COR conference: Voting down unity while talking unity

Dave Isaacson, delegate from Milton Keynes, reports on the July 9 conference of COR and the limits of the anti-cuts campaigns

John McDonnell MP: most militant

Following on just after a week from the impressive strikes by the PCS, NUT, ATL and UCU unions on June 30, you would have thought that the Coalition of Resistance’s second national conference was well positioned to build upon that fighting spirit and lay out plans for taking the anti-cuts movement onto the next level. Unfortunately these aims can only very partially be considered to have been achieved on July 9. Indeed there were a number of missed opportunities and worrying signs that much of the left is unprepared, and in some cases unwilling, to do what is necessary to meet the challenges ahead.

In many ways the conference provided a snapshot of the general position of the left at this moment vis-à-vis the broader working class fightback against the cuts. We have just seen around 750,000 workers take coordinated strike action for a day, backed up by militant and upbeat rallies and demonstrations across the country, and joined by workers involved in local disputes such as Unison council workers in Birmingham, Southampton and Doncaster. There is clearly a growing mood amongst workers that if the Con-Dem cuts are going to be defeated then sustained and militant action is a must. Hanging around until the next election and voting Labour back in is fast being exposed as a non-option to those who previously favoured that route. Both because the damage done by then will clearly be massive, but more fundamentally it is evident to ever more people that the Labour leadership does not offer a credible alternative. Miliband and Balls attack the strikers because they too offer a programme of cuts, which if they got into office would provoke further industrial action.

Opinion polls show higher support for strikes than for a long time, with roughly even splits between those supporting and opposing the pension strikes. For example the Ipso Mori poll of June 19 had 48% of people answering each way.1 Support over the last period has tended to be much lower, at around 20% – 30%. We have also seen five union conferences vote in favour of the idea of a one-day general strike (including PCS, NUT and CWU) and the left-sounding rhetoric threatening action from the big players – Dave Prentis of Unison and Len McCluskey of Unite.

All in all, it is clear that the government can expect significant opposition from workers and the trade union movement to its attacks. While some union leaders clearly hope that they can win concessions for their members through threats and limited action, a significant number of rank-and-file workers are increasingly aware of the need for sustained militant action by millions.

Yet the left, through the anti-cuts movement, is actually having very little impact at present. It is the trade union leaders, with their own agenda, who are calling all the shots right now. On June 30 and March 26 the left groups, through their various anti-cuts campaigns, played minor bit-parts. Politically these campaigns have been content, on the whole, to take a supporting role, echoing the line of the union bureaucracy, giving it a left or socialist gloss.

Last Saturday’s COR conference reflected this and showed that there is much to do before we are ready to give effective leadership to the masses of people who want to see the cuts stopped. The organisers claimed an attendance of 300 people, with four-fifths of these classed as “delegates”. This is well down on the figure of 1,300 who attended the first COR conference last autumn. It was hoped that after the inspiring strikes of June 30 we would have seen something of an influx from those involved in action and others wanting to follow suit. Unfortunately this was not the case. Indeed the conference was overwhelmingly composed of activists who have been on the left for some time. There were a fair few ‘independents’ alongside members of groups such as Counterfire, Green Left, Socialist Resistance, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, Workers Power and the Socialist Workers Party.

Unity

The SWP has its own anti-cuts front, of course, in the form of Right to Work. As well as COR and RTW, there is the National Shop Stewards Network anti-cuts campaign, dominated by the Socialist Party in England and Wales, plus the CPB’s People’s Charter. The existence of so many competing campaigns is very obviously a huge weakness. The needless replication of basic work and senseless confusion caused is something that must be overcome.

This question of unity was one that came up a number of times throughout the conference. When moving motion A from the COR steering committee on ‘The way forward’, COR secretary Andrew Burgin commented that there were five national anti-cuts campaigns – “There should be one!” he correctly insisted. He said that “we need to find a way of meshing these together”. Yet the motion itself committed COR to no concrete action in this regard. The most it had to say was that COR “will continue to seek the broadest possible unity in coordinating the campaign against the austerity measures, to provide a national framework for the campaign” and “to organise in the communities and workplaces with others against all cuts”.

