A motion from GMB on the war in Ukraine poses a challenge to the labour movement – will it line up behind Tory policy, or chart its own path, asks Andrew Murray

The trade union movement faces a choice this autumn, at the TUC Congress. In principle, it should be a straightforward one — does the movement support the policy of the Tory government?

If the matter were about economic or social policy it would be simple — no, never. However, it concerns the war in Ukraine.

As so often, behind policy votes larger issues are stirring. In this case, it is whether or not the working class has its own approach, its own attitude, on international questions, or whether class independence is basically a domestic socio-economic question, and when it comes to war and peace ruling class direction is to be accepted.

There has been some movement on the Ukraine war in a positive direction among the trade unions this year, as the dangers and costs of the conflict have become clearer.

But still the pull of Tory policy — basically the prolongation of the war to the point of a complete Russian military defeat — is powerful.

Its expression on the TUC agenda is in a motion from the GMB union. The GMB can, I suppose, be congratulated for at least asking Congress to address the war in Europe. Aslef is the only other union to do so. Ignoring war altogether is not smart policy.

However, the GMB motion is a call for the trade unions to align in support of the most hard-line elements among Nato policy-makers and push for the war to continue until Russian surrender. The key phrase is the demand for “the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from all Ukrainian territories occupied since 2014.”

Crucially, this requires as a prerequisite for peace the return of Crimea to Ukrainian control. Firstly, this is most unlikely to be achieved, and the effort to do so risks the escalation of war to the point of the use of nuclear weapons.

At the very least only prolonged and intense military operations, including far more civilian deaths, could put the reconquest of Crimea remotely on the agenda.

Secondly, there is no evidence that the people living on the peninsula want to be handed back to Kiev. They have the right to determine their own destiny, rather than having it decided for them by the TUC, or anyone else.

In other Russian-occupied provinces, the situation may well be different. But self-determination under circumstances where it can be freely exercised is an important principle for the socialist left, alongside respect for sovereignty, the peaceful settlement of disputes and anti-imperialism.

The motion further commits to increased military aid to Ukraine from a British government already pouring the most advanced weaponry into the conflict, to no apparent effect on the military stalemate and regardless of the cost to British working people.

It rightly attacks the denial of trade union rights under the Russian (and Belarusian) regimes, yet is silent on the onslaught against union and democratic rights in Ukraine under Volodymyr Zelensky.

It also makes the historically questionable claim that the TUC has a “proud history” of opposing imperialist aggression.

If only. Stop the War would very much have liked to have had the support of the TUC — and the GMB — in opposing the Iraq war in 2003, but we didn’t get it. Most unions, happily, were more staunch, but the TUC prioritised its relations with New Labour ministers.

Truth is the TUC has more usually had a blind spot when it comes to aggression by British imperialism. And last year it voted, narrowly and rather shamefully, to campaign for increased military spending at a time of wholesale attack on public services.

These are not working-class positions, but rather expressions of bourgeois ideology within the labour movement.

Stop the War condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the day it happened, and stated that Western policy over many years had contributed to the conflict. The issue now is less how the war started but how it can be brought to the speediest possible end.

The dangers of continuing conflict are obvious. The collapse of the agreement on grain exports through the Black Sea will mean hunger for millions. The export of depleted uranium and cluster bombs to the war zone represent a dangerous military escalation. At the same time, neither Ukraine nor Russia appear able to make significant battlefield gains.

The need is for peace talks, ideally preceded by a ceasefire. The British government has opposed such a policy, and worked to obstruct it, from the outset.

Tory class interests are served by continuing war, the integration of Ukraine into the Western imperialist bloc and the isolation and degradation of any state that opposes that bloc, including ultimately China.

Opposing that does not mean cheering on Russian oligarchic capitalism, or a Russian state that is quite capable of degrading itself, as the unpunished Prigozhin mutiny proves.

It does mean trying to penetrate the smokescreen of imperial propaganda and standing up to our own government.

That is why the TUC should be pushing for the opening of peace talks, and a settlement of the conflict on a democratic basis, without imposing preconditions. Trade unionists need to push their unions to vote that way at Congress and oppose the war motion.

Source: Morning Star

15 Aug 2023 by Andrew Murray

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