The Peter principle
It is past time for SPEW members to start questioning the strategic acumen of their leadership, argues Paul Demarty
We note that Nick Clegg has had yet another bad week. Yes, a coup attempt on the part of Matthew Oakeshott was farcically bungled, but a recent ComRes poll makes him apparently the least popular party leader in modern history (having once been the ‘most popular since Churchill’). Pursuit of a no-confidence motion continues in hundreds of local Liberal Democrat parties.1
Say what you like about the Lib Dems: at least they know when to start thinking seriously about regicide. Clegg survives, but will no doubt remember all too well the two leaders he himself defenestrated during the last parliament. A grubby party, whose modus operandi consists of ruthless manoeuvring in local government, the Lib Dems are well aware when their freedom of action has been unduly constrained. When they get moving, they can be as brutally disloyal as the career criminals they are.
We have to wonder if some of our comrades on the left could do with just a little of the ‘Lib Dem spirit’. The Socialist Workers Party visibly ran out of road for its schemes after the slow-motion split with John Rees and his allies in 2010, and plunged finally into crisis last year. It is unlikely, sure, that there exists anyone who could be convinced of the cluelessness of Alex Callinicos and company who has not already arrived at that conclusion. Recent months have seen what is probably still Britain’s largest far-left organisation plumb new depths of directionless pseudo-activity, however - its horizons now constrained by its toxic public image. Comrades, is this what you became revolutionary socialists for - to chase Nigel Farage around, repeating the scaremongering statements of the bourgeois establishment in a shriller tone of voice?
We do not want to dwell on the SWP’s desperation, however, mainly because the recent unpleasantness has allowed its competitors off the hook. We are in the aftermath of an election day which, for more or less anyone whose political ambitions reach further left than an Ed Miliband government next year, was an unmitigated disaster.
The European elections are traditionally a nice staging ground for a protest vote. Indeed, so it has proven in 2014, if you are an insurgent national chauvinist and the UK Independence Party is your cup of tea. The best showing, in numerical terms, from the left was from ‘No to the EU, Yes to Workers’ Rights’, which gathered a whopping 0.21% of the national vote. Oh, sure, it only competed in seven regions - but why? Are there no members of component organisations in the other regions? Could deposits not be raised? (Its vote, by the by, is down 0.8 points from 2009’s impressively dreadful showing - we leave it to wiser heads to work out if this change is even statistically significant.)
It does not reflect well, altogether, on No2EU’s main component organisations - the RMT union, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, and the Socialist Party in England and Wales. The RMT’s apparent ambivalence towards an electoral initiative that flowed from its leadership might be explained by the power vacuum left after the death in March of Bob Crow - it is unclear how much influence remains on the day-to-day leadership of the union for those who convinced brother Crow of No2EU’s viability.
Which leads us to mention the CPB, whose Brian Denny - one of the tanky rump’s more obnoxious individuals - was probably the ideological mainspring for No2EU. On election day, the Morning Star put on its front page a call to vote for No2EU, as well it might. Its performance, however, was entirely absent from the Star’s post-election coverage. No surprises - the result is utterly and deservedly embarrassing. We may safely predict that No2EU is dead, and hopefully will not come shambling out of its unquiet grave come 2019.
It is not only the results which are embarrassing about No2EU, of course. One of the main reasons this was such a richly-deserved punishment beating is that No2EU appears to have been more or less hated by everyone involved - apart from those like comrade Denny, for whom the European Union is their own personal hobby horse. The RMT, aside from Bob Crow’s immediate coterie, barely lifted a finger. The CPB resented having to team up with Trots. SPEW members ‘on the ground’, meanwhile, were frequently mortified by the desiccated Stalinists with whom they had ended up sharing platforms.
And it is SPEW that really has to ask questions of itself here. As this paper noted, the comrades could - alas - simply not find space in their weekly to mention a nationwide electoral campaign in which two of its members were heading regional lists, such is the breakneck pace of the class struggle at the present time! We ask the question: why on earth were they involved in a stinking, chauvinist lash-up in the first place, given the obvious dissatisfaction of the membership?
We know the answer well enough - his name was Robert Crow. SPEW long ago made the decision that maintaining its political partnership with the late RMT leader was a serious political priority. On the same day, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition also stood in 560 council wards, getting - with a couple of exceptions - a dismal vote (in just about every ward where Tusc has stood before, its vote was down on last time.) This is fundamentally because the coalition is merely an intermittent electoral vehicle, with no real life to it.
The reason it has no real life to it is simple: SPEW blocks it from developing a membership structure or any democracy, in order to keep the RMT on board. With the death of comrade Crow, we wonder how much longer this can continue. That, however, is a secondary question. One of the predictable features of human existence is that people die - including, unfortunately, leftwing trade union leaders. SPEW has led its comrades to put inordinate human effort into Tusc, with no obvious return; now, as we nervously guess at Crow’s successor, we might find out how reliant SPEW’s strategy is on individual left bureaucrats.
On current evidence, all too reliant; which means it should be reconsidered as a matter of urgent priority. SPEW’s strategy flows ultimately from its former existence as the Militant Tendency, which was remarkable among Trotskyist groups for managing to stick consistently to a tactic of Labour Party entry for more than three decades. During that time, Militant grew considerably, overtaking Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League/Workers Revolutionary Party to become the biggest Trotskyist group in Britain. At its peak, it had over 8,000 members and - famously - more full-timers than the Labour Party.
