At the Socialist Alliance policy conference on March 10, the majority decided to adopt £7 per hour as our manifesto pledge for a minimum wage.
A CPGB amendment for £8.57 per hour (£300 for a 35-hour week) was rejected by our alliance partners (Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party in England and Wales, Alliance for Workers' Liberty, Workers Power and the International Socialist Group).
The debates that followed our intervention, both prior to and at the event, vividly express the difference between our revolutionary method and the approach of our tailist allies.
As Tom May argued in regard to the CPGB calculation, the 'minimum' approach "ought to be on the basis of what is necessary for simple labour to reproduce itself at the cultural and physical level appropriate to current social conditions" (Weekly Worker March 8). In other words, we care not one jot as to how acceptable our demand is to the capitalist class, or to their servants in the labour bureaucracy. The CPGB's standpoint rests on the working class imposing its own needs on the system, a vital precursor to our class becoming the ruling class.
This straightforward strategy is not to the liking of our SA allies. When our minority amendment was mooted at Haringey SA on February 27, the SWP was in the forefront in attacking our demand. Weyman Bennett frankly admitted that, "£7 an hour is not enough to live on, but that's not the point." 'Fighting' to keep our class in poverty presumably is. Comrade Bennett's fellow SWP member, Simon Hester, told Haringey comrades that he would not work for less than £10 an hour himself, but implied that £7 an hour was quite enough for unskilled and uneducated members of the working class, thank you very much.
The 'clincher' for the SWP is that posing more than £7 is "too radical" and isolates you from workers (although telling them you would expect higher yourself would possibly alienate people even more). Such musings were perfectly amplified at the SA policy conference. After Tina Becker of the CPGB had moved our amendment to the draft policy document, Duncan Morrison of the AWL rose to oppose.
In a mealy-mouthed and sullen contribution (his demeanour, I would suggest, was the perfect complement to his wretched argument) he tried to mock the CPGB for our 'pocket calculator' approach to the question. So in the strange world of the AWL it is presumably quite correct to allow the likes of the TUC and the European Union to get their ruling class calculators out, but not all right for the workers' movement to independently calculate what our class needs to reproduce itself. It is actually embarrassing that the SA now accepts the EU so-called 'decency threshold' of £7 an hour. The method of the AWL, SWP et al has nothing whatsoever to do with the self-liberation of the proletariat.
Comrade Morrisson then moved on to give us a brief lecture on how we should not cut ourselves off from advanced workers who might be "put off" by the earth-shattering prospect of fighting for £8.57 an hour. Of course, this fear of being a minority, the need to 'swim with the tide', is merely the cultural herald of the AWL's wretched economism. But let us pose it in a way that Duncan might find more amenable. Take strike actions. Do workers move into action spontaneously and all at once? Do militants inside the unions say, 'Well, I don't want to cut myself off'? Or do they take the lead?
My experience of organising action in the MSF union last year was one of a six-month process of arguing with local members about the necessity of a strike. Using comrade Morrisson's logic I would not have bothered. Come to think of it, we would not have a trade union movement at all.
The convoluted reasoning of our economistic comrades is given another reformist twist in last week's Socialist Worker (March 10). It is here that the SWP gives its own 'pocket calculator' Socialist Alliance budget. From the outset it is hard to see the value of a revolutionary organisation proving how various demands on pensions, public services and wages can be provided and 'balanced' from within the national confines of Great Britain plc (the question of revolution is fudged with a cryptic reference to wanting "further renationalisation and workers' control").
The SWP tells us that it will institute a minimum wage of £7 an hour, alongside a pitifully low pension of £100 a week - upped by the Birmingham conference to £150 - that the comrades insist would constitute a "powerful blow against poverty". The fact that this has been costed as against what the capitalist system can afford - admittedly when big business has been "squeezed" and the military machine has been slashed - eloquently illustrates the SWP's flop into reformist 'respectability'. The article also tails the common sense, 'Where's the money going to come from?' view. The revolutionary answer would of course be that the whole system (including, eventually, money itself) has to go. The SWP presumably has other ideas.
In the SWP's world view, then, £7 a hour is not really a fighting demand to put to the workers' movement: it is what it thinks the capitalist system can reasonably allow. Which is merely evidence of our central point: comrades who put forward positions that consciously tail existing consciousness are on a very slippery slope indeed. A half-hearted reformist culture will in the end produce a reformist politics.