RMT conference on working class representation

Jim Jepps

Packed into the Friends Meeting HouseThe long awaited RMT conference on working class political representation has finally happened, albeit in a hall that was far too small (290 seats for possibly 400 people) and barely mentioned within the RMT at all (for example January's RMT News doesn't mention it). This meant that those few RMT members there were present were, in Peter Manson's words, "political activists first and foremost" (Representation - crisis unresolved Weekly Worker)

It was also a very male, very white and fairly middle aged conference. I wouldn't go as far as Respect member Richard Alday who said there were "too many white middle aged males" when I think he meant that there were not enough black, female and young delegates (although who knows, perhaps he meant half the audience should not have bothered coming).

The platform was very impressive, and included a few surprises, mostly pleasant. John Marek's (from Forward Wales) presence was more than welcome, although the bizarrely conservative speech he made was slightly confusing. Jean Lambert from the Green Party was also a very welcome addition and her speech was good, fraternal and realistic about her chances with this particular audience. One weird one was the speaker from the Socialist Labour Party, which I suppose is a throw back to Bob Crow's membership of that organisation - although quite what she contributed to the discussion I'm unsure.

Galloway, conspicuous by his absenceGeorge Galloway was conspicuous by his absence. There is this excellent and well balanced report RMT conference- the crisis of working class representation on Labournet  by George Binette which states that "George Galloway MP had initially made dismissive remarks about the RMT initiative at a London meeting on 21 November - something of a gift to a core of members of the RMTís Council of Executives who are adamantly opposed to Respect and most probably still Labour Party loyal."

Indeed, this may explain why despite repeated requests Respect was denied a speaker, although its difficult to see this omission as anything except a deliberate snub rather than a comment on Respect's place in the Labour movement. Respect did however have five speakers from the floor.

Whilst Respect has chosen not to report on the conference so far, Socialist Worker's report (Political representation meeting discusses future for left) was always going to be a difficult one for them to write. Not only were there clearly more members of the Socialist Party there than Respect, another sign of the Socialist Party's growing size and confidence, it was impossible to make this report without acknowledging that Respect was not the only game in town. Indeed, when they state that "If significant trade union forces were to assist in the formation of a new party it would be a crucial step" implicitly acknowledging that Respect may not be the finished article it is a welcome and refreshing change.

It certainly beats this report Crisis of Working Class Political Representation by Rob Sewell from Socialist Appeal. Whilst Rob is a very nice man he has written an excruciatingly sectarian tract on why all other left organisations are rubbish. Almost the entirety of the piece comes across as an embittered swipe at his old comrades from Militant in the Scottish Socialist Party and the Socialist Party. Not very comradely, but thankfully this kind of behaviour was almost entirely absent from the discussion - which was conducted in a very mature and serious way - despite the vast numbers of leaflets being proffered.

The chair began the conference by saying "we are not initiating a new working class party" today. Despite some criticism for this surely as the first step from the trade unions this was both realistic and sensible. This audience of far left groupies and well worn travellers was not going to suddenly launch a viable project discarding all their previous disagreements in one go. What the conference was though, was a valuable and useful forum to get the ball rolling.

Dave Nellist made an impressive figure (pic from The Socialist)This conference gives the discussion on working class representation an extremely welcome boost of credibility and could spark a domino effect of similar discussions and conferences - like that of the Campaign for a New Workers Party for example.

It gives the Socialist Party a good opportunity to put their case on the 'Crisis in working class representation' and they were rightly proud of their level of intervention, probably best speech of the day goes to Dave Nellist, who was both comprehensive in pulling apart the inequities of capitalism today and laid out the case for workers political representation very well indeed.

It also allows us to discuss the role of the Labour Party within this. Bob Crow observed that since being thrown out of the Labour Party the RMT's political group inside of the House of Commons had doubled, and was now far more effective. Chris Ford and Pat Markey of Worker Liberty point out in their report Big crowd at RMT conference "If such an initiative is to succeed, then the activists involved also need to recognise that there is still a fight to be had in the Labour Party, as well as organising outside against Blair/Brown." This seems completely correct.

Indeed that correlation between socialists inside Labour and out needs a lot more discussion and debate. We can work together inside this or that particular campaign but how do we link our shared political principles?

