Why the ship won’t sail
Peter Manson reports on the misplaced efforts to talk up the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition
Just over 100 people attended the September 22 Trade Union and Socialist Coalition “conference” in London. As chair Dave Nellist remarked more than once, an estimated two-thirds of those in the room were members of the Socialist Party in England and Wales and I have no reason to argue with him. Four comrades from the Socialist Workers Party spoke either from the platform or the floor and it is likely that they were the only SWP members present. The only other political group represented seemed to be Socialist Resistance, and there were four officially designated “delegates” from the RMT union.
The lecture room at Birbeck College in London has a capacity of over 200 people, so presumably SPEW had not been able to mobilise quite as many people as it would have liked. Of course, there was a fine balancing act to be performed between giving the impression that Tusc is a vibrant, well supported body and ensuring that non-affiliated comrades are not swamped by SPEW. In the event only 30 or so non-SPEW members turned up - quite a disappointment for a body that claims to be a step towards a mass working class party.
However, to stress the key influence that Tusc is allegedly exerting, comrade Nellist reported in his opening remarks that not only the mover and seconder of the successful general strike motion at the TUC, but also the first speaker in support, were members of the Tusc steering committee: namely, Steve Gillan of the Prison Officers Association, Bob Crow of the RMT transport union and John McInally of the Public and Commercial Services Union. A pity that hardly anyone else at the TUC had even heard of Tusc, mind you.
Later on, Hannah Sell, SPEW deputy general secretary, reminded comrades that the original Labour Representation Committee leading to the formation of the Labour Party in 1900 had “about the same number” at its first meeting as were present in the room (although she did have the decency to admit that, unlike Tusc, those at the LRC gathering represented half a million workers).
Delusions aside, Tusc’s biggest trump card is undoubtedly the RMT, which voted to continue to back the coalition at its 2012 annual general meeting, asserting that Tusc provides the “nucleus” of a “new political force that advances the ideas of trade unionism and socialism”. But, although the AGM motion also agreed to “encourage RMT members to participate in the 2012 Tusc conference”, none did so apart from the four delegates, as far as I could tell.
Addressing the meeting, RMT president Alex Gordon pointed out that railworkers’ unions have always been central to moves towards working class political representation, including within the LRC. He said that the RMT is a “socialist union” committed in its constitution to the replacement of capitalism by a socialist system. While Tusc aims for a new mass working class party, it must “remain a federalist coalition, not a political party, at this stage”. Short-term prospects for the formation of such a party were not good, said comrade Gordon: with Labour in opposition, that party is likely to benefit from the backlash against the government. But if after the next general election there should be a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition, Tusc’s current work in preparing the ground would turn out to be “invaluable”.
In reality, of course, it is another Con-Dem coalition that is much more likely to be on the cards - the Tories and Lib Dems are already drawing up plans for joint programmatic documents and a second term for the coalition. But this prospect of a coalition with Labour was also held up by SPEW comrades to back up their claim that Labour is now an out-and-out bourgeois party.
Comrade Gordon ended his platform speech in the first session - entitled ‘Building working class political representation against the austerity consensus’ - by warning that the RMT would not stay as the only union officially supporting Tusc “forever and a day”. Comrades must “step up to the plate” and win similar support within their own unions. If not, “this ship won’t sail”.
Tusc is founded on at least three misconceptions. First, the Labour Party is no longer any kind of working class body and cannot possibly be shifted to the left, let alone transformed into any kind of vehicle for working class advance. Secondly, what is therefore required is a Labour Party mark two, set up and founded by the unions, just like the original. Thirdly, the formation of such a Labourite party, not one based on Marxism, is the key task for all socialists.
On the first point, Rob Griffiths of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain - also a platform speaker in the first session - suggested that maybe “you are unanimous here” that it is impossible to “reclaim” the Labour Party. Leaving aside the implication of the term “reclaim” - was the Labour Party ever really ours? - he was near enough right in his assessment.
For example, former Liverpool Militant councillor Tony Mulhearn declared: “There’s no need to persuade anyone in this room that we need an alternative to the Labour Party.” Hannah Sell, while conceding that it was better to fight to transform Labour than “hand over the money and say nothing”, stated categorically that there was “no hope of success”. Councillor Pete Smith of the Walsall-based Democratic Labour Party, who admitted that the DLP is “floundering” and “shrinking”, said that he once “naively” believed that Labour could be a vehicle for socialism, but now he knew that it was “finished”.
For his part, comrade McInally, another SPEW member, said it represented a “bankrupt policy” to continue working within Labour - the “corporations and the ruling class will never hand back the Labour Party”, he added rather absurdly. It is true that Labour acts in the interest of the “corporations and the ruling class” - it always has. But is it directly controlled by them? Is it theirs to “hand back”? Of course not. The unions have historically acquiesced - sometimes grudgingly - to rightwing inroads. They voted for Blairism and for the removal of any trace of democratic accountability by conference and so on.
But why is it considered impossible to re-establish previous democratic practices and even go further? Surely the key lies in those very unions whose bureaucratic leaders actually prefer a rightwing Labour Party, which they believe has a much greater chance of being elected and whose ‘moderate’ pro-capitalist policies for them represent an advance over the overtly anti-union agenda of the Tories. The irony is that SPEW calls on the unions to set up an alternative Labour Party and expects them to behave differently next time around.
By contrast to SPEW’s simplistic ‘Labour is finished’ line, Rob Griffiths’s arguments represented the height of sophistication. He put forward his standard proposition: Britain needs a “party of labour”, a “federal party” to which left groups could affiliate - he named the CPB, SWP and SPEW. However, such a party “won’t be built by any existing group or coalition of groups - even if they are supported by a union or two”. It would have to include “most of the largest unions”.
The “most direct route” to this party would come through “reclaiming Labour”, although the “Communist Party is not full of optimism” about the prospects of doing so. But, while we can “express our reservations”, he said, the key question is how to react to those who are attempting to “reclaim” Labour despite our doubts. There is, after all, “no sign” of any widespread support in the unions for breaking with Miliband’s party. However, comrade Griffiths approvingly quoted Unite general secretary Len McCluskey, who has said that if there are “no significant gains” within the party by the time of the next general election, then we ought to consider whether it was now a case of “re-establish” rather than “reclaim”.
In response to this, Clive Heemskerk of SPEW pointed out correctly that it would not be surprising if McCluskey were to ‘reassess’ his position the other side of a general election. Perhaps there are signs of movement and we should give Labour another five years? But both sides of the argument are missing the central point: even if it really were impossible to win working class control over Labour, and even if the union bureaucracies really were to decide to break the link, the pressing need is for the rank and file to win control of their unions, to make the bureaucrats fight for our interests.
Unlike SPEW, the SWP sees Tusc as an electoral front of convenience pure and simple. SWP national secretary Charlie Kimber said that he did not think all the left groups in the room would “reach agreement by 5 o’clock”, but we “can unite to stand in elections” and it was good to see the RMT backing the left in this.
This provoked a response from comrade Sell, who said it was not a question of the unions backing the left. No, she said, what was happening was that, on the contrary, Tusc was about “giving a voice to the unions”. Hmm. Despite comrade Kimber’s talk about the need to “build a credible alternative”, the SWP is more realistic than to believe that an alternative ‘mass workers’ party’ can be brought into being by Tusc. Nevertheless, while it is clearly more sanguine about Tusc’s role, the SWP shares SPEW’s hope of seeing the creation of a mass Labourite formation within which to operate and recruit. And - again like SPEW, of course - it does not believe it is possible or even desirable for those who say they are Marxists to come together in a single Marxist party.
This different view of Tusc’s prospects results in diametrically opposite approaches to the 2013 local elections. Unlike SPEW and some non-aligned Tusc comrades, who are hoping for hundreds of Tusc candidates next year (a figure of 385 was mentioned in order to qualify for an election broadcast), comrade Kimber thought we should “focus on those areas where we can get good results or even win”. Dave Nellist, by contrast, gave us the example of the Green Party, where “one in three members put themselves forward as candidates - that’s what we have to aim for”.
Comrade Nellist said that Tusc believed in “inclusivity” - the steering committee has only ever turned down two people wishing to stand under the Tusc umbrella (and only because their application had been received too late to investigate possible local opposition to it, he said). This is untrue. In January 2010 the CPGB offered to stand its own Tusc general election candidates, but we were told that this was impossible because we lacked “social weight” (unlike SPEW obviously). Later on during the meeting Clive Heemskerk of SPEW repeated the statement that was supposed to apply in 2010 - any group may contest under the Tusc name, with the right to put forward its own policies before the electorate, provided it agrees to stand on the Tusc platform.
