Hannah Sell: opportunist. Charlie Kimber: racism is the key issue. Nick Wrack: what about LU?

Dishonesty and opportunism

The comrades are gearing up for a major electoral intervention. But on what basis? Peter Manson attended Tusc’s pre-election conference

Just short of 300 comrades attended the January 24 conference of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. Well over half were members of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, Tusc’s prime initiator, but, unlike previous such gatherings, the Socialist Workers Party had rather more than a token presence. In addition there were a good number of individuals, plus supporters of the Independent Socialist Network.

However, the fourth organisation with an automatic presence on Tusc’s steering committee, the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, was - disappointingly for the organisers - largely notable for its absence. In fact the only RMT speaker to feature on the platform (or from the floor, as far as I know) was actually a member of SPEW, although neither he nor the chair, Dave Nellist, thought it necessary to mention this fact. John Reid - “just elected to the London region” of the union - said that the RMT, which stood “for the end of capitalist exploitation and for a socialist society”, had agreed to donate £10,000 to finance the electoral contests of Tusc candidates.

But the virtual absence of the RMT - whose support had previously been used to demonstrate Tusc’s claim to represent a new “mass workers’ party” in embryonic form (a Labour Party mark II, in other words) - was not permitted to encroach on the overriding optimism of the occasion. As comrade Nellist pointed out at the start, the meeting was all about launching the “largest left-of-Labour electoral challenge for 50 years”.

He categorically stated that Tusc “will be standing 100 general election candidates” on May 7, although the target of 1,000 candidates in the local elections in England, to be held on the same day, was clearly not such a foregone conclusion. Nevertheless, comrade Nellist declared that Tusc would be “the sixth largest party standing” - but he added ironically that he had not yet been contacted regarding its participation in the forthcoming TV election debates. Needless to say, what he was referring to was the number of candidates Tusc wants to field, not proven electoral support.

Later, national election agent Clive Heemskerk confirmed that 52 general election candidates had so far been approved and he was “confident” that that there would be “well over 100”, which would represent a “historic achievement”. As if paper candidates equal as real movement of history. Unfortunately they do not.

On council candidates, he was rather less confident of reaching the 1,000 target - so far he had received an “indication” of about 600. He urged those listening: “Any trade unionist, any campaigner, any socialist can stand”, provided they accept the Tusc platform. This was not, of course, “a fully rounded socialist platform” - after all, “we had to compromise”. With whom he did not say.

No big guns

The first of the three sessions - entitled ‘Fighting endless austerity: how can the crisis of working class political representation be resolved?’ - was strange in a number of ways. The original idea must have been to start the day with some union big guns, but none of the four platform speakers were exactly household names. Admittedly Joe Simpson is assistant general secretary of the Prison Officers Association and, unlike comrade Reid, he did say he was a SPEW member - joining was “the best thing I have done in my working life”. Having done so, he “then came across Tusc”, he said. We should call Tusc “our party”, he went on: “Every trade unionist should be supporting it.”

Next was Cheryl Gedling, a SPEW ally on the Public and Commercial Services national executive. She talked about the removal of facility time and check-off in the union and then waxed lyrical about the “amazing mass movement in Scotland” - a reference to the campaign for a ‘yes’ vote in the September 2014 independence referendum. But it was “not about nationalism”. It was “a vote against austerity - that’s what the vote was about”.

Finally there was Stefan Simms, a member of the National Union of Teachers executive, who started by saying he was a “member of the SWP” who was “not speaking for the NUT”.

I suppose you could say that the speakers touched on the question of “endless austerity”, but what about the second part of the title - “how can the crisis of working class political representation be resolved?” - I am afraid that did not get a mention.

Instead, comrade Simms concentrated in his contribution on what he said was the lack of emphasis on racism in Tusc material - a recurring theme from SWP speakers. He quoted from a Tottenham Labour Party leaflet, which talked about “Labour’s tough approach on immigration”, which, for example, would “make sure people working in public services can speak English”. This showed that, instead of “confronting the racism of Ukip”, the other parties have “copied it” - even in “a place like Tottenham”. Another effect of racism’s impact, he said, was that “kids are too scared to speak up against images of the prophet Mohammed” that might feature in schools: “they think they may be reported to the police as terrorists”.

