ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, November/December 1976


John Deason

One Year of the Right to Work Campaign


From International Socialism (1st series), No.93, March 1976, pp.10-15.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


We thought that it was going to be a day of straight marching across the Pennines, but when we stopped for dinner we met a cross country runner. He was the local school teacher and a member of Marsden Labour Party. He told us that they were having a Constituency meeting that afternoon and suggested that if we could make it in time we should ask for a speaker to address them.

We marched like hell to Marsden. When we got there, we found 120 delegates locked inside the Marsden Socialist Institute. They would not let anyone in. Eventually one came to the door and told us to move on. A marcher shouted ‘Do you call yourself a socialist?’ He replied ‘I’m not socialist, I’m Labour’.

Then we found a plaque on the building which said, ‘This stone was laid by Victor Grayson.’ So, using the megaphone we launched into a speech about how Victor Grayson must be turning in his grave. They must have heard. Other delegates came to the door and promised to argue for our right to speak.

We agreed to keep quiet while they discussed it and to abide by their vote. We could hear them raging and arguing, banging and shouting inside the hall. Eventually a delegate came out and said ‘Right you can have two speakers.’

Sam Strudwick, an unemployed woman from London, and I went in. It was an amazing experience. Half the meeting applauded rapturously at every word we said, and the other half sat in stony silence. When the questions were finished, someone moved a collection. This caused uproar. We were asked to leave while they argued it out among themselves ... As we were walking out, delegates came over to us and thrust pound notes into our hands. They were so happy to have the opportunity to put the knife into their own right wingers, and they were right behind us. They collected £30.

That is just a small example, but it illustrates the impact we were able to make, if we used daring tactics.
John Deason, Sunday, 29 February 1976.

SINCE the last war, revolutionary socialists in Britain have shied away from organising the unemployed. It is a difficult task and there is the danger of getting bogged down in ‘radical social work’ rather than organising to fight the system. We have supported actions by the unemployed but it was never a priority. Most of our resources were pumped into building in the trade unions and the workplaces.

The combination of mass long-term unemployment and the Social Contract forced us to think again. By the autumn of 1975 the official figure for unemployment was over one million, and the real, undoctored figure, including many non registered women unemployed, at least one and a half million. It was going to be a long-term problem. British capitalism was not going to expand at the rate which could provide the relatively full employment of the last thirty years. And in the medium-term governments, even Labour governments full of good intentions, would be forced to try and solve the crisis with policies which could only increase unemployment.

On top of this there was the unprecedented ‘success’ of the Social Contract. This meant that a well-organised and undefeated working class was putting up with wage cuts, unemployment and collapsing social services with only a minimum of resistance. The propaganda barrage launched by the government worked, partly because of the obvious comparison between the Labour government and the previous Heath government but even more because of the shift by the trade union bureaucracy, in particular the so-called left leaders. Jack Jones was the real architect of the deal. The man who, with Hugh Scanlon, had made up the ‘terrible twins’ whom the popular press were always claiming were about to bring down capitalism, was now the key figure in selling the package of restraint. If you opened your Daily Mirror, you would find a picture of Jack Jones alongside some employer saying: ‘Together we can beat inflation’.

The effect of this was not just to stifle wage militancy but every type of militancy, including opposition to redundancy. The compromise with the bosses which started at the top spread right down through the movement, Although the idea of ‘workers’ participation’ has not been taken up formally very much, in factory after factory an informal arrangement grew up. Shop stewards and lay officials were drawn into being helpful to management. The mood was one of: ‘How do we, together, get over this production problem?’ and ‘How do we, together, ease the burden of redundancy?’

After discussions both inside IS and on the National Rank and File Organising Committee we decided to start a campaign on unemployment. The first steps were tentative and we concentrated on trying to build local Right to Work Committees. We began with a handful of unemployed workers, most of whom were already politically committed. Our first steps were to leaflet the dole queues and sell papers, but this turned out to be generally ineffective. It was the direct actions such as occupying job centres, picketing against overtime, visiting occupations against sackings, that got us known among the unemployed and began to pull a number of them into the Committees. We were then able to approach local trade union organisations for support.