But there is an obvious problem with all this. What is the point of standing hundreds of candidates in elections under the Tusc name, only for that name to disappear from sight immediately afterwards? Even if we assume that it is possible for a Labour Party mark two to arise through Tusc’s efforts, how could it happen if the coalition only resurfaces come election time?
Comrades from the Tusc Independent Socialist Network (ISN) were not slow to point this out. Nick Wrack suggested that, for example, there could be a specifically Tusc leaflet drawn up for the TUC’s big demonstration on October 20 - there should be “permanent activity” under the name of the organisation standing in elections, not just its components. Will McMahon encouraged us to imagine a hall filled with “10 times more people”, all clamouring for a replacement Labour Party. To that end Tusc should be campaigning to “set up branches across the country”, to make it “real and national”. If Tusc set its sights on becoming a party, it could “transform British left politics”. We need the working class to “come in and take this network over”.
As a concession to such comrades, comrade Sell said that “Tusc must be part of all struggles”. Another SPEW comrade said that we must “raise boldly the policies of Tusc between elections”. Comrade Sell also made her usual complaint about the lack of media coverage. That is why next year it would be essential to get “enough local election candidates to get a broadcast”, she said.
Earlier comrade Griffiths took up an unintentionally amusing left pose, when he pretended to be concerned about SPEW and the SWP “putting too many resources into elections”. While it was “valuable”, he said, that groups like Tusc and the CPB did contest elections, the latter, which has often been accused of supporting a “so-called parliamentary road to socialism”, gave much greater priority to “extra-parliamentary activity”.
The final session, on Tusc’s structure, saw a good deal of frustration on display from the non-SPEW minority. First there was Alan Thornett of Socialist Resistance, who said that SR had been “trying to join for two years”. What he meant by this was that the SWP, SPEW, ISN and RMT are automatically represented on the steering committee, where all the decisions are taken, and SR wants a bit of the action too.
When he tried to raise a point of order, he was told by comrade Nellist: “Under what constitution? This isn’t a conference.” No, he was right - it was not a conference (the nearest thing to a vote came when Dave asked us if we agreed that good wishes should be sent from the gathering to a comrade who was ill). But that had not stopped the Tusc steering committee advertising the event as “Tusc conference 2012”. In fact “Tusc conference” was printed on the cards handed out to all attendees.
Comrade Thornett wanted his proposal that SR should be represented on the steering committee put to an “indicative vote”. But comrade Nellist had another argument against that one. Since, as he repeatedly stressed, SPEW comrades accounted for around two-thirds of the 104 officially registered participants, people would only say that it was all a fix if votes were allowed, as every decision would surely go the way SPEW wanted. Better not to have any votes then, so the ‘fix’ could take place behind the scenes!
He also pointed out that the opinion of the RMT, which had sent four delegates, would count for nothing if decisions were to be taken by the votes of 100 individuals. This point was emphasised by one of those RMT comrades, who said: “I’m a delegate, but anyone can pay their £5 and walk in the door. We do want votes, but we’re not ready for that yet.”
Although according to Clive Heemskerk Tusc enjoys the “best trade union support” compared to previous left fronts, he said “we need a greater level of trade union ownership”. But closely connected to this aim was, of course, the need to restrict democracy. Comrade Heemskerk pointed out that ‘one member, one vote’ was “used by the Labour Party to diminish union influence”. In order to avoid that what was needed was a “federal, consensus approach” - definitely not ‘one member, one vote’. Mark Thomas of the SWP agreed that a “consensus approach” was necessary. Yes, he recognised that this often involved compromise and even a “veto”, but at this stage “it has to be”.
In response Dave Church of the DLP declared that he was so frustrated that he was on the verge of abandoning Tusc. He had been hoping to belong to a national party ever since he was excluded from Labour 16 years ago, but he always hears the same response: it is too soon to set up a party. He continued: “I pay £25 a month to Tusc, but I get no vote.” Yes, he continued, we can stand as a candidate on the Tusc platform, but we had no part in drawing it up, and the steering committee can change the platform at any time. But at least Tusc meets - unlike that other SPEW front, the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party, which comrade Church had heard has been “put on the back burner”.
