Left, take note: Countryside Alliance four times bigger

Taaffe does a U-turn

SPEW’s last-minute about-turn on ‘supporting’ SWP lobby reflects internal crisis

The political instability of Peter Taaffe and his clique were exposed on Sunday’s lobby of the Labour Party conference at Bournemouth, organised by the Socialist Workers Party. Members of the Socialist Party in England and Wales were handing out leaflets which completely contradicted what their general secretary had said publicly less than a fortnight earlier.

Speaking in Leicester on September 13, Taaffe responded to an SWP comrade who called on SPEW to back the lobby. He retorted:

“As Blair is totally insulated from workers - he has his money from big business - the lobby is a waste of time. It won’t change anything, no matter how big, no matter how well attended, so, although individual comrades will be attending, we are not supporting the lobby” (see Weekly Worker September 16).

As comrade Pat Strong of the Socialist Party reported, Taaffe was rather more blunt in private after the meeting: “Why should we build anything that benefits the SWP?” he asked his cadre. Such disgraceful sectarianism is inexcusable, though explainable. SPEW’s national committee has been riven with differences over whether or not to cooperate with the SWP. Industrial organiser Bill Mullins takes a hard anti-SWP stance. And Taaffe dreads another split in his disintegrating ‘party’. 

True, the SWP puts its own narrow interests way above those of the working class as a whole and routinely refuses to cooperate with the rest of the left whenever it can get away with it. But that is no reason for others on the left to behave in the same way. Of course, the lobby and its platform should have received critical backing.

Half a dozen SPEW comrades from the south coast were in attendance, distributing the flyer and selling The Socialist on September 26. It was, however, a centrally produced leaflet which stated that the lobby “is an expression of anger against government attacks on working people and their families”. Our polemic had hit home and had the desired effect.

Clearly Taaffe did a U-turn. He was furious when he read our press. In a rage he flung copies of the Weekly Worker across his Hepscott Road office and promised to deal with any members who have the nerve to report his statements - even when they are made in public. What a sorry indictment of SPEW’s so-called version of democratic centralism - ‘democratic unity’; bureaucratic centralism in reality.

Taaffe decided to make the best out of a bad job. Local members were sent a leaflet, the text of which actually amounted to Taaffe trying to justify Taaffe:

“The Socialist Party has consistently pointed out that Blair’s Labour Party can no longer be considered a workers’ party. It has gone over lock, stock and barrel to the capitalist class ... [Politically Labour has never been a workers’ party - in terms of its base and electoral support, however, it remains working-class - PM] “Therefore, whilst the Socialist Party supports this demo against the government, it would have been better if the organisers of today’s event had called it as a protest rather than a lobby. A lobby can give the impression that it can change the government’s mind by putting pressure on it through the Labour Party conference. In reality, the conference is a completely stage-managed affair, where it is absolutely impossible for the voices of ordinary working people to be heard” (my emphasis).

Comrade Taaffe - incidentally a card-carrying Labour Party member for some four decades - could not bring himself to name “the organisers”, even though everyone present knew who they were.

A valiant (though unsuccessful) attempt at sophistry: refusing to back “the lobby” while ‘supporting’ “this demo”. The SWP may have dubbed it a lobby, but that did not make it a tame appeal to the Blairites in control of the Labour Party. Around 4,000 demonstrators gathered in Meyrick Park to hear speeches from the platform then set off on an hour-long round trip through the centre of Bournemouth, passing the conference venue without stopping, and returning, Duke of York-style, to the starting-point for more speeches.

The deeply divided SWP leadership is of course at sixes and sevens over its own attitude to the Labour Party. In the 1997 general election it called on workers to “vote Labour or socialist”. It seemed for a time that it would take up the electoral challenge and itself stand in the June 1999 EU elections as part of the Socialist Alliance, but it pulled out in London and the North West region, while remaining on the SA list in the West Midlands. It advised its supporters to vote for Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party in London only, and backed the Alternative Labour List in East Midlands and Yorkshire and Humberside. Elsewhere it gave no advice, leaving it to individuals to decide whether to vote SLP or New Labour.

Nevertheless, the decision to call a ‘lobby’ was tactically sound. Surely the main aim was to try and influence the Labour left, not “change the government’s mind”, as SPEW absurdly suggests. Or does Taaffe think that attempting to win over the millions of class-conscious workers who still have illusions of some kind in the Labour Party is also “a waste of time”?

Taaffe was not the only one who tried to put the damper on things. In 1997 and 1998 the SWP organised similar lobbies, but had not done so in its own name. The University College Hospital Unison branch acted as sponsor. But this year retiring general secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe pulled out all the stops to sabotage it. An August 4 circular instructed Unison branches not to use union funds, “any resources” or even banners in support of the lobby. Thankfully a couple of branches defied his edict. Bickerstaffe - a friend of the Morning Star - wants to avoid any embarrassment to Blair at any cost. To all intents and purposes, Taaffe’s sectarianism had the same effect - there was no organised attempt by SPEW members or SPEW-influenced trade union organisations to build the lobby.

Well over half the demonstrators were members or supporters of the SWP, although Tony Benn, addressing the post-march rally, made a feeble attempt to disguise this fact: “Not all the people here are Labour Party members,” he said, without a trace of irony. “Some are in the SWP or Communist Party.” In fact those in Blair’s party were few and far between and there were certainly no Labour banners. Similarly there were only a handful of union banners, although the SWP’s Yunus Bakhsh, in closing the rally, seemed to believe that there was a sea of them. It was only the union leaders who stayed away in comrade Bakhsh’s eyes, and he ended with the announcement that the lobby was - yet another - ‘start of the fightback’.

In fact the lobby was distinctly smaller than the events of the previous two years, reflecting the continuing absence of any working class confidence or self-belief, and, linked to this, the ongoing demoralisation of the left. It is a sad reflection of the strength of our movement that the demonstration organised by the rightwing Countryside Alliance just two days later dwarfed Sunday’s lobby in terms of numbers.

The SWP and SPEW must recognise the reality that is staring them in the face. There is no “crisis of expectations”. I was stopped by two elderly Labour delegates in Bournemouth who demanded to know what the marchers thought they were doing: “Do you want another 18 years in the wilderness?” They said they used to be communists. Seeing no hope for a left alternative, it was a Tory comeback they feared. Latest opinion polls (before the Labour conference) may have registered increasing disappointment with Blair’s record, but Labour is still riding high.

In these circumstances there can be no place for go-it-alone sectarianism of either the SWP or SPEW variety. The left must unite - not only at the polls, but first and foremost around the building of a mass democratic centralist party.

Peter Manson