School shines fresh light on SPEW’s disarray over the Labour Party, says Peter Manson
Undoubtedly Socialism 2015 - the weekend school organised by the Socialist Party in England and Wales on November 7 and 8 - was a big success. There were 36 different debates over three time slots, giving you a choice of 12 at any particular moment.
What is more, the atmosphere was very friendly and open, with rather more time allowed for contributions from the floor than is the case at the Socialist Workers Party’s Marxism event. At one session I attended - ‘Counterrevolution against Corbyn: how do we resist?’, introduced by SPEW national committee member Clive Heemskerk - when the chair advised me that my four minutes were almost up, comrade Heemskerk intervened to say, “Take another couple of minutes, Peter”. In his opening remarks he had noted that there were comrades present who he knew would disagree with what he had to say, and stated that they were welcome to put forward those disagreements.
According to the SPEW website, 2015 was “the Socialist Party’s best Socialism weekend yet”, with “up to 1,000” comrades present.1 That seems about right - certainly the Saturday rally, held in the 900-seat Camden Centre, was packed. But I must say that holding two rallies in such a short weekend (the event does not start until 3pm on the Saturday) is rather over the top. Surely it would have been better to devote the time used up by one of them to another debate session.
As you might expect, the weekend was dominated by the question of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn and how we should relate to it. That too was more than welcome, since SPEW has been thrown into some disarray by comrade Corbyn’s election. After all, the comrades had insisted for the last two decades that Labour was now just another bourgeois party - which surely ought to have ruled out the overwhelming victory of a self-avowed socialist.
The SPEW comrades are, unfortunately, forced to adopt all sorts of contortions in order to avoid admitting that their characterisation of Labour had been wrong, and I will concentrate in this article on this central question, reporting on the two sessions on Labour I attended, plus the two rallies - which were also dominated by the Corbyn phenomenon.
First, the session introduced by comrade Heemskerk. This, he said, would feature five themes:
- Corbyn’s victory represents the best opportunity so far to overturn the “Thatcher/Blair settlement”.
- That settlement had been part of an international trend to “prevent the working class regaining the Labour Party as a vehicle for working class representation”.
- There is a civil war in the Labour Party, but “the terrain is not favourable”.
- Which is why the struggle cannot be limited to the Labour Party itself and the outcome “may well be a new workers’ party”.
- When it comes to our historical task, “reclaiming” the Labour Party is not our final goal. Which is why preserving the Socialist Party is “an essential part” of defeating the anti-Corbyn counterrevolution.
Comrade Heemskerk said he did not want to dwell on SPEW’s analysis of the Labour Party, which he knew was controversial. But he could see there were those in the audience who think “nothing has changed” and looked forward to hearing their point of view.
Returning to the “ferocious class war” against Corbyn, he said that SPEW’s plan was to open up a dialogue with Labour councillors through the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, and try to build joint action against council cuts. SPEW is arguing in the unions that we should stand against pro-cuts Labour candidates. A letter from Tusc to local Labour councillors was widely circulated at Socialism, inviting them to meet “a delegation of trade unionists and anti-austerity activists”, with a view to reaching agreement on supporting the idea of “legally compliant no-cuts budgets”.
There was no principled reason why socialists should not join Labour and work within it, continued comrade Heemskerk, but today Labour is completely different from, say, the 1980s. Internal democracy “does not exist” and the unions’ role has been drastically reduced.
That is why we should not see the Labour rule book as “the bible”. Which means we should encourage candidates to stand against Labour where necessary, although “not indiscriminately”, and this should be combined with a serious campaign to win over local Labour Parties to the right side on what SPEW sees as the central question - austerity. If current councillors and prospective candidates - who, in 2016 at least, are likely to be dominated by the right, since they were largely selected before Corbyn’s victory - cannot be persuaded to oppose all cuts, Tusc will aim to stand against them.
Comrade Heemskerk said it was wrong to “overstate” the movement that took Corbyn to the leadership - it cannot be compared to the anti-war movement of 2003, for instance. But it still represented a “political earthquake” (a phrase we were to hear several times over the weekend) and if it was to succeed it must engage in serious discussions with “the Socialist Party and others”.