From the start we made it clear that our major emphasis was on uniting with employed workers. We could see no future in a separate unemployed workers’ movement. Despite the ideological defeat of the trade unions, organisation remained intact in most workplaces and it was possible to make links with the employed to build some small but viable local committees.

The next major step forward was the demonstration in London on 26 November 1975. Because of the political situation surrounding this demonstration the Right to Work Campaign was able to establish itself nationally as the body fighting seriously against unemployment.

The initial call came from the North West Region of the TUC, who wanted to organise a cosy lobby with a few coachloads having a friendly cup of tea with their MPs to talk about regional aid for the North West. We know this to be so from a report by a delegate to the original meeting which was conducted in these terms. It quickly became something much bigger. We could not expect to mobilise any significant number of workers ourselves but we could relate to those militants who were crying out for even a whiff of an official lead.

The success of the Campaign has been crucially linked with the reaction of this small layer of militants. The Social Contract had been sold on the argument that beating inflation would mean more jobs. But that didn’t happen. Even if the majority of workers swaHowed the argument, some militants felt guilty about the unemployed and anxious to do something. The problem all along has been to find the next step for this layer of militants. Given that they and we are not strong enough to launch right now a massive struggle against capitalism, we had to find realistic goals which could be fought for and won.

The call for the 26th was like manna from heaven. It was an official call and it was realistically achievable for militants to win a delegation to a lobby. We started to put the pressure on for as big a lobby and march as possible. The Communist Party and traditional labour left were in a cleft stick: their friends in the TUC were putting on fantastic pressure to have the lobby called off. One delegate was visited by four or five different officials trying to get him to change his mind, but their members wanted a mass lobby. In the end they swung behind working for the lobby.

We did not mobilise the 20,000 odd workers who marched that day but our initiative forced others to work harder for it than would otherwise have been the case. On the day itself we were able to make an impact just because the official organisers were so half-hearted. They did not want a militant march, just a passive lobby, and so they found themselves reluctantly at the head of a march predominantly carrying our placards and listening to our speakers. We could not stop the whole thing petering out into the most boring lobby ever, but after that day we were nationally known, at least to a layer of militants, as the most consistent fighters for a big militant demonstration. That national reputation was crucial for us. With one or two exceptions the delegations were small. This tended to support our view that it was a minority of militants who wanted to do something about unemployment. For the record, the Manchester to London March was announced in a leaflet issued on the 26th. The call for the Assembly came later. We had no intention of splitting the movement.

The turning-point in the fight against redundancy was the defeat of the Chrysler workers.

The only way out of the Chrysler crisis was a militant occupation which would have had to raise the question of nationalisation, but the Broad Left Officials, and even some of the stewards, fell into the trap of arguing about the terms of redundancy rather than leading a fight to keep the jobs. Here you had a strong group of carworkers with a reputation for militancy, lying down and taking it. The response among many workers was: ‘Well, if 25,000 Chrysler workers can’t fight redundancy what chance have the 200 of us in Nether Wallop got?’

We had to pioneer the idea of fighting against the stream. The minority of militants who did want to fight were probably first of all blaming their own workmates rather than the trade union leaders or the bosses. After all, the boss is a long way away and it is easier to turn on the person next to you. Organising for the first Right to Work March provided a very important mechanism through which we could relate to those isolated militants.

We planned a small march of 80-100 marchers, and the emphasis was on the trade union support we could gather around it. That was tough. (We were treated with extreme sectarianism by sections of the Communist Party). We did not just have to argue against the right-wing in the movement.

The march started with about 120 trade union bodies sponsoring but by the time we got to the Albert Hall the total was about 480, with another 600 or so supporting us financially.

