Break with Labourism

The Socialist Party's Campaign for a New Workers' Party is about to hold its annual re-awakening, otherwise known as a conference. The June 29 gathering at South Camden Community School will attempt to remind the world that the CNWP still exists, writes Peter Manson

Launched in March 2006 at a conference of 450 supporters, the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party at that time had 2,000 signatories to its declaration pledging to campaign for “the establishment of a new mass workers’ party in England and Wales”. The launch agreed to a target of 5,000 signatures by the end of the year.

However, by May 2007 the annual conference was down to around 300 comrades and only 2,500 signatories had been achieved. Press officer Pete McLaren opined afterwards that “what we agreed at our conference should ensure we reach the 5,000 target we have set ourselves” (press release, May 16 2007). Well, the figure has now reached 3,345 and the Socialist Party’s motion to this weekend’s third conference aims once again for “5,000 by the end of this year” (my emphasis).

Despite the SP’s assertion that “many rank and file trade unionists … are furious that their union maintains a link with Labour”, it does not seem able to enthuse a lot of them with the idea that what is needed is a Labour Party mark two. After all, signing up to the declaration does not commit you to do anything. Perhaps the SP’s own comrades are themselves less than excited about the CNWP’s prospects, since they seem unable to persuade many of their workmates or contacts to add their names.

This is hardly surprising, since the SP’s line is that theCampaign for a New Workers’ Party is just that: “… the CNWP is not currently a new party, or even a pre-party formation, but a campaign for a new party, which will support and encourage any genuine moves towards a new party being founded” (conference motion). In other words, the SP itself is in no position to launch a replacement for Labour. Its line has been that this is the job of the left union leaders, particularly the left leaders of those unions that have already disaffiliated - or been disaffiliated - from the party.

Unfortunately for the SP, however, neither Bob Crow (Rail, Maritime and Transport) nor Matt Wrack (Fire Brigades Union) have shown much inclination to attempt to launch a replacement for Labour - and neither have Billy Hayes (Communication Workers Union) or Mark Serwotka (Public and Commercial Services union). That is because they know it would be a non-starter - they would not even be able to win more than a small minority of their own members to back it, however loosely.

In the absence of any move by the left union bureaucrats, the SP is powerless. It is not so stupid as to try and launch a “new mass workers’ party” itself, or even declare that the CNWP is its core. But it has to do something. That is why it is now prepared to nod in the direction of comrade McLaren’s Socialist Alliance, which actually does think a few hundred leftwingers can launch a new Labourite party.

In its motion, the SA (a tiny fragment of the organisation that stood 98 candidates in the 2001 general election and was closed down by the Socialist Workers Party in 2004), states: “Conference therefore agrees that the time is right to start moving towards a pro-party alliance or a pre-party formation that, as well as campaigning for a new party, will also begin work to determine the structure and rules for such a party ... the CNWP will become a membership-based campaign, with branches where sufficient membership exists. This is part of the process which will lead, sooner rather than later, to the formal launch of the new workers’ party.”

The SP response is that, while the CNWP “is playing an important role in popularising the idea of a new party, it is not, at this stage [sic], strong enough to bring one into being ... Nonetheless, we believe that, if we take some steps to raise the level of organisation in the CNWP, this could lead to a layer of supporters, old and new, taking on a more active role in driving the campaign forward.”

So what are these “steps”? Well, the SP has agreed to “introduce membership” of the CNWP: “All supporters will be invited to become members of the campaign. The only condition … will be paying a minimum membership fee of £5 a year.” What is more, “We will organise regional CNWP meetings, usually on a quarterly basis, at which all CNWP members will be entitled to vote. These meetings will plan and coordinate local CNWP campaigns and public meetings.”

OK, so comrades can hand over their fiver and attend the occasional regional meeting, but, apart from perhaps giving us a clearer picture of the true level of support for the CNWP, what will the creation of membership status achieve? How on earth will it “lead, sooner rather than later, to the formal launch of the new workers’ party”, as the SA imagines? And how will “work to determine the structure and rules” of a non-existent party help make it a reality?

