Saturday, 22 January 2011

Shop stewards network splits over anti-cuts tactics

The National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) voted by a big majority at today's conference in London to set up its own national anti-cuts campaign.
The vote was 325 to 89 - with those in the majority organised around the Socialist Party.
Those in favour argued that other organisations were not committed to fighting all cuts.
Supporters of the Coalition of Resistance and the Right to Work group insisted they were opposed to all cuts and that no further campaigns were needed.
An 11 person committee was elected to run the new anti-cuts campaign - including Alex Gordon, president of the Rail Maritime and Transport union (RMT).
The conference was held at a school in Camden, London.
Afterwards many of the delegates who voted against the new anti-cuts campaign met in a nearby pub.
Members of the NSSN steering committee who were present agreed to stand down.
There was a proposal to start another network of activists based around a website.
I attended the conference as a delegate for the branch of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) representing public relations workers in London. I was mandated to vote against the new anti-cuts campaign.


  1. So there was a split even though all present agreed on the essence of the campaign?
    I think we should campaign for cuts in splits........

  2. Sad but inevitable. With the SWP "controlling" Right to Work, the SP felt it necessary to set up another campaign it could control itself so it can administer lectures about Liverpool in the 80s or the Poll Tax. Useful and interesting history lessons they may be, but relevant to the current situation they are not.

    The sectarianism on the left in the UK is now so destructive that it actually puts back the cause of socialism and the left in general. Socialists are too busy blaming and denouncing each other for supposed failures and crimes that they cannot unite on the many areas of common ground to attack the real Tory enemy.

    It's offputting and it's infantile and it ensures the left stays in in a bubble world that is irrelevant to the vast majority of workers.

    I have a number of friends who are not politically active and they are asking me where they should go to find out about anti-cuts campaigns. With three separate national umbrellas, I genuinely don't know where to point them. I am also terrified that wherever I do send them, I would be sending them into the firing line of the various bureaucracies of paid professional revolutionaries all competing to recruit them like religious cults.

  3. You miss the point. The SP (of whom I am not a fan for many reasons) rightly on this occasion stood out for two principles - 1. anti-cuts campaigns should only work with Labour councillors IF those councillors commit themselves to not implementing the cuts. What's the point of having handwringing 'not our fault - blame the Tories' merchants on your platforms - it's like having the butcher in an uprising in the abbatoir! 2. democracy in the movement - yesterday's NSSN meeting was 1,000 times more democratic than any SWP/left Labour stitch-up, where they call a 'meeting to found a new organisation' all of which has been agreed in advance.

  4. Of course, yes, I have missed the point and the reason the NSSN sets up another national group is on these vital and tactically nuanced points of principal.

    Nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that the Socialist Party paid bureaucracy is feeling under threat from the general move back towards Labour by left-leaning people and youngsters and is more concerned with narrow party protectionism than fighting against the cuts and removing the Coalition.

    And nothing to do with the fact that to protect itself, the leadership must instruct its cadres to attack the Labour party rather than try to work with Labour members.

    Third Period anyone?

  5. Pathetic egotistical lefty wankers. You are all EXACTLY what the state and the bosses want you to be.

  6. first anon

    your first point is shared by many people in the existing anticuts organisations; plus COR and RTW have not come out in favour of working with pro-cut labour party members. so why not join them and fight for your position.

    2) the democracy question is a bit rich. The NSSN has a founding statement that cannot be amended.

    So will the new anti-cuts campaign start setting up local branches. In my council area we have three campaigns as it is and could do without a fourth.

    It is clear to the mass of working class people that we need one united, democratic anti-cuts campaign. The various political organsiations can argue their positions within that rather than set up their own campaign. In five years time the working class will not forgive the left for squabbling among itself and dividing the fight against the tories.

  7. Our anti-cuts group in Southport is affiliated to the Coalition of Resistance, but there was some opposition among members because they didn't want to be affiliated to a 'radical' and 'Left' group like the CoR. They even denied that the anti-cuts movement was broadly Left! Isn't it important to get local groups organised to fight local (council) cuts no matter who they are affiliated to on a national level?

  8. "There was a proposal to start another network of activists based around a website"

    Fuck me.

