56. Socialist Party activities



The national congresses of the Socialist Party always played a key role in both assessing the general situation in which the party would act and discussing the organisational targets for building the party. Our 2002 conference heard many of the delegates comment on the shift towards the left that was taking place, the result of attacks on workplace conditions and wages. One London Underground worker spoke on the breakthrough for the left represented by Bob Crow’s election as leader of the RMT. London Underground workers now wanted more action to defeat Blair’s privatisation scheme, he said. Ninety-five percent of the money for the scheme would come from the government yet the private companies involved will own the infrastructure for 30 years. Strike action extracted the promise of no compulsory redundancies. Socialist Party members on London Underground would keep fighting in the unions for a public campaign against privatisation, including demonstrations, and for the renationalisation of the whole railway network. The Underground worker also said that many RMT members had concluded that the union should disaffiliate altogether from the Labour Party.

As previously mentioned, Matt Wrack attended this congress as a visitor. He argued that it was premature to campaign for trade union disaffiliation from the Labour Party. Instead, we should campaign to democratise the political funds, demanding union leaders put pressure on New Labour. He also said that we should not have left the Socialist Alliance as some workers may still look towards it, including FBU members. Glenn Kelly, then a National Executive Committee member of Unison, replied to Matt, pointing out that our principled position was for disaffiliation from the Labour Party now that it is a big business party but he explained that the tactics of the campaign would develop differently in each union. Many council workers hated New Labour locally but on a national basis could not see an alternative. That is why we call for the formation of a new mass workers’ party, at the same time supporting all steps towards such a party, such as campaigning in Unison for the formation of a third political fund.

Dave Nellist, leader of the Socialist group on Coventry City Council, stressed that a genuine alliance needs more than just a name to mean anything to workers. Amongst other things it must have a democratic approach. He believed that the forces for a new workers’ party would come from the trade unions and community campaigns, and workers will demand open and inclusive organisations to fight for their demands. These debates and exchanges give the lie to the myth sedulously disseminated by our opponents that the decisions on policy, programme and organisation are decided by one or two individuals, a small cabal in the leadership of the Socialist Party.

In fact, before we launched the Socialist Party, when we worked in the Labour Party as Militant, we were scrupulously democratic in the way we discussed, formulated and agreed policies. We had local and national meetings in which all views were aired and, only after full discussion, arrived at decisions. Matt Wrack was listened to, the debate took place, and he was in a minority on this issue. He subsequently left our ranks because of growing political differences – not least on the need to develop broad lefts in the unions, which he opposed, preferring a highly individualistic approach. However, the Socialist Party has always sought to maintain a friendly approach, even where we will on occasions differ politically, sometimes quite sharply with those like Matt, as well as other left leaders.

The 2004 national congress of the Socialist Party was held in Skegness which recorded a significant increase in the influence and the membership of the Socialist Party. Half of our new members in 2003 were under the age of 26. The previous year had seen two socialist councillors re-elected in Coventry, Lincoln socialists take 16% of the votes in the same council elections and, repeating the pattern of previous years, the best results for the left on Merseyside were in wards where the Socialist Party stood. In Deptford in London, in a normally solid Labour-voting ward, we gained 13% of the votes. Labour had panicked as it appeared that Socialist Party candidate Jess Leech was picking up support.

The SP conference also discussed the rise of the far right, manifested at that stage by the development of the British National Party (BNP). In fact, the emergence of the BNP as a threat led to Labour benefiting temporarily in places like Stoke-on-Trent, but it did not stop the BNP gaining more than 6,000 votes in the city. Some other left organisations merely hurled insults at the BNP but the Socialist Party, particularly in one ward, put forward an alternative designed to appeal to working people and prevent them going into the BNP’s camp. The result was that the Socialist Party campaign and candidate greatly improved its votes from a by-election only a few months previously! This was just one example of the decisive contribution made by the Socialist Party in the struggle against the far right and the fascists.

Our congress was followed by an equally successful weekend of discussion and debate at Socialism 2004, in which the Brazilian MP Joao Batista (‘Baba’) participated. One young worker commented on the speeches at Socialism: “What I found most inspiring were the international comrades. Despite the difficulties in other countries which dwarf what we face, those comrades’ dedication to socialism is an inspiration to us all.”

Socialism 2004 heard an important contribution from Chris Baugh, a long-standing member of the Socialist Party, and newly elected Assistant General Secretary of the PCS. Chris showed how “workers will join the trade unions if they’re motivated to do so by policies which fight for ordinary union members.” Joe Higgins spoke on the battle against the hated bin tax for which he and other Socialist Party members in Ireland were jailed. The sp had consequently built up enormous respect during this struggle, which led to 14 candidates standing in the local elections of June 2004.1

In September Hannah Sell, speaking on behalf of the Executive Committee at a special National Council of the Socialist Party, spelt out the plans for building in 2005. She reported that in the previous year substantial progress had been made with most regions of the party having a significant layer of new young members who transformed the branches or, in some cases, founded new ones in towns where the Socialist Party had never existed before. This was laying the basis for success on a bigger scale at a later stage. Vital in this regard was the work of Socialist Students, which had had its most successful ever freshers’ fayres campaign in 2003, with 800 joining up. Hannah reported that this was the only national anti-capitalist organisation which was run democratically by, and for, young people and students.

2004 was also the 40th anniversary of the founding of Militant itself. A special feature, alongside meetings in London and elsewhere held by our party commemorated these events. We wrote: “The Independent newspaper, recently commenting on the life of a deceased Olympic athlete, wrote that his critics described him as ‘the sport’s Militant Tendency’. David Beckham was accused of leading a ‘millionaire Militant Tendency’ – a contradiction in terms – after England’s football team refused to speak to the press following a recent international match because of what they considered unfair criticism of their previous performances.”

These are just two out of thousands of examples of how the terms ‘Militant’ and ‘Militant Tendency’ had permeated everyday language in Britain over the last 40 years. Like ‘bolshie’ or ‘commie’ in the past, they were now general terms for all those prepared to stand up for the poor, the weak and the exploited against the bosses and authoritarian forces of all kinds.

This was also recognition of our effect on the political landscape in Britain over decades. We took the opportunity to remind workers of our political antecedents. We pointed to the first issue of our paper, commenting on the role of the Labour leadership in 1964, when we wrote: “By showing themselves as ‘safe and responsible’ leaders, not fundamentally different from the Tories, the Labour leaders have played into the hands of the Tories.”2 We were a very small force when we made these comments, producing a four-page monthly paper in black-and-white only, subject to the whims of a small printer in West London as to whether the paper was even produced or not. Many doubted whether this new ‘baby’, ill clad and lacking in substance, would even survive its first few months. We were able to do so because of our youthful, boundless faith in the socialist future of the working class and humankind. We also had enormously committed supporters, although in 1964 only numbering around 40 nationally.

We had had many successes in the previous 40 years, not least in the trade unions. For instance, John Macreadie, in the Civil and Public Services Association, which later merged into the PCS, won the general secretaryship of that union fair and square. However, he was debarred from taking this leadership post by blatant manoeuvres, undemocratic and dictatorial measures from the right wing, backed by the capitalists and their courts, with the blessing of Thatcher, as revealed in recently released papers. However, the real bitter hostility of the capitalists was reserved for Militant when its influence was sharply expressed in the epic Liverpool battle. The Liverpool working class and labour movement, with Militant in its leadership, managed to inflict a serious defeat on Thatcher in 1984.

An indication of the growth of support for Marxist ideas was the vote in 2005 for Karl Marx as the greatest philosopher of all time by BBC Radio Four listeners, much to the chagrin of Melvyn Bragg, presenter of the programme In Our Time. Marx won with 28% of the vote compared to his nearest rival, the free trade supporter of a contemporary of Adam Smith, David Hume, who received only just over 12%. This undoubtedly represented an ideological blow to capitalism and its supporters in the media.