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What’s wrong with the union lefts today?

Simon Hardy and Jeremy Dewar take a critical look at the broad left strategy
Many militant trade unionists are active in left wing caucuses such as United Left (Unite), Left Unity (PCS) or the Socialist Teachers Alliance (NUT). These are known as broad lefts. They accept the existing union structure as it is, but organise lefts to replace the right wing in elections. Their strategy is to use elections to take over the union.
The Communist Party pioneered the broad left strategy in the 1960s. It is a radically different and counterposed to the rank and file movement.

The rank and file movement is built from below, organising union members workplace by workplace, with the goal of submitting all officials to regular elections, instant recall and the salary of the average worker they represent. It aims to transform the unions root and branch by arming workers with class struggle tactics to defeat the bosses and democratic structures to dissolve the bureaucracy.

Rather than mobilising the forces from below to transform the union, the broad left seeks to capture it through elections, leaving its structure the same as it is today. Rather than elections being a means to an end, they become an end in themselves.

The name ‘broad left’ comes from classical Stalinist popular frontist phraseology. It was a product of the rapid decline of the Communist Party in the 1950s and their desperate attempts to win support by creating alliances with the Labour Party initially to combat the growing influence of Trotskyist groups.

Labour Party member Hugh Scanlon was the first to benefit from the broad left strategy when the CP pulled its own candidate from the ballot and mobilised their members to support him. The agreement was to unite the lefts against the rights in the union.

The bitter fruit of this policy was reaped when Scanlon supported the Labour government’s “social contract”, accepting pay cuts in return for empty promises of jobs that never materialised. The militant rank and file were disoriented and the strategy led to an explosion of anger in the Winter of Discontent and the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

SWP’s turn to the broad lefts
At the time the Socialist Workers Party (then called International Socialists) were intransigent opponents of the broad lefts, building rank and file formations around industrial bulletins to combat their influence. But today it is inconceivable they would raise these kind of criticisms against the current broad lefts in Unite, the NUT or PCS.

For example, 1,000 union activists attended the recent Unite the Resistance conference organised by the SWP. Both Kevin Courtney of the NUT executive and Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of the PCS, were given a platform to outline their strategy to stop the pensions robbery. They argued for another day of action in January. Full stop.

This is hopelessly inadequate and flows from these left bureaucrats’ refusal to think outside the box: i.e. their refusal to break with their more conservative counterparts in Unison, the ATL, etc. Serwotka and Courtney are reformists; they argue that unity with the centre-right unions is necessary because they have no concept of mobilising the rank and file of these unions against their misleaders around a strategy that could win. But if the PCS and NUT did call for more action and the other unions refused to join in, their members would be seething with anger and ready to rebel.

The SWP leadership knows this. It argues in its paper against the dead-end strategy of one-day strikes staged months apart, confined to the narrow issue of pensions. But they shy away from criticism of these left leaders for fear of “losing influence” with them. After all they need them to populate the platforms of whatever campaign is being set up next!

The record of failure
True, the SWP did criticise General Secretary Len McCluskey for selling out the Bassa dispute with British Airways in May, when they accepted an offer indistinguishable from BA’s original proposal: fewer jobs, worse conditions, lower pay. This led to a massive row, in which the SWP was threatened with expulsion from UL.

While the SWP held their ground, the threat of expulsion shows just how dangerous these broad lefts are as they try to silence dissent against the left officials when they sell out.

The fate of the Socialist Party in the PCS is even more disastrous. With a large number of members on the executive, the SP makes great play about how much influence it has. But influence to do what? The PCS strategy of one-day strikes, which the SP supports, has seen thousands of civil servants lose their jobs.

In 2005 they accepted a pension deal that institutionalised a two-tier scheme which saw younger workers lose out massively. The SP had promised a strike to stop the government’s plans. In the end their members on the leadership meekly accepted the deal – despite having a mandate to strike.

Even the Alliance for Workers Liberty, which postures left on the unions, refused to vote for Jerry Hicks in the Unite general secretary elections, preferring the broad left candidate Len McCluskey. They were similarly humiliated when their supporter on the CWU executive, Pete Keenlyside, voted for the sell out deal in 2007. They quietly dropped his column from their paper, Solidarity.

These are the problems socialists face if they form long-term partnerships with leaders or take leading positions in a union which remains bureaucratic. Without building a substantial grassroots rank and file movement to provide an alternative point of pressure, then they are bound to be co-opted sooner or later.

The SWP argues: “We want a rank and file movement too, but we can’t build one now. The left is too weak so it would be voluntaristic to try.” In truth, however, broad leftism drags the militant rank and file further away from such a goal and ties them to a strategy that will betray them at the pivotal moment. That’s why Workers Power fights for a rank and file movement now as a crucial part of the strategy to defeat the cuts.

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