Only one motion sought to set out the beginnings of a tangible process through which unity could be achieved. This motion came from Communist Students and was the last motion to be heard on the day (though it nearly wasn’t heard at all – see below). The motion read as follows: “Conference believes that the existence of several competing anti-cuts campaigns – all of them with essentially the same message – weakens our movement’s ability to resist the coalition’s austerity programme. Conference resolves to mandate the Coalition of Resistance steering committee to contact Right to Work, the National Shop Stewards Network, the People’s Charter, local anti-cuts groups, trades councils, etc with a view to organising a united anti-cuts conference before the end of 2011.”

Entirely straightforward and supportable for anyone who wants unity in the fight against cuts, you might have thought. Well, it is not that simple. As he returned to his seat after introducing the motion, Ben Lewis of Communist Students and the Communist Party of Great Britain was told by Right to Work chair Paul Brandon that he had spoken well, but the motion had “no chance”. He was right, and it certainly was not just RTW that had no interest in seeing it passed. It was overwhelmingly voted down. While all the groups are happy to say that they would like unity in the abstract, in actual fact they are in favour of maintaining the division of the movement into separate campaigns. The leading figures within COR do not want to share a campaign with the SWP or SPEW, and for both of these groups the feeling is mutual. The disunity of the left groups imposes itself on the anti-cuts movement.

The anti-cuts campaigns can and will negotiate and form limited agreements with each other. We were informed of some of these by comrade Burgin, when he spoke against the CS motion that would have taken us a step closer to the unity he claims to want. Apparently COR meets on an almost weekly basis with the People’s Charter and cooperates closely. It also meets with the NSSN and RTW (with which it has a negotiated accord). Whilst this is certainly better than a situation in which the campaigns refuse to talk to each other and routinely organise competing events, etc, it is clearly insufficient. The disunity persists. It is also profoundly undemocratic that all of these negotiations take place behind the backs of the members of the campaigns involved in them and are not as a matter of course reported on – we only heard about them from COR’s secretary in a speech against a unity conference. Such a conference would place the question in the hands of the anti-cuts activists themselves and take it away from the leadership cliques who benefit from disunity.

By maintaining their own distinct anti-cuts fronts the left groups behind them avoid a serious discussion over their political differences and get a relatively competition-free pool from which to fish for recruits. To date the main reason that COR has been different is that the key motivating group behind it (Counterfire) is simply not big enough to dominate in the way the SWP and SPEW are able to control their fronts.

What we did see at this conference, though, was an emerging alliance of ‘moderation’ around Counterfire, Socialist Resistance, the Green Party and the People’s Charter. In political terms this is an alliance of the right within COR and these comrades converge around the belief that they must not do anything that will irk the trade union bureaucracy.

General strike

This insistence on moderation was evident throughout, but most prominent in the discussion of two motions which made calls for the promotion of a general strike. The first of these was from the SWP, which had a token presence, and its motion ended: “… as a step towards the scale of action needed to stop the Con Dems we call on the TUC to coordinate a 24-hour general strike against the cuts and attacks on wages and pensions.” For us in the CPGB this is a perfectly supportable call for the necessary mobilisation of masses of workers in a one-day protest strike in order to bring the maximum number of people into active opposition to the cuts.

The second general strike motion, from Workers Power, was rather more simple. It read: “This conference raises the call for a general strike to stop the cuts package and bring down the coalition government.” That is clearly different both in its scope and aims from what the SWP’s motion was calling for. Obviously to “bring down the coalition government” it would have to be an indefinite strike, and would inevitably pose before the movement the question of state power. What Workers Power did not mention, either in the motion, its motivation, or the leaflet it gave out on the day, is what alternative government such a general strike would usher in to replace the coalition. The pro-cuts Labour leadership? Surely not. But what else is there? COR? Or perhaps Workers Power itself? To ask these questions is to answer them. None of them are serious alternatives. “We are not saying all we need is a general strike,” said WP’s Rebecca Allen, but the motion really did say nothing else. To challenge for state power the working class needs a hegemonic, mass revolutionary party, not a tiny sect. Without even considering the need for such a party a call for an indefinite general strike is merely utopian – and symptomatic of a general strikism not uncommon on the left, which fetishises a useful tactic and turns it into an incoherent strategy.

