TUSC: Looking over its shoulder

Daniel Harvey reports on Tusc’s local election conference

On February 1 the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition held a conference in preparation for its intervention in the May local elections in England. Tusc plans to put forward 625 candidates in order to contest 15% of the total seats and thus qualify for an election broadcast - and hopefully gain “reasonable coverage” in the media.

In one sense this ambitious target represents a welcome change from the earlier policy, when candidates proposed by the Communist Party of Great Britain were rejected by Tusc because of our lack of a “social base” (of course, it is a perfectly valid tactic to stand in elections in order to gain a “social base”) or the candidate’s lack of a “proven local record”. Yet now it is virtually a question of ‘anyone willing to stand’.

The previous line, combined with the fact that Tusc virtually closes down between elections, meant that Tusc was destined to remain a non-entity - who has heard of it? Justifiably the Independent Socialist Network, which produced a bulletin entitled ‘Elections are not enough’ for the event, claimed that Tusc has “stalled” and “stagnated”.1 In reality, Tusc is a flimsy electoral front for the Socialist Party of England and Wales, which has also ‘enjoyed’ a minimal degree of support from the Socialist Workers Party - in the handful of seats where the candidate is an SWP member. As a result it has no local structure - and no real existence - outside election time.

The only time when there was a risk of real political debate breaking out at the 200-strong conference was over these questions - and that was only because the ISN brought them up. These interventions by the ISN came relatively late in the afternoon session from Will McMahon and Pete McLaren after SPEW speakers had criticised the ISN bulletin. At the moment, Tusc is dominated by SPEW, and about three-quarters of the candidates so far announced are members of that group. The SWP’s presence was restricted to about half a dozen comrades, I would estimate, including a rather tired looking Charlie Kimber, who sat at the SWP stall throughout the day - except when he intervened from the floor, that is.

What was odd about the ISN position was that Will McMahon made a great deal out of the fact that he was not calling for a system of ‘one member, one vote’, and actually defended the idea of keeping the Tusc’s much-lauded ‘federal structure’ in place - albeit with the modification that there should be some kind of semi-permanent existence on the ground. This was clearly a softer position than the ISN upholds in its published material, where it calls on Tusc to start acting like a united party - perhaps it was meant to appeal to the RMT, the only union officially supporting the coalition. For SPEW the federal structure is essential for it to maintain its veto - in the unlikely event that the SWP began to seriously mobilise within Tusc, for instance. SPEW did not take kindly to being outvoted by the SWP in the Socialist Alliance.

Interventions from SPEW members were on the whole the usual monotonous, tub-thumping stuff. On the question of structure, they seemed quite baffled by the ISN proposals. Comrade Sue from Gloucester, for instance, said that branches were totally unnecessary, because in most places, including where she lived, the Tusc branch and the SPEW branch would be the same. But comrade Jared, a speaker assigned by the SPEW to take on the arguments in the ISN bulletin, was more diplomatic: the ISN position was “premature”, he said.

Comrade Kimber in his intervention trotted out all the usual buzz phrases - Tusc is a “beacon of resistance” for the “people in defiance”, and “a breath of fresh air, not an old party”. For those who have been through all the ‘left unity’ projects over the last 15 years this is a fairly depressing claim, but, as the ISN comrades pointed out, an organisation that has adopted ‘Left Unity’ as its name has now stepped into the breach on this front, so it is difficult to see what either the SPEW or SWP leaders expect Tusc to achieve.

At the moment the political consciousness of SPEW and SWP members is limited by their experience in their own sect - a disciplined, unified party is assumed to be one where agreement with, rather than simple acceptance of, a common programme is necessary. So any attempt to turn Tusc into a party would be futile - either that or the result would be a carbon copy of the SWP or SPEW.

Comrade Patricia of SPEW made this point explicit by telling the ISN that if it was no longer willing to be the recognised representative of Tusc ‘independents’, then an “alternative arrangement” would have to be found. Comrade McMahon interpreted this afterwards as an organisational threat.2 Nina Franklin of the steering committee attacked the ISN as irresponsible for commenting on the lack of any Tusc local activity and complaining that the organisation has no membership structure and indeed no members.