In the debate that followed a SPEW comrade said he had been inspired by Corbyn’s victory, but “won’t join Labour”, while another said the new leader was, after all, a “prisoner of the Parliamentary Labour Party”. This theme - the odds are stacked against us, so it’s not worth joining the fight inside Labour - was a recurring one. A SPEW student noted that on the recent student demonstration there was, as far as he knew, no-one present from Momentum, the campaign set up to support Corbyn within the party - it seemed more like “inertia” to him. But what can you expect when the “Blairites control everything”? At this point, a comrade from the International Bolshevik Tendency asked, “How much do we care about this?” After all, what really mattered was the mobilisation of a “movement on the streets”.
In my contribution I took up comrade Heemskerk’s invitation to criticise SPEW’s analysis of the Labour Party. I agreed that it would have been absurd to have said “nothing has changed” under Blair - the bourgeois pole of this bourgeois workers’ party was in the ascendancy as never before, with the working class pole more marginalised than ever. But the continued existence of these two poles only served to demonstrate that Labour had not become just another “bourgeois party” - a fact reinforced by Corbyn’s victory: could such a phenomenon have arisen in actual bourgeois parties, such as the Tories or Liberal Democrats?
I reminded comrades that Corbyn had won the first preference of half of the individual party members, whose number had since been swollen by many thousands more. The situation now is that the pole that represented working class interests (in however distorted a form) dominates amongst the rank and file - and it has captured the very top of the party. It is absurd to claim that because the pro-capitalist wing control the PLP and the Labour machine it is destined to remain in the ascendancy forever. We should not stand on the sidelines, but try to influence the outcome of the civil war. We should urge individuals to join and all unions to affiliate/reaffiliate - I predicted that both the Fire Brigades Union and the Rail, Maritime and Transport union would do so, despite SPEW urging them to stay out.
I commented that there was something dishonest about SPEW’s current position: Labour had by coincidence become a bourgeois party when the Militant Tendency, SPEW’s forerunner, was witch-hunted. And now we are told that if Corbyn does succeed in defeating the right that would once again produce a “new party”. I ended by quoting the Weekly Worker headline on SPEW’s position for the last two decades: “Admit you were wrong!” (November 5).
Roger Bannister, who is currently contesting the election for general secretary of Unison, was typical of the SPEW comrades who intervened, saying that Corbyn had won “because of the anti-austerity movement” and now our position should be to build that movement “inside and outside the Labour Party”. In reality SPEW’s position is to carry on as before, calling for united union action and standing aside from the struggles “inside” the party.
Although several comrades seemed to express some reservations about the leadership’s position, there was only one coherent SPEW dissenting voice in the two sessions on Labour I attended: Alec Price from Kent. Comrade Price reiterated that Corbyn’s victory “proved” that Labour was not a bourgeois party - it was a “very, very, very bourgeois” workers’ party, in his view. While he would not rule out standing candidates “exceptionally” against Labour in next year’s elections, and it was right to continue “pushing Tusc”, it would be a mistake to stand widely.
One problem, he said, was that people who had previously stood for Tusc (whose ideas he described as similar to those of Jeremy Corbyn) had now joined Labour, as had some SPEW members. In some areas, comrades are being “begged” to join Labour - “We need people like you right now,” one member had told him.
But another comrade retorted that all this talk about a bourgeois party vs a bourgeois workers’ party was “just semantics” - it “doesn’t change what we do”. And, directing his comment in my direction, he did not “remember a headline in the Weekly Worker saying Corbyn was going to win” (in fact once he got on the ballot we did indeed predict a Corbyn victory).
Others tried to put flesh on SPEW’s ‘official pessimism’ over the outcome of Labour’s internal civil war. One asked, if the FBU and RMT reaffiliate and “Corbyn gets kicked out”, what then? Another said that Labour was “never going to come back - it will always be Blairite”.
In reply to my prediction about reaffiliation, a comrade remarked: “I wish I had Peter’s crystal ball.” She said that reaffiliation would cost the RMT a quarter of a million pounds and it “would gain almost nothing”. Instead of volunteering for the Labour “straitjacket”, that money should be used “inside and outside the Labour Party in support of Jeremy Corbyn”. That would make a “much bigger impact”. What exactly “inside” the Labour Party means is anyone’s guess.
Several comrades noted that Labour’s civil war was “one-sided”, with the right doing the attacking and the left attempting to conciliate. But some seemed uncertain about the correct response: Labour painted a “mixed picture”, said one, and “eventually we will work out which way to go”.
