The suggestion, only half raised by UNITE general secretary Len Mccluskey last week, that trade unionists may see the Olympics as a campaign opportunity received the usual howls of derision from the usual quarters. Cameron and his pack of braying backbenchers gleefully demanded that Ed Milliband distance himself from the comment. Milliband of course was quick to oblige and in response we saw the inevitable media hysteria that a ‘union baron’ could promote the ‘vested interests’ of the membership by ‘tarnishing ‘ an event as sacred as the Olympics. How dare Unions bemoan unemployment? Don’t they know there is badminton to support?
This little media storm, par for the course when it comes to the continued demonization of the union movement, prompted Owen Jones, author of Chavs to call for the unions to end their social isolation and actively become part of the wider community. The workforce has changed, and so has the role of the unions, Jones tell us. Now workers may find themselves in several workplaces in one year. Now unions are largely restricted to the public sector, with a small minority of private sector workers becoming members. The answer, Jones argues, is not to think of unions as being tied to workplaces, but to engage in what he calls ‘community organising’. ‘Frustration is rising,’ Jones warns, “if the unions don’t tap into it, then somebody else will.”
Jones has hit upon two problems here, one intentionally and, as a Labour Party member, one very unintentionally.
The first is that since the historic Miner’s Strike and the labour militancy of the 1980’s trade union membership has been in decline. This is not only due to the anti-trade union laws, or the disillusionment that set in following the defeats of the 1980’s. It was also caused by the shift to the right of the Labour party, which along with the collapse of the USSR, more than politically disorientated the unions. Add that to the Union leaderships’ own inability to successfully promote trade unionism to the post 1989 generation which has now entered the workforce and you arrive where we are today. Now we have right-wing leaders, using member’s money to finance a pro-big business New Labour party. While there is of course a huge difference between the membership and the leadership, never the less the union movement is only now starting to rebuild itself.
The second point is the lack of opposition that the Labour party, or any parliamentary group, is marshalling against the government. All three parties agree on the fundamental need for austerity, the only debate they have is how fast and how deep. This is not only true at the parliamentary level, it is being found in local councils across the UK as Labour councilors refuse to vote against cuts. The result, which Jones has identified, is that as Labour are not fulfilling their role as opposition the job has fallen to trade unions and anti-cuts groups.
In Portsmouth the anti-cuts group PACT, which is affiliated to the Trade Union council, has twice been forced to present alternative budgets to the city council as neither the Tories, or Labour could offer an alternative. No doubt this is an experience being witnessed across the county as the anti-austerity groups, in whatever formulation or state of organisation they may be, are being forced to take on this role.
This, the role of official opposition, is the role Jones asks if the unions can take on. To do that he is right, the unions would have to look beyond their own memberships to the community as whole. However, that cannot be achieved by retreating from the traditional battle field of the trade unionist, the workplace.
The fundamental battle which trade unions were created to fight was that between the worker and the boss. The changing nature of the workforce has done nothing to alter that ongoing dispute. Indeed under-25s, who are largely un-unionised, are among the workers most exploited by employers. The government’s workfare scheme is proof of this if any were needed.
How than can the Unions fulfill this new historic role without deserting their primary reason for being? The answer is twofold and in Portsmouth we see the first seeds of the idea becoming reality.
Tonight PACT will hold its AGM, with the election of organizers and a discussion of how the group will be taken forward. Like many anti-cuts groups PACT is a mix of new faces and campaigners familiar to local radical politics, including members of the Socialist Party, the SWP, the Greens and Occupy. However, the crucial point is that the group is tied to the trades council. The group was established in 2010 with the intention of building a community wing of the anti-cuts campaign which could work alongside the trade unions and build community support for workers in dispute.
In this PACT have been successful, organising demos, protests, lobbies, gigs and solidarity action with trade unions. The fact that the group is mainly funded by the unions and that most of the organisers are also in unions helps to keep the link alive.
Of course PACT is not the perfect organization. Like all campaigns it is dependent on the context it is in, the consciousness of its community and the people who actually turn up. Occasionally it has resembled the post-2003 Anti-war campaigns, repeatedly calling demos and marches ensuring meetings are more organizational than political. However, if turned outwards PACT still has the potential to become a group which brings together disparate anti-cuts activists, linking them to the local union movement and building a generalised movement against all cuts.