It would be stupid to overestimate that support: the bulk of it was financial contributions. What it did represent was the sum of what most militants could achieve in the current climate. In order to raise the money militants had to argue the case for the march and discuss its demands. We deliberately went for a programme of demands which needed action to win. This was in sharp contrast to the social contracting of the official trade union leadership. At best their demands were passive. Faced with redundancy their programme was not to fight but to organise delegations to bleat to the government to introduce import controls. Our march, on the other hand, gave the militants a chance to argue for, say, the 35-hour week and the need for a fight-back against the Social Contract.

  1. Opposition to all forms of redundancy. No voluntary redundancy, no ‘natural’ wastage, and no productivity dealing.
  2. For 100 per cent trade union closed shop with shop floor trade union control of hiring and manning levels. No discrimination or blacklisting.
  3. No co-operation with the employers. No to all participation and rationalisation schemes. For strong independent shop steward organisation.
  4. Uncompromising opposition to all forms of racialism and sex discrimination. For the equal right of women to a full time job.
  5. For the 35 hour week without loss of pay. For official overtime bans to force more jobs.
  6. For five days work or five days pay. For occupations to force nationalisation without compensation of firms who force redundancies.
  7. Stop all cuts in public expenditure.
  8. Break the freeze. For across the board increases with no time limits to agreements to protect living standards.
  9. Full wages for the unemployed and no means testing. £6 per week increase for all unemployed workers now.
  10. For full trade union rights for the unemployed.

Arguing support for the march was tough. The opposition from the right-wing was to be expected but virulent sectarianism from some sections of the Communist Party made the job even harder. The Morning Star has throughout taken a hostile line to the campaign and this must have influenced some Communist Party members. On the other hand it is important to remember that many rank and file Communist Party members support the campaign and work hard for it. There are Communist Party members on the National Right to Work Council and there have been Communist Party members on both marches.

Despite being constantly smeared as just an IS front, we won the support of a number of Communist Party members and left wing Labour Party members. And the extent of official trade union support was obviously much wider than IS. Second, we refused to get drawn into the sectarian game. When the London Co-op and the No.8 London Confed District Committee (both CP controlled committees) called an Assembly on Unemployment for seven days after the Albert Hall rally, we argued for support for it as complementary to our initiatives, not contradictory.

The support we won did not mean that a million-odd workers were straining at the leash to fight for the demands of the campaign. It did, however, represent the largest group of militants that revolutionary socialists had been able to draw around them since the war.

The First March

THE MARCH itself was a key element in winning the support. If the march used the symbolism of the great hunger marches of the 1930s, it also used very different tactics. We learned a great deal from Harry McShane and other veterans of the movement about organisation. They also taught us that conditions today were very different. The participation of Harry McShane and many other less well known militants who fought the battles of the thirties and have helped us in the seventies has been invaluable. Harry’s contribution as a speaker and in giving us the benefit of his experience of the politics and organisation of unemployment campaigns is well known, hut throughout the campaign there have been many others.

The movement of the 1930s was a genuine mass movement and fought against an immediate enemy in the shape of the Local Board of Guardians. They were able to play a direct ‘trade union’ role for unemployed workers and they won important victories. They established minimum subsistence levels with local Boards.

Second, although the movement always tried to link up with employed workers, conditions then made it almost impossible. McShane describes how, on the Clyde, trade union organisation in ship-building and engineering was by the 1930s almost secret. Shop stewards hardly existed and, although workers kept their union cards, the geographical branch was the focus of activity. Everybody kept quiet at work.

Today trade union organisation is growing and shop steward organisation is expanding into new areas. There have not been a crushing series of defeats like those that culminated in the General Strike. The low level of militancy is not the result of smashed organisation but of ideological defeat. The potential of a fight-back still exists among employed workers and unity with the unemployed is a real possibility.