A comrade who described herself as an ex-Labour councillor, who was expelled and stood this year for Tusc, was nevertheless confident that it would be possible to deselect rightwingers. However, “Unless people from outside strengthen Momentum, we won’t win.” We need to “start being visible” and put forward a left agenda.
In his response, comrade Heemskerk remarked that the discussion had been excellent - “as you’d expect”, in view of the current “historical turning point”. Replying to comrade Price and myself, he asked, “Can you imagine Bernie Sanders winning in the Democratic Party?” In other words, it was possible for a “socialist” to become the leader, even though the US Democrats were obviously a bourgeois party. Of course, Labour and the Democrats had “different histories”, but the unions also have a role in the latter. However, “Do they have control? No, they don’t, either in Labour or the Democrats”.
Admittedly there remained a “trace element” of the former bourgeois workers’ party, but in this situation it would be wrong for the RMT to “pour in millions of pounds” to “fund the compliance unit”. Comrade Heemskerk acknowledged the CPGB’s position on democratisation of Labour and said he agreed with the points I made about the pro-capitalist wing being dominant. But it was not just ideological. The Blairites had imposed structural, constitutional and organisational changes that made “winning back the Labour Party almost impossible”.
Leaving aside the remark about “winning back” Labour - as though the party had ever really been ours - I find this utterly unconvincing. Why is it not possible to take over the Labour machine from the right and force through democratisation? That went unexplained - you just have to accept it can’t be done.
Mixing up his sporting metaphors slightly, comrade Heemskerk said that this is “not a game of cricket; there are no Queensberry rules.” In fact it was “class war”, which meant we had to “put forward a fighting programme” - to which he added the usual enigmatic formula, “as much inside as outside the party”. Such a fight “could result in a revolutionary party with just a handful of MPs - but with the mass movement behind it.” In this situation we had to be “careful about sacrificing our ability to act independently”. As if individuals joining or unions affiliating meant that was bound to be the case.
The question of Labour also dominated the Saturday evening rally, where SPEW and Committee for a Workers’ International comrades addressed us under a banner which read: “Organise, strike, resist! To smash Tory austerity.”
SPEW EC member and chair of the rally, Claire Laker-Mansfield, referred to the “historic times” and the “political earthquake” (that phrase again) caused by Corbyn’s victory. “Socialism is back!” she assured us. Chris Baugh, assistant general secretary of the PCS union, said that the outlawing of Militant had been “part of the move to capture the Labour Party for Blairism”, while Suzanne Muna of the Unite executive reported that general secretary Len McCluskey had to be “pushed” to do everything to get Corbyn on the ballot paper (even though she had wanted Unite to disaffiliate).
The CWI and SPEW had been lifted by the news of the re-election last week of Kshama Sawant of the CWI’s Socialist Alternative as Seattle city councillor. Comrade Laker-Mansfield not only stated that the US group had “won the confidence of working class people”: she also noted that Bernie Sanders was “standing as a socialist” and had made a “call for revolution”.
The best speaker was Paul Murphy TD, who represents the Anti-Austerity Alliance in the Irish parliament, but I will concentrate here on the intervention of SPEW general secretary Peter Taaffe. He waxed lyrical about the “re-emergence of the class struggle in tremendous form”, referring to general strikes in Greece and Spain and the recent victory of students in South Africa in forcing a retreat over tuition fees.
Then there was “the election of Jeremy Corbyn, allied with the re-election of Kshama Sawant”. He stated: “All bourgeois parties are in crisis, including the social democrats - or, to be more precise, the ex-social democrats.” According to SPEW ‘theory’, it was not just Labour that changed its fundamental character following the expulsion of Militant’s editorial board - all social democratic parties became bourgeois pure and simple. And if Corbyn does defeat the right, what emerges will be “essentially a new party”. But SPEW will not lift a finger to aid the internal process - “We won’t collaborate or join a party still attacking the working class”. Of course, Labour governments during the Militant era never ‘attacked the working class’, did they?
Interestingly, comrade Taaffe likened today’s Labour Party to the situation in Russia in December 1922, when Lenin had commented that the Bolsheviks were still presiding over the tsarist state, to which they had provided “only a soviet veneer”.2 Similarly Labour is still a Blairite formation, said comrade Taaffe, with only a “veneer of Corbyn”. He used the phrase “dual power” apparently in relation to both.
