Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A call to order from Bob (as opposed to A Life of Brian)

THE trial of six environmental protesters who were accused of conspiring to occupy Ratcliff power station in Nottinghamshire has collapsed after information surfaced about the role of an undercover police officer called Mark Kennedy who spent some time in their ranks and some say acted as agent provocateur.

"I have no doubt that our attempts to get disclosure about Kennedy's role has led to the collapse of the trial", said their lawyer Mike Schwartz. "It is no coincidence that, just 48 hours after we told the CPS our clients could not receive a fair trial unless they disclosed material about Kennedy, they halted the prosecution.

"Given that Kennedy was, until recently, willing to assist the defence, one has to ask if the police were facing up to the possibility their undercover agent had turned native."

Some 20 protesters who had already been convicted are likely to appeal. The police agent has quit the force and reportedly gone abroad.

Some of us in the organised labour movement and conventional Marxist Left are inclined to assume our superiority to the hairy protesters who lack our discipline, our theories on the state, and leadership's insistence on "security"; and yet not for the first time, it has been the "loose", libertarians and Greens who have uncovered the cuckoo in their nest, whereas self-proclaimed revolutionary 'vanguards' have more than once been taken for a ride by amateurs.

Then again, when it comes to sowing friction, causing or exacerbating divisions,and disrupting the growth of our movement, could any police agent, however much trained to excel at such activity, do half as much damage as we manage to inflict on our selves?

This week I received an invitation from the National Shop Stewards Network:
The combination of £81bn in spending cuts and so-called reforms pursued by this Con-Dem coalition amounts to an unprecedented attack on the public sector and its workforce. The cuts, which are being implemented under the guise of deficit reduction, are ideological, motivated by a political desire to destroy the welfare state as we know it. Across our movement, trade unionists and service users are coming together to co-ordinate local campaigns of resistance against these cuts.

The recent demonstrations and occupations by students against the 300% increase in tuition fees and removal of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) have shaken the government, exposing the coalition as weak and vulnerable to effective action. The students' demonstrations and occupations have been an inspiration to the emerging movement and could mark a turning point in the resistance to the cuts.

One of the problems we face today is the plethora of organisations that exist to defend services and oppose the cuts. We urgently need a united response to the Con-Dem austerity package that brings together trade unionists and service users in a single united campaigning group. In addition, we have seen very little in the way of industrial resistance to the cuts thus far, despite the fact that thousands upon thousands of jobs are set to go before this April from local government alone. The NSSN has a unique role in the labour movement as it brings together trade unionists in a network that can strengthen the vital labour movement component in the resistance and give confidence and practical solidarity to workers as they struggle against the cuts, whether the employer is central government, an NHS Trust or a local authority, whatever its political complexion.

The NSSN Conference on 22nd January will feature an important debate about the network's role in the anti-cuts movement, which is likely to be decisive in determining the organisation's future. The meeting of the majority of current NSSN Officers held on 5th January unanimously agreed that the NSSN should seek to build unity between the existing anti-cuts bodies and to oppose any attempt to further fragment the developing but still fragile anti-cuts movement. We urge all NSSN supporters and like minded trade unionists to attend our conference to help ensure that the NSSN plays a positive role in unifying the emerging anti-cuts movement and in building support for the sort of industrial action that will be crucial to beating back the coalition's attacks.

It is a few years now since I squeezed my bulk into a crowded meeting at Euston, called by the RMT rail union, to discuss the crisis of working class political representation. Tony Blair had dismissed the trade unions which backed Labour as just another 'interest group', and discredited his government by lying his way to an unpopular war. New Labour stuck to old Tory union laws, and privatised railways, and pushed the Tory agenda further with academies and private finance initiatives. Labour Party conferences had turned into rallies, and Labour ministers and fundraisers moved closer to dodgy businessmen and away from their supporters.

Bob Crow and his sisters and brothers had done their homework. They were proud that it was the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, one of the forerunners of the RMT, that pioneered the turn by British unions away from dependence on the Liberals, to set up their own Labour Party. That was after the notorious Taff Vale case against the union. Now union lawyers testified that workers had fewer rights under this Labour government than their grandparents had enjoyed a century ago under the Liberals.