If you think those comments are, shall we say, eccentric, they were just a taster of all the other SWP speeches we were to hear. One was from Bridget Parsons of Birmingham SWP, who complained: “We’ve not talked very much about racism and fighting Islamophobia”. She put that right by giving the example of her local Labour MP, Khalid Mahmood, who was obviously one of those Islamophobic racists, as he “supports the Prevent strategy”.

SWP national secretary Charlie Kimber himself, speaking in the final session, claimed that the elections would be about two major questions: “austerity and racism”. Yes, Ukip poses as anti-establishment, he said, but it “coheres it around racism”. For her part, Jenny Sutton thought the two “challenges” of the election would be slightly different: “racist divide and rule” and “fatalism” (“We can’t do anything”). But you get the picture: “racism” - in reality, the contention that immigration is a problem - is supposedly a central feature of the bourgeois narrative.

After this start, things could only get better, and so it turned out, as the other two sessions - focusing on the local election and general election campaigns - were both interesting and actually rather useful in their own way.

The second session was to have featured a panel made up entirely of councillors expelled from the Labour Party for opposing cuts, but councillor Keith Morrell from Southampton had to pull out and so comrade Heemskerk stepped in for him. He urged comrades to take up the opportunity provided by the fact that no fewer than 270 English councils have elections this year.

Next, councillor Dean Kirk, representing Hull Red Labour, told us that he had originally been elected for Labour on an anti-cuts platform, but, when he complained that the Labour council was in fact implementing austerity measures, he was told that the election platform had been only “aspirational”. He was suspended and so quit the party. In response to an approach from John McDonnell, he now says that he and fellow councillor Gill Kennett will agree to rejoin if Labour gives them “an apology” (and, presumably, if they are no longer suspended).

We then heard from two Leicester Independent Councillors Against Cuts, Barbara Potter and Wayne Naylor. Comrade Potter declared that in Leicester Labour members are “nothing but a bunch of Tory turncoats”, while comrade Naylor said that, though going independent had felt like “stepping off a cliff”, it was in fact “the best thing we ever did”. LICAC was hoping to stand 30 candidates in May (he did not say whether that would be under the Tusc umbrella) and he urged people in the hall to “seriously consider becoming a candidate” themselves.

Then comrade Nellist called an extra speaker - Pete Smith of Walsall Democratic Labour Party, who is now mayor by virtue of the fact that he is the town’s longest serving councillor. He had been a Labour councillor from 1979 until 1998, when he was expelled from the party. Being part of Labour is “OK if you want to manage the system”, he said, “but not if you want to change things”. The DLP argues for “socialist and left policies”, but unfortunately it was now an ageing and “diminishing band” - so much so that the name was actually deregistered in 2011, although the following year he himself was narrowly re-elected.

After this, there was another previously unannounced “special speaker” - councillor Kevin Bennett from Warrington, currently suspended from Labour, who gave a rather contradictory message. On the one hand, he was “staying in to fight”, but, on the other, he would “hopefully be on board by the end of the day”. In fact it was later announced that he had been accepted as a Tusc councillor (he is not up for re-election this year).

Contrary to the intentions of the SPEW organisers, all this goes to show that Labour is continuing to throw up its rebels, who actually want to fight within the party. Of course, they are a tiny minority, but what is missing is an organised force that is able to cohere them. But SPEW contends that Labour is now just another bourgeois party and - even more absurdly - we therefore need to recreate it (only next time around it will be more leftwing). And that, of course, is the job of Tusc.

As SPEW deputy general secretary Hannah Sell stated, Tusc has “had its birth” and is now “starting to walk”. It may be “only just beginning”, but “it’s creating a common banner for all trade unionists and campaigners”. She went on to state: “Things are changing” and “It’s not just in Greece” - she mentioned Podemos in Spain and the ‘yes’ campaign in Scotland. “We’re on the verge of a qualitative shift in politics in Britain.”

Syriza was a recurring theme throughout the conference - the event was held the day before the Greek general elections, when it was already clear who the winner would be. As Dave Nellist put it, “Votes for Syriza will echo across Europe” - there is “no reason why the movement can’t spread here”. This was in line with the feelings of comrade Kimber, who asked: “If they can vote against austerity there, why can’t we vote against austerity here?”

SPEW’s Nancy Taaffe - referred to by comrade Nellist as “the woman with red hair”, as he summoned her to the microphone, by the way - said: “If Syriza win tomorrow it will enhance our position.” There were further such remarks: Syriza’s victory will “cause tremors”, showing that “there is an alternative” (John Reid). It “should reinvigorate the left here” (Pete Smith). In short, lots of enthusiasm, but nothing by way of caution.

