Michael Kidron

For Democracy Within the Labour Movement

(November 1954)

From Socialist Review, Vol. 4 No. 3, November 1954.
Transcribed by Mike Pearn.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Trade Union Democracy – Where?

The Labour Party Conference at Scarborough and the wave of strikes in the docks and in London Transport have raised the issue of democracy within our Movement. We must not let it be quietly buried.

The voting at Scarborough was a farce. The big union bosses, some of whom need fear nothing from the rank and file as they never stand for re-election, put their millions of votes at the disposal of the NEC – in support of German Rearmament, in support of SEATO, against every attempt of the rank and file of their own unions to tie their hands.

The crassest example of this insulting attitude to rank and file opinion was the case of the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers’ vote on German Rearmament. The Society’s executive were explicitly mandated to oppose German Rearmament. In the event, the executive succumbed to NEC pressure and voted for it. This last-minute switch lost the vote on German Rearmament for the Left.

Trade Union Democracy – How?

How is it that the Constituency Labour Party delegates to Conference voice the opinion of the rank and file Labour Party member, while the Union delegates generally do not? For one thing, the Constituency parties, being smaller, are much more amenable to rank and file pressure. But mainly, the reason lies in the fact that their delegates to Conference are elected, not selected from a permanent staff. The delegate if chosen because he holds views along the lines of those expressed in the local Party’s resolutions, not because he happens to express the views held by the Party machine.

A glimpse of the same type of democratic expression can sometimes be caught in the Trade Union world too. At the Trades Union Congress, the 300,000 textile workers vote according to their various sub-divisions; weavers, spinners, carders, etc. all vote separately. At the annual Labour Party Conference, the 300,000 votes are cast in one bloc. This year, for example, the textile workers were evenly split on the question of German Rearmament at the Brighton Congress – one month later, at Scarborough, all 300,000 were cast in the ballot box for German Rearmament.

What can happen at the Trades Union Congress can happen at the Labour Party Conference. Union delegates must be made responsible to the rank and file membership. Each delegate must represent only a certain number of members. They must be elected specifically for Conference on the basis of the views they hold publicly.

This applies not only to delegates to Conference but to all policy-making officers of the unions. They must stand for frequent election and be subject to instantaneous dismissal by the rank and file. Responsibility for the rank and file member of a union must rest with the rank and file – not with a small body of paid men who lose contact with their electors as soon as they meet the bosses.

The Bridlington Agreement

The responsibility of the rank and file grows tremendously during an industrial dispute. At such a time, sensitivity of union officials to the wishes of the membership is of paramount importance. Nothing must stand in the way of the conscious intervention of the rank and file in its own affairs.

At present, one of the weapons used by the TUC General Council to prevent such intervention is the Bridlington agreement, a ruling of the TUC which states that no union may enrol any members “claimed” by another union while that union is engaged in an industrial dispute. The Agreement is now being invoked by the Transport and General Workers Union to prevent the National Amalgamated Stevedores and Dockers (the Blue Union) from enrolling dissatisfied T&G members. It is only one weapon in the arsenal used to smash the small, militant union, but it is of importance because of the principle involved.

Within the Capitalist system, the working class must constantly be on guard against attacks on their living standards. One of the means of defence is the unions. But the unions themselves are powerless without the weapon of last resort: the strike – first the industrial strike, then the political one. When a union bureaucracy virtually outlaws the strike weapon, condemns every strike as unofficial, tries t bully its members into returning to work as a preliminary to “conducting negotiations” and, in short, does every bit of dirty work for the bosses that the bosses cannot do for themselves, that union bureaucracy can do noting for its members. It holds no terror for the bosses. Such a bureaucratically run union is the TGWU.

The officials of the T&GWU are as skilful negotiators as any. But of what use are negotiations without the threat of force? If the T&GWU caves in when it comes to a strike, its members must have every right to withdraw from it and join any other union that shows fight. In the case of the dockers, it means joining the NASD.

But what about poaching? Won’t a giant like the T&GWU be able to “bribe” members of other unions to join them by offering lower membership fees etc.? It certainly may, but the final test for its own members always remains: does the union obtain better conditions, or does it not? A union that spends all its resources on “poaching” members from the others will have very little time for fighting the bosses. It will find itself spending more and more time “poaching” back its own members that have left.

Whoever support a agreement for “spheres of influence” within the Labour Movement, like the Bridlington agreement, shows little trust in the discretion of the workers. And as always when it comes to relying on the workers’ own initiative, Arthur Deakin and Harry Pollitt vie with one another in trying to escape the direct control of the rank and filer and work through the “machine:” Deakin shouts “Bridlington agreement” and Pollitt returns the chorus: “Let no poaching of one union’s members by another take place under any circumstances.” (Daily Worker, 15/10/54) We ask one question of the Deakin-Pollitt axis: Who should chose whom? Unions their members or members their unions? But the bureaucrats of both sides know where they stand – kill all independent rank and file action, kill an independent militant union like the NASD.

Rank and filers of the Labour Movement must press for free choice: For the election of all policy-making officials and delegates. For the direct responsibility of such representatives to their electors and the right of instantaneous dismissal. For the revoking of the Bridlington Agreement.

M. Kidron’s remarks on the Bridlington Agreement do not reflect the views of the editors of Socialist Review. Controversy on the subject will be welcomed. – Editor.

Last updated on 15.9.2012