Guest post by Bill Sharpe
Arguing against the renewal of Trident must have seemed so simple, an easy win for the Corbyn Labour leadership, swords into ploughshares and we all walk off arm in arm into a Trident free sunset – maybe singing the Red Flag. That may well have been how the Corbynistas saw it playing out, yet right from the outset when they started this particular hare running, the reality was very different. The parliamentary timetable was always against Labour having any real say, it was always going to engulf the Party, and particularly the PLP which was not going to be helpful as the key unions (GMB and Unite) were always going to be for renewal. Everything points to a fudge at the next Labour Party conference and with it inevitable demoralisation among the Corbynistas. My union, the GMB, will be quite happy with this, as we have thousands of members whose jobs depend upon Trident.
The one thing that may change this is how Unite votes on the matter at its forthcoming Policy Conference. Although Unite’s defence workers are fully behind renewal, the conference has a number of anti-Trident resolutions on the agenda and if it were to vote against renewal it would once again change the balance of power within the Labour Party.
Unite is generally seen as the most influential left wing union and socialists will view Unite’s forthcoming debate primarily in political terms – a left vs right `shoot out’: on one side the defence industry workers who are seen (probably rightly) as pro – imperialist, right wing, reactionary etc etc; on the other side the union’s lefts who want to scrap Trident, end austerity and are Corbyn supporters – also probably true. Such a view is to miss the point. The Unite debate will not be a political but an economic, a trade union, matter – or at least I for one would hope so.
Unite Policy Conference delegates have three possible choices: they can vote for `unconditional support’ for renewal, `scrapping only’ if suitable alternative work can be found or `scrapping regardless’ of whether alternative work can be found. For sure, the `scrapping only’ positon will bring together a big majority within the union leaving `unconditional support’ the minority position. There is however a fatal flaw in the ‘scrapping only’ standpoint.
When the Berlin wall fell the defence industry went into free fall with many thousands of jobs lost. In response the unions undertook a number of studies looking at alternative work; some were very imaginative but none were viable. What employer was going to pay top dollar to some of the most highly skilled workers in the county (after space technology putting together a Trident submarine is the second most complex technical exercise humanity undertakes) concentrated in one of the most inaccessible places in the county to build white goods or wind turbines? The alternative work plans were seemingly consigned to the dustbin of history. However some 25 years later variants of these plans were resurrected, finding their way onto Corbyn’s election campaign website as part of his pitch to scrap Trident.
While intellectually lazy and/or self-deluded socialists have tacked onto the end of their anti- Trident arguments the demand for alternative work, so resolving (to their own satisfaction) the problem of mass redundancies and the devastation of Barrow and surrounding areas, workers in the industry have looked into the matter and are telling us there is no such thing as alternative work. Consequently ‘scrapping only’ is in effect a vote for renewal – a position I for one hope the Unite conference will adopt. However many on the left, including it would seem, many in Unite, stand on the ‘regardless’ position.
The problem with the ‘regardless’ position is when the rhetoric and caveats are removed such resolutions are calling on the union to support the sacking of several thousands of their fellow members. For a union to vote for a `scrap anyway’ resolution would be a fundamental violation of its core functions: the defence and enhancement of terms and conditions and the aspiration to organise the entire working class regardless of their political views.
This issue illustrates in a very stark manner the underlying and enduring difference between general class interests, which translate into political interests – in this case the scrapping of Trident – and specific sectional interests which are unions’ economic concerns and in this instance mean keeping Trident.
In saying unions should support ‘scrapping only’ I am not saying a union is always right: such a view would suppress any critical judgement of unions and deny any right to independence of thought by socialists when dealing with unions: it would mean (at best) becoming a more realistic variant of the unions’ house journal the Morning Star. I am, however, saying socialists should recognise that a union must pursue its members’ interests, even when these come into conflict with broader socialist views.
For socialists who wish to be critical of unions there are two possible approaches: one can be characterised as `politicising unions’, which starts from recognition of the division between the political and economic as a given and as far possible attempts to mitigate the sectional and where possible merge the sectional into a more general class interest. This is done within the unions themselves around industrial matters, but more importantly engaging with and helping develop a socialist political culture within the unions.
