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International Socialism, June 1975


John Deason

AUEW Elections


From Notes of the Month, International Socialism, No.79, June 1975, pp.6-7.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


John Deason writes: Right winger John Boyd has swept in as General Secretary of the Engineering Union with 164,276 votes against Broad Left candidate Bob Wright’s 96,216. This, the most dramatic victory for the right wing inside the union for years, has delighted the bosses’ press, who campaigned so hard for it. Boyd’s first utterance as General Secretary was:

’The Communists, Trotskyites, International Socialists, and all that conglomeration, turned it into a political fight, ignoring the basic necessity of having a person of experience and skill and some basis in the movement. It is quite clear what the members want – me.’

The rest of the results are not so clear cut. But those for national office show the same trend. Ken Brett, sitting Assistant General Secretary and a member of the Broad Left, was run into second place with 60,725 votes against little known right winger Docherty (74,354 votes) and now has to go to second ballot. Bob Foster, sitting National Organiser and a Broad Left Communist Party member, has been re-elected but only after going to second ballot. Communist Party member Bernard Panter – who, during the ballot, chased after an appointed full-time official’s job in the Electrical Power Engineers Association, which bans Communist Party members from holding office – was humiliated with 61,609 votes to the right winger’s 144,350.

The only result at national level against this trend was Laurie Smith’s (133,825 votes) capturing of the position of National Organiser, previously held by the right wing, against John Weakley (112,268 votes). Laurie Smith stood as an independent socialist against the Broad Left and the right wing, and topped the first ballot. He has now vindicated his position by winning the second ballot run off. Thus the only national set-back for the right wing has not been at the hands of the Broad Left, but despite it.

At district and divisional level, this round of elections is predictably less generalised, but the right wing has made the greater headway, even when against sitting members. Communist Party member Jimmy Airlie of UCS fame failed to topple right winger Kevin Laird for Regional Organiser. The sitting Broad Left District Secretary has been defeated at Barrow & Kendal, but Bristol has been won for the ‘left’.

These results were dismissed in the Morning Star as not seriously altering the balance between the right and left in the union. Or, as Broad Left Communist Party Executive Councilman Les Dixon put it: ‘The left has maintained its positions.’ While it is true that there has not been a rout, the results point to serious weaknesses in the Broad Left. The Morning Star’s failure to come to grips with the implications typifies the bankruptcy of the CP-led Broad Left, which sees a bureaucratic head count as more important than the failure of its own machine to mobilise rank and file enthusiasm for its candidates. The Broad Left, as an effective machine within the rank and file, is in disarray.

Postal Ballot Manoeuvrings

Since writing the article in this issue of the journal, a whole series of events have occurred over the Broad Left’s attempt to scrap the postal ballot. Despite the public complacency of the Morning Star and Les Dixon, Broad Left officials are panicky over the recent election results. And in response to that panic, they are now moving to scrap the postal ballot. Socialists have always argued against the postal ballot, but until recently leading Broad Left figures, particularly Scanlon, have been very muted in their opposition.

The current moves are an intended counter to right wing ascendancy. The right wing are gaining through the Broad Left’s failure to develop an active rank and file committed to fighting policies on wages, job protection and union democracy. And the way they choose to check the right wing similarly ignores the need for the activism of the rank and file. There have been no Broad Left efforts to propagandise among the rank and file about the dangers of the postal system and the superiority of the branch ballot. Indeed, in previous elections, Broad Left leaders urged ‘realism’ and that the postal ballot ‘is here to stay’. In these elections not one Broad Left candidate included in his platform the need to increase democracy by scrapping the postal ballot. Instead they have relied on bureaucratic wrangling.