The SA just does not get it. Another coalition of the far left like the 2000-04 version of the Socialist Alliance is the last thing the Socialist Party wants. Sure, the SP says that the “new mass workers’ party” it desires will allow the left groups to operate within it, but their role (or, more specifically, that of the SP itself), at least to begin with, will be to act as the new formation’s ‘revolutionary’ minority, its ‘socialist’ conscience. After all, everyone knows that a “mass party” can only be reformist in current conditions, don’t they? Something like the Left Party in Germany is what the SP has in mind, a formation that will have to be set up by reformists. What a pity those left union bureaucrats just will not play ball.

What other “steps” will the CNWP take over the next year? Well, it will “approach the national leaderships of the RMT, PCS, FBU and the POA for a discussion on how the case for a new workers’ party can be developed within the trade union movement”. You mean, the SP hasn’t already been talking to Bob Crow, Mark Serwotka, Matt Wrack and Brian Caton of the Prison Officers Association?

It will also “invite all genuine anti-cuts, anti-privatisation councillors to a national meeting to discuss working together” (just don’t book the Albert Hall) and “encourage trade union, anti-cuts and anti-privatisation campaigns to contest local elections”. Another thing that hasn’t been tried, I suppose. Oh, and “continue to drive on, increasing the number of supporters of the campaign, with the goal of reaching 5,000 by the end of this year”.

The motion submitted by the “Berkshire CNWP local group” helpfully points out also that there is “a need for a CNWP banner which can be taken on demonstrations and other major events”. And the website could be updated more often.

Left splits

Let us be clear: if a section of the union bureaucracy really did break with Labour in order to establish a new organisation to its left, it would be criminally sectarian for Marxists to stand aside and refuse to engage with it. For our part, the CPGB gave critical but active support to Arthur Scargill’s attempt to do just that when he formed the Socialist Labour Party in 1996 (the Socialist Party, by contrast, used the bureaucratic obstacles erected by Scargill as a pretext for refusing to take out membership of the SLP).

The reason for engaging with left splits from Labour is not that a ‘real’ Labour Party is a desirable goal. The whole of the 20th century teaches us the opposite. The Labour Party throughout its history has been a loyal servant of British imperialism, prepared to viciously attack our class at home and abroad.

A new party that willingly embraces both Labourites and Marxists is an illusion. Its right wing, wedded to class collaborationism and the British state, would be forced, sooner rather than later, to clamp down on its left wing, which could only damage its ambition of ‘making a difference’ through election to government office.

No, the reason we engage with left splits from Labour is that they provide a site for struggle for what is really necessary - they allow us the opportunity to argue for a party of Marxism that is for working class independence, for extreme democracy and for internationalism. Especially in the initial stages, those who support a leftwing rebellion against the Labour right will be open to argument about the kind of alternative that ought to be constructed.

That ought to tell us why the whole CNWP approach - just like all the other halfway house attempts - cannot work. The SP has set out from the start to provide a nice welcoming home for left union bureaucrats - one that will not frighten them away with wild talk about revolution and class war. In other words, the SP is announcing from the start that it will not use a left split from Labour as a site for unremitting struggle for the party the working class needs.

Workers Power - whose leader, Richard Brenner, threatened at the 2007 conference that WP would walk out of the CNWP if the SP did not make more left-sounding noises - now appears to concur with this approach.

Its motion asserts:

“The affiliated organisations within the CNWP will not seek to impose their respective programmes on the new party before it has even taken shape, but will aim to promote discussion and debate about what the programme of a new party could be, how it could advance the interests of the working class, and how it could achieve its socialist goals. Within this democratic process revolutionaries and reformists will participate without restriction, with no privileges over policy formation being granted to any one trend, any individual union leader, any MP, councillor or publicly known figure.”