Groups such as PACT are a short-term solution to the need to build effective opposition to the cuts. However, long term a different solution is needed. It should come as no surprise that as a campaigner for TUSC in the last two elections I see the answer as a trade union backed New Party. By breaking the link with Labour the unions could forge a new party, which would represent the community beyond their own membership.
The debate on the need for a new party is not new and it is addressed throughout this website. The point here is the role such a party would play in the community, and the role socialists would play within it.
The Socialist Party is a revolutionary party. Its core reason for being is to adopt and adapt the lessons of our collective revolutionary heritage and apply them to the modern world. We are Marxists, and in our analysis of the workings of society we turn to the ideas first proposed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engles. Indeed we do so not in a dogmatic way, but in the way an evolutionary biologist would refer to Darwin or a physicist would refer to the works of Newton. To turn this analysis into action we then heed the lessons of history and the struggles led by Lenin, Trotsky and others.
Put simply, we are revolutionary socialists and our task is to build for a revolutionary shift in society. However, as revolutionaries we are of course in the minority. Our task is to agitate and promote these ideas, but even in a new party we would be a tendency.
The question then is how to promote the ideas of socialism to the wider community and for that we can again turn to the arguments being raised by Owen Jones. Jones talks of the marginalisation of the union movement, but that in turn is only part of a wider decline in political participation across wider society.
Once, and not that long ago, politics was an everyday part of life. Families, households, streets and communities identified with their political party. Evidence for this still exists, for only a few hundred yards from my front door I could walk into a ‘Liberal Club’ or the ‘Conservative Club.’ The ‘Labour Club’ is only a few more hundred yards away and several pubs in the city were once cooperative clubs or trade union meeting houses.
Now those premises lie largely neglected, occasionally hosting a retirement party, a darts night or even a trade union meeting once a month. Their old role as the political heartbeat of the community has been forgotten. Their decay is symbolic of the wider decline of political identity within our communities. This is what we must reclaim.
At a recent regional meeting of the Socialist Party we debated community organising. Should socialists support, lead or be involved in, initiatives such as food banks, clothes swaps or other activities which represent community self-organisation. Such activity, the consensus agreed, would have to be kept political. Socialists would not wish to embrace Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ and would have to ensure that they were not trying to fulfil a service which we would demand local, or central, government perform. Also, the pragmatists noted small revolutionary parties have limited resources. Is this sort of work the priority, even if it is desirable?
The answer is clear. A small revolutionary party must keep its priorities political; however this sort of organising is exactly the sort of activity a new party would need to embrace were it to establish itself in the community.
It is an argument to consider in another post, but it is worth noting that the German SPD, which became the largest mass socialist party in the world until the First World War, built itself upon such work. The SPD organisers knew that political meetings, although essential, were not enough. They built entire SPD communities, with workplace football teams, sports associations and clubs. It was by becoming part of the community, part of the everyday life of the people, that the SPD grew as it did.
The SPD of course were not a fully revolutionary party, especially not by the First World War, but this does not tarnish the methods they used to build the party. It simply underlines the importance of having a strong Marxist tendency at its core.
The ‘chicken or egg question’ however is, will the new party need to turn to its community to build, or will the community build the new party. It is accepted that the establishment of the new socialist party which could become the modern equivalent of the SPD will not have to be born in the traditionally linear way.
Nor is it the case that communities will wait until there is a new party before they start to self-organise. As protesters in Cairo showed in the extreme example of the Egyptian revolution last year, in situations where people are forced to act they can, and will, adopt tactics socialists would call for without being consciously socialist. The neighbourhood groups which sprung up across Cairo to defend communities from gangs and the police are an example of that.
Closer to home some communities will also turn to self organisation in response to the austerity measures. To an extent this is what groups such as occupy represent; members of the community agreeing that the current situation is untenable and agreeing that they need to find their own alternative to it.
It is alongside the trade unions which are looking to rebuild and politically recalibrate. It is alongside the revolutionary socialist groups and other radicals, and it is alongside local anti-cuts organisations like PACT that these community groups must work. Together they can not only fulfil their role as the official opposition, they can become the embryo for a new party, allowing them to go further than just oppose, by building their new alternative.
Owen Jones’ article can be found here: http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/owen-jones-if-trade-unions-dont-fight-the-workers-corner–others-will-7468921.html