Leaving the Socialist Party
Chris Brennan describes his experience in Peter Taaffe's organisation.
While the Weekly Worker does not agree with all of comrade Brennan’s arguments, we publish this article as a contribution to a debate on the nature of the SP, especially in the light of its uncritical participation in the No2EU campaign
After several years as a member of the Committee for a Workers’ International, in its section in England and Wales, the Socialist Party, I have decided to part ways. The principal causes of this have been longstanding political disagreements, which as a loyal member I have attempted to discuss and debate on the basis of the party’s democratic structures. The problem with such an approach was the lack of any real space for discussion and debate, making continued membership impossible.
Joining the SP whilst an undergraduate student, and after a very brief flirtation with the Socialist Labour Party, I found the SP to be an active and welcoming force, which was engagingly non-dogmatic in its approach. The main attraction for me was the role its forerunner, Militant, had played in the Labour Party over a period of decades. This showed that it was not an ultra-left sect with no intention of muddying its hands in the class struggle, but was a force which aimed at linking with a mass base in the working class.
Mostly active in Sheffield, I began to have severe doubts about the entire project the SP set itself - namely, the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party - and the tactics it has used to try and achieve this.
The SP refused to launch local CNWP campaigns after an abortive start in other areas. Instead, the party focused on the usual single-issue campaigns, fighting post office closures, for better bus services and supporting a local hospital strike. All of these struggles were worthwhile. The issue, however, was: what is the aim of the SP in intervening in these struggles?
The party expended enormous energy in the struggles for very little in terms of recruits or a wider public profile. The stated intention of the SP full-timer for the area was: “We can prove we can lead struggles and work with others on the left.” This was a noble goal, but hardly the stuff of a self-proclaimed ‘revolutionary party’, being merely economism.
The first major rupture of my confidence in the SP came with the postal workers strike of November 2007. With a 77% vote for action and massive support on the picket line, it appeared a perfect time for the SP - especially in Sheffield, where we had a very good intervention on the picket line - to launch the CNWP locally and try and make the strike the first issue on which we actively try and build the CNWP in union branches, trades councils and directly through strikes. But this was not the aim of the SP, nor was it an issue which had much support within the branches in Sheffield.
This is not to say that the active members (at best a third of the total) were happy with the routinism of the SP on the CNWP: far from it. Rather the problem was the SP membership have no real knowledge of what the aims of the CNWP are.
The ‘campaign’ is managed as an afterthought by the full-time officials, who use it as a way of watering down the politics of the party, so as to make it more acceptable to any unthinking member who may be recruited in the myriad of campaigns the party organises.
A study of the role of the SP in its previous guise of Militant and active in the Labour Party quickly disabused me of the idea that the CNWP could ever be more than a go-slow organisation. I raised the issue in branch that surely, after almost two years of the CNWP existence (this was late 2007), it should have taken on some organisational structures at the local level, should be holding regular public meetings, have an orientation to strikes and finally should be built from the bottom up by strikers disgusted by Labour and looking for a fighting alternative.
This did at least spark some debate in the branch amongst the younger members, who generally agreed with me. The full-timer took the position that the time was not right to launch the CNWP as an active campaign and that ‘We cannot simply create a new party by fiat’. This rather weak argument smashed up against the reality of the upturn in strikes since 2005, the complete undermining of Blairism and also Brownism, not to mention the world economic crisis, which by this time was making itself felt.
The reality is the SP refuses to actively build a rank and file movement, as this would undermine the cosy relationship it has with the left reformist leaders of some major unions, especially the PCS. This was brought home to me when I asked why it was that a comrade who is on the executive of the PCS never attends branch meetings. The argument was, ‘They are busy with union stuff’. This sums up the attitude of the SP to both the unions and the CNWP. Comrades do not make the party their principal experience of struggle or political development; rather the union milieu. The leading SP members in the PCS have played a rather weak role as leftwing advisers to Mark Serwotka, never calling him to account for the refusal to use the political fund to establish a new party.
This flows from the SP approach to what a new party must be: namely a reformist party, in which to argue for it to be a fighting and militant force foru:r the transformation of society is sectarian and ‘beyond the class’. From the perspective of genuine Marxism this simply leaves the field open for reformists, who are likely to form a new party, as reformists have done on the continent recently. The alleged theory which suggests that workers in Britain will turn first to reformism and that the left reformists in new parties can be won to a socialist programme when ‘the objective circumstances are right’ is sheer bunkum and has nothing to do with Marxism or the united front approach, as developed by Lenin or Trotsky.