  9. Eh, Miles, you've given two of the three major perspectives and left out the third one, articulated by Dave Chapple, Stu Melvin, Glyn Harries, Shelia Cohen and myself - all part of the syndicalist faction of the NSSN. None of us voiced support for RTW or COR, we argued that the NSSN was set up as a network of shop stewards and trade union activists and not an organisation. As far as we're concerned, the NSSN should have (and any new network that comes from the dissidents) should focus on linking activists locally, supporting industrial action and union actions such as recruitment and organising. It's pure madness for the NSSN to take its eye off the ball as trade union membership is falling to focus on an egotistical sectarian attempt to compete with RTW and COR (both of which have been overtaken by UK Uncut and NCAFC anyway).

  10. Where I think we began to go wrong was when so many comrades saw in those scenes from the Life of Brian not, as I suppose the Pythons intended, a moderately witty comment on the nature of the far left, but rather a guide to future action.

    All we can do is keep trying to get people to take action in a united way, even if they have to set up several separate campaigns first before they do...

  11. Seeing the predictable actions of all these pathetic sectarian left 'intellectuals' makes me think that Pol Pot had the right idea...

  12. I think the first anon has gone to the heart of the matter.
    I notice no one can really answer the point raised by the democracy issue. Name for me one conference or meeting where one side has 75%+ of the vote but both sides of the debate get equal number of speaker from the floor or where both sides jointly share? The NSSN conference was a model of democracy in the labour movement.

    Loz's points on the LP are a bit odd to say the least. No such instructions to boycott LP members have been sent to any SP members. All we're saying is if LP public reps are in a position to stop the cuts and fail to do so then they are clearly not the kind of people the anti-cuts movement should be promoting. NSSN is the only organisation that puts this clearly and unambiguously unlike the other anti-cuts groups. Simple as. I can tell you now if an LP Councillor on an LP controlled council put up his/her hand against cuts SP members would be out campaigning for their re-election the next day. We'd say they should be one of the key leaders of a local anti-cuts movement, no question.

    "the democracy question is a bit rich. The NSSN has a founding statement that cannot be amended." littlekeithy. I have no idea what you are on about. Where does it say this in the NSSN constitution? By all means get involved in the NSSN (if you aren't already of course) and put forward a motion at the NSSN conference in the summer amending the founding statement if you so wish. I can guarantee you will get a full and fair hearing and a democratic vote will be taken on the issue.

    donnachdelong: I listened very carefully to your contribution at the NSSN conference. I have to say I was surprised to hear such a counsel of despair from a leading trade union figure. I must day if yourself and Laurence are anything to go by NUJ meeting must be pretty depressing affairs.
    In any case you are wrong that the NSSN has "taken it's eye off the ball" as far as organising solidarity etc. The NSSN still exists for that purpose. It will still do all those things. That's why it's a pity the minority seem to be making noises about leaving and setting up something else. If they don't agree with the anti-cuts campaign then fine, no one will force them to take part, by all means they can concentrate their efforts in CoR or RtW or UK Uncut or whatever floats their particular boat. But what they can also do is continue to do the other things the NSSN can do like building support for industrial action. I can assure you the SP will continue to do so through the NSSN as we helped to do with the Fire Fighters in London. You may not be aware of this but Ian Leahair, London FBU NEC member, singled out the support of the NSSN during the dispute for particular praise at the FBU mass rally in December.

    However I have to disagree with you when you say the role of the NSSN should be "supporting... union actions such as recruitment and organising." That is NOT the role of the NSSN, that is the role of the union. In the case of the NUJ for example that is your job as the elected representative of the membership and Laurence's job as the full time official appointed by you. I think some of the syndicalist trends within the NSSN see the NSSN as a substitute for inactive union bureaucracies.

    I will admit I don't know much about UK Uncut but you are vastly overestimating the importance of NCAFAC. They held their conference at the same time as the NSSN special conference. Reports are that there was 70-80 people at it.

  13. Neil,

    Thanks for explaining my role - clearly you will stick rigidly to your line as a full-time worker appointed by the Socialist Party. Perhaps any SP full-timers who happen to be members of the NUJ may wish to attend their own union branch meetings from time to time to show us all how it's done and add that missing positive razmatazz as those of us already involved in the union are obviously doing such a poor job. As one of the only trade unions to have taken effective national action under Tory rule and broken several private sector pay freezes in the process, I must go back to our activists and admit we are not doing a good enough job.

