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For a new workers party – or Old Labour?

Andrew Johnson

14 June 2006

Perhaps the most consistent element of discussion on the Irish left is the proposal that there be a new political regroupment, typically seen as unity of the actually existing left. A constant part of these proposals, taken almost as an act of faith, is that the political basis of unity is of secondary importance to the fact of unity itself. As a result, that political basis is always reformist – a broad church that includes within itself all the illusions and mistakes of the past. This atmosphere of opportunism does not displace the traditional political sectarianism of the Irish left, so we have the phenomenon of multiple unity movements such as the CIL (Campaign for an Independent Left) and PBPDL (People Before Profit –Davitt League), a Socialist Workers Party front group.

Consistently outside these initiatives has stood the Socialist Party. They argue that what is wanted is a working class party rather than unity of the existing left. Controversially, they argue that their organisation stands in a special relationship with the working class and that their activity should be aimed at workers rather than cooperation with the other socialist groups. They also argue that the time is not right for building a new party, leading to criticisms that they give no clear criteria about the conditions necessary to build the new movement.

Now some of these confusions are being resolved. In England the Socialist Party now feel conditions are right for a new working class party and have held a conference and set up a steering committee.  To what extent does this clarify the possibilities of regroupment and the role of the Socialist Party in such a regroupment?

The inaugural conference of the Campaign for a New Workers Party (CNWP) was held on 19th March in London, with a first steering committee meeting of the Campaign on Saturday May 20.

The conference organisers, the Socialist Party, reported an attendance of around 450, a figure confirmed by other participants (See report in The Socialist, 23-29 March 2006, and CNWP post-conference press release). Around two-thirds of these were members or sympathisers of the SP, with most of the rest coming from other sectors of the socialist movement. Although the SP claimed participation from many leading trade union figures including members of union executives, on closer examination nearly all of these turned out to be members of the SP.

The conference follows on from a declaration for a new workers party launched last year by the SP. This short document’s impact was somewhat blunted by the fact that all the original signatories were well-known SP members. To be fair, more people have signed it since, although no significant forces from outside the small socialist milieu have come on board. Nonetheless, the initiative is worth analysing as one of the most serious contributions to the debate on strategies for the movement in England.

The SP’s arguments are summarised in a pamphlet “Campaign for a New Workers Party”, written by leading SP figure Hannah Sell with an introduction from Coventry SP councillor and former Labour MP Dave Nellist, which gives the official rationale for the campaign. Over half of the pamphlet consists of arguments that Tony Blair’s New Labour is a bad thing and workers need an alternative. While it is always good to read socialists denouncing the atrocious Blair government, it would have been nice if the denunciations had been trimmed back so that the SP’s positive ideas could have been put in a slightly less sketchy form. 

What kind of party?

But there are positive ideas, although these are filtered through the SP’s belief that Marxism is an exact science allowing detailed predictions to be made. So we learn that the new party “would attempt to cut across the racist and divisive ideas peddled by the capitalist media. It would be active and involved in every struggle of working people and would assist in linking those struggles together. It would encourage international solidarity and publicise the struggles of the working class and oppressed worldwide which are almost completely ignored by the capitalist media… It would link together the day-to-day struggles to defend and improve our living conditions with the long-term interests of the working class.”

And a little later we get more specific about the party’s policies. The new party will fight for the repeal of the anti-union laws, for an increase in the minimum wage and for equal pay for migrant workers. It would take up campaigns around housing, education and health, oppose privatisation and the war in Iraq, and support renewable energy. These are all of course good causes, and a party that fought seriously for them would be most welcome. And giving these examples serves the purpose of the pamphlet, which is after all to inspire the reader with enthusiasm for the idea of a new workers party.

But there is a great big gap right here, and that is the nature of the new party. The list of issues, taken by themselves, would win the support of the majority of existing Labour supporters, even given Labour’s swing to the right. What are the fundamental issues that demand a completely new party?

