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Time for a new mass workers' party
Today’s conference is potentially an important step forward in the struggle for a new mass party of the working class. This is the first time that a national trade union has called a conference to discuss the question of working-class political representation.
At the 2005 general election this government was elected with the lowest percentage of the popular vote, 36%, of any governing party in Britain’s history: the most unpopular party to form a government since the 1832 Reform Act.
Working-class people are faced with a Hobson’s choice of three different brands of pro-big-business parties; increasing numbers are abstaining in protest.
The last general election was the first where more people abstained than voted for the victorious party. The need for a new party, which fights in the interests of the working class, is clear.
Can Labour be ‘reclaimed’?
Some attending today will argue we should concentrate our efforts on reclaiming the Labour Party. We do not think such efforts can succeed. Since 1979 the trade unions have given £300 million of their members’ money to the Labour Party - £100 million of it since 1997 – but it has not gained a fivers worth of ‘influence’ with the government.
"I have taken from my party everything they thought they believed in.
I have stripped them of their core beliefs. What keeps it together is power."
- Tony Blair
New Labour has shown since it came to power that it is firmly on the side of big business. It has left the vast majority of the anti-trade union laws intact. Blair and his ministers have gone to war both in Iraq and against working-class people – attacking working conditions, the welfare system, free education, public services and are now bringing private companies into the NHS and schools.
Some trade union leaders have argued that the defeats they were able to inflict on the Labour leadership at last year’s party conference are an indication of how Labour can be pushed back to the left.
In reality, however, the Labour Party conference no longer has any power, and ministers made it completely clear that they would ignore the decisions that it made. This bears no comparison to the situation that existed in the past, where the working-class ranks of the Labour Party could exert pressure on its rightwing tops.
When in 1969, for example, the Wilson government attempted to introduce anti-trade union legislation (misnamed In Place of Strife) a series of strikes combined with pressure inside the party via its democratic structures put the government under such pressure that the cabinet openly split and Wilson was forced to retreat.
In reality the 2005 Labour Party conference was a graphic illustration of the changed class character and utter disintegration of the party; one-third of constituencies did not bother to send delegates while corporate sponsors were present in unprecedented numbers.
A majority of constituency delegates voted against all of the attempts of the unions to push Labour to the left. Even when Walter Wolfgang, a visitor to the conference, was manhandled out by security guards, no delegate found the will or the courage to protest.
The sad reality of New Labour today was summed up by Michael Howard’s final speech to parliament as Tory Party leader where he quoted Blair’s boast that: "I have taken from my party everything they thought they believed in. I have stripped them of their core beliefs. What keeps it together is power."
Nor would the election of Gordon Brown as party leader mean, as he has made abundantly clear, a "shift to the left". Brown’s opposition to the Turner Report on pensions – not because it is demanding we all work until we are 68 but because it promises to increase the state pension – sums up the reality of his approach.
Equally, all the potential leaders being floated in the event that New Labour attempts to ‘skip a generation’ are arch-Blairites.
We believe that, without a major influx of workers into the Labour Party, which will not happen, any campaign for rank-and-file control will be ineffective.
As the LRC discovered when it attempted to launch a recruitment drive in the anti-war movement, workers and young people entering struggle have no interest in joining the party they are fighting against.
On the contrary, older trade unionists, who had been Labour Party members for decades, are leaving in disgust. Labour Party membership has halved since 1997. The LRC itself has only 500 members.
Break the link
We argue that not another penny should be given to New Labour by the trade unions.
In an attempt to head off the growing anger of trade unionists with the government that they fund, some ministers and union officials are raising the introduction of state funding of political parties combined with the breaking of the union link.
These right-wing trade union leaders want ‘non-political’ trade unionism, where in reality they would continue to support New Labour.
This offers absolutely no way forward, but nor does continue to fund New Labour in the vain hope of influencing it – what is needed is a new party that represents the interests of trade unionists and other working-class people.
The Left Party in Germany, which won 54 MPs and 8.7% of the vote in its first time out, gives a glimpse of the potential for such a new formation.
Which way forward after today?
The leadership of the RMT have made it clear that today’s conference is not going to found a new party. Nonetheless, we welcome the RMT’s decision to organise today’s discussion conference and also the statements of Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT, that a new workers’ party is needed.
However, more than statements and discussion are needed. We believe that the next step should be for the calling of a second conference involving all of those who want to discuss working towards the foundation of a new workers’ party to take part.
This could include approaching trade unions at national level (such as the RMT, FBU and the PCS) but also appealing to individual trade unionists, socialists, anti-capitalist young people, and community, anti-war and environmental activists.
Such a conference could discuss the concrete steps needed to move towards a new party. We appeal to trade unionists to campaign for this within their unions – at local and national level.
There are those that will argue that it is not possible to build a new mass party and cite the false starts of the 1990s as evidence of this.
The same arguments were put a century ago when workers moved to try found what became the Labour Party.
We are not in favour of creating a Labour Party Mark II, which, while it was founded at its base as a workers’ party, had a leadership with more than a foot in the capitalist camp from the start.
Nonetheless, we can learn lessons from the foundation of the Labour Party. The process was convoluted and took place over decades.
The efforts of individuals combined with objective developments to bring a new mass party into being.
In particular, it was the viciously anti-trade union Taff Vale judgement which pushed many trade unions into breaking with the Liberals and recognising that they needed their own party – a process in which the railway workers’ union played an important role.
What kind of party?
