Jul 07 2017

DEMOCRACY BURNS DOWN

In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy we are posting two articles by contributors to the Republican Socialist Alliance blog. The first is by Steve Freeman (LUP and RISE). The second is by Phil Vellender (Labour Party and contributor to Chartist

 

1. DEMOCRACY BURNS DOWN

The terrible tragedy at Grenfell Tower is a crime against working class people committed by the Tories with their anti working class policies on deregulation and austerity. It revealed the deep class prejudices which inform the behaviour of the Tory council. More than this, it is an accusation against the whole system of government from top to bottom.

The UK is not a democracy and this crime was not a failure of democracy but a measure of its absence. In our ‘elected dictatorship’ government behaves irresponsibly because they can. Concealing the truth and covering up their actions is normal. They rarely get caught out. Unaccountable government made unaccountable decisions with fatal consequences.

Of course behind this crime is motive, more profit for landlords by reducing costs and cutting corners. Landlords are a powerful interest, many of whom are Tories with seats in Westminster. But it is the concentration of political power in the hands of the Crown which has made this possible. Ministers of the Crown are taking more powers through the use of statutory instruments to change secondary regulations such as health and safety rules behind the back of parliament. Continue reading “DEMOCRACY BURNS DOWN”

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Mar 25 2013

RED BAITING AND SLURS

The SWP Central Committee has tried to draw a hard line between recent events inside the party and the wider Socialist and Trade Union movement. The SWP CC has made two arguments to defend the indefensible. The first is that  affairs inside the SWP are a purely internal matter,  and of no concern to other Socialists or trade unionists. Secondly, that those Socialists who do raise the issue in public are not living ‘in the real world’ where nobody cares about such ‘small matters’.

However, the issue has been raised in the election for  UNITE’s General Secretary – the largest union in these islands (UNITE also covers the whole of Ireland). The SWP CC can hardly claim anymore that the party’s internal affairs are not an issue ‘in the real world’, nor that it is a ‘small matter’. The SWP CC’s  behaviour has been raised in a particularly despicable manner by Broad Left incumbent, Len McCluskey. Below, we post the reply by Rank and File challenger, Jerry Hicks.

Furthermore, other trade unionists do have a real interest in questioning  the indefensible behaviour of the SWP CC. If anyone examines the signatories of the statement of SWP members in support of the CC, they will find that quite a few invoke their particular trade union membership, e.g. BECTU, BMA, EIS, FBU, GMB, NUJ, NUS, NUT, PCS, PROSPECT, UCU, UNISON, UNITE, USDAW. If the sort of allegations raised in the SWP were to be raised in any trade union against one of its officials, and swept under the carpet in a similar manner, there would quite rightly be outrage. Socialists should apply higher, not lower standards in their conduct, than those found elsewhere. 

Continue reading “RED BAITING AND SLURS”

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Apr 26 2010

A Reply to Nick Roger’s Workers Unity not Separatism

A Reply to Nick Roger’s Workers Unity not Separatism (edited version in Weekly Worker, no. 211)

Independent Action Required to Achieve Genuine Workers’ Unity

First, I would like to thank Nick for the tenor of his contribution to the debate about communist strategy in the states of the UK and the 26 county Irish republic. After our initial sparring in earlier issues of Weekly Worker and on the RCN website Nick’s contribution develops further his own case for a British approach and a British party. (I am still not sure to what extent the alternative and logically more consistent one state/one party stance of having an all-UK party is supported in the CPGB.) Nick also usefully clears up some points himself (e.g. over his attitude to Luxemburgism) and asks a question which is designed to advance the debate. Before going on to the other issues Nick raises, I will therefore answer this question on whether I support breakaway unions in Scotland.

How to win effective union solidarity

I have consistently argued that the struggle to attain effective union organisation can not be reduced to which national flag flies over a union HQ. Most of the Left, in practice, uphold the sovereignty of the union officials located in their existing union HQs, hoping to replace these some day. This is why many of their union campaigns amount to electoral attempts to replace existing union leaderships with Broad Left leaderships. In more and more cases, the latest Broad Left challenges are being mounted against old Broad Left leaderships, suggesting a serious flaw in this strategy!

Of course, many on the Left would say – ‘No’, we champion the sovereignty of the union conference. However, the relationship between most union conferences and their union bureaucracies is very similar to that between Westminster and the government of the day. In both cases, executives only implement what they wish to, whilst systematically undermining any conference/election policies they, or the employers/ruling class, oppose. In the case of unions, this division is accentuated by elected-for-life and appointed officials, who enjoy pay and perks way beyond those of their members – a bit like Cabinet ministers.

Therefore, I uphold the sovereignty of the membership in their workplaces – a republican rank and file industrial strategy, if you like. From this viewpoint ‘unofficial’ action, the term used by bureaucrats to undermine members and to reassert their control, is rejected in favour of the term independent action. Action undertaken by branches can be extended by picketing, and by wider delegate or mass meetings. Certainly, this places a considerable responsibility upon the membership in the branches concerned, necessitating their active involvement in strategic and tactical discussion over the possibilities for extending effective action. Furthermore, instead of politics being largely confined to the select few – union bureaucrats and conference attenders – as when unions are affiliated to the Labour Party – politics becomes a vital necessity in workplace branches.

Nick asks, how can the SSP effectively support action by, for example, civil servants who are organised on an all-British union basis, when we are organised on a Scottish political basis? Actually, it is quite easy. The SSP has members on the executives of all-Britain trade unions, and we seek wider unity for effective action with officers and delegates from England and Wales. Indeed, we can go further and state that we would seek cooperation with union members in Northern Ireland, when action involves all-UK unions, such as the FBU. Yet, in the latter case, support for joint action over economic issues should not prevent socialists raising the political issue of Ireland’s breakaway from the UK state. There is an obvious analogy here for the SSP.

Indeed, there are three other territorial union forms in these islands, – Northern Irish unions (e.g. Northern Ireland Public Services Alliance), Irish unions which organise in the North (e.g. Irish National Teachers Union and the Independent Workers Union) and all-islands unions (e.g. UCATT). Nick’s attempt to equate more effective action with all-Britain unions would in no way help socialists to bring about unity in such varied circumstances. Championing the sovereignty of the union branch, and the forging of unity from below in expanding action, offer the best way of achieving this.

Nick mentions the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) – the major teaching union in Scotland, and one of the last unions organised on a Scottish basis. The EIS is affiliated, not only to the STUC, but to the TUC and, although not affiliated to the Labour Party, its leadership has, since the mid 1970’s, been as loyal to Labour as any. The EIS is one of the strongest adherents of ‘social partnership’, with large chunks of its official journal indistinguishable from government/management spin – especially its articles on governmental education initiatives.

Until I retired, I was a member of the EIS, a union rep (shop steward) for 34 years, and served on the union’s Edinburgh Local Executive and National Council. I was also a member of Scottish Rank & File Teachers (until they were sabotaged by the SWP) and later the Scottish Federation of Socialist Teachers. I always upheld the sovereignty of the membership in their branches. Furthermore, I was also centrally involved in the largest campaign that rocked the Scottish educational world and the EIS, in 1974. Here, for the first time, I came up against the sort of arguments Nick raises.

The 1974 strike action was organised unofficially/independently. It took place over more than three months, with huge weekly, school delegate-based meetings. We also argued within the official structures of the EIS (whilst even drawing in some members of the two other small unions). It was here that the old CPGB, Labour Party and Militant supporters told us we should end our independent action and confine ourselves to getting motions passed calling on the union leadership to take a national lead.

If we had done this, it is likely there would have been no industrial action at all. As it was, the massive independent action forced the official leadership to move. And it was the independent rank and file movement which sent delegates to schools in England to try and widen the challenge to the Tory government over pay. Labour Party and CPGB union officers, all stalwart Left British unionists, confined official union activity to Scotland!

There is a definite parallel between Nick’s advocacy that the SSP should abandon its own independent organisation and join with the British Left, planning for the ‘big bang’ British/UK revolution they hope for in the future, and those old CPGB, Left Labour and Militant arguments I first faced back in 1974.

The anti-poll tax campaign – ‘internationalism from below’ in action

Some years later, in 1988, I became chair of the first Anti-Poll Tax Federation (Lothians) and co-chair of the conference of the Scottish Anti-Poll Tax Federation. The campaign against the poll tax started a year earlier in Scotland, due to Thatcher’s propensity to impose her own form of devolution here – testing out reactionary legislation in Scotland first.

