The Socialist 1 March 2007 |
Join the Socialist
Congress to build the forces of socialism
The Socialist Party's 2007 national congress took place during the three days 17-19 February. Over 200 party branch delegates and visitors discussed the main political issues in the world and Britain today, and the tasks of spreading the ideas of socialism and building the Socialist Party.
A number of political and organisational resolutions were agreed and a new national committee was elected. In this issue of the socialist two of the congress delegates summarise the two main political discussions that took place. Next week's issue will include reports of the organisational sessions.
World political and economic relations
Peter Taaffe speaks at Socialist Party congress 2007, photo Paul Mattsson
"A DISCUSSION on the world struggle for socialism," was how Peter Taaffe (Socialist Party general secretary) described the session on World Relations. At the start of the 21st century most media commentators were in awe at US capitalism - the only superpower after the collapse of Stalinist Russia. They believed nothing could stand in its way after military victories in the Gulf War, Kosovo and Afghanistan. Many on the left gave up hope of socialist change.
Jon Dale, Derbyshire
But the Socialist Party saw Iraq would be a war too far for the US. It has conjured up mass resistance in Iraq and the most visible, world-wide anti-war movement in history. The hell that is Iraq today, with hundreds of thousands dead and 3.8 million refugees, has come at massive financial cost - $1,600 for every US citizen. Bush's latest 'surge' of troops echoes the failed methods of the Vietnam war.
"US imperialism is now stuck in Iraq's desert sands," Peter said, "at the same time as its Afghanistan victory is unwinding in the mountains." It has lost its domination in the Middle East, while Iran has emerged as the regional winner. If the US were to bomb Iran, the Straits of Hormuz could be blocked in retaliation. This could push world oil prices over $100 a barrel, tipping the world into recession.
Three civil wars are possible in the Middle East - in Iraq, the Lebanon and the Palestinian territories - as well as wars such as a possible invasion of Kurdish Iraq by Turkey. The whole of the Horn of Africa could be involved in war, following the US intervention in Somalia. Without a political programme of class unity and working-class organisation developing in these areas, the opportunity of preventing further war could be lost.
Socialist Pary congress 2007, photo Paul Mattsson
Contributing to the discussion, Mike Forster (Huddersfield) pointed out that Iran's President Ahmadinejad is increasingly unpopular, especially amongst young Iranians. But any US air attacks would have the opposite effects the US government hopes for, strengthening support for the Iranian regime.
Steve Score (Leicester) said the agreement on nuclear power signed a few days earlier with North Korea represented a backing down by US imperialism. This was a further sign of the limits to their power.
Along with their Iraq problems, the US economy has huge contradictions. The boom has been one-sided, said Peter Taaffe. While the capitalists have coined it, 45 million US workers have no health cover. Hedge funds and petrodollars mean huge amounts of money sloshing around the world economy, like unstable cargo threatening to hole the ship in rough seas.
Elaine Brunskill (Newcastle) added that nine out of ten US workers worry about their job being outsourced and 37 million live in poverty. Jared Wood (Oxford and Aylesbury) said the incredible salaries paid to top executives were made possible because 60% of workers have real living standards no higher than in 1966.
Socialist Party congress 2007, photo Paul Mattsson
Replying to the discussion, Lynn Walsh (Socialist Party executive committee) commented that the anti-war mood in the US has put all candidates for the presidency under great pressure. But the US Democrats are very unwilling to take real action against Bush.
Matt Waine, from the Socialist Party in Ireland, described how the 'Celtic Tiger' had had high economic growth until 2001 but has since been mostly sustained by a housing price and credit boom. One quarter of the population still live below the poverty line, while public services are groaning. Recent strike votes of Aer Lingus workers and nurses show the anger that has built up. This year the Socialist Party (Ireland) would be standing Joe Higgins for re-election to parliament, along with three other candidates including Aer Lingus worker, Clare Daly.
China's rapid growth has prolonged the world capitalist boom, but comes at a huge price. Few Olympic records would be broken in Beijing, commented Peter Taaffe, because the air is so polluted. Although China has many capitalist features, the bureaucratic regime still retains much central control and has not yet completed the transition to capitalism.
There have been many strikes and demonstrations in China, reported Teresa Mackay (Ipswich), which forced the government to propose labour laws giving some minimum protection to workers. These have been opposed by western corporations investing there.