While specific about the activities projected for the new party, the question of its nature is left deliberately vague. The pamphlet simply says that “the Socialist Party will argue that… the new party should adopt a democratic socialist programme.” However, the tasks sketched out for a new party add up to a programme of protest and “bread and butter” campaigning, and not one aiming at the conquest of power by the working class. It should be made clear the SP pamphlet doesn’t argue explicitly for a reformist programme, only pointing out various campaigns for reforms that socialists should support. However, a new reformist party is clearly what they have in mind.
Interventions from SP members at the CNWP conference centred around the idea that workers wouldn’t join a revolutionary party – they needed to pass through a reformist stage. The unstated conclusion was that a small reformist party (something like the German WASG, represented on the platform by a member of the SP’s German section) would need to be prepared as a first stage. This false dichotomy between having revolutionary goals and reaching out to the masses is in fact a formalisation of the SP’s own practice, a holdover from the Militant period when they had a private Marxist ideology while behaving in public as right-wing social democrats. 

Reclaiming Labour?

One other idea hanging over from the past is the SP view that the Labour party cannot be reclaimed and that issues within Labour are no longer of interest to socialists. In this view, the traditional party of the working class can simply be bypassed by a small left group appealing directly to the broad masses. Or, which gives the lie to their analysis, by appealing to a “left” union bureaucracy overwhelmingly made up of Labour members. As we shall see, in the absence of a response from ordinary workers, the appeal to the bureaucracy represents Plan B.

But first we should look at the Labour Party question. Our SP authors pour much scorn on the idea, floated by many Labour lefts, that the party can be reclaimed. But their own arguments are full of holes. In the first place, an argument about “reclaiming” Labour starts from the false premise that Labour was ever a vehicle for socialism – as Tony Benn often points out, Labour was never a socialist party but a party with socialists in it. But, aside from that point, one of the least convincing parts of the SP analysis is a prettifying of Labour’s past combined with the notion that Blair represents a total break with this mythical past, a myth whose purpose is to justify the SP’s fanatically Labourite past and fanatically anti-Labour present without admitting they had ever been wrong. So what we have is not an analysis – that would have to consider whether, for example, Blair’s actions in Iraq are really different from Attlee’s in Malaya or Wilson’s in Aden – but a purely subjective claim that Blair’s warmongering and embrace of neoliberal nostrums equal the working class having no stake in the Labour Party.

For example, Hannah Sell writes, “New Labour today is almost completely empty of working-class activists. It has to rely on paid telephone canvassers in elections because it does not have any activists apart from the paid officials and councillors who make up the machine.” There is some truth in this, but Sell puts her case in such a one-sided and absolutist way as to deprive herself of any useful conclusions. It is true that Labour’s vote has fallen dramatically since 1997, as has its membership. Yet millions of workers still vote Labour, if only to keep the Tories out. Indeed, the Labour left, hugely weakened as it is, is still much more substantial than, say, the Socialist Party. And many of the rebellions against Blair have come not in the unions but in Labour itself, over Blair’s attacks on party democracy – according to the SP, we should simply ignore these struggles. Thus they turn their backs on what was one of the old Militant’s main strengths, its recognition that workers do not lightly break with their traditional organisations however sclerotic those may be.

More substantially, reality itself does not correspond to the SP’s version of millions of militant workers straining at the leash, and breaking from Labour to the left. Our writers don’t seem to notice that levels of class struggle in Britain remain at a historic low, following the defeats of the Thatcher era that made Blairism possible. The dominant factor in Labour’s decline is a weakening of the organised labour movement in general, and of workers’ class identity. It is not irrelevant that the old Militant was thirty to forty times bigger than the present Socialist Party – this just demonstrates the decline in microcosm.

Nellist argues that “Without a major injection of radical workers into the Labour Party, of at least 50-100 per constituency, or tens of thousands nationally, I see no prospect of Labour being reclaimed.” And he concludes that there is no evidence of this. In this he is correct, but neither is there any evidence of thousands of workers moving to create a new party of their own. In fact, as we have seen, the CNWP has made few ripples outside the socialist milieu. The contrast between the SP’s talk of a mass party and their boosting the CNWP by publicising a couple of dozen people signing the declaration on a Saturday stall speaks for itself.