Racist or not?

The final session was the most useful of all - it actually saw a genuine exchange of views between SPEW, the SWP and the ISN. The topics under debate were the question of party, the nature of the UK Independence Party’s support and, most controversially, Tusc’s position on immigration controls.

The three platform speakers who introduced the session were comrades Sell, Kimber and Nick Wrack of the ISN - in other words, three of the four organisations automatically represented on the steering committee (once again, following the death of Bob Crow last year, the absence of the RMT stood out). All three were given a 10-minute time to reply at the end.

Let me begin with the question of immigration controls. The ISN sought to make a key amendment to Tusc’s general election platform: ie, it sought to remove the word “racist” from the phrase, “repeal the 2014 Immigration Act and all racist immigration controls”.

This was the only amendment that failed to go through on the nod. Most of the platform consists of trade union-type demands that, while entirely supportable, are pretty much ‘motherhood and apple pie’ - no cuts, end privatisation, tax the rich, repeal the anti-trade union laws, abolish the bedroom tax … Added to this are sections on the environment, ‘Solidarity, not war’ - and ‘Democracy, diversity and justice’, where the phrase above appears.

(I should mention that the platform ends with a section headed ‘Socialism’ - defined as “bringing into democratic public ownership the major companies and banks that dominate the economy, so that production and services can be planned to meet the needs of all and to protect the environment”. That is not a definition I recognise. Socialism does not consist of nationalisation - a form of state capitalism - but of the rule of the working class over a society in transition to a totally new order: communism.)

But, to return to the contentious amendment, all three platform speakers gave their views on it in their opening and closing remarks, but, in between, Dave Landau of the ISN formally moved it. He pointed out that “Immigration will be central” in the election campaign and “those who run away” from the question “will suffer”. The current phrasing is “ambiguous”, he said. Does it mean that all immigration controls are racist and should therefore be ‘repealed’? Or are there some controls that are not racist and can therefore be left in place?

In her opening speech, comrade Sell argued that Tusc is “a coalition” and its platform is therefore “a compromise”. Once again the RMT was pointed to: “Bob Crow didn’t agree” with open borders and the union had campaigned against an EU directive which enabled free movement to be “used by the bosses” - “We think it’s right to oppose that element of free movement,” she said.

In this part of her speech, then, she appeared to be arguing that some immigration controls may be necessary. On the other hand, it was really the RMT that was responsible for the existing phrasing, and the platform had to reflect views upon which everyone could agree (ie, be acceptable to the absent right wing). But then she went on: “We can’t just make the bald demand” for no immigration controls. “If workers are worried about it, don’t dismiss them.” Yet, paradoxically, she ended by saying: “If migrants are used to lower wages, let’s unite and fight together.” Precisely. “Unite and fight together” rather than attempt to keep some workers out.

In her reply to the debate, comrade Sell returned to the theme of what might be called ‘calculated dishonesty’: “We don’t say everything we think.” For example, “We’re not going to call for the abolition of money in our election platform.” Of course, that would be out of place in a set of immediate demands: it should be part of our maximum programme - but, there again, SPEW, like the SWP, deliberately avoids using the word ‘communism’, giving the impression that its version of ‘socialism’, as defined above, is the final aim.

Adding further to the contradiction, comrade Sell declared: “All immigration controls are racist - no question. But are we going to engage with workers if our starting point is no immigration controls?” So, on the one hand, all immigration controls are “racist” (making the inclusion of the word redundant), but, on the other, we cannot say we are against them all. Presumably some are more racist than others.

Of course, the waters are muddied on this whole question by the left’s use of the word ‘racist’ - which often appears to mean no more than ‘bad’ and is generally applied to what are actually examples of nationalism or national sectionalism. Thus Ukip is ‘racist’ for saying that ‘we’ need to pick and choose who to let in - not on the basis of ‘race’, of course, or even discrimination against any national group, but on the basis of usefulness (from the point of view of capital).

In an attempt to demonstrate that the accusation of racism could not be levelled against SPEW itself, two of its black members were wheeled out to speak from the floor. Hugo Pierre said that many workers “agree with us 100% on austerity”, but they say, “We have to stop immigration”. Nor is that “just white workers”. He gave the example of how, campaigning in Tower Hamlets, he had managed to “persuade” a man who was against immigration of the need for all workers to unite: “But I’m not sure if I would not have done so if we were for no immigration controls.”