Loyal opposition

The actual vision of the (federal) mass party put forward by SPEW speakers was, of course, that of a Labour Party mark two. Clive Heemskerk, Tusc national election agent and platform speaker in the afternoon session, compared Tusc to the early Labour Representation Committee, which he described as also being a federal arrangement, but one that managed to evolve in the “right direction”. That comment left a minority rolling their eyes. For comrade Heemskerk the Tusc name must be a “political franchise” - he even mentioned McDonalds as a comparison - where individuals from any or no political background could adopt the Tusc logo provided they agreed with its programme against austerity.

But Dave Nellist, the chair and nominal leader of Tusc who is campaigning to regain his council seat in Coventry, undermined the logic of this approach by banging on about the compromises made by “her majesty’s loyal opposition”. Would a Labour Party mark two be any different? Of course, ever since SPEW’s predecessor, the Militant Tendency, was booted out of mark one in the 80s, Labour ceased to be a bourgeois workers’ party and became a purely capitalist formation.

However, the attempts of the Labour right to finally de-labourise Labour by weakening and eventually severing its links to the unions serves as an adequate political pretext for the imagined replacement. But the idea that Labour has not always been a “loyal opposition” since its formation is frankly bizarre. Was it not being a loyal opposition by encouraging workers to sign up to the ‘British war effort’ in 1914-18? Or when it betrayed the 1926 General Strike? Or when Ramsay MacDonald headed the National Government alongside the Conservatives in 1931?

The defensive nature of Tusc, campaigning purely against austerity on a local level, was a point taken up by some speakers, who wanted to see it adopt an active programme to improve the lives of workers. But when a young SPEW comrade advocated this, it did not go any further than the extension of local services and the winning of better conditions - nothing approaching a programme for socialism. The limited schema of ‘No to austerity!’, combined with the commitment to a federal alliance and the desire not to scare off the RMT leadership, make that impossible.

But this claustrophobic framework had some ludicrous side-effects, with comrade Heemskerk suggesting that a ‘no’ vote in the Scottish independence referendum would be seen as an “endorsement of austerity”, and therefore definitely a bad idea. The implication is that the working class cannot walk and chew gum at the same time. We cannot oppose austerity and separatism simultaneously. Yet our attitude to Scottish independence is obviously a serious question in its own right: as a principle, socialists do no support the bifurcation of the class along national lines and the increase in attacks on English and Scottish minorities on both sides of the border makes support for a ‘yes’ vote seem irresponsible, to say the least.

But what about the fact that Tusc will not contest the European elections, which now seem certain to be held on the same day (May 22) as the local elections? (The government is pushing an order through parliament to move the council poll date from May 1.) The Euro elections are, of course, the preserve of the left nationalist No2EU, supported by the RMT, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain and SPEW. But leaving the field clear for No2EU hardly sits easily alongside the attempt to put Tusc on the map.

The No2EU website, by the way, currently features an article entitled ‘Germany backs fascist uprising in Ukraine’, complete with a link to a Brian Denny article in the Morning Star.3

Left Unity

Conspicuous by its absence at the conference was any discussion on Left Unity, which is clearly attempting to become a left party based on individual membership. While its meetings are hardly overflowing, it is clear that LU has got some legs, at least in the short term - more than 1,400 people have signed up. Tusc, on the other hand, does not exist between elections and is totally unable to break out of the political cul-de-sac where SPEW’s and the SWP’s lack of ambition keeps it.

Yet in passing remarks from the top table on this subject you would think that Tusc is completely outstripping LU. Comrade Nellist, referring to the unlikelihood that Left Unity will put forward candidates of its own in May, was adamant that “We can’t move with the slowest wagon!”

I suspect that the move by SPEW to go for hundreds of Tusc candidates is in part a response to the emergence of Left Unity, which is attempting to occupy pretty similar territory to what SPEW has in mind for its “new mass party”.


1. www.independentsocialistnetwork.org/2014/01/tusc-conference-bulletin.

2. www.independentsocialistnetwork.org/2014/02/first-thoughts-about-the-tusc-local-elections-conference-elections-are-not-enough-will-mcmahon-isn/.

3. www.tuaeuc.org/no2eu-wp/?page_id=494.