China is increasingly giving loans to countries in Africa and Latin America in return for natural resources. This is another sign that the US is no longer the only show in town, said Greg Maughan (Leyton, London). It has prompted warnings from western capitalist countries who are saying to China, 'Get your fingers out of our pie!' This raises the threat of trade and proxy wars in the future.
Pete Dickinson (Tower Hamlets, London) pointed to India's recent high economic growth of 7-8% per year but questioned whether this was sustainable. India's budget deficit is high, inflation is 10%, literacy is only 50% and its infrastructure undeveloped, with frequent electricity cuts, for example. When China started down the capitalist road, it had already abolished feudal control of the land, achieved some liberation of women enabling them to work outside the home and had 90% literacy. These advantages were the result of a planned economy, despite its Stalinist bureaucracy.
Socialist Pary congress 2007, photo Paul Mattsson
Lynn Walsh agreed India's weak infra-structure held back foreign investment. In the event of a world economic crisis the Chinese government could use the state sector to increase its control over the economy, to try to prevent a social uprising.
The ideas of Marxism are beginning to be rehabilitated, with growing discussion about them in Latin America (see page 10 for more on this). As Lynn Walsh put it, "Marxism reflects the need to struggle of the working and oppressed classes, provides analysis and an alternative. Only democratic planning can provide the resources we need to end poverty, and to stop the destruction of the environment and to repair it."
Britain - present and future
Hannah Sell at Socialist Party congress 2007, photo Paul Mattsson
Introducing the discussion on Britain, Hannah Sell (Socialist Party executive committee) pointed out that the "vast gulf" between rich and poor is a major feature of Blair's Britain. Some of the capitalist class have felt forced to comment on the worst excesses of this wealth polarisation in order to appear to be acting on it. This is not out of concern for workers but in fear of the "political pendulum swinging left" as Morgan Stanley's chief economist Stephen Roach was quoted as saying at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Sean Figg, Brighton
Sean Figg from Brighton at congress, photo Paul Mattsson
Even the Tories have made apologetic hypocritical whimpers towards the working poor. The "strategists of capital" are becoming dimly aware of the danger to their system resulting from the driving down of living conditions of the working class and the heaping of wealth upon their own tables.
Hannah posed the need to examine why, at this stage, we have not seen a "Davos backlash" from the British working class in response to this glaring inequality, although there have been some very important struggles on the NHS, against the Iraq war and on other issues. What will it take for the working class to "decisively put its mark on events"? This question cannot be understood in isolation from the situation and conditions, complex and varied, that working people live in their daily experiences.
Hannah described the British economy as having some, though not a decisive, bearing on workers' willingness to struggle. The economy is presently sustained by "bubble upon bubble" which in the short term can inhibit struggle but in the long term makes sharpened class conflict all the more certain. Debt is a central element in this tenuous equilibrium. At this stage personal debt - estimated at some £200 billion - can help the living conditions of workers. However personal bankruptcies and repossessions are increasing and the present situation can in no way last forever as the bubbles will inevitably begin to burst. Even before they do, there could be a major increase in workers' struggles.
Jon Dale (Derbyshire) contributed on the increasing "rentier" nature of British capitalism and the conscious deindustrialisation policies of the capitalist class in order to weaken the organised working class. Linked to this economic situation and the conditions in society it generates were contributions made by Rob McDonald (Lambeth, London) on gun crime and the alienation of sections of youth and Ben Robinson (Leyton, London), on the conditions faced by many young people as a result of low pay and agency work.
Socialist Pary congress 2007, photo Paul Mattsson
Sarah Sachs-Eldridge (Walthamstow, London) gave a detailed overview of the massive pressures being put upon young people in every section of society - whether as workers or students.
Trade union leaders
Hannah Sell argued there is a "continuing lack of confidence" amongst large sections of the working class, although given a lead, workers have shown themselves to be very prepared to struggle. The trade union leaderships constitute "the single biggest obstacle" to workers as these leaders "crawl on their bellies before the ruling class". This issue was a central theme of the discussion, taken up by speaker after speaker.
In their desperation to save New Labour and their total bankruptcy in conceiving an alternative, most of the trade union leaders are seemingly willing to allow the NHS to be completely destroyed. Roger Davey (Wiltshire) outlined how the destruction of long-term care for the elderly is proceeding apace under New Labour. Unfortunately, in cahoots with the Socialist Workers' Party acting as a "left-cover" for the union leaders, the idea of progressing the massive local NHS protests and numerous campaigns around the country by calling a national demo has been consciously and persistently blocked.
