Debate & Discussion: When is it a workers' party?

Submitted by Anon on 10 September, 2003 - 2:03

Martin Thomas

To "campaign for a workers' party" means three things:
1. Setting out and grouping people round basic working-class political objectives-independent working-class political representation, a workers' government, a working-class "Third Camp" in international politics.

2. Arguing for working-class socialist unity, in the form of a new Socialist Alliance-a new regroupment of the left which rejects the SWP's hijack of the present Alliance and continues what that Alliance started out to do.

3. Developing a consistent policy in the unions to mobilise them against the New Labour political machine-including within the Labour structures-and towards reasserting themselves politically.

At the Socialist Alliance conference in May a range of us joined in supporting a composite calling for a "campaign for a workers' party".

It meant that we wanted an open, democratic, multi-tendency socialist party, with the best characteristics of the Scottish Socialist Party or Rifondazione Comunista.

The term "workers' party" a suggested that we wanted to define the politics as not just "socialist" but working-class.

Those general ideas were worth voting for as against the SWP's old desire to keep the Alliance as an "electoral united front", switched on or off according to election schedules, or its new desire to make the Alliance no more than the cloak the SWP wears when it goes courting for a new electoral coalition with (if it can get them) mosque worthies, the Islamic fundamentalists of MAB, the Greens, and the CPB.

And the smaller groups in the Socialist Alliance and the unaffiliated activists-why wouldn't we want a party with the best characteristics of the SSP or Rifondazione? We'd be crazy not to want a broader, livelier framework for our political activity.

But such parties are not got just by wishing for them, or even "campaigning" for them in the abstract. For the SSP, the Militant group in Scotland first had to build a bit of a working-class base in Glasgow, through many years of activity. Rifondazione came through a split-off of a large chunk of the old mass Italian Communist Party.

In practical terms, to raise the call for a workers' party as something for the present Socialist Alliance to do is to raise the demand for the SWP to restructure the Alliance on the basis of a much higher level of political life, internal and external. The SWP is going in the opposite direction. It is liquidating all the "workers' party" elements and potentialities in the Alliance. We should continue arguing and working with as many SWP members as possible at local levels; we should be on the look-out for possible large-scale crises in the SWP; but "demands" from us will not change the direction of the SWP as a whole.


1. We can't be contented with just being an opposition within the existing Socialist Alliance. The present Alliance is less and less a framework for positive, fruitful unity. It is more and more a means to annex a few other groups and individuals to an SWP project. Unity for a workers' party? That needs a new regroupment, a new Socialist Alliance.

We can fight within the present Alliance as long as openings remain-but start making the links for a new Alliance. It probably depends on some force like the Socialist Party, or a large split-off from the SWP, coming in to make the alliance viable. We should start arguing now.

2. Unity has to be positive working-class socialist unity. A very wide range of people within the present Socialist Alliance should be united on particular issues, for example of democracy within the Alliance. But we need more than single issues. "Campaign for a workers' party" is not a single issue. It is a cryptogram for almost everything socialists do in politics. It must be decrypted.

3. If defining positive politics divides the anti-SWP forces, so be it. To make anti-SWP unity the prime principle of politics is sectarian in the true sense of the word. A small group may play a big role by virtue of sharp, distinctive ideas; a large and lively movement may be important even with very confused ideas. A grouping with neither numbers nor sharp ideas can yield nothing.

A real campaign for a workers' party should promote the goals of independent working-class political representation, a workers' government, and a working-class "Third Camp" in conflicts such as those between the USA and various Islamic-fundamentalist paleo-imperialists.

Like it or not, that means taking a stand on the Galloway issue.

Individuals can opt out-just go to the pub instead when a Galloway meeting is ballyhooed as "the" left fringe meeting at their union conference, or set up as the great assembly-point of the "new coalition" in their city.

An organised political force cannot opt out. Either it helps promote Galloway as the new icon of the left (with this or that delicate reservation), or it explains openly why that is wrong. Only the second course is compatible with any sort of genuine workers' party.

4. We need to look at the "workers' party" issue in the sense that old Labour was a "workers' party" of sorts-the mass base-at the same time as we develop the political ideas and regroup the activists to make sure a new mass workers' party is one of a very different sort, politically, from old Labour. Above and beyond schemes for regrouping the existing left activists, we need a clear political direction for the unions.

There is no unity among the non-SWP left on this issue. It must be discussed. We believe that the basic guiding principle should be independent working-class representation in politics. Socialists should have a major focus on getting unions to fight for their own policies within the Labour structures and call to account their representatives within those structures. That focus can sharpen the conflicts in the union-Labour link and group together a substantial body of unions for a a head-on clash with the Blair machine. It can be combined with selective union support for independent working-class candidates against New Labour.

Some agree with the SSP and SP line of arguing for unions to disaffiliate now from the Labour Party and to affiliate either to the SSP or to a somehow-instantly-formed new mass workers' party. We believe that line can achieve no more than getting individual leftish unions hived off, probably into a non-political stand, and easing the tensions in the union-Labour link rather than sharpening them.

Some would go along with the new RMT policy of selectively backing different parties, including the SSP but also the Greens and Plaid Cymru.

Although we see a great deal positive in the RMT's open attack on Blair and its support for the SSP, we are against the RMT being disaffiliated from Labour-or reducing its affiliation to a nominal level, as it has already done-and against support by unions for middle-class radical parties like the Greens and Plaid.

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