For left unity

An open letter to Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition from the CPGB

The Communist Party of Great Britain welcomes the launch of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition because it has the potential to lead towards the sort of principled left unity our class so urgently needs. This is why, despite our reservations about the way Tusc has been launched and the content of its provisional programme, we have written to you registering our willingness to stand CPGB candidates under its banner and to support its campaign.

In one sense, almost any move towards a degree of left electoral cooperation on a common platform should be viewed positively. We squandered the tremendous opportunities that there were from the mid-1990s to establish an electoral beachhead for Marxist politics. Ranged against us, there was a rightward-moving Labour Party and a Tory Party that made itself more or less unelectable for a decade plus. There was space and opportunity. But instead of advances for the genuine politics of the working class, the grim aftermath of the various abortive unity initiatives has been one of splits, bitterness and decline for the revolutionary left. An initiative such as Tusc that coheres something out of this wreckage can be important.

That said, there is too much that is sadly familiar about this latest attempt to present to the electorate what comrade Dave Nellist of the Socialist Party in England and Wales has dubbed “a clear anti-cuts and socialist programme” (Campaign for a New Workers’ Party email, January 19).

Yes, we have differences with aspects of the Tusc provisional programme. Democracy and republicanism are not sufficiently stressed; instead of just looking towards the working class implementing its programme within the narrow confines of Britain there needs at least to be a pan-European perspective; left electoral coalitions are all very well, but what is really needed is a mass party of the working class based on Marxism. Of course, from our angle, none of this represents a barrier to joint work: with the democratic space to argue our politics we are convinced that our arguments will win through. In the meantime, we accept majority decisions.

Here we get to the nub of the problem, however. From the bureaucratic, top-down and secretive manner the coalition has been put together, a strong, negative message has been sent out. There is no democracy. Nor bottom-up structures through which supporters can elect representatives and debate and in due course arrive at policy decisions. Bob Crow and an invited inner core get to decide everything of importance. Others, specifically the Socialist Workers Party, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and the CPGB, have been banned or proscribed. A regime that characterised Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party from the beginning - a control-freakery that produced fiasco and the organisation’s effective demise.

Hence the worrying comments made by Clive Heemskerk, a leading member of SPEW and a key player in Tusc. Speaking at the Left Unity Liaison Committee meeting on December 19 last year the comrade stated that organisations wanting to join the coalition would “need to have some ‘social weight’ and be able to work by consensus”. Responding to requests for clarification, the comrade hedged: “ No criteria has been laid down to determine ‘social weight’, and all organisational requests to get involved will be looked at on merit.”

“Merit” is no more comforting as an entry qualification as “social weight”, frankly. Who is the arbiter of a political group’s “merit”? Bob Crow? Clive Heemskerk? An unelected inner core?

As for “social weight”, under present circumstances no strand of the organised left has significant mass support in any meaningful sense. None of the sects that litter the scene today can seriously organise or lead real sections of the working class itself. True, there are those elected to trade union positions. But that hardly represents conscious support for republican democracy, socialism and the project of human liberation. This is something that a serious unity project will doubtless address by patiently overcoming the ideological differences that at present divide us and above all by spreading the ideas of Marxism, mobilising to extend democracy in all spheres of life and building branches and other such structures in every neighbourhood and big workplace.

If comrade Heemskerk means by working “by consensus” the willingness to accept that political differences, debate and sometimes sharply expressed criticisms are no barrier to democratically agreed unity in action, then we are with him. Again, however, given the poisoned atmosphere that prevails on our left today, this is something that has to be built rather than decreed.

The CPGB has been involved in all the serious left unity projects, from Scargill’s SLP, through the Socialist Alliance and Respect. In the SA - which was the high point of these unity attempts - we were its most active partisans. We took the lead in establishing the London SA in 1999 and - with active support from the Socialist Workers Party - stood our comrade Anne Murphy in the local elections.

When the SWP fully threw its weight behind the alliance, we participated at every level of the organisation, locally and on the national leadership. We cajoled other more timid groups to present a serious challenge in the June 2001 general election, overcoming those who advocated just six candidates (or 20 from the more ‘ambitious’) and eventually our ‘mad’ perspective, as it was dubbed by some, became SA ‘common sense’. In the end the alliance stood 98 candidates.

In that election, a CPGB representative sat on the drafting committee for the SA manifesto People before profit. Particularly in that period of intense political work, but also throughout the lifespan of the SA, the CPGB made considerable financial and logistical commitments to the common project. The CPGB and its newspaper were real assets to the SA. This, we suggest, was of real “merit”.

The Socialist Alliance generated real enthusiasm not because of the “social weight” of the groups and individuals participating, but because it united the major components of the revolutionary left in a challenge that seemed to indicate that the Marxists were at last beginning to take their responsibilities to the class seriously. That is, to build a permanent political entity that united different political strands in the workers’ movement around acceptance of (not agreement with) a political programme. An organisation that was capable of uniting for action, but could contain differences.

In other words, the strength of the SA was not numbers; it was the idea of left unity. Although the political conditions are now less favourable, an initiative that looks to democratically unite all genuine working class political strands for commonly agreed action is still what the situation demands. Start with exclusions and you guarantee yet another failure.