Militant emerged as the largest political organisation in the Federations. Militant became torn between those who wanted to maintain an all-Britain Labour Party orientation, continuing to prioritise activities inside the party’s official structures, and those who saw the necessity to become involved in independent action through the anti-poll tax unions. Fortunately, it was the latter view that won out.

The negative effect of pursuing a tacitly British unionist strategy was demonstrated by the SWP. Their slogan was – Kinnock and Willis {then TUC General Secretary}- get off your knees and fight (i.e. pushing for others to lead). They argued that only a Britain-wide campaign backed by the official trade union movement could win. When a special Labour Party conference in Glasgow voted against non-payment, the SWP declared the game was over, and some Scottish members went on to pay their poll tax.

The majority in the Federations stuck to their guns and built the independent action first in Scotland, e.g. through non-payment, confronting sheriff officers (bailiffs), etc, and by sending delegations to England and Wales, to prepare people for widened action the following year. Spreading such action from below contributed to the Trafalgar Square riots of March 31st 1990, which put finally paid to the poll tax and to Thatcher.

‘Internationalism from below’, which the SSP International Committee has advocated at the two Republican Socialist Conventions, represents a wider and more politicised development of such actions by our class. Any reading of our documents will show that our ‘internationalism from below’ stance flows from an analysis the concrete political situation, and unlike Nick’s and the CPGB’s stance, does not stem from some abstract attempt to extend a ‘one state/one party’ (or trade union) organisational form over all British/UK socialists; or from a belief in the efficacy of the top-down bureaucratic ‘internationalism’, which is intrinsic to such attempts.

Although rather belated in its formation, the Scottish Socialist Alliance, set up in 1996, directly stemmed from the lessons learned in the anti-poll tax campaign. (Socialist republicans in the Scottish Anti-Poll Tax Federation had argued for the setting up of such organisations from 1990.) Furthermore, contrary to what Nick maintains, far from having a purely Scottish orientation, SSA/SSP members took an active part, providing speakers, to help set up the Socialist Alliances in England, Wales and the Irish Socialist Network. The main obstacles we faced in helping to form new democratic united front organisations came from the British Left!

Perhaps it is also significant that, after addressing large meetings in Scotland, some of the striking Liverpool dockers (1995-8) and their partners said that support here was often wider than in England. Even the response received from the SNP trade union group in Dundee was compared very favourably with the coolness of many Labour Party members closer to home! The SSA was particularly prominent in trying to win solidarity for the dockers in Scotland.

Comparing records in trying to build socialist/communist unity

Now, Nick goes on to make some valid criticisms of the SSA’s successor organisation, the SSP, particularly over its handling of the Tommy Sheridan affair. However, here it is necessary to compare like with like. The CPGB is only a small political organisation with very few connections to the wider working class. In reality it is a socialist/communist propaganda organisation. The SSP, at its height in 2003, united the vast majority of the Left in Scotland, had over a thousand members, won 128,026 votes in the Holyrood election, gained six MSPs and had 2 councillors. It was a party of socialist unity, unlike today when it is an organisation for socialist unity.

When you attempt to organise amongst the wider working class you come under all the immediate political pressures, as well as having to face up to the legacies of past Left traditions. We live in a UK state with a deep-seated imperialist legacy, and where our class has been in retreat in the face of a Capitalist Offensive since 1975.

So, if we are to engage meaningfully amongst the wider class, we have to acknowledge this, and develop a strategy to prevent socialists/communists being dragged back, and to find new openings that enable us to advance both the case and the struggle for a genuine socialist/communist alternative. This means forming definite political platforms. The RCN is a platform in the SSP; the CPGB was part of a platform (Workers Unity) in the SSP. So let’s compare our roles in trying to build wider principled socialist unity.

Now, just as Nick points out that the CPGB has already made many of the criticisms of the SWP and Socialist Party that I raised in my critique, so I will point out that the RCN publicly raised criticisms of the SSP Executive’s handling of the Tommy Sheridan affair, which he also quite rightly criticises. The RCN was the only political organisation to oppose, in principle, socialists’ resort to the bourgeois courts to get legal rulings on how they conduct themselves.

The split, which eventually emerged on the SSP Executive, was about the tactical advisability of a resort to the courts, not against the principle. The Executive, having unanimously warned against such a course of action in this particular case, came to an agreement with Sheridan, who insisted on ignoring this advice. In this agreement, he was allowed to stand down as SSP Convenor in order to pursue his court case as an individual. The Executive hoped this would remove the pressure upon the SSP itself.

This was extremely naïve, showing little understanding of how the state operates. In the case of the CWI/SP, they still haven’t learned this lesson, as their misguided resort to the courts to defend four victimised activists in UNISON has recently highlighted. Back in 2006, the Scottish courts made it quite clear that they made no distinction between the SSP and the activities of its most prominent member. It jailed Alan McCombes for refusing to hand over party minutes covering the Executive decisions on the handling of the Sheridan affair.

This led to a public split on the SSP’s Executive Committee, between those who wanted to continue with Sheridan’s case in the bourgeois courts, and those who could now see that the state held the whip hand. Sheridan was asked to abandon this particularly flawed and potentially disastrous course of action. Unfortunately, with the encouragement of the SWP and the CWI/IS – Sheridan went on regardless, resulting in a split in the SSP. They refused to attend the post-trial Conference organised to address the deep-seated differences, which had emerged in the SSP. Solidarity has been little more than a political ‘marriage of convenience’. You only have to look at the SWP and SP’s continued organisational separation in England, Wales (and Ireland/Northern Ireland) to understand this.

Certainly, mistakes had also been be made by the SSP Executive majority, but these could have been rectified. Indeed, the RCN initiated motion to condemn the resort to bourgeois courts and newspapers to deal with differences amongst socialists was passed at the post-split SSP Conference in 2006.

Ironically, the one issue, which played no part in the split, was the territorial organisational basis of the SSP. The left nationalist Sheridanistas (now the Democratic Green Socialist platform) joined with the Left unionist SWP and with CWI/IS in Solidarity. The Left nationalist influenced (now former) ISM, along with the Left unionist and carelessly named Solidarity platform (!) (AWL), and the republican socialist RCN stayed with the SSP. The left nationalist Scottish Republican Socialist Movement left the SSP to urge support for the SNP, whilst the Left unionist CPGB ended up telling people to vote New Labour in the recent Euro-elections. Yes, a sorry mess!

Now, if ever there was an opportunity for the British Left to make some headway in Scotland, the SSP split this should have been it. However, the CWI/SP had already sabotaged the Socialist Alliances in England and Wales, whilst the final coup-de-grace was administered by the SWP, when it decided to move over to pastures green in Respect. Losing support there to Galloway and his allies (the SWP seemed to have learned nothing about cultivating celebrity politics in Solidarity) they then sabotaged Respect. Perhaps, the one thing Nick and I could agree on, is that a particular organisational form – Scottish or British – provides no guarantee of principled socialist unity! That has to be fought out on the basis of principled politics and democratic methods.

Now, some time after the CPGB’s advocacy of giving no support to either the SSP or Solidarity (to my knowledge it no longer had any members involved at this stage), it came up with its own Campaign for a Marxist Party (CMP). Here surely, given the balance of political forces (much more favourable to the CPGB, than say to the SP or SWP in the old Socialist Alliance, the SWP in Respect, or the SP in No2EU) it should have been able to make some real headway in advancing its own brand of socialist/communist unity politics – the organisational unity of self-declared Marxists in an all-Britain (UK?) party.

However, as every non-CPGB report on the CMP has shown (see New Interventions), the CPGB played an analogous role to the SWP in its front organisations. And, just as in the case of the SWP, there has been no honest attempt to account politically for the demise of the CPGB project in this respect. Instead, we have been given personalised attacks – once again shades of the SWP. From the outside, it looks as if the CPGB was just attempting a new recruiting manoeuvre – much like the SWP.

Now the CMP certainly organised on an all-Britain basis, including the Critique/Marxist Forum group in Glasgow. Yet, far from bringing about greater unity, the CMP experience has only resulted in greater disunity! Nick I’m sure witnessed much of this, and I would think it unlikely that he was entirely happy with the way the CPGB conducted itself. However, this wasn’t an accidental one-off.

