The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) all-Britain steering committee recently organised an open evening Zoom meeting to provide an opportunity to question the national TUSC officers – TUSC chairperson Dave Nellist, the former socialist Labour MP (1983-1992), and the TUSC national agent, Clive Heemskerk – on the coalition’s thinking about the next general election.
Over 100 people logged in to what one of the TUSC individual members’ representatives on the steering committee, Pete McLaren, described as “in my view, an excellent meeting which gave TUSC members and supporters ample opportunity to discuss how we prepare the largest socialist challenge possible in the upcoming general election”.
The TUSC Individual Members’ section is one of the component parts of the TUSC coalition with representation on the committee, along with the participating unions and socialist organisations, and individual leading trade unionists and anti-cuts councillors sitting in a personal capacity. (You can follow the TUSC individual members on twitter at https://twitter.com/TUSCIndependent) Pete’s full meeting report is available at https://www.tusc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/PMcL-meeting-report-23-06-12.pdf
Below we publish a transcript of the introduction made to the meeting by Clive Heemskerk, the TUSC national election agent. ■
Preparing for the general election: a zoom discussion on TUSC’s plans
“Firstly I’d like to thank everyone for attending tonight’s meeting and look forward to any questions or comments you may have”.
“What I want to do tonight is to give a report on some of the plans that have been discussed so far by the all-Britain TUSC steering committee for the next general election”.
“But before I do so I need to spend some time on the general parameters which shape our approach to the election”.
Setting the scene
“The first obvious fact to deal with is that we don’t know when the general election will be, aside from that the last possible date for it to be called is the end of 2024”.
“But the events of the last few days, with the explosive departure of Boris Johnson from parliament, have shown that the election could well be held before then. For example, at the same time as the local elections next year, that will be taking place on May 2nd 2024. Which is why the local elections should be seen as a ‘dry run’ for a general election, not least because if the general election is held on the same day, we wouldn’t know that until March”.1
“The second fact – and this is something that we do know – is that Sir Keir Starmer will be leading the Labour Party into the election”.
“We know that, after the shock that the ruling class experienced at the prospect of a Jeremy Corbyn-led government – mainly for the hopes and expectations it would have unleashed that would have been hard to contain – the danger to them from that avenue is over and we can say with absolute certainty that the capitalist establishment have re-captured the Labour Party, actually with a firmer grip even than at the time of Tony Blair’s New Labour”.
“Thirdly – and this fact is another known known – is that Starmer and the shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves are not offering anything substantially different to the capitalist policies of austerity that the Tories are pursuing in the face of the cost-of-living crisis and ongoing economic stagnation. They are offering Blairism revived, but without the cushion of ‘the great moderation’ of steady growth that characterised the world economy in the 1990s until the financial crash of 2007-2008”.
“Then fourthly – and we can be less sure of this fact but still pretty sure – is that despite Starmer’s New Labour not offering anything substantially different, the most likely outcome of the general election will be a Starmer-led government”.
“That does not mean that there is mass enthusiasm for Starmer. We shouldn’t forget that in 2005, for example – after the Iraq war, never mind the other policies that Tony Blair had introduced such as student tuition fees, a massive expansion of PFI in public services, and so on – Blair still won a 64-seat majority with just 9.5 million votes, a 35% vote share. That was the same projected national vote share Labour polled in this year’s local elections, 35%”.
“In other words, there does not have to be widespread support for the idea of a Starmer-led government for the outcome of the next general election to be a Starmer-led government”.
“Of course, and this is another known known, a Starmer-led government will not provide a solution to any of the problems facing society – economic, social, or the environmental crisis – and the struggle will go on”.
“But it will create a new situation in which the arguments for a new working class party – and a new way of running society, for socialism – will be easier to contrast, in practice, with the experience of a Starmer government. The old saying, ‘an ounce of experience is worth a ton of theory’, will come into its own”.
“So those general parameters – or objective facts – are the context for how we need to approach the next general election”.
Progress in the unions?
“In that context, the view of the TUSC steering committee is that the most important task for trade unionist and socialist activists now – in this pre-general election period – is to try and push the left-led trade unions in particular, to establish a new vehicle for the political representation of the working class, a new workers’ party”.
“Or at least, in relation to the general election if a new workers’ party isn’t in place in time, to organise a list of trade union-backed candidates – including Jeremy Corbyn as he will not be able to stand for Labour in Islington North – as the first step towards a new party”.
