By Ruth Cashman, Lambeth Unison co-secretary (pc)
During the Momentum National Coordinating Group elections, Lawrence Dunne, candidate for the Momentum Renewal faction, called on LabourList for the Labour left to “get serious about trade unions”.
He was right to pose reviving trade unionism and workplace organisation as a – perhaps the – key challenge for the socialist left. However, made no argument why it followed Momentum members should have backed Momentum Renewal.
Lawrence’s article begs a number of questions. That’s no bad thing in itself, but the wing of the left represented by Momentum Renewal clearly does not have the answers.
Supporting workers’ struggles
In a Labour context, the question of pushing the party to support workers’ struggles and help them win is surely key.
It is widely repeated that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn enthusiastically and unreservedly back workers in struggle. For sure Corbyn’s record was much better than that of previous Labour leaders; but it was also characterised by a definite reticence.
Cast your mind back to the bizarre situation in 2017 when Corbyn would not attend junior doctors’ picket lines because, said the rumours in the press, Heidi Alexander did not want him to.
The Picturehouse Cinema strikers were mainly young, precarious, private-sector, service-sector workers fighting for the Living Wage and basic rights. They repeatedly asked Corbyn’s office if he would attend their picket lines – most of which were a short journey from Parliament – but it never happened. This in a dispute that ran for two years (2016-18).
Corbyn did nothing for the dispute except make a short statement (not even a video) right at the end as the Picturehouse workers faced defeat. It is entirely plausible that active support from Corbyn, particularly when the dispute’s star and his were both high in the middle of 2017, could have tipped the balance.
I very much doubt the issue was lack of sympathy. If I had to guess it was a lack of drive from Corbyn to overcome the resistance of the people running his office. It is hard to know, from the outside. But the outcome, in any case, was clear.
Note that the problem was not limited to, for instance, groups of workers in conflict with Labour councils (like the Durham and Derby teaching assistants) – though there was certainly a problem there. The Picturehouse workers were an “oven-ready”, easy dispute for Corbynism – and yet…
More generally, even when Corbyn made supportive comments about workers’ struggles, they were usually pitched in terms of the need for the bosses’ to negotiate, not full-throated support for the strikers.
No doubt there were cases where Corbyn did more; John McDonnell was somewhat better and more active; but that was the general picture. Reticent, limited, passive. Certainly there was no attempt to demand publicly (obviously we don’t know about privately) that other MPs get out and support workers in struggle. The party machine did not mobilise to help workers’ struggles; while this was not necessarily Corbyn’s fault, he seemed to passively accept it.
Nor did the leadership campaign in any real way for mass unionisation, despite repeated and undoubtedly sincere statements about the value of union membership.
National Momentum was no help. Despite Lambeth and other Momentum groups playing the central role in mobilising local solidarity for the Picturehouse workers, and despite the national organisation agreeing proposals from the wing of the left now represented by Momentum Internationalists, the leadership majority and office did virtually nothing to carry that out.
Many of those who went on to organise and back Momentum Renewal mocked and poured scorn on us when we repeatedly raised the dispute, because their dislike of us was stronger than their commitment to supporting workers’ struggles.
Even more bizarrely, in 2017 the struggle by library workers and -users in Lambeth, again heavily backed by the local Momentum group, which under pressure from Progress the national Momentum Steering Committee refused to back.
Since 2015, Momentum has done bits and pieces in support of workers’ struggles, but incredibly little given its weight and reach. Its basic orientation to trade unions has been to private negotiations with their general secretaries. It has not pressured Labour or its leadership to support workers. Why would that be any different under Momentum Renewal’s continuity slate?
The anti-union laws
One of the greatest contributions Labour could make to reviving a grassroots labour movement is repealing the numerous anti-trade union / anti-strike laws introduced since 1980 – which have been so central to locking down the defeats Thatcher inflicted on the labour movement and workers’ organisation. Again, Corbynism’s record on this was mixed to say the least.
In 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019, Labour conference voted for various formulations to commit the party to repealing all the anti-union laws – but Corbyn et al ignored this, sticking to “Repeal the Trade Union Act” (ie only the most recent anti-union laws, introduced in 2016). As with many other issues, they shifted only at the very end, including a somewhat more radical (but still unclear) position in the 2019 manifesto. Now Starmer is clearly trying to row back even from that.
Momentum Internationalists has campaigned extensively on the anti-union laws. Forward Momentum’s “Plan to Take Momentum Forward” took a fairly clear stance on the issue; and though Forward Momentum has not campaigned much on it, some of those standing on its slate have been very active around the question. So has its sponsoring union FBU, one of the key forces in the Free Our Unions campaign.
Momentum Renewal has said nothing about it at all, including in the person of Lawrence Dunne (despite PCS voting to back Free Our Unions too).
Building grass-roots links, transforming the unions
Building up trade unions must be an urgent priority for the left – but unions only grow when they fight at least half-way effectively. They have been stagnant or declining for years – missing opportunities for revival – because, by and large, they do not.
To turn this around, unions need transforming. If we believe that change must come mostly from the grassroots, how can the Labour left contribute to that?
Again, Momentum’s approach has been to work for relationships with general secretaries and the like – often not even in terms of formal affiliations to Momentum, but more just establishing private relationships. It has certainly not been developing relationships with groups of rank-and-file activists or even local union officers. Again it is very hard to see any evidence Momentum Renewal would change this.
One issue is that the dominant political forces in Momentum, of which those running Momentum Renewal are such an important part, have channelled people into full-time unelected jobs in trade union apparatuses rather than encouraging them to be grassroots workplace organisers.
It is surely telling that Momentum Renewal promoted Lawrence as a leading trade unionist when it is some time since he has been a workplace activist. Unless I’ve been misinformed – in which case I will of course correct this – he works for an MP, and before that was an unelected full-timer for PCS. (I would certainly not exempt Forward Momentum from this criticism either.)
I’d also note that when he was a PCS activist and national executive member Lawrence supported the union’s Left Unity faction, which opposed PCS affiliating to Labour. Does he think that position was right?
Last but not least, working-class solidarity must not stop at national borders. But this basic principle of socialist politics is not compatible with the Stalinist and nationalist political references of the left Momentum Renewal represents.
Failing to defend, let alone fight to extend, free movement is not compatible with standing up for all workers regardless of origin and migration status.
Indifference – at best – to the Tories ramming through a destructive, ultra-nationalist, disaster-capitalist Brexit is not compatible with concern for migrant workers either.
Supporting regimes like China, which suppresses independent unions and is using forced labour to break the resistance of the Uyghur Muslims it is persecuting, is not compatible with the claim to champion workers’ rights and freedom.
In summary, Momentum Renewal adopted “class” and “trade unionism” as marketing slogans. It was/is very far from advocating the demands and struggles necessary in order to take these things seriously.
What we need
It is not just a matter of criticising Momentum’s record, but of what the Labour left positively needs to do. Momentum groups should much more actively support and help organise workers’ struggles and the building up of trade unionism, including by encouraging and training their activists to organise in their workplaces. The Momentum national leadership and office should champion this work and use their significant reach and influence to boost workers’ struggles.
But none of that is possible a shift from the top-down, conservative form of “trade unionism” which Momentum has promoted so far.
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