Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/755/16274
Socialist Party Congress 2013
Just over 300 delegates and visitors took part in a very successful Socialist Party annual congress in Clacton-on-Sea from 2 to 4 March. The congress, the Socialist Party's main decision-making body, showed a party deeply involved in and often leading working class struggle in the areas, workplaces and unions where members are based.
Congress provided the opportunity for delegates, elected by party members in branches throughout England and Wales, to discuss and vote on resolutions covering the main political issues in Britain today, and the work of the party. The enthusiasm to participate in this vital process was reflected in the numbers who wanted to contribute - with most sessions over-subscribed. Here we report on four of the sessions.
Resolutions and amendments had been submitted by the party's national committee and by many of the branches. The resolutions agreed will serve as guidelines for the party's work in the coming year. In keeping with our democratic traditions a national committee was elected to lead the work of the party in between this congress and the next.
Steve Score, regional secretary for the East Midlands, made the appeal for fighting fund and congress raised a very impressive £10,843. Sacrifice and commitment to the struggle for socialism and internationalism was again in evidence when Clare Doyle from the Committee for a Workers' International, the CWI world socialist organisation to which the Socialist Party is affiliated, made an appeal for funds to support our sister organisation in South Africa. This raised over £5,000. Over £300 a month of increased monthly donations (party members' subs) were also pledged.
A moving memorial tribute to Robbie Segal and Roger Mackay who died last year was made by Bill Mullins, former industrial organiser.
Visitors from sister sections of the CWI in Greece, Scotland, and Ireland contributed to the debates. The congress concluded with a very inspiring report of the work of other sections of the CWI. With CWI members in 49 countries - CWI general secretary Tony Saunois couldn't report on all of them - but his report touched on Europe, the US, Brazil, Pakistan and Tunisia, among many others.
Capitalism 'has failed and has to be changed'
Video: Peter Taaffe speaking at Socialist Party congress
"Portugal has entered a recessionary cycle that has no end in sight. [...] Worst of all, people have no reason to believe the future will be any better. The programme has failed and it has to be changed."
Introducing the first session at the congress, Peter Taaffe, Socialist Party general secretary, quoted the Portuguese daily Público. But, as Peter and the discussion which followed showed, Portugal is far from alone in the recessionary cycle and it is capitalism that has failed and has to be changed.
Devastating facts and figures stand testimony to the parasitic nature of 21st century capitalism: Peter reported that by 2020 the world's financial assets will outbalance its gross domestic product by ten to one.
There will be $900 trillion of financial assets, compared to $90 trillion of GDP. According to the Economist the result will be a world economy "structurally awash with capital - and a corresponding shortage of places in which it can be invested".
In this situation pro-big business governments across the world have legislated for mass privatisation of public services. Of course this leads inexorably to a social catastrophe but the capitalists demand a super-profitable outlet for their cash piles.
Robin Clapp, regional secretary for the South West, among others, pointed out how none of the problems which led to the financial crash of 2007-8 have been solved, far from it. Robin quoted IMF boss Christine Lagarde when she expressed in passing the largely unspoken fear of the capitalist class: that they may have underestimated the cost of inequality.
Examples of the impact of prevalent gross inequality were mentioned by many speakers: homelessness in Athens, the capital city of Greece where the crisis in Europe is most developed, has skyrocketed to 40,000, up from 2-3,000 two years ago.
Katarina from Xekinima, the CWI in Greece, told a heart-breaking story of five university students who, among the thousands who can't afford to buy fuel, attempted to heat themselves with a homemade fire. Two died and three are in a coma with carbon monoxide poisoning.
But the working class does not yet have mass parties with a leadership to draw the necessary conclusions from this - that there is no solution on the basis of capitalism and a struggle for power must be conducted to stop the ruthless destruction of living standards.
A member who has participated in events in Egypt spoke about how the working class did make a revolution in 2011, only to see it stolen from them by the Muslim Brotherhood. However, the recent movements in both Tunisia and Egypt show that the working class has not given up on the idea of struggle. He explained that socialists must do all they can to increase the confidence of the working class to act as an independent movement for itself.
The working class in Italy, a frontrunner in the closely fought contest to be the 'sickman of Europe', as Elaine Brunskill, Northern regional secretary, explained, has just registered its opposition to on-going austerity in the elections there. Clare Doyle, from the International Secretariat of the CWI, and Gianni, a new Italian member in Bristol, spoke about the Five-Star Movement of Beppe Grillo. Among its 25% vote are millions searching for a political voice for the working class.
Danny Byrne, who is working with Socialismo Revolucionario, the CWI in Spain, spoke about the intensification of struggle there against eye-watering cuts to living standards. Such is the level of resistance that it is necessary for the SR to demand that the IU united left party and the left nationalist parties build a united front on the slogan of power to the working class.
Moves towards building a new leadership for the working class are most advanced at this stage in South Africa. There the life or death struggle of the miners' mass strike movement indelibly etched the need for a new mass party of the working class in the minds of those involved.