“We say that, firstly, because the fact of having been challenged in the general election by a trade union-backed list of workers’ candidates in itself would have the effect of building working class pressure on an incoming Starmer government – it would prepare the ground for the battles we know are coming under a Starmer-led government”.
“And secondly, that the effect would be even greater if a breakthrough was achieved with even just a handful of MPs elected, which would be entirely possible if there was a union-organised list. Even a small group of MPs coming out of a trade union election campaign could then rapidly develop as the leading parliamentary pole of opposition under a Starmer government implementing an austerity agenda”.
“So how is the campaign going in the unions?”
“Firstly, we have to report a setback at the PCS civil servants union conference that was held from the 23rd-25th May. Obviously, in a union led by Mark Serwotka and his supporters, we would have hoped for something there. There was a motion on the agenda calling for the national union to back Jeremy Corbyn if he stands independently – Jeremy is a long-serving member of the union’s parliamentary group – and for union bodies to be able to support other ‘genuine pro-trade union, anti-austerity candidates’ subject to the executive’s ratification”.
“Unfortunately, however, that motion was manoeuvred off the agenda – the conference arrangements committee tabled it in such a position on the agenda that it was almost guaranteed to be timed out and not debated, which is what happened – so that was a setback”.
“On the other hand, there are motions going to the RMT conference – its annual general meeting at the end of June – backing Jeremy Corbyn standing but also to launch a union-wide discussion on the RMT’s political strategy, to conclude ‘in good time to allow the union to make a meaningful intervention’ in next year’s local elections and the general election”.
“And then in Unite, there are rule changes going to the rules revision conference in July to end the exclusive support for Labour by freeing-up where the political fund goes. And a motion to the policy conference that follows the rules conference for a members’ referendum on ‘opening up our political fund to support any candidate’ who supports the union’s members, ‘including Jeremy Corbyn and other genuine socialist and trade union candidates’.”2
“Those developments are positive but even if there is support for the motions that have been tabled, which is not guaranteed, there is still a question of timing. So the view of the steering committee is that we have to have a ‘Plan B’, to prepare at the same time as the campaign in the unions, to organise ourselves for the biggest possible list of trade unionists, anti-austerity community campaigners, environmentalists, and socialists of any party or none”.
“Which we think, in order to have the biggest possible impact, should aim to reach the broadcasting authorities so-called ‘fair media coverage’ threshold – which gets a party election broadcast (PEB), coverage of the manifesto launch, regional coverage and so on – but which requires 100 candidates to stand under a common name, or variants of it, registered with the Electoral Commission under Britain’s election laws”.
“This would have far less chance of a breakthrough compared to a trade union-organised list, that’s indisputable. But at the very least it would force Labour candidates who face a challenge to ‘look over their left shoulder’, and hasten developments towards a new party in the aftermath of the election”.
The Plan B plans
“That’s all I will say in this introduction on the general approach of TUSC to the election because I want to move on to some of the details of ‘Plan B’ which the steering committee has discussed – which were mentioned in the advertising for the meeting – and in the appeal that TUSC has made to twenty other campaign groups and socialist organisations that are not currently involved in the TUSC coalition”.3
“And the first question that has come up is – why are we not calling for candidates to be selected straightaway but instead are arguing for local constituency or council area-based campaigns to be organised for a workers’ candidate?”
“This relates to the earlier point that we want to do everything possible to push the left-led trade unions in particular to at least co-ordinate a list of trade union-backed candidates at the election – if not a new workers’ party at least a step towards it”.
“And the best way to do that is to engage local trade unionists in discussion about who could represent them in the election. That’s why we’ve raised the idea of organising local delegations to Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidates (PPCs), to ask them where they stand politically”.
“The TUSC steering committee has produced a model letter to Labour PPCs quoting from six policy areas in the 2019 manifesto – on public ownership; reversing privatisation; council house building and rent control; free education (abolition of tuition fees and the return of maintenance grants); taxing the rich and corporations; and trade union rights”.4
“If they agree that they will fight for socialist policies against Starmer – that will be taken into account when it comes to deciding where to stand. TUSC from its inception has not stood against left-wing Labour candidates – like Jeremy Corbyn actually, unlike the Green Party who have consistently stood against him in Islington North”.5
“But we should also organise local delegations to right-wing Labour PPCs too – if they will meet local trade unionists, and if they don’t that’s a lesson too. But we should do it because getting a constituency PPC to explain to local trade unionists and others involved in the delegations, like local student organisations and social movement campaigners, why they have abandoned the 2019 manifesto would do more to promote the idea that there should be an election challenge – and that those involved in the delegation themselves should think about being a candidate – than a hundred press releases and so on announcing that ‘someone else’ is standing ‘on their behalf’.”
