Britain: Lessons of left-wing defeat in ASLEF

The surprise defeat of Mick Rix by a right winger for the position of General Secretary of the rail union, ASLEF, will have come as a great shock to many in the union and in the wider Labour and trade union movement. Certainly it was not something that could have been easily predicted or even guessed at. The winner, Shaun Brady, is an old-style right-winger, relatively unknown in the union. He talks about taking the union back to the membership but in reality he means the membership of the Strategic rail Authority, CBI and the City of London! How did this happen? What does it mean? What lessons must be learnt from this?

Mick Rix was beaten by 4,475 votes to 3,299 in a 48% turnout of ASLEF's total membership of 16,000. These figures may seem small but in a small union like ASLEF they indicate that you only need to mobilize a relatively few number of people to have a decisive effect. Rix won 83 nominations to Brady’s 11 but nominations are not votes. Brady is considered by most people in the union to be a nobody, yet he has some powerful backers including the former General Secretary Lew Adams, now a director of the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) and an adviser to a number of rail companies, as well as Richard Bowker, chairman of the SRA. They will now be expecting Brady to toe the line.

In the union arguments mounted over such issues as rest day working, which have been a thorn in the union for decades, which under Rix’s influence was going to be abolished, at the cost of Rail Companies employing more Operators, rather than members earning more money. An element of “I’m alright Jack-ism”, opposed Rix’s view. Also the prospect of increased membership fees, on top of already high dues, did not help. Rix was shaking the Union up from top to bottom and a number of individual grievances cumulated in the support for a stooge candidate, who is as shocked as everyone else. Many of these people, including a number of officials and representatives, hark backwards to the old inward looking, insular craft union, status of ASLEF - and saw Brady as a means to an end.

What does this result mean? Some commentators have hinted that this marks the end of the advances of the Left in the movement and the beginnings of a resurgence of the right wing. However all the indications are that this is not the case. This applies to the recent elections of other union leaders, elections of union executives and the union conferences themselves. Indeed ASLEF has itself moved to the left over the last decade. We should be clear that this trend has not occurred because the Left in the movement are better at arguing or attending endless meetings but because of the fundamental processes taking place in the mass organizations of the class. Huge dissatisfaction with the pro-business line of Blair and New Labour has pushed workers onto the industrial front and put pressure onto the union organizations. Brady himself will not be able to resolve this by his promised approach of compromise, support for rail management and quiet behind the
scenes chats with ministers. As such the general move to the left in the unions - and increasingly in the Labour Party too - will continue. But although it is tempting to treat this result as a one-off aberration, which at the moment it is, there is a clear warning here which activists in the movement must address. Simply relying on the inertia of being the sitting candidate, running things from above without developing a wider campaign, and just assuming that getting the nominations will do the trick, is clearly not good enough.

Lessons must be learnt. In ASLEF the Left need to get reorganized, start to challenge the old right wing bastions scattered around the union, take up the various issues which have been allowed to divide members and resolve the confusions which the right wing have fed on, and make clear to Brady and his management chums that the union will carry on the fight for jobs and conditions. The trade unions need to explain how general political questions are linked to wages and conditions issues. It is not a choice of one thing or another although it is important, of course, that members are not tricked into believing that general issues are being somehow neglected by such issues as opposing to the war in Iraq, and so on.

Both are important: the so-called non-political trade unionism is nothing more than a cover for class collaboration. A real fight would have knocked Brady out at the start.

Elsewhere in the trade union movement, activists must heed the warnings of complacency. Winning elections is one thing but these victories must be built on by mobilizing the membership, building the left throughout the whole union structures and showing the real benefits of a fighting trade union organization. The call must be clear: trade unions cannot win by compromise and “new realism”, a fighting leadership armed with a socialist programme is essential and remains on the order of the day.


July 19, 2003.

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