Left unity should be a top priority
Tusc poses the necessity of a Marxist party, not a Labour Party mark two, writes Peter Manson
The CPGB has written to the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, asking to be part of the Tusc general election challenge (see below).
We would like to stand three or four candidates in constituencies to be determined in consultation with our coalition partners. The CPGB will finance and take full responsibility for the campaign in those constituencies, although we would not contest anywhere if we were not admitted into Tusc.
Whether or not we are allowed in, we will work to aid the election campaigns of, and give critical support to, Tusc candidates - as we will to the candidates of other leftwing working class groups and in particular to Labour candidates who are prepared to call for an unconditional and immediate withdrawal of all British troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, and who pledge to oppose all cuts in public services and benefits.
Following the withdrawal of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain and the Alliance for Green Socialism, the Socialist Party in England and Wales is the only surviving ‘core group’ member from the alliance which contested the June 2009 European Union elections, ‘No to the EU, Yes to Democracy’.
Of course, RMT general secretary Bob Crow remained on board despite the lack of official backing from his union executive (in fact comrade Crow and his leftwing allies on the NEC did not put the question of RMT support for a leftwing general election challenge to the vote, since they knew they would not win). The union will give official national backing to current (mainly Labour) members of the RMT parliamentary group, but the NEC is also prepared to consider applications by local branches for permission to sponsor other candidates. Three RMT regional councils favour a leftwing contest and they could well help influence local branches to apply for such permission. The Carlisle RMT branch has already been given the go-ahead to support a Tusc candidate.
Tommy Sheridan’s Solidarity, which backed No2EU, is also part of Tusc and will stand candidates in Scotland, while Dave Hill, a member of Socialist Resistance and the lead No2EU candidate in the South East, is the Tusc candidate in Brighton Kemptown (as a supporting organisation SR may provide other candidates).
However, the largest and most important newcomer is undoubtedly the Socialist Workers Party, which had been in long and difficult negotiations for several months. As Clive Heemskerk of SPEW puts it, “The admission of the SWP to the coalition was not automatic …” (‘Important step towards a new workers’ party’ The Socialist February 3).
He explains: “Tusc is a federal coalition, but each component, its candidates and participating organisations, will be scrutinised, certainly by New Labour opponents inside the trade unions. With this in mind the record of the SWP was questioned.
“Bob Crow, reflecting the response of RMT militants as last year’s Lindsey strike unfolded, immediately and rightly condemned those ‘misrepresenting the strikers as xenophobic’ … The SWP, on the other hand, criticised the strikes as ‘nationalist’.
“The SWP took a similar stance towards No2EU, the electoral body which was supported not just by the union tops, but a big majority of RMT activists. These and other political mistakes by the SWP will not make winning support for Tusc easier inside the RMT, and other unions too.”
Comrade Heemskerk pointed out to the February 6 meeting of the Left Unity Liaison Committee that the RMT had donated a total of £68,000 to No2EU and therefore it was understandable, he said, that the RMT left, under pressure from the pro-Labour right, would say: “… and now you want us to endorse candidates who condemned No2EU as nationalist?”
In his February 3 article comrade Heemskerk gives a reason why SPEW itself was not exactly keen on having the SWP on board: “Moreover, there is also suspicion amongst many activists of the methods of the SWP when working in broad coalitions. The SWP rejected a federal approach in the Socialist Alliance, for example, using its weight of numbers to dominate, which compelled the Socialist Party to leave and led to the eventual demise of that organisation in 2003.”
Let us leave to one side the reasons behind the SPEW walkout from the SA (there was no “compelled” about it). It is true that the SWP is renowned for its control-freakery and usually succeeds in alienating many of its ‘united front’ partners for that reason. But majorities have rights, including the right to vote through the policies and actions they favour, and there is nothing undemocratic about this.
However, while the SWP has now been coopted onto the steering committee (“after assurances that they would accept the federal character of Tusc”), it has only one representative. Apart from the SWP and SPEW reps, the other steering committee members are: Bob Crow and Craig Johnson (RMT NEC); Brian Caton (Prison Officers Association general secretary); Chris Baugh and John McInally (Public and Commercial Services union NEC members), Nina Franklin (National Union of Teachers executive) and Nick Wrack (Respect - presumably with the approval of his party, which is not part of Tusc and is standing three general election candidates of its own).
Of course, comrades Caton, Baugh and McInally are all SPEW members, so there is no danger of the SWP calling the shots on the steering committee. Furthermore, it is to stand a maximum of six Tusc candidates out of the total of 50-plus likely to contest. In fact, it appears from the SWP’s internal bulletin that the organisation will put up only five, not six, candidates, as only five constituencies are named: “We intend to stand in the following: Preston - Valerie Wise; Manchester - Karen Reissmann; Sheffield - Maxine Bowler; Cambridge - Tom Woodcock; Tottenham - tbc” (Party Notes February 2). While the Tottenham candidate is still to be confirmed, there is no mention at all of a Hackney seat, where the SWP was also considering standing.
However, despite the SWP’s minimal participation - by contrast the Tusc website has already confirmed the candidacies of 14 SPEW members (see www.tusc.org.uk/candidates.php) - comrade Heemskerk still feels obliged to construct a convoluted argument to justify the SWP’s inclusion:
“On the other hand, it was argued, the SWP’s record will not be known particularly to workers moving into struggle for the first time. They could be attracted to Tusc and would naturally want to see the widest possible unity. It is necessary not to do anything that could be a potential barrier to them. On balance then, it was felt that the potential drawbacks of the SWP’s involvement could be overcome.”
So, as well as trying to meet the wishes of left union bureaucrats like comrade Crow, SPEW is well aware that there will be a price to pay if it fails to take into account the desire to “see the widest possible unity” - and these factors are no doubt highly relevant for Tusc as it now considers the applications of the CPGB and other left groups to be part of the coalition.
For its part, the SWP breathes not a word of any of this in its own, completely dishonest reporting of Tusc’s grudging admission of it into the coalition. According to SWP national secretary Martin Smith, “Tusc has so far drawn support from a number of union officials, the SWP, the Socialist Party …” (‘Tusc left coalition to stand in general election’ Socialist Worker February 6).
Simon Basketter in the latest Socialist Worker talks up the SWP’s part in the coalition even more: “… some on the left, including the Socialist Workers Party, have formed a leftwing coalition to stand candidates”. So not only was the SWP among the groups that “formed” the coalition: it is the only Tusc component deemed worthy of a mention in his article (‘Who do you vote for?’, February 13).
In many ways, it is surprising that the SWP is prepared to contest elections again, so soon after the spectacular failure of its Respect ‘electoral united front’. But that is increasingly being blamed on John Rees and the Martin Smith-Alex Callinicos duumvirate are eager to smooth the departure of the whole of his Left Platform. Hence national secretary Martin Smith “acknowledged receipt” of Lindsey German’s resignation with barely concealed pleasure.
The SWP is not only split, but is in search of a new strategy. According to comrade Smith, Tusc is “a small but important step in the creation of a new, trade union-backed, socialist coalition that can provide the alternative that people crave”. Of course, Respect was specifically not a “socialist coalition”. In those days people craved a different kind of alternative, obviously.
But how exactly will Tusc begin to “provide the alternative”? Comrade Smith mentions the possibility of it “pulling together a network of activists” bringing together “socialists, trade unionists, anti-war campaigners, students, pensioners, the new migrant communities, and all those who want to resist the cuts and attacks on our class”. Also it could “begin the process of uniting the left” and “become a stepping stone towards a stronger and more rooted electoral organisation”.
An awful lot of hopes invested in such a modest coalition - and expressed in such vague terms too. Surely the only organisation that could do all those things is a working class party. So does the SWP now favour “uniting the left” in such a party? Or is all this just a series of platitudes? A recent SWP national committee motion, tellingly perhaps, also describes Tusc as “a good investment for the future”.
Objectively, however, comrade Smith is correct - despite himself. The logic of a coalition uniting the left does indeed point to a working class party. And, since the overwhelming majority of those coming together will not simply be “trade unionists”, but in fact members of the existing left groups, the same logic ought to point more precisely to the formation of a party based on the politics they all claim to uphold - one with a revolutionary Marxist programme.
Apart from the CPGB, two other smaller left groups have also applied to join Tusc. Workers Power intends to stand a candidate in the London constituency of Vauxhall, whether or not it is admitted, and similarly the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty will contest another London seat, Camberwell and Peckham. Both hope to stand under the Tusc umbrella. If all three groups are accepted, this would further underline the objective logic towards a party based on the regroupment of the left.
Of course, like the SWP, the SPEW comrades do not see things in that way. SPEW is the most consistent advocate of a trade union-based ‘broad party’ - in effect a Labour Party mark two. While comrade Heemskerk paid lip service to “left regroupment” at the LULC meeting, he contended that Tusc is about “far more than left unity”. There is a sense of “pushing forward towards working class representation at long last” and the fact that senior union leaders are involved means that Tusc is “on a higher plane than the Socialist Alliance”.
That, of course, is the key element for SPEW. As comrade Heemskerk says in his February 3 article, “…the enthusiastic participation in Tusc in a personal capacity by leading trade unionists - in the RMT and other unions also - is highly significant. It is a clear signal that ‘non-political’ trade unionism will increasingly be seen as ‘not an option’ when the axe men are coming.”
He writes: “For the Socialist Party the importance of Tusc lies above all in its potential as a catalyst in the trade unions, both in the structures and below, for the idea of working class political representation. It can also play a role in drawing together anti-cuts campaigns, environmental campaigners, anti-racist groups etc. It is, however, only secondarily a vehicle for developing ‘left unity’: in other words, of socialist organisations collaborating for specific goals, or ‘left regroupment’ - the bringing together of different socialist groups into one organisation.”
To say that SPEW considers left unity to be ‘secondary’ is an understatement. The comrades have no conception of us Marxists being able to give a lead to masses of workers in the here and now. Of course, we could only hope to do that if we actually began to proclaim the necessity of constructing the world we say we believe in.
Instead comrade Heemskerk unambiguously looks to the creation of a Labour-type party by sections of the unions in a process driven at first by a tiny minority of trade unionists: “A new mass political vehicle for workers, a new workers’ party which could fill the present vacuum, will not necessarily develop through the official structures of the unions. It is certainly unlikely that a majority of the larger unions, at least nationally, would initially embrace a new party - in the same way that the biggest unions remained wedded to the Liberal Party in the early days of the Labour Representation Committee (the forerunner of the Labour Party).” Nevertheless, he sees Tusc as acting as a catalyst for the creation of such a party.
We in the CPGB see things differently. We do not believe there is any real momentum towards the establishment of another Labour Party within the unions, even among the minority of small unions to which comrade Heemskerk is looking. There is no space for a second Labour Party. We agree with comrade Basketter of the SWP that the formation led by Gordon Brown remains a “bourgeois workers’ party” capable of being influenced by the union bureaucrats (at the moment they choose not to exert such influence).
In any case the Labour Party was never, and could never be, “a mass political vehicle for workers”. A party that throughout its history has been tied body and soul to British imperialism can never truly represent workers’ interests. It would be exactly the same if, by a miracle, the whole Labour Representation Committee process were to begin again.
We do need to unite - certainly in order to contest elections. But we should enter into such unity with the clear aim of creating a genuine party of our class - a party that insists on working class independence, thoroughgoing democracy and internationalism, as against the class-collaboration, bureaucratic control and sectionalism of the Labourite union tops.
Tusc to CPGB
February 3 2010
Thank you for your email expressing interest in the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition general election challenge. The coalition steering committee met again recently and asked me to respond to your correspondence.
Our discussions on the election challenge have obviously included the points you raise on how to involve the widest layers of trade unionists alongside supportive socialist organisations and we will return to this matter at future meetings.
In the meantime, to help in these deliberations, it was felt it would be useful to ask organisations such as yourselves for some further information on how you feel you could contribute to the effort to try and present a working class alternative at the election.
Obviously this includes basic information about your organisation, such as how many members does it have. Further, have you got amongst your membership any national executive committee members of trade unions, who would be prepared to publicly declare (in a personal capacity as necessary) in support of a trade union and socialist election coalition challenge?
You may not be able to list the exact information, but again it would be useful to know approximately how many trade union section executive members, regional committee members or union branch officers you have as members who you think would also be prepared to add their names in support of a coalition.
It would also very much help our discussions to have some idea of the record of electoral support your organisation has achieved in the past. Have you already drawn up plans to stand candidates in the general election and, if so, could you tell us the seats that you are considering contesting?
And lastly, we would be interested to know what recommendation did your organisation give, if any, on how to vote in the 2009 European elections, and what your reasoning for your decision was.
Socialist Party representative on the Tusc steering committee
CPGB to Tusc
February 10 2010
Many thanks for your email of February 3.
Tusc can potentially make a contribution to the fight for principled left unity. This is why we welcome the new organisation, criticisms of its political platform notwithstanding.
The CPGB has a consistent record of fighting to overcome divisions on the left. This is why we have approached the Tusc steering committee to stand three of our comrades under the umbrella of the coalition in the forthcoming general election. This would be a small, but not insignificant, step in the direction of unity on the left, a move that is urgently needed, as our class faces up to the coming onslaught on our rights and conditions.
It is in this context that we would criticise the whole notion of asking groups (all groups, or an awkward few?) to meet a set of implicit quantative conditions as a precondition of entry. This conveys a certain arrogance: sad to say no left group in Britain has anything approaching mass influence, let alone a mass membership. Organisationally we are all small.
Full membership of the CPGB is not counted in the thousands or the even the hundreds. Nor do we boast of trade union general secretaries or national executive committee members.
Of course, as with most left groups, our membership is exceedingly hard working, dedicated and self-sacrificing. We can certainly raise the money needed to run three or four general election candidates.
However, the main thing the CPGB would bring to Tusc is political influence. Our weekly paper is read by thousands of leftwingers in this country and beyond. If the CPGB were to be welcomed into the coalition this would send a tremendously positive message. Not only to the trade union officials but beyond to the entire working class. It would show that Tusc is serious unity initiative and will help build a real momentum.
On the other hand, turning us down on spurious arithmetical grounds would be seen as just another version of the Labour Party’s bans and proscriptions. Entirely the wrong message.
You ask about our record of electoral activity. The electoral record of the CPGB from 1920 until the opportunist liquidation in 1991 is well known. Since we took the name of our Party, our comrades have contested numerous national, local and European elections, starting with four candidates in the April 1992 general election. Overall, our results have been no worse than the standard left, non-Labour vote.
In the June 2009 European elections, the CPGB recommended a vote for any working class candidates prepared to openly commit to some basic principles of genuine internationalism and republican democracy. It was in this spirit that we approached No2EU candidates, despite our openly stated position that the organisation’s platform was tainted with left nationalism. We oppose calls for British withdrawal from the European Union and the break-up of Britain. The working class must overcome capitalism on a global scale and towards that end are best be advised to fight for state power throughout the continent of Europe.
At the end of the day, we supported Labour and did not recommend a vote for any No2EU slate. We would have done so, had its lead candidates publicly committed to positions which ought not to be controversial for socialists - for working class unity on a European level; for a militant programme of democracy, not a return to the constitutional arrangements of the UK in 1972; for a practical, fighting unity with migrant workers as our comrades and against the poisonous notion of regarding them as simply the fallout of “social dumping”.
From our point of view, the political platform of Tusc is more healthy than that of No2EU - an improvement that allows us to recommend an unconditional, though critical, vote for its slate as a whole and to seek to stand our own candidates under its banner.
We hope this has clarified things for you.
With communist greetings
On behalf of the Provisional Central Committee, Communist Party of Great Britain