The Socialist Party's sister party, the Democratic Socialist Movement, was involved in the struggle and able to make conscious this urge and help form the new Workers' and Socialist Party.
Alec Thraves introduced himself as the "revolutionary ambassador" from South Africa after his recent visit with Peter. He had the congress hanging on his every word. He reported his trepidations about visiting crocodile-infested Limpopo. On arrival the would-be predators were in the form of local discredited ANC councillors attempting to obstruct a DSM meeting. Far from being intimidated the determined members used the opportunity of the meeting to pledge to build a hundreds-strong organisation - in that region alone.
Danny and others commented on the complications of the national question that are emerging - which in reality can be workers' expressing the need for fundamental change to the capitalist system.
In replying to the debate Lynn Walsh, editor of Socialism Today magazine, explained that the crisis in the EU showed how capitalism was incapable of overcoming the limitations of the nation state.
He also reiterated that the present crisis is a deep structural crisis and that capitalism cannot be reformed into a better fairer system. In the post-war period the existence of the planned economy in the USSR, ie an alternative model (in our view not socialist due to the absence of workers' democracy), helped the workers' movement in the west to force concessions out of capitalism and there was a certain redistribution.
But since the collapse of Stalinism triumphalist capitalism has shown its true parasitism - even the capitalists have given up on the idea that they can overcome their system's problems.
'We won't be a lost generation'
"The conditions faced by young people today are creating a powder keg that could explode at any time," said Socialist Party national youth organiser Claire Laker-Mansfield, when introducing the discussion on youth and student campaigning.
There have already been explosions - student protests against £9,000 fees and EMA cuts in 2010, the riots in 2011, the Occupy! movement.
The lack of a strategy by the National Union of Students contributed to the 2010 movement dissipating, but anger is now swelling against the results of the Con-Dems' higher education policies.
Jack Poole reported on meetings, protests and an occupation at Sussex Uni against privatisation and job cuts.
Kyle Williamson reported on the Socialist Students campaign against the University of East London's "three strikes and you're out" draconian attendance policy.
Edmund Schluessel from Swansea University spoke on why he and Neil Moore from Belfast Metropolitan are standing for the NUS executive elections. They are the only ones proposing that NUS organises a mass national student demo.
Many others reported on how Socialist Students' campaigning record and openly socialist programme were winning improved votes in local union elections and higher number of NUS conference delegates for over a decade.
Mike from Leeds explained that the small drop in unemployment figures hid the rise of insecure and low-paid jobs. Ian Pattison, Socialist Party youth organiser, in his reply to the debate, reiterated how young people often expect such jobs to be stop-gaps but, with no decent jobs available, they become permanent fixtures.
This is why Youth Fight for Jobs is launching the 'Sick of Your Boss?' initiative to fight for basic rights - such as breaks, decent pay - and trade union rights.
Matt Whale from Hull said there was an "instinctive togetherness" among young people, with the potential to unionise workplaces and find new, combative, union branch and workplace leaders. The highest support for the 30 November 2011 public sector pensions strike was among young people.
Jamie from Cardiff spoke about getting a fast food job and how, with support from Socialist Party members, unionisation could be possible.
Call-centres are today's equivalent of 19th century 'dark satanic mills'. Tracy Edwards, a full-time organiser for the PCS civil service union, reported that there was now 95% union membership at HMRC call-centres. There, young workers are fighting to improve the "crap" conditions, with gains won on flexible working hours.
The young Socialist Party members who spoke in this session showed how fighting for a decent future means fighting for a socialist alternative to the profit driven capitalist system.
At least 40% of young people are either unemployed or underemployed
1 in 28 workfare programme participants have become employed as a result
Britain: beware volcanoes of anger below the surface
What are the key economic, political and social issues which will shape Britain in the coming months? In particular, what effect will the recessionary crisis, government austerity measures, and the trade union leadership have on workers' struggles and hence, the campaigning work of the Socialist Party?
Video: Hannah Sell speaking at Socialist Party congress
Socialist Party deputy general secretary Hannah Sell introduced the session by making the point that although the scale of the capitalist crisis and class struggle in Britain is not on the level of southern Europe there is, nonetheless, a groundswell of anger beneath the surface which could explode at any time.
Delegate Jim Thomson, in the discussion, characterised 2012 as "the year of them and us".
Even if the road to widespread struggle, including general strikes, is blocked at this stage by the right in the trade union leadership, local struggles are still breaking out.
Hannah pointed to the recent large protests over the NHS and council cuts and anger over the 'bedroom tax'. These issues were added to in the discussion with contributions from Claire Job, Roger Keyse, Gavin Marsh, Phil Culshaw and others.
Evidence of anger at the rotten political establishment and the widening inequality in society abounds. However, in the absence of a mass working class political alternative such anti-establishment sentiments can be hijacked by parties such as Ukip who promote divisive anti-migrant worker policies and right-wing nationalism.
At the same time they, and the capitalist-owned press, present themselves as a repository for protest against the hated main parties.
