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Socialist Party national congress 2014
Preparing for a mighty upsurge in class struggle
On 8-10 March the Socialist Party held its annual national congress in Clacton. Around 300 delegates and visitors attended the very successful event. Branch delegates voted on resolutions and amendments agreeing both political perspectives and organisational aims. The congress showed enthusiasm throughout the Socialist Party for building from the opportunities we face, which was particularly shown in the sessions on finance and party building.
Over £13,000 was raised in a fighting fund collection and the congress launched an election appeal to help towards the costs of campaigns for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, No2EU - Yes To Workers' Rights and the Workers And Socialist Party in South Africa (donate at www.socialistparty.org.uk/donate).
Here we report from some of the sessions.
"Why the hell hasn't there been a revolution!", exclaimed Doncaster delegate Mary Jackson, after she catalogued the vicious government attacks on people's living standards.
Earlier, Hannah Sell, deputy general secretary of the Socialist Party, had introduced the discussion on Britain by detailing the social crisis in the country, where average real incomes have plummeted by 7% in three years due to capitalist recession and austerity. (Click above for video or here for audio.)
Despite Chancellor George Osborne talking up the ephemeral and anaemic growth in the economy, the recent Office for Budget Responsibility report says growth will be insufficient to close the budget deficit. Therefore, an extra £20 billion of spending cuts is likely. As Matt Gordon said in the discussion, the strategy of the ruling class is one of "endless austerity".
Even the Council of Europe says the Con-Dem government is no longer providing a basic standard of care for its citizens. However, as Hannah pointed out, at the other end of the social scale there are more super-rich residents here than in any other country.
This enormous inequality is accumulating a mass of socially combustible material in Britain. But it hasn't yet ignited, largely due to the role of the right-wing trade union leaders in holding back workers' struggles; not least in blocking the call for a 24-hour general strike. The absence of widespread strikes has led to a "sullen anger" among the organised working class. But this won't last.
As Socialist Party industrial organiser Rob Williams pointed out when summing up the discussion, there has been an "industrial lull" since the setback in the pensions struggle of 2011. Nonetheless, there have been localised struggles, which will continue to be important.
Moreover, when a determined fightback has developed, such as in the recent London Underground 48-hour strike by the RMT and TSSA unions against savage job losses and ticket office closures, then the heads of workers have been lifted. However, a widespread understanding of how union members can push leaders to act has yet to develop, but this is being created by the experience of recent years.
Politically, there is widespread disillusionment in politicians and parliament. Only 41% say they'll definitely vote in the next general election - in effect a "voters strike".
The Labour Party is no alternative to the Con-Dems. In the local councils they control they simply act as "agents of austerity". The recent Labour Party special conference took only two hours to remove the last remnants of trade union influence - willingly assisted by the trade union leaders themselves.
Such are the political shortcomings of Labour that an outright majority following the next general election is not guaranteed.
We urgently need a political voice for the working class, which the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition is preparing. A delay in the development of such a party can leave space for right-wing populist parties to try to partially fill the vacuum.
Delegates during the discussion and debate on Britain referred to many other important issues such as the European Union, immigration and its impact, the floods, bedroom tax, zero-hour contracts and poverty, fracking, the NHS, trade union blacklisting and the police (see page 3), legal aid cuts, and more besides.
Philip Stott from the Socialist Party Scotland (SPS) was warmly applauded when he reported the victory of the anti-bedroom tax campaign in Scotland. It showed that mass political pressure can win.
Philip also reported on the run-up to September's independence referendum. He pointed out that there was a sizeable bloc of support (47%) for a 'yes' vote among the poorest fifth in Scotland, compared to only 26% among the richest fifth. The establishment politicians and big business' 'no' campaign ('project fear'), which amounts to political blackmail, is rebounding on them.
Philip described the sizeable public meetings on the referendum where SPS members have raised the programme of an independent socialist Scotland.
Hannah concluded that the ground is being prepared by the crisis in capitalism and the concomitant attack on workers' living standards for a mighty upsurge in the class struggle, most likely in the period following the next general election. The task of socialists is to prepare for such an eventuality.
Big opportunities for TUSC
A lively and optimistic session on the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) and the upcoming elections was another highlight of the weekend as we prepare to embark on the biggest left-of-Labour electoral challenge in generations.
Clive Heemskerk introduced the discussion by laying out the potential for TUSC and the new door that has opened up in the wake of the Collins review. For a big layer of trade unionists, this was the final nail in the coffin of the Labour Party.
