Croydon TUC: the beating heart of radical Croydon

Croydon TUC (CTUC) held its AGM on Thursday at Ruskin House. With the resignation of Jon Morgan of PCS due to relocation away from Croydon, the meeting unanimously appointed Kevin Smith of CWU as the President. Kevin was an excellent choice, being active in the initiative to launch the Croydon Assembly, CTUC’s attempt to reach out beyond the trade union movement, and instrumental in forming the Croydon Assembly’s Environmental Forum. Roy Aird was re-elected as Secretary and this and the other appointments and re-appointments to the Executive Committee confirmed CTUC’s place at the beating heart of radical Croydon.

An attempt will be made this year to open CTUC’s monthly delegate meeting, held at 7.30 pm on the second Thursday of each month, to a wider audience by inviting more guest speakers. Invitations have already gone out to the  Campaign against Climate Change and the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom and more will follow with dates to be announced shortly.

The big event at Ruskin House this year will be the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the building in Coombe Road. To mark this event, the annual May Day March from North End (opposite Marks and Spencer) to Ruskin House will take place on Saturday, 13 May and will be followed by speeches, music and celebrations at Ruskin House. It is hoped that Mark Serwotka, the PCS General Secretary, will speak at what will be his first major public speaking engagement following his heart transplant operation. The assembly time at North End has yet to be confirmed, but it will probably be noon. As usual, trade union and Communist Party banners and flags will be proudly born through the pedestrian precinct and on Ruskin House.

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Report on Croydon TUC’s Referendum Debate

The EU Referendum Debate hosted by Croydon TUC at Ruskin House yesterday (9 June) was a well attended event whose tone and content was very different to anything we are hearing on the BBC or reading in the mass media. None of the invited speakers and hardly anyone speaking from the floor raised the racist and anti-immigrant arguments discussed obsessively in the ‘official’ campaigns; and little heat was generated about the specious “facts” seen as pivotal in the ‘official’ debate. Indeed, there was wide agreement that the debate reported by the BBC in the mass media was little more than a row between two wings of the Tory Party and those hangers on foolish enough to be sucked/suckered into their squalid debate.

The case to stay in was put by Mark Serwotka, the much respected and admired General Secretary of the civil servants union PCS, speaking in a personal capacity. The leave case was put by Eddie Dempsey, a young and dynamic member of the Executive Committee of the rail union RMT which is a long standing opponent of the EU (and its predecessors the EC and the EEC). The third speaker was Steve Freeman from Republican Socialists group who argued for abstention in order to deny credibility to either of the ‘official’ campaigns.

There was a remarkable degree of consensus expressed and acknowledged by all three speakers. All agreed that the EU was based on:

  1. the free movement of capital and labour – a right wing, neo-liberal concept that benefitted the former but did little or nothing for the latter; and
  2. suppressed democracy and trade union rights – this being a deliberate strategy from the foundation of the EEC to ensure that workers were not in a position to overturn (1).

The different conclusions reached by the three speakers turned on their views on the immediate consequences of a vote to leave. For Eddie Dempsey it would sweep away both the Tories and the legal obstacle to public ownership that the EU provided. The Tories would split and an opportunity to build towards a socialist future would open up. Mark Serwotka feared that if we left the EU we would face continued Tory rule and a government set on making workers pay for the resulting economic uncertainty. For Steve Freeman, the immediate prospects were bleak whatever the outcome of the referendum: the real need was to unite the European working class and whether or not we were in the EU was irrelevant.

There was unanimous agreement that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) currently being negotiated in secret by the European Commission and the US would be disastrous for the UK, but the speakers disagreed on whether leaving the EU would enable the UK to escape it. Again, these differing conclusions arose from the speakers’ different views on what government would come out on top following a vote to leave. A right wing government would, according to Mark Serwotka, drag us in; but for others it was undeniable that, in the short term at least, exit would enable us to escape TTIP.

There were a number of useful contributions from the floor, including one from Comrade Peter Latham of this branch who drew attention to the Lexit  or Left Leave Campaign.

At the end of the evening, the Chair, Jon Morgan, called for a show of hands on the voting intentions of those present. This was pretty evenly divided. The call to abstain didn’t, however, receive any significant support.

Note of Branch Meeting on 19 May 2016

The principal item on the agenda of the branch meeting on Thursday, 19 May, was a discussion and debate on the forthcoming EU Referendum.

