Yes to Democracy workers’ party

Dave Craig of the Socialist Alliance gives an assessment of the impact of No2EU on the left

It was reported that in Iran thousands of people were going onto the roofs  of their houses and shouting, “God is great” and “Down with the dictatorship”. This is a dilemma for the left. Should we give them unconditional support, praising their brave defiance, but pointing out our criticism or scepticism about god? Should we say we will support them on condition they renounce god? Should we oppose them if they do not meet our demands?

The religious police and militia face a similar dilemma. Should they break into the houses and join the residents shouting for god? Or should they beat the worshippers, break their windows and smash their houses for making critical comments about the state? The religious police spent no time in intellectual agonising. They beat people unconditionally and critically. The god thing meant nothing to the guardians of religion.

I have noticed this problem with the masses before. They do stuff but ruin it by saying the wrong things. We cannot work out whether it is what they did or what they said that is important. The Lindsey workers went on strike against Total, the giant French multinational. But they went and upset everybody when some people carried placards calling for “British jobs for British workers”.

This caused much outrage, amongst those intellectuals who value words more than deeds. What is more important - the fact that thousands went onto their roofs or what they said when they got there? Was it the Lindsey strike or the slogans on the placards? The same type of thinking informed the left’s attitude to the ‘No to the EU, Yes to Democracy’ campaign. Was it their challenge to the capitalist Labour government that should be supported, or opposed because their views on Europe were alleged to be nationalistic or they did not endorse the right to carry weapons?

No2EU strikes

In February a strike wave spread across 22 construction sites at oil refineries and power stations. The employers were using European Union laws to undermine union-negotiated agreements over basic pay and conditions by bringing in cheaper workers from aboard. This concerned EU laws on ‘posted workers’ - employed in another EU country, but ‘posted’ to the UK for a temporary period. The employers are supposed to abide by universal collective agreements. But in the UK only the minimum wage applies, following a 2008 ruling in the European Court of Justice.

This is not much different from employers sacking workers and replacing them with workers employed by an agency. This would be no benefit to employers if the new workers had to be paid at the same union rates as the sacked workers. Here the issue had a European dimension. The EU courts ruled that such collective agreements were a restraint, or barrier, to trade and the free movement of workers.

This is not a new argument. Trade unions, right back to the Combination Acts and Taff Vale dispute, have always been attacked as a restraint on trade. In this EU version we have the powerful unity of EU courts and EU ‘posted workers’ laws with UK anti-union laws. These unofficial strikes busted both sets of laws from the EU and UK. At the forefront was the Lindsey strike committee fighting for union rights and in effect saying ‘No2EU-UK’ anti-trade union laws.

Workers are not stupid. They could see EU and UK laws were being used against them. But this was not the only issue. They were fearful of losing their jobs and concerned about the lack of jobs in the recession. If the immediate threat came from their bosses led by a French multinational oil corporation, they were backed up by the Labour government. Labour did nothing to support them and sided with Total. No surprises there then.

The slogan, “British jobs for British workers”, appeared on placards of striking workers. The Sun promoted this to undermine workers’ unity, projecting its own chauvinism onto the strike. At least it would keep leftists away from the picket lines. Fortunately neither the strike leaders nor everybody on the left fell for this and gave the striking workers unconditional but critical support.

The words, “God is great” and “British jobs for British workers”, are reactionary ideas. But the same words mean different things in context. Up on the roof is different from kneeling in the mosque. When socialists see “British jobs for British workers” associated with the British National Party or UK Independence Party, they are naturally horrified and repelled. The same feelings are conjured up by calls for “Britain out of Europe”.

Nevertheless it is possible to see “British jobs” as a naive, anti-Gordon Brown slogan: ‘Listen up, Brown, you treacherous bastard, you said you would protect us, but we are losing our jobs.’ Of course, militant Lindsey workers like Keith Gibson, are only too aware that such ‘innocent patriotism’ turns swiftly into racism, division and defeat. The main thing is not to be derailed by this or that slogan and keep focused on winning the struggle.

