Tusc: Let’s get this party started

The current Tusc model has failed, argues Nick Wrack

The 62 votes obtained by the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition in the March 1 Eastleigh by-election should cause everyone to reflect. It is not just a matter for supporters of Tusc. It raises important questions for all who want an alternative to the anti-working class policies supported by all the established political parties.

I want to make it clear that what follows is not a criticism of the hard work that is put into Tusc election campaigns. I know that supporters in Eastleigh will have worked extremely hard over the two or three weeks of the campaign. Daz Procter, the Tusc candidate, is an elected member of the RMT national executive and was an excellent candidate. I am not attacking any one person or group. I am criticising the strategy that underpins Tusc’s electoral interventions.

In this article I argue that the current model is inadequate and ultimately counterproductive. All the hard work put in during elections produces smaller and smaller returns. Such a low vote leads to embarrassment and demoralisation, and reinforces the idea that the left is incapable of mounting any sort of serious electoral challenge. Getting such a low vote makes it harder to win the argument with those not yet convinced that something can be done.

That is not to say that a new left party would be immune from such poor results. That is part of the risk of standing in elections. But if there is a perspective for growth, for improvement and for building the project, such setbacks can be absorbed, the lessons learned and things can move on. When the low vote is set against a reluctance or refusal by some parts of Tusc to allow new forces to join and is combined with the absence of an individual membership structure, it can only convey the impression that, as presently constructed, Tusc is going nowhere.

It is true that Eastleigh was not favourable terrain. It is a Liberal Democrat stronghold - the Lib Dems held onto the seat notwithstanding the scandal surrounding Chris Huhne’s departure and the party’s involvement in the coalition government. But the model currently adopted by Tusc makes it almost impossible to obtain the best possible result, even in a more favourable constituency.

No organisation, whether it is Tusc or a new socialist party, can turn up two or three weeks before an election and expect to obtain anything but a derisory result. It will certainly not win the sort of vote that could be obtained if the whole of the preceding period has seen that organisation campaigning, agitating and arguing for its programme, involving itself in all aspects of working class struggle.

I have no doubt that members of the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party are involved in all sorts of working class struggles. But they participate in those as SP or SWP activists with SP or SWP literature, promoting and recruiting to their own parties. This is indisputable. Their members justify this with various arguments that boil down essentially to the simple proposition that only their party has the answers.

There are consequences arising from that approach for any broader coalition or new party. It means that the work to build the bigger formation always takes second place. That is not to say that the SP or SWP do not put in time, effort and money into building Tusc. They do. But it is undermined by the fact that once an election is finished they will turn their attention once again to their own party-building, and the Tusc profile will be relegated until the next election. You cannot build a successful electoral coalition or a new party on that basis.

Begin the process

There is little point in those of us who want a party formation bemoaning the attitude of the SP or SWP. Their political priorities are their prerogative. We should continue to work with them where possible, but we should not allow their agenda to set ours.

Building a new socialist party would in fact strengthen the whole of the left by bringing together all those who want a party that challenges Labour from the left, but do not feel inclined to join any on offer at present. No-one should underestimate the difficulties. Over the last 20 years a large scrapyard has been filled with the wreckage of previous failed attempts - the Socialist Labour Party, Socialist Alliance, Scottish Socialist Party, Respect.

These projects have failed for a combination of reasons. First is the massive pull of Labour, which persuades lots of working class activists that there is no alternative. Labour must be supported to keep out the Tories. This is a political argument that must be confronted. Voting for the ‘lesser evil’ may keep out the Tories, but will not deliver any prospect of change that benefits Labour voters. Second is the background of 30 years of defeat for the working class in Britain and abroad and the retreat of socialist ideas.

But the more immediate cause of the failure has been down more to the sectarianism of the various socialist groups, who all think they know the path through the woods: a refusal to work together for the greater cause of building a viable party; a lack of democracy and the unaccountability of prominent leaders; a failure to understand that there is no easy way to build such a new party. It will take patience and hard work. All involved will have to have a sense of proportion and perspective. No party can be built without disagreement, argument and dissent. It will take time to establish its own inner life.

Notwithstanding all the obstacles, the objective need for a new party is there for everyone to see. Everything that working class people came to expect in the half-century following the end of World War II is being smashed to pieces - living standards, pensions, access to affordable homes, education and health. In short, the reforms of the welfare state are being wrenched away. And all the main political parties, including Labour, support this. Alongside this savagery comes attack after attack on the most vulnerable in society - the young, the old, the poor, the sick, the disabled, those out of work, those in overcrowded accommodation. All of this is prosecuted with the argument that there is no alternative; that the market dictates and that capitalism is the only possible way of organising the economy.

Socialists argue that there is an alternative. It is to eradicate capitalism and to construct a new society based on need, not profit. Here and now, resistance to austerity is vital, but it is only half of the answer. We need a political response to the economic and social attacks on us. The recent call for a People’s Assembly is to be welcomed, but there is a real danger that it simply becomes a way to drive the anti-austerity vote towards Labour at the next election.

What we need is a political party that not only seeks to resist the attacks now, but also argues for a change in the way that society is organised. Such a political party would have to seek support for its ideas within society. This means standing in elections must be a part of its work. Undoubtedly, the votes it received initially would be generally low. But, as its profile increased and its arguments and policies became better understood, it could begin to make headway. Particularly if Labour forms the government in 2015 and implements austerity policies, such a new party could make significant strides forward. But it is important to try to lay the basis for that now. That is why the self-imposed limitations to growth set by Tusc are disappointing.

There are many socialists active in the Labour Party who argue that it can be won to the ideas of socialism. Whilst I do not agree with them, I wish them well. Socialists inside and outside Labour should collaborate whenever possible on practical issues and to argue for socialist ideas.

The Labour Party has never been a socialist party, but rather an uncomfortable marriage of liberalism and socialism. Ultimately liberalism triumphed completely. But it retains its mass working class support and its trade union links. It is a capitalist party with a working class base and that base has to be won to the ideas of socialism. That is no easy task. And it certainly will not be accomplished in a short time. But the process has to begin.

Step forward

The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition was an attempt to address some of these issues. It was formed as an electoral coalition to present an alternative at the ballot box. This, in my opinion, was a step in the right direction. The involvement of the RMT transport union in the coalition gave it a greater authority within the trade union movement and beyond.

It should be remembered that it has obtained some good results for a new formation - in 2012 it received 4,792 votes (4.7%) in the Liverpool mayoral election, over 10% in 14 local council elections and more than 5% in a further 39. These have been obtained with few resources and little name recognition, and indicate the possibilities of building an alternative on a much bigger scale.

However, the current model is preventing it from matching up to the possibilities. There is a problem in the fact that Tusc is a coalition created solely for the purpose of standing in elections. This means that it does not participate in its own name in any of the many working class struggles that are taking place in every town and city. It does not participate in the strikes and demonstrations against pension reforms or austerity generally, nor in the campaigns against the bedroom tax, against attacks on the disabled and a hundred other issues.

If Tusc were seen as a stepping stone or a transition towards a new party, then it would have some purpose. But it is increasingly obvious that this is not the case. There have been no developments in that direction. Individual supporters cannot join it. Supporting organisations cannot join it. This leaves the coalition comprising the RMT, the SWP, the SP and a small group of independent socialists organised in the Independent Socialist Network.

It means that the coalition can never significantly increase or expand. The Socialist Party has opposed the participation of Socialist Resistance on the national steering committee and suggested that it reapply when it has 1,000 members. There are no new partners on the horizon. Tusc is therefore condemned to remain at its present size. The consequence of this approach will be that it stagnates and ultimately goes the way of previous projects.

Tusc has no national apparatus and hence no national profile. Some comrades have complained about the lack of media coverage, but this is only to be expected. A small electoral organisation that does not even take itself seriously enough to appoint a press officer cannot really expect to be taken seriously by the media.

The only way that any new alternative organisation or party could force its way into the media is by developing a national profile. That would mean serious interventions in every national and local demonstration, strike, picket line, protest and meeting with leaflets, pamphlets and recruitment literature; a media strategy to promote spokespersons, putting out regular national and local press releases and a serious presence on social media. But primarily the media will only pay attention when this organisation achieves something or does something of significance. They are not going to give us free publicity without good reason.

The current model is based on a misconceived project - certainly as seen by the Socialist Party, which calls for the trade unions to form a new mass workers’ party. This is basically a replication of the formation of the Labour Party at the beginning of the 20th century. The concept is of a workers’ party in which the SP constitutes the socialist wing. Where that leaves all the other socialists is anyone’s guess.

The problem with this concept is, firstly, that we do not need a modern version of the old Labour Party. We need a socialist party. Secondly, the argument that we cannot move to any party formation until the trade union leaders so decide means that we will be waiting a very long time. No such step is going to be taken by any union this side of the 2015 general election and probably not for a long time afterwards. In the meantime, the strategy of sitting tight in Tusc and waiting for another union to break ranks with Labour is simply not good enough.

Bottom up

What we need is those socialists who see the necessity for a new socialist party to come together and to build it from the bottom up. This will be hard, but it is the only way. On the March 1 edition of the BBC’s Question time film director Ken Loach argued that we need a new party of the left - a Ukip of the left, if you like. He has also argued this in a recent interview. We should rally to that call and help make it a reality.

Such a new party should commit itself to ‘defend, extend and transform’. By that I mean that it should be with all struggles to defend past gains, such as the welfare state, the NHS, decent wages and safe working conditions. It should seek to extend those gains wherever possible. In the present economic conditions that would mean mobilising mass, militant action to obtain further concessions. But these campaigns should not be limited to economic issues alone. It should also take up the issues of democracy, civil liberties, war and peace, the media. Thirdly, it should explicitly proclaim that it seeks power in order to fundamentally transform society from the present capitalist system, that benefits only a tiny few, to one based on the democratic common ownership of the resources of society for the benefit of all. That is, it must be a socialist party.

This means the party must have an internationalist outlook and look to work with others, primarily across Europe, to bring about this change. There is no nationalist answer to the crisis we are experiencing.

This party must be completely democratic. There is no prospect of inspiring people to give their time, energy and money to an organisation that only exists at election time, which they cannot join and in which they have no democratic input on questions of policy and activity. It must have members who can democratically participate in the discussion on programme and practice. The members should elect the leadership, who should be accountable to the members.

All of this should be ABC and there is now an urgency to starting the process.