Despite the government's credit rating downgrading and the deepening unpopularity of the coalition, it's 'business as usual' for Chancellor Osborne as far as continuing austerity is concerned. Big business also wants the government to persevere with this failed policy.
British capitalism is ailing and all the 'fixes' of quantitative easing, more bank loans, a devaluing currency, etc, are not reviving the economy, which continues to flat line.
But why then is UK unemployment not as high as elsewhere in Europe? This is partly due to government measures bolstering 'zombie' companies.
But it is also due to 'labour hoarding', in the false hope that this is a temporary crisis, while cutting workers' pay and conditions. There has been an increase in part-time casual work and people abandoning the jobs search and registering as self-employed.
Helen from east London spoke about how young people, at the sharp end of this process, are being politicised by it. Having done what they were told, studied hard, they find themselves struggling in rotten jobs with no hope of anything better. This can lead to more young workers drawing the conclusion that they will have to organise and fight to improve their working conditions.
Politically, Cameron is also under conflicting pressure over Europe, migration and 'modernising' the Tory party. Many of his backbenchers want out of the EU in a referendum and also oppose same sex marriage. Big business largely opposes leaving the EU.
The Tories' third place in Eastleigh will increase this pressure. And as the fault lines deepen between the Tories and Lib Dems in the Coalition, a government collapse still couldn't be ruled out. The independence referendum in Scotland can provide another complicating factor.
Although Labour retains its lead over the Tories in opinion polls there is little enthusiasm for Labour among working class people.
And, as Hannah remarked, the Labour leadership's continued commitment to cuts may mean they are not be able to marshal the anti-Coalition mood at the next general election, which could still take place before 2015, such is the instability in the situation.
Nick Chaffey pointed out in the discussion that Labour spectacularly failed to pick up the opposition protest vote in the Eastleigh byelection. Despite this many trade unions continue to financially back Labour as the 'only show in town'.
However, some militant sections of the organised working class understand the need to construct a new mass left formation rooted in the trade unions.
In replying to the debate, Clive Heemskerk dealt with amendments to the national committee's document on Britain and resolutions, including on the 2014 European elections.
Clive pointed out that, at bottom, the EU exists to facilitate the multinationals at the expense of the working class. Indeed, neoliberalism is enshrined in its constitution. Ukip may well make gains in this election but it is not guaranteed that it will remain the receptacle for the growing protest vote.
Encouraging trade unionists and anti-cuts campaigners to stand for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition can help to make the case that workers should represent themselves.
Nancy Taaffe referred to the magnificent 30% vote for the Socialist Alternative candidate in Seattle last November. She reported that CWI supporters had initially underestimated the support, even within the Obama vote, for socialist policies until a stand was made.
The session made clear that, while we may be in a temporary and relative lull in the class struggle, we must be prepared to play an increasingly important role in a situation that can change rapidly.
Let's build on our successes
An excellent Party Building session introduced by Judy Beishon and replied to by Jane James, both from the Socialist Party's executive committee, showed that in many areas of the country and in many types of work, the Socialist Party is going forward.
Judy pointed out that we have more Socialist Party branches meeting more regularly and with bigger meetings than at the same time last year.
She also suggested steps that could be taken by branches, as well as by the national centre to continue our growth such as assistance with Marxist education. All branches should have a strategy for developing in size and influence, setting targets as a guide.
The discussion made clear that the 'year of the branch' launched at last year's congress had a big effect in many areas. JP from Coventry informed congress of the launch of the new Coventry North branch and Tom from Bristol outlined steps taken by the three Bristol branches, such as having a day time activity team and regularising the Bristol district committee meetings.
Socialist Party branches are thinking hard about which campaigns they focus on. Some suggestions were made. For example Chris from Stroud raised the idea of organising opposition rallies around the country when the Health and Social Care Act comes into force in April.
Several speakers spoke about work among specific groups. For example, Mary from Walthamstow talked about campaigning at colleges and suggested trying debates and outdoor meetings. Becci from Nottingham described how the Rape Is No Joke campaign and other initiatives Socialist Party members have taken part in can attract women.
Senan outlined the important work being carried out by Tamil Solidarity, especially making an appeal for trade unionists to attend the 20 April conference (see www.tamilsolidarity.org).
The vital need for finance was also an aspect of the discussion. Dave, fighting fund organiser for Llanelli and West Wales branch, said that the key to their success has been taking the attitude that "nothing short of meeting the target is acceptable".
Two thirds of their fighting fund comes from supporters of the branch's campaign in opposition to NHS cuts. Producing and selling a pamphlet on historical struggles in the local area also helped.
Dave also suggested Socialist Party members keep their eye out for any money-raising opportunity - he rents his garage out for £20 a month for the fighting fund.
The session was supplemented the following day by a separate discussion on the role of the Socialist. Congress agreed that 2013 will be 'the year of the paper'. See future issues for details of this.
Audio recordings from Socialist Party congress 2013
In The Socialist 7 March 2013:
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party feature
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party reports and campaigns
Socialist Party workplace news
Socialist Party review