Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Respect: organising for fighting unions?

Many critics of Respect – myself included – argue that the chief problem with the Galloway/SWP front organisation is that it bases its politics on a cross-class appeal to the Muslim community, including bourgeois elements.

That represents a stunning reversal of the traditional Marxist analysis that makes the working class - and especially the organised working class - central to the socialist project.

Last Saturday’s Respect-sponsored ‘Organising for Fighting Unions’ conference must, at least in part, have been motivated by a desire to silence such criticisms.

The official line is that everything went swimmingly. What else? The Respect website offers a triumphalist four paragraph ra-ra-ra summary:

‘Over 900 trade unionists packed into Shoreditch Town Hall last Saturday for the Organising for Fighting Unions conference. More than half were elected delegates from trade union organisations. A fantastic atmosphere built up throught the day as delegates listened to strikers from JJB in Wigan, NHS logistics and the Merseyside Firefighters dispute.

‘Union leaders Mark Serwotka, Matt Wrack, Paul Mackney and Steve Gillian all insisted that stronger unions could only be built if political and industrial issues were tackled together. Jane Loftus of the CWU insisted, and many others agreed that this meant tackling the government on war and islamophobia as well as on privatisation.

‘MPs John McDonnell and George Galloway, Valerie Wise, former leader of Preston council and John Rees, Respect national secretary, all argued that the left needs to strengthen itself through solidarity with fighting trade unions.

‘The conference passed a Workers Charter and elected an organising committee that will start a campaign to have the charter adopted by unions throughout the country.’

The left needs to strengthen itself through solidarity with fighting trade unions? Like, duh.

Other attendees offer more negative opinions. Here’s blogger Liam MacUaid, himself a Respect member:

‘It’s been quite a while since stage management and choreography of this standard has been seen at an audience of anti-bureaucratic, class struggle trade union militants.

‘At a guess there were about 800 people at the event. Roughly half were SWP members. Maybe another 20% were from other left organisations.

‘When I left at half four there had been nothing that vaguely resembled a debate on how you organise in the unions or why or how you can organise a political alternative to new Labour.

‘Instead we got an interminable series of platform speakers and when they had spoken for as long as they wanted a few people from the floor were given three whole minutes, though this could be extended if you were particularly rambling and off the point …

‘It was a dismal day. The majority of the audience was not in the first flush of youth. There were no significant new forces, bureaucrats or Labour Party members engaged with the project.

‘While there was lots of rhetoric about how we need to organise at a grassroots level there was no opportunity to do much other than sit on your arse listening to the great and the good with the occasional on message speaker reassuring us that things are pretty good in their patch. If you wanted a template of how not to organise fighting unions this was it.’

Roger Bannister – a Socialist Party member and prominent figure on the left of Unison – offered his thoughts on UK Left Network:

‘I thought the conference was terrible, just an old fashioned SWP stitched up rally. The usual stunt, fill in a form if you want to speak with name and what you want to say, and hey presto - 99% of the floor speakers were SWP/Respect!

‘Dave Nellist was invited to speak on behalf of the Campaign for a New Workers' Party, but was not allowed to make his speech in the section on "Who speaks for trade unionists: the struggle for political representation", so was excluded from that debate, (meaning that there was no debate!)

‘There was virtually no political analysis, the Conference just uncritically followed the rightward drift of the SWP.’

Childcare commitments meant I wasn’t there. But from the sound of it, taking Daddy’s Little Princesses to the local ice cream parlour was a more productive use of my time. It was certainly more fun.

UPDATE: Jim Denham – the Voice of Reason, as he is widely known – has this to say at Shiraz Socialist:

‘As these things go, it was quite big (about 600 people); politically it was terrible, rarely rising above the level of "people are angry and the fighback is beginning".

‘Perhaps the nadir was an incoherent stream of consciousness from one Jane Loftus, an SWP member on the CWU executive, who seemed to be arguing that the way to combine the political and economic struggles was to disaffiliate unions from the Labour Party...

‘I attended as a delegate from my union branch: I was in a small minority in being delegated: the vast majority of attendees were there as individuals, representing no-one but themselves (this can be confirmed by checking the "Respect" website, where supporters of the conference whose trade union bodies have actually voted to support are marked with an asterisk: they are very few). What was most noticeable about the event was that:

‘1/ It wasn't realy a conference, in the sense of "confering": there was virtually no debate. There were four lengthy platform speakers per session, leaving little time for contributions from the floor; virtually all the floor speakers were either SWP'ers, or people who the SWp knew weren't going to say anything contentious;

‘2/ It wasn't really a trade union event: few of the platform speakers had anything of significance to say about the state of the British union movement, or the way forward for the working class: they wanted to talk about the war in Iraq, Islamophobia, the veil, the US election results...in fact, more or less anything except trade unionism …

‘The session entitled "Who speaks for trade unionists: the struggle for political representation" was especially disappointing. For a start, there was very little debate on the subject that was supposed to be under discussion (most of the contributions were about Islamophobia and the veil); and what little debate on the subject of political representation there was, was thoroughly dishonest.

‘Let me explain: it is clear that the SWP are in fact in favour of unions disaffiliating from Labour; no-one who listened to the speaches from leading SWP trade unionists (like the afore-mentioned Jane Loftus) could doubt that; and yet they would not argue openly for that position. The reason for this appeared to be a desire to avoid alienating the Labour left.

‘So an opportunity to have an important discussion was lost because the SWP refused to argue for their own politics. They even went so far as to oppose the Socialist Party's pro- disaffiliation amendment to the "Charter" that the conference was asked to vote on in the final session: again, not because of any principled disagreement, but out of pure opportunism towards the Labour left.’


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