer and the Blairites. It stated that Starmer's Labour Party is disconnected from the working class "and seems more concerned with factional infighting". It resolved "to suspend any donations outside of our affiliation fees to the national Labour Party. Any additional funding outside of our affiliation fees will instead go to specific Labour candidates and campaigns that support CWU industrial and political aims and to support the selection and election of such candidates."
While this will be seen as a step in the right direction by many CWU members, the executive motion tried to claim that Labour is making progress in areas where it enjoys strong links with the CWU. Yet every Labour council is carrying out massive cuts. The truth is that the union has no influence among Labour councils. But this proposition will still allow local branches to fund Labour councillors who carry out cuts.
While the vote was heavily in favour of staying affiliated to Labour, in reality, more and more CWU members will move into opposition to Labour-inspired austerity. The left in the CWU must continue to campaign for a real political alternative that can fight for CWU members, their families and the wider working class.
This means a party that stands on a political programme that includes the renationalisation of Royal Mail and BT, refusing to pass on Tory council cuts, and the repeal of the Tory anti-union laws which go back to Thatcher and were maintained by Blair and Brown, that have been used against CWU members.
A motion from Manchester, which was supported by the executive, wasn't reached but would have committed the union to a special conference "to discuss all relevant political issues." This must be enacted by the executive so the debate on political strategy, including the CWU's "relationship with MPs, councillors", can continue.
But in the meantime, the call in the Scotland No.2 and UTAW branch can be taken forward as a vital step in building the political vehicle that is needed: "CWU branches should support council candidates inside or outside Labour who commit to refuse to pass on Tory cuts, and urge our members in councils to implement no-cuts budgets in Labour-run authorities."
We urge CWU members looking to move motions in their branches to encourage our members to consider standing as anti-cuts candidates in the council elections scheduled for May 2022, noting that there is nothing that prevents them standing as candidates, in a personal capacity, for any party which truly supports trade unionist and socialist principles.
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Article dated 11 November 2021
The Socialist, weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party
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