Industry matters: McCluskey, Hicks and the persistence of social-democratic illusions

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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So long as unions continue to shovel up their members’ subs and dump them straight into Labour’s coffers, keeping the movement tied to social democracy, the necessary class-wide counter-offensive cannot get off the ground.

Even amongst trade-union militants critical of Labour’s open embrace of a cuts agenda (albeit one that is supposedly ‘slower’ or ‘fairer’), there still lingers the illusion that somehow the ‘mass party of the working class’ can be shamed into ‘fighting the Tory cuts’ and its leading lights into scrubbing up as born-again socialists in a future ‘left’ government.

Jerry Hicks, the grass-roots Unite activist and Respect member, upset Labour loyalists in 2010 when he came in second to Labour’s McCluskey for the post of General Secretary with a creditable 52,527 votes, largely on the back of a campaign calling into question Unite’s subservience to the Labour machine.

Now that McCluskey has reneged on an earlier promise to stand for just one term, instead bringing the 2015 election forward to 2013 and timetabling it in such a way as to favour his own re-election, Hicks has announced his intention to stand again.

A serious campaign to rid Unite of the Labour monkey on its back would deserve support, and some of Hicks’s press statements seem to be pointing in the right direction, noting that whilst “Mr McCluskey talks about a coordinated fight against the assault on members’ pensions, jobs and conditions and of building a united campaign of resistance … Yet when presented with an opportunity to do just that, Unite’s leadership chose instead to undermine the PCS and the NUT by not supporting the proposed coordinated strike action against the devastating attack on the pensions of health workers, MOD and government departments and local authority workers last March.

“That was a huge mistake. But it’s not too late to start a serious campaign of opposition to the government cuts and attacks, but it will take more than hot air at demonstrations … Unite will come under more pressure to explain how its relationship with the Labour party works … Unite in the last two years alone has handed over £6m of its members’ money to Labour, as well as the £10s of millions over the years.

Unfortunately, however, the subtext of all this remains the notion that Labour can be shamed into good behaviour.

One Hicks press release notes that “McCluskey pledged recently to ‘kick the New Labour cuckoos out of our nest’. Yet weeks after this ‘fine talk’, far from cuckoos being kicked out, Unite’s ‘chickens had come home to roost’ when in the Rotherham by-election, a Labour safe seat, the candidate chosen was not a trade-union activist, let alone the choice of Unite, who was a very well-known local senior workplace rep who wasn’t even shortlisted.

In other words, Labour’s chief offence is its failure to offer plum Labour seats to union climbers!

And when Unison justifies the shotgun election by the suggestion that bringing it forward will avoid a clash with the next general election in 2015, the Hicks press release turns this around, suggesting that in fact such a clash would be a “golden opportunity” to put Labour on the spot:

Remarkably it’s this ‘clash’ of dates that is being proffered by Unite’s leadership as something to ‘avoid’, but I say that in one misjudged moment we are throwing away the greatest bargaining chip imaginable. The timing represented the best possible chance to reverse the ‘one-way’ relationship with New Labour and instead to negotiate proper ‘quid pro quo’ agreement in exchange for our cash, time and resources.

This militant-sounding call to hold Labour to account for its policies in reality masks exactly the same ‘reclaim the party’ illusions for which Hicks excoriates the current General Secretary. It’s the same self-defeating stance which prevents such unions as the RMT and FBU, already disaffiliated from the Labour party organisationally, from going on to break ideologically with the social-democratic weakness with which Labour has infected the workers’ movement.

So it is that the RMT continues to cultivate a small band of ‘left’ Labour MPs who can be relied upon to make the occasional speech in favour of renationalisation or table an Early Day Motion at Westminster decrying the latest excesses of the railway privateers – actions which achieve exactly zero in terms of advancing the emancipation of labour, but which do wonders for the ‘left’ credentials of the pet parliamentarians next time there is another pointless Labour ‘leadership challenge’.

The useful industrial struggles that the RMT mobilises on occasion in fact owe nothing to such ‘proper quid pro quo agreements’, demonstrating rather the willingness of workers to follow a decisive militant lead when one is offered. Clearing out the social-democratic rubbish would strengthen that leadership incalculably.