Another BME comrade also thought that “racist” should be retained: “We won’t be taken seriously if we say ‘no border controls’ - imagine if thousands of people came from, say, Sri Lanka. It would cut us off from the working class.” Another SPEW comrade said: “If we don’t keep ‘racist’, the press will get hold of that and use it as a stick to beat us with.”

There could be no clearer illustration of SPEW’s opportunism. I earlier called it calculated dishonesty, but SPEW has been saying this kind of thing for so long that some of its members now act as though they actually believe this sort of nonsense.

However, the SWP was on the right side in this debate, with Charlie Kimber stating from the platform: “I have to say, if the bosses can move around the world without hindrance, then we should have that right too.” That is why the SWP is “against all immigration controls”, he added.

As for Nick Wrack, he did his best to counter SPEW’s opportunism: “If we’re going to persuade people of our vision,” he said, “ we have to say what we stand for.” If “we lose votes as a result, so be it”. Otherwise we would be letting Ukip set the agenda. Unfortunately, however, comrade Wrack also agreed that Ukip was “racist” - even though he had told me earlier that he does not believe all immigration controls fall into that category.

On a show of hands, the amendment was defeated by around “two to one”, according to comrade Nellist, with around eight abstentions. As he later announced that the attendance was 284, readers may be able to calculate the approximate strength of the three main organisations present.

What sort of party?

It was useful that the ISN chose this point upon which to focus its challenge. But one thing struck me very clearly: comrade Wrack failed to mention Left Unity, or his continued membership of it - an organisation that does, very clearly, declare its opposition to all immigration controls. LU will also be contesting the general election, of course (on a far more limited scale than Tusc).

But, since the demise of LU’s Socialist Platform, which was originally set up on his initiative, comrade Wrack and others in the ISN have concentrated their focus on Tusc. While LU does not get a mention in Tusc, quite the opposite applies to these comrades’ interventions in LU: they have been demanding that LU signs up to Tusc and, if it cannot fight the general election under a common banner, then at least it should recognise who is holding that banner.

So why does comrade Wrack prioritise Tusc? Does he really think it is the best vehicle for the fight for a single Marxist party? As he said in his opening speech to the final session, “We need a mass, united socialist party”, not a “Labour Party mark II” or “Keynesian tinkering”. But the question is, “how to move from a coalition to that new mass party?” His answer was that “100 Tusc groups must become 100 Tusc branches”. He pointed out that Tusc has no “national strategy, finances or a party press”.

And in his response to the debate he said: “One of the greatest problems on the left is disunity.” However, there is “no reason why all socialists - certainly all Marxists - can’t be in the same party.” But instead we split “over tactics”. Yet a political party “must be able to incorporate different views, like we’ve just heard”.

Comrade Wrack said: “Federalism may have its place, but it cannot be permanent.” It was, in the long run, incompatible with a democratic party. He alleged: “The veto of the Socialist Party will be used to remove our amendment if it wins.” Of course, he knew full well that it would not win, but this claim at least provoked a response from comrade Sell, who denied this allegation in a way that was less than convincing: “If conference votes for something, then it would have to be listened to.” In any case, she reminded conference, SPEW and the SWP were not the biggest groups on the steering committee - “the RMT is”. Quite.

She had earlier stated that, as “more people join as individuals”, we will “have to look at how they can play a bigger role”. Not that she was promising ‘One person, one vote’, of course. “For now” the “federal strategy” must be retained.

And the SWP is not going to challenge this either. Charlie Kimber, who stated that his organisation hoped to stand “15 parliamentary candidates” and “many more” council candidates in May, came out with the usual insubstantial call for the left to “get its act together” - he called this a “strategic question”, to which there was “no alternative”. But the SWP makes no concrete proposal in this regard: when it talks about “unity”, it inevitably places the word “electoral” before it.

So the SWP can do no more than nod in response to the rhetoric of the likes of Tony Mulhearn, former Liverpool Militant councillor, who said that now is the time “to establish Tusc as a well-rooted, powerful force fighting for the working class”. In fact Tusc could be “the basis for a major breakthrough in the next few years”. Is this the coalition that closes down between elections and must remain federal? I don’t think so, Tony.