More than a temporary electoral alliance needed

We should settle for nothing less than a single, democratic-centralist, Marxist party, writes Peter Manson

In a welcome move, the Socialist Workers Party has published a response from Hannah Sell of the Socialist Party in England and Wales to its “open letter to the left”.

Immediately after the June 4 European Union elections the SWP called for a conference of those intending to stand candidates in next year’s general election with the intention of setting up a “united left group” (Socialist Worker June 13). SPEW published its reply shortly afterwards (The Socialist June 24), but up to this week Socialist Worker has only been publishing brief responses from individuals - its own members or comrades to its right.

Comrade Sell’s own response consists basically of her June 24 piece, but with its criticisms diplomatically toned down for the benefit of Socialist Worker. As a result it comes over as rather more positive than the original sullen, resentful rejoinder. Of course, comrade Sell still complains about the SWP’s failure to support ‘No to the EU, Yes to Democracy’ and insists that it is the No2EU campaign that must be built upon in 2010.

Apparently, “The Socialist Party has always supported genuine left unity” and wants to see an “effective challenge in the general election”. But this time around unity must involve “significant sections of the working class and young people, rather than simply being a coming together of existing left organisations” (Socialist Worker July 18).

The problem with this, of course, is it is highly unlikely that a 2010 electoral bloc will involve “significant sections of the working class and young people”, although it goes without saying that this would be highly desirable. But for SPEW that phrase is code for a campaign like No2EU - an alliance of the RMT union leadership, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain and SPEW itself. It is true that many of No2EU’s candidates were militant workers, including those involved in recent disputes at Visteon, Lindsey and Linamar, but mainly they were members of the component groups (not least SPEW). These comrades, together with Bob Crow and the RMT bureaucracy, cannot honestly be described as “significant sections”.

In the absence of such layers of militant workers, however, it would be quite wrong for the left not to attempt to unite in a “coming together of existing left organisations”. But, according to comrade Sell, “The RMT is now discussing a trade union list for the general election … This would be a serious step towards creating a mass political voice for the working class in Britain. The best way forward would be for all socialist forces, including the SWP, to work to develop this initiative.”

It really is astonishing that SPEW is prepared to write union lefts like Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka a blank cheque. Yes, they head working class organisations that are numerically larger than any left group, but, as everybody knows, the vast majority of union members are not active partisans. Most have no idea what the leadership is up to and, as things stand, only a tiny number would campaign for a union-based political platform. But, of course, the SPEW comrades are well aware of this - they know how many RMT rank and file members joined in the No2EU campaign, such as it was.

The fact that leaders like comrade Crow are seeking an independent working class alternative is to be welcomed, but they cannot provide the politics, organisation or cadre. In No2EU it was Brian Denny of the CPB who came up with the politics, with his red-brown anti-EU left nationalism. SPEW was forced to go along with it, but remained in denial, pointing to the insertion into the platform of “international solidarity of working class people”.

It is, however, inevitable that union bureaucrats like Crow will insist on their own type of politics. And to ensure that they get their way, just as in No2EU, there will no rigorous culture of democracy and control from below. But the bureaucrats will have to rely on the organised left to do the donkey work. The argument that the CPGB has been making is that it is clearly better for the left groups upon whom any electoral campaign will depend to stand on their own professed politics - those of revolutionary socialism. SPEW is living in cloud cuckoo land if it thinks a union-led electoral platform of the type that may be created will win more votes or provide a more serious stepping stone towards a genuine working class party.

For its part, the SWP is remaining deliberately vague about what type of “united left group” it envisages. Clearly it wants to keep all options open, in the hope of eventually positioning itself more influentially. For the moment it is happy to give some space in Socialist Worker, in addition to comrade Sell, to those like Tom Woodcock, who wants “the greatest possible unity in action and organisation well beyond the existing left”, but thinks “this will be best achieved through campaigns that also stand in elections, not in the formation of a new party” (July 11). Or naive souls like Graeme Kemp, who declares in the same issue: “Until we work out what ends up splitting alliances of the left, I’m not sure we should attempt another coalition.”

We in the CPGB will be writing to the SWP asking for a meeting in order to exchange ideas on the best way of progressing left unity. It has to be said, however, that not all left groups would welcome CPGB participation and CPGB candidates in a general election campaign.

Take CPB general secretary Rob Griffiths, who writes: “Obviously, those sects which specialise in ultra-leftist posturing have nothing to offer the process of left unity which needs to proceed” (Morning Star July 9). No doubt he means us, but what about the SWP?

After mentioning No2EU and its “vigorous alliance of socialist and trade union organisations”, together with the PCS union, which is “considering how to play a more direct role in elections” (although comrade Griffiths does not say this will not happen in time for next year), he goes on to state: “There are discussions too between sections of Respect and the Green Party about electoral cooperation, and the SWP has issued an open letter appealing for unity, although this has met with a mixed reception.”

It is at this point that Griffiths mentions the “sects” and their “ultra-leftist posturing”, leaving it deliciously ambiguous whether the SWP falls into this category. Readers may recall the comments of CPB national organiser Andy Goodall in an internal circular about No2EU: “Whilst this is a very broad campaign, SWP, AWL, Weekly Worker and other ultra-left groups have not been considered eligible …” (CPB members bulletin, March 16).

Understandably, then, there has been a “mixed reception” within the CPB to the SWP’s unity appeal, which editor Bill Benfield featured as his lead letter in the Morning Star (June 9). Comrade Benfield now informs us, however, that, while the Star has been “trying to run [letters] uncut as far as possible”, there have been “a few readers” complaining about “fairly uncontrolled abuse getting through”. So from now on he will “have to be fairly strict” (July 4-5).

I cannot recall reading any of the “name-calling” or “abusive” letters that comrade Benfield warns against, but I can see why CPB anti-Trot traditionalists would not want Chris Bambery and the SWP’s latest initiative featuring so prominently. I can also understand why they would not want any sort of electoral alliance with the SWP. The CPB was split down the middle over whether it should work with the SWP in Respect and this question has clearly not yet been resolved.

Whether or not it will involve the SWP, the CPB is hoping to “develop forms of left unity” that will include “an agreed approach to the coming election”, says comrade Griffiths. He notes that “Trying to prevent a Tory victory will require a vote for hundreds of Labour candidates”, and support for those who “opposed New Labour’s imperialist wars and backed the Trade Union Freedom Bill” should meet with “wide-scale agreement on the left”.

He goes on: “In other seats, the Labour candidate may be best placed to keep out the Tories and - except for the worst of New Labour’s privatising war criminals - (s)he could be supported.”

But that is as far as he is prepared to go. Just what else should this “agreed approach to the coming election” entail? Whether or not we should be standing our own candidates is left tantalisingly open.

As far as the CPGB is concerned, we call for a concerted, widespread left challenge in the general election - in the 2001 general election the Socialist Alliance stood 98 candidates. But we must aim for something more permanent than an alliance. Electoral cooperation must become a springboard for moves towards a united working class party, built in the first instance around the existing left groups. It must be based on the fundamental principles of Marxism - working class independence, working class democracy and working class internationalism.

This does not imply a political truce - far from it. Those serious about establishing principled, long-lasting unity will not shirk from the necessity of winning the battle of ideas - to begin with on the left itself. Manoeuvring to the advantage of one’s own sect is a dead end. So is looking to trade union left bureaucrats to do the job for us - they cannot and will not.

A democratic-centralist Marxist party is the only formation that can provide the working class with the organisation it needs to put an end to crisis-ridden capitalism and create a communist society of general freedom. We should settle for nothing less.