Admit you were wrong!
The SPEW comrades are in urgent need of a radical rethink, argues Peter Manson
The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader has revealed the political bankruptcy of what passes for the leadership of the Socialist Party in England and Wales.
True, the comrades welcomed the level of support Corbyn received, together with his subsequent victory. Yet this is an organisation that has based itself for almost a quarter-century on the idea that Labour is a spent force for the working class, that the pro-capitalist right has definitively seized control and all intervention in it is futile. On that basis, not only did they expect little from Corbyn’s campaign: indeed the campaign he built up just should not have been possible.
When Corbyn first entered the race, SPEW’s sleepy weekly, The Socialist, said only that he most likely would not get on the ballot paper, and thus “all [his] efforts must turn to building a new mass workers’ party”.1 When he scraped on in June, it was declared that he hadn’t a hope of winning and so, when the inevitable happened and he lost, “he should draw the obvious conclusion and break from historically obsolete Labour and help to found a new mass force”.2
The following month, when SPEW’s initial assessment of Corbyn’s prospects was being more and more exposed as the folly it was,an editorial in The Socialist - presumably taking dictation from leaders Peter Taaffe, Hannah Sell, Clive Heemskerk and co - solved this riddle ingeniously, by declaring that a Corbyn victory would “inevitably” provoke an immediate and final showdown with the right, and thus “would mean, in effect, the formation of a new party”.3 The Labour Party suddenly ceased to be a workers’ party in 1990 or so, when the purge of SPEW’s forerunner, the Militant Tendency, was complete; it will just as suddenly spring back into existence should Corbyn prevail - that was now the line. Thus, by a momentous act of Sorelian revolutionary will, do comrades Taaffe, Sell, etc reshape the post-cold war history of Britain around their little theories!
In the final weeks of the leadership campaign SPEW was dragged into the spotlight by the bourgeois press, desperate to pin the blame for Corbyn’s success on ‘infiltrators’. And if we’re making up stories about ‘infiltration’, who better to blame than the artists formerly known as the Militant Tendency? Having been thus forced to take a side in a less passive-aggressive way, SPEW comment became slightly more favourable.
In fact, having spent a couple of months amiably talking Corbyn’s chances down, SPEW started aggressively rowing backwards. Associating itself with its Labourite past, The Socialist had an interesting little item added to its masthead: “Formerly Militant”. Nevertheless, in its statement welcoming Corbyn’s victory on September 12, SPEW continued to cling to the idea that it represented not a sea change within Labour, but in reality the founding of an entirely new party: any old humbug can be justified, so long as it is not inconsistent with the idiotic analysis it was pushing from the mid-90s, when the name ‘Militant Labour’ was finally ditched. SPEW also reaffirmed its commitment to standing Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition candidates against pro-cuts Labour incumbents, which would almost certainly be a tactical blunder under present circumstances - all the more so, given Tusc’s risible electoral performances thus far, and imminent death when the Rail Maritime and Transport union reaffiliates to Labour, as it is highly likely to do at its next conference. The RMT, of course, is the only union that has officially backed Tusc, allowing SPEW to claim that the coalition could be the basis of a new “mass workers’ party” - a Labour Party mark two, in other words.
On the positive side, however, the SPEW comrades hit upon the key point immediately after the election of the new leader:
Jeremy Corbyn should fight to implement every one of the democratic measures which so terrifies Labour’s right wing ... At the same time the party should be opened up. All those who have been forced out or expelled in the past for fighting against cuts and for socialist ideas should be invited back ... Defeating the pro-big business elements that dominate the Labour machine will require mass, active participation.4
So those like Militant/SPEW who had been “forced out” should be “invited back”. Presumably then Taaffe and co would be urging SPEW members to add to the necessary “mass, active participation”? No doubt the leadership would also rethink its opposition to the reaffiliation of the RMT and Fire Brigades Union, which also looks certain to come back on board in the near future. Afraid not.
While in the October 21 edition of The Socialist comrade Taaffe described the election of Corbyn as “overwhelmingly positive”, he went on to say: “We want Labour councils to oppose the cuts and draw up needs budgets, which would receive mass backing. The political instrument for realising this can only be done with a new mass party of the working class” (my emphasis). That clearly implies something other than the Labour Party - although admittedly “The Corbyn campaign has within it, in reality, elements of a new party in the process of formation.”5
Confusion reigns. Labour should be “opened up” to those (like SPEW) who are “fighting against cuts and for socialist ideas”, yet those same comrades should look elsewhere for a “new mass party of the working class”. You see, SPEW is still insisting that the battle to transform Labour into an instrument of working class struggle is doomed to failure, as an article the following week made clear:
There are also many seasoned trade unionists and fighters, workers and youth who, while supporting Corbyn in general, are at the same time in favour of the widest possible unity of left forces. Notwithstanding Corbyn’s victory, they are still highly suspicious that his aims can be effectively implemented through a party still dominated by the unreconstructed right.
The Socialist Party shares their views, given the ceaseless attacks on Corbyn and his supporters. Even some Labour MPs who may claim not to stand on the right but the ‘centre’ have joined in the anti-Corbyn campaign, and in the process revealed their real political position.6
Well, it is right to be “suspicious” - in fact it is obvious that even “Corbyn’s aims”, let alone those needed to transform Labour, cannot be “implemented” if the party remains “dominated by the unreconstructed right”. So surely that means we must throw our efforts into defeating the right, not wash our hands of that essential struggle?
Unfortunately not. The article goes on to state:
Many workers would not agree to join and throw all their energies into the Labour Party while the changes that Corbyn articulated during his campaign have not been carried through. Nor would it be correct to hand over the precious funds of the trade union movement, through the affiliation of non-affiliated unions, before fundamental structural change has occurred. Corbyn could be overthrown in a coup by the Parliamentary Labour Party, in which his base is still extremely narrow.
The right are still in control of the Labour machine and will not hesitate to frustrate, delay and sabotage to prevent workers and young people joining to change the Labour Party. They will not hesitate to expel those on the left - as they effectively did during the leadership campaign - those who come into collision with them, while they are imposing cuts on working people. Let us remember the expulsions in the past, for the ‘crime’ of opposing attacks on living standards of workers through the poll tax and the cuts: in Liverpool, the Militant editorial board, as well as others on the left.
This attempt to mollify the right will not succeed, but it can help to demoralise and thereby disintegrate the forces that have begun to rally behind Corbyn and McDonnell. This would represent the loss of another favourable opportunity to change the labour movement in the battle against capitalism and its political representatives, the Tories and other forces that base themselves on outmoded capitalism.
Let me get this straight: if Corbyn and McDonnell are defeated, that would represent a considerable defeat, but SPEW will not lift a finger to try and stop that happening. In fact it will continue to urge anyone it can influence to stay away, certainly not waste their efforts, let alone the “precious funds of the trade union movement”.
And in the latest issue, Roger Bannister, SPEW’s candidate in the forthcoming election for Unison general secretary, claims that “the demand for flexibility with the political fund remains important”, After all, “the alternative” might mean “backing a rightwing Labour candidate, committed to making cuts”.7 In the same paper, Clive Heemskerk produces a list of recent donations and affiliation fees paid to Labour by the unions - implying (presumably with the exception of funds paid to Corbyn’s leadership campaign) that they are all a waste of money.
Comrades, this line is disastrous. Surely it is time to admit you have been utterly wrong for the last two decades and undertake a serious rethink.
1. The Socialist June 10 2015.
2. The Socialist June 19 2015.
3. The Socialist editorial, July 29. 2015.
5. The Socialist October 21.
6. The Socialist October 29.
7. The Socialist November 4.