Preparing the biggest left of Labour election challenge since the war

Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition conference

Southampton rebel councillor Keith Morrell addressing the TUSC conference, 1.2.14, photo by Paul Mattsson
Southampton rebel councillor Keith Morrell addressing the TUSC conference, 1.2.14, photo by Paul Mattsson

It felt fitting that on 1 February, the day Labour leader Ed Miliband unveiled his plans to sever the ties between Labour and the unions, over 200 trade unionists, community campaigners and socialists came together at the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition conference in London. This was preparation for the biggest left of Labour electoral challenge since World War Two.

Former Socialist Party councillor Dave Nellist, chairing the conference, laid out the ambitious plan to stand 625 candidates as ‘anti-cuts beacons’ for working class people in the May 2014 elections. This scale is necessary to attempt to break the media blackout of anything beyond the parties of capitalism. The hall was buzzing when it was revealed that already 400 people have been identified as potential candidates with two months of the nomination period left.

Trade union speakers

The morning session began with speeches from leading representatives of the trade unions that have already broken with or are not affiliated to Labour. The speakers made it clear they are working to seriously build a political alternative for their members and the working class as a whole.

Mike Sargent, from the RMT executive council, outlined the battle his union faces to defend jobs, safety and the service on the London Underground. He attacked the ‘keep calm and carry on’ culture pushed by the media and argued we need to do the opposite – we need to get angry, get organised and fight back, not just industrially but also on the political front.

Joe Simpson, assistant general secretary of the POA prison workers’ union, responded to the news of Miliband’s proposals to break the union link, calling on him to “stop talking, do it and sod off so we can build a new workers’ party”.

John McInally, PCS vice-president, questioned what the trade unions get from their support for pro-big business Labour. He also said that “those who sneer at TUSC are prepared to tell us what’s wrong and why, but not what to do about it other than to vote Labour. That’s not a policy, that’s an abdication of responsibility.”

Discontent in the affiliated unions with the Labour link was reflected in the contributions from the floor. Dave Walsh from Liverpool reported on the overwhelming vote in Unite’s United Left in the North West to break the Labour link. Unison branch secretary Glenn Kelly explained (in a personal capacity) that two-thirds of Unison members who pay into the political fund refuse to give money to Labour – but the leadership won’t allow debate on it.

‘No cuts’ candidates

TUSC national election agent Clive Heemskerk introduced the afternoon’s discussion on the May election campaign. He pointed out that the distinguishing feature of candidates who stand for TUSC is that they pledge to oppose all cuts, to vote for no-cuts budgets and that they assert that councils have powers to resist making cuts.

He challenged the idea that there is nothing Labour councils can do to fight the cuts locally, pointing to the “many, many, many loopholes that councillors could find if they were determined to beat the cuts”, as has been the case with the bedroom tax.

Later, referring to the enormous gains won for the working class in Liverpool in the 1980s when he was a leader of the city council, Tony Mulhearn explained that if the political will is there, you can drive a coach and horses through ‘legal technicalities’ – if you have the support of a mass movement.

Alongside Clive on the platform was Keith Morrell, Southampton rebel councillor. He gave an inspiring look at how socialist councillors can be effective defenders of their communities. He highlighted the fear in the Labour Party of him and fellow rebel councillor Don Thomas getting re-elected: “The Labour Party are mounting a huge campaign against us. They don’t want us to win because it will prove if you stand up and fight, you will get a response”.

The election victory of Kshama Sawant in Seattle and the progress of the Workers And Socialist Party in South Africa were pointed to throughout the day as examples of where the working class will look for and build political alternatives.

Nancy Taaffe and Sarah Wrack commented on the practical examples we can take from the campaign in the US, raising the positive campaign for rent controls that has been launched in Waltham Forest in London and the ‘pink roadside flashmobs’ inspired by Seattle that they are using to “break the visual blockade” on TUSC.

Unity and optimism

Oktay Sahbaz from Day-Mer and others showed how the TUSC campaign was being taken up by the Turkish and Kurdish communities of North London and raised the importance of unity with migrant communities and workforces in fighting the cuts. He sent a “we are coming for you!” warning to the councillors where they will be standing.

Joe Robinson, a TUSC town councillor elected last March in Maltby, spoke on ‘how to win’. He linked today’s struggles with the anniversary of the miners’ strike and pointed out that while Maltby “may just be a parish council it was still an election fought on an anti-austerity platform”.

Contributions from the Mayor of Harrow (expelled from the Labour Party for opposing library closures), Chris Flood, a former socialist councillor in Lewisham, and many more, added to the optimistic and practical discussion on the potential for a left of Labour challenge in May.

In his remarks, the POA’s Joe Simpson summed up the determined mood that was evident throughout the conference when he ended his contribution with: “Is TUSC the answer? I don’t know, but I’ll try hard to make it the answer and the political voice for every worker in this country”.

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