The programme of any new party, or pre-party formation, can only be decided on the basis of democratic debate, leading to clear agreement amongst all the forces involved.
In the Socialist Party we recognise that any party which brings together important sections of the working class to fight against the big-business onslaught on our conditions of life and work will be a huge step forward, even if its programme is initially quite limited.
However, it is crucial that a new party, if it is to succeed, breaks completely with the existing pro-big business, neo-liberal order. The Socialist Party will argue that this means the new party should adopt a democratic socialist programme.
Just as the programme of a new party will come out of discussion and debate, we believe it would be wrong, at this very early stage, to attempt to decide all the details of the structure or every aspect of a new party.
However, if it is to be successful, it is crucial that a new party learns the lessons of history – including the federal nature of the early Labour Party which brought together many different organisations and trends, preserving the rights of all to organise and argue for their particular points of view.
Conversely, the history of attempts to launch new formations in the last decade, such as the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), demonstrates that an undemocratic, top-down approach will not work.
The young people who are becoming active in struggle in the 21st century correctly have a horror of bureaucracy.
Their experience of the betrayals of New Labour and the right-wing trade union leaders, combined with the effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union - which capitalism worldwide falsely equated with genuine socialism - mean that democracy is particularly vital to the new generation.
It is crucial that a new party, and any pre-party formations, be open and welcoming to all those who want to work together against the neo-liberal onslaught on the working class.
This means that all groups and individuals, provided they are in agreement with the basic aims of the party, should have the right to democratically organise and argue for their point of view.
At the time of the launch of Respect we took part in discussion with Respect’s executive on the possibility of us joining. However, while we have recently written to the Respect leadership again to ask for discussion on how we can work together, we have not joined Respect.
Our attitude to any new party, or pre-party formation, is determined by whether we think it represents a step towards the working class establishing its own mass party. For a number of reasons we remain far from convinced that Respect will prove to be so.
While it has made an electoral breakthrough in the election of George Galloway, as yet Respect remains a relatively small party.
It claims around 4,000 members and has limited social weight. For example, none of the members of Respect’s national council are advertised as having a local or national trade union position.
Numerically it is dominated by the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP). It is therefore incorrect for Respect to claim, as it has, that its existence has solved the ‘crisis in working-class representation’.
This will only begin to be solved when a party is created that brings together broad sections of the most combative layers of the working class – trade unionists, but also unorganised workers, community and anti-war activists, and radicalised young people.
It is also crucial that a new party appeals to all sections of the working class. Respect has concentrated in the main on one section of society, the Muslim community, which it is important to win, but not at the expense of reaching out to other sections of the working class.
To successfully build a new formation it is essential to have a structure and approach which is genuinely federal, open and democratic. This has not been the case in Respect up until now.
On the contrary, at the Respect national conference and at local level the SWP use their weight of numbers to control decision making. This means, for example, that the entire membership of the national council and the overwhelming majority of decisions on election campaigns and candidates are effectively decided by the SWP.
Genuine democracy is also important in holding public representatives to account. That this does not exist in Respect is demonstrated by George Galloway’s mistaken decision to take part in Big Brother without first discussing with his party. Unfortunately, it is also shown by the SWP’s determination to make sure that the demand for ‘a workers’ MP on a worker’s wage’ is not discussed in Respect, for fear of alienating George Galloway.
Campaign for a New Workers’ Party
The Socialist Party has initiated the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party to bring together workers, trade unionists, socialists, young people and community activists to work towards establishing such a party in England and Wales.
The Campaign has launched a declaration which states:
We appeal to you to sign the declaration and to encourage others to do so.
One of the first steps of the campaign is the calling of an initial national conference to discuss the programme and structure of a new party or pre-party formation with all those that support the declaration. We are inviting trade union branches, community campaigns and other organisations to send representatives to this conference which will be held on Sunday 19 March 2006 at the University of London Union, Malet Street, London NW1. Individuals are also welcome to take part.
Sponsors include: Janice Godrich PCS President, Chris Baugh PCS Assistant General Secretary, Marion Lloyd PCS NEC, Rob Williams PCS NEC, Mark Baker PCS NEC, Jane Aitchison PCS DWP President, Sevi Yesidalli PCS NEC, John McInally PCS NEC, Danny Williamson PCS NEC, Kevin Greenway PCS NEC, Diane Shepherd UNISON NEC, Glenn Kelly UNISON NEC, Jean Thorpe UNISON NEC, Raph Parkinson UNISON NEC, Roger Bannister UNISON NEC, Andrew Price NATFHE NEC, Bernard Roome CWU NEC, Gary Jones CWU NEC, Linda Taaffe NUT NEC, Robbie Segal USDAW NEC, Molly Cooper NUJ NEC, Jim Barbour FBU NEC, Dave Nellist Coventry Socialist Party Councillor, Karen McKay Coventry Socialist Party Councillor, Ian Page Lewisham Socialist Party Councillor, Chris Flood Lewisham Socialist Party Councillor.
The Socialist Party are holding a fringe meeting straight after the end of today’s conference, on the issue of how to campaign for a new mass workers’ party.
The meeting will be held in the Drayton Suite, on the lower ground floor of Friends Meeting House.
Speakers will include Dave Nellist, Socialist Party councillor in Coventry, Roger Bannister UNISON national executive and leading Left candidate for UNISON general secretary and Hannah Sell, Socialist Party executive and author of Socialism in the 21st century.
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In The Socialist 19 January 2006: