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National Shop Stewards Network splits

The crisis inside the national Shop Stewards Network has come to a head and resulted in the inevitable parting of the ways between the Socialist Party on the one hand and virtually every other tendency on the other.

By pushing through their motion to set up an NSSN anti-cuts campaign in opposition to the Coalition of Resistance, the SP proved its sectarian orientation beyond doubt. By unashamedly drumming up the support of the RMT rail union bureaucracy, they also proved that they have no intention of building a genuine, independent rank and file trade union organisation. Jeremy Drinkall reports.

Lies, insults and sectarianism
It was a rotten irony that an NSSN conference was called upon to vote on motions for the first time since its founding, at its death knell, after the SP-led leadership had blocked any motions being taken at conferences for four years running.

A majority motion proposed the launch of “an NSSN Anti-Cuts Campaign, bringing trade unions and communities together to save all jobs and services”. Significantly the motion made no mention of the already existing Coalition of Resistance, which is working in conjunction with Right To Work and the People’s Charter. An SP leaflet proposed a leadership for the new campaign, made up entirely of its own members and close supporters.

Against this position was a minority motion, moved by George Binette (Camden Unison) and Pete Firmin (London postal CWU), which opposed the setting up of a new campaign, but suggested the NSSN work alongside the “COR, RTW and other groups” to oppose the cuts with the aim of launching “a single national anti-cuts organisation early in 2011”.

The tone for the debate was set early on by Alex Gordon, President of the RMT. This consummate bureaucrat is a full-time official of the union, and so by NSSN rules barred from membership. Nevertheless he was given a platform, which he used to tell a series of lies about the NSSN opposition.

Gordon claimed that the NSSN opposition wanted:
• the NSSN conference to take a position on the Unite leadership campaign (presumably in support of Jerry Hicks)
• the NSSN to oppose the Trade Union Freedom Bill on the grounds that it did not go far enough
• to refuse a £5,000 donation from the RMT because this would put the NSSN in hock to that union’s leadership.

None of these claims are true. It was a smear speech, aimed at undermining the minority before the debate. Nevertheless, Gordon’s speech did more than show what an unprincipled bureaucrat he is, it showed that Crow and his cronies in the RMT bureaucracy had reached a deal with the SP leadership. Crow and co. would support the SP’s bid to split the anticuts movement with a rival campaign, in order to weaken the Socialist Workers Party (which they both hate, especially after a series of articles in Socialist Worker critical of the RMT’s leadership of the tube dispute) and secure the NSSN as uncritical cheerleaders of the left wing union leaders.

Linda Taaffe (NUT and SP) then took up the cudgels, moving the majority motion in similar vein. The minority, she claimed, “wanted to downplay opposition to Labour council cuts”. Not only that, there was a point of “principle” at stake. “We’re not the splitters,” said Taaffe, “Which organisation was here first? We were. Right To Work and COR split from us!”

Binette and others pointed out that this was sheer nonsense. The COR rightly seeks unity with Labour MPs, Councillors, constituency and ward parties, as well as individual members – but on the basis of opposing all the cuts, defying the law and setting a “needs” budget.

The point about who came first merely shows that the SP has been poisoned by its own sectarian bile. Workers and youth will not give one jot which organisation was founded first – and besides the NSSN was not founded to defeat the Tory led Coalition cuts but to promote and coordinate workplace organisation. So how can it claim primacy in the fight against austerity measures? But to the bitter sectarians, it is all a conspiracy to do them out of their birthright.

In fact a motion passed unanimously at the NSSN steering committee in the Autumn 2008, encouraging NSSN groups to set up crisis committees to initiate a wider movement against the recession, was subsequently buried by Socialist Party officers who had voted only reluctantly for it. Despite complaints by the Workers Power proposer, it was never circulated to members. How can they complain now that others took the initiative to organise – the unemployed, youth, in the communities and the trade unions – to fight the cuts?

And besides SP members are involved in joint anticuts committees on the ground. They must know this new turn makes no sense either.

Anyone concerned about the real interests of the working class cannot but realise that we need to unite the existing campaigns into one, democratic, mass movement – and certainly resist any attempt to launch yet another campaign.