The following day, in the session he addressed entitled ‘Momentum, defending Corbyn and the fight against austerity’, I asked comrade Taaffe how far we ought to take this analogy. If he had been around in 1922, would he have urged workers not to intervene directly in the struggle for control of the Russian state?
That session, by the way, had been advertised as featuring Jon Lansman of Momentum, but comrade Lansman had thought better of it after The Sun ran a story headed “Corbyn aide to join ex-Militant leaders to plot battle for Labour’s soul”.3 The story quoted rightwing Labour MP John Mann as condemning the appearance of this “key Jeremy Corbyn aide” and saying: “Jon Lansman should be on the doorstep registering people to vote in the Oldham by-election, meeting real people.”
Opening the session, comrade Taaffe said that the withdrawal was “regrettable” - it “doesn’t show much confidence”. But almost immediately, in relation to Corbyn and Labour, he went on to say: “The rightwing press doesn’t have the power it once had”!
In support of his argument that Labour was no longer “a workers’ party at bottom”, he contrasted the current situation to that of the 1960s, when, he said, Labour was forced to retreat by internal opposition over both Harold Wilson’s desire to join the US in waging the Vietnam war and Barbara Castle’s ‘In place of strife’ anti-union package. Once again it was assumed that today’s party, even with Corbyn at the helm and with a groundswell of leftwing sentiment at the base, would not be susceptible to such pressure. No, the “character of the Labour Party has changed” - end of story.
He reported some correspondence between SPEW and comrade Lansman, who had pointed out that, if SPEW wanted Labour to “return to its roots as a federal organisation”,4 allowing SPEW and others to become affiliates, it must “give up standing against Labour”.
In the meantime, Tusc would not be wound up, he said, and a “sneer against Tusc” for its poor performance in the May 2015 elections is actually “a sneer against the pioneers of the labour movement” - many of whom also recorded modest results at first. Tusc’s position in relation to Labour candidates was: “You give a pledge you won’t impose cuts and we will consider not standing against you” (my emphasis).
But comrade Taaffe said he expected the plea would by and large fall on deaf ears - opening the way for Tusc to stand against Labour (and in support of Corbyn). In fact Tusc national chair Dave Nellist stated at the closing rally on Sunday that the coalition would be “prepared to stand as widely” next year as it did in May, when it stood over 600 council candidates.
In a conversation with comrade Heemskerk after one of the sessions I put it to him that there is such a thing as tactics - there is no principle that tells us we must stand candidates against the Labour right. He conceded that this is correct - and went so far as to undertake that if comrades Corbyn and McDonnell asked Tusc not to stand against Labour anywhere, he personally would be prepared to consider their request.
Comrade Heemskerk also insisted that SPEW’s characterisation of Labour as a bourgeois party had nothing to do with the witch-hunt of Militant’s supporters. In line with a worldwide tendency affecting social democracy following the collapse of Stalinism, Labour under Blair had renounced its origins as a workers’ party. Unfortunately, Clive, this is contradicted by life itself: Labour’s working class wing is (complete with reformist and nationalist illusions) alive and kicking.
But back to the Peter Taaffe session. He ended his opening speech by stating: “If Jeremy Corbyn is blocked, he must go outside Labour and join with us to form a new party.” He said this with a straight face without a trace of irony.
More than 10 people
One of the first to speak from the floor was comrade Price, who pointed out: “There is no duty or principle to stand against pro-cuts Labour candidates.” In his view it was unwise to repeat Tusc’s 2015 foray in the new circumstances. In his opinion, many “Labour members are confused” and Momentum was uncertain about its strategy: “Why don’t we help them out?”
In response to this and my own intervention, SPEW comrades came up with statements like “affiliation would make us a prisoner of Labour” and it would mean “keeping our mouths shut for the next five years”. One comrade thought: “The same logic would have taken us into the Green Party or the SNP.” Another comment was: “The idea that we can just step in and not be noticed ...” And a different comrade thought that it was SPEW’s duty to “orientate people in the Labour Party and win them to our party”.
Finally, with his eyes fixed on me, one comrade said: “This isn’t a party of 10 people.” SPEW is an organisation with 2,500 members and “it makes a difference what we do”. Even if it was true that the nature of Labour is now changing, he added, SPEW had “the right characterisation for 20-odd years”.