To begin to undertake such a task one has to recognise the existence of the political / economic division. But in this period of union decline the dominant approach of leftists and would-be Marxists is to be seemingly unaware or indifferent to the division. There are clear parallels here with 3rd period Stalinism. In this approach the left is continually attempting to turn the union into a political rather than an economic entity, they view it as a form of political party and continually demand its programme appropriate to a party – political unionism. Such an approach can only succeed by either superseding or suppressing the union’s economic function of defending member’s terms and conditions.
A ‘scrap anyway’ positon illustrates this point in a very blunt manner, as it inescapably means supporting the loss of many thousands of jobs (an unfortunate by-product of the greater good) and with it supressing the unions function of defending members jobs.
The ‘union as a political party’ approach is also how the best trades unionists tend to perceive (and reject) what socialists are about: it needs little imagination to work through the political lessons defence delegates will take away from Unite Trident debate as they listen to their `left wing’ bothers and sisters explaining why they should lose their jobs.
The Unite Trident debate holds within it two possible ways socialists can approach unions: if their conference can get beyond a debate about ‘scrapping regardless’, which is to recognise they cannot support non-renewal. They will then be in a position to play a pivotal role in taking the alternative work debate forward. At present the demand for alternative work is merely a rhetorical prop for socialists, with no real content – based on present realities it can go nowhere. Unite has the ability to demand that labour links alternative work for the defence industry into a broader call for a rebalancing of the economy which should have centre stage in Labour’s 2020 manifesto.
The ability to move the alternative work debate on is made possible by the space opened up by Corbyn’s victory: it should be seen as part and parcel of the potential which now exists for the refounding of a labour movement. Although in many respects this will be very different from 1900s, now as then, socialists have a choice: either they engage with this or cut themselves of from it: posturing and empty sloganising will inevitably fail, but pursuing the politicisation of the unions (as opposed to the left’s agenda of “political unionism”) may just offer a way through the dilemma.
By Pat Corcoran
The Unite report of its recent conference for members in the defence sector is at: http://www.unitetheunion.org/news/unpatriotic-government-policy-putting-defence-jobs-at-risk/ McCluskey says that his speech is not a nationalist rant. Which is the roundabout way of saying: it is a bit of a nationalist rant.
The book of conference motions for the 2016 Unite policy conference has just been published. There are 13 pages of motions about Trident renewal, ranging from full support to outright opposition. Most motions take the latter position. Unsurprisingly, the motion from the Aerospace and Shipbuilding National Industrial Sector Committee (NISC) does not. What that motion calls for is for Rule 2 to be upheld. Rule 2 of the Unite Rulebook is a commitment to protect members’ jobs and communities. As the motion puts it: “We are not a political party, we are a trade union.”
In fairness, Unite does face a genuine dilemma: Around 7,000 people in Barrow-in-Furness work for BAE Systems Maritime, with up to 10,000 more working for its suppliers. The firm is currently building seven nuclear-powered Astute-class submarines and planning the Successor programme to replace the aging Vanguard-class submarines, which carry nuclear missiles, ensuring jobs for 30 years. The industry is responsible for around one in ten jobs in the area and if the supply chain is taken into account it’s probably nearer one in five.
In addition, Unite has a long established tradition of respecting the wishes of its directly effected sectors when it comes to key industrial issues.
McCluskey and the overwhelming majority of the Unite EC would genuinely like to see nuclear disarmament, but they face a real dilemma: surely the first duty of a trade union is to defend the jobs of its members? The Aerospace and Shipbuilding NISC has a point about Unite not being a political party.
There is only one way to resolve this dilemma: Unite must commission an expert report into how to replace Trident-related jobs and put serious resources (ie financial resources) into coming up with a detailed, practical alternative jobs plan, just as the Lucas Aerospace shop stewards did in the 1970’s. Corbyn could also be offered support for abolishing Trident so long as assurances are forthcoming regarding a future Labour government safeguarding jobs. Sadly, there is no sign at the moment that McCluskey and the United Left majority on the EC are minded to adopt such a strategy.
Corbyn must now break all links with this scum
The rotten, foul-smelling half-alive corpse that is the Stop The War Coalition, has finally crossed the line: these scum cannot tell the difference between fascism and anti-fascism. They’ve just put up on their website, an article by one Matt Carr, that includes the following:
“Benn does not even seem to realize that the jihadist movement that ultimately spawned Daesh is far closer to the spirit of internationalism and solidarity that drove the International Brigades than Cameron’s bombing campaign – except that the international jihad takes the form of solidarity with oppressed Muslims, rather than the working class or the socialist revolution.”
How much lower can this filthy organisation sink? Its time for those unions (like Unite) who finance this organisation to withdraw all financial and political support. And Jeremy Corbyn should now break all links with this scum.
The Certification Officer – an unelected official created by the Thatcher government for the purpose of undermining trade union democratic procedures – has ordered a by-election for one of the Scottish territorial seats on the Unite Executive Council (EC).
The seat had been held by Davy Brockett, elected to the Executive Council in April of 2014 for a three-year period. Five months after his election fellow-EC-member Agnes Tolmie formally questioned Davy’s eligibility to hold the seat.
(In the 2010 Unite General Secretary election Tolmie had backed right-wing candidate Les Bayliss, standing on a platform of class collaboration, craft chauvinism, union centralisation, and public denunciations of striking workers.
After Bayliss lost, Tolmie joined the United Left grouping in Unite. She was elected to the union’s EC in 2014 on the United Left slate. Earlier this year she again parted company with the United Left.)
In response to Tolmie’s challenge to Davy’s eligibility, the different factions represented on the Unite EC, along with members of no factions, joined together to support Davy. In December of 2014 the EC unanimously backed Davy’s right to sit on the EC.
To hold a seat on the Unite EC a member must be what is called “Rule 6 compliant”. But, under the Unite Rulebook, the EC is empowered to waive the normal criteria of “Rule 6 compliance” where a member, like Davy, has been victimised and blacklisted.
The EC is empowered to do so because employers – by sacking and blacklisting union activists – would otherwise be able to exercise control over the composition of the union’s EC.
One out of Unite’s 1.4 million members was not prepared to accept the unanimous decision of the highest decision-making lay body of the union and lodged a complaint with the Certification Officer in April of 2015.
The complainant was Ian Murray, Agnes Tolmie’s husband. (Normally one would not define a union activist – or anti-union activist – in terms of their marital relationship. Not to do so in this case would be crass negligence.)
Astonishingly, despite the unanimous support for Davy by the EC, Unite officials chose not to defend that decision and not to contest Ian Murray’s complaint.
In June, Unite – probably in the form of Len McCluskey’s Chief of Staff Andrew (not to be confused with Tolmie’s husband Ian) Murray – wrote twice to the Certification Officer “acknowledging” (sic) and “conceding” (sic) that Davy was not eligible to sit on the EC.
This left the Certification Officer with no option but to uphold the complaint by one lone member against a unanimous decision of the union’s EC. As the Certification Officer wrote in his decision:
“The Union having conceded [Davy’s ineligibility], I so declare. This decision is reached on the basis of the Union’s concession without having heard detailed argument on the correct interpretation of the relevant rules.”
In fact, the Certification Officer went out of his way to stress that his decision, based on the absence of any arguments from Unite, was not to be taken as setting a precedent:
“Should the meaning of those rules be a matter of dispute in any future case, the present decision should not be regarded as providing any authoritative guidance on their interpretation or application.”
By way of remedy, Ian (not Andrew) Murray proposed that the unsuccessful candidate in the 2014 elections should simply take over Davy’s seat. According to Murray, this would “save the division and rancour that there would be should Mr. Brockett wish to stand again.”
In the event, the Certification Officer rejected Murray’s proposal and ordered a by-election be held, with the result announced no later than late January 2016.
Davy is rightly contesting that by-election. And he is doing so not just on the basis of his past record of standing up for members’ concerns but also in order to defend lay-membership democracy.
