One tactic only
Socialist Party in England and Wales’s position on Labour is more confused than ever, writes Peter Manson
On February 27 the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition sent an email to all its contacts, inviting applications for candidates to contest the May local elections in England. Ironically this invitation arrived at the very time when the left within the Labour Party is clearly beginning to gain ground against the right.
But Tusc’s founding organisation, the Socialist Party in England and Wales, thinks that the best way to help defeat the Labour right is not by encouraging all working class organisations and individuals to join the fight within the party, but by saying that they will in principle stand Tusc candidates against Labour on May 3 - that is, apart from the pro-Corbyn minority.
Of course, for the last quarter of a century the position of SPEW - and that of its predecessor, Militant Labour - has been that the Labour Party has ceased to be a bourgeois workers’ party from roughly the leadership of Neil Kinnock in the 1980s, and since then it has supposedly been a bourgeois party pure and simple, just like the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats. What was needed, then, was the formation of a Labour Party mark two, and SPEW’s position has been to call on the unions to lead the way by breaking from Labour and establishing a new party. SPEW’s own contribution to the process has been to set up fronts like the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party (2005) and Tusc (2010), with the support of individual union leaders and the official backing of the RMT.
But the claim was blown sky-high when Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader in 2015, and recently SPEW has conceded that Labour is “still two parties in one”, as deputy general secretary Hannah Sell told the Tusc conference on February 10. In other words, Labour still has a mass working class base, including something like 500,000 individual members, over which there stands a pro-capitalist bureaucracy of MPs, councillors, appointed office-holders and trade union bureaucrats. In other words a bourgeois workers’ party. But do not expect SPEW to admit that, even though, according to the motion unanimously agreed by the 100 or so comrades who attended the conference, Tusc has “recognised from the outset that if [Corbyn’s] anti-austerity message was developed into a clear socialist programme and Labour’s structures democratised, the Labour Party itself could become the mass leftwing alternative that is needed”.1
But the motion also stated: “This conference believes that the 2018 local elections will present big opportunities for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition to advance its founding goal of building working class socialist political representation.” So it seems the main battle must still be fought outside Labour and the aim remains the creation of a parallel party. In fact comrade Sell told the conference: “If we agree to contest these elections, they will be the most important Tusc has ever contested.”2
Tusc’s report, dated February 15, is headed ‘Tusc conference sets parameters for May election challenge’, and, as I write, is the most recent posting on its website. Clearly then, the formation which is going to contest the May elections is not regarded by SPEW as the party in waiting - in between elections the Tusc website is more or less abandoned, apart from special occasions, such as when a conference is called.
The motion - along with another one from Rugby Tusc (ie, Pete McLaren), which echoes it almost exactly - proposed that Tusc should stand as many candidates as possible on May 3 - but “not against consistent public supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and his anti-austerity policies”. After all, a “careful approach” is still needed that “takes into account the surge in support for Jeremy Corbyn, expressed in the 2017 general election”.
The motion reminded supporters that Tusc candidates in the 2016 and 2017 local elections were only approved where they “strengthened the battle against the right wing in the Labour Party and campaigns against local austerity policies”. And Tusc did not contest the 2017 general election at all, because “the working class had an opportunity to change the government and put Jeremy Corbyn into Number 10”. So Tusc decided to stand aside, even though it had been “the sixth biggest party on the ballot paper in 2015” in terms of the number of candidates. Yes, but Tusc was the 15th “biggest” in terms of voted received (36,490 or 0.1%). In other words, a magnificent 285 votes per seat. Not much to boast about, especially when you consider that the politics they stood on were little more than warmed-up old Labourism.
Anyway, the motion continued:
At the same time Tusc has also recognised the continued presence within the Labour Party of defenders of capitalism, who oppose socialist policies and will do everything they can to prevent Labour’s transformation. They still dominate the Parliamentary Labour Party and much of the formal structures of the party. They also predominate in local council Labour groups, where, in the 124 Labour-controlled councils across Britain, they carry out the Tory government’s austerity agenda.
But, as I have pointed out, the last thing SPEW wants to do is encourage comrades to join the fight to defeat those “defenders of capitalism” where it really matters - within the Labour Party itself. And, even when it comes to Labour’s pro-Corbyn candidates, SPEW has big reservations about supporting them, it seems. That is because they are not committed to the single tactic that it advocates for anti-austerity councillors: “refuse to make the cuts”. According to the agreed motion, a “defiant stand” by “even a handful of councils” of “using council reserves and borrowing powers to refuse to make the cuts” could well be “the catalyst to bring down the Tories”. However, “Refusing to take such a stand … could extend the life of the Tory government and perpetuate the distress caused by savagely reduced public services.”
Like most on the left, SPEW has welcomed developments in Haringey, which has seen a revolt against the pro-privatisation Haringey Development Vehicle, backed by rightwing Labour councillors. But the revolt within Labour - described by The Socialist as a “community campaign against mass privatisation” - deselected some rightwing councillors, while others decided to step down. And The Socialist was delighted to report that “Haringey Labour’s subsequent manifesto conference, dominated by the left, discussed many of Tusc’s anti-austerity policies.” However, “as yet there is no commitment to a no-cuts budget”.
So could it be that if a pro-Corbyn council refused to adopt the one and only tactic advocated by SPEW - that of “using council reserves and borrowing powers to refuse to make the cuts” - the comrades would withdraw any kind of support? If so, that would be pathetic. Such a tactic, if adopted, would obviously only be possible for a very short period and there is no guarantee it would have any effect at all on the austerity policy of the Tory government - especially if taken up by just “a handful of councils”.
But the Tusc motion stated that the “critical issue”, when engaging with Labour councillors, is “their preparedness to resist cuts to local council jobs and services” in this single prescribed way. After all, according to a short article in last week’s The Socialist, Labour supporters are “seeing our point” after SPEW comrades have explained that “a no-cuts budget is legal, despite what the capitalist press may say!”3
While many of our readers will, I am sure, be opposed to the decision to stand against Labour, there is one Tusc comrade with whom we must express our solidarity.
Chris Fernandez, who was the Tusc local election agent in Derby in 2016, has just been sentenced to 15 monthsimprisonment for “electoral fraud”. What did that “fraud” consist of? When attempting to collect signatures for Tusc candidates’ nomination papers, he also handed out a leaflet opposing the closure of the local swimming pool, and the Crown Prosecution Service claimed that “many electors signed, believing they were backing a petition against the closure … and not a local election nomination form”.4
This is totally outrageous. Even if some had been misled in this way, the sentence is absurdly disproportionate for what is, after all, a minor procedural error, which could not possibly have had any outcome on the election result. I know from personal experience that it is very easy to collect nomination signatures - many residents will gladly sign the form, whether they intend to vote for the candidate standing or not.
Full details are available at www.tusc.org.uk/17388/14-02-2018/press-release
2. The Socialist February 14.
3. The Socialist February 21.
4. The Socialist February 21.