Both opponents and supporters of the two motions ignored this distinction and treated them as though they were the same. NUT national executive member Alex Kenny spoke against the SWP motion and started by saying that he thought that a general strike would be good, but to call for one now lacked perspective. Yet his own union has only just voted in favour of one – a call backed by the entire national executive he sits on. Similarly, Liam Mac Uaid of Socialist Resistance claimed, in his speech against the WP motion, that a call for a general strike would not get through a normal functioning union branch – only to be reminded by a heckler from the floor that his own union branch had just passed one! “There’s a story behind that,” he mumbled, abacked.

Comrade Kenny and others argued that the 300 or so people in the room could have no impact on what the trade union movement does. Leaving aside the fact that most were supposed to be “delegates” representing wider forces, if we are so insignificant then what is the point? Well, the argument is that we are here to support the action the unions organise, but not make unasked for demands of our own. Comrade Kenny then confused the SWP motion he was arguing against with a call for an indefinite general strike, saying that he was “not sure our movement was yet ready for state power.”

The rightist confusion in seeing these two motions as essentially the same was mirrored by their leftist backers. Workers Power wanted to composite them and glossed over the differences between them. The SWP (whose recent flip-flopping between calls for a one-day general strike and the slogan, “All out, stay out”, were examined by Peter Manson last week2) was happy to vote for both motions and excitedly murmur, “All out, stay out”, when John McDonnell MP said, “We want to bring people out and keep them out until our demands are met” in his closing plenary speech. However, the model motion SWP members are now pushing in their union branches limits itself, like that at the COR conference, to the sensible call for a one-day general strike. One of the first plenary speakers, Zita Holbourne of Black Activists Rising Against Cuts, and a member of the PCS national executive, had also said that we needed a general strike. Yet these sentiments were not reflected in the votes, when only 20-25 ‘delegates’ voted for these two motions. Perhaps if the conference had attracted some of the newly radicalised workers in the PCS and NUT, then the votes would have been different.

As far as their own strategy is concerned, it does not seem like the leaders of COR have much to say beyond supporting any action the trade unions call and pushing for another national demonstration. A number of Counterfire supporters have made the argument that what was remarkable about June 30 was not so much the industrial action (which, of course, was great), but the street demonstrations and rallies on the day, which were able to draw in people from beyond the unions who wanted to show their opposition to cuts.

The most important next step, then, is organising another national demonstration. There is a clear difference between this and, say, the position of the SWP, which place much more import on strikes.

Of course, the Counterfire line dovetails well with the position upheld by Lindsey German, John Rees, Chris Bambery and Chris Nineham throughout the anti-war movement. Then the strategic vision was never lifted above building the next national demonstration or conference. While the anti-war upsurge clearly caused massive problems for Tony Blair that dogged him for the rest of his time in office, it did not stop the war in Iraq or Afghanistan. And the focus on national demonstration after national demonstration simply led to demoralisation and diminishing returns. On top of this, the genuine anti-imperialist politics that were needed were frequently dumbed down or brushed under the carpet within the Stop the War Coalition in order to keep the movement ‘broad’ and not put off potential allies. Principled campaigns such as Hands Off the People of Iran were refused affiliation so that supporters of the Tehran regime would not be put off. The aim was limited to ‘Blair must go’, not regime change in the UK and beyond. Broad to the right, narrow to the left.

But the comrades have much less chance of winning mass support for a campaign of that nature against the cuts than they had in the anti-war movement. STWC was able to become the organisational focal point for the mass mobilisations against the Iraq war, but in the anti-cuts struggle it is the trade unions – not COR or any other anti-cuts campaign – that will be the organisational backbone. The only way that can change is if a politically distinct force, which is not afraid to challenge the trade union bureaucracy (including its lefts) when it misleads the struggle, is able to win layers of rank-and-file workers to a perspective of its own. Such a force would have to have a formidable revolutionary organisation, such as a united Communist Party, at its heart in order to make headway.

It now looks like those who ran STWC, who now make up much of COR’s leadership, are set to map this strategy onto their section of the anti-cuts movement. It was only the off-message plenary speakers, Ted Knight and John McDonnell, who said that what we needed was to overthrow capitalism and replace it with socialism. “I don’t just want to bring down the government – I want to bring down the system,” declared comrade McDonnell in the most militant speech of the day.

