RMT votes NO to affiliation
THE RMT’s Special General Meeting, held on 30th May, voted by 31 to 25 not to affiliate to the Labour Party. This followed a two month consultation period in the union, with special branch and regional council meetings. The results of the consultation showed an even divide of opinion within the union. Of twelve regional councils, six responded in favour of affiliation and five against. About half of all branches also responded, with a slight majority in favour of affiliation.
At the SGM general secretary Mick Cash, speaking for the NEC and - as he made clear - for himself, argued that the consultation did not give a mandate for changing the RMT’s political strategy. This is to support Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell and those in the Labour Party who support the RMT, but not to affiliate. The RMT Campaign for Labour Affiliation, an ad hoc grouping of lay union activists, based our campaign on two main arguments:
- That there is a struggle going on in the Labour Party between those on the side of the working class and socialism, including the leadership, and those on the side of capital and the ruling class. RMT should not stand on the sidelines and wait to see who wins.
- That the RMT should be involved in Labour’s preparation for government to advance our arguments and policies over renationalisation of rail, ending expansion of DOO (driver only operation), new laws to give rights to workers and trade unions in place of the anti-union laws, and ending the paying of hourly rates by shipping companies to workers from other countries which are much less than the national minimum wage.
We argued that if the RMT does not affiliate we will have to rely on ASLEF, TSSA, Unite, GMB, and others to put the case for workers in the industries we organise in.
Our campaign had valuable and committed support from John McDonnell, who is a member of RMT’s parliamentary group of MPs, and Steve Hedley, RMT assistant general secretary, who both passionately made the case for affiliation at several open meetings.
The arguments for affiliation were up against the scepticism, suspicion, and hostility towards the Labour Party of many RMT activists who struggled through two decades before 2015 when the party was indifferent or hostile to our union and our members’ interests. These episodes included:
- the failure of the 1997–2010 Labour governments to reverse John Major’s privatisation of rail;
- the privatisation (in the form of PPP) of engineering and fleet maintenance of London Underground;
- and keeping the Tory anti-union laws.
This attitude has been reinforced by the actions of some Labour local authorities, notably Transport for London, which under Labour London Mayor Sadiq Khan has kept the cleaning of London Underground outsourced. Tube cleaners are still on or barely above the national minimum wage. Their employer, the huge US facilities company ABM, is hostile to RMT’s attempts to organise, recruit and represent these workers. Another Labour local authority runs Merseyrail, which has been trying to bring in DOO and remove train guards.
While those campaigning against affiliation declared their support for John and Jeremy, they expressed considerable doubt as to whether the changes in the Labour Party will last. One delegate argued, “If Labour get elected, the 172 Labour MPs [who supported the ‘chicken coup’ of 2016] will stab Jeremy in the back and we will have a Blairite government”. Those campaigning for affiliation argued that we have to be in the Labour Party to combat those opposed to John and Jeremy.
Campaigners for affiliation also had to argue against the syndicalist, ‘RMT alone’, ethos which has developed within the union over the last few decades. In some ways this ethos has served us well, keeping us a militant campaigning union in the face of New Labour hostility, attacks from the bosses, and the continuing overall decline of the British trade union movement. But the RMT needs to move forward from this and take our militancy and socialist politics into the task of transforming the wider movement, including the Labour Party.
The SGM decision was a disappointment to those of us who have worked hard since the start of the year to make the case for affiliation. But it is still an achievement to reach a position where there is a 50-50 division in the union on the issue. The NEC’s recommendation to the SGM, while not supporting affiliation “at this current time”, did say that the union should “align itself towards the Labour Party”, that branches and regional councils are to be encouraged to develop relations with local Labour Parties and that we encourage individual RMT members to be active in the party. The task for us now is to ensure that this is carried out in practice and that it is not just a sop to pro-affiliation supporters that gets forgotten now the SGM is over.