The two delegates from the South Wales Division were disqualified from the National Rules Revision Conference because of improper district elections. Substitutes from this right-wing division were then refused on the strict implementation of the insufficient union membership rule. Thus the division was effectively disenfranchised and the size of the right wing at conference reduced from 27 to 25, the same number as the left, Scanlon, after a day’s hesitation, then used his casting vote against the postal ballot. The disqualified delegates, backed by their Divisional Organiser, have appealed to the EC, which at the moment has a right-wing majority. However, two right wing EC members were absent at negotiations with the shipbuilding employers, thus leaving the left with a majority. With that majority, the EC voted to defer consideration of the appeal until 3 June, and that Boyd should take office as General Secretary straight away. The General Secretary has no executive vote and thus Boyd loses his vote. For the 3 June EC, there will be a 3-3 split, with Scanlon having the casting vote!

Already Boyd and others are threatening use of the courts and, without doubt, such manoeuvring will not go unchallenged by the right. Whatever the outcome of these wrangles, the real task is to convince and carry rank and file enthusiasm for a return to branch balloting. That is the way to ensure scrapping of the postal ballot. A rank and file convinced of the rights and wrongs can ensure the correct representation at district and divisional level and is a far stronger force than a lawyer’s interpretation of the rule book.

Socialists within the union must carry the elementary arguments about the postal ballot. The hypocrisy of appeals by the employers’ press to retain the postal ballot must be sharply exposed. These are the same people who are against trade union democracy, who never raise a squawk about the highly undemocratic procedures of appointed officials and elections for life which go on in the majority of our unions. They never complain about the lack of democratic control of TUC heads. But the press lauds such people when they appeal for restraint and stricter adherence to the Social Contract. In any case, who elects newspaper proprietors or editors? We are against postal ballots because we favour increased trade union democracy.

The postal ballot forces the consideration of candidates on the shoulders of individuals isolated at home and subject primarily to the bias of the press and TV. It becomes a vote for the best-known name, either through parochial loyalty, or more commonly through repetition of ‘who the moderates are’ in the press. The election campaigns are outside the branches and in the media. Thus the machine with the most money has an immediate advantage and inevitably that favours the right.

The branch ballot enables discussion of election addresses, and the influence of active trade unionists rather than the outside influence of press and TV. And committed trade unionists, shop stewards, branch officers, district officers etc know more about trade unionism than Fleet Street editors. The branch ballot should revitalise branch life whereas postal voting kills it.

The press and union right wing claim the higher polls under the postal system indicates it is more democratic. Not at all. We are in favour of high polls, but through the active participation in branch life. Socialists, far from fearing increased participation, welcome it. But when Fleet Street rants on about the numbers voting, they are not interested in rank and file involvement in union life. They do not want participation. They want inactive trade unions. Where union leaders are decided by the influence of press and TV pundits on a passive, stay at home membership. That’s not democracy – it’s cynical manipulation. And it’s manipulation by the same employers, industrialists, and financiers who control the media, and who hate everything about active trade unionism.

The Broad Left’s bureaucratic manoeuvrings do not represent an attempt to mobilise rank and file opinion and pressure. It has based its case on rule book nit-picking and the high cost of postal balloting. (The postal ballot costs an estimated £400,000 a year.) This is particularly serious because it gives credence to the right wing’s argument that the left are manipulators of internal union life. The cost argument is also dangerous. There are Tory moves afoot for the government to cover the cost of postal ballots. An amendment to the Employment Bill has been drafted and already has the support of some 60 right wing Manifesto Group Labour MPs. How will the Broad Left’s argument stand if such an amendment is passed?

Postal balloting can be scrapped but the mass of the membership must be mobilised behind such moves. As the article on the Broad Left explains in greater depth, the AUEW Broad Left machine has ignored the development of such active rank and file trade unionism. Bureaucratic manoeuvring by, and capturing positions for, ‘progressives’, is their way to keep the union ‘left’. As a result, the Broad Left organisation within the rank and file is ,in smithereens while the right, by default, continues to make headway. There is little that is progressive about such a strategy. It’s a recipe for elitism and disregard for the bread and butter needs of the membership. AUEW members are not riddled with reaction and ‘anti-commie’ hysteria. They have a noble history of rank and file organisation and a proven will to fight. The crucial test for revolutionaries within the union is whether we can give a focus to that combativeness and pioneer the building of a rank and file movement with leaders prepared to lead, not manoeuvre.

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