The official campaigns and how they are being reported in the mass media were criticised. The misuse of public money and resources by the government in promoting the case for staying in came in for particularly severe criticism. Specious economic “facts” – actually forecasts by the same neo-classical and neo-liberal economists who had failed to predict, or even understand, the causes of the 2007-8 financial crisis – were uninformative and counter-productive. It was agreed by the meeting that the decision whether to stay or leave turned on the effect this would have on the growth in solidarity, consciousness and ability to act of the working class, both nationally and internationally. This could not be assessed in a binary way,  rubbishing all counter-arguments without consideration and emphasising immediate effects. What was required was a dialectical approach which took into account the origins and continuing development of the EEC/EU and how its democratic structures and recognition of trade union rights had developed. Such analysis pointed to exit.

The meeting agreed on the importance of national self-determination. While this pointed to exit, the Scottish and Irish dimensions were complicating factors. The potential for exit to encourage Scottish independence, resulting in the fracture of the working class on the UK mainland, had to be factored in, as had the effect of re-introducing a de-facto border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. These considerations deserved debate, not partisan dismissal.

The meeting welcomed the decision by Croydon TUC to hold a public debate at Ruskin House on Thursday, 9 June to be introduced by Mark Serwotka (Stay) and Eddie Dempsey (Leave). The meeting commended the branch’s officers for encouraging Croydon TUC to take this initiative.

The Fortcoming EU Referendum

The Croydon Assembly last Saturday (6 June) was a great success. The Cedar Hall at Ruskin House was full and, with workshops in the morning and a plenary in the afternoon, it was more a day for debate and deliberation than a time to sit back and listen to leading figures on the Left give us their views on the way forward after the General Election.  Two of the key speakers, Philipa Harvey, Chair of the NUT, and Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of PCS, nevertheless, gave us plenty to think about.

Philipa Harvey, a classroom teacher in Croydon until she began her term as NUT President, described the folly of over-testing and over-examining school children. While Labour must share some of the blame for this, it is the Tories, driven by their pathological distrust of the teaching profession and fuelled  by the knowledge that their kids are taught under a different system (i.e. privately), who have pressed this to the extreme. Children, Philipa explained, are now to be tested from the age of four.  Yet the most successful education system in Europe (Finland), has one exam when kids complete their education and no formal testing.

The immense personal courage displayed by Mark Serwotka as he continues to battle for his public service members under continuous attack by the government while waiting for a heart transplant can only fill one with admiration. It makes a mockery of the ‘honours’ to be ‘bestowed’  on the great and good in the Queen’s Birthday Honours tomorrow. How disappointing that so few of those offered gongs and titles have the integrity to decline them; how disappointing that so many people who, until then we respected , lap them up while disingenuously claiming that they did so on behalf of their colleagues or their organisation. It was, however, on this occasion Mark’s views on the forthcoming EU referendum that attracted attention. Mark invariably talks sense, so it was something of a jolt when he argued that the forthcoming referendum would be a distraction for the Left and we should not get entangled in it.

It is certainly the case that the trade unions will be split over continued membership of the EU while the Labour Party under any likely new leader will support continued membership even on the existing terms. Cameron’s strategy is clearly to obtain some cosmetic changes to these terms, probably no more than restrictions on who can claim welfare benefits. This, he hopes, will be sufficient to buy off any revolt within his own party. Those on the anti-EU wing of the Tories and UKIP will concentrate on the free movement of labour within the EU, a line that would have some logic if it were accompanied with restrictions on the free movement of capital, but without this it will tend to degenerate into xenophobia and racism. The big issue for workers is, however, their powerlessness within the EU due to the almost total absence of democracy and the corresponding influence of Big Business within its structures  – an influence so great that TTIP can apparently be rammed through regardless of any opposition workers within the EU can mount.  But do these difficulties mean that the Left and, in particular, the Communist Party can afford to turn its back on the EU Referendum?

Seamus Milne argued in the Guardian on Thursday (11 June) that what has been happening in Greece demonstrates that the case for radical change in Europe and a break from anti-democratic and corporate-controlled structures cannot be abandoned to the Right. Who is correct over this, Mark Serwotka or Seamus Milne?  I would tend to back Mark against Seamus nine time out of ten. This, I think, is the one in ten exception.