We were thus able to use very different tactics. The ‘raid’ was virtually unknown in the thirties. It was never used in Scotland and the raid on the Arnedale site was the first time McShane had ever been involved in one. A few had been carried out by Hannington in North London where there was still some rudimentary shop steward organisation to help in the planning and make sure the unemployed were welcomed, but they were very much the exception. Elsewhere workplace organisation was too weak to allow the tactic any chance of working.

On the first day of the march, we stormed on to the Arnedale site in Manchester to stop a group of scabs dismantling a crane.

Having done it once and got away with it, we then had the confidence to make such flying pickets an everyday event on the march. The striking electricians at Arnedale were able to win their dispute a few days after we had helped them stop the scabs. We developed the habit of marching into a factory and into building sites, handing out leaflets and holding short impromptu meetings.

Our better-known interventions at the Arnedale site, Colortrend, Birmingham New Street Station and Triumphs in Coventry. were impressive but there were many other smaller ones which played their part in sparking a debate about unemployment. The march won real sympathy from workers right through the 22 days. Many groups of workers gave us a fine reception. Special mention should be given to the Yorkshire miners whose reception of us was fantastic. Without that support we could not have used the tactics we did. If the employed workers had been against us we would simply have been thrown out of the factories. As it was, we were greeted inside the workplaces with a mixture of amazement at our audacity and very real interest in our demands.

It was the success of these tactics that most seriously worried the authorities and led to the police attack at Staples Corner. If 80 unemployed workers on a march can do that sort of thing, then 80 other unemployed not on a march in any locality can do it too. The police attack was clearly designed to crush those tactics before they got off the ground. The story of that savage attack is well known.

We had not invented the tactics we used, we had taken them half from the thirties and half from the building workers’ flying pickets in 1972. The authorities want to teach the unemployed a sharp lesson and we have to face the prospect that another Shrewsbury is on the cards.

By the time we got to the Albert Hall, the Right to Work Campaign was firmly established as an independent focus of militant opposition to unemployment. The 6,000 trade unionists who welcomed us are testimony to our impact. But we still had to face the hard reality that the campaign was only just starting.

The Assembly and After

THE ASSEMBLY on unemployment took place one week after the end of the march. It had been called by the leadership of the Communist Party to head off the movement around our Campaign. They were terrified of us appearing in the eyes of militants as the only force active on this question. But the Assembly was an impressive body. The 3,000-odd delegates who met that day represented the forces in the labour movement which could really decide on action against unemployment.

But it remained a sectarian manoeuvre. We had lobbied delegates during the week beforehand asking for the right to speak, but on the day they told us that we would not be allowed to. But the fact that about a third of delegates very obviously supported the campaign made it difficult for the platform to keep us quiet. Despite the support we had in the hall, none of the speakers from the floor were our supporters – which shows how closely the speakers slips were being looked into. However, the rough ride given to a number of their supporters who called for import controls caused them to change their minds at the last moment and allow us a speaker.

The end of the Assembly was a disgrace. The platform put forward a divisive resolution calling for a day of action on the 26 May. Despite the fact that Skinner and Roberts from the platform pointed out that this was an arbitrary choice and the 21st, when the arrested marchers came up for trial, was a better date, they refused to change the date. They did not even allow a vote on the question.

Immediately after the Assembly it became clear that neither the Communist Party leadership nor the various left leaders who had graced their platform had any intention of putting any work into the call they themselves had issued. Once again we were left alone to mobilise both for the 21st and the 26th. In the circumstances the lobby of Hendon magistrates court on the 21st by 1,500 trade unionists was impressive.

The day of action called by the Assembly for the 26th was one of the smallest on record. In areas like Manchester and Glasgow, which are Communist Party strongholds, we were forced to take the initiative and prod the local Communist Party into action. In London, it was worse. The No.8 Confed District Committee, joint sponsors of the call, did little. They did not call a single factory meeting to discuss stoppages, nor did they call a District Confed Stewards’ meeting to plan action for the 26th.

The real disaster came with the recall Conference of the TUC on 16 June, for which the Assembly had called a lobby. Faced with a massive sell-out by most sections of the trade union bureaucracy the organisers of the Assembly gave up even going through the motions. Inside the hall the bureaucracy was winning a vote of 18 to 1 in favour of their deal. Outside the turn-out was pathetic. There were twenty people from the London Confed District Committees compared with a couple of hundred from the Right to Work Campaign. The only thing that saved the day was a big turn-out of student teachers who were in the middle of occupying their colleges against teacher unemployment.

Towards the Second March

AFTER 16 June it looked as though the last months of effort had got us nowhere. The trade union bureaucracy had just won a great victory. Tied to their coat-tails, the Communist Party leadership and Tribunite lefts were not prepared and unable to launch any sort of fight-back. The strike rate was the lowest for years. However much support the Campaign had drawn round it, we were clearly not strong enough to turn the tide on our own.

In this situation the march on the full September TUC was vital. It directed the energy and effort of militants towards the TUC itself. Once again it was a question of finding the next step which militants could relate to: the capitalists and the government might be responsible for the crisis but the TUC leaders were responsible for the lack of resistance from the organised working class.

During the build-up to the march three important developments occurred which the campaign was able to relate to and to build around. The first was the movement of student teachers. The second was the sharp rise in racialist propaganda and thuggery. The difference between this outbreak and earlier ones in 1968 was that there was militant resistance by black youths. The appeal of the racialist propaganda is of course a direct result of the failure of the official leadership to give any lead on the basic problems facing workers. The demoralisation resulting from this gives the racialists a clear field. Unemployment hits this section very hard, and the fact that we were prepared to fight against the police and the fascists alongside them meant that we were in a position to make the link between racialism and unemployment to a number of these black militants.

Third, the number of unemployed school-leavers rose from 112,000 in June to 250,000 by the end of the summer. In every workplace there was somebody who knew young people who had gone straight from school to the dole. In that atmosphere the arguments for the social contract begin to wear a bit thin. Even the slickest politician can’t wriggle out of the tragedy of young people going straight onto the scrapheap.

We were thus able to considerably increase the number of unemployed involved in the campaign, particularly school leavers. In some areas local committees were able to involve up to forty or fifty unemployed as against the half-dozen six months before. The net result was that instead of the 350 we planned for, we ended up with 568 registered unemployed marchers. The size of the march, the announcement that official figures now showed more than 1½ million out of work, and the fact that even Len Murray was admitting that unemployment was the major issue at the TUC, meant that the second march was guaranteed to have a big impact.

The Second March

THE SECOND march was very different from the first. Because of the area (except on Sunday, we marched through non-industrial areas) the tactics had to be different. We did use the old ones whenever possible, for example at Gatwick Airport. The majority of the marchers this time were young people coming to politics for the first time in their lives. They were angry about unemployment and keen to learn about politics. The whole march was a giant moving educational in socialist politics.

For example, when the group from Easterhouse in Glasgow were coming down on the coach some of them were arguing with the IS members present saying: ‘We hope there aren’t going to be too many of these coloureds on the march.’ After going through the experience of marching and working alongside the black unemployed youth, talking with them, and taking part in all the political discussions on the march, they were the same people who, when we got to Brighton, were shouting loudest: ‘Black and White Unite and Fight, Fight for the Right to Work.’

The lobbying was different from that at previous TUCs. Instead of just standing round with a few placards, the anger of the unemployed kept spilling over. Most of the national trade union leaders spent much time running away from groups of unemployed youth wanting to know what they were doing to fight unemployment. The reaction of other leaders was scandalous. Worst of all was Ken Gill’s refusal to contribute to the defence of the 43 marchers arrested at Hendon with the words: ‘I would not give you the droppings off the end of my nose.’

We were worried about this sort of attitude. Being called a fascist by Clive Jenkins (General Secretary, ASTMS) is not the best introduction to trade unionism for a sixteen year old school-leaver. Fortunately, the lay delegates gave us a much better reception. Many contributed financially, many supported our request for speaking rights and some came to our social to talk with the marchers. If any of the younger marchers were worried about the relevance of trade unions after meeting the leaders we could point to the lay delegates and the people we had met on the march as the real face of the unions. Many of the lay delegates were very sympathetic but there was very little they could do about what went on at the TUC itself. Things are not discussed at Conference – they are stitched up by the General Secretaries in the Cocktail lounge of the Metropole.

The first event that hit the headlines was the Tribune meeting. We sent a delegation to the meeting and asked for speaking rights, but were refused. We listened to the other speakers, but we heckled Booth (Minister of Unemployment). We were angry that people who claim to be left-wingers gave the platform to the man presiding over the ruin of 1½ million lives. The press reacted hysterically and conveniently forgot that a year before Jack Jones himself had stormed the stage when Ian Mikardo made a mild left-wing speech. Nobody called him a ‘boot-boy’. Once again, just for the record, there were no incidents of physical violence against any of the delegates, or anyone else for that matter.

The march and the lobbying, both on the Tuesday and on Wednesday when the lobby was officially called by NUPE, was the most militant and genuinely angry for years. It helped establish the campaign as a focus of opposition to the do nothing policies of the TUC General Council.

The Lessons and the Future

THERE are signs that the political log-jam caused by the Social Contract is beginning to break up. Sections of the bureaucracy, although fighting tooth and nail to keep the contract and the Labour government alive, are beginning to feel the strain.

The tide is certainly turning. Strikes and sanctions against the cuts in the hospitals; school no-cover campaigns; school cleaner strikes in Scotland; occupations against closures large and small at Rolls Royce Blantyre, EN Bray, Jangs, and Kay Shoes in Norwich. There are more battles in the car industry, mainly against management encroachment of conditions. Long-running strikes for union recognition and against victimisation, with a notable victory at Greenings in Warrington. The magnificent Trico victory, 21 weeks for equal pay. Numerous disputes for safer working conditions, 19 weeks of it at the Isle of Grain, and the shameful defeat of RD Langs in Fife. Canterbury Corporation workers out against wage cuts. And many more besides.

At least the press have stopped gloating about the lowest strike rate for 30 years. But the level of militancy does not yet equal the ferocity of the attacks against us. The vast majority of disputes are defensive.

The confidence required to not only take on one’s immediate boss, but the Labour government and TUC leadership as well is considerable. Against such a background the Seamen’s settlement could yet prove decisive in beginning the shift of rank and file confidence to take on the hitherto seemingly impregnable wage controls and go from the defensive on to the attack. The Seamen’s leadership bowed to the pressures of the TUC and sold their membership down the river. But what might be all at sea for the NUS could prove decisive for others. Fringe benefits can be stretched to cover many claims – from early retirement for the miners to the Ford’s claim for the 35 hour week, longer holidays, restoration of differentials and the guaranteed week. Any breach in the dam might start as a trickle, but can soon rise to a flood.

No one can predict how long, nor how much, such opposition to TUC policed wage controls will develop. But when even policemen are demanding the right to strike, then anything is possible! To that we must add the incredible pressure of rising prices, official admissions of 15 per cent inflation next year, the prices rising from the falling pound, and the tinkering with the EEC’s green pound food pricing. 4’/$ per cent wage rises are now obvious wage cuts.

The Right to Work Campaign must be a prime agitator for incieased militancy on the wages front. The 4½ per cent wage limit is not statutory. It is ‘held’ partially through the threat of unemployment, but mainly through misplaced loyalties to a Labour government and TUC leaders. The wage limits were sold on the notion of temporary sacrifice to bring down inflation and thence unemployment. Their effect has been the opposite!

We must take on the ideological justification for wage controls as well as directly agitate for equal pay, across the board, and fringe benefit claims – with no time limits. Above all we must combat the myth that somehow the fight for better wages is separate from the fight against cuts and redundancies. If unemployment is allowed to continue soaring, with more and more long term unemployed trapped in poverty on the dole, then they won’t need fancy wage limits and clever con arguments. Such unemployment can become the deterrent to, and discipliner of, those still fortunate to have a job.

On the cuts front rank and file militancy is for the moment in advance of the wages fight. Cuts in public expenditure are no longer the mystified debates about the ‘social wage’. They mean thousands of teachers, building workers, nurses, civil servants, railway workers and others on the dole. They mean homelessness, people dying for the want of medical treatment, overcrowding in our schools, increasing illiteracy, and worse horrors yet to come.

The bureaucracies of NALGO, NUT, CPSA, NUPE and COHSE are all to varying degrees under pressure to adopt more militant opposition to the cuts. Much of this is bureaucratic posturing. Take for example the NUT executive. They officially call no cover action in politically safe (Tory controlled local authorities, and low level of rank and file NUT militancy), areas like Surrey and Devon. Yet at the same time they seek to discipline teachers unofficially taking the same action in Labour-controlled London!

Such posturing is designed to contain rank and file militancy, not mobilise it. At every turn the attempt is to channel any militancy into respectable pressure group politics attempting to persuade cabinet ministers to soften their blows. Hence NUPE’s official ‘strategy’ of a lobby of the TUC, followed by a lobby of the Labour Party Conference, culminating in the lobby of parliament on 17 November – lobby, lobby, lobby! As one NUPE steward quipped to his management when representing a case of a mistake in a member’s wage packet ‘put it right or we’ll lobby you for it!’

Other bureaucracies have been anxious to verbally protest their case with consequent dangers of sectional competition. It’s not then a question of uniting the opposition to all the cuts – but that the hospitals must be saved as a special case, or that education spending must be maintained as a long term investment more important than, say, town hall staffing. In other words: ‘yes we must have cuts, but make sure it’s someone else.’

Nevertheless official calls for support for a united day of action against the cuts on 17 November are emerging from NUPE, NALGO and sections of CPSA, however half-hearted and confused. Support for 17 November is escalating. It could end up encouraging the very rank and file militancy it was initially designed to contain. The merest hint of an official call gives militants far greater room to manoeuvre. Our 6 November Conference could be crucial in helping to escalate the call for the 17th into other sectors – engineering, building, print and so on.

The impact of a widespread stoppage and massive working hours’ demonstration against the cuts, against the Labour government, could be the watershed in the developing confidence of those minorities within the rank and file prepared to fight. The future of major government policies won’t stand or fall by 17 November. But if we force the pace it can be the turning point. Where others hide behind the limitations of ambiguous official calls, the Right to Work Campaign must extend them to the limit. In unions where there is no official call we must unofficially organise support for the official action of others. Where the call is for a delegation we must push for a strike. Where there is no chance of a strike we must organise the delegation. The unemployed too have a vital role – both in campaigning for support from the employed and in mobilising numbers of their dole mates to join the march. In one microcosm the work necessary for 17 November is the kind of rank and file extension of struggle the Right to Work Campaign must attempt around every sign of militant opposition, whether local or national.

An upturn of militancy among the employed means that far from neglecting our work among the unemployed it needs redoubling.

The Right to Work Campaign is encouraging individual unemployed membership. The London to Brighton march and other less well publicised initiatives – at the Labour Party Conference, Slater Walker shareholders’ meeting, anti-racist work, assistance to disputes, the Jarrow commemorative march, the Easterhouse march to Glasgow, involvement in local cuts campaigns, nursery campaigns, resistance to electricity cut-offs, militant presence on demonstrations and at conferences, and so on – all have justifiably won respect for the Right to Work Campaign on the dole queues. Our more daring initiatives have at least pushed angry unemployed to the centre of the stage. As a result more and more unemployed are joining us.

