Its final outing
Peter Manson looks at what was a disastrous political project from the very beginning
What is the point of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition? Founded in 2010, Tusc was the successor to the short-lived Campaign for a New Workers’ Party, and both organisations were open in their aim - made explicit in the CNWP’s name - of establishing a new mass party to replace Labour.
However, following last week’s council elections in England, when Tusc stood 111 candidates for 33 different local authorities - with the accustomed very poor results in the vast majority of seats - it is more pertinent than ever to be clear about Tusc’s purpose. According to the ‘updated’ statement of aims on its website, Tusc was set up “with the primary goal of enabling trade unionists, community campaigners and socialists to stand candidates against pro-austerity establishment politicians” (October 2016).1
But that is being economical with the truth. It was the Socialist Party in England and Wales which was the prime mover in both the CNWP and Tusc and, in the words of SPEW central committee member Clive Heemskerk, writing in The Socialist on February 3 2010:
The Socialist Party believes that the Labour Party has now been totally transformed into New Labour, which bases itself completely on the brutal logic of capitalism. Previously, as a ‘capitalist workers’ party’ (a party with pro-capitalist leaders, but with democratic structures that allowed the working class to fight for its interests), the Labour Party always had the potential to act at least as a check on the capitalists. The consequences of radicalising the Labour Party’s working class base was always a factor the ruling class had to take into account.
Now the situation is completely different. Without the re-establishment of at least the basis of independent working class political representation, the capitalists will feel less constrained in imposing their austerity policies.2
While SPEW was clear that this could not come about immediately, the ultimate aim was stated by comrade Heemskerk to be: “A new mass political vehicle for workers, a new workers’ party”. He explained:
For the Socialist Party the importance of Tusc lies above all in its potential as a catalyst in the trade unions, both in the structures and below, for the idea of working class political representation. It can also play a role in drawing together anti-cuts campaigns, environmental campaigners, anti-racist groups, etc (my emphasis).
So campaigning against cuts, etc was most definitely seen as secondary. First and foremost was the need to lay the basis for a new workers’ party - the nature of which was made clear in the above quote: “working class political representation” primarily for the unions - in other words, a ‘Labour Party mark two’, as we in the CPGB have always called it.
How things have changed since Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader. In her article, posted on the SPEW website, following the local elections, deputy general secretary Hannah Sell writes:
... the support for Corbyn has created the potential for a mass democratic party of the working class, which is desperately needed. If it is not to be squandered, it is vital that there are no more retreats, but instead the start of a determined campaign to transform Labour into a party capable of opposing austerity with socialist policies, in deeds as well as words.3
Since the aim now is a transformation of Labour - previously deemed impossible - it is unsurprising that the call for “a new workers’ party” has been dropped. Not that SPEW is prepared to lift a finger to aid the process in any way - for example, by encouraging unions like PCS and the RMT to affiliate (or reaffiliate) to Labour.
So why does Tusc still exist and why did it stand over 100 candidates against Labour? Comrade Sell gives two reasons. First, to highlight the need to oppose austerity. According to comrade Sell,
It was ... absolutely correct that the Socialist Party, as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition ..., stood candidates in these local elections against some of the worst Blairite cutters ... we were alone in putting forward a fighting programme for anti-cuts councils and, by standing, were able to reach significant layers of workers and young people with our message, including some of the best activists in the Labour Party.
It is almost as though opposing the latest round of cuts - in contrast to those implemented last year and the year before, apparently - is now elevated above everything else for SPEW.
As explained in Tusc’s own policy document, dated October 2015, elected councillors should “[u]se all the legal powers available to councils to oppose both the cuts and government policies”:
We will support councils which in the first instance use their reserves and prudential borrowing powers to avoid making cuts. But we argue that the best way to mobilise the mass campaign that is necessary to defeat the dismantling of council services is to set a budget that meets the needs of the local community and demands that government funding makes up the shortfall.4
So, working entirely within the current funding system, Labour councils should “use their reserves and prudential borrowing powers” to keep their budgets in balance. But, if there is still a “shortfall”, then they should demand the government makes it up. I wonder how likely the Tories would be to comply? Assuming the government declines, how long would a council be able to operate in this way? Very soon its reserves would be exhausted and no bank would be prepared to lend it a penny. And, as I have pointed out, this policy only applies to new cuts - those previous imposed would be left in place.
However, SPEW hopes that Tusc candidates - or, better still, Tusc elected councillors - could inspire a broad fightback:
Even one councillor in a local authority taking a stand, if they used their position in the council chamber to appeal to those outside, could give confidence to local trade unionists and community campaigners to fight. A network of rebel councillors across the country could have an even bigger impact, building on Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity message in shifting the terms of the debate. A councillors’ revolt could stop the Tory cuts!5
This is linked to comrade Sell’s second reason for standing: it is strongly implied by Tusc that its electoral campaigns were also aimed at helping Corbyn win the internal Labour Party battle:
This was the most selective local election stand that Tusc has taken in its eight-year history, following the general recalibration of its electoral policy after Jeremy Corbyn’s welcome victory as Labour leader in September 2015.
There was not a single Tusc candidate on May 3 standing in a direct head-to-head contest with a Labour candidate who had been a consistent public supporter of Jeremy Corbyn and his anti-austerity policies. Tusc only stood against rightwing, Blairite Labour councillors and candidates. The Labour candidates in the seats contested by Tusc included 32 councillors who had publicly backed the leadership coup attempt against Jeremy Corbyn in summer 2016, signing a national open letter of support for the rightwing challenger, Owen Smith.
In a situation where Labour is still so clearly two-parties-in-one … - with many local ‘Labour’ candidates standing more ferociously against Jeremy Corbyn than they do the Tories - the task is still there to make sure that politicians of any party label who support capitalism and its inevitable austerity agenda are not left unchallenged.6
So that was the position in relation to the Labour right - expose them by standing against them. But what did Tusc (and SPEW itself) recommend in wards where there were pro-Corbyn candidates? The truth is, there was no call for a Labour vote anywhere - how was that supposed to aid the Corbyn wing?
By the way, the extracts above are from the Tusc post-election statement posted on its website on May 8. The previous posting had been on April 15 - in other words, for almost the last three weeks of its election campaign the Tusc website had been completely abandoned! That says a lot about the future of this ‘coalition’ (in reality, Tusc is made up overwhelmingly of SPEW comrades, together with a few so-called ‘independents’. However, the comrades are still able to boast of a victory - the re-election of Tusc councillor and previous Labour defector Keith Morrell in Southampton. And the “next best score” was in a ward in Kirklees, “with Tusc winning 701 votes for a 14.2% share”, while the “best performance in a single council was achieved in Waltham Forest, with Tusc polling 2,841 votes across the 12 wards (out of 20) contested there”. But “The mean average vote for Tusc council candidates overall was 3.7%.”7
And now, looking back proudly, Tusc announces that, following last week’s elections, it has received a total of “just under 380,000 votes … since the formation of our coalition in 2010”. It was making real headway, wasn’t it? But, rather tellingly, the Tusc statement concludes: “Whatever the outcome of the discussions within Tusc and its component parts on the way forward now, it has established its part in that wider debate.”
In other words, don’t expect us to be around for much longer!