Shrill voices and social weight

Peter Manson finds social weight is a commodity all of the left lacks

Speaking at a general election public meeting in Woolwich on April 29, Socialist Party in England and Wales leader Hannah Sell stated that all groups and individuals represented on the steering committee of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition had agreed that the CPGB should not be allowed to stand candidates as part of Tusc. Previously the most we had been told was that our application had been the subject of a “three-minute discussion” that had ended when someone proposed that it should merely be noted.

Comrade Sell’s admission came in response to my point, made from the floor, about the impossibility of a Labour-type party with trade union support emerging from Tusc. I noted that Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT union and Tusc’s most prominent union supporter, had committed himself to campaigning for Communist Party of Britain candidates on polling day, not those of the coalition, according to the CPB website and the Morning Star (April 27).

I predicted that there was not the remotest possibility of the creation of a Labour Party mark two and concluded that SPEW’s whole ‘mass workers’ party’ strategy was a dead end. Worse, it was hardly desirable to hand left union bureaucrats like comrade Crow a veto on questions like who should be allowed to participate and what the nature of any new formation would be. Sooner or later, SPEW itself would find itself on the receiving end of such vetoes.

Surely those who claim to be Marxists should aim to unite the left in a Marxist party? I pointed to the Socialist Alliance as a formation that contained the seeds of such unity. Second time around, the left should come together on the basis of a higher, more principled formation. In the meantime, the CPGB was giving critical support to Tusc and we had done our best to join in with its campaigning, even though we had been barred from contesting under its umbrella ourselves.

In response to my intervention, comrade Sell made it clear that for her the experience of the SA was totally negative. She said that another such alliance, where the “shrill voices” of the small left groups would drown out those of “ordinary workers”, was the last thing we needed. As for the CPGB in particular, there was unanimity in Tusc that we just did not have the “social weight” to be allowed to stand candidates.

The meeting where this exchange took place was of a slightly schizophrenic nature. According to the election address of Onay Kasab - a Unison militant victimised by his union, SPEW member and Tusc candidate for Greenwich and Woolwich - it was one of three Tusc “campaign meetings”. But another flyer implied it was a joint Tusc/SPEW event, while comrade Sell herself talked throughout about “our party” rather than ‘our coalition’. Held at the venue where SPEW has its routine weekly meetings, the event attracted around 20 people, almost all of them SPEW members and supporters. From what I could tell, there were also a couple of new people, brought along by friends.

It seems there was nobody present whose interest or curiosity had been aroused by the rather low-key Tusc campaign - nobody who might be termed by comrade Sell an “ordinary worker” attracted towards this “small step” in the direction of a new workers’ party. In a way it was fortunate that none of them had responded to the appeal in the Tusc/SPEW flyer to come and “meet the candidate”, as unfortunately comrade Kasab was unable to make it.

Only a handful of comrades wished to ask a question or make a point from the floor and, in the absence of much discussion, a postal worker comrade was asked to give an update on the recent dispute and settlement with Royal Mail. However, there was still time for more contributions and, with no-one else wanting to speak, I was allowed to reply to comrade Sell. I made the point that I did not think my voice was “shrill” and I had no wish to prevent anyone else from speaking, let alone drown them out. If workers really did start to join a new formation in numbers, then soon it might be the small left groups that would find it difficult to be heard. So what was comrade Sell worried about? She interjected to say she was referring only to the initial stages.

I then turned to the question of “social weight” - a commodity that all of the left was lacking, I said. Take comrade Kasab himself. Comrade Sell interrupted again to say that Kas does have social weight, but I pointed out that, while he was well known among council workers as the former secretary of a large Unison branch (now barred by the bureaucracy from holding office for two years for his role in issuing a leaflet critical of the union leadership), he would be unable to garner much in the way of votes on May 6.

Comrade Sell’s facial expression revealed that she knew this to be true - she had earlier said that she expected all Tusc’s results to be “modest” - but she merely indicated that she did not wish to get into a “dialogue” with me.

As the meeting broke up, I volunteered to help with any canvassing or other campaigning the following Sunday. But it turned out that, although a small stunt was planned in Woolwich town centre for the Saturday, apart from that all local SPEW comrades had been commandeered to neighbouring Lewisham to help Socialist Alternative councillors Ian Page and Chris Flood get re-elected on May 6 and see comrade Jess Leach voted in as the third SPEW councillor for Telegraph Hill ward.