Internationalism and democracy

One positive feature of the conference was a recognition that resistance to the cuts needs to be coordinated across international borders. This took concrete form in the call to build the October 1 European Conference Against Austerity in London. This conference had already been initiated by COR and is backed by various left groups across Europe.

This recognition of the international nature of the battle against capitalist austerity is an important step towards the coordinated action across frontiers that could be so powerful in defending our class. Indeed a working class alternative to capitalist rule will also have to be at least continental in scale, if it is to survive for any length of time – there are no national roads to socialism. It is vital that the October 1 conference provides plenty of space for debating strategy thoroughly, rather than simply presenting us with a seamless procession of the big names of the left from across Europe.

There was an emergency motion proposed by the CPB opposing the job losses at Bombardier in Derby which caused some consternation. Typically, considering its Stalinist authors and the strategy of a British road to socialism, it was laden with nationalist sentiments with no reference to the need for international coordination. However, after Dot Gibson of the National Pensioners Convention called for the removal of one reference to “a callous disregard for workers in Britain” the bulk of conference was prepared to accept the rest. Amongst others, comrades from Workers Power, the SWP and CPGB voted against. Clearly there is a fight to be had to defend the workers at Bombardier, but passing motions which pander to the ‘British jobs for British workers’ sentiment is certainly not the way to do so.

After the lunch break, but before the bulk of the motions were discussed, the conference was broken up into small groups for workshops. I attended the workshop on the crisis in the euro zone, where an interesting discussion was had and a comrade from the Radical Left youth in Greece made some particularly pertinent points about the importance of coordinating action across Europe. However, due to the amount of time given over to workshops and a ridiculously long list of plenary speakers there was very little time for conference to actually discuss motions – the main business of the day. Also it is not possible, of course, to attend more than one workshop. The discussion is only heard by a fraction of the conference.

It would have been far more democratic to forego the separate workshops and some of the plenary speakers and extend the time allowed for debate on the conference floor. Many of the workshops covered issues that were related to motions being discussed anyway (internationalism; unions; privatisation; anti-racism; the environment) and the points made could have usefully been shared with everybody. Such an approach would have allowed more speakers to be involved in the discussion of motions (most had no more than one speaker for and one against) and for speakers to be given time to develop more complex arguments.

There were other organisational problems which impinged on the democratic process too. The absence of any working microphones at the beginning meant that the conference was nearly an hour late in starting. As alluded to earlier, the motion from Communist Students was nearly not heard at all. When we got to conference it was not included in the motions document, although it had been submitted by a paid-up, affiliated body before the deadline. Only after some persuading did the organisers allow it to be discussed. Even then the chair repeatedly, but inaccurately, referred to it as a “late motion”.

All of this fuss could easily have been sorted out prior to conference if the motions, which had to be submitted by June 24, had been made available to delegates via the COR website. Only seeing the motions for the first time on the day itself might have meant having to read them while listening to the proceedings (perhaps the hour’s delay was intended as ‘preparation time’). I am sure that comrades will have been very busy in the run-up to June 30, but democratic norms are vital. In future we can, and must, do better.

One motion from Lambeth Save Our Services, and proposed by Stuart King of Permanent Revolution, sought to shift the way COR is organised and, as comrade King argued, “put it in the hands of the local groups”. There were some valid suggestions put forward in this motion, such as ensuring that the national committee meets every two months (it has met twice in the last eight months) and that the steering committee which currently meets during weekday working hours should change this arrangement to make it more accessible. However, the motion made no provision for the affiliated national political bodies and campaign groups which play a key role in COR to directly send representatives to the national committee. This provision was included in a steering committee motion, so when this was passed the Lambeth SOS motion fell.

Its general thrust of seeking to rely on the local anti-cuts groups to overcome democratic concerns and the issue of unity is also misguided. These problems originate at the top of the anti-cuts movement, in the way the national left groups operate. While local groups must certainly be part of the fight for unity and democracy in the movement, the problem is a national one and the left must look to its own practice if it is to be overcome.

Notes

1. http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/blog/archives/3679.

2. ‘From Tony Cliff to Alex CallinicosWeekly Worker July 7.

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