“So that’s why we are not calling for candidates to be selected straightaway, but instead are arguing for local constituency or council area-based campaigns to be organised for a workers’ candidate”.
“Another question is: why are we raising the idea of a hundred candidates at the general election appearing on the ballot paper with one of the TUSC registered names and not just a co-ordination of left-wing candidates from different groups, often referred to as a ‘non-aggression’ pact?”
“That relates to the broadcasting authorities threshold to win what they call ‘fair media coverage’ – which only goes to candidates who use a ballot paper description of a party or election alliance registered with the Electoral Commission, which TUSC obviously is. Standing as an Independent or under the name of different political parties registered with the Electoral Commission would not count, even if the parties or individual candidates declared their alignment with other candidates, whether in a ‘non-aggression pact’ or a mutual endorsement agreement”.
“Everything can be discussed but the question needs to be addressed – is there any other registered organisation in a better position than TUSC to be that ‘umbrella alliance’ at this point?”
“Is there any other registered organisation in existence at this point that has the same inclusive approach of TUSC? That allows different socialist parties and campaign organisations to keep their own identity while standing together in an election? That allows candidates to run their own local election campaigns, while using the common ballot paper description, and promote their own policies and their own organisation – if they are in one – and its policies?”
“Candidates have to accept, obviously, the TUSC core policies to use the TUSC name on the ballot paper, and the steering committee has produced a draft core policy platform for the next general election, which was discussed at the TUSC conference in February.6 But candidates have the right to go beyond these core policies in their local campaigning if they so choose”.
“Is there any other party or coalition registered with the Electoral Commission that has the same open and flexible approach? To ‘march separately’ but to ‘strike together’ at the ballot box, to sum it up. But that’s why we’ve approached other organisations to discuss their general election plans and see if they can come up with a better alternative”.
A model that works
“The last point I would make is that the TUSC model does work. In 2015, the last general election that TUSC contested, before the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, there was one list of candidates from seven different parties or none using one of the TUSC descriptions on the ballot paper, all contributing towards the ‘fair coverage’ threshold”.
“In the local and general elections that were held on the same day then – which could be the case again next year – they polled 118,000 votes, and there was not a single complaint made at the time or since by any of the different parties involved, about the election broadcast or any perceived restrictions on the ability of their candidates to promote their own organisation, or its policies where they went beyond the TUSC minimum platform”.
“Of course what came next was the welcome but unexpected victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership race, achieved because the Blairites opened it up to ‘registered supporters’ paying £3 to vote – we should not forget that Jeremy did not win a majority amongst the full party members in 2015 but won with the overwhelming support of ‘registered supporters’ and affiliated union members”.
“But the key point is that that avenue is now tightly closed. The new Blairites, and behind them the capitalist establishment, won’t make the same mistake again – they’ve actually abolished the ‘registered supporters’ category for future leadership elections”.
“They’ve got the Labour Party back decisively in their hands – and we all have to organise to help achieve a new party that can truly represent the working class and its needs in the testing times ahead”. ■
1. For details of the local elections scheduled for May 2nd 2024 – involving 105 councils in England, the Greater London Authority (Mayor and Assembly), and various city and combined authority mayoral elections – see the TUSC 2024 Directory of Elections, available at https://www.tusc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/TUSC-Directory-of-Elections-2024.pdf
2. The text of the resolutions tabled at the PCS, RMT and Unite conferences were included in a briefing note prepared for the TUSC all-Britain steering committee held on June 14th, which is available at https://www.tusc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/Union-resolutions-23-06-14.pdf
3. The most recent appeal letter sent to radical campaign groups and socialist organisations to discuss their plans with TUSC for the next general election can be seen at https://www.tusc.org.uk/19275/24-05-2023/tusc-makes-new-appeal-to-left-wing-groups-to-discuss-general-election-plans/.
4. The model letter to Labour prospective parliamentary candidates (PPCs) is available at https://www.tusc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/479.pdf
5. The TUSC steering committee has written an Open Letter to the Green Party calling on them not to stand against Jeremy Corbyn if he decides to stand independently of Labour at the next general election. This is now a Change.org online petition which can be signed at https://chng.it/tKrLg8JN
6. The draft core policy platform for the next general election, which was referenced for comment in the appeal letter to other organisations, is available at https://www.tusc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/05/TUSC-draft-GE-platform-for-2024.pdf.