Workers breaking with Labour

Bill Hunter of the International Socialist League takes issue with criticisms of the Liverpool-based United Socialist Party

In the Weekly Worker of April 14 an article, written by Iain Hunter, appeared entitled, 'Another failed unity project'. The editorial lead-in declared: "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 fact four members of the United Socialist Party had resigned, ostensibly because they lost the vote on a resolution. Apart from displaying a lamentable confusion on the nature of the USP and the road to a new mass party of the working class, Iain Hunter's article takes us down to a gutter level of polemics. While he calls for pluralism and democracy, his letter is appalling in its tone, with its personal attacks and witch-hunting accusations, seeking to reduce the discussion to an exchange of insults. He tells us that attempts to build the new party have failed (in his opinion!) because of a lack of pluralism and democracy. The real difference, however, lies in how we see the essential role of the working class in the creation of the new party. We saw the new party coming out of a development of the working class, brought about as the crisis of capitalism pushed workers into struggle, resulting in a political fight against New Labour. We thus saw the question of the new party posed as a question for masses - as it was posed at the end of the 19th century, when the Labour Party was born. However, Iain Hunter sees development in a narrow sectarian way as the building of a new party out of a fusion of socialist groups (platforms) in the United Socialist Party. He in no way attempts to understand the movements of the class, and ends up substituting invective for analysis and political clarity. That is clear in his reference to the dockers' movement and its leaders. He calls Jimmy Nolan an "unreconstructed Stalinist". The use of such a characterisation shows little real connection with the dockers' struggle, little understanding of it, and little desire to engage in a real assistance to the development of that movement. Jimmy Nolan and other leaders of Liverpool dockers have been in the unofficial committees since the 1960s, and came up through the great strike of 1967. This was a fight for conditions on Merseyside comparable to the London dockers. It was inspired by the Liverpool Ford workers' struggle for parity with Dagenham Ford workers, and itself inspired a whole movement for better conditions in the north west, and for what became known as the Merseyside wage. The dockers then fought to defend the dock labour scheme in the face of the retreat of national union leaders in 1989. They continued their struggle in a 28-month dispute (1995 to 1997), passing on traditions, lessons and inspiration to other workers in their principled stand against deregulation, casualisation and anti-trade union laws. That dispute brought forward the Women of the Waterfront, united actions with Reclaim the Streets and developed the countrywide strike support groups which had started in the 1984-85 miners' strike and had become a feature of the independent organisation of the working class. The dockers carried on a permanent extension of their experiences in the International Dockworkers Committee, and developed the 'Casa' as a workers' centre. They are preparing to draw the lessons of the dispute at a 10th anniversary event later this year. Nolan and other dockers' leaders fought against their union leadership for the right to elect shop stewards on the docks and put every decision before meetings of the rank and file dockers. Whereas Iain Hunter refers abstractly to "democracy", the dockers' leadership actually organised the 1995-97 dispute in a thoroughly democratic way through weekly mass meetings, taking decisions by a vote of members, and it is on the basis of this experience that they now safeguard the democratic rights of members of the USP. Iain Hunter's phrases about the "magnificent dockers" movement are worthless. For anyone with experience of alliances of revolutionary socialist groups that break down when they spend their time fighting each other, it is no wonder that workers are wary about allowing such groups to join the USP as already existing platforms. In fact, the USP has agreed a constitution and a manifesto as the basis for discussion in preparation for the first conference early in 2006 and any amendments or additions will be submitted and decided at that conference. The motion referred to by Iain Hunter "on democracy", advocating "one member, one vote" and "one member, one motion" was deferred on that basis and it was immediately published in the internal bulletin as part of the pre-conference discussion. Secretary of the USP Eric McIntosh gets 'the treatment' from Iain Hunter. His submission for the policy discussion is dismissed as "Socialist Labour Party-type politics with some anti-socialist passages added". I have disagreements with some of the points made in Eric's paper, but for me this makes it even more important that these questions are discussed properly and not simply labelled and dismissed. At least Eric McIntosh withdrew his paper so as to raise the points in the ongoing discussion, but Iain Hunter resigned as soon as he lost a vote! He denounces former members of the Workers Revolutionary Party as being "clinically mad" and writes us off darkly as "ex-WRP types" (he specifically names Dot Gibson and myself). But what does he mean? A valid question, since it is generally known that the WRP "exploded" in 1985 when the anti-democratic and corrupt practices of leader Gerry Healy and his supporters were successfully exposed and dealt with. It just so happens that those of us who are now in the USP led and organised that successful struggle. Yet Iain Hunter lumps all former WRP members together as "ex-WRP types"! Phyllis Starkey joins Hunter's sneers at "ex-WRP types", but the same Phyllis Starkey was a member of the WRP and its predecessor, the Socialist Labour League. She dropped out of membership, but reappeared and became a member of the central committee after 1985, when Gerry Healy and his supporters had been expelled. Therefore is Phyllis Starkey an "ex-WRP type"? I include this fact simply to show how wrong it is to attach labels in a sneering and smearing way (I have written in the first part of my autobiography, Life-long apprenticeship, about the early years and development of the WRP and its leader, Gerry Healy, and it is available for all to read). Iain Hunter's attack, with its sinister references, is one that many socialists, including Dot Gibson and myself, have faced before - from rightwingers in the Labour Party and unions. Even back in 1953 - when the national executive committee of the Labour Party conducted a witch-hunt of leftwing councillors in East Islington and Lambeth, accusing them of connection with the journal, Socialist Outlook, dark accusations were made at the enquiry set up by the NEC into East Islington party that, "Mrs Hunter and councillor Hunter went around disseminating perpetual revolution!" Iain Hunter today rhetorically asks: "So how does comrade Gibson see the development of a new workers' party?" and goes on: "She answers clearly in the same [USP internal] bulletin: 'A new workers' party can only come out of a break in the Labour Party and the trade unions.' We may be waiting a good while for the thoroughly bourgeois Labour Party to deliver a breakaway." Such sneering covers an inability to analyse serious developments that affect the working class. Was it 'waiting for delivery' when the Fire Brigades Union decided to end its affiliation to the Labour Party? Or when the Rail, Maritime and Transport union refused to back down over affiliation to the Scottish Socialist Party and got expelled from Labour? And what about the Rail Against Privatisation march of RMT members throughout the country during this general election campaign? They are accused of undermining the Labour vote, but is it not their intention to positively draw a line between them and New Labour leaders who support big business? What about the huge votes of public sector workers to take strike action against the Labour government over jobs and pensions? So workers are breaking with the Labour Party in their own way. Some will refuse to vote. Others will vote Liberal or an independent community or socialist candidate. Nevertheless millions supported this "thoroughly bourgeois Labour Party" in the present general election. Development takes place through contradictions and Iain Hunter should think about these great political questions, instead of using insults and abstract phrases in an attempt to cover his frustration that the working class does not move forward in a way that suits his preconceptions. The Labour Party arose out of the advance of working class struggle at the end of the 19th century when the great mass of the most exploited workers formed their new unions and, having advanced in industrial enfranchisement, went on to create a new workers' party when the unions and the socialist groups formed the Labour Party. Nevertheless the break with old traditions did not take place evenly. Many workers voted for the Liberal Party and continued to do so for some time. In the early 1920s Lenin was calling on the leaders of the new, inexperienced Communist Party in Britain to turn their attention to the very important conflict between the working class that had brought about the Labour Party, and the leaders of that party with their bourgeois ideology. It was because of its origins and relationship with the working class and its history that Lenin deliberately characterised the Labour Party as a "bourgeois workers' party". In a statement dated November 15 1995, written by Martin Ralph and myself (International Socialist League), during a discussion with the Workers International, we wrote that the "new party must come out of the movement of that class" - ie, the working class - and that this was "posed by developments in the heightening of a drive to infinite war, headed by US imperialism, deep economic difficulties of British capitalism, and attacks on workers which come from those". Dot Gibson is correct to say that "A new workers party can only come out of a break in the Labour Party and trade unions." We are talking here of a new mass party of the working class, not about revolutionary socialist groups coming together in a new party. Of course fusions or alliances of these groups on particular policy points are certainly possible, with the prime task to assist the working class to make the break and build its own mass party.