'Marxists' for another Labour Party
The March 19 launch of the Socialist Party's Campaign for a New Workers' Party went according to plan, writes Peter Manson. The 450 comrades who signed up to its founding declaration overwhelmingly voted for the SP's plans for a Labour Party mark two.
Putting forward the agenda for the CNWP conference, the Socialist Party's Dave Nellist pledged from the chair that the organisers would "do our best to make sure minorities are heard". But also, he said, "in particular the voice of the ordinary workers will be heard today".
Who did he think he was fooling? "Ordinary workers" in the sense he meant - ie, naive but militant people new to politics - were notable by their absence. Certainly none spoke. What we had was a section of the organised left, around two-thirds of whom were SP members or close supporters. Also present were the CPGB, Workers Power, Revolutionary Democratic Group and a couple of dozen other comrades from the flotsam and jetsam that once were members of one revolutionary group or another.
The character and composition of the conference was cleverly disguised in a press statement put out afterwards by the CNWP's newly elected press secretary, Pete McClaren: "Over 300 of the delegates at the conference were active trade unionists, including many members of trade union national executive committees and leading representatives at all levels of the trade unions." This was literally true, but it was also false. Virtually none of them were first and foremost "trade union activists" - and the union NEC members were almost all SP members.
But the 300 figure quoted by comrade McClaren, along with "other supportive messages from leading trade union figures", shows "we have a strong base in the unions", according to comrade Nellist in the same statement. An example of talking things up if ever there was one.
As for the "minorities", it is true that each group was allowed five minutes to present a single motion, but, apart from that, it was overwhelmingly SP. Comrade Nellist graciously permitted one extra speaker each from the CPGB and WP a three-minute slot in support of their motion and to say what they thought of the others. However, not only from the floor, but from the platform too it was Socialist Party comrades who dominated this new, 'broad', 'bottom-up' 'united front'.
Four of the five comrades on the top table were prominent figures in the SP or the SP-led Committee for a Workers' International (the other was Mark Serwotka, the only 'name' speaker the comrades could get, it seems). There too were ex-Liverpool Militant councillor Tony Mulhearn, SP national secretary Hannah Sell and Claus Ludwig of the CWI's German section, who was billed as a councillor representing the WASG, part of the new Linkspartei which the SP would like us to emulate (reformist programme and all).
Setting the scene, comrade Mulhearn informed us that "The Labour Party we once knew [and loved?] no longer exists." But there should be "no more analysis, no more mourning". What we had to do was strive for a Labourite replacement - "an organisation that can translate socialism into the language of housing, the language of social services "¦"
Comrade Sell reminded us that there had been "a number of false starts" in this endeavour, Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party for one. But we should not be disheartened, After all, "Look at the foundation of the Labour Party", which took several years to really get off the ground. It was, of course, telling that it did not even occur to her to refer to the Communist Party of Great Britain, founded in 1920.
But the CNWP's aim "should not just be the realignment of the left"; rather "a mass party with 100,000 members" - although she did modestly concede that she would be prepared to see it set up with less. For comrade Sell - along with the rest of the left almost in its entirety - a party like the original CPGB based on Marxism is in total contradiction to a "mass party", which, as everybody knows, can only be another Labourite halfway house.
Comrade Sell told the conference not to try to "decide policy today" - although, of course, "some things are clear": the new formation would be against privatisation and cuts and stand up for working people. It would also insist that its "public representatives should take the average wage of the people they represent". They certainly should (although her formulation was sloppily expressed).
But I did wonder why it was permissible to determine this one aspect of party policy today. After all, there are those on the left who now believe that the policy of a worker's wage should not be imposed on our representatives right now - I mean the Socialist Workers Party/Respect, of course - so how could comrade Sell know at this stage that those elusive "ordinary workers" would go for it? Comrade Sell was also sure that they would be for "a federal approach" - which was "how the Labour Party was organised for over a decade", she said.
CPGB comrades present at the conference met during the lunch break to discuss how to vote on the nine motions. There was no disagreement on eight of them, but after a short debate comrades voted to support the Workers Power motion.
Comrade John Bridge proposed not supporting the motion, because point nine advocated encouraging trade unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party. The CPGB policy is that unions should remain affiliated to Labour - to do otherwise would be to invite depoliticisation.
Arguing that we should vote for the WP motion, comrade Lee Rock, supported by comrade Anne Mc Shane, agreed that we have this disagreement with Workers Power, but said nevertheless it was correct to critically support their motion. There were two broad blocs at the conference - the revolutionaries - principally ourselves and Workers Power - and the reformist majority around the Socialist Party. For the revolutionaries to divide their forces at this early stage would be a tactical mistake.
All CPGB comrades at the conference, including those who did not agree with comrade Rock's analysis, voted for the Workers Power motion in the afternoon.
Mark Serwotka was at pains to keep his options open: he certainly agrees with the idea of campaigning for a new leftwing Labourite party, but, for the moment, "Nobody has got it absolutely right." As far as I know, comrade Serwotka is still a member of Respect and also a keen supporter of the Scottish Socialist Party, whose rise has been "nothing short of remarkable." The good showing in elections of Respect candidates and the election of SP comrades like Nellist showed that "Working people, when given a chance, will support an alternative." But comrade Serwotka is clearly hoping for the birth of a single left reformist formation with the CNWP and Respect coming together.
After Roger Bannister presented the SP's motion, comrade McLaren moved an organisational resolution on behalf of the SA. It was clear from his speech why the SP was quick to nominate him as an officer, since his position is so similar to theirs on a number of issues. Comrade McClaren insisted that the way to build the new party was "from the bottom up". What was needed was for regional and local bodies to "do the groundwork". When they were good and ready, "we can agree to the next steps".
Comrade McClaren also favours the SP's one-sided federalism, as it is essential not to "let any one group dominate". He did not seem to notice the political affiliation of the rest of the officers, all but one of whom were nominated by the Socialist Party. Five out of the eight elected (comrades Bannister, Nellist, Sell, Fiona Pashazadeh and Glenn Kelly) are SP members, and in addition there are two close allies (comrade McClaren himself and PCSU vice-president Kevin Kelly). The only comrade with a different, opposing view is Jeremy Dewar of Workers Power (the CPGB declined to nominate anyone and all officers were elected unopposed).
Comrade Dewar himself, in proposing the WP motion, said that the new party should be "nothing like old Labour". It should be "as ruthless in our interests as capitalist politicians are on behalf of their class". The problem with basing any new party on a living wage, decent health service, etc is that we would be told it is the market that decides. That is why we must "start from the basis of a new system".
Workers Power is, however, in agreement with the SP when it comes to the key question of the Labour Party. Both have switched from their previous auto-Labourism to their current position that the party is now dead as a site for working class struggle: "Unless we get the unions to break with Labour and found a new party, then thousands of workers will not see us as an alternative," said comrade Dewar.
Lee Rock moved the CPGB's concise and straightforward motion, which (in contrast to WP's long, semi-programmatic text) read: "Our campaign for a new mass workers' party must be shaped by the type of politics such a formation needs if it is to be a genuine workers' party. Thus, we will campaign for a workers' party based on the theory and practice of revolutionary Marxism."
Comrade Rock affirmed that we "don't need a version of old Labour that would still need to work within the system". While it was correct not to decide on the detail of policy today, we did need to insist on the type of party that was necessary. He slammed the argument that we should try for a halfway house, as, according to the SP, SWP, etc, "we don't want to scare people off with revolutionary politics". But there is no short cut to what is necessary - we cannot dishonestly conceal our politics in order to sneak them in later. If we drop what we believe in, "the winners will be the right".
Steve Freeman moved the Revolutionary Democratic Group's motion in favour of recognising platforms in the CNWP. This should have been completely uncontroversial, but the SP decided to oppose it (see below). He was followed by John Pearson of the Democratic Socialist Alliance, who, like comrade Freeman, wanted us to "emulate the inspiring example of the SSP". One of the lessons of the SSP, he said, was the need to "supersede the existing socialist organisations" - he claimed that almost all the groups working within the SSP had "no separate existence" outside it.
For both comrades the SSP's disastrous nationalist reformism is just a minor defect, it seems. But at least comrade Pearson wants to see a workers' party based on "unitary democracy, not federalism".
After all the motions had been moved, we were treated to a succession of Socialist Party speakers, interspersed with a handful of others. For the most part the SPers studiously ignored the main question - the kind of party we should aim for - and related anecdotes to reinforce the idea that Labour could not be 'reclaimed', that workers need a new party and that Blair and capitalism are bad.
One exception was Sean Figg, who helpfully acted out comrade Rock's parody of the SP argument that workers cannot be won to "revolution now". Another was Hugo Pierre, whose job was to show how the SP's new party would be much better than Respect, where George Galloway "vetoes the radical elements of Respect's programme" (whereas in the CNWP it will be a different, but also largely phantom, right wing that will do the vetoing).
The only other CPGB speaker permitted, Anne Mc Shane, pointed out that every 'unity project' is characterised by its partisans "arguing for less than their own programme". Why is it that "Marxism is not relevant for the here and now?" she asked. "We aren't saying to the working class, you must agree with us," said comrade Mc Shane. "But we are saying to you, fight for what you say you believe in."
Next to speak was Alan Thornett, introduced as the "Respect fraternal speaker". Respect had "not found it possible to sign the declaration" of the CNWP at this time, he said. Further, for Respect to join the CNWP "would not reflect the relationship between Respect and this initiative". Rather, said comrade Thornett, "the biggest problem with Respect is that too many sections of the organised left are not in it". What should come out of discussions between the two sides is "a different, expanded Respect". It has to be said that a repeat of the Socialist Alliance, with the rest of the left on board, is not exactly what the Socialist Workers Party has in mind.
Respect, said comrade Thornett, was interested in "developing the discussion on how to solve the crisis of working class representation". In fact, whereas that is true for comrade Thornett's International Socialist Group, again it does not actually apply to the SWP and therefore Respect as a whole.
"What should the character of a new party be?" asked comrade Thornett. Well, on the one side, he said dismissively, we have the argument we had just heard from comrade Mc Shane: it should be a "revolutionary party with a full revolutionary programme". The obvious problem with that, said comrade Thornett, was that any new formation would be "reduced to the revolutionaries".
Not quite, comrade. Firstly, the unity of the existing revolutionary left on a principled programme would be an excellent thing in itself. But, more importantly, such a formation would amount to much more than the sum of its parts. It would send out a clear message: at last the disparate groupings have discarded their sectarianism and are providing a genuine alternative point of attraction. There is no reason on earth why a party founded on such a firm basis - as opposed to the feeble halfway houses proposed by the ISG, SP, SWP et al - would not attract towards it people disgusted with New Labour and looking for real answers.
But comrade Thornett would have none of it. The task posed by today's conditions, he asserted, was "how to build large, pluralist parties in which revolutionaries can advance their politics and perhaps become a majority".
Respect, said comrade Thornett, sees itself as part of this process, not the final answer. However, he believed it was the "best opportunity that has come along" to establish a formation that would "embrace both reformist and revolutionary politics". And comrade Thornett declared himself to be "part of a minority that argues Respect should be seen much more as a party", adding, rather cryptically, "Only parties can rise to questions of accountability."
He did, however, have an effective answer to the SP's federalism: if every component stood in elections under its own programme, "What's the point?" He is correct - to a degree. We must aim to advance beyond the SP's federalism, but unity for its own sake will take us nowhere. Neither will unity on the basis of old Labourism. What is needed is the left to unite around a common revolutionary programme, including in elections.
The Socialist Party's Lois Austin was another whose job it was to counter such arguments. She said that people "aren't going to join a party for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism in order to seize power". She made it seem like a mad idea to hold even for 'revolutionaries' like herself. "What we want to do is enter the debate," she said. "It's not about hiding programmes - it's about ensuring we get the ear of the working class." In the SP's case, of course, there is no need to hide its programme, since it does not favour "the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism" in the first place.
Judy Beishon helpfully concluded the debate by giving us the Socialist Party's guide on how to vote. Obviously she was recommending support for the SP's own motion for a halfway house: like comrade Thornett she thinks that only such a formation could become mass - "starting with the thousands, going on to the tens of thousands".
Rather disingenuously, she said that the extent of the party's programme "must be up to the thousands of young people" who would flock in to decide - "which is why the Socialist Party must oppose motions three and four" (those of Workers Power and the CPGB). It is, however, quite all right for the SP to pre-empt the decision of those phantom thousands by decreeing in the here and now à la Lois Austin that the new party must not be revolutionary. Comrade Beishon preferred to phrase it this way: the SP is "not reformist", but it "would be prepared to make compromises".
For reasons I could not fathom, Beishon advised comrades to vote against the Revolutionary Democratic Group's motion in favour of platforms within the campaign. That was "running ahead too far - platforms may or may not be part of it". In any case, she claimed somewhat bizarrely, the campaign had "much greater freedom at present than it would with platforms".
In fact, the CNWP already has distinct platforms, whether or not they are "recognised", as the RDG's motion wanted. The largest is the SP itself, of course, and there are also those around Workers Power and the CPGB. The SP has already declared itself in favour of a federal party (but not a federal campaign?), so what would a federal party without platforms look like?
Comrade Beishon specifically contrasted the SP's new, federal, mass workers' party with Respect, which is based on 'one person, one vote' and therefore permits the SWP to decide everything. Within minutes of her saying this, comrade Nellist was calling for the motions to be decided "¦ on the basis of - yes, you guessed it - 'one person, one vote'. And you do not have to guess that this allowed the SP to decide everything.
In the Socialist Alliance the SP proposed that decisions should be taken, certainly when it came to committees, on the basis of a bureaucratic nightmare - each SA component would be restricted to a set number of seats/positions, irrespective of their size. That would stop the majority being able to act as a majority.
Yet on Sunday, when the 'Reading CNWP group' put forward a motion asserting that "no single group or organisation must be allowed to dominate" any new formation and "mechanisms" must be put in place that would ensure "a wide range of opinions are represented on all policy-making bodies", the SP voted it down. While the SP was opposed to what comrade Beishon called "structural domination", hopefully, she said, with the expected "mass of new recruits", there would be "no need" for the Reading comrades' "mechanisms".
Funny that - the SWP claimed we were about to be inundated with recruits into the SA too, but the SP did not wear that one. It just wanted minorities to be able to veto majority decisions as things stood. I cannot think why this ought not to apply within its new, 'federal', 'mass party', and - as we should always begin as we mean to continue - in the CNWP too.
Not only were the voting results at this conference a foregone conclusion because of the SP's overwhelming majority: the whole affair was stage-managed and carefully choreographed, so that, firstly, every aspect of the SP position could be highlighted and, secondly, the main differences could be lost amongst all the statements from SP speakers about the evils of New Labour and how the campaign is taking off in this or that part of the country. Sure, the SP made a token show of allowing minority voices to be heard, but, as comrade Nellist admitted in concluding the debate, of the 19 speakers from the floor, 12 had been SP members. Apart from the movers, the CPGB and Workers Power had been allowed one three-minute intervention each.
So, yes, the SP had well and truly imposed its own "structural domination" on the conference. In fact the CPGB does not object to the largest component being allowed to decide things - after all, majorities, as well as minorities, have rights. What we object to is the deliberate avoidance of key questions - in this case, the nature of the party we ought to campaign for.
After comrade Nellist had read out the figures for the number of speakers, Richard Brenner of Workers Power raised a point of order - why had WP not been allowed to reply to the debate? In a gesture that was intended to display the SP's 'commitment to democracy' and his own magnanimity, comrade Nellist nonchalantly agreed to a final WP speech.
Comrade Brenner put his three minutes to good effect in attempting to expose the SP's false dichotomy: 'Either reach out to the masses or adopt revolutionary politics': "Why can't we do both?" he asked. And as for the idea that revolutionary ideas can be put forward at 'a later stage', "What stage?" asked comrade Brenner. When will such ideas not be in advance of the masses, he could have added, apart from in a revolutionary situation? And does that mean a genuinely socialist, mass revolutionary party is impossible in non-revolutionary times?
Comrade Brenner added that there were "two different starting points on what a new party should be for": should it "make a break with reformism" or just "replace one form or reformism with another"? He concluded by saying: "Let the starting point be how to get rid of capitalism, not how we can trick the working class."
It was a good speech, but the WP motion was not without its faults. As well as sharply stating that any new party should "combine immediate demands with our final goal, linking today's struggles to a fight for power", it stated that in the unions we should be "agitating for disaffiliation from Labour". On this we strongly disagree. Rank and file workers should campaign for their union leaders to place demands on New Labour, to threaten to withhold funds if they are not met and at the same time campaign for and support working class alternatives. If unions are expelled when their leaders are forced to carry out such a policy, at least political consciousness will have been heightened, not lowered.
We also disagree with the WP call, contained in its motion, for the CNWP to be committed to "solidarity with the resistance" in Afghanistan and Iraq. Which "resistance"? That of the reactionary islamists and sectarian terrorists who happen to oppose the occupation or that of secular, democratic and working class forces?
Then there is WP's call for the CNWP to campaign now for a "new international" - consisting of what?
We voted for the WP's motion, since it drew a clear line against the SP's reformist approach. But we did so only after a CPGB caucus, when leading comrades argued we should oppose it for the reasons stated above. A majority voted for the view that it would be more useful tactically to highlight the reformist-revolutionary divide than our disagreements with WP. At the end of the day the WP motion was defeated by 77 to 213 - the only vote that was counted.
In fact it could be said that we had no more disagreement with the SP's motion than with those of WP - it did not explicitly call for disaffiliation, for example. But the whole SP approach stunk of old Labour reformism and its motion consciously limited what it called the "fight for a socialist programme" to "a living minimum wage, full trade union rights and for fully funded, democratically controlled public services". The word "including" was inserted before that short list, but the message is clear - the CNWP will campaign only on economistic, trade union-type immediate demands and not at all for a "socialist programme".