After Bro. Crow had suggested we were at another historic turning point, two of the leading lights of the Socialist Workers' Party were on their feet, asserting there was no need to found a new party, it was already up and running (they were not talking about their own group but about Respect, for which they had dumped the Socialist Alliance to hitch on Galloway's wagon). In fact, they said, the RMT leader had missed the train. But they had a suggestion. If Bob wanted to help workers' struggles he could do something really useful by backing a shop stewards' network. I thought this concession was jolly decent of them.

The RMT did call a meeting with other unions, and the National Shop Stewards Network was formally launched at a conference in July 2007. Since then its annual conferences have provided a platform for workers in struggle in different industries and services, even different countries, to meet up, but they have been something more. As Martin Wicks' Solidarity pointed out in a leaflet before that first conference "Two of the key tests of the success or failure of the Network will be; the extent to which it is possible to build networks in the localities; the degree to which they will be able to draw in, newer, less politicised reps. Undoubtedly Trades Councils can play a role here... The Trades Council is historically the natural point of support for workers involved in disputes, seeking the assistance of local unions."

To which I would add that as organisations of trade unionists in the community, local trades councils can also provide a focus for unity between organised workers, community campaigns, unemployed workers and others whom we need to organise. In this period of recession and cuts that is also important for the National Shop Stewards Network. When I heard Bristol RMT member Alex Gordon propose towards the close of the conference two years ago that the following year's conference be confined to workplace representatives I couldn't help retorting that by then a lot of people there might not have a workplace to represent.

The NSSN has shown that it could outgrow its label. At last years conference it was good to hear speakers from Athens and other cities in conflict giving some idea of what we might face. But some other things have happened to complicate things. First, though SWP members were taking part alongside others, so that for instance we were able to back both SWP and Socialist Party members under attack from management and their own union in the NHS, the SWP seems to have decided the National Shop Stewards Network had too much Socialist Party influence for its taste. It did not quite mirror the Socialist Party walk out from the Socialist Alliance over the SWP taking control. It just set up its own Right to Work Campaign, holding its own conference and demonstrations, and trying to intervene in disputes as well as lead the fight against the cuts.

A document for the SWP conference says that even where there is an existing anti-cuts campaign in an area, the SWP members should set up a separate Right to Work campaign besides. Meanwhile, the people who left or were expelled from the SWP around former leaders Lindsey German and John Rees, and the online journal Counterfire are engaged in the Coalition of Resistance, which was fronted by old Labour stalwart Tony Benn to call its own national conference, with pre-arranged distinguished speakers, as well as setting up local groups. That's fine until you hear from people who were already campaigning and had established local committees that coalition supporters have turned up telling them they are wasting their time, and trying to set up coalition of resistance groups to compete with them. Why trouble with working at the grass roots when you can bring in astro-turf?

One might dismiss these complaints as just pertaining to personal differences or a touch of over-enthusiasm in one area, if it wasn't for the deja vu feeling from past experience with fronts like Unite Against Fascism. It seems setting up a new movement does not do away with old habits. But besides the smart, impressive, website at which I've just had a glance, it seems there is something new about Counterfire. Looking through its statement of aims I did eventually come across the word 'socialism' . I could not find the words 'worker' or 'working class'. I guess we are history. Not that there's much of that. Maybe I should have looked harder, but I didn't see anything explaining who the Counterfire founders were or where they came from politically.
A lifetime in the SWP? Like Mrs.Lot we mustn't look back, it seems!

We're used to the idea that, like the guy who passed a lonely time on a desert island erecting two places of worship ("That other one is the one I will never go to"),the Left cannot campaign on any issue without having at least two rival campaigns. It is not always true, but the way we can denounce each other, over differences that an outsider cannot see, has been satirised in A Life of Brian, and people are ruefully familiar with it. But now, besides the two national bodies claiming the right to lead the anti-cuts campaign, there's a third development. It has been heralded in a war of e-mails to supporters of the National Shop Stewards Network.