So WP now agrees with the SP that (for the time being, we are assured) the left will drop its insistence on Marxism as the only basis for a party that can genuinely advance the interests of our class - in the name of a polite debate between “revolutionaries and reformists”. Pure wishful thinking. The class-collaborationist right will not tolerate the left if it looks like winning - which is why it is always the left that has to make the concessions if it wants to keep the right on board.

At the founding conference of the CNWP, Workers Power demanded that any new party should be committed to “a new international” (in the image of WP’s League for the Fifth International, no doubt). In 2008 WP still wants “to build greater coordination of new working class political forces and to advance the fight for a new international working class party”. But the only concrete means its motion proposes is the call to “send delegates to the European Social Forum in Mälmo in September”.

Labour Party

The disastrous halfway house strategy of the SP and Workers Power is based on a fundamentally flawed analysis - that Labour is no longer a bourgeois workers’ party but a bourgeois party pure and simple; and that, far from the need for a fight within Labour to resolve the bourgeois-workers contradiction once and for all, the party is dead for the struggle to advance working class interests. Therefore the SP and WP call on the unions to “break the link” and set up an alternative party - one that can only be a Labour Party mark two.

Explaining why the left should abandon Labour, the SP motion states: “There are those that hope that the crisis in New Labour will be an opportunity to move Labour to the left. This is utopian. On the contrary New Labour and the Tories are likely to spend from now until the general election attempting to outbid each other with rightwing populist measures.”

But what about after the election - especially if, as looks likely, it is won by the Tories? According to the WP motion, “In fact, we do not have all the time in the world … Under a Conservative government, it will be much more difficult to break fighting sections of the labour and trade union movement away from the Labour Party.”

Why should that be the case? Because Labour in opposition, apart from the period after Blair won the leadership, has always moved to the left, compared to its periods in office. In those circumstances the Labour left appears to make headway and grows in strength and influence. Although the bourgeois pole is now in the ascendancy as never before, there is no reason to doubt that this process will be repeated after a Cameron victory.

In other words, the motion exposes the contradiction in WP’s own position that Labour is finished as a bourgeois workers’ party. However, the fight for Marxism was never dependent on the unions breaking the link, but on the Marxists themselves putting forward a consistent, principled strategy for working class independence.

We should not, in the current circumstances, call on union members to demand that their leaders break the Labour link. In the absence of any viable alternative, this could only lead to depoliticisation and demoralisation. As part of the fight for working class independence, we should demand that union funding and support to Labour candidates be made conditional on their backing for policies that favour union members.

In that sense the WP motion is correct when it states: “To the objections of union leaders and Labour left MPs that disaffiliation from Labour will weaken the hand of the working class, we should reply: while the Labour link and funding remain, demand real changes of policy from Brown.”

This is a tactic also recognised by the SP: “The fact that pro-Labour trade union leaders, in order to head off calls to break the link, have been forced to make moves to threaten to withhold funds from the Labour Party, is an indication of the pressure they are under.”

Surely our task is to step up the pressure, all the while insisting on the necessity for the working class to break not only with the Labour Party, but with Labourism. That in turn demands that the left ends its current impotent posturing and starts to undertake what is clearly and unambiguously possible: the unity of Marxists on a principled programme for working class independence.

That is why the CPGB will be opposing the dead-end motions of the Socialist Party, Workers Power and Socialist Alliance and supporting the Campaign for a Marxist Party motion.

CMP motion

1. Conference notes the failure of the Respect project, which rested on the Socialist Workers Party pretending for a period to be left Labourites: a pretence which required the use of bureaucratic means of control to prevent open political debate, which eventually blew up in the SWP’s face.

2. Conference notes and welcomes the call of the French Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire for the creation of a “party of resistance, for a break with the system, for socialism” - one which would “counterpose, against the management of existing institutions, the perspective of a workers’ government”.

3. Conference therefore rejects the idea that a new workers’ party can be built as a simple replacement for ‘old Labour’; and recognises the necessity to campaign for a new workers’ party on the basis of counterposing, against the management of the existing system, the perspective of working class rule.

4. Conference recognises that the perspective of working class rule involves clear political commitments

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