The fight for party and May 3

Dave Craig of the Revolutionary Democratic Group identifies two camps in the workers' movement

The formation of the May 3 Committee provides the best way forward for those in the Socialist Alliance campaigning for a new workers’ party. That was the positive message from the CPGB’s July 5 fringe meeting at Marxism 2003. This is particularly important because the struggle for a new party is hotting up and the old Labourites are on the offensive.

This struggle takes many and varied forms. At the recent Alliance for Workers’ Liberty summer school, for example, AWL comrades debated their attitude to the Labour Party and trade union political funds. Tom Rigby was one of the leading advocates of the old Labour perspective, with a very different line to the Revolutionary Democratic Group. It was nevertheless surprising, although quite logical, to hear that Tom had made a stinging attack on the RDG.

Sean Matgamna mentioned Tom’s speech to me when I bumped into him in the coffee bar. He was concerned that I might have been offended by the rather contemptuous way Tom had spoken about us. I assured him that I had not been at the meeting and in any case a few insults were only to be expected.

Perhaps Tom was getting carried away with his own rhetoric when he compared the mighty Transport and General Workers Union, organising millions, to the tiny RDG. Should the AWL orientate towards the working class or mess about with poxy little groups? Posed in this way, the answer seems obvious. But is it?

It would be easy to dismiss Tom’s attack as sectarian nonsense. But I am inclined to take the point seriously and analyse what is behind it. Perhaps Tom is making a more astute observation than is obvious at first sight. Surely the reference to the RDG and TGWU are metaphors for something else? We need to decode his message.

Those with an eye for history might see in this the argument between reform and revolution. In 1903 there was a debate in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party between Lenin and the economists, which focused on the distinction between the ‘organisation of workers’ and the ‘organisation of revolutionaries’.

Lenin defended the ‘organisation of revolutionaries’ as the politics of the advanced section of the class. The economists on the other hand fell over themselves to praise trade ‘organisations of workers’. But, as Lenin pointed out, trade unions represented the bourgeois consciousness of the average worker. Comparing the politics of the TGWU to those of the RDG is like comparing reformism to Marxism. We could just as well substitute the AWL or the CPGB for the RDG and the same point would be valid.

A more likely interpretation is that the TGWU and RDG are metaphors for the Labour Party and the Socialist Alliance. We must conclude that Tom wants to reorientate the AWL towards the Labour Party. Over the last few years the AWL has moved away from Labour towards working in the Socialist Alliance. More than anything else it is the Socialist Alliance that has brought the AWL and the RDG into a much closer political alignment.

At present the Labour left seems to be reviving and the Socialist Alliance is more divided than ever. The ousting of Steve Godward as chair of the Birmingham SA by the Socialist Workers Party has done considerable damage to the credibility of the alliance. For most of the SA ‘independents’ the actions of the SWP spell the end of the SA.

In these circumstances the line of least resistance leads back to the Labour Party. Such a conclusion would be short-sighted. It fails to understand that the SA is not a party, nor is it the finished project. It is a process. The only way to understand the SA process is by seeing its evolution as a struggle between opposites.

The SA was fundamentally a left unity project. Originally the SA was a non-party organisation linking the Socialist Party into a red-green milieu of local activists. This was symbolised by the leading roles of Dave Nellist and Pete McLaren. It followed developments in Scotland, where the Scottish Socialist Alliance grew out of the unity built up in the struggle against the poll tax. It was neither a party nor had anybody in it any intention of turning it into one.

In England, the Socialist Alliance was very nearly eclipsed by Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, which began to unite militant sections of the left who wanted to fight New Labour and were not afraid to launch themselves as a party. However, the optimism generated by the SLP soon floundered on the rocks of ‘Scargillism’. So the Socialist Alliance got a boost with the arrival of pro-party refugees from the SLP. At the same time the SWP was awakening to the necessity of an electoral challenge to Labour and joined the fray.

The creation of the SA programme People before profit in 2000 and the general election in 2001 was the high point of SA unity. But by the December 2001 conference, there had been a change. The exit of the Socialist Party was the first real setback for the unity project. Did the SP jump or was it pushed? Comrades have different views on that score. What was clear was that the SWP were not trying to keep it on board. Changes in the SA constitution also excluded supporting organisations from representation on the national council.

Less than a month later the Bedfordshire Socialist Alliance became a battleground between the SWP and a bloc of ‘indies’ and RDG supporters. What happened in Bedfordshire prefigures the current events in the Birmingham SA. The SWP recruited about 25 new members who turned up at their very first meeting determined to remove the three leading comrades who had set up the BSA. They voted out the BSA’s democratic constitution and refused to adopt a new one. However, the indies and RDG would not work with the SWP without the safeguards of a democratic constitution.

To avoid a split, the BSA officers requested an urgent meeting with the SA executive. But the executive, represented by Liz Davis and Will McMahon, refused to meet the officers, took over the BSA and handed it to the SWP. Within a few months the SWP were trying to expel comrades Danny Thompson and Jane Clarke. The BSA has not met since January 2003.