As Davy’s appeal for nominations puts it:
“At its December 2014 meeting our Executive Council unanimously expressed its support and confidence in me. But this decision was overturned by the Certification Officer.
I am therefore standing in this by-election to uphold the principles of lay democracy, and to send out a strong message that our union should be run by the membership, not unelected officials.”
Questions certainly need to be asked about the failure of Unite officials to defend the unanimous EC decision to back Davy – and their failure to inform the EC about this.
EC members learnt that Unite officials had not defended the EC decision only when the Certification Officer’s decision was published in October. They had not been informed of this at any of the EC meetings held after the complaint had been lodged.
But right now the priority for Unite branches in Scotland is to nominate Davy for the vacant seat on the EC, and to encourage their members to vote for him when the ballot papers go out.
With the election taking place over the Christmas/New Year break, every nomination and every vote could be vital.
Above: Trident nuclear submarine patrolling (Getty Images)
Jeremy Corbyn has suffered his first defeat as Labour leader: and it’s been Unite and the GMB who’ve brought it about.
The decision by delegates at the Party conference not to have a debate on Trident came about because Unite and the GMB, with tens of thousands of their members’ jobs dependent upon the renewal of the nuclear weapons system, made it clear that they’d vote against any anti- Trident resolution.
Today’s Morning Star front page headline declared ‘Dismay As Trident Vote Is Blocked’ while the story beneath quoted CND’s Kate Hudson, at some length, decrying the decision as “bitterly disappointing, not just for the Labour delegates and members who wanted to see that debate take place, but for many, many others round the country who wanted to see Labour stand up unequivocally against the government’s determination to rearm Britain with nuclear weapons … Failure of Labour to change its policy means that in spring next year , when the government seeks Parliament’s approval for Trident’s replacement, Labour policy will be on the wrong side … Labour will give the Tory government a blank cheque for nuclear rearmament.”
Tucked away at the end of the Star‘s article is a brief reference to the role of Unite, the paper’s main funder: ‘Setting out his opposition to unilateralism, Unite leader Len McCluskey said: “I understand the moral case and the huge cost of replacing Trident, especially in this era of austerity, but the important thing for us is jobs and the defence of communities.”
The embarrassment of the Morning Star aside, the significance of the votes of Unite and the other major unions on this issue, is that they seem to be reverting to their traditional role as bastions of right wing pragmatism, against the leftist idealism of much of the Party’s rank and file (although, having said that, only 7.1% of constituency delegates voted for a debate on Trident). It also points to the failure of the anti-Trident left to deal effectively with the questions of jobs: Unite and the GMB in reality regard Trident as a massive job creation scheme and so far (beyond vague references to the Lucas Alternative Plan of the 1970’s) the left has failed to come up with a convincing answer.
Meanwhile the GMB’s recently-knighted buffoon of a general secretary, ‘Sir’ Paul Kenny has lined up with Labour’s Europhobes (some of the most right wing people in the Party) in urging the Party to “keep its options open” on EU membership and, in fact, campaign for withdrawal if Cameron’s renegotiation results in any weakening of British workers’ rights – quite how leaving the EU will prevent the Tories attacking workers’ rights in Britain is not explained by Kenny or his europhobic friends. In fact, Corbyn’s recent clarification on Europe (stating that he “cannot envisage” Labour campaigning for withdrawal and that the Party will re-instate any workers’ rights bargained away by Cameron) is plainly the only rational left-wing position.
For all his fake-left posturing, Kenny’s position on Europe (like his position on Trident) is, objectively, an attack on Corbyn … from the right.
It’s time for Corbyn’s supporters to start organising seriously in the unions.
I’ve always looked up to you, from the days when we were in Socialist Organiser – you the Marx-reading shop steward in a car plant and me the young student. In 2011 you described Jeremy Corbyn in these terms: “Corbyn is now beyond the pale and part of a de facto anti-democratic, pro-fascist and anti-semitic current that claims to be “left-wing” but is in fact, profoundly reactionary and anti-working class.” So why did you urge Unite (my trade union) to back Corbyn? Will you vote for him? Why? Is it democratic centralism? If so, fuck that Jim. Look back at what you wrote in 2011 and, as Dylan sang, ‘Don’t think twice, its alright.’
