Out Of The Cold: Unions Refuse To Tip The Hangman

Tawfiq Chahboune


At the RMT's most recent Annual General Meeting a resolution was passed expressing concern about the policies of the Labour Party. The resolution asked the RMT organise an open conference to discuss the crisis in working class representation. This conference, open to all, will be held at Friends Meeting House, Euston, on Saturday 21 January 2006 (12 - 3 pm). It is billed as a non-resolution meeting to openly discuss the aforesaid crisis in working class representation, not to promote a new political party. (This, I must say, is an impractical conference if it sticks to its terms of reference, which surely it cannot.) Speakers thus far confirmed include Tony Benn, John McDonnell MP, Jean Lambert MEP, Colin Fox MSP, John Marek AM and Councillor Dave Nellist. This meeting will take place nearly two years since the RMT were expelled from the Labour Party. It is perhaps appropriate to revisit that momentous day:


Dateline: 7 February 2004. The unwilling revolutionary began his speech at 11.41 a.m. Greatness, as the saying goes, had been thrust upon him. By 12 noon - the deadline for the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union general secretary Bob Crow to halt his union from funding any political party other than the Labour Party - Crow had just wound up his highly amusing and charged speech to the Convention of the Trade Union Left. The decision to allow branches to fund other political parties (known as "democratising the political fund") had been passed by an overwhelming majority of RMT members at the annual conference, and upheld 42 votes to 8 by RMT delegates on Friday 6 February. Crow was unwilling to violate his union's democratic decision and break the RMT's funding of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP).


Note that the RMT did not pass a resolution to disaffiliate or even to stop financing the Labour Party; it merely passed a resolution to allow itself to spend its own money in any way it sees fit. This freedom was considered an unspeakable act of political betrayal. (Not even pimps argue with their "workforce" on how they spend their own money!) Surely even Alistair Campbell, a former prostitute, can appreciate the principle of payment for services rendered? What, therefore, exactly is the motivation for the RMT to finance its own destruction, cowing of its members and endangerment of public safety? From Labour's point of view, though, the RMT's self-importance naturally needs to be extinguished. Incidentally, and this really does need to be said, this is all a bit rich coming from Blair's Labour. It was, after all, a certain Tony Blair who bawled that the founding of the Labour Party was one of the greatest mistakes in history.


There was something of the revolutionary American statesman Patrick Henry about Bob Crow; there was something of the Virginia Assembly speaker about Labour Party Chairman Ian McCartney. "Treason," you can imagine McCartney bellowing. "If this be treason, make the most of it," could have been Crow's riposte.


The RMT's role in the creation of a political party to represent workers' interests in parliament is a historic one: it was the Doncaster branch of the Amalgamated Society of Rail Servants (as the RMT was then known) that moved the motion to create the Labour Party in 1899. At the very moment Crow sat down and wild applause from the congregated trade unionists meeting at Friends Meeting House in London engulfed the hall, the RMT was formally expelled from the Labour Party. In years to come, this date may well be judged as historic as that famous one in 1899. Saturday 7 February 2004 crowns the day when the labour movement started to turn away from the Labour Party and help build and fund new organisations to express the needs of working people. The Convention of the Trade Union Left had met to decide the best way forward in confronting their New Labour nightmare; it was purely coincidental that the pre-arranged meeting clashed with Labour's decision of expulsion.


A few minutes before the deadline, Crow joked, "I've been told that we're going to distribute party poppers." And as the 703 attendees (of them 356 union delegates) rose to applaud Crow at what many of them considered an anointed hour, Crow quipped, "I feel like the Birmingham Six; I feel free." Someone, it seems, forgot to bring the party poppers.


Realising the battle ahead, Crow alluded to those who claimed that he had led the RMT "out into the cold". (However, the cold does soon turn warm when enough comrades join you. In any case, the RMT could justifiably reply that, on the contrary, they have come out of the cold.) He was scornful of what he considered fatuous and fallacious reasoning: "Kier Hardie was seen as a splitter."


With shots gathered of Crow denouncing Labour's decision, the BBC and SKY news crews scuttled away. If they had hung around just a little longer they would have been able to relay that the RMT were not, as Ian McCartney pretends, a renegade union acting in bad faith to the detriment of its members. The disillusionment with Labour within the unions is, to use Blair's rococo rhetoric: "active, detailed and growing. It is up and running, now." The revolt had started, and pleas from the minority who still believed that they could yet "reclaim Labour" fell on deaf ears. Actually, that's not quite true. "Reclaim Labour" was met with hostility.