One result of this struggle was the formation of the BSA Democratic and Republican Platform. This merely highlighted the fact that there was no national platform and therefore no alternative national perspective. With the exit of the SP, the other political groups were incorporated into the SA executive. Their position seemed secure and they were able to have a dialogue with the SWP. The problems in Bedfordshire were presented as a little local difficulty rather than a political issue facing us all.

However, the contradictions within the SA did not let such complacent thinking rest undisturbed. During 2002 we saw the resignation of Liz Davis and the alienation of such prominent indies as Mike Marqusee and Anna Chen. But more significantly was the failure of the SA to intervene effectively in the firefighters’ dispute and anti-war movement. The latter produced the largest mass mobilisation in our history. But beyond ‘Stop the war’ the SA had nothing significant to say about where the movement should go.

This year’s annual SA conference on May 10 was a significant step forward. The SWP and its allies took over. Far from this being a setback, as some might think, it simply made everybody face reality. It marked the end of all illusions in the SA. Surely that is the beginning of real wisdom. The SWP majority were now officially in charge and we could no longer pretend anything else. For some the shock was too great. But for many of us it is the beginning of progress. The majority won the right to relaunch the SA as a broader alliance orientated towards those the SWP worked with in the Stop the War Coalition. But at the same time a much clearer minority proposed that the SA should begin campaigning for a workers’ party within the socialist and trade union movement.

In this respect the creation of the May 3 Committee was the obverse of the SWP taking power. The May 3 Committee was named after a meeting held on that date, involving the AWL, CPGB, RDG, the Beds SA Democratic and Republican Platform and pro-party SA indies. This meeting produced a composite motion in favour of campaigning for a workers’ party, which was supported by James White and SA members in Merseyside, whose motions were incorporated into the composite.

At the SA conference the composite secured about a third of the votes and established itself as the main alternative to the majority perspective carried by the bloc of the SWP, ISG and pro-SWP indies. Since then we have made some progress in putting the May 3 Committee on a more formal basis with the intention of convening a conference later in the year. To understand the significance of the May 3 Committee we need to view it not only as a product of the evolving struggle in the Socialist Alliance, but as a product of a wider struggle in the working class movement.

Let us return to the politics of Tom Rigby’s favourite organisation. Last week Tony Woodley, general secretary of the TGWU, one of the new left-leaning trade union leaders, was pleading with his members to remain loyal to Labour and not to “walk away”. He warned that New Labour’s days were numbered. Noting the bitter disappointment within the working class, he sought to persuade disillusioned Labour activists to stay and fight for “the soul of the party” (Financial Times July 3). Was this the same speech that Tom made at the AWL summer school?

The chair of the Labour Party, Ian McCartney, was on hand to point out that unless the trade unions accepted Labour’s anti-union laws, privatisation, flexible labour markets and fat-cat pay then the Tories would be back. For McCartney, the two-party system meant that workers had only one choice. The trade union movement must back New Labour or face disaster. But the two-party system is already breaking down. In Scotland, constitutional change has let workers have a different set of political options reflected in the growing support for the Scottish Socialist Party. This is why workers in England should not simply wait for political change, but should actively mobilise to break the constitutional mould of two-party Toryism.

Compare this with the more militant approach taken by the RMT delegates at their annual conference in Glasgow. General secretary Bob Crow branded the cabinet “war criminals” who had “betrayed” workers. Delegates launched a series of bitter attacks against the government over its treatment of workers. Disaffiliation from Labour is now on the cards. RMT branches will be able to get permission to support other political organisations. Bob Crow made it clear that this could mean support for the SSP, Ken Livingstone or even Plaid Cymru. But the major problem for the RMT is the lack of a workers’ party they could support in England and Wales.

There is now a major divide within the working class movement. On one side are those who oppose creating and building a new workers’ party. This includes the TGWU, Unison, the Campaign Group of MPs, the Communist Party of Britain and the SWP (and its majority in the Socialist Alliance) and of course Tom Rigby. Either in theory or practice this bloc is opposed to independent working class political representation. By ‘independent’ we mean with a programme and organisation independent from the capitalist class. The Labour government supports and is supported by the capitalist class. The party that sustains it cannot and does not provide independent representation for the working class movement.

On the opposite side are the RMT, the SSP, the Socialist Party, and those the SA minority represented in the May 3 Committee. It would be easy to blame the SWP for acting as a block on the development of the SA. Their policies have and are continuing to undermine the possibility of uniting the left in an anti-New Labour workers’ party. However, we must examine and criticise our own policies. Sectarianism is still a major factor weakening and undermining those who are fighting for a workers’ party.

The example of Workers Power refusing even to discuss a composite motion with the May 3 groups can only assist anti-partyism and the SWP. The failure of the AWL, CPGB and RDG to unite around a common revolutionary platform has been very divisive. At times relations between these groups have become quite sectarian. The question of whether the Socialist Party’s exit from the SA was a sectarian move will be tested when we see if they are prepared to work with us.

The real point is that the SWP can only damage us in so far as we fail to overcome our own sectarianism and unite. We must concentrate much more on overcoming our own sectarian weakness and not simply make the SWP the scapegoat for our own failures.