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They echo the New Labour spin. “If [RMT general secretary] Bob Crow wants to sit at the table with a bunch of Trots, that’s up to them,” said Labour chairman Ian McCartney.
But the fact is that the union-Labour Party link is the most important relationship on the left of British politics. It is one of the main reasons why there has never been any effective pluralism in the political representation of the labour movement.
This makes holding Labour prime ministers to account depend on the democracy or otherwise of the party. And Westminster’s relatively strong institutions of scrutiny that Adam Tomkins invokes (-House of correction) have been rendered void by a neutering of democracy in the Labour Party.
In reality, the union-Labour link has always been more a force for bolstering the party leadership than of democratic pressure. Parliamentary leaders have always been able to exploit the fact that the unions have nowhere else to turn, and union leaders have commonly used the unions’ dependence on Labour to isolate dissent.
Imagine a scenario in which the union-party link was made democratic: able to fully express the variety of ways in which the unions might further their goals politically. If political funds could be spent on campaigning irrespective of the fact that they might lead to electoral challenges to Labour, the momentum for a left political alternative would grow beyond “the bunch of Trots” in the caricature. A movement for electoral reform would gather unstoppable momentum. England and Wales would then have, as in Scotland, a left challenge to Labour working alongside the Greens. Never again could Labour whip rebels into line and spin any challenge as “letting in the Tories”. The Parliamentary institutions that Tomkins details would really be tested and, as Stuart Weir advocates (-Let the people decide), probably radically strengthened.
Any shift in this direction would involve fierce conflict with New Labour. On the one hand, New Labour’s authoritarian, managerial view of politics drives it to cling fervently to the party’s historic dominance over centre-left political representation; indeed, it seeks to extend this monopoly rightwards.
On the other hand, Labour has contempt for the institutions on which this monopoly has traditionally rested. Tony Blair has long wanted to end the union-party link. This goal was always a central plank of “the project”. Hence, Blair and his henchmen will do little to discourage moves to disaffiliate. Communications Workers Union general secretary Billy Hayes and Fire Brigade Union leader Andy Gilchrist cannot expect support in their efforts to hold the line on affiliation.
The unions’ frustration with their essentially masochistic relationship with Labour is at boiling point, especially in public-sector unions. In Scotland, the Scottish Socialist Party offers an obvious escape route. South of the border some unions are tentatively experimenting, through working with campaigning social movements like those against the war and occupation of Iraq, racism and fascism. In some localities there are growing relationships between unions and community groups over issues like privatisation and also low pay.
Followed to their logical conclusion, these moves towards a more independent and plural political stance imply much deeper changes than a simple reallocation of funds. As Labour became the party of government, the unions” special link became a route for union leaders to become subordinate members of the British establishment – whether as members of the House of Lords, national quangos or the predominantly male elites that hold sway in many cities and localities.
In other words, the union-party link has often pulled union officials into a routine away from the needs of their members. As for the growing awareness among the new generation of union leaders that the renewal of the left requires a new relationship with radical campaigning and cultural movements, there is much to learn from the international social forums (see From Mumbai with hope). The RMT was a founder of the Labour Party, if it opens itself to the radical social movements, it could help found a new, open, plural left politics in Britain, willing to challenge rather than defer to the power of the establishment.
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
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New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun