Left numbers game

Labour Party lobby

In this period of reaction it is vital that the left should openly acknowledge its weakness and lack of influence. Unfortunately, however, that appears to be the last thing many groups are willing to do. Take last week’s lobby of the Labour Party conference, organised by the Socialist Workers Party. As a rare example of a leftwing demonstration with reasonably wide backing, it provided an excellent opportunity to maximise our forces.

The left failed the test. The main groups were much more interested in jockeying for position in order to show themselves in the best possible light. In other words, a typically sectarian and dishonest approach.

As I reported last week, there were around 4,000 people at the rally and march in Bournemouth. This was certainly disappointing, especially as we are now halfway through New Labour’s first term of office and at least some sign of independent working class activity in opposition to Blair could reasonably have been expected. It is possible that my estimate of the numbers was incorrect, but at least it was honest. For example, it took me no more than half an hour to walk from the back to the very front of the demonstration, as it made its way towards the town centre. Clearly the lobby was much smaller than the previous two years.

But the SWP had an interest in talking it up. Not only did it view the event as a way to keep the cadre working; it needed to ‘prove’ that the class was at last beginning to awake, to organise and of course start to look to “the socialists” for a lead - ie, to the SWP itself. Accordingly it claimed there were “up to 10,000” present. What is more, “those demonstrators represented the feelings of millions more across Britain” (Socialist Worker October 2).

What use is such hyperbole to the working class? We all know that Blair is still riding high in the opinion polls and that in general workers are not looking for a left alternative. With the partial exception of Scotland, where the Scottish Socialist Party won almost 10% in the recent Hamilton by-election, the left is on the margins. Even if we are to judge working class combativity in terms of industrial action alone - strikes are at an all-time low - we would have to say that it is almost non-existent.

The latest strike statistics were in fact alluded to by the SWP’s Chris Harman. Socialist Worker reported him as telling the Meyrick Park rally that, “There is a gap between the low level of industrial struggle and the bitterness with Blair.” The paper’s coverage of the event was designed to demonstrate how the SWP is allegedly starting to fill that gap - irrespective of the truth of course.

The particular brand of opportunism of the Socialist Party in England and Wales led it to report the event in a totally different way. Unlike the SWP, it did not emblazon its front page with headlines proclaiming the lobby’s astounding success. Tucked away on page 3 of The Socialist is a tiny article by Bill Mullins, part of the leadership faction which is stridently opposed to close cooperation with the SWP. While the SWP claimed ludicrously inflated figures, comrade Mullins was intent on talking down the numbers for all he was worth. According to him, there were only “2,000-3,000 people” present (October 1).

This deliberate understatement was totally in keeping with SPEW’s entire attitude to the lobby in the run-up to Bournemouth. As general secretary Peter Taaffe was heard to comment after a public meeting last month, “Why should we build anything that benefits the SWP?” (Weekly Worker September 16).Obviously SPEW has decided to continue this disgraceful sectarianism even in its subsequent reporting.

Comrade Mullins wrote: “The organisers, mainly the SWP, had booked five special trains and a number of coaches from around the country; they obviously hoped for more protesters. But workers now see lobbying New Labour to “get them to change direction” (as one SWP platform speaker said) as a lost cause ...

“Real opposition to government policies will increasingly come from below, including mass demonstrations and protests, such as mass non-payment of student tuition fees.”

The last named campaign is of course SPEW’s current hobby horse, just as the SWP’s had been the Labour conference lobby. Clearly “mass demonstrations and protests” are fine - unless they are organised by the SWP. But what does comrade Mullins mean by “opposition … from below”? Does he think that effective protests will be entirely spontaneous, without any organisational input? And what is the difference in this regard between an SWP-organised lobby and a SPEW-organised fee protest?

Comrade Mullins’ quotation of the words of an “SWP platform speaker” is disingenuous. The words, “get them to change direction”, may have been used, but SPEW knows full well that the SWP was primarily aiming to engage with the Labour left, not trying to “change the government’s mind”, as a SPEW leaflet handed out in Bournemouth dishonestly claimed. Yes, the SWP billed the event as a lobby, but it was in effect a demonstration. Socialist Worker itself referred to “demonstrators”, not ‘lobbyers’.

The whole Mullins article reeks of sectarian sour grapes - the attitude of working class partisans ought not to be coloured by such semantics.

Yet another approach was adopted by the Morning Star (Communist Party of Britain). As regards numbers, the Star gave no estimate, referring vaguely to “thousands” of protesters (September 29). What was more interesting was the fact that the CPB agreed to support an SWP event in the first place. Of course the Morning Star could not bring itself to mention the sponsors by name, claiming the lobby was simply a “grassroots demonstration” (perhaps one of SPEW’s spontaneous happenings “from below”? - September 25).

This refusal to utter the name of an opponent - even when you are actually supporting its event - betrays a lack of self-belief. There could surely have been no-one who attended the lobby who did not know who the organisers were - including the handful of CPBers. But Robert Griffiths, John Haylett and co no longer believe that they can provide working class leadership and therefore see no point in trying to establish the truth. They are reduced to maintaining the old ‘official communist’ illusions. In the meantime their increasingly elderly followers continue to shrink in number.

By contrast, Socialist Worker was more than pleased to report that “Robert Griffiths of the Communist Party of Britain” spoke on its platform. Obviously the SWP has no fear of such a political husk.

Peter Manson