Britain’s biggest union supports nationalisation of the big banks

The need for socialist policies and for the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy dominated much of the agenda of the UNITE policy conference this year, and following a very radical conference the union has committed to supporting the nationalisation of the private banks, utilities and railways. The mood of the conference shows a sharp shift to the left amongst the UNITE rank and file recently and its reflection in the leadership. Not one speaker from the union’s executive or from the conference delegates openly opposed the principles of nationalisation or of the need to adopt socialist policies.

This is a tremendous leap forward for the union; but we hasten to add that what is needed now is clarity. For instance, what exactly is “democratic control” of the banks and what does “socialism” mean? Do the comrades see nationalisation as a step towards a “mixed” economy or towards genuine socialist planning? If what is meant is the latter then why stop at the banks and utilities?

For some speakers, it was not capitalism but “neoliberal capitalism” and “unregulated capitalism” that are the problem, whilst other delegates equated “socialism” with Keynesian ideas of increased “investment”. But is this greater investment to be based on further government borrowing at a time when global markets are betting on the likely bankruptcies of already debt-laden states? Are we meant to rely on private companies to invest – private companies that are already sitting on a £700bn stockpile of cash that they refuse to invest due to the crisis of overproduction? These are the questions that have to be asked and that Socialist Appeal supporters raised from the floor of the conference and in fringe meetings through the week.

Socialist Appeal supporters, particularly from the youth section, intervened vigorously at the conference, particularly in support of nationalisation under democratic workers’ control. Ben Curry from Yorkshire and Humber region explained that “the question of who controls the banks is the most important question of our age.” Ben explained that democratic control of the banks can only be achieved if we firstly implement their full nationalisation, with compensation only in cases of proven need. Secondly, we need democratically elected representatives running the banks: representatives from the banking workers themselves and from the labour movement nationally. Finally, the only way to be sure that the directors of state-owned banks represent working people is for their pay to be the same as that of the average banking sector worker. Ben finished by explaining that, “nationalisation has been on the programme of the TUC since the 19th Century and of the Labour Party since 1919 – It is time to implement that programme, the programme of socialism.”

Adam Booth, a young member from the London and Eastern region, intervened to answer the question of what the “alternative” economic strategy is that the labour movement must fight for. Adam explained that the dichotomy of “austerity vs. growth” is a false one. Governments are not carrying out programmes of austerity purely for ideological reasons, but have been forced to implement cuts and privatisation due to the pressure of the financial markets. If we want “growth” – i.e. investment and full employment – then we must nationalise the key sectors of the economy (including the banks) under democratic control, in order to ensure that the wealth in society is put to use for public need; otherwise, we will remain in the stagnant state we find ourselves in today, whereby (privately owned) factories and houses lie idle and millions are in unemployment, and yet there is a great need for more hospitals, schools, and homes. Adam summed up his contribution by pointing out that the real choice for society is – in the words of Rosa Luxemburg – between “socialism and barbarism”.

Next came the question of how to give our programme a political voice. Len McCluskey, General Secretary, opened the conference by quoting Marx to the effect that the working class needs to fight for political power if it is to change its conditions of life. Despite anger from the conference at the Labour Party leadership, delegates clearly understood the need to strengthen rather than weaken the Labour-Union link and to use it as a lever to transform the Party into a political voice for workers. A motion aimed at cutting the union’s political fund was defeated by delegates, who understood that this is exactly what the ruling class have been trying to achieve: the weakening of the Labour-Union link by attacking the political fund under the guise of supporting “state funding” or other ploys. Instead, the conference correctly resolved to try and get at least 5,000 union members to join the Labour Party in an effort to take control of CLPs, de-select right-wing MPs and transform the party.

Socialist Appeal supporters welcome this bold turn to reclaim the Labour Party, but add one further point: it is paramount that we aim to win the Party to a clear programme of socialist policies. It is the strategy of the ruling class to “use and discredit” Labour by getting them to carry out policies of austerity and by then bringing in the Tories when Labour become a spent force. If the Labour Party comes to power on a programme of “responsible capitalism”, then they will very quickly find themselves carrying out cuts on behalf of the ruling class. This can be seen most clearly by the examples of the social democratic parties (PASOK and PSOE) in Greece and Spain, who carried out cuts and who are now shadows of their former selves.

The unions and the Labour Party were created to defend the economic and political interests of the working class. At a time of capitalist crisis, this can only be done on the basis of socialist policies. The task facing workers, therefore, is to take control of these mass organisations and turn them into weapons for the struggle to transform society. We invite our readers to join us in this task.