(NB Alan Johnson is not the MP of the same name! This Alan’s Open Letter to Jeremy Corbyn, expanding on many of the points he raises above, can be read here).
Thanks for your kind words and because I admire your intellect and evident principles I’ve given some thought to your comments (incidentally, although I was a motor industry shop steward when we first knew each other, before that I’d also been a student and I don’t think our ages are that different …).
Firstly, you are quite justified in drawing attention to what I’ve previously written about Corbyn’s attitude to a number of international issues (ie knee-jerk anti-Americanism) and – perhaps worse – his unsavoury “friends” and/or associates in the Palestine solidarity movement (anti-semites like Hamas and Hesbollah, the Jew-hating Islamist Raed Salah and the holocaust-denier Paul Eisen, for instance).
These “friends” (Corbyn’s own description of Hamas and Hesbollah representatives when he hosted them in Parliament in 2009) are significant, disturbing and a matter that should be (and has been) raised by myself and others within the Corbyn campaign – and we will continue to raise these issues in the event that Corbyn wins.
Are these concerns (as you and some other people I know and respect, have argued) sufficient to make support for Corbyn unacceptable or unprincipled? I’d argue not, and here’s why:
We live and ‘do’ politics within a British labour movement that has some pretty awful political traditions within it: craven reformism, nationalism, various forms of racism, sexism and general backwardness. I’ve been on the knocker, over the years, for some truly dreadful people who happened to wear a Labour rosette. The mainstream left of the Labour movement is – in its way- just as bad. Influenced to varying degrees by Stalinism, it takes lousy positions on international affairs, often seems to operate on the bankrupt principle of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” and has a long-standing tendency to allow its (correct) support for the Palestinian cause slide over into indifference to anti-Semitism. It also has a terrible habit (which I think at least partly explains Corbyn’s warm words to Hamas and Hesbollah) of being diplomatic towards people it regards as perhaps dodgy, but broadly “on the right side.”
Corbyn is part of that left – as was Tony Benn, who we all supported when he stood for the Deputy Leadership against Dennis Healey in 1981. Like Benn (and unlike shysters of the Livingstone/ Galloway variety) he seems to be a decent and principled human being, despite his political failings and downright naivety on a range of (mainly international) issues..
Yes, the British labour movement, including the “left”, has some rotten politics. But it’s our movement and in the assessment of Marxists and serious socialists, the only hope we have of building a decent, democratic society ruled by the working class. We work within that movement to transform it, so that society itself can be transformed. We are consistent democrats who relate to workers in struggle in their existing organisations – organisations that are infused with all sorts of Stalinist, bourgeois, reformist and other reactionary ideas.
The Corbyn campaign is dominated by the politics that dominates the mainstream left in Britain – a soft Stalinism and incoherent “anti imperialism” that also dominates the Morning Star, the Communist Party of Britain, the SWP and Stop The War (the misnamed outfit still, unfortunately, supported by our union, Unite). But the rank and file people (many of them young and new to the movement) who’ve been enthused by Corbyn’s campaign have been attracted by his anti-austerity stance, his opposition to the neoliberal consensus, and his inspiring if not always entirely coherent message that a better, fairer and more equal society is possible. We cannot stand aside from this movement by abstaining or backing the wretched Burnham or Cooper. Just as serious socialists have always argued for active, positive engagement with the actual, existing labour movement as a whole, so we must argue for engagement with that movement’s left – and for now, that means support for the Corbyn campaign. That’s also the best way of making our criticism of his international policies heard by the people who need to hear it – his ordinary supporters, the young and not-so-young people he’s enthused and inspired and who make up the bedrock of his support.
That’s why, Alan, despite the many harsh words I’ve spoken and written about Corbyn and the kind of politics he represents, I’m supporting him. And that, by the way, is my honestly-held personal opinion, and nothing to do with the AWL, for whom I do not speak on this matter. I don’t suppose we’re going to agree on this, but please feel free to come back at me with any further thoughts or comments.
