By Rhodri Evans
The Socialist Party has launched a “Campaign for a New Workers’ Party”. It has put out a statement which says many true things about the badness of the Blair-Brown Labour Party and the need to restore an independent workers’ voice in politics (http://tinyurl.com/btaq9).
Unfortunately, it is hard to see how this campaign can achieve more than a few extra sympathisers or members for the Socialist Party. It will divert from, rather than contribute to, the necessary battles to mobilise the broad labour movement for the cause of independent working-class political representation, and to unite the left.
What does “campaign for a new workers’ party” mean?
Any serious socialist group wants to build a new workers’ party. Everything we do - recruiting, publishing, agitating, educating, organising — is geared to that end. “Campaign for a new workers’ party” is not some special initiative or tactic. It is simply what we are. AWL is a “campaign for a new workers’ party”. The SP is another.
A distinct new “campaign” can make sense if it’s about pulling together a number of different socialist and working-class organisations, all wanting to create a workers’ voice in politics, into a cohesive and definite party.
And, indeed, the SP does have a campaign in the trade unions, though it is not explicitly mentioned in the new statement. Trouble is, it is a campaign in the first place to get the unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party, on the assumption that this will make it easier to regroup them later in a new workers’ party.
The assumption is untrue. A lot of white-collar unions are not affiliated to the Labour Party. They are generally less, not more, political and combative than the Labour-affiliated unions. Since the Fire Brigades Union disaffiliated voluntarily, and the rail union RMT was expelled by the Labour leadership, they have become less, not more, active politically.
The slow, faltering revival in the trade unions shown by the election of the new generation of “awkward squad” union leaders has now gone far enough that the big unions habitually put motions at Labour Party conference against Blairite policy.
At the September 2005 Labour Party conference the unions defeated Blair and Brown on pensions, the health service, council housing, and anti-union laws.
Then the New Labour leaders said they would ignore the conference decisions, and the union leaders did nothing. New Labour has followed with the proposal from Industry Minister Alan Johnson to cut the unions’ vote in the Labour Party from 50% to 15%.
New political forces are built through struggle, not through withdrawal. The working-class interest can be asserted in politics through pushing the unions to continue the fight started in September 2005 — not by voluntarily walking away from it.
Whether the left is strong enough, and rank-and-file confidence and combativity sufficient, to push the unions into a fight, we do not know. We do know that if the left and the rank and file are not strong enough, then the idea of an easy short-cut by way of surfing on today’s widespread working-class disillusion with politics in general is a false one.
A campaign to make the unions fight politically already exists, in the Labour Representation Committee set up in 2004. It has four unions affiliated - the FBU, the RMT, and the Labour-affiliated CWU (post and telecom union) and Bakers. It has also received support from the leaders of the leftish unions not affiliated to the Labour Party, Jeremy Dear of the NUJ, Paul Mackney of NATFHE, and Mark Serwotka of PCS.
The LRC is as yet weak. In large part that is because the left is weak in the working class. There is no magic way round that, outside building up organisation, confidence, and awareness at rank-and-file level. For sure, disaffiliation is not a magic way round.
To support the LRC is not necessarily at all to accept the theory that the Labour Party can be smoothly “reclaimed”. Alan Johnson’s move to cut the union vote from 50% to 15% indicates that if a significant body of unions does start a serious political fight, then the Blair-Brown team will choose to split (maybe linking up with the Lib Dems) rather than submit. But that split – coming from a fight rather than individual left-wing unions peeling off one by one in disgust – would, at the opposite pole to Blair and Brown, produce the beginnings of a real new workers’ party, based on the more combative unions.
Many unaffiliated activists are keen to see something in England and Wales like Rifondazione in Italy, Die Linke in Germany, or the SSP in Scotland. The trouble is, they often ignore what was necessary to create those larger left-wing movements, and the political fight that will be necessary to make them effective in future.
None of the parties came out of nothing. None of them magically short-cut the process of building organisation day-to-day. All of them are already suffering the sort of political erosion that blighted the Labour Left of the 1980s.
General appeals for someone, somehow, to create a new broad workers’ party will not create an effective workers’ party. They are more likely to divert from (or compensate for the lack of) what practical work can be done now towards building a real party.
Steps forward towards a new workers’ party could be made by uniting the existing socialist organisations. If the Scottish Socialist Party, the SWP, the SP, the AWL, united into a single organisation, it would draw in many hundreds of socialists who are currently affiliated. It would not be a full-fledged new workers’ party. It would not be a substitute for a political fight in the unions. But it would be a significant step forward.
Some united initiatives are possible. AWL supports and promotes the Socialist Green Unity Coalition, which we formed in the run-up to the 2005 general election with a range of socialist groups including the SP. But full all-in left unity is not going to happen any time soon. The SSP is determined to remain a Scotland-only organisation. The SWP wants to unite with George Galloway rather than with the socialist left. When the left in England and Wales was partially united, in the Socialist Alliance of 2000-1, the SP quickly withdrew.
In any case, broad left unity is not what the SP’s new initiative is proposing. The SP chose to launch its statement with the signatures of SP members only, when with little effort it could have got a wider range.
The SP has every right to use a “campaign for a new workers’ party” as a device to publicise its policies and attract new contacts. We have no complaint about that. We do not criticise the SP for failing to sink its politics into vague wishful thinking about left unity. But its initiative should be judged for what it is, and not for what it is not.
And, judged for what it is, the most telling thing about the SP’s new campaign is who it chose to “front” it. Not just SP members, but specifically those SPers who are members of trade union executive committees — only about three weeks after many of them had voted through a sell-out which, without a single day of industrial action, conceded to the Government that the pension age for new public sector workers will be raised to 65.
We need a new workers’ party to fight sell-outs like that, not to make more of them.