Bob Crow (pic from The Socialist)Bob Crow in his opening speech made much of the 1906 Liberal Reforms and rightly said they were making more advances then than we are now. John MacDonnell in the RMT's January newsletter stated that "The 1906 Act was achieved by trade union pressure both inside and outside of Parliament, and the introduction of such an Act was the key demand which had led the unions to establish the Labour Party a few years earlier" but I think this misses out a key component.

The Liberals felt so much pressure precisely because a left electoral alternative was emerging that threatened to take from them working class support. A threat which in fact materialised and was soon to see the very last Liberal government in history.

The lesson for socialist Labour Party members today is not just that the trade unions should press the government for reform but that a left alternative should ensure that Labour core support is threatened. Without a force to the left of Labour those socialists inside of Labour can be told the Tories are the only enemy we have to worry about and we must continue with their policies - with a principled left alternative they are actually given more ammunition to pull their party towards socialist ideals.

Obviously this is a hopeless task doomed to failure, but it becomes less doomed and hopeless only with support from outside the party. Which I think means that those socialists who wish to argue to remain inside of the Labour Party by attacking those outside are doing themselves a disservice.

But importantly Crow called for a national shop stewards movement. Something that could play a vital role in rebuilding the trade unions from their rather dilapidated state today. It is this call that, if translated into reality, could transform the movement.

John McDonnellOne of the interesting things about the conference was that when hardened Marxists got up to speak they emphasised how respectable they were and when Labour MP John McDonnell spoke he emphasised what a radical, Marxist, revolutionary he was. In fact I think he was the only person to mention Marx. Whew, what a relief!

McDonnell described this as "the most opportune moment for the left in maybe two decades" a sentiment John Rees of Respect later agreed with. I'm afraid I have too little time for optimism for its own sake and can see little justification for this kind of rhetoric. The idea that today is a more opportune moment than three years ago is a fantasy - but even dreams can come true sometimes I suppose.

Unfortunately the end of his speech was a bit disrupted because he said "you never know we might get Ken Livingstone back on board" and people started misbehaving. Tut, tut.

There were some very good contributions from the floor. About ensuring the left does not stand against each other, the need for electoral reform, how we build a fighting union movement.

Stoke Cllr Paul Sutton, Labour has abandoned us (pic from council website)A Labour Councillor, Paul Sutton, described how he is in process of being thrown out of the party for saying "we've [Labour] lost our way" Incredible. It's clear that people like him have a valuable role to play in revitalising socialist politics in this country, and it is a good reminder that there are some lefties left in the Labour Party at the base of the party as well as in the Commons (and Lords).

Hilary Wainwright then spoke (I thought well, if perhaps a little woolly, read it here) she talked about the "wealth of experience in the movement" which we need to tap. She talked about "developing a structured movement outside of electoral politics" which is a very interesting idea - but how? We need "a political movement without necessarily being a party" which sounds quite nice to me, but probably totally unrealistic.

Paul Holborough made a god awful speech (with patches of goodness) he called for a general strike on March 18th (what!!!????!!! isn't that a Saturday!!!????!!!! do any workers know about this yet???!!!????) told everyone who were talking about launching a new party that "the ship has already left the port" because they'd launched respect already. A very poor and stupid speech which thankfully was not the only fare on offer from Respect contributors.

For example Greg Tucker, of the International Socialist Group, made a thoughtful and useful contribution essentially saying that whilst respect is okay for now lets hope it can be part of something bigger and better in the future. Also John Rees spoke well and argued that we needed to continually reinforce unity through working together on the ground through our campaigning work - a point which is surely central to the building of a left unity project and is so often missed by many on the left. Some people think he didn't mean a word of it, but I couldn't possibly comment. All I can say is that I'm glad he said it.

A speaker from Workers Power blamed the trade union bureaucrats for.. well... everything (read their report of the conference Union conference confirms possibility of new workers party). Interestingly they accept that "The omission of a Respect speaker from the platform was also an error, since it clearly represents one important (if false) solution to the question of working class representation." Which shows that whilst it can be difficult to agree with their particular 'revolution or nothing' brand of politics sometimes they are people it is possible to have a conversation with, so all is not lost.

Overall, the conference was a  good, realistic start of a new phase in the debate - the RMT might even call another one, you never know.


Jan 2006

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