Socialists in trade union clothing

Peter Manson was at the very modest official launch of the latest halfway house project

According to the Morning Star report, around 250 “trade unionists” crammed into Friends Meeting House in London for the national launch rally of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (March 27).

The Star’s Communist Party of Britain may have declined to participate in Tusc, but its description of the coalition’s supporters is certainly in line with how the Tusc leadership would like the organisation to be seen. I am referring, of course, to the comrades of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, who are not only running the show, but providing the army (while giving due deference to RMT general secretary Bob Crow in particular).

So, yes, those attending the Friends House launch were, I am sure, trade union members virtually down to the last man and woman - and the following morning’s Today programme on BBC radio reported the event in the appropriate manner: while SPEW and the Socialist Workers Party got a mention, listeners were led to believe that this was a meeting of trade union militants trying to re-establish the kind of political representation they once ‘enjoyed’ through the Labour Party.

But the reality is that those in the hall were overwhelmingly leftwing political activists. I would say that three quarters were SPEW comrades, while most of the rest were either current or past members of other groups of the revolutionary left. The SWP sent along a mere handful - enough to staff two stalls outside and give SWP speaker Karen Reissmann, the Tusc candidate for Manchester Gorton, moral support.

What about all those ‘ordinary’ rank and file union members? Well, Brian Caton of the Prison Officers Association perhaps summed it up when he apologised for not having yet been able to win his members to Tusc - in all likelihood comrade Caton was the only POA member present. Similarly, if any British Airways cabin crew or previously non-political PCS strikers or RMT rank-and-filers newly drawn to Tusc were present, they did not exactly stand out.

I am not attempting to score points by making these observations - merely to demonstrate that the term ‘trade unionist’ in Tusc’s name is far more of an aspiration than an accurate description of what exists at the moment. Something close to 100% of those in the room were first and foremost socialists (who are also trade unionists). Comrade Caton, who joined SPEW last year and is now in his final days as POA general secretary before retirement, was perhaps one of the few exceptions. An honest trade union activist disillusioned with Labour, who believes that workers now need a new party, he typifies the kind of worker the SPEW comrades are hoping will flock into Tusc, the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party or whatever the next push for a Labour Party mark two will be called.

Of course, SPEW regards comrade Crow as Tusc’s biggest asset in this regard. But unfortunately, unlike comrade Caton, he was unable to attend because of pressing RMT business. As the Today reporter ironically commented, he was too busy “launching a strike” to turn up to the launch of a new party. In fact, that is the problem with the kind of ‘new party’ SPEW has in mind - one based mainly on a section of the unions breaking with Labour. Not only will the left union bureaucrats want to call the shots (and SPEW will allow them to do so): they will also prioritise their union work. Which is why not only comrade Crow, but other union executive members on the Tusc steering committee, are so often unable to attend its meetings.

That also applies to Chris Baugh, PCS assistant general secretary and another SPEW member. But he, at least, made it to the launch, where he sat on the platform alongside his SPEW comrade, Hannah Sell (chair), Dave Nellist, who was “speaking on behalf of the Socialist Party”, and comrade Reissmann of the SWP.

What we actually have in Tusc, then, is a coalition of socialists, whose actual balance was reflected in the composition of the platform on the night. But it is a much more narrowly based electoral coalition than, say, the Socialist Alliance. Out of the 42 candidates so far nominated (this may well be the final total), 24 are members of SPEW or, in the case of Scotland, its ‘international’, the Committee for a Workers’ International.

The SWP, by contrast, has decided to give Tusc and contesting the general election a much lower priority. It has just four candidates - its comrades are being directed to concentrate their campaigning in these four constituencies plus a handful of others. Karen Reissmann warned in her speech of the danger posed by the English Defence League and immediately went on to say that one priority must be “to ensure the BNP don’t win anything significant”. In other words, a good number of SWP comrades, rather than putting forward a positive, socialist election platform themselves, will be mobilising against “the Nazis” during the election period (and for comrade Reissmann it was clearly obvious that the EDL and British National Party are one and the same).

Also standing are Tommy Sheridan and three other non-CWI, non-SWP members of Solidarity in Scotland; Dave Hill, the lone Socialist Resistance candidate; CPB member John Metcalfe in Carlisle (despite the fact his organisation is not supporting Tusc nationally); a comrade from the Independent Socialists in Wellingborough and another from Lanarkshire Socialist Alliance (who happens to be a CWI member); and seven other (mainly ex-Labour) independents.

But, thanks to the power of veto enjoyed by Tusc steering committee members, others have been kept out. The CPGB has not been allowed to finance and run our own candidates under the coalition umbrella, while Workers Power has also been excluded - although, unlike the CPGB, WP is contesting (in London Vauxhall) in any case. The latest candidate to be refused is Steve Freeman of the rump Socialist Alliance, who had won the backing of his local union branch (and Southwark Respect!) to stand in London Bermondsey. It seems that the veto on this occasion was wielded by Martin Smith of the SWP (comrade Freeman was once an SWP member, after all, who led what was at the time a leftwing breakaway).

Comrade Freeman’s views are in fact totally compatible with those of SPEW and its striving to create a halfway house Labourite party. As comrade Nellist put it at the rally, Tusc stands for a “new, clean form of politics in the old tradition” - he meant the Labourite tradition. Comrade Sell described Tusc as a “modest beginning”, but predicted that, like the Labour Representation Committee at the beginning of the 20th century, it would be the “start of something big”. The LRC was originally described as a “small cloud on the horizon”, but it eventually gave birth to a “mass force”, comrade Sell reminded us.

There were just three other speakers, who were asked to address the rally from the floor: Tusc candidates Jenny Sutton (Tottenham) and SPEW member Onay Kasab (Greenwich and Woolwich), plus Steve Hedley, RMT London regional committee member. Comrade Hedley is a leftwing activist of long standing, of course. He advised John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn, instead of acting like the “last of the Mohicans”, to “come out of the Labour Party and join Tusc”.

This is a forlorn plea based on a hopeless trajectory. We in the CPGB are urging a vote for Tusc not because we share SPEW’s aim of rerunning the 20th century through a replacement Labour Party, but because even Tusc’s limited left cooperation - restricted and perverted by opportunism and sectarianism - objectively points to the organisational unity of Marxists that is required.