SPEW’s approach to Labour combines classic sectarianism with run-of-the-mill reformism, writes Peter Manson
You may have missed this headline, which was posted on the website of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition on September 4: “Back at work! Tusc to stand in elections again against pro-austerity politicians”.1
Tusc was set up in 2010 by the Socialist Party in England and Wales as the successor to the short-lived Campaign for a New Workers’ Party (also established by SPEW, back in 2006), and both organisations were open in their aim of establishing a new mass party to replace Labour. As we in the CPGB have consistently pointed out, the intention was nothing more than the creation of a Labour Party mark two.
This was explained by 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’ ..., 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.
Tusc’s ultimate aim was stated by comrade Heemskerk to be: “A new mass political vehicle for workers, a new workers’ party”.2 In other words, the re-establishment of a Labour Party as it was prior to Tony Blair, who, following his election as leader back in 1994, ensured that it was “totally transformed into New Labour” - a party which “bases itself completely on the brutal logic of capitalism” (my emphasis).
According to SPEW, Labour was no longer a working class party of any type, not even a “bourgeois workers’ party”. That, of course, was Lenin’s phrase to describe Labour, which relies on the sponsorship of the trade union bureaucracy and therefore limits itself to at best winning pro-working class reforms under capitalism. But for SPEW Labour had been transformed, thanks to Blair, into the British equivalent of the US Democrats.
So how did all this fit in with the election of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015? To be honest, it totally exposed SPEW’s nonsense for what it was. Corbyn’s leadership demonstrated beyond a shadow of doubt that Labour remained a bourgeois workers’ party: ie, with mass support from workers and working class formations, but still dominated at the top by bureaucrats committed to the current bourgeois order.
This certainly created a problem for SPEW comrades. Firstly, they had been arguing that the Labour Party was now a complete diversion and we should concentrate exclusively on alternative forms of political organisation: ie, SPEW itself and those like Tusc, which it was promoting. Secondly, how could it explain the fact that Labour’s (now greatly expanded) mass working class membership was enthusiastically backing a leader who had always claimed to stand for socialism?
SPEW never came near to admitting its error in consistently claiming for the best part of two decades that Labour was now just a straightforward capitalist party like the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats. In fact it was as though, thanks to Corbyn, a totally new bourgeois workers’ party had been created. In 2018 SPEW deputy general secretary Hannah Sell - now general secretary, albeit under Peter Taaffe’s supervision - wrote that “the support for Corbyn has created the potential for a mass democratic party of the working class” - which meant that there now needed to be “a determined campaign to transform Labour into a party capable of opposing austerity with socialist policies, in deeds as well as words”.3
But, in total contradiction to this, SPEW continued its policy of opposing the affiliation of unions to Labour, while Tusc continued to stand against Corbyn’s party - with the difference that now only Labour candidates of the right and centre were targeted. But what did Tusc (and SPEW itself) recommend in the May 2018 local elections in wards where pro-Corbyn Labour candidates were contesting? The truth is, there was no call for a Labour vote anywhere - how was that supposed to aid the Corbyn wing and the “campaign to transform Labour”?
The most significant organisation for SPEW, when it comes to taking decisions on such matters as standing candidates against Labour, has undoubtedly been the Rail, Maritime and Transport union.
The RMT was expelled from Labour in 2004 after some of its Scottish branches donated funds to the Scottish Socialist Party in protest at Blair’s refusal to renationalise the railways, and as a result it decided to support Tusc from the beginning.
As The Socialist points out,
... the Tusc national steering committee has also included at various points national officers or national executive committee members of other unions - from the PCS civil servants union, the National Union of Teachers, the Fire Brigades Union and the Prison Officers Association (September 9).
But the RMT is the only union to have gone so far as to officially advocate the standing of candidates against Starmer’s Labour Party. It has certainly been the most influential component of Tusc - whose “steering committee will only take decisions by consensus”, by the way.
It was the RMT that ensured a change in policy two years ago, as Tusc itself readily admitted. In its final posting before the Tusc website shut up shop, it was reported on November 8 2018:
... at the November steering committee the representatives of the RMT ... were unable to commit the union to authorising any Tusc candidates to stand in next year’s local elections, even on the selective basis - against Blairite opponents of Jeremy Corbyn who are implementing austerity - that has operated in the past three years.4
That signalled the total suspension not only of Tusc’s contesting elections, but any activity. As I say, that was the final posting on the website until the one I referred to right at the beginning of this article. (Interestingly, just like Tusc, the website of the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party was never closed down, even though there has been no new posting there for almost a decade, since the CNWP was quietly wound up in favour of Tusc.5)
Furthermore, just as the decision to suspend standing had been driven by the RMT, so it was with the decision to resume. Tusc’s September 4 posting reported that its steering committee had met two days earlier and that it had decided that “the changed situation required a changed response”:
Representatives from the biggest component organisation of Tusc, the RMT transport workers’ union, reported to the meeting that the union’s national executive committee had debated the matter over the summer. They had agreed that “in the new conditions of a Starmer leadership and the continued implementation of austerity cuts by many Labour-led authorities, we believe it is correct for Tusc to lift its suspension of electoral activity”.
Dave Nellist points out that the RMT had been “the second biggest donor to both of Jeremy’s leadership campaigns, in 2015 and 2016, behind only the 1.4 million-member Unite union”.
But now, following the decision to “lift its suspension of electoral activity”, the steering committee agreed that there should be a “Tusc appeal to leading trade unionists” - sent out by comrade Nellist, Tusc national chair and leading SPEW member - “inviting them to consider joining the Tusc national steering committee”.
The appeal takes the form of a letter, which reminds us once again that the “founding aim” of Tusc had been “to help in the process of re-establishing a political voice for the working class, given, at that point, the transformation of the Labour Party into Tony Blair’s New Labour and its role in implementing the austerity ...”
Comrade Nellist tells the unnamed “leading trade unionists” that under Corbyn “here was an opportunity to re-establish working class socialist political representation on a mass basis”. (Who would have thought you could do that within the “capitalist party” into which Blair had transformed Labour?) But now,
with Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership of the Labour Party, the situation has changed once again. The opportunities for achieving working class political representation within the Labour framework created by Jeremy’s leadership have receded ... Consequently, the Tusc steering committee has agreed to resume standing candidates in future elections ... with due regard to particular circumstances.6
It is difficult to find words to describe SPEW’s contradictory attitude to the Labour Party. Do the comrades really still believe, following the developments within Labour over the last five years, that the party should be totally written off as a site for struggle? And, even if that was the case, what on earth is the point of supposed Marxists attempting to set up a Labour Party mark two?
You can still read all about this long-gone grouping at cnwp.org.uk/index.htm.↩︎