    There is little point in having the debate about the difference between voting for and actively supporting cuts and the tactics to follow. The SP has decided that the only route open is to replicate Liverpool in the 80s and any less is a crime towards the class. I disagree as the balance of forces is hugely different today, but there's little point going around all this again.

    What I do take issue with is that I find it almost impossible to believe that SP members will be out canvassing for LP councillors who tick the necessary SP-prescribed boxes in fighting cuts. I just can't see it because the stated aim of the SP is that the Labour party is dead and an alternative is the only option.

    While your own language about Labour Party members is tempered, I refer to the proclamations made by many SP comrades on other debates about how the Labour party is "hated" by the mass of workers who are just frothing at the mouth with rage and desperate for this new political alternative to rise up who, in the meantime, hold their noses and vote Labour in the absence of it.

    To be honest, Miles, Donnacha and I have worked closely together over time but maintain very different and distinct political views from one another as is the nature of trade unionism. Donnacha's opinions are not my own, neither are they Miles' or anyone elses.

    But it is interesting that we all seem to agree that this move has helped split the anti-cuts movement further and it seems many NUJ activists, mainly non-aligned ones, think the same.

    The reason I get so het-up about this is precisely because I used to be a very active member of the SP and I always felt it was above such infantile posturing. I expect all the other groups to "set up their own" committees to try to lead the anti-cuts movement, but I never expected it of the SP.

  14. Laurence, I don't think I've ever denigrated your work as a trade union full timer. My point was that both yourself and Donnacha seem to spend more time in your public pronouncements (that I have seen) talking about the weakness of the labour movement rather than the potential it has.

    Naturally it does no good to have an unrealistic view that there are no difficulties with the labour movement in Britain in 2011 as some on the left blogsphere do. On the other hand I fear people like yourself and Donnacha make the same mistake from the opposite direction by concentrating mostly on the difficulties. I feel this can lead you to miss out on opportunities.

    If I gave the impression I didn't rate your work then I assure you that is not the case. I know from speaking to people like Ken in Wales that you've got your head screwed on as far as organising industrially is concerned. However I stand by my point about the role of the NSSN in organising and recruiting. To be honest I'm surprised you don't agree with me. Let me put it another way. If there is a problem with organising and recruitment within the union then the people who are in the best place to do something about that are the elected leadership and full time officials like yourself, not bodies like the NSSN.

  15. As for campaigning for dissident members of the LP I can only reiterate my point that the SP would encourage an anti-cuts campaign it was involved with to support and campaign for an LP councillor that voted against cuts on an LP council. It's not totally unprecedented for the SP to call for support for LP. You may remember the SP calling for a number 2 vote for Ken Livingstone at the last London Mayoral election?

    On setting up other organisations. Thing is Laurence the problem isn't just the uncritical stance taken towards pro cuts LP councillors.
    That's a problem but not an insurmountable barrier as far as the SP is concerned. After all SP members take part in local anti-cuts campaigns that do have LP councillors speaking on platforms and then turning around and implementing cuts, Camden United Against Cuts comes to mind. Unlike RtW (Lewisham, Waltham Forest, Hackney etc) we do not set up rival anti cuts groups because of political differences. We will try to work as a loyal minority in the hope of winning the campaign towards our ideas using discussion and debate. The problem is the total lack of democracy in organisations like CoR or RtW means there is absolutely no chance of the ideas of taking a firm line against all those political forces that are in favour of cuts getting a far and democratic hearing. You know this is true Laurence.

    So the existence of a separate campaign spearheaded by the NSSN becomes necessary as a vehicle for the idea of organising those who are opposed to all cuts.
    However where we can reach an agreement with CoR and RtW (around the issue of ConDem or NHS cuts for example) then the NSSN campaign will of course strive to reach an agreement for joint work.

    Supporters on the NSSN anti-cuts campaign don't intend to put a gun to the heads of local anti cuts groups and say support the NSSN campaign or we're off.
    What we'll be saying in the local anti cuts groups is support all the national anti-cuts groups or none, however you see fit If you want to take a clear line against all cuts whether their origin is from the ConDems or the local Labour council and you believe the organised working class should be at the heart of the anti-cuts campaign and you want to be organised with other like minded people and groups across the country then the NSSN anti cuts campaign is the place for you.