Before Nick became involved in the CPGB, there had been an all-Britain RCN, which included the Red Republicans (including myself), the Campaign for a Federal Republic, the CPGB and the RDG. The CPGB, in alliance with the RDG, decided to marginalise those who disagreed with their own ‘federal British republican’ position. In Scotland, federal British republicans were a minority in the RCN, but were still well represented on our Scottish Committee. In England, federal republicans were in a majority, but the CPGB and RDG acted to ensure there were no non-federal republicans on the ‘organising committee’ there (in reality very little organising had gone on).

Their idea was to refashion the RCN into an organisation, which would intervene with the ‘federal British republican’ line in the SSP. The CPGB and RDG had no wider role for the RCN in England. They saw their job as conducting Left British unionist ‘missionary work’ in Scotland only.

A rather unpleasant all-Britain RCN meeting was held in London, and through the votes of CPGB and RDG members, the majority of whom had never lifted a finger for the RCN, they won the day. The RCN in Scotland decided it had had enough of the bureaucratic manoeuvring and withdrew. Even the Scottish members of the Campaign for a Federal Republic members joined with the RCN majority in Scotland, and together we constituted ourselves as the RCN (Scotland).

It is not even necessary to accept my interpretation of these particular events to make a political assessment of the consequences of the split. The RCN now only existed in Scotland. The CPGB and RDG were attempting to link up with the very Left unionist (and social imperialist) AWL, and the Glasgow Critique group which still had members in Scotland, to build a new Left unionist platform within the SSP. An additional advantage was the support they had in England (and Wales).

So, which of the two platforms was able to advance in the SSP? Using Nick’s argument about the obvious superiority of all-Britain political organisations it should have been the CPGB and its allies. Yet this wasn’t the case, despite the CPGB’s hope of also winning the support of other Left unionist organisations in the SSP, such as the SWP (Weekly Worker assiduously tried to court Neil Davidson, the SWP’s leading theoretician in Scotland, then advancing a strong Left unionist politics.)

Now, it could possibly be argued, from a CPGB viewpoint, that the task of winning over the SSP to ‘principled’ British Left organisational unity was just too big a task in the face of the opposition. However, then the fight conducted by the CPGB and its allies should have at least solidified a more united pro-British tendency in Scotland. However, the CPGB soon fell out with the AWL and, after the CMP debacle, with the RDG, also leaving members of the Glasgow Critique/Marxist Forum split! And Nick wonders why I think supporters of British Left unity tend to mirror the bureaucratic methods utilised by the British state!

The historical basis for ‘internationalism from below’

The UK is not just any old state. It was once at the centre of the world’s largest empire upon which the sun never set. Today, it forms the principle ally of US imperialism, the dominant power in the world. Today, the UK is ‘Hapsburg Austria’ to the USA’s ‘Tsarist Russia’.

For the greater part of their political lives, Marx and Engels argued that socialists should make opposition to the Romanov/Hapsburg counter-revolutionary alliance fundamental to their revolutionary project. Support for the Polish struggle to gain political independence, particularly from the Russian and Austrian Empires, was central to Marx and Engels’ strategy. Engels held on to this perspective until the end of his life, opposing the young Rosa Luxemburg on Polish independence, in the process. Socialists need to adopt a similar strategy today towards the US/UK imperial alliance.

It took some time before Marx and Engels came to an understanding of the best method needed to unite socialists organisationally to promote revolution and struggle against reaction and counter-revolution. However, they outlined their most developed position within the First International, when, significantly, they had to confront the British Left of their day. This tendency tried to uphold a ‘one-state/one-party’ stance, when they denied the Irish the right to form their own national organisation within the International. In arguing against a prominent British First International member, Engels argued that:-

The position of Ireland with regard to England was not that of an equal, but that of Poland with regard to Russia… What would be said if the Council called upon Polish sections to acknowledge the supremacy of a Council sitting in Petersburg, or upon Prussian Polish, North Schleswig {Danish} and Alsatian sections to submit to a Federal Council in Berlin… that was not Internationalism, but simply preaching to them submission to the yoke… and attempting to justify and perpetuate the dominion of the conqueror under the cloak of Internationalism. It was sanctioning the belief, only too common amongst English {British} working men, that they were superior beings compared to the Irish, and as much an aristocracy as the mean whites of the Slave States considered themselves to be with regard to the Negroes.

The Second International was formed as the High Imperialism of European dominant-nationality states (German, French and Russian) and top-down imperial national identity sates (British and Belgian) were in the ascendancy. The Second International abandoned Marx and Engels’ ‘internationalism from below’ principle. They adopted a ‘one state/one party’ organisational principle instead, which soon became the conduit for social chauvinist and social imperialist thinking within the social democratic movement.

Luxemburg and Lenin both accepted this new organisational principle. Luxemburg thought, though, that dominant nation chauvinism, which she still recognised, could be combatted by pushing for all-round democratic reforms, without regard to the specific nationalities in any particular state (albeit, as Lenin noticed, with the inconsistent qualification that, after the revolution, Poles should enjoy political autonomy).

Lenin also recognised the dominant nation social chauvinism and social imperialism found in the Second International, but thought this could best be combated through the 1896, Second International Congress decision to uphold ‘the right of nations to self determination’. Lenin thought, though, that any need to actually fight to implement this right was constantly being undermined by ongoing capitalist development, which he thought led to greater working class unity. Furthermore, after any future revolution, national self-determination would not be required, since workers would then want to unite together, initially within the existing state territorial frameworks, after these had been suitably transformed.

However, mainstream Second International figures, as well as Lenin, went on to consider various exceptions to both these organisational and political principles. In the case of some of the major constituent Second International parties, support was sometimes given to non-state parties in other states (often ones in competition with their own imperial bourgeoisies!). In this way the PPS (Poland) and IRSP (Ireland) were able to gain official recognition as Second International Congress delegates.

Lenin, in contrast, tended to support the exercise of self-determination retrospectively, only after he had recognised its political significance, e.g. Norway in 1905, Ireland in 1916. Lenin’s refusal to recognise the real political significance of Left-led national movements within the Russian Empire from 1917 (e.g. Finland and Ukraine), contributed to the isolation of the Revolution, and also to the burgeoning Great Russian bureaucratic character of the new USSR.

Luxemburg’s refusal to get socialists to fight for the leadership of national democratic movements contributed even more to the particular political marginalisation of socialists in Poland, compared say to those ostensibly less revolutionary Finnish socialists. They had been much more brutally crushed in the 1918 White counter-revolution in Finland, than the Polish socialists had been in the imperial backed nationalist revolution there. One reason why Finnish socialists and communists were able to rise from the ashes, is that were still remembered as leaders in the national struggle against Tsarist Russian and German occupation.

The role of an ‘internationalism from below’ strategy in combating the current US/UK imperial alliance

Fast forward to today, and we can see the leading role of US/UK imperialism in the world, promoting the interests of the global corporations. The UK state has been awarded the North Atlantic franchise by the US. Here it operates as spoiler within the EU to prevent it emerging as an imperial competitor to the US. It can even designate Iceland a terrorist state! Through the Peace (or more accurately pacification) Process, UK governments, in alliance with their own junior partners, successive Irish governments, have rolled back the challenge represented by the revolutionary nationalist challenge of the Republican Movement.

Sinn Fein is now a major partner in upholding British rule in ‘the Six Counties’ through their coalition with the reactionary unionist DUP. The ‘Peace Process’ was designed to create the best political environment to ensure that the global corporations can maximise their profits in Ireland. This political strategy has been extended throughout these islands, by the policy of ‘Devolution-all-round’ – Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

This strategy has easily tamed such constitutional nationalist parties as the SNP and Plaid Cymru. The SNP, for example, is pursuing a Devolution-Max policy to uphold Scottish business interests in an accepted global corporate dominated world. The UK state strategy has the full support of the USA, the EU, and trade union leaderships locked in ‘social partnerships’ with their governments and the employers.

The constitutionally unionist form of the UK state places the National Question at the heart of the democratic struggle. Middle class nationalism is continually forced into compromises with unionism and imperialism. (At the height of British imperial world domination, the overwhelming majority of the Scottish and Welsh, and a significant section of the Irish middle classes, could be won over to acceptance of various hyphenated British identities – Scottish-British, Welsh-British and Irish-British – in their shared pursuit of imperial spoils). However, today’s SNP support for the monarchy, and for Scottish regiments in the British imperial army, show that unionist/imperialist pressure can still have an impact. Even the ‘independent’ Irish state has given Shannon Airport over to US imperial forces, particularly for ‘rendition’ flights.

Unfortunately, the CPGB has only the most abstract understanding of the British unionist state. As yet, it doesn’t even fully comprehend the difference between a nation and a nationality. During the 1997 Devolution Referendum campaign, Weekly Worker denied there was such a thing as a Scottish nation, claiming there was only a British nation, in which there lives a Scottish nationality. The existence of a wider Scottish nation, and not just a narrower ethnic Scots nationality, can easily be demonstrated in the well-known Scottish names of Sean Connery, Tom Conti, Shireen Nanjiani and Omar Saeed.

The logic of the CPGB’s position, if it had upheld its own particular version of national self-determination, should have been to argue for the 1997 referendum ballot to be confined to (ethnic) Scots. This would of course brought it into line with the far right nationalist, Siol nan Gaidheal! The CPGB also got itself into so many knots through promoting its own particular sect-front, ‘The Campaign for Genuine Self Determination’, that it buried any report of its end-of-campaign public meeting and rally in Glasgow. This meeting was certainly entertaining, but hardly a triumph for CPGB politics!

Indeed the beginnings of the CPGB’s political decline in Scotland can be identified with this particular meeting, which it was so reluctant to report on. I made an extended political assessment, which was sent to Weekly Worker to review. It declined to do so.

However, the confusion between nation and nationality has been taken to greater lengths in ‘the Six Counties’. Here Jack Conrad has identified a 75% Irish-British nation (!), scoring somewhat higher in the nation stakes than Scotland. The fact that Irish-British nationality identification went into rapid retreat after the Irish War of Independence is just ignored.

What undoubtedly exists in the ‘Six Counties’ today is an ‘Ulster’-British identity, buttressed by official Unionism and unofficial Loyalism alike. However, this relatively new nationality identification isn’t fixed either. There are a minority of ‘Ulster’-British who would happily become fully integrated into the British unionist and imperial state. The majority in the UUP, DUP and TUV, still want to maintain Stormont and other Northern Irish statelet institutions to hopefully ensure continued Protestant Unionist ascendancy. An ultra-reactionary minority has contemplated declaring UDI (Rhodesia style) to form an independent Ulster state, through ethnic cleansing (or, as the relevant UDA document puts it – ‘nullification’). They all, of course, proudly champion the British imperial legacy.

Ironically, there has been a limited rise of British-Irishness in ‘the 26 counties’, particularly in ‘Dublin 4’, amongst former Official Republicans and a new wave if ‘revisionist historians’. Significantly, this usually goes along with support for the UK and the USA in its current ‘anti-terrorist’ (i.e. imperial) adventures. These people represent a similar phenomenon to the Euston Manifesto group, formed in 2006 along with others, by former AWL member, Alan Johnson. The AWL, of course, has gone further even than the CWI in its apologetics for working class Loyalist organisations (anticipating its similar attitude to Zionist Labour organisations), so it is not surprising that it has given birth to strong social unionist and imperialist tendencies. Therefore, as long as the CPGB champions the ‘nation’ rights of this particularly reactionary nationality, it is in danger of following the path of the AWL and the CWI.

Now, the majority of the real Irish-British in ‘the 26 counties’ did eventually become Irish themselves, despite the undoubted barriers posed by the Catholic confessional nature of the state there. This development shows the possibilities of creating Irish national unity, especially if full nationality and religious equality is promoted.

The RCN appreciates the real nature of the UK state, and the strategy being pursued by its ruling class to contain potentially threatening national democratic movements. These can take on a republican form in their opposition to the anti-democratic Crown Powers soon wielded against any effective opposition. The RCN also recognises the need to supplement this by engagement with major social issues. This social republicanism (which needs to be developed by communists into conscious socialist republicanism) isn’t just an added-on extra. The fight against jobs and housing discrimination in the Civil Right Movement, and against the poll tax in Scotland, soon became linked with the national and (latent) republican movements in their respective countries.

When the RCN argues for a challenge to the UK state and to its anti-democratic Crown Powers in Scotland, this stems from a recognition that republican political consciousness is currently higher here (itself a reflection of the importance of the National Question). By way of analogy, in the 1980’s, the wider working class appreciated the more advanced class consciousness of the NUM and recognised they were in the vanguard of the fight, not just to save pits, but against the Thatcher government. The Great Miners’ Strike was itself triggered off by independent action. The job of socialists soon became to organise effective wider solidarity, and generalise this into a wider political struggle against Thatcher.

If socialist republicans in Scotland can take the lead in the political struggle against the UK state, the task of socialists in these islands becomes something similar – to build solidarity and to extend the challenge by breaking each link in the unionist chain. Whether we end up with independent democratic republics (and only weaken imperialism – nevertheless a better basis for future progress than the UK imperial state which exists at present), or are able to move forward to a federation of European socialist republics, depends on the ability of socialists/communists to build ever widening independent class organisation, culminating in workers’ councils.

Abstention from the democratic struggle on the grounds it isn’t specifically ‘socialist’ would be equivalent to abstention in supporting workers fighting for increased wages, on the grounds that they weren’t fighting against the wages system. Socialists/communists can only gain a wider audience by participating in all the economic, social, cultural and political (democratic) struggles facing our class. To do this effectively, socialists throughout these islands need to build on the basis of ‘internationalism from below’.

 __________

Nick Rogers replies to Allan Armstrong of the Scottish Socialist Party’s international committee

(Weekly Worker, no. 809)

The very first point I made at the February 13 Republican Socialist Convention in London was that the most pressing task for communists was to build an international working class movement that could challenge the capitalist class globally.

In the letters column of last week’s Weekly Worker I argued that it was necessary to build pan-European workers’ organisations (Blind alley, March 4). The masthead of the Weekly Worker carries the slogan, Towards a Communist Party of the European Union. Yet Allan Armstrong of the Scottish Socialist Party’s international committee characterises my position as Brit left (Left mirror of the UK state Weekly Worker March 4). In this reply I want to explore Allan’s revealing conclusion.

In my original report I criticised the SSP, represented at the February 13 meeting by co-convenor Colin Fox, for refusing to unite in an all-British party to combat the actually existing British state (‘Debating with left nationalists’ Weekly Worker February 18). Granted, Allan advocates united action across the British Isles, but, as he puts it, on the basis of the same kind of relations that Hands Off the People of Iran has established between British and Iranian workers. He asks, Does the CPGB secretly think that joint work cannot be effective because British and Iranian socialist do not live in the same state?

I applaud the work of Hopi, but everyone in that organisation – Iranian, British or whatever – recognises that workers in the two countries face quite different political environments that, for the time being, make unity in one centralised party both undesirable and unrealistic.

The difference between the kind of internationalism that Hopi encourages the British and Iranian workers to engage in and the level of unity workers in Scotland and England require can be illustrated quite simply by considering the nature of their respective struggles.

When Iranian bus, car or oil workers take industrial action, their grievances will generally be very specific to conditions in Iran – albeit sharing common characteristics with workers anywhere, given the drive by capitalist regimes all round the world to step up the neo-liberal assault on workers’ rights. Generous financial support, logistical support where practical, solidarity messages, pickets of the Iranian embassy, etc – actions such as these are what it is feasible for British workers to do. Of course, we also place direct pressure on the British state by opposing sanctions against Iran and any preparations for war. These are the tasks that Hopi has set itself.

If Iranian workers in struggle were facing a western transnational, other types of action become possible, from workers’ sanctions to solidarity industrial action. Since the mullahs and revolutionary guards dominate profit-making activities in Iran, these opportunities are relatively rare.

British workers, by contrast, face capitalist companies that do not respect national boundaries within Britain (and increasingly the boundaries separating European countries). Effective industrial action also has to take place across these boundaries and requires close British and pan-European organisation by workers. In Britain workers confront laws made by the capitalist state – and also laws laid down by the European Union. For many workers the capitalist state is their employer. Defensive actions such as last week’s two-day strike by the Public and Commercial Services union inevitably assume an all-Britain character.

Allan affects to believe that the nature of the joint action by workers in Britain and the solidarity British and Iranian workers can achieve is essentially no different. In that case, what about British-wide unions? Does Allan believe that the struggles of civil servants (or any other group of workers) would be more or less effective if they were split into separate English and Scottish bodies? I honestly do not know Allan’s position on this. Some left nationalists, such as the Scottish Socialist Republican Movement, do advocate forming separate Scottish unions. I have observed that quite often it is the teachers in the SSP – organised, as it happens, in a Scottish union, the Educational Institute of Scotland – who least grasp the merits of Britain-wide industrial organisation. The majority in the SSP has, though, always cautioned against industrial separatism and argued that even Scottish independence would not undermine the rationale for all-Britain unions.