Roger Bannister (Merseyside) characterised some of the trade union leaders as "industrially and politically useless, but viciously determined", which seemed to capture the sentiments of the speakers from the public sector unions and particularly in the NHS.
One exception to this is the civil servants' union, the PCS, which has a left leadership strongly influenced by the Socialist Party. Tracey Edwards (Camden) spoke about the importance of the PCS Youth Network and how it is a pole of attraction for new young militant trade unionists.
Mark Baker (Bristol) commented on increasing recognition that Socialist Party members receive from the PCS rank-and-file as a result of the hard work our members put in. Sarah Mayo (Swansea), raised how despite our excellent position and the militancy of PCS members it was not all "plain left-wing sailing" because the right-wing is still entrenched in certain branches of the civil service such as the DVLA but that this could and would change.
Socialist Party congress 2007, photo Paul Mattsson
The private sector is not immune to the effects of a pernicious trade union officialdom. Rob Williams (Swansea) described the phenomenal willingness of the Visteon car plant workers to struggle and how it was "a case of marshalling rather than mobilising" their huge discontent. Rob Windsor (Coventry) outlined the situation of car workers and the hypocrisy of the trade union official who argued to "buy British" to save their jobs and subsequently turned up in a Peugeot.
Chris McNulty (Hillingdon, London) described the disgraceful role of TGWU leader, Tony Woodley, in making a poor deal with British Airways bosses, despite being faced with massive willingness of thousands of BA workers to strike in defence of their terms and conditions.
Reflecting the willingness to struggle, Hannah pointed out that in some cases the trade union leaders have been forced into limited action as shown by the struggle of the Burberry workers in Wales and the Goldman Sachs cleaners in London.
However, it was put to the congress that rather than risk new worker militants becoming disillusioned by lack of support from their unions, we must make an increased effort to build left forces in the unions amongst the rank-and-file and to recruit as many as possible to the Campaign for a New Workers' Party (CNWP) and to the Socialist Party.
Tony Mulhearn at Socialist Party congress 2007, photo Paul Mattsson
Tony Mulhearn (Merseyside) commented on the recent successful CNWP meeting in Liverpool at which Tommy Sheridan and Ricky Tomlinson spoke, and the potential it shows for the campaign. Dave Nellist (Coventry) spoke of the importance of raising the need to generalise the experience of countless 'single issue' campaigns Socialist Party members are involved in around the country, to develop the CNWP.
It is clear that Blair and New Labour are now hated by much of the working class, but the development of the CNWP is also linked to the development of events. Dave Reid (Cardiff) likened the political situation to that of the economy - a massive "political bubble". Gordon Brown will seek to distinguish himself when he - almost certainly - takes over the New Labour premiership this year.
Brown, although being determined to continue with a neo-liberal agenda, may accelerate the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and reverse some of the most unpopular privatisations. The Tories, in copying the New Labour approach through Cameron, reveal that none of the capitalist parties have a stable base of support in society any longer.
Dave Bartlett (Cardiff) highlighted the importance of developments that would flow from the aftermath of the Welsh assembly and Scottish parliament elections and the impending Brown premiership which could potentially see three changed governments in the UK.
A visitor from the Socialist Party's sister organisation in Scotland, Philip Stott, outlined the complications posed by the re-emergence of the national question in Scotland. In the main this is driven by hatred for New Labour, but the anger runs the risk of being channelled to some extent into the Scottish National Party (SNP) who do not stand for workers' interests.
Bill Mullins at Socialist Party congress 2007, photo Paul Mattsson
A premiership of the Scottish Gordon Brown has the potential for increasing nationalism in England. Naomi Byron (Tower Hamlets) spoke in this vein on the situation of the British National Party (BNP). She outlined how in some working class areas the BNP is trying to fill the political vacuum left by the betrayal of Labour. However the populist, sometimes "left reformist" rhetoric of the BNP betrays their weakness. The vast majority of workers are far to the left of the BNP and a skilful approach can win away those workers looking toward the BNP at this stage.
The increasing awareness of the dangers of climate change, particularly amongst young people, poses the possibility of the growth of the Green Party. Sean Figg (Brighton) described how the Greens' mainly electoral approach and the limited issues they take up will restrict the extent to which they can gain support from workers and give any outlet to workers in struggle and union activists.
In conclusion Bill Mullins (Socialist Party executive committee), generalised the contributions into our perspectives for future developments - increased willingness to struggle and increasing opportunities for the growth of the Socialist Party and the ideas of genuine socialism.