    Finally on Liverpool. The cuts at local level are so huge that really the Liverpool road is the only way out that doesn't involve devastation to local services and jobs. That's why it's so important we don't treat it as an optional extra but fight fight with all our power to make it the strategy of the anti-cuts movement.

  16. I do not go around proclaiming and revelling in some perceived weakness of the labour movement, but what I do try to do is to tell the truth about the situation as I can see it and not dress things up or exaggerate the strength of feeling or mood - being an industrial official has taught me that much.

    Many socialist groups often point to the fact that the trade union movement in the UK is 6 million people strong and why doesn't it just man the barricades and take over.

    However, there is little recognition on the left that the face of trade unionism has changed and far more people are "insurance" members than ever before...paying in regularly to have the union to call on in the off-chance of facing difficulties at work. True, there are still a good number who have strong sympathies with the principals and carry deep socialist values - but these are becoming more and more outweighed by those wanting to protect their own interests - and in this economic climate they cannot really be blamed for this.

    I say this because the bulk of the work we do day to day in the NUJ is taken up with these very people - invisible except when they have a problem at work. Branch attendance in most places is almost non-existent - and I can tell you it is not for the want of trying - in fact very good SP comrades are assisting me right now in trying to rebuild defunct geographic union branches - but it is a painful and quite demoralising process as most members simply don't give a shit about getting involved in the bread and butter running of their own organisations.

    The reasons behind this are complex. However to state, as most left groups do, that union inactivity is in the largest part due to a crisis of leadership is completely wrong and misunderstanding the huge societal changes that have taken place, even since the 1980s. My union has a leadership that has gone so far as to openly encourage workplace occupation in our union journals, that encourages all members to re-engage with local trades councils, that actively leads from the front in terms of organising for recruitment and disputes and certainly never, ever, backs away from fully supporting any group of members wanting to take action.

    But still the vast majority of members just do not want to engage with the wider running or politics of the union.

    Our experience is not unique judging by the conversations I have with other left officials in other unions.

    It is for these reasons that I do not believe that a new political formation or voice will be born out of the trade union movement.

    I believed, and still partially do, any new political formation needs to come from left wingers and socialists in general getting their act together to form that alternative themselves. Trade unions, which like it or not still point to Labour as their traditional voice, could then start to follow IF they see a viable and consistent alternative existing and building support.


  17. ...cont...

    Unfortunately, I have realised that every attempt to do this in recent memory has turned into a huge, unfunny sectarian bunfight. The Socialist Alliance is perhaps the best example of a tremendous idea gone horrifically wrong, but there are plenty of others. I needn't really even have to point to Scotland as a beacon of hope turned into a quagmire of destruction.

    And this sectarianism on the left is getting worse. The point scoring, the chest beating, the denouncing, the general one-upmanship is now extending to movements that have yet to be born.

    Do I truthfully know the CoR or RTW campaigns are largely undemocratic? Actually I don't. One thing being free of party doctrine has taught me is that things I once had instilled in me are not always true. Turns out the SWP does have fantastic union reps in workplaces who are industrially spot on and fantastic trade unionists I can count as friends, just as does the SP. Turns out I perhaps shouldn't have just approached all members of other groups with the ingrained suspicion and masked obnoxiousness I used to.

    All of this leads to the fact there are so many national groups being set up in essence to defend against cuts, that really differ on wafer thin nuances of principle and approach. This says to me that it is sectarianism and the ingrained positions of the left party leaderships that is holding us back from mounting a united struggle - not the Labour party or anything else.

    However, there is also the trifling point that many lefts, myself included, still believe the worst Labour government (possibly Blairs lot excluded) is preferable to a Tory one. The SP dismisses it as lesser-evilism but I call it necessary pragmatism. Getting shot of the Tories is the first and most vital step to stopping cuts. And when Labour get in, the work will have to continue but we are where we are and no amount of rhetoric or wishful thinking will change that.

    Liverpool WAS a magnificent struggle, but so much has changed since then and to simply say that it is the only route available to fighting cuts is disingenuous as there are plenty of other possible routes. In the same way a new left political formation doesn't have be born in the same way it was 100 years ago, struggles do not have to be, and will never be, played out in exactly the same way as in the past.