In the CNWP comrades like himself were finally given what they had been demanding from the beginning: an individual membership structure - only for the CNWP to be wound down immediately after. And now they are back to square one with Tusc. Comrade Church did not specify the amount of his monthly standing order to the CNWP, but the money is being put to good use: comrade Nellist announced that, in accordance with the ‘pooled fare’ system, comrades spending more than £10 on travel would have their journey subsidised thanks to a CNWP donation.
Comrade Thornett said that the vote was “the nub of the issue”. But he did not appear to be referring to the right of the whole membership to vote. He said: “The SP, SWP and ISN are all on the steering committee with a vote, but now the ladder’s been pulled up.” SR had “applied and reapplied to join”, but the reason given for the rejection was that allowing more groups onto the steering committee would “dilute trade union influence”. He thought that nobody would join Tusc unless it had a membership structure - a sentiment echoed by comrade Church.
Nick Wrack was largely in agreement with the steering committee approach, however. He thought that Tusc was an “absolutely fantastic step forward”, but you “have to acknowledge” the RMT point of view if it says, “This is as far as we’re prepared to go”. Nevertheless, he, like other ISN comrades, wanted SR accepted as an affiliate “and other organisations considered”. He thought that “at some stage” there would have to be a discussion on membership - “thousands would join if we opened our door”.
But Dave Griffiths of SPEW did not want more affiliates on the steering committee. It would be “wrong” if the RMT sends two delegates and a new affiliate with “a few dozen members” can do so too. And how big is SR? Don’t forget, if it were allowed on board, it would set a precedent for other small groups. In similar vein, comrade Heemskerk repeated the words of an unnamed trade unionist on the steering committee: “Who are Socialist Resistance anyway?” Although, if it was any comfort to SR, comrade Nellist assured the meeting that comrade Thornett et al will be invited to put their case before a future meeting of the steering committee.
However, comrade Thomas of the SWP was not very interested in any of this controversy. “Of course,” he said, “internal structures can play a role, but an electoral breakthrough is the most important.” For his part, Pete McLaren, like comrade Wrack, was playing the conciliator: the main thing was to build Tusc today and we can consider “bottom-up democracy” later.
It is clear that the SPEW comrades have argued themselves into a corner. Having persuaded themselves that Labour is dead as a site for struggle, they imagine that they can play a key role in creating a replacement.
Yet their version two, even in its current minuscule form, is already taking on the worst aspects of version one. Everything must depend on the union bureaucracy - in this case the left bureaucracy, in the shape of the RMT - and so annoying little practices like taking democratic decisions will just have to be put on hold until such a time as the bureaucracy can be guaranteed to get its way thanks to the block vote.
But not even Bob Crow and the RMT seriously think they will get a Labour Party mark two through something like Tusc. If the left union bureaucrats really were set on establishing a new political party, they would do it for themselves. And they would put in place measures to make sure the left groups were marginalised - if those groups were tolerated at all (witness Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party).
However, none of the unions are about to embark upon such a venture. And why should they do so, when they have a much easier option, should they be inclined to take it up - working together to force the Labour leadership to answer to their paymasters? No doubt if they mounted a real battle inside Labour, they would be met by all kinds of resistance, opposition and dirty tricks - and eventually there would be a split. But it is plain foolish to argue that such a battle would be hopeless, or that there are no remaining avenues within which to fight it.
But that battle will not even begin unless a struggle is first undertaken within the unions themselves. The aim must be to transform them into democratic, fighting bodies accountable to their members. Once we make headway in that struggle, there will be real prospects of achieving what has not yet been won in Britain - a federal party of the working class from which the overt pro-capitalist elements are excluded.
Does that mean that the main task of the far left is to create such a party? Of course not. Our first task is to organise ourselves. It is all very well forming an electoral alliance, but why not come together more permanently on the basis of our own professed politics - the politics of Marxism? Instead of pretending that we can conjure up a mass Labourite formation, SWP, SPEW, ISN, SR and the rest ought to set themselves the much more realistic aim of creating a single Marxist party.
Now that is something we could do that would really make a difference.