The victory won in the February No2EU strikes was not total. The French multinational was soon planning a return match. In early June it sacked 51 workers under the guise of redundancy. On June 19 this escalated, when 647 construction workers were sacked for participating in unofficial illegal strikes.

The workers, more confident now, came back with a militant response. Very soon strikes spread out well beyond Lindsey onto sites at Aberthaw, BP Saltend, Didcot, Drax, Eggborough, Ellesmere Port, Ferrybridge, Fiddlers Ferry power station, Ratcliffe, Scunthorpe BOC, South Hook, Staythorpe, West Burton, and Wilton. Over 13,000 workers came out; 900 contract workers at the Sellafield nuclear plant in Cumbria stopped work for three days (see Weekly Worker June 25). Soon the capitalists were on their knees, a magnificent victory was achieved, and a coach and horses driven through the EU and UK anti-unions laws.

Lindsey was a strike against the EU courts and anti-working class laws and UK anti-union laws and against the policies of the French multinational, supported by the Brown Labour government. It was a strike for jobs and against unemployment. What therefore was the programme of the Lindsey workers’ ‘party’?

“Lindsey workers show the way,” proclaimed the headline in the Weekly Worker. It was an inspiring victory won through unofficial illegal strikes. Jim Moody’s article refers to Keith Gibson, “one of the Lindsey strike leaders and a member of the Socialist Party in England and Wales”. But Jim did not mention that Keith was recently a candidate for the No2EU campaign.

Election campaign

There is an obvious connection between the Lindsey No2EU strikes and the No2EU election campaign. It is militant trade unionism. In recent years the RMT union led the way in industrial action. Now the Lindsey shop stewards came to the front. Keith Gibson is a living connection between the strikes and the election campaign. The former took on a capitalist multinational corporation in the economic struggle and the latter fought the capitalist Labour government in the political struggle.

The No2EU trade union ‘party’ gathered militant workers to its banner. Amongst its candidates, in addition to Bob Crow, RMT general secretary, and Keith Gibson, were leaders of the most recent struggles in Britain including Visteon convenors Kevin Nolan and Frank Jepson, John McEwan, another Lindsey oil refinery worker, and Rob Williams, victimised convenor at the Linamar car components plant, Swansea.

However, No2EU was more than just a militant trade union party. It drew around itself a section of the socialist movement. Something new was included, missing from the programme of the Lindsey ‘party’ - the thorny issue of democracy. No2EU added the ambiguous words, “Yes to Democracy”. The question was posed in relation to both the UK and EU.

There were other parallels. The slogan, “British jobs for British workers”, appeared in the No2EU strikes, and the call for British withdrawal from the EU arose during the No2EU election campaign. These and other incorrect words alienated many socialists, who turned against the strikers and the election campaign. They lost sight of the class struggle against the bosses and the capitalist Labour government.

It is no surprise that most socialists took a similar view of the No2EU strikes and the No2EU election campaign. There are infamous exceptions. The Weekly Worker supported the Lindsey strikers against the bosses and the capitalist Labour government in the economic struggle, but then turned round and supported the same Labour government against the No2EU party. No wonder Jim ‘forgot’ to mention Keith Gibson’s link with both struggles.

The Lindsey No2EU strikes were a united front against the capitalists, their EU-UK laws and their Labour government. Within the workers’ united front were a range of views - some militant, some Labourite, some communist and some nationalistic. Communists must give unconditional support to the struggle, whilst criticising all reactionary and divisive trends within the movement.

No2EU was also a workers’ united front. It contained a range of views on the EU, including calls for British withdrawal, a workers’ Europe and a European republic. Initially the Communist Party of Britain was the major ideological influence. However, the official position was clarified in the process of formation and negotiation. The Socialist Party, the largest socialist group in the united front, did not support withdrawal. No2EU found its own equilibrium and settled on its own unity formulation. This was no to the EU as currently constituted and no to the Lisbon treaty. All agreed on this.

