by Chris Kane
About 120 people attended Saturday’s conference, which was called by the RMT rail union. It was much smaller than a similar event held a few years ago and unfortunately clashed with the anti-war march and the Socialist Workers Party conference. The event itself was not built widely with a clear agenda or purpose. The contrast between the vibrant militant youth of the anti-war mobilisations and this conference could not have been greater: it was veterans of the left, mostly over forty, male and white. But there was an open and extensive debate and plenty of time was allowed for contributions from the floor.
RMT leader Bob Crow opened the event by responding to criticism by a 90 year old communist who said that “this is just a talking shop”. Crow defended it on the basis that “there is a need to talk to break down the barriers of the past”. He said that if New Labour were to found itself as a political party today there would hardly be a “trade union which would affiliate”. It was in his view a thoroughly capitalist party and could not be reclaimed: he praised John McDonnell MP and Jeremy Corbyn MP, and pointed out that when they are gone, there will be no similar people to replace them.
Crow stated that “unless we change society into a socialist society then you will lose the gains made in times of slump and recession” On the key question of an alternative for the labour movement Crow said there was a need for a new working class party. He himself and others had been “in and out of more parties than Amy Winehouse” but he said this was not a failure: it was part of a “pathway to a mass political party”… which he did not know how long it would take to create. Three months, three years or twenty years? In his own personal opinion what was needed was a People’s Charter. He felt if the left could not work together around such immediate needs outlined in a charter then it is unlikely it could unite in a new party. Crow also lambasted Ken Livingstone’s initiative “Progressive London”. Noting that nobody in the hall would be considered “progressive” enough to be invited, he reminded the fake “Red Ken” that progressive should not include “calling on people to cross picket lines when they want to fight privatisation and defend their rights”.
Brian Caton of the POA (Prison Officers’ Association) gave a militant speech focused on the issue of what had happened at the Trade Union Congress over the motion for a general strike for the Trade Union Freedom Bill – “There are people on the UNITE delegation who should hang their head in shame, sitting on voting cards to deny democratic rights”. He pointed out that their call for a general strike was “not a joke” and they would be raising it again – but he went further stating that “rank and file trade union members need to reclaim their unions from the leaders”. Caton was clearer on representation, arguing that the time was now to take the initiative to set something up. As part of this process he will be inviting a range of left parties to speak at a meeting at the POA conference so that delegates can hear what they have to say.
Mary Davis of the Communist Party of Britain – a leading labour historian – gave an interesting speech. She said the crisis in working class representation was not new and that workers’ representation can taken different forms. In particular we need to look beyond the foundation of the Labour Party; the labour movement was not always as it is now. In particular the revolutionary tradition of Chartism, “TUC education for the commonwealth used to insist history started after Chartism” she pointed out. Davis endorsed a new People ‘s Charter pointing to the fact that representation is not only about being in Parliament and called for building a “non sectarian movement of resistance”.
John McDonnell MP also endorsed the idea of a People’s Charter; he praised direct action as a necessary means to defend working class people. McDonnell described the steps which had taken place to form the Trade Union Coordinating group in parliament, and the united front perspectives of the Labour Representation Committee. McDonnell emphasised that he was “an optimist: you need to be or you end up in the Big Brother house”.
The question of the proposed new People’s Charter permeated the contributions from the floor. The Socialist Party had the biggest turn out of the left groups and made a number of contributions: they pointed out that a petition as being proposed did not necessarily contradict a political initiative and called for standing at least fourteen or fifteen candidates backed by unions like the RMT. Smaller successes around the country at various times have shown there was potential to make gains. Many speakers from various currents made this point: yes a new People’s Charter may be a good thing but we still need to mount a political challenge, especially to provide an alternative to the BNP.
There was a sense of frustration coming over from many speakers, expressing the desire that there could be agreater level of unity achieved. Colin Fox of the Scottish Socialist Party reminded the conference of what had been achieved in Scotland, giving us a snapshot of what could be done: we are, he argued, “punching beneath our weight”. Despite calls on the RMT and others to take the initiative to found a new workers’ organisation, whether a workers’ party or workers’ representation committee, there is little indication this is about to happen in the immediate period.
To lay the blame at the door of the RMT for this situation would however be completely wrong. It has done more than anyone to address the question, whatever its limitations. If we are to look to the unions to solve the crisis of workers’ representation, and indeed save the left from itself, then we also need to consider the role of the other radical unions. The Trotskyist Socialist Party control the leadership and machinery of the civil service union PCS, none of whose leaders or leading figures attended this conference. Here is a union which could also take the initiative on workers’ representation, but so far the Socialist Party has done next to nothing on the question through PCS and has indeed sabotaged some efforts.
The main focus seems to be with the People’s Charter initiative to be launched at the end of the month. Of course if it remains a bureaucratic top down initiative, which denies participation and involvement of those it seeks to represent, it will wither on the vine like other traditional left failures. However if this initiative can unite the radical trade unions and the left of the labour movement, social movements etc. then it may increase the potential for a new formation which can cohere into an alternative to New Labour. The RMT itself has a policy to convene regional conferences on workers’ representation and select candidates for elections. The original Chartist movement born in 1838 was built through mass rallies and mobilisations which elected delegates to the Convention of the Industrious Classes, which was to oversee the struggle for the original People’s Charter. If the existing RMT policy can be fused with the new Chartist proposal, then we will be learning well from the experience of the most revolutionary movement the English working class has ever seen.