Reviving left reformism

The Socialist Party in England and Wales is recruiting and in buoyant mood, writes Peter Manson. Its November 12-13 weekend school demonstrated that sectarianism brings short-term advantages

An estimated 800 comrades attended Socialism 2005, the Socialist Party's annual school. Well up on recent years - for example, in June 2003 we reported an attendance of around 250, although SP supporters claimed that the real figure was 400. Either way, there is no doubting the change - more members, including a good number of young people, and a big increase in confidence amongst the SP leadership. This was shown by the fact that they had booked the main hall at Friends Meeting House, London, which holds 800 people, for their Saturday evening rally. It was 80% full. For the school itself there were nine simultaneous sessions on the Saturday and 12 or 13 on the Sunday. All appeared to be reasonably well attended, with a couple of hundred coming along to the biggest. What accounts for the change in fortunes? Well, the SP itself is in no doubt that the Socialist Workers Party, by abandoning overtly working class and socialist forms in Respect, has left a space which the SP is able to fill. There is no need for an alliance with other left organisations - the SP itself can step right into the niche kindly vacated by the SWP and openly claim leadership of the fight for a new mass party of the working class, under the banner of socialism. Of course, socialism SP-style is rather different from the genuine article. It amounts to nationalisation and 'public ownership' with a mere nod in the direction of workers' control. The idea that our class must wage a revolutionary battle for extreme democracy, rather than elect a parliamentary majority of reformist legislators, is completely alien to it. Like so many on the left, the SP does not see the unity of Marxists and the building of a revolutionary party as the most pressing task. Instead it wants to lead the fight for a new, more democratic and more leftwing Labour Party mark two. It believes it is well placed to respond to the initiative of the RMT which has called a conference in the new year to "discuss the crisis of working class representation". The SP may be recruiting, but in terms of the bigger picture it is still - rather obviously - part of a marginalised left. It has enjoyed some electoral success in pockets of both Coventry and Lewisham, but its general election results were extremely disappointing, especially compared to those of Respect (not that the SP has admitted as much). However, with growth and recruitment comes a certain self-belief, and this was reflected in the organisation of the school. Unlike at the SWP's annual Marxism, there was room for at least some genuine debate at Socialism 2005. In the sessions I attended there was plenty of time for contributions from the floor and a willingness to hear (within limits) other points of view. Many different speakers were called and no-one was cut short, although not everyone who wanted to speak was able to. There was certainly none of the overt hostility towards those to the SP's left that is normal for an SWP event. There is another side to this self-belief, though, and that is arrogance - an arrogance that the SP shares with the SWP. Both organisations describe themselves as "the socialists" and genuinely seem to believe they have a unique claim to the title. All that really exists is the SP (or SWP) and the mass movement. For SP national coordinator Hannah Sell this arrogance extended to the international movement. Chairing the rally, she stated: "We are also an international - we organise in 36 countries" and later referred to "our supporters in Pakistan". Gone was the pretence that the SP is just one amongst equals within its Committee for a Workers' International. Related articles * Reviving left reformism The Socialist Party's weekend school demonstrated that sectarianism brings short-term advantages, says Peter Manson * SP rival to Respect? Joni Wells reports on the Socialist Party's Campaign for a New Workers Party * Short-termist and dishonest Peter Manson looks at the role of the Socialist Party in the public service pensions sell-out