A quite disgusting event which made me seriously consider leaving for the first time was the national congress of 2008. Alongside the usual bland statements regarding British perspectives and the agitational stuff from Tony Mulhearn on the Liverpool struggle (remember, comrades, the Liverpool struggle ended 22 years ago) there occurred a shameful event. A speaker from the Prison Officers Association had been invited along to outline the causes of the strike action the POA had taken, how it refused to be bound by anti-union laws etc - all good, pedagogical stuff.
The problem was the 800-pound gorilla in the room of the POA being part of the repressive state. This was not mentioned by any of the SP speakers, nor was the shameful support the POA extends to members who are implicated in the litany of deaths in custody, abuse scandals, etc. This, of course, merely reflects the opportunist and essentially reformist attitude of the SP to the state. The really shameful event was the closing statement by the speaker: “We don’t back down to prisoners and we won’t back down to the government” - a statement applauded by Peter Taaffe and the party faithful, although met with boos from a principled small minority.
The period after congress was the usual round of hyperactivity, when I was castigated and verbally abused for not being available for stalls, despite being busy with studying, working and life generally, and the development of the campaign against post office closures.
The campaign had a major impact in Sheffield, gaining widespread support, but yielding little in terms of party recruits or a larger awareness of the SP due to the policy of hiding our socialism in order to appear more moderate.
I put forward the position that it was the perfect opportunity to call a meeting and launch or relaunch the CNWP in South Yorkshire. This was rejected without even getting to the stage of a branch debate - again for the alleged reason that it was ‘too soon’. This ‘wait and see’ approach has been a disaster for the SP nationally and on the local level. The SP has squandered all manner of strikes and campaigns in the misguided idea that, if the SP actually fights for a new militant party, this will put the union lefts off the idea and lead to the party being stillborn. This was actually put to me as a serious reason not to more actively build the CNWP.
This attitude has become enshrined in the National Shop Stewards Network, which has as part of its rules that the NSSN will “not encroach on the established organisation and recruitment activity or interfere in the internal affairs and elections of TUC-affiliated trade unions or the functions of the TUC” (founding conference statement).
Considering the SP plays such a leading role in the NSSN and in many respects organises it, it appears dubious to agree with Bob Crow and the other union lefts and not challenge for the leadership. If unions are currently led by the right people, then why establish the NSSN? In truth this was included in the NSSN documents in order to ensure that socialists would not use the NSSN to challenge the position of Bob Crow himself and to also ensure that by not challenging the leadership of major unions the need for a new party can be side-stepped.
I had already made the decision to leave the SP by the winter of 2008 for the above reasons, which were allied to an extremely unhealthy internal regime, whereby regional full-timers are able to override branch decisions and in which regional committees have nothing more than a consultative role in establishing local campaign priorities.
The unfolding of the economic crisis gave me a period in which to assess whether the SP could and would be transformed by a more active membership and new recruits. This simply did not happen. The party maintained its orientation to the student layer at the expense of undertaking workplace stalls and paper sales. Meanwhile, the CNWP remained a failed signature - literally a paper campaign. Socialism 2008 was another deluge of old people from the Militant days banging on about Liverpool; the claims of a thousand attending was clearly inflated by 400-plus, as I and another comrade counted less than 600 at the Rally for Socialism.
The biggest issue for me was the SP role in squashing joint public sector strike action in November. The argument that the small majority for a strike represented a decline in militancy simply echoed the arguments of Serwotka, and reflected the lack of confidence in the membership which is such a hallmark of left reformism. This action failed to take account of the wider working class and the confidence which could be gained from a successful battle. It also failed to capitalise on the total bankruptcy, quite literally, of British capitalism, the bailouts of the banks and the bosses. The approach of ‘Bail out the workers’, so readily used in propaganda, was not used in action to argue an independent line. The united front approach of the SP in this and many other union struggles negates the classical united front as understood by Marxists, being more a united agreement not to be critical of the left leaderships.
After moving to another region, I made one last attempt at swallowing the SP internal regime, its lack of democracy, failure in the major struggles, such as the November PCS-NUT majority for strike action. But the Gaza demos simply confirmed the alienation I felt from a party which I had been an active part of. The very militant and well supported demos called by the party in Coventry were in many respects hijacked by Islamic elements and even included speakers openly expressing anti-semitic views. The SP, despite its rightwing policy of not supporting the Palestinian resistance and covering up the extreme chauvinism of the Israeli working class, failed to challenge this. When this was raised as an issue in branch, it was pushed aside by the extremely primitive full-timer for the West Midlands, who used that classic SP line, ‘Nothing is chemically pure’. The SP has two councillors in Coventry and it was felt to be inopportune to be critical of alleged community leaders.
I drafted my reasons for leaving in an email sent to the full-timer for the Yorkshire region, where I had last been active, and stated I felt little animosity to the SP. This did not prevent what can only be described as a barrage of abuse from several sections of the party over criticisms I expressed of the SP role in the Youth Fight for Jobs campaign established by the SP. It involves mostly students, has absolutely no tactic of working at unemployment centres, colleges, etc and ends up with SP youth talking to themselves at universities.
This led to me receiving a phone call from a full-timer for the SP in London, who shall remain nameless, who proceeded to tell, not ask, me to remove any and all criticism of this campaign on the digital forum where I had posted it. It was explained to him this forum was an open and non-party arena claiming to be for discussion and debate. This only seemed to anger the individual concerned, who decided that shouting and abuse would have to do in place of arguments and logic. Needless to say, the SP administrators for the group removed the posts and myself from the group.
Lindsey and No2EU
This extremely abusive approach also came following discussions I had had with SP members over the Lindsey oil refinery strike, in which the SP succeeded in helping British workers steal the jobs of Italian and Portuguese workers. Again I was contacted and abused, and it was claimed I had not been active in the party (I have the pictures to prove my activity) and that I was attempting to wreck the SP in public. Whereas this massively overestimates my influence (and indeed my intention), it does exemplify the approach of the SP.
The hideous spectacle of socialists not only supporting but leading a nationalist strike and then the outcome of this - the ‘No to the EU, Yes to Democracy’ electoral challenge - is a natural development, given the trajectory of the Socialist Party. Without a strategy of how to win workers to a fighting socialist party - a new workers’ party which aims to overthrow capitalism - and, given the ‘wait and see’ approach of refusing to criticise union leaders who are clearly holding back the class struggle, the SP can only become the tool and agent of alien class forces. Lindsey was an unprincipled attempt to attach some left demands to a thoroughly reactionary strike, which failed to achieve the left demands, but settled for the original aim of the dispute: ie, the theft of jobs from Italian and Portuguese workers. The SP, after at first jumping on this bandwagon as the first strike against the economic crisis, failed completely to win any progressive outcome and is now saddled with defending this ‘victory’.
No2EU is an attempt by Peter Taaffe to prove to Bob Crow that the SP will play the same role in a new party as Militant did in the LP: a loyal opposition, waiting until the time is right for the left reformists to suddenly become revolutionaries, with, of course, the counsel and guidance of the SP.
This flows out of the failed approach of the SP in the CNWP and also the National Shop Stewards Network. The founding conference of the NSSN, bankrolled by Bob Crow, featured the scabby role of the SP, in the person of Linda Taaffe, opposing a Workers Power motion which called for the NSSN - which is meant to be a rank and file movement - to actively build networks independent of official structures, in support of candidates standing against the rightwing union leaders, and taking a critical approach to the non-policy of the left unions on a new socialist party. The argument from Mrs Taaffe was the SP “did not want to pass anything that could offend Bob Crow and the RMT executive”.
This was a case of the SP allying itself with the RMT bureaucracy in opposing a motion which would have committed the NSSN to its actual spirit and logic in being a fighting organisation which can link workers across industries and also against the full-time officialdom which does so much to hold back workers’ struggles. The old saying of ‘Whoever pays the piper calls the tune’ is here viscerally exemplified.
The No2EU campaign follows in the footsteps of the NSSN and the Lindsey strike. It has been the intention of the SP - clear in all its statements regarding NSSN and CNWP, and the numerous articles concerning the new left formations in Germany, Greece, etc - that the first route for workers must be a left reformist party. This party will develop with support from left union tops; this will lead to a growth of left reformism, the SP will be a supporter of the left reformists. To this end the SP opposes any and all motions and groups which argue for a revolutionary programme in new formations.