To the horror of those in attendance, it transpired that it was Unison's representative on Labour's NEC who moved the motion to expel the RMT if they did not accept the fait accompli. The disbelief was manifested in the sighs of exasperation that spread through the hall.


Crow claimed that the RMT were not allowed to put their case to the NEC or to appeal the decision reached, nor were they allowed to know which rule they had contravened. They were merely informed that they had somehow failed to abide by the manifesto. Crow mocked: "Which trade union supports the Labour manifesto? Tony Blair broke pledges in the manifesto [regarding tuition fees]. Is he being expelled? I wasn't even allowed to put our case and represent my union. Even Dr Shipman got representation!"


Pointing to the continued part-privatisation of the London Underground, Crow headed straight into the dangerous waters of the barely discernible differences separating Labour and Tory policy that now consumes the labour movement. For Crow there "is no difference in being privatised by someone wearing a red rosette and someone wearing a blue rosette." 


The continuation of the anti-union Tory laws drew fresh anger from the determined general secretary. He condemned the policies whereby would-be strikers have to dance through a maze of regulations and give at the very least eight days of notification (and possibly weeks), leaving ample time for employers to hire replacement "scab" workers and crush the strike. This led to another witty observation by analogy: "It's a good thing Churchill didn't operate this way during the war. By the way Adolf, we're coming over to Dusseldorf in eight days time!"


At meetings like this it is impossible not to think of Shelley. "Let a vast assembly be…", "Rise like Lions…Ye are many - they are few". The most appropriate, however, given the general feeling regarding the growing calls for democratisation of the political fund and disenchantment with Blair's Labour would be from Shelley's Song to the Men of England, written in 1819:

Men of England, wherefore plough
For the lords who lay ye low?


With FBU and CWU union branches, among others, promising to affiliate to the SSP and other political organisations in solidarity with the RMT, New Labour is in unexplored territory: open war, as opposed to a veiled war, on trade unions. Indeed, the political fund of the 65,000 strong RMT is now up for grabs. Before strained relations with New Labour led to the RMT donating annually a derisory £12,500, the RMT had been donating £112,000 to the Labour treasure chest. With open discussion within other unions that they, too, should democratise their political fund and contribute funds not only to the SSP but to any party which defends and furthers the interests of workers and the policies and principles of the trade union movement, including the new political alliance Respect – the Unity Coalition (RUC? Eh!), the unlikely revolutionaries of the RMT are, as is befitting their history, forging a new path that others may yet follow. Labour's plan is barely a secret: to ensure the irrelevance of the trade unions and institute state funding of political parties. The future for any trade union is clear: to break with Labour now and create a political party that does represent workers, or break later when Labour has put their anti-union jigsaw pieces in place.     


Postscript. After being subjected to a very dirty war, which included being smeared as fascists and Al Qaeda's allies, in June 2004 the FBU disaffiliated from the Labour Party after 86 years. Delegates at the FBU conference in Southport voted to disaffiliate in a 35,105-to-14,611 vote. Although the FBU were more principled than the RMT - the FBU voluntarily left; the RMT were expelled - the outcome is the same: trade unions organising, however embryonic, to fund parties that are, in some small fashion, more attuned to the interests of the working class. This is progress of sorts. Witnessing Labour's unprovoked war on the FBU, the Observer's Andrew Rawnsley wrote: "I recall one conversation with a member of the New Labour high command just before they first came to power. He positively looked forward to a strike by a big union. His face lit up at the prospect of showing the unions - and the voters - who was boss. 'We will crush them,' he smiled." What more needs to be said? Thankfully, the FBU's £50,000 annual donation no longer funds the New Labour thugs who savage the hand that feeds them. The repugnant figure of Jim Fitzpatrick is a case in point, as is John Prescott, the "proud" trade unionist, half-baked half-wit and proprietor of a face that is a permanent reminder of what Wodehouse called a bulldog chewing a wasp.


The CWU and leading leftwing contenders for general secretary of Unison are following in the footsteps of the RMT and the FBU. Only time will tell if they will take the most important and final step of leaving the Labour Party, or ensuring their expulsion. Unfortunately, it seems that the increasingly desperate and pathetic CWU are awaiting privatisation before disaffiliation. One hopes that the RMT's conference will persuade the CWU (and perhaps others who have yet to face the full wrath of the Labour Party) of the need to be free from the New Labour nightmare by coming out of the cold and refusing to tip the hangman. One wonders, though, how it is the crisis in working class representation will be overcome with Labour loyalists (Benn and McDonnell, for instance) arguing that Labour is the only Party capable of representing the working class in a conference discussing the crisis caused by the Labour Party! Best turn up and see this majestic squaring of the circle. Hope to see you there.      






December 2005

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