A missing campaign

Quite apart from the campaign’s limited political horizons, there is a legitimate question as to whether the CNWP has any meaningful existence. The SP are advocating a “federal” structure for their mooted new party, and not only that, but for the campaign itself. So in elections, organisations participating in the CNWP will be putting forward candidates in various parts of England. But they won’t be running under the banner of the CNWP, or on an agreed manifesto, but on their tod.
This poses an obvious question, and Alan Thornett, attending the conference as fraternal speaker from the Respect coalition, posed the question. If the forces in the CNWP can’t forge political unity to fight a council election – if the CNWP in fact can’t intervene as a campaign – what is the point of it? Alan made the point that, while he was part of a minority in Respect that wanted to turn the coalition into a proper party with real democratic structures and accountability, the advocates of a new party are actually putting in place a structure so diffuse it may as well not exist.

The CNWP might have some use as a discussion forum, but it obviously wasn’t set up with that in mind and it is doubtful whether the SP would be interested in a serious discussion of programme and strategy. As a campaign (hence the title) which seeks to reach out to broad layers of workers, one would think some agreed activity would be in order, at least for the purpose of convincing workers that these Marxists weren’t all talk. But that, it seems, isn’t on the SP’s agenda either. The May meeting of the steering committee agreed an anodyne anti-privatisation programme, voted down some left proposals and agreed to meet again in September! If the CNWP can’t intervene in a local council election, if it leaves the whole question of activity until September, how can it provide the catalyst for the party of 100,000 that Hannah Sell spoke of at the conference?

Courting the awkward squad

The reason why there is no activity is quite simple.  The task of building a new working class party is not aimed directly at the working class.  That would mean building a rank-and-file left wing in the trade union movement. The strategy of the new grouping is to energetically woo even mildly left-wing union leaders, the so-called “awkward squad”. Leave aside the fact that the awkward squad aren’t an opposition; leave aside the fact that the only union leaders to endorse new left formations have been those already in the far left milieu; the strategy has a logic of its own. That’s why the only action agreed at the May steering committee was to circulate the bureaucracies of the leading trade unions, to attend union conferences and to ask the RMT union to organise a second conference on political representation – maybe this time it would be open to individual workers!

This perspective dovetails perfectly with the SP practice of ascribing to the bureaucracy a capacity for class struggle and socialist politics that may not be obvious to observers who don’t share the SP’s peculiar ideology. Despite their demonstrative break with Labour, historically the political expression of the bureaucracy, the SP have clung to the bureaucracy itself like grim death. Hannah Sell’s rationalisation of her organisation’s practice draws heavily on the Labour Party’s founding by the TUC – in the SP’s previous pamphlet on the new mass workers party, it devoted an appendix to a highly romanticised retelling of this story, implying that history would repeat itself in a more or less automatic fashion. The theory seems to be that, as New Labour attacks workers, the unions will be driven to create a new vehicle. This new party will look quite a bit like Old Labour.

It’s been a long wait to see Socialist Party proposals for a working class party.  What has emerged looks very like an empty shell without a coherent political programme or strategy. In part this weakness is due to particular issues on the English left about the nature of New Labour and the extent to which battles around the Labour Party will play a part in the future development of new working class structures.  No-one on the left can honestly claim to have a clear answer to this question.

However the other faults of the SP position seem depressingly familiar. The analysis flinches away from the hard reality of decades of capitalist victory and working-class defeat to a rosy utopia where the right opportunity will see a mass spontaneous mobilisation of the workers which the SP, because of its mystical connection to the class, will be uniquely placed to benefit from. The new party seems to be aimed not directly at the working class but at a ‘left’ bureaucracy in the unions, to be based on a conviction that workers will initially only organise around reformist demands, and to have a strong opportunist and electoralist flavour, based on the hope that if we find an electoral vehicle and keep quiet about our real beliefs the workers will vote for us.

In our opinion any discussion of left regroupment should start with the tasks facing the working class, and discussion of a programme should be based on developing strategies for class struggle which would not only address day-to-day questions but tie in these immediate goals to the struggle for socialism. What the SP offer, by contrast, is reproducing Old Labour in miniature, a small reformist party acting as the bureaucracy’s loyal left flank. If this initiative had emerged from leftward-moving Labourites, that would be one thing; coming from a group who describe themselves as Marxists, it hardly inspires confidence.



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