In Germany this has placed the CWI in alliance, albeit of a critical nature, with the Socialist Workers Party’s sister organisation in supporting the fusion of WASG with the Stalinist PDS to form Die Linke. This absurd position can be reduced to the conception that to argue for socialism is ‘too much’ in the present period. Instead we should follow the union bureaucrats who continue to draw huge salaries, refuse to actively oppose Labour, so as to prove ourselves reliable foot soldiers in a Labour Party mark two, an ‘inevitable stage in working class recomposition’, according the logic of the CWI.
The Socialist Party will provide the principal foot soldiers of the Bob Crow nationalist army in the No2EU campaign. As the largest force involved, the SP comrades will be asked to do stalls and not sell the party paper, but distribute leaflets on why the EU, not the capitalists of Britain, are the principal enemy of workers. Dave Nellist has already started sending emails out to this effect as a member of the steering committee and as a candidate for a West Midlands seat. The contentious alliance of the SP with the CPB will be an interesting side show to the bankrupt approach of this left nationalism. The CPB are currently in the vanguard of attempts to expel Unison executive members - all SP supporters - over alleged racism. While I heard some very dodgy views whilst a member of the SP, I would not claim the SP has racist members or consciously puts out racist propaganda.
The decision to join the chauvinist campaign was taken by the party executive without any discussion with the branches. The rationale behind it was that the EU, due to the false representation of the Lindsey strike as a strike against the ‘race to the bottom’, as promoted by the EU, is a big issue again.
The SP see this as a reason to support this leftwing Ukip campaign. It may very well form the basis for an old Labour-style British road to socialism alliance at the next general election.
The SP is now hanging all hopes on this eventuality. The recent SP national congress saw not one iota of debate on this issue. The delegates undemocratically endorsed this campaign despite it not being discussed in branch when voting on delegates and despite the fact it was not distributed to branches and delegates before the congress. There is now a very aggressive atmosphere in branches when it comes to discussing the issue.
In order to try and avoid some of the criticisms of the flagrantly undemocratic organisation of the campaign, the SP has pushed for the platform to be given a left face (similar to their demands over Lindsey, without ever renouncing the nationalist strike or its nationalist settlement), whilst at the same time organising regional conferences to choose candidates. One such conference will take place this weekend in Leeds. There is widespread hope amongst SP members in the region that this will be a chance to elect Keith Gibson to the platform. Gibson played a leading role in the Lindsey strike and is an SP supporter.
Whilst it may be ludicrous to have such faith in the leader of a nationalist strike, it does expose the hatred most SP supporters in Yorkshire have for the preferred candidate, the darling of the SP, Dr Jackie Grunsell, a councillor elected on the apolitical platform, Huddersfield Save our Services. The constant support to Grunsell and the Huddersfield SP in the form of subsidy and bodies on the ground at election time is widely resented, as is the bourgeois lifestyle and haughty attitude of the doctor.
This entire farce is now complicated by the possibility of ex-Labour MP Alice Mahon becoming a candidate. This would suit the SP and the RMT, who are keen to be seen as reasonable and ‘safe’ in any new formation which flows from the elections.
What the party membership will make of this is anybody’s guess. The entire project is founded on the lies of Lindsey and the lie that the EU is the principal agent of attacks against the plucky British worker. Even if democracy was given to SP members in deciding a candidate it would not alter this fact.
For all those critical of the SP over Lindsey and also the RMT front I would urge motions to the centre and the calling of an emergency conference of the party to discuss what should have been discussed back in February - why has the SP become a tool of left nationalist and little England forces in the unions? And how do the genuine Marxists in the party - a minority - recover and move forward?
It would be my opinion that perhaps a majority of the SP are sincere socialists, if not revolutionaries, who could be won to a revolutionary approach to building a new workers’ party.
A forum for the large numbers of SP members and supporters who are angry and disillusioned by the party direction over Lindsey and No2EU would be of help in making sure that people who leave can have a place to discuss what went wrong and what the future direction of the workers’ movement should be.
I do not regret my time in the Socialist Party. Life is a great teacher and I have learned a lot from a negative angle about the correct approach to the struggle for socialism.