The idea that several, competing campaigns can help the resistance is a hangover from the previous decade, when the left got used to launching and controlling their own campaigns.
• On the crisis of political representation, the SWP launched Respect, while the SP had the Campaign for a New Workers Party and then the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition.
• In the unions, the SP founded the NSSN, so the SWP launched Organising for Fighting Unions, then Right To Work.
• For the students, the SWP controlled Education Activists Network and the SP Youth Fight for Education.

In some cases, such as the Campaign for a New Workers Party, this was arguably the only way forward. However in this case and the rest, the SP and SWP were happy to keep these as fronts, often uncritically orienting to some friendly union official or other, rather than attempt to develop a rank and file democracy.

Now that we have to fight a government determined to destroy the welfare state, these fake united fronts are criminal. Not only that, they are totally undemocratic. Instead of a mass movement taking decisions at democratic and fully representative meetings, the “leaders” (in fact, the centrist socialist groupings) cobble together backroom deals.

Only a mass movement can transcend and overthrow this bankrupt method – and any socialist worth their salt should fight for such an outcome.

And this is why it is so important to have a correct orientation to the Labour Party. Labour remains the only mass working class party in Britain. Despite Blair and Brown – despite the Two Eds, Miliband and Balls – millions of workers continue to look to Labour for protection against the worst of the Tory cuts. That’s why Labour’s vote actually went up in its inner city heartlands.

Our job is to put the Labour leaders to the test – by demanding they resist all the cuts, that Labour councillors set a “No Cuts” or a “Needs” budget, and that they take the fight to Westminster for sufficient funds to deliver decent services. No compromise of our opposition to all cuts is needed at all to do this – merely the desire to take the fight to the Labour leaders and to rouse Labour’s supporters and members against the party’s pro-austerity policies.

Finally, the SP’s sectarianism reveals that their mealy mouthed support for a general strike (limited to one day, of course) is in fact a paper position, not meant to be fought for in any meaningful way.

With the TUC and the trade union officials, the Labour leaders, the courts, police and government all railed against a general strike – precisely because they know it is the one thing that could throw back the government’s offensive – it is clear that the working class and its allies will need a unified movement – local councils of action and a democratic national campaign – in order to get one. In short, if we are really to defeat all the cuts, then we will have to bring down the coalition government with a general strike; if we are to achieve this, the left needs to put aside sectarian prejudices and fight for its positions inside a unified mass movement.

After a two hour debate, the votes were counted. The SP majority proved to be 305 to 89. The minority walked out and reconvened in a nearby pub. A necessarily brief post-mortem was conducted in high spirits. Clearly comrades felt a sense of release, like sleepers waking from a nightmare.

We agreed to launch a website and reconvene at Right To Work’s People’s Convention on 12 February, where the SWP said we could have a workshop. There was general agreement that we should campaign on the basis of rank and file democracy and taking action with the union officials where possible, without wherever necessary.

But there was disagreement over whether we could or should move towards setting up a new organisation or network. Most wanted to move more slowly, despite Workers Power members pointing out that the need for a rank and file organisation would become pressing and obvious to thousands of workers in struggle in the following months.

A number of syndicalists also seemed to want a cast iron guarantee that any new network would never again fall under the leadership of a single political party. Yet, however damaging the experience of the SP has been, it is impossible to set this out in advance – unless one abandons democratic principles; if rank and file workers choose to follow the leadership of one party, then only bureaucratic manoeuvres could thwart them.

However, these points can and should be debated out in a comradely atmosphere over the coming months. In the meantime, the (former) minority members of the NSSN steering committee will meet and make arrangements for future work together and possibly a public event in the spring.

Given the orientation towards the RMT, CWU and PCS bureaucracy that the SP imposed on the NSSN, the split is no bad thing. On the contrary, it was inevitable if the activists involved were to present a truly independent pole of attraction for workers coming into struggle. And as such, it is better that the split came at the beginning of a new mass movement, rather than let the SP leadership tie our hands. Workers Power looks forward to working with the comrades at this vital moment in the struggle.

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