Socialist Party Statement
The European elections and working-class representation
IN AN important move, the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers’ union (RMT) has announced its support for an electoral alliance to contest the forthcoming European elections in June.
A ‘political party’ has been registered – as required under electoral law to contest elections – under the name No2EU-Yes to Democracy, with the RMT general secretary, Bob Crow, as the official leader. Its platform includes opposition to the European Union (EU) constitution (now re-packaged as the Lisbon treaty), the EU’s pro-privatisation directives, and the anti-trade union and ‘social dumping’ rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The platform takes a necessary stand against the racist far-right British National Party (BNP), and in defence of international workers’ solidarity.
At present funds are in place for No2EU-Yes to Democracy candidate lists to appear on the ballot paper in a minimum of six of Britain’s eleven electoral ‘regions’, including Scotland and Wales, but more may well be contested.
This is an electoral coalition, with initial support from the RMT, the Socialist Party, the Communist Party of Britain (publishers of the Morning Star), Solidarity – Scotland’s Socialist Movement, and a number of trades union councils. Respect is still considering its involvement; the Socialist Party, for its part, would favour the broadest participation of all left and working class organisations.
No2EU-Yes to Democracy is a temporary platform for the European elections only, with the RMT representatives at the inaugural meeting stressing, unfortunately, that they were not launching a new workers’ party. But that does not negate its significance as the first electoral challenge to New Labour initiated by a national trade union, the RMT, the most militant industrial union in Britain.
The European elections might not loom large in workers’ thinking, as the economic crisis intensifies. But the EU’s neo-liberal directives and rulings, enthusiastically implemented by the New Labour government, are linked to the avalanche of job losses, wage cuts and continued privatisation.
Nowhere was this more clearly revealed than in the Lindsey oil refinery construction workers’ dispute earlier this year. It was under the EU ‘posted workers directive’ and subsequent ECJ rulings that the Italian-registered company, IREM, was able to employ workers not covered by the union-enforced national construction industry agreements. The part-privatisation of the Royal Mail, the first step to its complete sell-off, is also linked to EU directives to introduce a deregulated postal services market.
The No2EU-Yes to Democracy campaign can expose the reality of the EU’s neo-liberal agenda to millions of workers, while arguing the case for a workers’ alternative to pro-market politicians – whether in Brussels or Westminster! And June’s Euro-poll will be the first national electoral expression of the enormous anger accumulating at the devastating consequences of the capitalist crisis.
But where will that anger go? The 2004 European elections, in a completely different economic climate, still saw a big protest vote, which primarily went to UKIP, the UK Independence Party. Labour could well register an even worse result than its disastrous performance then, when it at least enjoyed opinion poll leads as the most ‘economically competent’ party.
UKIP, meanwhile, is likely to suffer a big loss of support. Promoting themselves as having been elected to ‘take on the corrupt Eurocrats’, two of its MEPs were soon implicated in benefit and EU fraud investigations, the egomaniacal Kilroy-Silk departed, and membership and donations have slumped. The Tories can expect to make big gains but there is a real threat that the far-right BNP could win seats in June.
This fear has also been a powerful impulse behind the RMT’s move to organise an electoral challenge. As Bob Crow reported to the inaugural meeting, RMT members had already been contacting the union asking who the national officers thought they should vote for in June. The only alternative to backing a union-initiated electoral coalition would be to urge a vote, as anti-fascist groups like Searchlight advocate, for ‘the mainstream parties’ to stop the BNP.
Another factor behind the RMT’s decision was the lessons of the Lindsey dispute. Firstly, it brought to wide attention in a way not done before in Britain, the role of the EU’s anti-worker directives.
The RMT is currently balloting, or has taken strike action, in nine separate disputes over job losses and privatisation proposals. Is it so hard to imagine the RMT facing ‘barges in the Thames’ of sub-contracted EU ‘posted rail workers’ – as the IREM workers are being billeted in Grimsby docks – as the New Labour government, or an incoming Tory government, under the impulsion of the crisis, looks to confront one of the most powerfully organised sections of the working class?
Lindsey also highlighted another aspect of the situation now existing in Britain. As previous reports in The Socialist have shown, Lindsey was a victory for the working class. But it took the conscious intervention of the strike leadership, including Socialist Party members, to cut across any national or racial divisions that could have derailed the movement.
The same burning need for a clear lead is true on the political plane. That’s why the RMT’s electoral initiative, despite any weaknesses it may have, is so important.
In response to Labour’s 2004 Euro-elections debacle the leaders of the Labour-affiliated trade unions issued another round of verbal broadsides and threats to withdraw funding.
At the Unison public sector workers’ union 2004 conference, for example, the general secretary Dave Prentis promised not to “keep our heads down, gobs shut for Labour, if this government continues to put forward rightwing policies” (The Guardian, 23 June, 2004). And yet, of course, that is precisely what has happened – with the union leaders continuing to pour their members’ money into Labour’s coffers.
The RMT, on the other hand, has moved. There are, inevitably, potential difficulties. Because of the constitutional bar on union officials holding parliamentary seats, and its view that Brussels is ‘a fake parliament’, the RMT is insisting that victorious No2EU-Yes to Democracy candidates will not sit in the European parliament – although they would still campaign, alongside any other European workers’ representatives who are elected in June, against EU attacks on the working class. And a convention of the forces involved in the campaign would be held to work out exactly how to proceed.
Most importantly, socialists could not participate in an electoral block or coalition which made concessions to racist or nationalist prejudices. But that is not the case with the proposals agreed so far around the RMT’s electoral initiative which, while its programme is limited, is at bottom a pro-worker block.
There is no easy or straightforward path to re-build working class political representation. The German party, ‘Election Alternative – Jobs and Social Justice’ (WASG), the initial dynamic component of what is now the Left Party, was not formed, back in 2004, with a fully developed programme or democratic structures. But it broke the logjam.
And so, potentially, could the RMT’s electoral initiative. The train is moving. The task of socialists, while not holding back from arguing for our ideas on the way out of the economic crisis, is to lend a helping hand.