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Socialist Party Conference 2006
Building an alternative to the profit system
250 DELEGATES and visitors attended the Socialist Party's national conference, held in Skegness from the 11-13 February. Below are reports from the main debates at the conference. These can only give a flavour of the rich discussions that took place. Socialist Party members can get full reports at their local branch meetings and from their national committee members.
PETER TAAFFE, Socialist Party general secretary, set the scene for the conference, outlining the state of the world economy and how this impacts on Britain. Some see China as the key to long-term economic growth, yet it is also a source of instability.
Peter Taaffe, Socialist Party general secretary. Photo Marc Vallee
The US is burdened with huge trade and budget deficits, bankrolled mainly by Asian economies. Although this imbalanced growth could continue even for a few years, an economic crisis could be triggered by a number of events, including political and social unrest.
Despite Gordon Brown's claim that the British economy is bucking the trend, in reality, it mirrors that of the US: attacks on the working class and growth based on housing bubble-backed household debt.
In the civil service, workers face a regime of bullying and intimidation by management, reflected in anger over pension, pay and job cuts. The education bill represents the destruction of gains won by the working class over decades. The idea that future generations will be better off than those before is dead - under capitalism, at least.
Tony Blair is on the ropes, the latest blow being the by-election thrashing in Dunfermline while Brown is trying to out-Blair Blair.
As the RMT conference on political representation for the working class showed, not even left-wing Labour MPs believe that New Labour can be 'reclaimed'. Given all this, the campaign for a new workers' party - initiated by the Socialist Party - is of great importance. The conference on 19 March is an important further step towards that goal.
Rob Williams (Swansea Socialist Party and Visteon Ford T&G convenor, pictured left) denounced the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. There is also a class war against US workers. Ford bosses are implementing massive job cuts and trying to slash wages from $28 an hour to $9. The Visteon Ford components factory in Swansea is under threat of closure.
Mary Jackson (Doncaster) detailed what the £1 trillion household debt in Britain really means. One man overwhelmed by debt intended killing his wife with a hammer as she slept, before killing himself. Last year there were 60,000 court hearings for house repossessions.
Alec Thraves (Swansea) said that the enlargement of the European Union to incorporate Central and Eastern European states has brought in around 300,000 workers over the last two years. This has enormously boosted profits for the bosses.
However, the potential for divisions in the working class as a 'race to the bottom' in workers' pay and conditions ensues is a real danger. The examples of the Gama workers in the Irish Republic - where exploitation was exposed by the Socialist Party - and Irish Ferries show that it is possible to unite workers.
Glenn Kelly (Hackney) raised the possibility of over a million public-sector workers taking action over pensions. An MP for 20 years gets a pension of £28,000 a year. A council worker who has worked for the same time gets on average £3,800, while many women council workers receive a paltry £1,600!
Steve Score (Leicester) commented on the anti-Islamic cartoons and how they have increased anger in Muslim communities, already under siege by the media, political establishment and far-right groups. The publication of the cartoons by a right-wing newspaper in Denmark was a deliberate provocation against Muslim people. The Socialist Party condemns such racist provocation. At the same time, we defend the right to criticise religion and religious leaders.
Roger Davey (Bristol) spoke on National Health Service cuts and campaigns against them in Wiltshire. Private companies are raking in the money through PFI, drug companies swallow up 14% of the NHS budget, and hospital trusts hand over millions of tax-payers' money in huge salaries to directors, a layer of mismanagement which did not exist before the creation of a NHS 'market'.
Bennie Talbot (Bristol) drew attention to environmental catastrophe and a Taff Vale Socialist Party member pointed out the dangers of nuclear power, which is being pushed by New Labour.
Replying to the discussion Lynn Walsh, editor of Socialism Today, reiterated that growth in the world economy is dependent on continued consumer spending in the US and investment into China
It is possible that the economy could continue to crawl forward for a few years, but it could hit a severe crisis much quicker than many realise. We have to be prepared for all events. There is no shortage of anger or desire to fight against attacks. What is lacking, is a mass alternative giving direction to this frustration.
The campaign for a new mass workers' party is an important part of the struggle. And the Socialist Party is alone in counterposing a clear alternative to the brutal, profit system: a democratically planned economy, a socialist society.
The "Iraq Generation"
"THERE HAVE been so many excellent contributions from our young members in the conference already". Acknowledging the vital part that young members are playing in the Socialist Party, national youth organiser, Sarah Sachs-Eldridge introduced the session on youth and student work.
The slogan of International Socialist Resistance/Socialist Students conference of 'Fight for your future' is a reality. Education cuts, tuition fees and privatisation are aimed at churning out obedient units for the benefit of business. Students are being driven into poverty.
It gets worse when they have to get a job, if they can get one - the current growth in unemployment is concentrated in the 18-25 age group. They are faced with poverty pay and savage attacks on rights at work.
By taking the lead on the most important issues, we can get our ideas across to young people and we have the potential to reach a broader audience.
The importance of being able to put a coherent analysis of capitalism, a fighting programme and a socialist alternative can't be underestimated.
Zena Awad, Socialist Students national organiser, (pictured left) reported on how Socialist Students had become the main socialist force on many campuses, with societies set up in 49 universities and over 1,000 students signed up during the freshers' fairs.
Speakers who came into the discussion gave examples of the campaigns which they are involved in. Rob MacDonald, Lambeth college, reported on the successful canteen boycott (see the socialist issue 425), which has now begun to spread to other colleges. Lindsay Wheatcroft, Nottingham Trent University, announced that he had just been elected as a delegate to NUS conference after campaigning on the issue of public transport costs.
Glyn Matthews, Cardiff, said that when he spoke at the last conference he had done so as a new member, one of the "Iraq generation". Now he and others like him were leading the youth work. He described how in one week he had recruited 24 young workers to his union, the shop workers' union USDAW, on the basis of fighting against lower pay for young workers.
Sarah Mayo, from the PCS youth section, described how the Socialist Party and ISR were building a name for themselves among young activists in the PCS, with the Know Your Rights campaign. A speaker from the campaign addressed the recent PCS youth conference (see the socialist issue 424) and the PCS youth co-ordinator will be speaking at ISR conference in a personal capacity. Young people need to join a union to fight for better conditions, at the same time they can help transform it.
Rachelann Flinn, Liverpool, said that the Socialist Party had been in the forefront of the anti-racist protests following the murder of Anthony Walker. They had established Socialist Student societies at both Liverpool and John Moores universities. But she stressed the importance of finding ways of reaching young people who aren't in full-time education and are alienated by low pay and unemployment. This was backed up by Jacqui Berry, Kent, who detailed the government's attacks on youth with measures like ASBOs.
Tom Penman, Leicester, said that they were developing a new ISR group in Leicester. One school student they came across wanted to set up a group in his school, took five copies of the socialist to sell and sold them all!
Frankie Langland, West Suffolk college, reported on the pioneering work she is carrying out for ISR in the Eastern region and how she is well known amongst school students as the local organiser.
Monique Hirst described how the young members of Huddersfield branch were developing themselves politically by having discussion groups on subjects such as Marxist economics and the role of women in society. She stressed the importance of making the discussions interesting and fun.
Summing up, Hannah Sell, said it showed how well Socialist Students and ISR had developed and how the generation of young people radicalised and propelled into action by the invasion of Iraq were transforming the Socialist Party.
In the trade unions and workplaces
BILL MULLINS (left) introduced the discussion on trade unions and workplace work by explaining how the days lost through strike action had dropped to a low level in 2005 - 142,000 days lost in the first eleven months, compared to 904,000 days lost in 2004.
But Socialist Party members have been involved in important work in the trade unions and workplaces which will bear fruit when the level of activity increases, as it inevitably will.
We are already producing material for particular workplaces, like the Red Line bulletin aimed at London Underground workers. And we produce many national bulletins and leaflets, like those on pensions and the battle for jobs within the Department for Work and Pensions.
The Gate Gourmet dispute graphically illustrates features facing many workers - very low pay, the malicious use of migrant labour to drive wages down even further and the anti-union laws. But even with all that, had there been experienced socialists in that workplace at the beginning the outcome could have been very different.
In many workplaces our members are looked upon by workers as the people who can solve their problems. Our members are missionaries for the Socialist Party in the workplaces.
Tom Baldwin from Bristol spoke in the discussion about temporary and agency staff. The TUC estimate there are at least 600,000 workers in this category, who are twice as likely to be from an ethnic minority and the majority are under 30. They have reduced rights over issues like unfair dismissal, sick pay, holiday pay and health and safety.
The bosses would like to use them as strike breakers and a way of dividing the workforce. ISR and Socialist Students should discuss doing campaigning activity outside employment agencies.
Katrine Williams from Wales reported on the mood of anger amongst civil servants, particularly in the Department for Work and Pensions. Workers there are being attacked by management, using the attendance management procedures to sack people, whilst people in need of benefits are being ignored. But management have underestimated this mood and were shocked by the support for the recent strike. Now there is a need to prepare for the two-day strike in March.
Greg Maughan from Newcastle made the point that the PCS has a fighting leadership at national level but that it is also important to build the leadership at a local level. The recent strike of magistrates' court staff showed that these workers were looking for a combative leadership at all levels.
James Kerr from London explained how he had been involved with trying to unionise students - both those who, like most students, have to work to finance their studies and to recruit student teachers and others on specific job-orientated courses into the appropriate unions. But it was important that the union officials don't just see this as an opportunity for publicity, by organising gigs etc, but actually campaign to recruit students on trade union issues like improving pay and working conditions.
Sean Figg from Brighton spoke about unionising workers in the retail industry. This can be quite hard because of the lack of a trade union consciousness. Some people join the Socialist Party first before joining the union. But this will change through using the Campaign for a New Workers' Party.
When Ken Smith summed up the debate he reported that more material is being produced to aid the work in the trade unions, including a new book on the 1926 general strike.
The pressure is building up in the workplaces, which the trade union leaders will find it hard to restrain. The Campaign for a New Workers Party is in the process of unearthing and developing a new generation of militants.
Campaigning for a new mass workers' party
IN OPENING up the discussion on the Campaign for a New Workers' Party, Hannah Sell drew attention to how the lack of such a party was undermining the confidence of workers. This does not just apply to England and Wales but to many countries worldwide.
From the formation of the early workers' organisations in the nineteenth century, particularly the general unions, workers often elected socialists as their leaders. And indeed this still applies today.
Hannah Sell, Socialist Party national secretary. Photo Marc Vallee
In many areas and trade unions, Socialist Party members have been elected into leadership positions. And in the formation of any new workers' party, we will argue for a socialist programme.
The Socialist Party has been arguing for the formation of a new mass workers' party in Britain since 1995. We have already had a big influence on the campaign, as shown by the warm response to our ideas at the conference organised by the RMT on political representation.
Our position and track record on the question of the accountability of public representatives has been particularly important in distinguishing ourselves from organisations like Respect.
The declaration for a new workers' party that we have initiated is receiving a good response and many workers have signed, particularly PCS members on their picket lines. Nine members of the NATFHE executive have also signed.
Fiona Pashazadeh reported on the success of the campaign to get workers to sign the CNWP declaration.
Socialist Party branches are getting a good response from visiting workplaces, stewards and convenors and using the local press to publicise local launch meetings. The next priority is to mobilise for the conference on 19 March.
Tony Mulhearn from Liverpool summed up the campaign by saying that it should be one of "sober audacity". The way we will succeed where others fail is because of our method of approach - notably with a political programme attractive to workers and young people and our policy of the need for public representatives to live on the average wage of a skilled worker.
Joe Higgins, a Socialist Party TD (MP) from southern Ireland, gave an inspiring report of the campaigns he and the Socialist Party in Ireland had been involved with around migrant workers. The Gama and Irish Ferries campaigns show that vital role that elected socialist representatives can play.
Socialist Party councillor Dave Nellist commented that there are not really three establishment parties in Britain, more one party with three wings. There's an urgent need to take the campaign for a new party to all workplaces and to organise fringe meetings at all the forthcoming trade union conferences.
Philip Stott, a visitor from CWI Scotland, commented on the effect the formation of a new mass party in England and Wales would have on Scotland.
Tony Saunois made some important points about developments in Brazil, where the formation of PSOL has prevented thousands of workers going out of political activity as a result of the crisis and degeneration of the PT. There is now a ferocious battle for the political direction of PSOL, in which the Socialist Party's sister party in Brazil is playing a vital role.
Clive Heemskerk summed up the discussion by underlining the degeneration of the Labour Party - citing the declining vote for the left candidates for the national executive.
He went over the targets for the 19 March conference and for increasing the number of signatures on the declaration.
Building the Socialist Party
Introducing the national conference session on building the Socialist Party, Judy Beishon, said that the party has a unity and sense of direction. It is clear that the active members have confidence and determination to take the party forward.
Looking back, Socialism 2005 can be seen as a turning point where we began to see the results of the influence we have in the workers' movement, as shown by the 23 Socialist Party members who are on the executives of the trade unions. We could also look back at the brilliant youth contingents on both anti-war demos and the G8 demo in Edinburgh.
At the same time, there is the campaigning work that branches are leading in their own areas, featured every week in the pages of the socialist.
We show in practise the correctness of our ideas but on their own they are not enough, without a way of getting them across. A target of 700 new members in 2006 has been put to the conference with the aim of opening up a discussion about how we maximise the opportunities for new members to join the party.
We should aim to ask everyone from day one if they want to join and let them decide when they are ready. We must ensure that the discussion we have sets out clearly the nature of the Socialist Party, our ideas and the rights and responsibilities of membership. The aim is for every new member to feel that it is their party and they can play a part in building it.
Then there has to be a programme of discussions on the basic political ideas, every member should have a role in the branch and we must keep in regular contact with everyone who joins.
Moving the resolution on Black and Asian work, Zena Awad, emphasised the importance of branches paying particular attention to this area of work.
Magnus Werin, moved the Tower Hamlets branch resolution on ensuring that we use easily understandable language in meetings and discussions.
Alex Gounelas, Cardiff, told how the branch was concentrating on developing the new members who had joined from the anti-war movement. Every member in their branch has responsibility for contacting people who have shown an interest in joining. They put aside one night every week to do this.
Matthew Dobson, Swansea, warned that we must balance all the campaigning work that we do with building the Socialist Party.
Phil Clarke, reported from the rapidly growing south-east region on the success of their campaigning work in giving confidence to their young members. The branch is involved or leading campaigns against privatisation of council housing, fighting NHS cuts, and against the occupation of Iraq.
They also stood a candidate in the general election. He emphasised the importance of finance and resources, which would enable the region to employ more full-time organisers.
Neil Cafferky, Lambeth branch, spoke of their involvement in the Jean Charles de Menezes campaign and how they were instrumental in the calling of a feeder march from Stockwell tube to the 24 September anti-war demo. He underlined the effectiveness of having smaller discussion groups to build the confidence of young members.
Colin Wray said how the Sheffield branch had now divided into two branches to ensure that new members could participate in discussions and play a role.
Ian Slattery, Huddersfield, described how they had built an effective campaigning branch in 18 months that was now leading the massive NHS campaign there.
Summing up the discussion, Jane James highlighted the number of young members who had spoken who were now branch secretaries and are building their own branches.
Branches are experiencing the dilemmas that arise from growth. Campaigns help to establish the profile and reputation of the branch, which, in turn, will draw people towards us. At the same time branches have to constantly monitor recruitment, ensuring that we don't let people who want to become members slip through the net.
She ended by quoting new member David Walter from Hackney who had spoken about how glad he was to be part of the struggle. There are many people who feel the same way but time is not limitless.
Increasing the sales of the socialist
A CRUCIAL organisational session on increasing the weekly sales of the socialist was introduced by the paper's editor, Christine Thomas.
Christine emphasised the central role of the socialist in building the Socialist Party even in the age of the internet and electronic publishing.
Recently returned from attending the World Social Forum in Venezuela (where our international organisation -the CWI - is doing pioneering work building a new section), Christine explained that the first task there is to weld together our small forces by producing a paper. That's because a party paper can act as a organiser and educator as well as promoting our political programme to a wider audience.
However, despite the beginnings of a more favourable political period for the ideas of socialism in England and Wales, the Socialist Party branches aren't fully realising this potential in terms of sales of the socialist. Therefore, we have to reinstate our paper as central to our activity.
In the discussion that followed, Dave Warren from Swansea explained how the socialist was central to the party's mobilisation in support of the workers in the Irish Ferries dispute. Having pushed the trade union movement for a solidarity demo at Pembroke dock, the Socialist Party took the issue to the local community, setting up regular stalls for a couple of weeks in the town. In the first week 116 copies were sold and 130 in the second week.
Alistair Tice from Sheffield explained the importance of branches conducting regular workplace sales. By targeting the workers at civil service office over many months with the socialist, the branch has built up an average weekly sale of eight papers. But this activity has also paid off in building the party by recruiting a PCS union shop steward and getting many workers' signatures in support of our declaration for a new workers' party.
Mandy Marfleet from Stoke branch - which consistently has high paid sales - explained that this was achieved through two public campaigning stalls each week and regular door-to-door sales on housing estates.
Bob Severn, national sales manager, said party branches should develop organisers for our paper not only to ensure proper financial accounting of the paid sales but to help increase the socialist's profile in our public activity.
Summing up, Executive Committee member Lois Austin said that the prospect of industrial action by public-sector workers over defending pensions and fighting cuts in health and in other services, meant that there is the immediate potential for massively boosting our sales.
Delegates agreed targets for new subscriptions and higher paid sales. Party members can obtain these details from their regional secretary.
Building a socialist international
THE FINAL session of the Socialist party's 2006 Conference was an inspirational report from Tony Saunois on the progress of the work of the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI - the socialist international organisation to which the Socialist Party is affiliated).
In the limited time available Tony recounted the enormous international solidarity work and some of the many political initiatives taken by the CWI and its sections in the last 12 months or so.
Not least has been the campaigns in the aftermath of the devastating Asian tsunami and the earthquake centred in Pakistan and Kashmir. (The latter killing members of the CWI.)
The financial support and worldwide trade union support obtained by the CWI's campaigning work helped our sections in Sri Lanka and Pakistan/Kashmir to carry out limited relief work and the rebuilding of the affected labour movements.
These sections have also waged political campaigns highlighting the failure of imperialism and the local ruling classes to bring aid and social justice to the disasters' victims.
This work has marked us out from all other groups on the left. Only recently, CWI members organised a trade union meeting in Pakistan occupied Kashmir of 150 trade unionists.
In Sri Lanka, the political work in the tsunami aftermath has been translated into increased support among the country's workers and poor for the CWI's United Socialist Party - now the leading electoral force on the left.
In other parts of the world CWI sections, using flexible tactics, have been pivotal in advancing new working-class political formations. This is the case in Brazil with the new P-SOL party, the WASG in Germany, and a new workers' party initiative in Belgium.
Alongside reforming the wider workers' political movement has been the dual task of building our own revolutionary socialist parties.
In Greece, the CWI section has experienced rapid growth in the last two years, expanding beyond Athens to found branches in other Greek cities.
In Salonika, at the annual demo to commemorate students killed under the Greek Colonels' regime, the CWI had the largest contingent of the non-parliamentary left. We have also rebuilt a section of the CWI in Cyprus.
Supplementing Tony's report, Andy Bentley from Stoke gave a report on the recent World Social Forum in Venezuela and the pioneering political work of the CWI in that important south American country.
Ravie Chandren from Sheffield briefly explained developments in Malaysia and the discussions and debates between the CWI and the Malaysian Socialist Party.
Many other areas of the world were touched upon by Tony Saunois and these sections' reports to the International Executive Committee meeting in December 2005 can be read on: www.socialistworld.net
In The Socialist 16 February 2006: