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Our role in the unions

The attempt to defend their position includes the charge levelled against the Socialist Party that, 'It has to be said that for all of the emphasis on Broad Left work, no real effort has been put into uniting the Broad Lefts in the various unions... In practice everything has been concentrated around Broad Left electoral work within the official structures.' This is the first time that any erstwhile member of our organisation has made such a charge of 'electoralism' in fighting for official positions in the unions.

Historically, these are the ideas of sectarian grouplets like the SWP who until recently boycotted elections within unions, such as the NUT and Unison.

Their abstentionism effectively played into the hands of the right and the opportunist left. They have been compelled to switch positions, of course, without explanation, and are now standing in elections but in a completely sectarian fashion, as shown in the election for Unison general secretary where their candidate stood against Roger Bannister and got a much lower vote.

Our Merseyside ex-comrades are treading in the footsteps of the ultra-left on this issue. Could they kindly inform us in which union, and on what occasion, our members have pursued a purely 'electoralist' struggle within the unions? Standing in elections has always been used as a means of raising the level of understanding of those union members we can reach by counterposing our fighting programme to that of the passive policy of the right wing and, where we are successful in elections, to use those positions to enhance the struggles of the working class.

Comrades on the Executive Committee of Unison, as well as on the NUT executive, have used their position successfully to push the unions into supporting workers on strike - the Hillingdon workers and teachers in Waltham Forest, are just a couple of examples - and have never quietly sat on the NECs of unions.

As in the past, with our comrades who sat on the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party representing the youth, we act to stiffen others on the left.

Across a broad swathe of unions, the conservative trade union officialdom is presently trying to squash the elements of democracy which still exist.

In Unison and the TGWU, there is an attempt to return to bans and proscriptions, the closure of left branches, etc.

The reason why the right wing is doing this is because they can feel the growing unease of workers and rank-and-file trade unionists given the explosive underlying mood that exists in the workplaces and factories.

Sooner or later this will be reflected inside the unions and the right wing is attempting to crush any potential points of support on the left and, particularly, from our comrades who will be there once the movement of the working class takes place.

Nobody has argued that it is easy to work within the trade unions. Should the police-type measures taken by the trade union bureaucracy be met by abstentionism and a refusal to fight them within the official structures? Both in theory and in fact, our Merseyside ex-comrades reply In the affirmative.

They denounce the so-called 'bland' perspectives of transforming the unions, which is matched by the refusal of their supporters to stand for official positions in the Unison branch in Liverpool.

In practice, they put a minus sign against the battle within the official structures and have adopted a crude rank-and-filism.

Trotsky and Lenin both argued that it is the bounden duty of Marxists to be where the working class is, no matter how difficult or repressive the arena.

Trotsky, in particular, stressed the need to work in a skilful fashion, even where a police-type regime is exercised by a right-wing bureaucracy in the trade unions.

We will continue to fight for the development of open, democratic Broad Lefts, despite recent attempts of the bureaucracy to clamp down on them.

If they are illegalised we will find the ways and means of organising the best workers in the trade unions to fight the grip of the right wing.

At the same time, we will do what we have always done, and that is to complement the work in the official structures with consistent work in the factories and the workplaces.

On the minimum wage, for instance, 90% if not 99% of our efforts have been concentrated on the streets and in the workplaces propagating our demands for a 5 an hour immediate increase as a step towards the 7 European decency threshold.

The comrades ludicrously accuse the Executive Committee of the Socialist Party of winding-up the Public Sector Alliance (PSA) and not taking steps to unite the different Broad Lefts.

Firstly, the PSA was never perceived by us as a substitute for developing Broad Lefts in the individual unions.

At a time when the public sector was under attack from the Tory government in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in particular, we did take the initiative in seeking to bring together, at rank-and-file level, members of the different public-sector unions. This was an attempt to generalise the struggle in the public sector at least.

We also discussed the possibility of reaching out to workers - under the umbrella of the PSA - who were affected by the cuts in public services but who were not members of the public-sector unions.

This was, however, not a great success, not because of any hidden agenda by the EC, but because of the weakening of the left within the unions and the diminution of the advanced layer of workers who made up the Broad Lefts.

Indeed, one of the problems confronting the Broad Left today is that the thin layer of advanced workers are, in the main, largely veterans of the struggles of the 1980s and early 1990s.

One of the effects of the coming economic crisis in Britain and worldwide is that it will begin to separate out a new advanced layer politically and especially in the shape of young, fresh industrial militants.

The Socialist Party will continue to dig roots, to deepen the influence that we have amongst advanced workers within the trade unions, and will resist the counsel of despair of ultra-left sectarians who have played such a harmful role in preventing an effective left opposition developing within the trade unions.

Amongst these must now be included our Merseyside ex-comrades who, under temporary, unfavourable historical circumstances, have abandoned a Marxist approach towards work in the trade unions.

Party organisation

At the beginning of their document, they eschew 'organisational' issues, preferring to occupy the lofty plane of 'political ideas'.

Nevertheless, a significant section is devoted to criticising the organisational methods and record of the Socialist Party leaders.

There is absolutely nothing new in the bile which passes for criticism in the organisational broadsides against our party and its leadership.

The hope, however, is that as former members of the Socialist Party on the 'inside', some of whom were members of the National Committee, their criticisms will carry more weight with our traditional opponents who are lining up to receive the ammunition provided to 'gun down' and discredit our party.

Dave Cotterill, in particular, hopes in the process to draw a screen over his own dubious organisational methods in the Merseyside area.

A theme running through his document is that the Socialist Party leaders have attempted to impose a ruthless, centralised regime on the regions of the party.

The Merseyside ex-comrades have been martyred because they have not laid down before this machine. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Our party is organised on the principles of democratic unity. There is full freedom of discussion and debate but, once we arrive at decisions, it is the duty of all members to carry out those decisions.

We have never interpreted this in a mechanical or dogmatic fashion. Great latitude, important initiatives, came from individuals and regions, which were then taken up by the national leadership.

Not just in the 1990s but throughout the history of our organisation, this has been encouraged by the national leadership.

The strategy in Liverpool in the run-up to Labour taking power in 1983, was formulated in discussions and dialogue between the national leadership and our organisation in Liverpool.

Unfortunately, one of the weaknesses of the Merseyside organisation in the 1980s and the first part of the 1990s, was the over-centralisation, promoted and reinforced by the attitude of Dave Cotterill, in which everything was centralised in the hands of the Regional Secretary and one or two of his coterie.

Retrospectively, the document concedes: 'Paradoxically the area had been highly centralised in terms of the organisational apparatus, something which was recognised back in 1994.'

In the Walton by-election National Committee members from other areas who visited Merseyside came back to London complaining to the General Secretary, Peter Taaffe, about the dictatorial attitude of Dave Cotterill.

Peter Taaffe took this up with Dave Cotterill but, needless to say, his critics never uttered a word of criticism either in private or publicly of Dave Cotterill.

The truth of the matter is that Dave Cotterill was in favour of 'centralisation' so long as it benefited him and 'his patch'.

It was perfectly acceptable to divert resources from other areas of the country (such as his movement from the Regional Secretary in Tyneside to Merseyside), to massively financially subsidise Merseyside over a period of decades, to give a loan of 25,000 in order to finance a print shop.

All of this was done because Merseyside was a key area and, for a certain historical period, was ahead of the rest of the country.

But, given the setbacks on Merseyside, and the general retreat of the left, the 1990s have meant that Merseyside is no longer politically or organisationally ahead of the rest of the country or of other parts of the Socialist Party.

As soon as the national leadership of the party, with the full agreement, after democratic discussion and debate, of the National Committee, proposed that a greater proportion of subs be used to finance national activity such as our weekly paper, Dave Cotterill and his supporters began to mutter about 'over-centralisation'.

What has also subsequently come to light is the quite scandalous financial mismanagement of Dave Cotterill, in particular, as far as the resources of the organisation on Merseyside are concerned.

This has been fully detailed in our special bulletin on Merseyside. But this comrade took out bank loans, in which he got other people to stand as guarantors with no consultation.

He wrote off one large loan made by us on behalf of the organisation and then omitted this from the accounts he gave to the banks.

He then claims in his document, 'Merseyside also launched a national YRE album.' Again, what is concealed, including from the membership on Merseyside, is that this 'national album' was only financed because the Executive Committee of the Socialist Party sanctioned a 10,000 loan and a promise that we would make at least 10,000 profit.

In fact, it made a loss of at least 8,000. Six years later, we are waiting for the return of the loan made to Dave Cotterill and his collaborators who promised so much and delivered so little.

The attempt to picture the initiative of the YRE as being something that almost spontaneously emerged, without the involvement of the International Secretariat of the CWI or the national leadership of the Socialist Party is just one of the legends contained in this document.

The launch of the YRE, the planning of the Brussels demonstration in 1992, the formulation of the programme, the methods, the tactics; all of this was discussed regularly and systematically at the highest levels of the CWI.

This did not mean that the CWI 'pulled all the strings' or choked-off the initiative of the youth or the different national sections of the International.

The national officers of the YRE were denied access to the album accounts by Dave Cotterill and his collaborators.

This is the individual who pontificates in his document about the need for 'involvement', encouraging the youth, etc.

When Lois Austin and Hannah Sell asked to see the YRE album accounts he steadfastly refused to do this.

If the national leadership of the Socialist Party is guilty of anything, it is allowing too much latitude to those who have undermined the basis of what was a tremendous revolutionary party on Merseyside by systematically sapping the will - politically and organisationally - of the cadres that had been assembled over decades.

Nothing better illustrates this than the quite false perceptions of the Merseyside ex-members of what constitutes united-front work and the difference between this and 'networking'.

We built a powerful organisation on Merseyside not through 'networking'. Our starting point, as we have stated earlier, was the building of a serious revolutionary organisation.

We always attempted to carry out elements of 'united front' methods in working with others within the Labour Party, through the Liverpool Broad Left, in the Broad Lefts in the unions, with the reformist left in the Labour Party, on the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party, etc.

The quote from Engels, made in relation to the First International and dragged in by the hair, is exactly the way that we worked in Liverpool and elsewhere in trying to employ united front methods.

However, in seeking to work with anarchists, Utopian socialists, non-socialist British trade unionists, etc, Marx and Engels did not in the process liquidate their clear revolutionary programme nor the perception of a clear revolutionary organisation. But this is precisely what 'networking' involves as perceived by the ex-comrades.

Prior to their departure from the Socialist Party, they had watered down and dissolved the party into a loose gathering.

They proposed 'discussion groups' in which the relevance of Marxism itself would be discussed. In a leaflet for these meetings they said: "What will these movements achieve, will they be successful or, under the impact of globalisation are they doomed to failure, as we are all now at the mercy of the market as even 'Labour' governments search for further privatisation. Where can these answers be found? We don't know, but we do know where to start." They continued: "We are launching a series of discussions over the summer months aimed at debating all of the major issues of the day and seeing if Marxism applies (if it does at all) to the world situation we live in today."

In the process, they disorientated and disheartened some of the best cadres who had played key, formative roles in the development of the party on Merseyside.

In the past, our involvement in any united front activity always brought the criticism from our 'allies' about our 'rigidity', insistence on a separate organisation, refusal to bend and water down our programme, etc.

Even when we had the closest collaboration with the lefts on the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party - such as Tony Benn - this was their constant refrain.

In the 'network' that the 'Merseyside Socialists' are involved in with other tiny groups, this kind of criticism is absent.

This is because these organisations recognise what the comrades pretend is not the case; they have broken from the ideas and programme of the Socialist Party.

They no longer see the need to organise a separate revolutionary party while engaging in united front activity and demonstrating the flexibility of organisational forms in the struggles of the working class.

They recognise that the Merseyside socialists have made their peace with left reformism and no longer constitute the Marxist and revolutionary challenge which 'Militant' represented, and is now continued by the Socialist Party.

The ill-informed remarks made about the approaches which the CWI have made to other international Trotskyist groups in the 1990s arise from complete ignorance of what transpired and the attitude that we have adopted.

In the aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism all organisations had to reassess their previous political positions.

In this situation, as we have explained elsewhere (see Global Turmoil), we decided to open up exploratory discussions with other international trends and tendencies.

We also said that in principle we were in favour of the revolutionary regroupment of genuine revolutionary forces.

We never prescribed in advance of discussion precisely what these 'genuine revolutionary forces' constituted.

That was to be established in a dialogue and a discussion with different trends and groupings.

Unfortunately, however, our discussions with the LIT, largely based in Latin America, the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, the UIT, the DSP, and many others established that there was no basis on which a principled unification could take place with any of these forces at this stage.

That is to be regretted because, undoubtedly, in all of these organisations there are genuine revolutionary fighters.

But our position has never been 'all pals together, never mind the weather'. We have conducted the struggle for revolutionary clarity on programme, perspectives, strategy and tactics.

We intend to maintain lines of communication with all the organisations that we have discussed with and, if possible, to continue a dialogue and debate.

More important than this is that our understanding of 'revolutionary regroupment' was never restricted to those forces who claim to be 'Trotskyist'.

Far more important in the medium and long term will be the new forces that will emerge out of the struggles of the working class, who will not be necessarily linked to any of the existing revolutionary organisations or internationals. We remain firmly dedicated to the building of a mass International.

We believe that our ideas and our programme offer the best way forward for genuine revolutionary forces at this stage.

We do not pretend that we have an answer to everything, nor that we cannot learn from the working class and others from a Marxist or Trotskyist tradition.

But there is no existing organisation or party which has a clearer idea than the CWI of the broad processes within the working class, a perspective on the development of world capitalism, and the strategy and tactics for building a revolutionary party.

If there were, we would merge with them tomorrow, even if we were in a minority. There is absolutely no justification for the maintenance of a separate party or organisation if others have the same programme and policies as you.

But, equally, it would be criminal to dissolve what has taken decades to build, no matter how small those forces might be at the present time, on the basis that 'big is better'.

They claim their document is a discussion between revolutionaries but, in reality, they are ex-revolutionaries.

Unfortunately, they represent just another example of the wearing-out of a generation, this time from the terrible 1990s.

They represent an ideological collapse and the weakness of the human material which, in the past, in most cases played a positive role in building the forces of Marxism.

They were incapable of standing up against the colossal ideological ban-age of the bourgeoisie and their reflection within the labour movement.

The Merseyside ex-members have clearly drawn the conclusion that the building of a small revolutionary party, at this stage, is futile.

Their 'mission statement' in this document is to build new mass parties of the working class on the basis of the ideas set out in their document.

If they ever have any decisive influence, this will be a conscious centrist, reformist or left reformist party.

These comrades and their document represent a retreat, a liquidation, of the ideas of revolutionary Marxism and Trotskyism.

We take no satisfaction in drawing this conclusion, given that these comrades played a role, and some of them a very important role, in Merseyside together with us in building a force that struck terror into the hearts of the bourgeoisie.

Sadly, these comrades are destined never to play such a role in the future. They have joined what the American Trotskyist, Max Shachtman, once characterised as 'the league of abandoned hopes'.

They have bent under the massive ideological campaign of the 1990s. The resistivity of the material was too weak to withstand this pressure.

We regret this, but we intend to continue on the course which we have set ourselves, of defending revolutionary ideas, the programme of revolutionary Trotskyism, the strategy and tactics of the CWI, which offer the best hope for the advanced workers at this stage.

The document of our ex-members represents a break with the ideas that built a powerful Trotskyist force on Merseyside.

The purpose of their document is to supply ammunition to all the opponents of Militant, in the past, and now of the Socialist Party.

No matter; we will continue along the path that we have charted out and, together with the best elements of the youth and the working class, we will build a party in Britain which will conquer the political support of the working class and, together with our comrades in the CWI, lay the basis for a mass International in Britain and throughout the world.


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