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Dudley Edwards

AUEW – Why the Broad Left lost

(December 1975)

From Militant, No. 282, 5 December 1975, p. 6.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The defeat of Bob Wright and Jimmy Reid in the recent elections for the AUEW Executive Council now makes the struggle to defend the standard of living of the engineering workers more difficult. For the first time in nearly 10 years the right wing have a clear majority on the leading body of the union. Couple with setbacks for the ‘Broad Left’ in regional elections, this means that those who wish the union to bow to the needs of capitalism in crisis will for a time determine the policy of the union.

The strengthening of the right wing in the second largest trade union will make big business more determined than ever to snatch back the material gains of the working class over the last half century.

At the present moment the party of big business (the Tories) do not want another election. They hope that a right wing dominated Labour Movement, by exploiting the workers’ instinctive loyalty to a Labour Government, will be able to cajole the working people into accepting measures of severe wage restriction, cuts in social services and unemployment, which would never have been tolerated from a Tory Government.

These sacrifices are presented to the workers as being necessary not only in the interests of the country, but of the Labour Movement.

Never was there a bigger ‘con’ in the course of history! If this kind of argument is accepted by the working class for any length of time it will result in disaster for the Labour Movement. It is these spurious arguments made by the so-called “moderates” (really extreme rightists) in the Labour Movement which undoubtedly have affected some sections of the rank and file who imagine they are saving the Labour Government.

These are the objective conditions that for the time being have favoured the right wing contestants in the recent AUEW elections. However it would be wrong to claim that this is the only, or even the main reason for the defeat of the ‘Broad Left’ and the Communist Party which manipulates it. Nor is it true as the ‘Broad Left’ argues that the right wing advance is entirely due to the intervention of the mass media in favour of the right wing candidates. It is true that the capitalist controlled press has pretended to be extremely concerned about “democracy” in the union and because of the introduction of the postal ballot the newspapers and other media have been able to influence the thousands of union members who never attend branch meetings.

Indeed the rules of our union have been subverted by outside forces since no direct canvassing in favour of candidates is allowed by union rule.

Involve members

However, the influence of the mass media is not the decisive factor in causing the defeat of the left. The confused and opportunist tactics of the ‘Broad Left’ are also responsible for this setback to militant trade unionism.

In attacking the postal ballot it has tended to ignore the indisputable fact that the postal ballot has produced a far higher proportion of the membership voting than under the old system of a show of hands or ballots at the branches.

It is not enough to say these masses of members who previously did not vote are “backward” and “apathetic” and therefore are most easily influenced by the capitalist mass media. These members in fact represent a majority of the union membership and before any progressive and militant policy can be carried out these thousands of members must be won over. There is no way that the left can avoid this necessary task if a policy of genuine working class struggle is to be carried out.

Whatever means of voting for official positions is adopted, these members, apparently written off by the ‘Broad Left’ as the “backward mass”, must be integrated into the activities of the union and the maximum possible number of their votes must be recorded.

The emphasis of the ‘Broad Left’ campaigning rested almost entirely on the complaint that the small minority doing most of the work – the old pillars of the declining branches – were being unjustly excluded from the rewards of office. Further, the ‘Broad Left’ appeared to advocate a return to the old branch system of voting as the only alternative to the postal ballot, completely ignoring the fact that year by year the proportion of members voting has been declining until it reached less than 8% of the membership. This 8% was electing the national officers for a union of 1¼ million members. A ludicrous position.

Certainly it must be admitted that the present form of ballot plays into the hands of the capitalist press and therefore favours the right wing. However this does not mean advocating a return to the old method which was also undemocratic in actual practice. No, the alternative should be to transfer the voting for offices to the present day centre of gravity of the union – the workshop floor. Then the voting can take place at the point of production where all the members can be found.

The voting by ballot or otherwise should in this way be organised by the shop stewards who are the only officers of the union that the vast majority of the members know and take seriously.

The preliminary activities of such election should be preceded by the calling of a series of shop meetings at which the vital issues are explained to the members and where possible the candidates are invited to put their respective points of view on policy.

Apart from the wrong approach to the postal ballot question the faulty industrial tactics of the ‘Broad Left’/Communist Party axis rebounded against their own candidates. The beginning of the discrediting of the ‘Broad Left’ began in Manchester nearly three years ago, when instead of calling on the whole membership to take industrial action when the Employer’s Federation contemptuously turned down our claim, the Executive Council recommended that the battle should be fought at a purely local level. It was to be left to the lads on the shop floor to organise their own independent and separate actions to win the claim. A claim which incidentally could be described as a ‘mini’ Engineers’ Charter.

This method was recommended by the Executive Council and endorsed by the National Committee as actually being more militant and up to date than that of national strike action! As should have been foreseen, this vague recommendation to go on strike if the lads felt they needed to was interpreted in different ways by different districts. The Executive Council was in fact saying go on strike if you wish, lads, then we’ll see how we can back you up.

Manchester sit-ins

In Manchester these confused guide lines resulted in a full conference of local stewards and the calling of a ‘mini’ local general strike, mostly consisting of sit-ins. Immediately the EEF saw its chance. £1 million was put at the local employers’ disposal and a war of attrition began. Unfortunately few similar movements took place in other parts of the country and the Manchester strikers became isolated. Meantime for five or six weeks the union paid out strike benefit which eventually reached a very considerable sum indeed. In no case did the workers who staged these guerrilla actions win the full claim.

The large sums paid out in benefit for little return began the period of the union’s financial difficulties exacerbated by inflation. The lack of any clear cut victory resulted in a serious if temporary decline in morale among the general membership. This was at a time when the miners were going into battle and by fully co-ordinating national action gained a great victory. If the National Committee had called a national strike vastly superior gains could have been made, and at less cost at that.

These guerrilla tactics gave the right wing all the ‘handles to grind’ they could wish for. It enabled them to claim that not only industrial tactics were wrong (of course they wouldn’t have favoured national action either) but that the financial affairs of the union were being mishandled!

Among the ‘Broad Left’ and Communist Party members are many sincere and courageous workers but they have all been misled. For all practical purposes the ‘Broad Left’ has been used almost exclusively as an election machine to gain official positions. The concentration of all efforts on capturing positions had now proved to be counter-productive and allowed the right wing to creep back to the detriment of all who wish to see a bold and militant policy in the union.

A really effective left would constantly point out that in the period of the irreversible decay of British capitalism, the full force of the union can be mobilised to defend and improve the living standards of its members only if this struggle is linked with the struggle to lay the foundations of socialism by taking over the commanding heights of the economy, working on the basis of a socialist economic plan.

Dudley Edwards was a member of AUEW Brighton no. 3, retired.

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