In an amusing interlude, the comrade, looking at me again, said: “I know Peter will write an article for the Weekly Worker” about the discussion. But comrade Taaffe looked slightly taken aback at this and said, “Me?” No, no, not you, comrade: Peter Manson.
But comrade Taaffe regained his composure and began his reply by referring to me: “I read your contributions avidly,” he said (this time with more than a touch of irony, I fear). He claimed that “The CPGB has switched in one mighty leap from criticising us for not being revolutionary enough” to its current position (ie, of adopting a serious strategy in relation to Labour). It obviously does not enter the comrade’s head that you can be totally principled and revolutionary, while at the same time offering critical but tangible support to left reformists in their battle against the Labour right.
His reply to my question about the analogy with Russia and the Bolsheviks was less than clear, but I understood him to mean that, while Labour with a veneer of Corbyn could be compared to tsarism with a veneer of Bolsheviks, it did not follow that the attitude of revolutionaries towards both phenomena ought to be identical.
He also responded to my suggestion that Corbyn’s victory disproved SPEW’s characterisation of Labour as a bourgeois party by asking, “What about the Democratic Party and Sanders?” He went on: “Out of the Liberal Party came the Labour Party” - which obviously meant that out of the current (bourgeois) Corbyn-led party could come a (genuine) Labour Party mark two. He seized on Toby Abse’s comment in the debate, to the effect that Blair’s aim of transforming Labour into a British version of the Democrats had been 95% successful: “I’ll go along with that.” But he ignored comrade Abse’s subsequent remark that we now have “six months to win the battle” - there is “still a chance to get the Labour Party back”.
Comrade Taaffe asked: “Why should we wind up Tusc when the Labour left is weak and the issue is not yet decided?” More contradiction: if “the issue is not yet decided”, why has SPEW written off the possibility of the left gaining the ascendancy within Labour - even if it takes rather longer than comrade Abse’s six months?
Comrade Taaffe concluded by referring once again to Jon Lansman, who had told him in relation to Tusc: “Your project has failed.” To which comrade Taaffe retorted indignantly: “We brought down Thatcher in the poll tax struggle!”
He did concede, however, that SPEW was “flexible” and added enigmatically: “You won’t expect me to reveal what we’ll do in six months time.”
Socialism is back!
As for the final rally, SPEW was pleased to give a platform to Peter Pinkney, president of the RMT, who stated in relation to Tusc and the Labour Party: “I am in charge of the constitution - nothing has changed. We will still be supporting Tusc.” Mind you, that could change after the union’s next conference, I suspect. Comrade Pinkney, a former ‘official communist’, ended his contribution by declaring: “Revolutions are not started from the top. Go back to your unions, demand a general strike now!”
Roger Bannister, referring to the Unison general secretary election, which is now taking place, reported that the union is currently affiliated to Labour “on the basis of only a third of members opting to pay the political fund”. But “Our ‘influence’ [in Labour] has produced nothing.” He said that all four candidates contesting the general secretary post “claim to be Corbyn supporters”, but only he insisted that Unison should not “give money to Liz Kendall”, but only to anti-cuts Labour candidates. He was, however, silent on the question of affiliation itself, except to say that “millions of pounds go to a party that does nothing for us”. Comrade Bannister then asked: “Will Jeremy Corbyn change that? Let’s wait and see.”
Comrade Nellist, for his part, noted that, while there were “two parties inside Labour”, the next voting opportunity for new members would be to decide the party’s candidates for the 2017 elections (which only goes to show that the party faces a long-drawn-out battle between left and right, and a little patience is required).
SPEW deputy general secretary Hannah Sell concluded proceedings with the obligatory reference to “one of the best Socialisms we’ve ever had”. Comrades had donated just under £30,000 at the previous day’s rally and this “enthusiasm reflects political developments - socialism is back!” Jeremy Corbyn’s election was “only the beginning”, she cried. We must aim for the “nationalisation of the commanding heights” and “begin to build a socialist society”.
That summed up pretty well SPEW’s version of ‘socialism’ - wide-ranging state ownership in a single country. I hope comrade Taaffe will forgive me for restating that this dismal national reformism, despite SPEW’s rejection of a serious approach to Labour, is “not revolutionary enough”.