We are some way off a situation where we can contemplate signing up workers in Britain and Iran to the same unions. So it seems we agree that the existence of a British state – and the shared political, social and economic environment that goes along with it – makes the closest possible cooperation between workers in some types of organisation essential.

That leaves us with the rather extraordinary conundrum of explaining why communists – supposedly the most advanced militants of the working class – should unite on a less ambitious scale than workers seeking to defend their immediate economic interests.

For most it is self-evident that civil servants defending their redundancy terms need to organise in the same union against the British state in its role as an employer. How far would civil servants get if the PCS were to be split into separate Scottish, Welsh and English unions and leave the coordination of joint industrial actions to their respective ‘international departments’? I suggest that we would not be expecting anything very dynamic or effective to come of it.

But for the left nationalists in the SSP the proposal that revolutionary socialists need to achieve the same degree of unity in seeking to overthrow that capitalist state and replace it with a workers’ democracy draws forth accusations of ‘unionism’. For them, building joint activities with communists in England and Wales must be left to the SSP’s international committee in case we were to inadvertently imply that a closer form of unity just might be appropriate.

An observation. Allan points to the SSP’s participation in European Anti-Capitalist Alliance in last year’s European elections and the speaker tour they organised for a member of the French New Anti-Capitalist Party. I would say that was a principled stance as far as it went. But when has the SSP ever stood as part of a Britain-wide electoral front in a British general election? What principle allows the SSP to collaborate with European socialists to the extent of forming a common platform, but prohibits a similar step with socialists across Britain?

Allan takes me to task for using the word ‘foreign’ to describe the SSP’s attitude to English communists. He thinks the word carries inherent connotations of xenophobia. What nonsense. The capitalist international system of states is a reality communists are obliged to acknowledge, even while they strive to overcome it. Allan, however, in his refusal to accept that the existence of a British state requires a united struggle by workers against it, departs from reality.

‘Brit left’

So what is the ‘Brit left’? According to Allan the epithet is aimed at those socialists who seek to build party organisations throughout Britain – who try to mirror the UK state in its organisational set-up. Allan admits that this is to apply an old Second and Third International orthodoxy: ie, one party for each state. Within the SSP it struck me as an insult hurled most fiercely at fellow Scots – a jibe implying deficient Scottish patriotism.

Allan sketches out a litany of the failings of ‘Brit left’ organisations: the Socialist Workers Party’s opposition to Hopi, the British nationalism of last year’s ‘No to the European Union, Yes to Democracy’ electoral front, the cowardice of Respect and the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party over migrant workers.

What is he driving at? Is he saying that the sectarian failings of the left in Britain are intrinsic to all Britain-wide ventures? The political project of the CPGB could be summed up as advocacy of left unity on the basis of principled politics. The examples of unprincipled left politics that Allan cites could very well be drawn from exposés in the Weekly Worker.

Certainly, the sectarian fragmentation of the left makes a nonsense of attempts to present an effective challenge to capitalism in Britain. Not much of an excuse, though, for the SSP to add a nationalist twist to that fragmentation.

Does the fact that the SSP operates only north of the border really make it immune to much the same failings as ‘London-based’ organisations? What about the whole Tommy Sheridan debacle? It was the leadership of the SSP that built up Tommy as a political superstar. That carried his picture on the masthead of most issues of Scottish Socialist Voice. That incorporated a message from Tommy and his portrait on every election leaflet. That added his name to that of the party on ballot papers. That ran a prominent story about his wedding.

Most in the SSP now accept that the hero-worship of Sheridan was a mistake – a re-evaluation that is rather a case of closing the gate after the horse has bolted. Today the whole organisation pretty much reviles him. I can understand the anger at Tommy Sheridan, but that in its turn does not excuse what is effectively collaboration with state authorities (a British state, moreover) and News International to put the man in prison. A perjury trial, whatever the outcome, is not going to place the SSP back in the big time. It is not even going to remove a martyred Tommy Sheridan from the Scottish political scene.

The fact of the matter is that such get-rich-quick schemes distort the priorities of most of the left in Britain – and internationally for that matter. You could argue that it is Trotsky’s transitional demands – a concept built into the DNA of most so-called revolutionary groups – that provides the excuse to describe any campaign for however modest a reform as a coherent aspect of a revolutionary strategy. I think the tendency towards political opportunism is more deep-rooted than that, but a lack of seriousness about programme is certainly a feature of virtually the whole left, including the revolutionaries in the SSP.

Republicanism

An understanding of the importance of demands around democracy and the part these should play in the strategy for achieving working class power should be at the heart of the programme of a communist party. That programme must take seriously the national question. I think that is a position I have always taken – and certainly before I joined the CPGB. I do not remember ever saying I was a ‘Luxemburgist’ – not that association with Rosa Luxemburg counts as a very severe insult in my book.

Like the rest of the CPGB, I have always maintained as a fundamental principle the right of the Scottish and Welsh people to choose independence. A right which a federal republic would enshrine with Scottish and Welsh parliaments having full powers to decide their future. What Allan has difficulty with is the dialectical subtlety of an approach that defends the right to self-determination, while advocating that the option for separation should not be exercised. Allan describes that as “condescending”.

In fact, paradoxical though it may appear to some, upholding the rights of nations is the only practical strategy for superseding the existing system of states. This is the task that will confront the working class as it seeks to build a world socialist order. What does Allan think this will entail? Would Allan either force nationalities against their will into broader federations or accept indefinitely as a fact of ‘human nature’ the national fragmentation bequeathed by capitalism?

The principle that any nation can choose to withdraw from a larger entity must hold, even after the working class has taken power. It is the only way of assuring all nations that their national and democratic rights will be respected and that they have nothing to fear from the construction of a socialist world.

Of course, there are national situations that pose particular problems. The CPGB supports the right of the Irish people to choose the unity of their island. This is the position we set out in our current Draft programme, as well as in the redrafted version proposed by the Provisional Central Committee. In addition, the majority within our organisation argues that the best way of assuaging the fears of the ‘British-Irish’ is to establish a federal Ireland with the right of self-determination for a British-Irish province covering a smaller geographical area than the current six counties.

I acknowledge the majority’s attempt to apply political principle consistently. However, I think there are problems with a formulation the leaves open the possibility of a repartitioned Ireland in which the rights of an Irish minority in a new Protestant statelet might not be guaranteed. As always, we will continue to debate our differences with the objective of achieving greater clarity.

The national rights of Scotland and Wales pose no problems of this kind. Their national boundaries are not in question. People in Scotland or Wales who regard themselves as English are unlikely to suffer any oppression – although grievances around the division of state resources might well exacerbate national tensions in the short term.

But what is the prospect for independence in Scotland? We were told at the convention that the most recent polls report support at levels of 37%. This is where support for independence has plateaued for the last decade or two. Occasionally, polls show support for independence spiking higher, but usually it oscillates around the mid-30s.

Clearly, there is a national question, but as things stand the Scottish people do not want separation. Yet left nationalists such as Allan argue that the key task for socialists north of the border – a task which justifies splitting the organisations of revolutionary socialists in the face of a very united British state – must be to win a majority of Scots to see the benefits of breaking with England.

This strategy is dressed up as an assault on British imperialism. Allan at least has the honesty to acknowledge that independence under the Scottish National Party would not involve a break with the circuits of international capitalism. But that is precisely the form in which independence is most likely to be delivered. According to Colin Fox, even an independent capitalist Scotland would be more progressive than the current British state.

Even if that were true (it is not), a communist programme must be more ambitious than that. Allan talks in terms of taking “the leadership of the national movement here from the SNP”. How about taking the leadership of the working class movement throughout Britain and Europe?

Allan criticises the tactics of the CPGB during last year’s European elections. However, contrary to his assertion, the CPGB did raise the question of migration. It is simply that the sticking point with the Socialist Party candidates in No2EU was around the right to bear arms. I was critical of making that the key issue in those elections, when it was the nationalism of No2EU that should have retained the focus of our tactics (‘Against sectarianism’ Weekly Worker June 18 2009).

But raising the demand that the British state’s monopoly of armed force should be broken is key to a republican agenda. It exposes the undemocratic nature of the rule of the capitalist class and, therefore, has far more radical potential than the separatism to which Allan aspires. It is the kind of republican politics that can lead the working class to challenge for state power. That is the prize for which all communists should strive.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Dec 03 2002

From attack to defence: questions of leadership raised by the FBU dispute

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 04RCN @ 2:00 pm

Chris Jones (RDG) Former FBU Brigade Chair, Merseyside

The FBU dispute has moved decisively into a new phase in the first month of 2003. The offensive led by the FBU executive against the erosion of firefighters’ and control staff’s pay has now become a defensive battle. Quietly the 40% claim has been allowed to fall out of sight. Now the 16% deal phased over two years, first tabled by the employers in July 2002, has become the favoured option. Symbolically the Morning Star has removed the 40% headline claim from its banner on the front page. The dispute is now as much about saving the conditions of FBU members and existing levels of firecover for the public as it is about pay. This is the root of the FBU’s refusal to negotiate whilst the employers insist on acceptance of modernisation and the Bain Report as a precondition to a negotiated deal on pay. Following the worrying phoney war over Christmas, during which the FBU membership were left to drift, the FBU has begun to set out a policy of long-term guerilla action taking the dispute forward into 2003.

The FBU dispute has become a test of the entire trade union movement and the attitudes that workers and trade unionists need to adopt to New Labour and the government. It is also a test of the new breed of left trade union leaders, the awkward squad, and Andy Gilchrist’s leadership in particular. The question that is most commonly asked by fire-fighters and their friends and allies is what sense do you make of the FBU leadership’s tactics and the leadership of Andy Gilchrist in particular. The clarity of leadership that launched the campaign in 2002 was lost as successive strikes were called off and the ACAS process took negotiation behind closed doors. Above all we have to assess the current phase of workers struggle in relation to New Labour and the historic crisis in the Labour and Trade Union movement. In general terms the success or failure of the dispute rests on the capacity and willingness of the wider trades union movement to face up to the New Labour government over their failure to meet even the mildest aspirations of the organised working class. In terms of the practical questions facing FBU members a successful resolution of the dispute rests on the capacity of activists within the FBU to generate an organisational capacity that will allow the membership to act independently of the leadership should that prove necessary.

The FBU claim

The FBU claim was initiated by a report to the annual conference in 2002. The statement that preceded the report at the conference of 2001 recognised that:

‘free collective bargaining’ does not exist in the public sector. Successive governments use public sector pay as an economic ‘regulator’ in respect of controlling spending and thus influence inflation and growth.


FBU Statement

[Archived link]

This comment cuts to the heart of the issues raised during the dispute. The legitimate demands over pay raised by the FBU leadership were well supported by FBU members and achieved significant and resilient public support, notably more resilient than the support achieved in 1977. The problem for the FBU was that the claim contradicted the long-term strategy of the New Labour government. That strategy relied upon minor increases in expenditure on key public services associated with performance requirements that ground out large increases in productivity. In short the government could not afford to allow the tiny increases in public expenditure to be leached away in pay awards.

The decision to move away from the pay formula, agreed following the strike of the winter of 1977/8, was a difficult one. The FBU knew from the start that the battle would be a protracted and complex process and that the employers will certainly insist on something (FBU Statement 2001). The turn of events with the government sponsored Bain Report and demands for modernisation, interpreted as cuts in staffing and erosion of conditions, should have been no surprise to the FBU leadership or the activists amongst the rank and file. The employers had a detailed offer to table in July 2002. This would have produced a 16% rise in a phased deal over two years and was part of a complete package that recognised the need for a new pay formula and reviewed key conditions of service. The deal due to be tabled on July 9th was pulled after intervention by John Prescott. From this point the offers tabled by the employers have ratcheted down under pressure from the government and latterly in line with the Bain Report. The FBU leadership was initially highly successful in projecting the 40% claim but it has proved to be unable to maintain its position under pressure. The 16%, offered in July, has become the de facto ceiling for the FBU’s pay claim.

Full circle – the fire last time

The strike in 1977 was won against a reluctant Executive and the open opposition of the General Secretary of the FBU, Terry Parry. The pressure came from below and it was capable of being expressed in independent action in opposition to left leaders. In May 1977 the Merseyside brigade began an unofficial work-to-rule, led by an unofficial leadership. The dispute, under pressure from Terry Fields and the Brigade Officials, was due to be called off when the employers decided to issue an ultimatum that led to the sacking of fire-fighters who refused to go back to normal working prior to the agreed date. In the face of the sackings an unofficial strike began, organised through a mass meeting and enforced by a flying picket. This action was organised against the opposition of the local leadership that included Terry Fields who was later to be one of the Militant members elected as a Labour MP. When the strike began in November 1977 the strike was given no support by the TUC and public support was extremely limited. After only a few short weeks 70% of the public opposed the FBU action. This was a strike driven by the membership against opposition at all levels of the trade union movement and against a Labour government.

The strike was settled but never achieved its aim of breaching the 10% pay limit. The settlement was opposed by a significant minority of the FBU membership and could be described as a qualified defeat. The pay formula insulated fire-fighters pay from the worst pressures of the following years. The agreement on hours reduced working hours from a 48 hour week to a 42 hour week. It is this shift pattern that is so exorcising politicians and the press today. Perhaps most importantly the strike formed part of a wider settlement that spanned the military and police. The police in particular became the key to the Thatcher government’s assault on the working class. The largely accidental association with the police pay agreement helped to shelter the FBU deal.

Amongst fire-fighters the qualified defeat of 1978 began to appear as a victory. The strike had delivered the 42 hour week, though this was already in the wings before the strike, and it had ensured that the national scheme and conditions of service were preserved at a time when other public sector workers were loosing their own national conditions of service. This proved to be a highly effective defensive recipe when combined with assertive and well organised local union structures. In a series of defensive battles beginning in the late 1980s the FBU saw off a series of aggressive Chief Officers pursuing a New Public Sector Management agenda. The local fire authorities that lined up with the new style Chief Officers were mainly large metropolitan authorities under Labour control.

The New Labour authorities and the Chief Officers allied to reduce the control and influence of the FBU. They couldn’t break the pay formula so they concentrated their fire on eroding the scheme and conditions of service. Repeatedly aspects of the NJC agreements were challenged and guerrilla warfare ensued between local FBU officials and the local employers. The employers insisted on their right to manage and tried to narrow the scope of the national conditions, insisting that whole areas previously negotiated would only be subject to consultation in future.

As an FBU brigade official in Merseyside I was faced first hand by one of the new breed Chief Officers and the New Labour wannabes controlling the fire authority. The disputes and grievance procedures set down in the Grey Book (the NJC Conditions of Service) were routinely ignored so that disputes could only be resolved by resorting to industrial action. Gradually the FBU membership became educated and developed a disciplined resolve in the face of a series of employer’s provocations and acquired a willingness to act when local officials gave a lead. At times members would act independently but such action did not give rise to a rank and file organisation. Action was largely confined to the FBU branches. This is the base on which the current dispute rests. It is highly uneven and many brigades have not been tested by regular local activity and attacks from the employers. In contrast brigades like Merseyside have a ten year record of resisting Chief Officers and aggressive New Labour fire authorities. In Merseyside the last dispute culminated only last year in the exit of the Chief Officer under mysterious circumstances. On entering the current dispute the FBU was unevenly prepared for long-term defensive action and the discipline and activism that is required to maintain such a dispute.

In 1977 the FBU was faced with a Labour government that had a formal wages policy that restricted pay awards to 10%. This was in the context of years of falling real wages in the public sector and fire service in particular as inflation eroded spending power. One estimate put the fall in real wages for fire-fighters at 15% between 1974 and 1977. The build up to the strike had been loss of spending power and years of campaigning and the development of unofficial action beginning in a number of brigades years earlier, notably London in 1969 and Essex in 1970.

The FBU leadership opposed the strike and Terry Parry the FBU General Secretary as late as 1976 defended the Social Contract, claiming that the fight against inflation took priority over fire-fighters’ sectional interests. The growing opposition to the leadership found that in order to succeed the FBU minority had to organise at all levels of the union. The regions that supported industrial action had a series of unofficial meetings and rank and file groups sprang up in some areas such as Essex and Merseyside. The mood was captured by the publication in 1977 of National Rank and File Fireman (sic) a rank and file publication and organisation closely linked to the Socialist Workers Party.