With best wishes
By Dale Street
When Jim Murphy announced last Saturday that he was standing down as Scottish Labour Party leader, he took it as an opportunity to lambast Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey for his supposedly “destructive behaviour” towards the Labour Party.
Murphy claimed that he had been “at the centre of a campaign by the London leadership of Unite the Union, (who) blame myself or the Scottish Labour Party for the defeat of the UK Labour Party in the general election.”
“Sometimes people see it as a badge of honour to have Mr. McCluskey’s support. I see it as a kiss of death to be supported by that type of politics. … We cannot have our leaders selected or deselected by the grudges and grievances of one prominent man.”
“The leader of the Scottish Labour Party doesn’t serve at the grace of Len McCluskey, and the next leader of the UK Labour Party should not be picked by Len McCluskey.”
Len McCluskey has twice been elected Unite’s General Secretary, in 2010 and again in 2013.
If McCluskey really is guilty of “destructive behaviour” and his politics the “kiss of death”, then the Unite members who have twice elected him their General Secretary must be either: really thick not to have seen through him; or willing accomplices of his destructive behaviour. Read the rest of this entry »
Andrew Murray: Popular Frontist
” … the [Labour] party’s leaders in parliament know that if they were to lose Unite, there could be an English Syriza formed with more resources and dynamism than the party it would replace” – Counterfire
It hasn’t been widely publicised, but for the last couple of years Unite leader Len McCluskey has been saying that in the event of Labour losing the general election, Unite would seriously consider disaffiliating from the party.
Many of us considered this a bizarre position to take: surely the aftermath of a Labour defeat, and the ensuing ideological struggle between the Blairite right and various more left-wing currents, is precisely the time when affiliated unions should be exerting their influence?
McCluskey’s strange position seems to have been a concession to anti-Labour forces within the union, which include the Socialist Party (and their pathetic TUSC electoral front), various free-lance syndicalists within the United Left, a significant number of Scottish members (antagonised by Miliband’s handling of the Falkirk row, and now pro-SNP), and -perhaps most importantly – his ‘Chief of Staff’ Andrew Murray, to whom he has in effect sub-contracted the running of politics within the union. Murray, a member of the Communist Party of Britain who is on record supporting North Korea, has a record of deciding the union’s political “line” without reference to the union’s executive, in accordance with his own Stalinist predilections.
Murray is part of the current within the CPB that favoured closer links with Galloway and Respect and, through his prominent involvement in the Stop The War Coalition also has a close relationship with John Rees, Lindsey German and their small ex-Trotskyist organisation Counterfire.
This influence over the union’s leadership accounts for the enormous resources Unite has poured into Counterfire’s initiative The People’s Assembly, the union’s declared (but undebated) support for Lutfur Rahman in Tower Hamlets, and also for McCluskey’s unwillingness to call for a Labour vote in Scotland.
Counterfire and its Stalinist friends have two prominent supporters in the mainstream press, Seumas Milne (in the Guardian) and Owen Jones (in the Independent and New Statesman), both of whom, immediately prior to the election, were promoting the idea of a popular frontist anti-Tory coalition, and the idea that a Tory minority government would be, in effect, a ‘coup’ against the anti-Tory parliamentary majority. There was even a ‘Counterfire’-inspired proposal for a demonstration against the ‘coup’, although this didn’t take place under its planned slogans, due to the reality of the Tory absolute majority.
Counterfire is a small and politically insignificant outfit, but via Murray, it wields influence within Unite (despite the fact that it has only one known member within the union!) Therefore when articles like this and this appear on the Counterfire website, Unite activists who understand the vital political importance of maintaining the Labour link, should prepare for battle against the defeatists, class collaborationists and syndicalists who’ll be arguing for a break with Labour and the creation of a lash-up with the SNP, the Greens and even (according to the schema put forward by Murray’s pal Seumas Milne) sections of the Lib Dems! They may present it as “an English Syriza” reacting to the “Pasokification” of Labour (“English” because the SNP’s autonomy in Scotland must be respected), but in reality it would be a new variation on an old, class-collaborationist theme: the Popular Front.