Here is one from national chair Dave Chapple, a Bridgwater post worker and UCW branch secretary, and signed by seventeen other steering committee members:

"We are drawing attention to the disastrous outcome of the Steering Committee of the National Shop Stewards’ Network (NSSN) meeting on Saturday 4th December.
The majority in the meeting, who were Socialist Party (SP) members, voted through a series of decisions despite the opposition of absolutely everyone else, of various political affiliations and none.

"The meeting decided to propose that the anti-cuts conference being organised by the NSSN on January 22nd should set up an “NSSN All-Britain Anti-Cuts campaign” and the election of a committee at the conference, which would be separate from the existing NSSN structures. As supporters of the NSSN, we are aware that the NSSN and its supporters are already working, locally, regionally and nationally in opposition to the government’s attacks on our public services and jobs. The NSSN has an immense task in helping to build for effective action which can begin to beat back these attacks, although it is noteworthy that the original proposal put forward by the Socialist Party omitted any mention of the NSSN working to organise industrial action against the public sector attacks.

"However, to agree that the NSSN has an important contribution to make to the anti-cuts movement is a long way from agreeing to the need for it to launch yet another national anti-cuts campaign. At a time when there is pressure for anti-cuts campaigns to work together – witness the protocol agreed between the Coalition Of Resistance and the Right To Work campaign; the forum on December 5th organised by Right To Work on working together; and the pending meeting called by the Trade Union Coordinating Group on December 14th – the creation of yet another group can only be seen as counterproductive. That the NSSN participated in the forum on December 5th and intend to take part in the meeting on December 14th stands in stark contrast to this move.

This brought a "Reply to Dave Chapple" signed by NSSN secretary Linda Taaffe, a London teacher formerly on the NUT executive, and Socialist Party member, and two other steering committee members:

"The real facts of what happened are the following. After a debate in the Steering Committee lasting around three hours and 39 attending, where all those wanting to speak did speak, a vote was taken. On a show of hands Dave’s view did not prevail. Behind the disparate opposition to the NSSN majority is a clear difference on programme, strategy, and tactics and this will now go to the Conference for debate. This isn’t a crime but normal democratic trade union procedure.

"The decision of the NSSN Steering Committee was taken 10 days ago. Only now, on the eve of a meeting of the Trade Union Coordinating Group (TUCG) of the left unions in the TUC, did he choose to attack this decision. In an unholy alliance with the SWP and their front organisation the Right to Work (RTW) he hoped to put the NSSN in the dock before fellow trade unionists as unprincipled splitters and sectarians. This completely failed, not least because the accusers are, themselves, guilty of the ”crimes” they impute to the NSSN majority, and particularly to the Socialist Party.

"Those who voted in favour of an Anti-Cuts Campaign recognise that trade unions are already located in fighting cuts in the workplace, but that there are other aspects to the struggle. Community campaigns to save services are springing up everywhere. Witness the marvellous student rebellion of recent weeks. Those against these proposals believe that NSSN should step back, and leave leadership matters to other organisations, particularly like RTW".

"It is enough to remind ourselves that it was the SWP who launched the sectarian attack on the fire-fighters at the end of their recent dispute. As RTW, they also invaded the ACAS talks in the BA dispute, and were widely criticised by rank and file Unite members. In a similar sectarian fashion they attacked the Lindsey strikers, as well as the left-led PCS leadership - particularly its general secretary Mark Serwotka over the alleged pension “sell-out” (in 2005). It is they who set up RTW 18 months ago as a rival to the NSSN. In the London Student Assembly this week, they actually voted against supporting the January NSSN Conference but now say they want to build for it to 'save' the NSSN!"

If it seems strange to title this as a "reply to Dave Chapple" when his statement was signed by so many other people, what is even less acceptable is to fill out this reply with an indictment of the SWP. Dave Chapple is not a member of the SWP (indeed to anyone who knows Dave and his views, the idea of him being a stooge or even in an alliance, unholy or otherwise, seems bizarre). Looking at the rest of the names I see the president and one other member of my local trades council, neither of whom I'd remotely associate with the SWP; an anarcho-syndicalist brother from Greater Manchester whom I've known for years, first in the EPIU and now Unite; and three former members like me of the late Workers Revolutionary Party, one of whom I've known since we were both in the Young Socialists. Not very promising ground for the SWP, I'd say.

The reply continues:
"The NSSN Conference statement in June declared that NSSN should take our work into the wider community. Dave Chapple did not disagree. The October Steering Committee, which Dave Chapple chaired, built on this by agreeing, with only one vote against, to call an Anti-Cuts Conference.

Dave Chapple also accuses us of not wanting unity. This is a lie. It was RTW that split away from the NSSN last year, and then not clearly as an anti-cuts campaign. Actually, the NSSN was formed four years ago - originally as an initiative of the RMT transport workers union, well before either COR or RTW. Yet now he implies we are the splitters. We want unity in action, and will do our utmost to get that action".


Here's Linda Taaffe again:
"The purpose of this Conference is to put before shop stewards and workplace reps a proposal to set up a working class trade union based campaign that is able to intervene on a clear no-cuts programme in the forthcoming battles. The opponents of this idea want the NSSN to tail-end other organisations which do not have a consistent no-cuts policy. Moreover, these organisations do not allow democratic discussion and debate, as the NSSN has been able to do.

We are in favour of collaboration of all campaigns and the possibility of a unified struggle, but the authors of this statement do not. The NSSN was set up four years ago. Yet this did not stop the SWP from organising the separatist splitting Right to Work. Amazingly, these are the people who are now the apostles of unity alongside Dave Chapple".

This strikes me as that old method of Stalinist and other bureaucrats, whereby you appear to focus on one person as your enemy, then lump them together with others whom you find easier to attack, refusing to see a distinction - it's the amalgam technique. In this case, it's dishonest to even pretend that the SWP and the Socialist Party are the only serious contenders in the field, but as we saw in the Socialist Alliance, the Socialist Party walked out when it saw the SWP appearing to take control (thereby making what was liable a certainty), without bothering to consider us nonentities in between.

The Socialist Party members in the NSSN are on much better ground when they refer to the need for a working class-based campaign and the community campaigns that have already sprung up. Speaking from what I know, in Brent the trades union council is already working with Kilburn unemployed workers centre and local community groups, and joined students on a recent protest against Sarah Tether MP. There's a public meeting about the cuts with John McDonnell MP debating a Lib Dem at Willesden Green library, 7.30 tomorrow night.

In neighbouring Barnet and Ealing the trades councils are to the fore in anti-cuts campaigning, Islington TUC is working with local campaigners to defend the NHS, and Westminster TUC will be setting up its stall on the streets this weekend, to unite workers whose jobs are threatened by the cuts with people whose services are being taken from them. In Hillingdon, where there isn't a trades union council, trades unionists are involved in an anti-cuts campaign which might lead to one, and are anyway getting on with the job, with a lobby at the civic centre in Uxbridge tomorrow night (6,30pm).

Would it not make sense for the National Shop Stewards Network to help create a network of these genuine working class and community based initiatives, rather than competing with the SWP and former SWP to set up yet another top-down front? It has been said the Socialist Party's proposals risk splitting the anti-cuts campaign. I think the more immediate danger is they will, quite contrary to their intentions, split the National Shop Stewards Network. But there's still time to pause and think. And here is a call to do so, from someone whose viewpoint should count for something in this row:


Dear Brothers and Sisters,

I am writing to urge maximum unity in the struggle against the Coalition government’s austerity programme.

Such is the scale of the onslaught against our class that no one should be in any doubt of the need for such unity.

There can be no question of any political party or organisation seeking to assume leadership of this struggle or setting up new national organisations that would create disunity.

Instead all our efforts should be devoted to mobilising all progressive forces and building the biggest and broadest possible movement against the cuts.

I would urge all comrades to take a step back and consider how we can best act in a way which helps achieve these aims.

Yours in unity

Bob Crow

RMT General Secretary

National Shop Stewards Network





12:00noon – 4:00pm

South Camden Community School

(By Euston Station)

Charrington Street, London NW1 1RG

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