In the current dispute fire-fighters pay has only begun to fall in recent years and the decision to abandon the pay formula was a balanced judgement not a clear necessity. The pressure for higher pay is regionalised and comes from younger fire-fighters in the south who are faced by impossibly high housing costs. The campaign has not welled up from below but is led from the top by the FBU Executive, Andy Gilchrist in particular. The FBU has little recent history of unofficial action and most disputes have been channelled through the FBU at local level. The local FBU leaderships are only loosely organised and there is little coordination between the most militant sections in various brigades, there is no genuine rank and file organisation at local or national level and the left grouping that organises at the higher levels of the union is a flabby loose organisation of the majority, unable to form a significant block that could provide both criticism and support of the leadership. The significant difference between 1977/8 and 2002/3 is that this dispute is led top down and was not fed by an organised pressure from below.

The national strike of 1977 followed the government imposition of the 10% limit in July 1977. The FBU who had begun their pay negotiation prior to the limit sought exemption but the government refused. This was not the first time that the FBU had fallen foul of pay limits that scuppered a deal already under negotiation. A recall conference in November 1977 heard the FBU Executive oppose a strike and call for further negotiations. London, Merseyside and Strathclyde moved strike motions and the Executive received almost no support. The London resolution calling for a strike ballot was lost on a card vote and a 2 to 1 majority passed the motion for strike action from 14th November, moved by Strathclyde and seconded by Merseyside. The one third opposition to this motion included London’s 6,000 firefighters who came behind the strike call within 24 hours. The wider trade union movement and the TUC were committed to the Labour pay policy. On 2nd December the TUC rejected the FBU call for a campaign against the pay policy of the government. This treachery was supported by the left on the General Council including Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon, architects of the Social Contract. Public support for the FBU fell and after four weeks 70% believed the FBU should settle. The army appeared to be more capable than expected and no major incident dented that impression.

In 2002/3 the dispute has the support of the TUC. This support is not without cost as it is TUC influence that has drawn the FBU in towards ACAS and arbitration. The significance of TUC support is that it indicates a sea change in union relations to Labour. The FBU also has the vigorous support of some of the new trade union leaders, Bob Crow in particular. Public opinion has continued to be much more sympathetic to the firefighters, a recent poll as the new strikes began showed 63% still supported the FBU. The modernisation agenda pushed by the government has located what could have been a sectional dispute in the mainstream of public sector concerns. For example a week prior to the White Paper on higher education a correspondent in the Times Higher drew out the link between fire-fighters and academic staff through the issue of modernisation. The FBU is potentially in a much stronger political position than in 1977 when the wide generalisation of the winter of discontent followed the FBU dispute by one year. The government faces difficult negotiations with a series of other public sector workers and it is still possible that the government will face a battle on several fronts, at home as well as abroad with the war drive on Iraq.

Bain and the employers offensive

The Bain Report is the outcome of a long process. The three knights, Sir George Bain, Sir Michael Lyons and Sir Anthony Young, nicknamed Camelot by the FBU were novices in fire service matters. Two academics and an ex-TUC President took three months to draw up the full report and simply brought together in one document an agenda that has been developing in employers’ circles for almost 20 years. The report comments at their surprise at how far the fire service lagged behind what they describe as best practice in the public and private sector. This is simply shorthand for a service that is not business ready and privatisation prepared. An article in Red Pepper notes the Group 4 Falck are situating themselves in preparation for bidding to run privatised sections of the new fire service, the proposed new joint controls being an obvious first step. Group 4 Falck, the self-proclaimed second largest security services provider worldwide, is an organisation that currently runs the Danish equivalent of the AA and most of the Danish fire service apart from some larger metropolitan areas. Modernisation in the fire service is closely linked to the privatisation of key government services and the neo-liberal agenda for the 21st century, it is far from an isolated dispute.

The modernisation agenda also begins from the idea that savings in the overall fire service budget can only be obtained by reducing the pay and conditions of workers, removing what employers describe as restrictive practices. These practices, such as a ban on prearranged overtime, are the bedrock of a safe and efficient public service. The government claim that the FBU stands in the way of a modern fire service is openly contradicted by their own White Paper written in 2001. The White Paper noted that:

The Fire Service is one of the most consistently high-performing services in local government. The Fire Service has already made considerable progress towards modernisation.

This succeeding service is highly effective in its work of responding to fire and other emergencies and widely admired by the public. Certainly the Audit Commission Performance Indicators for 1999-2000 published in January 2001 fully bear it out. At the same time, the role of the fire service has begun to change, essentially from a reactive to a proactive one; and the next few years will see a major transformation in the way fire brigades deliver services to the public.

The cynical attack on the FBU and the fire service is at one and the same time an attack on fire-fighters and control staff and an attempt to demolish a pillar of the 1945 Welfare State settlement.

The first national strike took place against the backdrop of a wave of militancy that peaked in terms of union membership and strike days in 1978/9. This wave crashed against a world recession that began in the mid 1970s. In the UK the wave of militancy peaked at the very point when the employers offensive became official government policy with the election of the Thatcher government in 1979. Throughout the early years of the Thatcher government, despite assaults on general trade union rights and set piece battles with key sections of workers, the FBU remained largely untouched. The Metropolitan County Councils, in particular the GLC, had relatively good relations with the FBU. The GLC with FBU support began to recruit significant numbers women and fire-fighters from minority ethnic and racial groups. The fire service could not remain outside the general change in relations between government, capital and labour for long. The first significant attack came in the form of the abolition of the Metropolitan County Councils in 1986. In the late 1980s the FBU came under growing pressure from local employers and Chief Officers for change. This pressure ran into conflict with the long-standing relationship between local Labour politicians and the FBU. Repeatedly Chief Officers began local reforms to find them blocked by a combination of trade union action and political pressure applied through local Labour organisations.

The Labour Party began to change from the mid-1980s signalled by the expulsion of the Militant Tendency including Terry Fields, a key figure in the 1977/8 strike who was by then a Labour MP. The change in climate within the Labour Party coincided with the more assertive management approach. In line with the general shift towards more aggressive New Management Techniques fire service managers, especially chief officers took a more assertive stance. This appeared in the form of local disputes but was seen correctly by the FBU as an emerging national pattern. In 1992 the FBU published Their Business Or Our service: a report on New Management Initiatives in the Fire Service. Throughout this period local developments were dependant upon national factors. The more powerful position of Chief Officers was at least in part the result of an assertion of central control by the Home Office and central government. From 1989 Chief Officers could only be appointed if they had completed a Brigade Command course. The Home Office had a pervasive influence in the selection of candidates for this course. Councillors that had achieved a degree of relative autonomy after the abolition of County Councils further strengthened the position of the Chief Officers. In the Joint Boards that followed the County Councils councillors were only indirectly accountable to electors through the City and District Councils.

The role of the HMI was changed to include over provision and value for money within their brief and the Audit Commission issued its first Occasional Paper Value for Money in the Fire Service (1986). This paper began the process that culminated in the Bain report by noting that there were only limited opportunities for savings under existing arrangements and recommending a review of rigid employment conditions. The local authorities were increasingly under the remote control of central government through performance indicators and financial constraints. The agenda for government modernisation is at least 17 years old and the mechanisms for centralised government control of the service have been developed over a number of years.

Just as the dispute of 1977/8 was prefigured in local disputes and an increasingly assertive rank and file, the 2002/3 dispute has been anticipated by the growth of employers offensives at a local level, led by increasingly aggressive Chief Officers. The freedom of action for the new breed of Chief Officers arose from a new relationship with local Labour politicians. New Labour in local politics has marginalized the FBU. Brigade and regional FBU officials that once met politicians in Labour Party caucuses prior to council meetings now wait outside while the Chief Officer briefs the senior councillors who form a Cabinet government. Disputes continue at a local level and the FBU has been successful at concentrating its national resources on significant local targets. The most recent of these was the campaign against Malcolm Saunders, the Chief Officer on Merseyside. In what was viewed as a high risk strategy the FBU targeted the Chief Officer and called openly for his removal. The campaign included a prominent poster outside a city centre fire station featuring a picture of Welephant, the fire service fire safety elephant mascot advising Mr Saunders to pack his trunk.

Mr Saunders went in what remain mysterious circumstances, well rewarded with a medical pension. Such victories may have made it appear to the FBU that they had significant power to influence events. The 1990s had taught the FBU to fight alone without significant political or wider trade union support. The question remained whether this would be enough in a major national dispute.

Labour and Labourism – the political crisis behind the dispute

Well before the pay claim was set in place the membership of the FBU passed a resolution calling on the Executive to open up the political fund to organisations other than the Labour Party. A New Labour was clearly in evidence in the FBU’s dealings with councillors and in disputes in areas like Merseyside long before New Labour was elected nationally. The local councillors who controlled the fire service at a local level had a relative autonomy after the abolition of County Councils and used this to pursue an agenda that excluded the FBU and drew ever closer to the Chief Officers. The call for opening the political fund to other parties was the direct result of local
FBU experiences with New Labour.

