British Rail Strikes Make Bosses See Red
London “Times” Blames Socialist Alliance
[From the Editors: British rail workers on the
South West Trains line have engaged in militant struggles in recent weeks,
despite press coverage bemoaning the “inconvenience to commuters.” Increased
radicalization in Britain was shown in last summer’s elections, in which a new
formation, the Socialist Alliance in England, and its partner the Scottish
Socialist Party, made significant gains. (See “New Articles for the Week of
July 2” on the Labor Standard web site.)
[A further sign of growing radicalization in Britain
came in November, when over 100,000 demonstrated in London against the
Afghanistan war. (A British student we heard from in January 2002 said that on
his campus, only one student supports this imperialist war.)
[The employing class is worried, and it struck back
this week with an attack in print against the Socialist Alliance. For the
information of our readers, we reprint this red-baiting article from the January
15 London Times. As one of our editors has commented, this article does
give a fairly accurate indication of the growing influence of a radical trend in
the British working class. While it is probably inaccurate in some details, the
picture one can draw from it is nevertheless encouraging. As our editor puts it:
“Oh, how they hate it when we get together!”
[The London Times article follows:]
Red flag flies again
by Michael Gove
is united, and aggressive, in a way that it has not been for a generation. Just
ask the commuters who use South West Trains.”
The people’s flag was deepest red. But the last ten years tore it to shreds.
The story of socialism in the past decade has been a
melancholy one. Written out of the Labour Party constitution, its adherents
marginalised in the Blairite dispensation, the other parties that lay claim to
leadership of the working class overlooked, red radicalism has looked like a
beaten force. Until now.
In the past four months the hard Left has been on the
march again. Those still proud to call themselves socialists have taken fresh
heart, and recruited new allies, through a mix of skilful penetration of the
media, vigorous protest against the war on terror and determined activism within
the legal profession and trade union movement.
Britain’s hard Left still has problems to overcome
before it ever again enjoys the profile it had when Tony Benn came within an ace
of controlling the Labour Party and Militant screamed defiance from the Mersey.
The habits of factionalism endure and popular support, even in the most deprived
areas of Britain, proves elusive. But Marxism is united, and aggressive, in a
way it has not been for a generation. Just ask commuters
who use South West Trains.
The strikes that have crippled that rail company, and
that are spreading, can be traced directly to the door of a Trotskyist-dominated
organisation that is giving the hard Left new muscle. The activist whose status
is the core of the dispute [on the South West Trains line], Greg Tucker, and his
main champion, Bob Crow, the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union assistant
general secretary, are stalwarts of the Socialist Alliance.
Scarcely known to most voters, despite having contested
enough seats at the last election to secure a party election broadcast, the
Alliance is the most coherent fighting force in Britain across the territory
that stretches to the left of Tony Blair.
The role played by Crow and Tucker on the Waterloo
picket line could see them wrest control of the RMT. Both have engineered this
strike perfectly to raise their profile and put them in place to secure election
to the top jobs in the RMT elections next month.
The Socialist Alliance can already boast control of one
union. Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the biggest civil service union,
the PCS, is an SA activist. But taking over the RMT would give the hard Left an
even bigger prize — enormous disruptive power over our most conspicuously
failing public service.
Although it contests seats, like any other political
party, the Alliance is a very different organisation from its election rivals.
For a start, it is not a party in the conventional sense but a coalition of
previously feuding organisations and parties brought together, in the words of
Mike Marqusee, one of its leading activists, “by the 80 per cent of things on
which we agree.”
Marqusee, a cricket writer and former editor of Labour
Left Briefing, is one of the many former activists from Labour’s Bennite wing
who have found a more comfortable resting place under the Alliance’s umbrella.
They include the barrister Liz Davies, stripped of the chance to stand as a
Labour candidate in Leeds by her party’s NEC, and a slew of former councillors.
The Labour dissidents are, however, outnumbered in the
Alliance by members of other, avowedly Trotskyist, groupings. The biggest
component in the Socialist Alliance is the old Socialist Workers Party (SWP),
for long Britain’s biggest “out” Trot movement.
The distinction between “out” Trots and covert
Trots lingers, and matters, because the one significant group on the hard Left
which remains outside the Socialist Alliance, in England, is the collection of
covert Trotskyists who used the Militant label as a cover to infiltrate the
The distaste of these former Militants for the SA is a
lingering reminder of the hard Left’s ability to elevate apparently tiny
differences into causes for fratricidal conflict. It has long been a cause for
regret among Marxists and comedy for the rest of us. The Life of Brian parodied
it to perfection with its rival Judean People’s Front and People’s Front of
Judea. But what makes the Alliance different, and potent, is its success in
getting almost every Trotskyist group in Britain to march together under the
same red flag.
As well as old Bennites and the SWP, the Alliance has
fused together a bewildering array of hard-left parties. They include the
Communist Party of Great Britain, the International Socialist Group (not to be
confused with the also allied International Socialist League), the Revolutionary
What unites these groups, apart from membership of the
Alliance, is a commitment to Marxist thought and practice. Dedicated to eventual
revolution, contemptuous of social democrats such as the Blair Government, and
hostile to private property and profit, they remain dedicated followers of
communism long after others in the Left have condemned it as the god that
failed. None, perhaps, are as deeply dyed revolutionaries as Red Action.