Its strategy, in this period, was perfectly obvious, straightforward and successful up to a point - if ultimately doomed. Labour, Militant argued, was the mass party of the working class. Upsurges in the class struggle invariably pushed people towards Labour; the job of socialists was to fight within the party to commit it to a thoroughly ‘socialist’ programme.
Central to that programme was the nationalisation of the top monopolies under workers’ control (a SPEW comrade once grumbled to me that Militant had to keep changing the number of monopolies involved, as they insist on merging all the time). Militant: what we stand for, a programmatic text from the early 1980s, rather infamously argued that this could be achieved by a majority socialist Labour government passing an ‘enabling act’ authorising parliament to begin expropriations, and relying on its mass popularity to head off resistance from the armed detachments of the state.
Militant had some limited success in pursuing this strategy, ultimately getting three Labour MPs and taking control of Liverpool city council. It obtained such success by the virtues which characterise its tradition - tireless work, a culture of developing cadre and sheer bloody-mindedness - and in spite of its vices (primarily catastrophism, sectarianism and economism). It ran out of road when the ‘Liverpool experiment’ ended in disaster, giving Neil Kinnock the excuse he needed for a purge. Few Militant supporters were ever actually expelled from Labour, but any future high-profile successes would invite repression.
A split brewed - not reported in the Militant, of course, but fought out in the letters pages of The Guardian - between founder-leader Ted Grant and an increasing majority led by Peter Taaffe, who wanted to break with Labour entry (Militant had also had considerable success with the anti-poll tax movement, which it had achieved at arm’s length from Labour). Taaffe won; the Grantites split to form Socialist Appeal, and the ‘official’ Militant became Militant Labour, and then today’s SPEW.
As is depressingly often the case with strategic shifts in direction, Taaffe’s was overtheorised. The inclement conditions for entrism in Labour was not merely a contingency, but an indicator of a decisive shift - the Labour Party was no longer the mass party of the working class. Indeed, this change was not merely a British affair - all the sections of the Militant’s oil-slick Committee for a Workers’ International made the same turn away from the existing ‘mass parties’.
This ‘new situation’ presents a pickle for the working class - after all, if it has no mass party, where will it go scurrying off to when the tempo picks up? SPEW’s answer has been … to a new mass workers’ party! But, for it to be taken seriously, this Labour Party mark two will have to be founded not by ‘bolting together the existing left groups’, but by the remaining mass class organisations: the trade unions. Thus has SPEW operated in the last decade and a half - burrowing away in the unions, attempting to force a break with the Labour Party and the creation of a new party on exactly the same basis as Labour was founded 114 years ago.
While most of us would greet the death of a class party with gloom and pessimism, Taaffe did not. The death of the old social democracy was an opportunity to strip away the dead wood. He assured us, upon the split, that we were in the “red 1990s”. Appropriately the group, first as Militant Labour and then as SPEW, spent the 90s bleeding. It lost its Scottish component almost entirely to the Scottish Socialist Party - the former Taaffeites formed the left-nationalist SSP’s spinal core in 1998. The Liverpool organisation followed, as did a whole series of other, smaller splits. By the time the fireworks rang in the new millennium, SPEW was down to a few hundred members, although it has recovered since to hover at close to a thousand.
That, of course, is not in and of itself a unique problem. All leftwing groups have suffered for the fall of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of even the shadow of a global alternative to capitalism. Yet Taaffe has promised, all along, that SPEW is best placed to make something of itself in this era - thundering at more than one keynote address at the annual Socialism school, “We have the programme! We have the strategy!”
The programme remains, basically, the old ‘nationalise the monopolies’ shibboleth - not much progress on that front. As for the strategy - while the Militant’s old version got it control of Liverpool and three seats in parliament, SPEW has managed the occasional council seat. Instead of being a “party within the party”, SPEW now wields significant influence in - at best - three unions (RMT, PCS and NUT). Of those, the RMT is in flux, and the PCS remains on the brink of folding into Unite amid dire financial straits. While its membership has not suffered a significant crisis since its mid-to-late 1990s winnowing, its broader influence - as measured by electoral performances, as well as other initiatives like the National Shop Stewards Network - is obviously on the wane.
Indeed, the decision of SPEW’s comrades in South Africa, the Democratic Socialist Movement, to apply the strategy there has been even more disastrous. Having gained international fame and notoriety as the DSM for work among platinum miners, they launched the Workers and Socialist Party (Wasp) and encouraged splits from the Congress of South African Trade Unions to support their little wheeze. Indifference from within the unions was exceeded by the total indifference from the electorate, who granted Wasp a whopping 0.05% of the vote in last month’s general election.
The purpose of all this is not to gloat. As noted, SPEW has a dedicated and talented cadre base; it is they who will have been busting a gut raising money for election leaflets, imploring people to stand and vote for Tusc, fighting to get ‘break from Labour!’ motions through their union branches … It is an enormous expenditure of human effort. For what? What does SPEW have to show for it? It is time the comrades find out if Taaffe has a plan B - and if not, replace him and his allies with someone who does.