Resolution 101 – Political Fund

Conference notes with concern the continuing attacks on the Fire Service by Labour controlled Authorities.

Therefore, Conference agrees that the Fire Brigades Union Political Fund will in future be used to support candidates and organisations whose policies are supportive of the policies and principles of this Union. This may include candidates and organisations who stand in opposition to New Labour so long as they uphold policies and principles in line with those of the Fire Brigades Union.

When considering any request for assistance The Fire Brigades Union and Regional Committees should carefully examine the policies and record of all such individuals and organisations.

Conference instructs the Executive Council to prepare any necessary subsequent rule changes for Annual Conference 2002.

The Executive did not act on the resolution passed in 2001 and they campaigned so that the position was reversed at the same conference in 2002 that endorsed the pay campaign. There is a clear relationship between the pressure on the Executive to break from exclusive links to Labour and the top down militancy of the pay campaign. The pay campaign took the heat off the failure to act on the conference resolution on links to Labour. In the light of the dispute there is no doubt that the issue will return to conference and that the FBU will review its links with Labour amidst calls for both disaffiliation from Labour and calls for democratisation of the political fund. The next FBU conference is unlikely to take place this May and will probably be postponed until after the current dispute, but whenever it comes the question of the trades union’s political alliance with Labour will come into the spotlight. The strain between unions and the Labour Party is not restricted to the FBU and it signifies the erosion of the historic and political compromise that the Labour Party represented. The Independent newspaper reported on 24th January that trades union leaders were refusing to sign up to a £40 million donation to the Labour Party until an accommodation was reached with the FBU. This report was linked with the Labour Party local government conference on 14th February in Glasgow. The FBU dispute raises the prospect of fire-fighters leading a campaign throughout the trade union and Labour conference season attacking New Labour for its role in the dispute and calling for other union members to join with them in calling for the democratising of the political fund.

Historically Labour held out the prospect of workers being able to elect representatives to parliament and to form governments. The political compromise enshrined by Labour was that the Empire and the constitutional arrangements of the UK state would be left largely untouched. Labour made no serious calls for abolishing the monarchy or constitutional reform. In return the establishment, the ruling class of the Empire, would allow Labour to compete for election and form governments when able to do so. Labour set out to be a responsible mainstream party, loyal to the rules of the game. In effect it became the second eleven for the establishment, called in to head off serious political reform or revolt. Social and economic reform became Labour’s sole agenda and all political reforms were either quietly dropped or remained token commitments never central to Labour’s activity. It is only under New Labour that constitutional reform has returned to the agenda. In a Liberal guise, constitutional reform returned to form part of New Labour’s policy at the very point when New Labour was unable to deliver significant social and economic reform.

This compromise worked while Labour could deliver on its social and economic programme. In the 1970s government initiatives undermined this relationship, the Social Contract and In Place of Strife broke the consensus and radicalised a significant layer of workers. Rocked by defeat, Labour in the 1980s debated whether to make serious commitments and stick to them, a position identified with Tony Benn or to reduce commitments down to what could be delivered, this position later became identified with Tony Blair and New Labour. The revision of policy in New Labour was associated with a distancing from the trade unions. The FBU experienced the practical effects of the withdrawal of Labour from the alliance with the unions. The FBU was forced to fight against Labour local politicians many of whom they had helped to fund in running for office. For a second time in a quarter of a century the FBU was faced with a national dispute against a Labour government. In 1977 while many FBU members were disenchanted with Labour many of the activists in the union became engaged in the fight to strengthen the left inside the Labour Party in the 1980s. In 2003 this option is no longer on offer as there is no viable Labour left opposition to the Blair government or to New Labour policies within the party. The structure of New Labour has been gradually closed off from union influence at all levels. In short the FBU and the trade union movement no longer have a party to represent their interests in parliament and beyond.

Andy Gilchrist grappled with this point in his presentation to the Socialist Campaign Group. He argued that the unions needed to remove New Labour and replace it with Real Labour. The genuineness of these sentiments cannot be doubted but the lack of support he received following his statement was palpable and little has been heard from him on this topic since. It remains a significant weakness of the left of the trades unions that they find it difficult to openly break with Labour.

A question of leadership

It looks increasingly likely that the FBU leadership is prepared to settle for something like the 16% offered in July as long as it is not explicitly tied to acceptance of Bain. It is also likely that such a deal may retain the headline figures on pay but fail to retain the detail that made the deal initially so attractive to the FBU leadership, such as the promise of a new pay formula. There is still a real danger that the government is intent on breaking the FBU and that it will insist on pay being linked to a full acceptance of Bain. There were strong rumours, encouraged by the FBU leadership, that the government were preparing a legislative ban on further strikes before the first one day strike took place. In those circumstances it will prove impossible for the FBU to accept a deal and the government may impose it over the heads of the union leadership.

The FBU dispute raises questions of leadership in a number of distinct but related ways. Primarily the working class now lacks a party of its own. The search is now on for a replacement. This cannot be achieved by a simple declaration of the type that Arthur Scargill made with the formation of the Socialist Labour Party, or that numerous left groups made when they became the Workers Revolutionary Party, the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party. A new party must develop from the organic layers of leadership within the working class. It will require a re-composition of the existing left and a revision and renewal of their politics. A new unity and a new politics can only be achieved by overcoming the historic differences that separate the Labour, Communist and Trotskyist traditions. I would suggest that such a reformation should take place around the central idea that working class aspirations cannot be met within the political framework of the constitutional monarchy, the working class requires a democratic and republican state.

It will also require a significant break from Labour. Such a break will not occur without the maximum unity of the left outside of Labour. Unity of the left is now a central question. The Socialist Alliance is the best placed formation to lead in this process. It can only do so by raising its game. As it stands the Socialist Alliance is no more than an electoral front and it is routinely by-passed by its component organisations when they intervene in issues such as the FBU dispute or the anti-war movement. Red Watch the unofficial FBU news sheet has been a largely SWP initiative, and the Socialist Alliance members inside the FBU have not caucused during the dispute. It is an urgent priority that the Socialist Alliance coordinates itself in fractions within the trades unions and that these factions act as the core to a broader left grouping. In politics the Socialist Alliance needs to develop as a viable core around which a party could form. As an urgent priority the Socialist Alliance needs its own press and paper. The Socialist Alliance should commit itself to the aim of forging a new workers party, and engage with as many other left groups as possible to broaden the alliance beyond its present supporters.

Secondly the FBU dispute raises the question of leadership within the trade unions and the relationship of that leadership to politics. The trade unions are faced with a New Labour government that has pursued policies of privatisation in the public sector and has refused to repeal the antitrade union legislation passed during the previous Tory administrations. The trade union leadership continues to pay for New Labour despite recent reductions in contributions from several major unions. The trade union leadership must now be prepared to break its ties with Labour. Union members must force the union leadership to make every penny paid out in political contributions conditional on support for the aims and aspirations of union members. The current crop of awkward squad trade union leaders remains a very mixed bunch. Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka stand out as principled left leaders who will stand opposed to New Labour. Andy Gilchrist has not been able to make that break in a clear way during the FBU dispute and this has hindered his leadership, especially following his intervention at the Socialist Campaign Group meeting in Manchester. The role of left leaders will, however, depend on more than their overt political leanings. The FBU may now be faced with a period of struggle at a national level of the same type that occurred locally in the 1990s. If the dispute is resolved with an accommodation on pay and no direct link to Bain then the employers are likely to keep coming and the FBU will have to defend against a series of coordinated assaults. If the government impose a settlement on the FBU, then the FBU will be forced to fight a rearguard action over many months, perhaps years, which will involve continuing calls for industrial action. In both cases the FBU will need to build an active membership and an effective leadership at all levels of the union. No matter how good the leadership is, without the support of an effective rank and file its action is likely to fail. The membership will need to develop a capacity for action on the basis of the early shop stewards movement – official if we can, unofficial if we must. The question of rank and file organisation is not separate from the capacity of existing left leaders to fight, it is fundamental to their ability to act.

Just as the miners strike heralded the final breaking up of the last traditional bastion of the industrial strength of Labour, so the FBU strikes herald the end of the old political Labour. It may not happen immediately but the die has been cast. The working class now needs a new political party to represent it. Labour has dropped the crown, the question is who can pick it up.

Tags: , , ,