Stumbling over Labour
The SWP’s movementism leaves it politically adrift where it really counts, writes Peter Manson
Lead lacking on the vital question of the moment
As usual, the Socialist Workers Party’s annual Marxism summer school saw hundreds of SWP comrades and others on the left come to central London. The school began on the afternoon of Thursday July 6 and ended with the usual packed-out rally on the evening of Sunday July 9.
This year, however, SWP comrades had made a special effort to pull in Labour Party members - a welcome move, even though, as we shall see, the SWP is taking no concrete action whatsoever to assist Labour’s internal battle to defeat the Blairite right.
For example, in his keynote speech on July 8, SWP joint national secretary and Socialist Worker editor Charlie Kimber started his address by welcoming the Labour members in the hall in the session entitled ‘Where next for the left after the election and Grenfell?’ He said that the general election had been a “boost for the left”, but “a shattering blow to the Tories” - now there is “massive opposition” to their rule, so we must “push for another general election to get Jeremy Corbyn in”.
He made the usual noises in favour of a rather ill-defined “unity” - we “have to unite” against the Tories and “leave behind the divisions of the past”. And such “unity” must extend to opposition to the visit of the US president too: when he comes, there must be “just one coalition against Trump”. However, the question of the organisational unity of Marxists (or even of Corbyn supporters) does not come into it - after all, the SWP itself is the already existing ‘revolutionary party’, which everyone should join (unless you have theoretical or tactical differences, of course). While comrade Kimber mentioned in passing the need to “be strong against the Labour right”, he did not expand on that, merely pointing out that there was now the “possibility of a really profound unity”, whether you are “in Labour or not”.
He insisted that the “left can win” - by which he meant forcing the Tories out of office - because, it seems, “socialist ideas are now part of the mainstream”. In this context the Grenfell Tower fire had been a “central event” - in fact “Corbyn would have won if the election had been held after Grenfell”. Now “politics has left parliament and gone onto the streets” - just where the SWP thinks it ought to be, of course. Now we need greater mobilisation “in the streets and workplaces” - there must be “hundreds of thousands” at the October 1 demonstration called by the People’s Assembly outside the Conservative conference in Manchester. In that regard Corbyn has a “key role” - if he made the call for everyone to back the PA demo, we might get near John McDonnell’s aim of “a million” people on the streets. And this movement must be linked to, for instance, the opposition to the public-sector pay cap - union leaders must be made to fight and, here again, Corbyn’s role is “crucial”.
Another “central question” is, as we know, racism - which for the SWP nowadays actually means opposition to immigration. It ignores the fact that to use a phrase with racist origins - as Anne Marie Morris MP did when she unthinkingly referred to the “nigger in the woodpile” - will result in immediate suspension, even from the Conservative Party. But no, because the Tories are still ahead of Labour in the opinion polls on the question of immigration, said comrade Kimber, that means we “need a big anti-racist movement”. He reminded us that in the past, thanks to the Anti-Nazi League, we mobilised successfully against racism, so we should be able to do so again through another SWP front, Stand Up To Racism.
Returning to the question of Labour, comrade Kimber summarised the SWP’s view when he contended that a Corbyn-led government would be able to resist and reject the “immense fury” and huge pressure from the ruling class only through the “power of the streets and workplaces”.
During the following three-minute contributions from the floor a Labour Party comrade asked a pertinent question: “Under what circumstances would the SWP join Labour?” Comrade Kimber’s reply was that if the SWP was allowed to “join and sell our paper” then it would do so. But there was no hint of giving practical assistance to those within Labour who are attempting to democratise and transform the party - the only way groups like the SWP would be able to join. And it could actually make a difference in this regard within several trade unions - pressing those that are not affiliated to do so and winning those that are affiliated to fight more effectively within it. But no - we have to “organise outside rather than being constrained by the organisation inside”. Instead, we have to be - you guessed it - “in the streets, in the workplaces”.
Site of struggle
Ironically, the session entitled ‘Trade unionists, Corbyn and the Labour Party’ made it very clear that there is indeed a third, very important site of struggle - the Labour Party itself, of course. To its credit, the SWP had brought together a panel of three militant trade unionists who are also Labour members, and they were joined by Karen Reissmann, an SWP Unison activist.
Jane Aitchison of the Public and Commercial Services union related how, many years ago, she had joined Labour at the age of 18 and was expelled at 19. But now she had rejoined - “once you’ve seen you can influence change ...” On the current situation she said that, although Labour lost the general election, “it feels like we won” - the Tories are in retreat and split on various issues. Now there needs to be a united union fight over pay - a “common strike”.
Jo McNeil is in the University and College Union. A former candidate for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, she is now a Labour member. Although her Constituency Labour Party is a “rightwing stronghold”, there is now going to be a “big struggle to shift it to the left”, she predicted. Unfortunately this year’s UCU conference took place just before the general election and there was no momentum at that time to seek affiliation to Labour. But the party’s election performance under Corbyn had already “had its effect on the UCU machine” and the leadership is now “making more militant noises”.
The third Labour comrade on the panel was Riccardo La Torre of the Fire Brigades Union, who recalled how the FBU had previously disaffiliated - moves to rejoin had been “laughed off” even just a few years ago. But then “something happened” - “this Labour Party is for us” and the union is once again a Labour affiliate. Now we have a leader who “spoke for firefighters”, said comrade La Torre - he was the “prime minister in waiting”. He was proud of how local campaigners had dramatically increased the Labour vote in a Tory seat.
For a while comrade Reissmann seemed to be going with the flow in her contribution. She said she had campaigned alongside Momentum and other Labour members in the general election - after all, the party now had a “leftwing manifesto”. She reported how before the election Unison healthcare leaders had refused to invite Corbyn to the union’s healthworkers’ conference, but afterwards they “changed their minds”. And the excitement when he spoke was “unbelievable”.
The SWP’s Sean Vernell was amongst the handful of those who were able to speak from the floor. He said that, while it is true that people are no longer willing to accept the old “common-sense ideas”, the new ideas “didn’t come from Corbyn”. No, of course not: they “came from struggle” and the Labour leader is just a “vehicle”, however “brilliant”, for those ideas.
In his reply to the ‘debate’ comrade La Torre noted that, despite belonging to a rightwing CLP, he had been among those who had managed to get a ‘no cuts’ pledge into the manifesto of his local council candidate - a way of “holding councillors to account”, he thought. As if to back this up, comrade McNeil stressed that there was “loads of work to do in the CLPs”. If Jeremy takes Labour to victory in the next general election, we will be better placed to “change the CLPs”.
For her part, comrade Aitchison urged “anyone not in a party” to join Labour and make a difference where it really mattered. While being a member is not “a bed of roses”, it is important to “get stuck in” and “keep going to those meetings”. But, whether you are in the Labour Party or not, she went on, you must be “part of the struggle to get Jeremy elected”. If that happened, then “the sky’s the limit”, she thought. “I’ve spent my life being shat on by the ruling class”, but after Jeremy’s election to No10 “a different world will be possible”.
Such fighting optimism went down very well with the SWP audience and even seemed to affect comrade Reissmann. But in her own reply she remembered her principal duty - to point out that “the real place to win change” is ... yes, “on the streets” (and through “strikes”). Such action would “affect the Labour right too”, she added rather feebly.
The SWP’s focus on Labour and Labour members was welcome. But its hopeless movementism leaves it politically adrift where it really counts. It refuses point-blank to prioritise in every way it can the battle to defeat the Labour right, as part of the movement to transform Labour into a vehicle to advance the working class political struggle.