He pointed to the unopposed election of the second TUSC Maltby town councillor, Shaun Barratt, to highlight that even in the most unlikely places we can find forums to fight the cuts. He outlined how Joe has used his position to fight for the council to take some of the slack for the cuts being passed down.
Nick Chaffey, in the discussion, highlighted the role of Keith Morrell and Don Thomas, the Southampton 'rebel councillors'. Their alternative budget and staunch opposition to cuts has seen their local swimming pool saved from threat of closure and given £1.6million of investment. Building on the rebels' lead we are aiming to stand city-wide across Southampton as well as a number of other areas in the region.
Demand-led campaigns are being taken up in a number of areas. This follows the example of Kshama Sawant's election campaign in Seattle, which was linked to the fight for a $15 an hour minimum wage.
Nancy Taaffe showed how the example of Seattle is being applied in Waltham Forest with the campaign based around rent controls. She also raised the importance of working through the trade unions as much as possible and that "every time we stand, we increase our standing in the local labour movement."
Also taking inspiration from the positive campaigning in Seattle, Dan Crowter outlined Coventry's campaign to "imagine a socialist Coventry", trying to show what Coventry would look like under a fighting socialist council. Imagine if you had 54 Dave Nellists (Socialist Party member and former Coventry City councillor) fighting your corner?
Dave Nellist, national chair of TUSC, came in to the discussion himself and took up the issue of the battle for visibility in the media and the need to stand as many candidates as possible to break the blackout. John Reid from the transport union RMT spoke on the importance of maintaining and building on the support in the RMT and also the importance of bringing other trade unions on board.
The biggest appeal from Paula Mitchell, closing the session, was to get candidate nominations in as soon as possible. TUSC is a federal body and each nomination is agreed on by the constituent members of it, so get them in ASAP!
A world readying for revolution
Video: Peter Taaffe introducing the first session on world events and analysis
Setting the scene for all the congress discussions, general secretary Peter Taaffe introduced the first session on world events and analysis. The need for preparation for big eruptions of struggle was a key theme. Austerity-instilled suffering and the experience of capitalist crisis, is stoking up mass rage that could erupt almost at any point - as it already has in some countries.
The experience of struggle, and its absence, will provide priceless lessons for the working class: "The fundamental Leninist insight still holds: nothing can be done without organisation." This quote, not from the Socialist but from a Financial Times editorial on Ukraine, reflects how the potential for revolution is lodged in the conditions that exist today.
Ukraine has dominated the world's press recently and the Socialist and socialistworld.net have featured analysis of the developing situation there. The movement in Kiev, as elsewhere, initially had big elements of 'revolution' in it.
But, Peter pointed out, the absence of strong independent working class organisations able to avoid the influence of the far right, the elements of counterrevolution, has meant that the situation has taken a turn for the worse.
Like the events in North Africa and the Middle East, Peter explained that the Ukraine events are linked to the appalling impoverishment of the Ukrainian masses. In fact around the world inequality and poverty are flourishing. One shocking indicator is that today there are more enslaved people in the world than ever before.
Peter reminded us how we were encouraged to place our hope for recovery from the economic crisis in the emerging markets - particularly the so-called BRICs, Brazil, Russia, India and China. Now, with a slowing down of growth across all of those economies, the acronym has been re-assigned to Bloody Ridiculous Investment Concept!
We are asked to translocate our hopes to the MINTs - Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey. Congress welcomed Ramon, a socialist from Mexico, which far from offering salvation, is wracked by drugs wars. But Ramon reported on steps being taken by working class people to build independent resistance, including forming defence militias.
The drive for privatisation is an expression of the rotten and parasitic character of 21st century capitalism. Big business is sitting on huge cash piles for which it can find no other profitable outlet. It refuses to invest in jobs, production or research. Peter quoted the Economist magazine which proposes $9 trillion privatisation of buildings, land and resources.
Jim Hensman from Coventry pointed out how the G20 asked countries for plans to boost growth. For example it "urges Australia to cut the strictness of its employment protection legislation by 10% over five years". Similar cuts are demanded in regulation in services industries, access to pensions and spending on childcare.
In the US where there has been a certain economic recovery, vast swathes of the working class remain completely untouched by it. Dave Reid, recently returned from a visit to Socialist Alternative (SA) in the US (see www.socialistalternative.org), co-thinkers of the Socialist Party, explained how the minimum wage has become a burning issue in the US.
There is even a feeling among some sections of the capitalist class that the minimum wage should be raised as SA, fast-food workers and other activists demand, to improve the conditions of the working class. One unusually far-sighted billionaire who supports the call for $15 an hour said he'd rather pay that than fork out $150 when he gets a brick through his window, indicating again the understanding that the anger will boil up.
The election of Kshama Sawant to Seattle council has been a cause of enormous inspiration to socialists in Britain and elsewhere. In the US it has electrified the situation in the labour movement with hundreds of people applying to join SA.
Clare Doyle from the International Secretariat of the Committee for a Workers' International explained how the betrayal and mistakes of the Italian left have demoralised a working class that now faces a catastrophe of cuts. But the CWI group there acted as the "cog that moved the wheel" to help bring about a five-day unofficial strike in Genoa that fought back a privatisation attempt in the council there.
Judy Beishon, member of the executive committee of the Socialist Party, in her reply to the discussion pointed to how the absence of strong working class forces can allow the right wing to present themselves as the alternative to the austerity-implementing establishment. They are not. But in France where a quarter of the population now lives in poverty and 8% of the population trust politicians, the Front National is pushing to make gains, with interest among young people increasing.
Judy made the point that when protest movements are complicated, socialists must carefully assess the class nature of the forces involved. Care must be taken in selecting the best demands to advance to assist the working class to understand its central role.
Peter and Jon Dale spoke about how the working class in Egypt is drawing conclusions about the need for independent workers' action. A powerful strike movement is currently underway. When asked why they are participating, workers said that different governments have come and gone but the powerful loot and the poor get buried.
The August 2012 Marikana massacre obliged significant sections of the South African working class to see that it must break from the now pro-capitalist ANC - and to take measures to build itself a new leadership. Alec Thraves, who has discussed with many workers while on visits to South Africa, spoke about the steps being taken by metal workers' union Numsa. It has withdrawn support from the ANC and plans to use its resources - financial and its social weight - to establish a movement for socialism.
With a new strike wave on the cards and the elections in May, prepare to see the mighty South African working class start to show its strength, particularly through the Workers And Socialist Party, with the CWI, the Democratic Socialist Movement playing an important part.
See socialistworld.net for a radio 'Socialist Summit" debate which took place in South Africa, including representatives of WASP and DSM
The Committee for a Workers' International (CWI) is the socialist international organisation to which the Socialist Party is affiliated.
The CWI is organised in 45 countries and works to unite the working class and oppressed peoples against global capitalism and to fight for a socialist world.
The CWI website contains news, reports and analysis from around the world.
'Catastrophe' for youth will lead to explosions
Introducing the session on youth work, Ian Pattison outlined the opportunities to build the Socialist Party among young people, particularly given the devastating impact of unemployment and cuts.
In his contribution, Matt from Derby summed up the frustration felt by some young people when he said: "Sometimes we can wonder, where's our mass movement?" But Matt went on to describe the hope and inspiration we should draw from international movements where young people have taken the lead - such as in Chile, the US and Greece. He pointed out that far from being apathetic, young people are driven to change things but have been failed by a lack of leadership, which young Socialist Party members should aim to provide.
Several contributions talked about the important work being done by Youth Fight for Jobs with the Bakers Union in the Fast Food Rights campaign, and of the day of action against zero-hour contracts on 29 March.
George from Plymouth spoke about the difficulties of working in a low-paid, unorganised sector: "I know what it's like to rely on the overtime. I feel the fear that making yourself stand out will make those extra hours dry up." George was one of several speakers to appeal to more long-standing members to pass on their experience of workplace organising to the new generation.
Highlighting the effect the Socialist Party can have in giving confidence to young members in the workplace, Isai described how after attending Socialism 2013, she had refused to work unpaid overtime for the first time.
Dan from Sheffield spoke about the crisis of higher education funding in light of government cuts. He pointed out that several university vice-chancellors are now calling for unrestricted fees to compensate for cuts. Other speakers, such as Jesse from Exeter, showed how campaigning at schools and colleges is fruitful. Socialist Students' campaign against the privatisation of student debt was widely endorsed.
There were also reports from different types of campaigning that areas had found useful. For example, Jaime from Cardiff mentioned Rape Is No Joke which held an anti-sexist comedy night in Cardiff for International Women's Day, and Jamie from York described the success that Socialist Students there has had with its campaign for decent and affordable student housing.
In summing up, Claire Laker-Mansfield pointed out that the 'catastrophe' facing young people of having no job, no home and no future will lead to explosions and that the session had highlighted that the Socialist Party is ready to show a lead to them.
In The Socialist 13 March 2014:
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party congress
Socialist Party workplace news
Socialist Party reports and campaigns