“Yes to Democracy” demanded democratic answers on the EU. Two democratic slogans were raised - British withdrawal (or self-determination) and a European republic. In Weekly Worker May 7, I posed these alternatives in terms of the retreat from the EU (Dunkirk, 1940) or democratic invasion (Normandy, 1944). The correct line of march was provided in the second round of Lindsey strikes. Comrade Gibson “told the Weekly Worker that if oil giant Total persists in blocking a settlement into next week, the strike committee is very likely to seek to spread the dispute farther afield, including to France (Total’s home base) and Italy” (June 25). Normandy, here we come!

Balance sheet

What did No2EU achieve? In a certain sense it is too early to say. It depends on what happens next. Enemies of the militant working class, such as the Labour Party and the BNP, will hope that nothing more comes of it. They hope this was the end of the rebellion and militant workers will have no choice but dutifully prostrate themselves before Gordon Brown. But for communists the question is how to build on what has been achieved already and come back better organised.

Nevertheless, we can consider the balance sheet so far. The main gain of the No2EU strikes and No2EU election campaign is class struggle, not votes. A militant section of the working class fought against the EU constitution, the Labour government, the Tories, Liberal Democrats and the BNP. This has to be recognised and applauded. It is much easier to sit at home and do nothing than take on the risks of battle.

Struggle changes the situation. It educates and brings organisation. It exposes more of the truth about the working class and its allies. The election campaign has shaken up the left. It put the question of working class policy on the EU to the fore. It provoked, for example, a debate inside the CPGB about strategy and tactics and how it would vote in the general election. It forced the Socialist Workers Party to come out of its corner with an “open letter” and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty to call for a new socialist alliance.

The No2EU alliance or party became a focal point for socialist unity, drawing around itself the Socialist Party, Communist Party of Britain, Alliance for Green Socialism, Socialist Alliance, a section of Respect and the International Socialist Group. This alliance, or united front, was an important advance. There has been no alliance like it since the high tide of the Socialist Alliance in 2001.

In January 2009 the movement was down in the dumps. There was little or no prospect of a militant trade union victory or a left challenge to Labour and the BNP. Taken together, the No2EU strikes and election campaign have changed the mood in the socialist movement. The strikes should make us more optimistic. The votes won keep us realistic. The left has a mountain to climb, but it is no good giving up in the foothills.

Only parliamentary cretinism thinks votes are the more important than class struggle. No2EU won 153,236 votes. This is a great result for an unknown alliance, only a few weeks old and not a fully formed party, especially considering all the negatives - the state of class-consciousness, the drift to the right, the presence of the Socialist Labour Party and the divisions on the left, with some socialists backing Labour and others the Green Party.

We would be living on another planet to expect better than this. The vote shows the worst thing No2EU did was waste time discussing what to do if elected! In relative terms, at one percent, this shows our weakness. It is a long way from challenging Labour. It cannot match the votes of the BNP. No doubt some voted for it by mistake. Yet there are at least 100,000 workers looking for a militant pro-working class and anti-Labour party.

Yes to Democracy party

It was a huge gain to pose the question of Europe in terms of ‘Yes to Democracy’. Normally most of the left does not go beyond calling for a workers’ state to replace the bosses - whether this is in terms of a workers’ Scotland, workers’ Britain, workers’ Europe or workers’ world. ‘Yes to Democracy’ brings it back to the question of strategy and the means of achieving a socialist or communist world.

Democratic demands are not socialism, nor are they an alternative to socialism. For socialists they are (or should be) the road to socialism. Which road should the working class take? What is the strategic line march? ‘Yes to Democracy’ posed the question and threw down the democratic gauntlet. The consequences of that are yet to be fully worked through.

In the Euro-election ‘No2EU’ was prominent and ‘Yes to Democracy’ in the background. The election is passed and the slogan, ‘No2EU’, is largely irrelevant, at least for the general election. Long live ‘Yes to Democracy’. In future we must refer to the Yes to Democracy party. This should be the temporary working title. This should stand for continuity during transition to the next stage of building a new working class party. It will be no surprise for readers of the Weekly Worker to hear that in my view the Yes to Democracy party should eventually, and sooner rather than later, adopt the name ‘Republican Socialist Party’.