Listed on the Socialist Alliance website as a fully participating organisation, Red Action has a record of violent protest that stretches from low-level street violence to the involvement of two of its members, Patrick Hayes and Jan Taylor, in an IRA bombing campaign. On Red Action’s website, its part in planting a bomb outside Harrods in 1993 and placing another on a train from Victoria to Rams-gate is recorded.
The website also notes Red Action’s leadership role
in the organisation Anti-Fascist Action and AFA’s involvement in deliberately
triggering street brawls with the British National Party. The images on the
website’s home page are of Red Action members “in action,” aiming kicks at
those attending a fascist rally. The website also records Red Action’s
willingness to recruit combative streetfighters on football terraces and its
association with Celtic Football Club hooligans alongside discussion of when
Marxism began to go wrong in the Soviet Union.
Under the Alliance’s umbrella constitution Red Action
members have the same rights as the Pilgers and Pinters to help to select
candidates and vote on policy. But the existence of an IRA-supporting, street
violence-endorsing group among the Alliance coalition does not yet apparently
attract the criticism of other activists such as Tariq Ali, Greg Tucker, Jeremy
Hardy or Imran Khan, the campaigning lawyer.
For some Alliance activists it is precisely the breadth
of organisations marching in harness that is helping the hard Left to translate
agitation into action. In Scotland, the groups that form the Alliance united
with old Militant warhorses such as the anti-poll tax campaigner Tommy Sheridan
to form the Scottish Socialist Party. The SSP runs at around 5 per cent in the
polls and has, in Sheridan, the highest-profile MSP in Scotland outside the
Scottish executive. Sheridan’s undeniable charisma, refusal to take his full
salary, and capacity to peel away support from the main parties on certain
issues, acts as a gravitational drag to the Left for Scottish Labour.
The SSP has been in existence for longer than the
Alliance south of the border and has benefited from the use of PR for the
Scottish Parliament. But its success so far heartens English Alliance activists.
“It shows how successful we can be in taking up the huge space to the left of
Blair, even when a party like the SNP claims to be there,” argues Marqusee.
But even more than electoral breakthrough in Scotland,
the coincidence of anti-war protest and industrial action on the railways has
given the Socialist Alliance a sense of momentum.
The Alliance was instrumental in the organisation of
the main anti-war rallies and protests across Britain, and supplied key speakers
who set the tone. The broad Commons consensus in favour of the war on terror has
allowed the Alliance to argue that it is the only significant political movement
fighting against it. The Stop the War Coalition is run by, and in the interests
of, the Alliance, allowing it to proselytise and recruit. It is only one of
several organisations run by Alliance activists. Others include the anti-globalisation
movement Globalise Resistance and the race-campaigning National Civil Rights
Movement run by Suresh Grover, spokesman for Sarfraz
Najeib, the victim in the Leeds United footballers’
assault case. But it has been anti-war protest, and the platform it has given
Alliance supporters such as Tariq Ali and John Pilger, that has given the
Alliance a particular opportunity to advance its aims to a mass audience.
More targeted, but no less important for the Alliance,
has been the industrial action of the RMT. The timing of the strike on South
West Trains has given Tucker and Crow the perfect opportunity to secure
attention as the workers’ defenders in advance of next month’s internal
elections. The death of Jimmy Knapp left the position of general secretary
vacant and Crow is determined to secure it, along with the funds, influence, and
strike-calling power it yields. If Crow is successful, Tucker is in line to step
into his shoes as the union’s number three.
Crow was a former member of Arthur Scargill’s
Socialist Labour Party before joining forces with the Alliance. The SLP is
almost certainly Britain’s hardest-line left-wing party. It supported Slobodan
Milosevic’s presidency, argued that the September 11 bombings were America¹s
own fault and had a “Stalin Society” in its ranks for that large proportion
of its members who venerated the memory of the Russian dictator. Whether Crow
left the SLP because its ideological position proved too much, or he thought its
political prospects came to so little, has never been made clear.
Tucker is a Trotskyist, a member of the International
Socialist Group (ISG) that proudly proclaims its adherence to the Leon
Trotsky-venerating Fourth International of revolutionary parties.
The ISG believes that social democratic governments
such as new Labour are continuing an “offensive against the working class”
and argue that revolutionaries such as themselves should enter and take over
“broad campaigns” to advance as part of a “United Front.”
Tucker is secretary of the London Socialist Alliance
and was granted leave by South West Trains to stand as an ISG candidate, under
the Socialist Alliance umbrella, in Streatham during the last election.
Tucker’s platform did not, however, attract many fellow travellers. He secured
only 906 votes, barely denting the majority of the incumbent Labour MP, Keith
Hill. It is expected, however, that Tucker can rely on many more votes in the
forthcoming RMT election than he secured in Streatham.
The effective takeover of the RMT by Alliance
supporters such as Crow and Tucker worries the TUC high command. In a private
briefing note they have recorded that he has “been associated with around 30
strikes in his ten years in office” and he “believes strike action raises
the class-consciousness of the rank and file.” The TUC fears that “if an
extreme left team are elected the result will be more chaos on the railways.”
Success for the Alliance in the RMT elections would, on
the basis of its activists’ pronouncements, lead to more politically motivated
It would also mark the raising of the hard Left’s flag
over a major British institution. There is a red warning signal flashing on
Britain’s rail network. And no ministerial hand is reaching for the brake.