Another failed unity project

The United Socialist Party, formed out of discussions between representatives of the sacked Merseyside dockers and the 47 ex-Labour councillors, has just split. In this article Iain Hunter, the USP organiser until his resignation last week, describes the formation of the party and events leading to his departure, together with fellow executive members John Kennedy, Jimmy Hackett and Phillys Starkie

Over the past 10 years or more several projects attempting to fill the massive vacuum on the left in politics have been launched - each of them, to different degrees, aiming to build a new mass working class party. On balance we can say that these projects have been mostly failures, the notable exception being the Scottish Socialist Alliance and the Scottish Socialist Party which emerged from it. Victimised 10 years ago, exploited today by a sectarian clique Readers of the Weekly Worker will be very aware of the causes of much of the failure. In the case of the Socialist Labour Party, which had great potential in its base amongst industrial militants and its high-profile leadership in the from of Arthur Scargill, it was crippled by sectarian hostility to pluralism and internal democracy. This resulted in intolerance and rejection of unity with Militant Labour in England, Scottish Militant Labour and other left groups. Its relative strength has subsequently waned and it is now a bureaucratic husk, fast disappearing from the scene. The Socialist Alliance in England, along with its sister organisation in Scotland, represented something altogether more healthy and vibrant. The majority in the SA understood the necessity of pluralism and democracy in the hard struggle to achieve left unity in action. A critical debate opened up as to which way to proceed. This has particularly been the case in Scotland, where SML argued strongly for the SA to move towards becoming a broad socialist party. The debate was conducted within the SML, in the wider international (Committee for a Workers' International) and within the alliance. The majority of SML and the SSA moved towards forming the SSP in autumn 1998. The subsequent seven years have on balance vindicated this decision. Obviously ongoing developments will determine the level of the future success of the SSP. In England the SA achieved modest successes but failed to move towards a broad socialist party due to the unwillingness of, primarily the Socialist Party, to use its influence and pull the other forces in a partyist direction. The Socialist Workers Party decision to join the SA saw briefly all the major hard left groups in the one body in England, but sectarian ideas of being the one true party continued to dominate and the alliance was riven with distrust and hostility. The SWP's numerical advantage meant that the SP felt the project had been hijacked for SWP sectarian gain. Exit the SP. History points to this being the case: the SWP subsequently used the SA as an on-off electoral front before nullifying its effectiveness and then, when it had made its turn towards developing the new front, Respect, delivering the coup de grà¢ce to the SA. The minority - a collection of micro-groups - hobble on with their plan to rise again as the SA mark three this autumn. As someone who was politically active from the miners' strike until 2002 in Scotland, I have helped play my part in most of the struggles, politically and industrially. In that period I was a member of SML and the SSA, and subsequently the SSP. In 2002 I moved to Liverpool and joined the SA. Merseyside SA was relatively healthy in that there was a degree of pluralism, shaped by the fact that the SWP constituted a minority. However even Merseyside SA was subjectively weak and appeared to be little more than a debating circle and forum for the left. As the SA nationally was downgraded, the prospects even on Merseyside looked bleak. Although a small number of Liverpool comrades where keen not to close down, others looked towards the discussions that had been inaugurated by the SP and the grouping of the 47 ex-Labour councillors from late 80s with the leaders of the sacked Liverpool dockers as a very positive development. This was known as the Campaign for a Mass Workers' Party. These discussions where broadened out by the holding of three very well attended public meetings. The first was addressed by, amongst others, Dave Nellist, ex-Labour MP and SP councillor; the second by Tony Mulhearn, ex-deputy leader of Liverpool socialist council, Jimmy Nolan and Terry Teague of the sacked dockers and John Kennedy, ex-finance officer of the 47 councillors; and the third public meeting was addressed by the then SSP convenor, Tommy Sheridan MSP. Each of these meetings was attended by between 50 and 100 comrades - not perhaps the largest of meetings, but it is important to note the qualitatively high level of experienced comrades in attendance. Two distinct trends began to appear, which could be characterised roughly as pro-partyist and pro-campaign. The most favourable to the maintaining of a broad campaign were the SP and some of the 47 councillors; and those most sympathetic towards moving to form a party where the dockers' leaders and some non-aligned independents. By the autumn of 2004 a number of meetings of the steering committee had been held and the discussions here were in favour of a party. However, the SP decided to pull out when the dockers - on their own or at least without the full discussion and endorsement of the steering committee - decided on a constitution that excluded platforms. It gave a time-limited ultimatum demanding that all participating groups and organisations wind themselves up entirely within one year (which could be extended to two years by agreement). This was in my opinion a grave tactical error, as the SP would definitely reject such a position. I had argued strongly in the steering committee for a party which allowed pluralism and platforms, modelled on the SSP. Furthermore, the secret meetings held between the dockers and the SP were going against the transparency and openness needed to cement some trust and unity in the project. This development was unfortunate, but in the context of the lack of alternatives, and with the good will and working relationships that had been developed, I and others decided that the best option was to make sure the now named United Socialist Party would strive to become a viable broad, democratic, combative, socialist party. A party which turned itself outwards and campaigned on a socialist programme in the working class. I and others saw this as primary in our efforts to build a party which could, once tried and tested on the battlefield of class struggle, become a pole of attraction for left unity. In the winter of 2004 we formed an executive and a branch which would meet regularly. I was elected party organiser and gave up my paid employment to concentrate on party work. Politically we explored a more comprehensive programme and our strategy for the launch, which we agreed would be in time to contest the 2005 general election. One glaring problem the party faced was its lack of a democratic constitution. We had considered drafting a constitution in the autumn, but there had been no discussion on the detail. Rather a compromise had been reached whereby the constitution of the SSP would be redrafted. Now I am very familiar with the SSP constitution and would contend that it is a model of pluralism, democracy and accountability. Sadly the document put forward by the dockers and the party secretary, Eric McIntosh, consisted of merely the preamble of the SSP constitution and the end section. The clauses relating to democratic mechanisms, structures, roles, together with the question of networks and platforms, had been omitted, although it should be noted that there was a rider that these could be re-examined as the USP progressed. As things stood, there were no developments on any front in relation to our first conference, planned for early 2006. This was the situation as we prepared for a public launch and general election challenge. It also has to be stated that the USP lacks - as other left unity projects in England have lacked - a strong ideological and organisational driving force as existed with SML in the creation and development of the SSP. In my opinion, however, this problem is not insurmountable. In the lull that followed the festive period I and other comrades on the EC sought to address the question of democracy and platforms and indeed the programmatic weaknesses of the party. At this stage we had only a thumbnail sketch of policy - anti- privatisation, pro-workers' rights, etc. We had no democratic mechanism for proposing motions and amendments. Not even 'one member, one vote' was in the constitution. On the more contentious issue of platforms and pluralism we had the first signs that there was division in the party, with Eric McIntosh asking for the definition of pluralism at one executive meeting. He subsequently brought along to the next EC the Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word. An internal bulletin was advocated and subsequently produced by Dot Gibson in London, who is the editor of the party paper Unite. The first bulletin was concerned with programme and three papers were submitted. I redrafted in the context of England the SSP manifesto for the 2003 Scottish parliamentary elections. People before profit, the SA 2001 manifesto, was submitted unamended by Robin Burnham from south-east England. Our secretary, Eric McIntosh, presented a (subsequently withdrawn) paper consisting of SLP-type politics with some anti-socialist passages added. Notable in this paper was the call for immigration controls and the use of members of the Territorial Army for the policing of industrial dispute picket lines. An all-members meeting agreed unanimously to use the SSP redrafted manifesto as the basis for our political campaigns and general election challenge. It was agreed that on an ongoing basis it would be discussed fully and amended as necessary, as we progressed to our 2006 conference. I moved a paper on platforms, organisation and accountability at the EC. It drew heavily on the SSP constitution, although I added more stringent requirements for any platforms to adhere to than is the case in the SSP - for example, publication of revenues and the quarterly review of platform activities, etc. This paper was discussed and resulted in a vote of 8-0 in favour at the EC, and it was agreed that this motion would be put forward to the next all-members meeting for discussion and ratification. This meeting was the cause of much disagreement. Prior to it I had received a phone call from the secretary telling me that I would split the party if I put forward the platform motion (which incidentally he had voted for at the EC). I said I was unhappy that threats of splits were being issued when there had been an opportunity at the EC to voice disagreements. I told him the paper would be presented for open debate at the all-members meeting and that a healthy party does not suppress such genuine political debate. Mr McIntosh, who has been a member of the Labour Party until 2001 and subsequently a member and candidate of the SLP, was having none of this and told me that other members of the EC, such as John Kennedy, were against the paper. John later told me that our friend Eric had called him and said I was withdrawing the paper. Mr McIntosh's duplicity was uncomradely, to say the least. At the all-members meeting the secretary informed me that my motion was not on the agenda. He alleged that it was unconstitutional and said I should consider leaving the party. After about 45 minutes the chair, comrade Jimmy Nolan, who had been talking of the experience of the dockers' struggle, made a number of statements along the lines that platforms would not be allowed in the USP. He drew an analogy - correct in an industrial dispute, but wrong in a socialist organisation wishing to represent the working class - with the unity of workers necessary in struggle, which would not allow for minority positions. The meeting descended into a row and many grievances came to the surface. Amongst them was the assertion made by McIntosh that leading figures in the Militant Tendency had drove John Hamilton, ex-leader of Liverpool socialist council, "to an early grave". Some ex-members of Militant were rightly very unhappy at this pernicious smear. The meeting demonstrated that the USP was now in my opinion dominated by a small clique of EC members - namely the chair, unreconstructed Stalinist Jimmy Nolan (ex-SLP), the secretary, Eric McIntosh (ex-SLP), and the vice-chair, Jimmy Wilson (ex-SLP); they were supported by ex-Workers Revolutionary Party members such as Dot Gibson; Bill Hunter, a former WRP organiser and now a member of the International Socialist League micro-sect; and Martin Ralph, also ex-WRP and ISL. Their methods where thoroughly undemocratic and their programme completely unprincipled. John Kennedy and Phyllis Starkey, who both left Militant in 1987 and were non-aligned members of the EC, put forward a motion on democracy. This called for motions to come from the branch to the EC, and from the EC to the branch, and to be debated fully at a bi-monthly all-members meeting - a formula again based on the experience of the SSP national council. Explicitly advocating 'one member, one vote' and 'one member, one motion' - relevant in a party which at this stage had fewer than 60 members - this attempt to address the party's glaring democratic deficit was put forward at the all-members meeting on March 23. The paper that I had proposed on platforms was due to be debated but was withdrawn in the interest of unity. A motion enriching the party's one-year and two-year rule for any organisation to dissolve itself was put forward by comrade Jimmy Wilson. Prior to the all-members meeting two significant developments had taken place. A letter had been sent by Eric McIntosh on behalf of the dockers asking two of the founding comrades, John Kennedy and ex-councillor Jimmy Hackett, to meet with the dockers' contingent of Jimmy Nolan, Terry Teague (EC member) and Mickey Tithe (party treasurer). This meeting was to resolve differences and help create unity in the USP, it was stated. Compromise and conciliation seem to be the order of the day and Jimmy Hackett intimated that the platform motion from him and myself would be withdrawn and that we would not oppose comrade Wilson's reaffirmation of the original position of 'one year, two years or leave'. The other development was an open letter from McIntosh, which stated that, unlike others, he was not "an anarchist, a Trotskyist, a Stalinist or a member of the CP", and what a good egg he was with only the interests of the party and working class at heart. The all-members meeting was well attended and it became obvious that the dockers had made sure that they had enough bodies. The other camp in their alliance was the ex-WRP from both the north-west and south-east England. We sensed that we had been set up for a political ambush. The agenda consisted of the motion from myself on platforms, the motion from Wilson (one year, two years or leave) and the democracy-accountability motion from comrade Kennedy, with a discussion on our approach to the general election to follow. I formally withdrew my motion. Jimmy Wilson's motion was passed and then the meeting departed from the agenda, moving straight to the discussion on the general election without hearing comrade Kennedy's motion. This had become a feature of the USP: when you do not want to debate something, ignore it. The general election discussion caused some consternation, as the ex-WRP types were all fired up for a campaign and the candidate, ex-councillor George Knibb, was apparently raring to go (by the way, comrade Knibb had not been elected: he had been appointed as candidate by the dockers and their allies without the scrutiny of the membership). However, it turned out that comrade Knibb clearly saw a party which had little credibility and decided not to stand. John Kennedy then moved that we do not stand in this general election, as we were not fully prepared. This was countered by Dot Gibson of London, who said that they had agreed to stand a candidate in Crawley, Sussex. The vote on whether to contest at all was tied 15-15 and the London comrades agreed not to stand. Comrade Kennedy managed to put forward his motion on democracy near the end of the meeting. No debate was forthcoming, although ex-WRP comrades like Martin Ralph suggested that it could not be moved, as the previous paper from comrade Wilson covered this in a section that said no decisions could be made until the 2006 conference. What he omitted to say was that this very motion was itself unconstitutional and this was the point being addressed by comrade Kennedy in dealing with the lack of democracy and the right to put forward motions, full stop. So comrade Kennedy's motion would have to be agreed for anything else to proceed. A vote was taken and the motion lost narrowly. To those of us who supported democracy it was obvious that the other side had mobilised for this meeting, unlike ourselves. However, we had won over a number of good comrades. The USP stands as a thoroughly undemocratic party, denying pluralism and platforms. It also fails to measure up in terms of composition. Bluntly, the magnificent fight of the 500-sacked Liverpool dockers is in no meaningful way represented in the USP. Only three ex-dockers have played any significant role in its creation and subsequent stunted development. Of these Jimmy Nolan has discarded any semblance of democracy, while Terry Teague has not been active in the party - he honestly asserts that he has other work to do, particularly that connected to the 10th anniversary of the dockers dispute this autumn. Micky Tighe has been an excellent comrade in his role as treasurer and has consistently supported the fight for a democratic USP. As for the rest of the dockers, I believe there are only six who are paper USP members. The first time I met them was when they turned up at the March 23 members' meeting, most probably at the bequest of comrade Nolan. Amongst other leading lights of the party are what could politely be called a right reformist bureaucrat who seeks "rational, not radical, policies which are acceptable to the electorate and trade unions", along with maintaining the monarchy until the first term of a "USP government", when a referendum will be held - these are the views of secretary Eric McIntosh. Apart from Jimmy Wilson, ex-Labour and SLP activist, there are some of the remnants of the clinically insane WRP: chiefly its ex-national treasurer and aide-de-camp of the debauched Gerry Healey - namely, Dot Gibson, party paper editor; and the clique of ex-WRPers from the south-east of England, along with their fellow travellers from Merseyside and Manchester in the form of Martin Ralph and Bill Hunter of the ISL. At the executive meeting of the USP held on Thursday April 7 I and three other EC members resigned from the executive and the USP itself. We did so because each of us believe that the USP is no longer a party to which we could recruit - something we did steadily from the start - due to its undemocratic form. We circulated an open letter explaining our decision to the members, as we are confident that the existing EC will attempt to gloss or misrepresent the facts relating to our withdrawal. The USP future is dim not merely because it has no internal democracy, but because it is an unprincipled lash-up of bureaucrats and sectarians opportunistically gravitating to something that appears to give them the credibility of a connection to a heroic and principled group of workers. The USP's inability to hold political discussions and its lack of campaigning will in my opinion consign it to the political dustbin as yet another failed project. At best it may linger on as a pale shadow of its genetic precursor, Scargill's SLP. It is perhaps the words of Dot Gibson, whose own history in building a workers party - ie, the WRP - is dubious, which typify the failure. Writing in a USP internal bulletin, she appears to indirectly take issue with the SSP: "Those who want the already internal groups to join as 'platforms' also want 'people power' - both are alien to a workers' party." And in a veiled attack on ourselves Dot Gibson has this to say: "The party cannot be otherwise than an arena of stark struggles arising from the fact that we live in a capitalist society and the rights of party members are there to make sure that the party itself does not lose its way and abandon its aim not to accommodate individuals' whims or wounded feelings or allow the pressures of current society in through the back door." We fought not through "wounded feelings", but, just as the body needs oxygen, so an organisation which aspires to be a broad socialist party needs democracy. There is a debate to be had on democratic centralism and the revolutionary party, but for myself and other comrades who have resigned neither Dot Gibson nor anyone else never gave us this debate. So how does comrade Gibson see the development of a new workers' party? She answers clearly in the same bulletin: "A new workers' party can only come out of a break in the Labour Party and trade unions "¦" We may be waiting a good while for the thoroughly bourgeois Labour Party to deliver a breakaway. Meanwhile the four comrades who have left the United Socialist Party will continue the fight for a pluralist, democratic socialist force that can learn the lessons of the USP's failure. We will shortly be hosting a socialist forum that will feature the film Socialism on trial, the story of the Liverpool socialist council, and we appeal to the many good socialists in the USP to engage with us in the project to establish such a force.