A little while back Socialist Unity carried this article on the RMT’s decision to maintain the NO2EU coalition from June’s European Elections. The RMT will be hosting a conference on Saturday 7th November 2009 at the Camden Centre, London discussing ‘ The crisis in working class political representation.’
Andy Newman’s analysis over on the Socialist Unity article that first carried the story is a rather sound one, and he is right to point out that in five or more constituencies there already exists a strong left-of-Labour challenge either from the Greens or from Respect. But could the NO2EU coalition that fared so badly in the European Elections ever seriously develop along the lines of Germany’s Die Linke, or would it remain a has-been, over-ambitious project that goes the same way as Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party?
In the context of Germany and Die Linke, both German history, it’s electoral system, the activity of trade unionists and other socio-economic factors make most comparisons between British and German ‘social democratic labourism’ somewhat futile. Die Linke is effectively a Social Democratic Party (SDP)-mark II with radical-left and neo-Marxian factions, some of which are revolutionary and others of which are reformists. Oskar Lafontaine, the popular co-chairman of Die Linke, is a former high-profile member of the SDP having been both a former chairman and former finance minister. He was also the former Prime Minister of the German state of Saarland between 1985 and 1998. The most prominent point of tension within Die Linke is over the issue of participation in coalition governments with either the SPD or the Greens in order to keep the neo-liberal and conservative parties (the Christian Democrats and the Freedom Party) out of power, with some of Die Linke’s platforms and tendencies much more enthusiastic about co-operating with the SDP than others. In Britain, the electoral system makes coalition governments almost impossible at Westminister, although a hung Parliament is not beyond possibility, it would be likely that both the Tories and Labour would seek either unionist or civic nationalist support for a minority Government. Neither party would be overly enthusiastic about entering into co-operation with the Liberal Democrats, even though the Lib Dems believe they are in with a shot of becoming ‘King makers.’
If the results of the European Elections are anything to go by (along with smear tactics from the right-wing press) then an RMT-only electoral challenge has neither the political talent nor the numbers capable of posing a genuine threat to either Labour, or for that matter the BNP. What would be needed is the enthusiasm and support from the other non-affiliated unions, such as PCS, FBU, NUJ and perhaps soon to be, CWU. Bob Crow’s ambition would not be enough to maintain a left-of-Labour coalition and the smaller the coalition the more personality becomes a factor of difference rather than policy or political direction. The split in Respect emerged to be a personality difference between John Rees (both with SWP members and non-SWP members) and the ‘populist’ wing led by George Galloway and others. Without the unifying force non-affiliated trade unions could have supplied to Respect from it’s inception, cracks emerged and the debate turned away from the political and on to the personal.
Trade unions are unifying forces inside coalitions, they can lead the direction of policy debate and are largely recognised to be the financial brokers of electoral challenges. Eventually all party factions of a coalition would take their cue from the leadership of supportive trade unions.
The support of trade unions can offer motivation and enthusiasm to all coalition factions. Factions would be much more willing to compromise with ‘cash promises’ from trade unions because it is a chance for them to grow and expand in an attempt to exert it’s influence inside a coalition. With trade union money a left-of-Labour coalition can hire a communications and press team, a publications team and full-time organisers to get on with the busy task of professionalising and politicising a new electoral coalition and prepare it for an organised electoral challenge. Without trade union money any left-of-Labour electoral challenge is likely to be minimal and only concentrated to one or two constituencies where the likes of either Respect or the Greens have been slaving away for years and months. Elections really cannot be fought on shoe-string budgets. This is something most radical-left players who wish to consider any electoral attempt must realise. The power of a message is only as good as the price tag that funds it.
In my opinion a British ‘Die Linke’ would only ever be possible if the non-affiliated unions were committed to the project from the start. The RMT does not have a large enough political fund to be the foundation for a party that seeks to re-discover labourism. For any kind of coalition to have a serious chance of establishing itself like Die Linke has, under a first-past-the-post or even an Alternative Vote (AV) system, it will need big money so that it could fight in the constituencies. Regardless of what it decides it’s political programme or message to be, all players that desire some kind of permanent left electoral challenge have to realise that they need the unifying factor of trade union funding.