Rightist politics and wishful thinking
The Socialist Party-sponsored Campaign for a New Workers' Party is just about treading water, writes Peter Manson. But that does not stop the SP from claiming that the fight for a new Labour Party is making great strides forward
In the opening discussion forum of the June 29 annual conference of the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party, Dave Church of the Walsall Democratic Labour Party reported what his wife had advised him while he was preparing his speech: “Just say the same as last year. After all, nothing’s changed.”
It was a pretty good summary of the ‘success’ of the CNWP - and of its ‘progress’ in establishing a Labour Party mark two. Just as it had when it was founded in March 2006, the CNWP set it itself a target “by the end of this year” of winning 5,000 signatories to its declaration for “a new mass workers’ party in England and Wales”. The total number of signatures has now crept up to almost 3,400.
However, attendance fell once again at the 2008 conference, held at the South Camden Community School, to just over 200. At the launch two years ago 450 had been present and in 2007 around 300. As Hannah Sell of the Socialist Party declared that this year’s event was the CNWP’s “most important conference” - the “objective need for a new party is now more acute” - the poor attendance could not have been due to any failure to mobilise by the SP. In reality not even the SP rank and file holds out much hope for this dead-end campaign.
The SP comrades staffing the CNWP office subsequently decided to try and instil some enthusiasm by inflating the attendance figures. According to the website, “Over 300 people filled out South Camden Community School’s main hall” (www.cnwp.org.uk). Far from being “filled out”, at least a third of the seats were unoccupied. To give you an idea of the numbers present, there were 13 rows, each with an average of 15 comrades.
As the Crow flies
One big plus this year, though, was that Bob Crow - to whom the SP looks as one of the main players in the drive for a replacement Labour Party - did actually attend and speak. The general secretary of the RMT reminded the conference that the union’s rule book calls for the “supersession of capitalist society by a socialist order”. So any new party would have to be a “socialist party, a party of labour”, he said.
However, the RMT - which, comrade Crow stated, now supports twice as many MPs as when it was affiliated to Labour - had its “worries” about “being involved in another political party”. He did not want to see “another Respect or Respect 2”, nor another Socialist Labour Party - he had been an SLP member, but its constitution, while it would “probably have been good for a membership of 100,000”, had been “too overbearing”. Nor did he want what he called a “purist party” - “unless we get the things we like we’ll break away”. Instead it ought to be an “umbrella party”, based on, say, 10 policy points, where we can “forget our differences”.
But comrade Crow confessed: “I ain’t got answers today how we can all come together” - apart from saying to the trade unions, “What are you going to do about it?” Well, if comrade Crow and the RMT are going to do nothing, I cannot imagine unions headed by the likes of Tony Woodley, Derek Simpson, Paul Kenny and Dave Prentis will make any kind of move - quite the opposite.
Despite comrade Crow’s clear unwillingness to commit himself to anything, SP member John McInally, vice-president of the PCS union, held out the hope of a conference on the need for a new party “in the autumn”, which he thought would be supported by both the PCS and the RMT. The promise of such a gathering was held up by several subsequent speakers as an example of things beginning to happen.
Another who, like comrade Crow, thought that “Differences don’t matter” was Simeon Andrews of the Labour Representation Committee. “We need to bury the hatchet and get used to working together.” Comrade Andrews, the first speaker in the discussion forum, also concurred with the SP on its characterisation of Labour: “The party is not so much dead - its ashes are scattered.” As a vehicle for working class advance, “It’s gone, it’s finished.” The new organisation he had in mind “must be based on people’s everyday experience” and “led by the unions”.
So far, so good, but what followed was not to the SP’s liking. Comrade Andrews was dead against left MPs making any kind of move at this time. If John McDonnell or Jeremy Corbyn resigned the Labour whip, then quite simply they would be defeated when they stood for re-election and “We need MPs like them”. In fact comrade Andrews wanted to hear a commitment that “no left party will stand against any socialist MP at the next election” (and he suggested that the LRC itself ought only to campaign for socialist Labour candidates).
As for forming a new party, “It may take 100 years or more. OK, so we’d better get started.” Very much mixed messages, as far as the Socialist Party leadership was concerned.
The next speaker was Rob Hoveman of Respect, who rejected “any suggestions that we are not a leftwing party”. However, Respect was not the answer, but, despite the split (which, unsurprisingly, he blamed on his former comrades of the Socialist Workers Party), was “part of the process” and hoped to “contribute to a new party”. In the meantime he claimed it was not “wildly optimistic” to believe that Respect could have two MPs after the next general election and could win control of Tower Hamlets council. There again, the other possible scenario was that it would have “no MPs and no councillors”.
Mike Davies of the Alliance for Green Socialism was, for the SP, completely on message about the Labour left: we cannot “avoid confronting Labour MPs”, he said. He also complained about the “record of predatory relationships between the large socialist groups and others” (he later exonerated the SP from this). While he favoured “the broad umbrella approach”, it “had to be genuine” and he was absolutely opposed to “leaderism”.
The final platform speaker was Socialist Party councillor Dave Nellist, chair of the CNWP. He was the most explicit in describing the kind of party that they all broadly agreed was necessary. Comrade Nellist recalled that it had been 12 years from the founding of the original Labour Representation Committee before Labour adopted a “socialist constitution”. Working people thought of it as their party and socialists worked inside it. But “now that’s all gone - socialism as a concept went with clause four”.
Comrade Nellist went on to repeat the SP line on the chances of ‘reclaiming’ Labour for working people. It was impossible to “take back” the party - such a task would require “50 to 100 people per constituency”. Leaving aside the accuracy of this estimate, I wondered how many it would take to form a “new mass workers’ party”.
In an indirect appeal to John McDonnell to take the lead, comrade Nellist noted: “Individuals count” (he mentioned the role of Oskar Lafontaine, whom he likened to Robin Cooke, in forming Die Linke in Germany) - and there are “good socialist individuals in the Socialist Campaign Group”. But the time to act for such socialist MPs is now - they should commit themselves to “do the speaking tours, call the conferences”.
I seem to recall that comrade McDonnell did “the speaking tours” and called “the conferences” during his campaign to win the Labour leadership. Those he addressed may have numbered a few thousand in 2006-07, but he was unable to build up enough momentum to force even left union bureaucrats to back him. Fellow MPs felt under no pressure to nominate him and as a result he did not even get onto the ballot.
However, for comrade Nellist, McDonnell should make the move and the “new mass party” would be on its way. In case anyone had any doubts, comrade Nellist reminded us that he was “not talking about bolting small groups together”. The CNWP was making a “genuine attempt to bring bigger forces” into play.
Several SP speakers from the floor repeated the central message that, in the words of Rob Williams, it is “the job of left Labour MPs to break from Labour and campaign for a new workers’ party”. Otherwise “we can’t guarantee not standing against them”. Andrew Price (also SP) said it was “defeatist” to argue that John McDonnell should not resign and call a by-election. I am not sure whether comrade Price thinks that McDonnell would beat the official Labour candidate in such a contest or that his removal from parliament would somehow aid the process of forming a new party.
Jeremy Dewar of Workers Power favoured discussions with Respect and the LRC, but the aim, he said, must be “a workers’ government and workers’ power”. But this was part of WP’s leftist posturing, which served to back up the SP’s Labourism. Comrade Dewar said it was “ridiculous” for Rob Hoveman to “say we will get a few more councillors in Tower Hamlets”. That was just an “excuse for not building a new party now”.
Stan Keable of the Campaign for a Marxist Party and the CPGB countered both the SP’s rightism and WP’s leftist impatience by pointing out that we were in a “room full of Marxists”. Yet overwhelmingly these “Marxists” were against fighting for a Marxist party, to be created on the basis of workers’ struggles. Comrade Keable warned against attempting to recreate a party based on the unions - Labour, he said, which had been “shat from the bowels of the trade union bureaucracy”, had been an obstacle to working class advance. Why did we want a British version of Rifondazione, Lula’s Workers’ Party or Die Linke, all of which either were or aimed to be parties of coalition with the bourgeoisie?
The following SP speaker accused comrade Keable of a “poverty of imagination”. Instead of going out and building a mass party, he said, all Stan wanted was a “gaggle of small groups” getting together. The problem, of course, is that this mass party is entirely in the SP’s “imagination”.
Following these contributions from the floor, the platform speakers briefly responded. Simeon Andrews was annoyed by suggestions that he and the other LRC comrades just would not let go of the Labour Party. To make his view clear, he reiterated that Labour is “fucked - it’s not going to be reclaimed”. But he was more than a little cross at comrade Nellist’s criticism of MPs like John McDonnell for not resigning from Labour straightaway, especially as he thought comrade Nellist was implying that the likes of McDonnell were too attached to their MP’s salary - any such allegation was a “disgrace”. The truth is, said comrade Andrews, “people are not going to jump ship at this stage”, sacrificing their positions and influence when there was “no move for a new party”.
But Mike Davies was another who favoured a sacrificial offering. In his second contribution he took issue with comrade Andrews: “The attitude that says left Labour MPs are doing a good job is an illusion. What they do is prop up Brown.” Needless to say, this is a very simplistic view - it is perfectly possibly to undermine the right and aid the fight for a party of working class socialism from within Labour.
Comrade Hoveman contested Jeremy Dewar’s claim that Respect was not interested in working for a new party - “I am here because I want to talk to anybody serious”. As for trying to get councillors elected, people in Tower Hamlets “need us to represent them”. Comrade Hoveman assured comrade Nellist that he looked forward to being in the same organisation as him once more - only “let’s make sure it doesn’t fall apart like the Socialist Alliance”. I can assure comrade Hoveman that the kind of party they both envisage - where reformists and ‘revolutionaries’ work together in harmony - will indeed “fall apart” if the left fights too hard for class independence.
In opening the afternoon session (curtailed by the decision to hold pointless workshops), Hannah Sell moved the SP’s motion - which was basically ‘carry on as we are’ with a nod in the direction of the rump Socialist Alliance’s call to think about introducing a democratic structure. The SP position is that the CNWP, as a campaign for a new party, should not try and replicate a party at this stage. However, she was prepared to concede that people should be able to take out CNWP membership and that there should be some kind of regional structure.
Steve Freeman moved the Revolutionary Democratic Group’s amendment, which, although leaving intact the SP’s argument for an immediate breaking of the union-Labour link, called for a rejection of Labourism as a “false ideology against the interests of the working class”. Instead what was needed was a party that is “explicitly and openly republican, socialist and internationalist” and an ideology that “emphasises the urgent need to fight for democracy and socialism in the present”.
Despite the fact that comrade Freeman has his own version of a halfway house party, the amendment he moved was a good one. However, like the SP, WP and SA, comrade Freeman wanted John McDonnell et al to leave Labour forthwith: “Come and join us and form a party that is republican and socialist”. Exactly the same kind of immature impatience as displayed by all the others. It would be crazy for McDonnell to give up his seat in the Commons in order to join forces with the SP’s no-hope campaign for a new Labour Party (it goes without saying that the RDG’s anti-Labourite amendment was overwhelmingly defeated).
There was some toing and froing over the Socialist Alliance motion, which contended that “the time is right to start moving towards a pro-party alliance or 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”. A number of SP comrades got up stating (correctly) that this was an attempt to begin transforming the campaign for a party into the party. However, after three SA comrades assured us that this was not the case, comrade Sell announced that the SP was dropping its opposition to the SA motion and withdrawing its amendment.
So the SP and SA came to a diplomatic agreement, with congratulations all round. The truth is that both are right in one way, but utterly and completely wrong in another. The SA realises that there is very little chance of the big union cohorts coming on board, so why not begin work building a (Labourite) party ourselves? For its part, the SP knows that building such a party with the CNWP’s tiny forces is a non-starter, but continues its forlorn appeals to comrades like John McDonnell to accompany it into the wilderness.
Comrade Dewar moved the Workers Power motion, whose main concrete proposal was for the setting up of local committees for a mass party. WP’s leaflet explained: “We need regularly meeting local committees to draw up lists of workplaces and union branches, schools and colleges, associations and campaigns to visit, debate with and draw in new supporters.”
In other words, the tiny forces of the SP, plus the minuscule WP, should go out and win whole branches and local organisations to show that there is a “groundswell of support for a new party”. I wonder why no-one ever thought of trying to recruit to a new party before. The leaflet adds: “Of course, Workers Power will continue to argue that this should be a consistent anti-capitalist - ie, a revolutionary - party from the off, but we won’t pose this as an ultimatum.”
Comrade Dewar expanded upon this in his speech: while the kind of party that is needed is one that can “overturn a ruthless, international class”, an “umbrella, federal party would be fine in the initial stages”. Steve McSweeney (WP) later explained that, “The party won’t be built by ones and twos joining the CNWP, but by a united front of the main organisations of the working class.” So WP is wisely not posing “an ultimatum” to the unions, for example, that the party they form should be revolutionary, not Labourite.
WP is now playing a useful role in providing leftist cover for the SP’s dismal opportunism. And comrade Dewar was re-elected as one of the CNWP’s vice-chairs.
I moved the Campaign for a Marxist Party motion. This held out the example of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire’s call for a “party of resistance, for a break with the system, for socialism”, which would “counterpose, against the management of existing institutions, the perspective of a workers’ government”. I opposed the motions of the SP, SA and WP, which all in reality were calling for a Labour Party mark two, just like all the morning’s platform speakers.
I reminded comrades that, while it was true that old Labour contained within it socialists and from time to time an active left, its main characteristic was that of a “party of imperialist war, a party of vicious attacks on the working class”. As a bourgeois workers’ party, it had been, and remained, a site for struggle - and a lengthy spell in opposition could well see a revival of its left wing.
I stated that if, say, John McDonnell or Bob Crow attempted to lead a left split from Labour, then it would be “criminally sectarian” not to engage with it. But this would not be the finished article - far from it. It too would be a site for struggle for a Marxist party.
Against Mike Davies, who had parodied the call for Marxism as coming from people who “quote page 77” of Marx’s Critique of the Erfurt programme to show they are right, I defined ‘Marxist party’ in a broad way: for working class independence, and therefore against government coalitions with sections of the bourgeoisie; for democracy in our movement and in our demands on the state; and for internationalism, against the UK state. This definition, I said, drew a line against Labourism of both the right and left variety.
Finally, I stressed that comrades are just dreaming if they believe the unions or Labour left are going to set up a replacement Labour Party - claims that the campaign for such a party was making great strides were completely unfounded. Yet we could take the first step towards an eventual mass party - by uniting as Marxists. You can call that “bolting together small groups” if you like, but it would be real, and a principled unity would produce a result that was “more than the sum of its parts”.
It goes without saying that this was opposed by subsequent SP speakers. Alec Thraves stated that the demands we pose must not be those of Marxists, of revolutionaries (such as for a completely new, emancipatory order, I suppose). The party we need to aim for, he continued, must be a party against privatisation, against war and “even against post office closures”. Comrade Thraves added, without a trace of irony: “I know which set of demands will win the imagination of youth.” Of the CMP he said: “You can’t establish a mass Marxist party with wishful thinking and a second-grade website.”
Alistair Tate, for his part, was certain that the Labour Party “won’t move to the left again”. He accused the CMP of looking to Labour in opposition rather than workers’ own struggles. Tony Mulhearn interpreted the CMP motion as saying, “We are the Marxist party - come and join us”, and paraphrased Marx to clinch the anti-CMP case: “If these people are Marxists, then I’m not a Marxist.”
Needless to say, the motions of the SP and SA were overwhelmingly carried and those of the CMP and WP, together with the RDG amendment to the SP motion, were overwhelmingly defeated.
CNWP press officer Pete McLaren headlined his subsequent press release: “New left party now more imminent.” A true example of “wishful thinking”. In similar vein he quoted Dave Nellist as saying: “It took over 30 years for workers to set up the Labour Party. We have already made significant progress towards building the new workers’ party that is necessary to replace what Labour might once have aspired to be, and the CNWP conference has clearly moved the process further forward. The Labour Party is finished, electorally and as a vehicle for working class political representation. We will fill the void that therefore exists, and it will now be sooner rather than later.”
I hope the comrades will not be too embarrassed when they look back on such statements in a few years time.
The CNWP conference stood for a minute’s silence in honour of former Labour MP and Militant member Terry Fields, who died on June 28.
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