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British Perspectives 2015
British Perspectives 2015
46. In the last year, the Collins Review has destroyed the final vestiges of a collective voice for the trade unions within the Labour party. Last year's perspectives document was written before the Collins Review was published or the special conference had taken place. We made the point that Labour would be likely to reduce or end the unions' voting power, but that "If this happens it will not prevent major donations from the unions to Labour in the run-up to the general election, justified on the grounds of getting rid of the Tories. However, Labour's dream that it can permanently get away with the kind of relationship the Democrats have with the unions in the US - endless financial support with no rights - will prove utopian. The situation is beginning to change in the US but, in Britain, where the whole history of the Labour Party is of a party based on the trade unions, this proposal will create outrage from trade unionists, particularly beyond the general election." We went on to say: "Regardless of the detail of how this plays out, it marks a major turning point on the road to independent working-class representation, although this may only become fully clear after the general election. Unfortunately, it is not the most likely scenario that a significant section of the trade unions will go to the special conference and clearly oppose the Labour leadership's plans. The pressure not to allow Labour to appear 'divided' will be used to try and keep the union leaders in line. Never mind that, far from worrying about unity, the Labour leadership has launched an all-out assault on the trade unions, including calling the police against Unite! If a significant number of leaders clearly opposed the Labour leadership's proposals, the very act of fighting to defend the collective political voice of the working class would raise class consciousness and open the road to a continued struggle for working-class political representation. Even if, as is more likely, a deal is cobbled together, the genie has been let out of the bottle."
47. In the event, the only union to vote against the Collins Review was the Bakers' Union (BFAWU), which was even blocked from speaking at the special conference. For all the sound and fury expressed by the leaders of the major affiliated unions, when push came to shove they dutifully voted for the ending of their unions' power like turkeys voting for Christmas. Since then, it has been the leaders of the affiliated unions that have played a central role in 'keeping the troops in order'; for example, acting to try and prevent any opposition resolutions being moved at this year's Policy Forum. As a result only one amendment was voted on, moved by a constituency representative, calling for a Labour government to "reject Tory spending plans for 2015-16". It was defeated by 125 to 14. A majority of the union representatives opposed the amendment. To say they secured a few crumbs for their members in return for their loyal backing of austerity would be a very generous description.
48. In the run up to the election the majority of the members of the affiliated unions will acquiesce to their leadership giving large donations to Labour because of the fear of another five years of Tory-led government. However, even in this pre-election period, discontent and anger is growing over this issue. This is posed most starkly in Scotland where, since the referendum, a layer of workers have been leaving the trade unions because they see them as linked to Labour. This was most dramatic in USDAW which actually campaigned for a 'No' vote (officials reported they feared 6,000 - 13% - would resign) but has also taken place in some other unions. In Unite, where the independence referendum has come on top of the Falkirk debacle, anger is particularly sharp. The election of ultra-Blairite Jim Murphy as leader of the Labour Party in Scotland now poses the issue even more sharply. Prior to Murphy's election, Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, had said it would be a "political death sentence" for Labour in Scotland. At the December Unite United Left meeting, McCluskey seemed to accept that Murphy's victory would result in Scottish Unite refusing to affiliate to Scottish Labour and demanding a formal rule change at this year's rules revision conference, which will take place just six weeks after the general election. The leadership of Unite are likely to be anxious not to embarrass the Labour leadership, particularly if they have won the election, and so will try and head off a discussion at this year's conference. Nonetheless, this shows very clearly the pressure that is developing from below, and the speed with which events can happen in Unite, particularly in Scotland, but increasingly also in England and Wales. If Unite branches give support to left of Labour candidates, it will put the Labour leadership in a very awkward position. When the RMT gave support to the Scottish Socialist Party, they were expelled from the Labour Party as a result. To send back the RMT's cheques uncashed is one thing; however, it is altogether another to do so with Unite, Labour's biggest funder.
49. The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) challenge in the 2015 general and local elections is enormously important. While TUSC is unlikely to make electoral breakthroughs in this election, it is aiming to stand widely enough to be granted an election broadcast and to begin to be seen as a national force. Last year's TUSC election challenge involved an important layer of trade unionists and activists as TUSC candidates, including an unprecedented number of RMT members, but also considerable numbers from other unions including Unite, UNISON, the PCS, FBU and POA. TUSC aims to build on that this year, encouraging the most conscious layer of the working class to fight for a new party by standing in the elections. This is vital preparation for the new party that will be on the agenda whether the Tories win, in which case more and more workers will be asking 'what is the point of Labour?' or, which would be preferable for us, a Labour-led government is formed which will, inevitably, continue with austerity. If, under pressure from below, McCluskey takes action towards a new party in the period after the general election - as he has repeatedly mooted as a possibility - this does not mean that the Socialist Party will be welcomed into it. On the contrary, there is no doubt that there will be elements who would rather exclude us as 'too extreme' given our effective record. However, our roots in the workers' movement, and particularly our record in TUSC, would make this extremely difficult. It is, of course, likely that in the period after the election, even many left union leaders will continue to hesitate about taking decisive steps to build a new party. However, the developments from below, harnessed by TUSC, will begin to create a new party, which in turn will force them, at a certain stage, to act.