Conscious of such potential there is a concerted effort by right wing elements in the labour movement (sometimes aided by the sectarianism of sections of the Communist Party leadership) to isolate the Right to Work Campaign as unofficial and ‘ultra left’. Even Len Murray found it necessary to attack us as ‘trotskyite boot boys’. Such abuse is normal for any militant stirrings within our labour movement. But such attacks also relate to the current trial of the Hendon 43 Right to Work Marchers. Framed up charges of police assault that stick, fits with this right wing propaganda. It’s the oldest smear in the book – equate militancy with hooliganism. The best defence of the 43 is therefore the continued growth of the campaign that prevents our isolation.

Meantime every right wing attack in the press means a handful more unemployed in our ranks – it’s the same press that insults all unemployed as parasitic scroungers! And for every leading Communist Party member that smears us another two rank and file members move over and fight with us. As for attacking us for being unofficial our attitude should be as in the draft declaration for the 6 November Conference ...

To fight back we need a militant rank and file movement within the trade unions that will both fight the bosses and control our own trade union leaders. Such a movement must work within the official trade union machine as far as it can. We will support trade union officials so long as they represent the interests of their members. But we will act independently as soon as they misrepresent us.

We should never glorify the necessity of sometimes being unofficial – as when organising school leavers for example. Indeed a key demand of the campaign is full trade union rights for the unemployed. Many unions don’t even allow membership to continue for those made redundant. Only a few allow unemployed members to vote and stand for office. None recruit new members from the doles.

But the problem of sometimes having to be unofficial is not confined to the unemployed. It’s very good that the Trico victory for equal pay was official – it makes it harder for some officials to ignore the implications of the victory. We must now agitate right acro»s the country for official equal pay claims, backed by the readiness to strike. But such agitation may often require unofficial organisation – there’s the rub. The principle is equal pay for women. Being unofficial is purely a tactic. Similarly with 17 November, we must maximise the advantage of the official call without trusting the officials. The day we accept the logic of the criticism that we must always be official is the time we give up our right to take initiatives.

The Right to Work Campaign begins to pose the potential for building a genuine Rank and File Movement – but we have a long way to go. 40,000 on the streets of London on 17 November is thankfully seven or eight times bigger than the Right to Work Campaign by itself could mobilise. Our job is to make sure that those that do have the power to mobilise such numbers do so. At the same time we must raise now, not after the event, what is necessary after the 17th.

Increased militancy against all three fronts, the cuts, wage controls, and unemployment, must be encouraged. But also it has to be ideologically argued for. It should be coordinated. This is the arena for the argument for rank and file confidence, strong democratic trade unionism, and the principle of the strong defending the weak. It is the starting point for working class self reliance that is not only defensive against the excesses of capitalism, but lays the seed for its overthrow.

Such efforts will not happen in a vacuum. The Right to Work Campaign could not have been launched, nor will it continue to grow, without the full-scale commitment of Socialist Worker and the International Socialists. Every working class initiative has its roots in the willingness of the more politically conscious being prepared to give the lead. And in that task the International Socialists have not been found lacking. But it will take much more than the efforts of the International Socialists alone to turn back the tide against the Social Contract. It requires the building of a Rank and File Movement within the trade unions that unites all those prepared to fight. There is no given right to argue our politics and build the Socialist Workers Party capable of leading a mass rank and file movement – we have to earn it. And we must earn it by fighting alongside those who don’t agree with our all, only then do we learn how to lead. Perhaps the most important part of the draft declaration before the 6 November Conference is its last two sentences ...

This Conference calls on the organisers of the Assemblage Against Unemployment and the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions to unite with the Right to Work Campaign in our efforts, and to speedily agree a joint meeting of appropriate officers to facilitate such liaison.

We must rise above the sectarianism of others.

Top of page

ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 3.2.2008