    In the end Neil, it is not SP people I have a problem with (bar one or two "prolier-than-thous"). It is needless and vain sectarianism, and narrow Leninist doctrine that I have a problem with.

    Lawrence (with a W!)

  18. Loz!

    "Many socialist groups often point to the fact that the trade union movement in the UK is 6 million people strong and why doesn't it just man the barricades and take over."

    Well, before Thatcher, the trade union movement was 13 million strong and it seems to me that the labour party didn't quite go the full hog to restoring those numbers after 13 years?

    It's hard to define the modern relationship between the trade unions and the affiliated labour party, god knows! many have tried to part the pair.

    You can't dilute the abuse in the workplace or ignore the bullying. I guess the message is! when the crowd roar and the fever rises, embrace it, it's never a bad thing, to do the right thing.

  19. "I have to say I was surprised to hear such a counsel of despair from a leading trade union figure. I must day if yourself and Laurence are anything to go by NUJ meeting must be pretty depressing affairs."

    Wow, are you people that deluded? I read out the facts, I don't do propaganda. If you really think 15% trade union density in the private sector is a good thing, then you're in cloud cuckoo land.

    If that debate hadn't been preplanned, set up (with so many people reading prepared speeches), you might have listened to what I was saying properly. The NSSN is needed, not to play petty politics and compete with RTW and COR, but to aid union recruitment and organising.

    My speech was intended to be a wake-up call and a call to action. Like the guy who got booed when he said we weren't going to win on every job. Of course we aren't with only 54% density in the private sector. There's nothing we can do about the people who are going to take voluntary redundancy in the coming months with those levels.

    Every union needs to get off its ass and start recruiting. If the NSSN hadn't been diverted into a mindnumbing debate about something destructive and pointless, then we could have been talking strategy. I had a couple of ideas I would have loved to put, like a "Join a union" card that we should hand out, or how trade unionists need to go along to UK Uncut demos and seek to recruit the staff in targetted businesses.

    Instead, the SP has destroyed the NSSN. It's a front and you'll get as much support as TUSC got in the elections - shag all. And the rest of us (syndicalists, SWP, LRC, AWL, etc) are all out. Pathetic.

  20. Oops, that should be "56% in the public sector". Here are the numbers:

  21. The SP have destroyed the NSSN. They found that they could not tolerate anyone who disagreed with Peter Taaffe. Just as none of their members ever disagree with Peter Taaffe. And of course Peter Taaffe thinks the UK is in a "civil war" (read socialism today) right now.
    So they're bureaucratic and nutty. Better to get the splits over now before things get really serious.
    In Lewisham we're not affiliated to any of the anti-cuts umbrellas and neither is Lambeth.
    I gather that the first COR steering group was awful.
    A real national coalition will be built from the bottom up not by one of these bureaucratic sectarian groups.

  22. Bill J -

    I actually read Peter Taaffe's article and it made me wonder did you -

    to quote -
    After outlining the scale of attacks being launch by the ruling class in Britain he states -
    "THE NET RESULT of all this means a colossal polarisation of the classes not seen for 20 years and possibly exceeding the near civil war situation during the miners’ strike of 1984/85. Can the coalition government force through its draconian measures without confronting mass resistance, defeat and the disintegration of the government? This partly depends upon how resistance is organised and also on the development of the economy which, in turn, is shaped by processes in the world economy."

    Does this mean that there is a 'civil war' in Britain? what is means is the the British ruling class have declared a class war on the working class on a sclae not seen since the class war declared by Thatcher on the NUM. To me that is as blatantly obvious as the nose on my face - and it does not apply just to Britain. The key questions are as follows - 1. what will be the response of the working class? and 2. how will that response be organised? The working class has begun to respond and the method of organising that response is still being developed.

    I am not in Britain but have taken a close interest in developments with the NSSN. To me there was a knee-jerk reaction by the minority group. The SP is accused of 'the SP way or the highway' - but in reality the minority group adopted the same posture 'the minority group way or we walk'. The minority group did not get their own way - yet the establishment of the anti-cuts campaign does not impinge on the work the NSSN has been engaged in up to now. So why walk? why not continue to work within and build the NSSN as a shop stewards network (I wish we had one where I am) and continue to do the valuable work that has been done up to now.

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