66. Party activity



The period before the 2005 general election and afterwards were successful years in terms of membership and the growth of our resources. In 2005 the Socialist Party raised over £100,000 for its fighting fund. The National Committee therefore proposed increasing the fighting fund quarterly target to £25,000 and increasing membership dues by £3,000 a month. It was also agreed that a drive to increase paper sales should be a priority. The 2006 Party Congress agreed after discussion a target for the year of 700 new members. It also received a report from our Youth Department about the success of Socialist Students, which had been set up in 49 universities with over a thousand students signed up during the freshers’ fairs. The Campaign for a New Workers’ Party (CNWP) was receiving an echo within the labour movement. It received a warm response at that year’s RMT conference on political representation.

2006 also saw an important milestone for Socialism Today, which celebrated the production of its hundredth issue (prior to this, we produced Militant International Review, intermittently however). Socialism Today, in contrast, maintained 10 issues per year. Moreover, “Events since Issue Number 1 have, in our view, confirmed the key importance of the issues we raised and validated our approach.” This was in the teeth of a continuous ideological barrage in favour of the ‘triumph of capitalism’, the European Parliament… adopted a resolution condemning “the crimes of totalitarian communist regimes’.”  The ideological offensive was not a genuine attempt to clarify the character of the former Stalinist regimes of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. It was yet another attempt to use the record of Stalinism to discredit genuine socialism. There were still people on the left, of course, who continued to act as apologists for Stalinism. Seamus Milne, who later became Jeremy Corbyn’s press officer after his election to the leadership, rightly asked why the European Parliament was taking no steps to publicise and repudiate the bloody history of European colonialism and imperialism. While referring to the social gains achieved by the workers in the former Soviet Union, however, Milne sidestepped the issue of totalitarian repression and an absence of workers’ democracy under Stalinism, writing “No major political tradition is without blood on its hands.” Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, supported a motion in 1988 from Terry Fields, ‘Militant’ and Labour MP, calling on Russian President Gorbachev to rehabilitate Leon Trotsky, which Gorbachev never did!

The impression given by Milne of the former Soviet Union was of an authentic, if imperfect, model for socialism. This meant that socialist publications, particularly The Socialist and Socialism Today, needed to explain the Soviet Union’s contradictory nature: the positive of the planned economy; and the negative of bureaucratic dictatorship. This was vital for Marxists in differentiating between Stalinism and the genuine democratic socialism of Marxism. One of the authors of the resolution in the European Parliament gave the game away when he said that it was not just to remember the victims of communism but to combat “communist nostalgia” for public ownership, the class struggle and “elements of communist ideology, such as equality or social justice [which] still seduce many”. The MEPs voted 99 to 42 with 12 abstentions for the possessing classes’ message: that there is no alternative to capitalism and any attempt to change the system will lead to violent totalitarianism.

We argued the case for genuine socialism and Marxism against the background of many left organisations that had in reality capitulated to the notion that there was no alternative to the capitalist market. George Monbiot, a prominent figure in the anti-globalisation and anti-capitalist movement of the streets, complained: “Whenever anyone announced that capitalism in all its forms should be overthrown, everyone cheered. But is this what we really want? And, if so, with what do we hope to replace it? And could that other system be established without violent repression?”1 In other words, “No, there is no alternative to capitalism.” We replied that a genuine socialist transformation, a socialist revolution, could only be carried through with the overwhelming support of the majority of the population. The working class today is immeasurably stronger and on a much higher cultural level than the working class in Russia in 1917. It would never therefore allow a greedy, totalitarian bureaucratic regime to usurp power from a democratic workers’ state, in which the voice and actions of working people would dominate.2

Many who were unwilling to take to the difficult road of electing just one or two councillors in the beginning, with the intention of becoming the majority later, dismissed our attempts at gaining representation on councils. “It was ineffective; a handful of councillors could achieve very little.” In fact, the record of Socialist councillors in a number of areas such as Coventry or Lewisham in South London showed that a great deal could be achieved. Chris Flood and Ian Page, councillors for Telegraph Hill Ward, pointed out in The Socialist: “We played a leading part in forcing Lewisham’s Labour administration to build a new school to replace one that was knocked down – Labour had always argued against a new school,” said Chris. He went on: “So this is an on-going campaign. Importantly, we are the only councillors in the borough arguing consistently against cuts and closures and privatisation. We are leading an anti-housing sell-off campaign at present.” This struggle was linked by us to socialist change and an alternative to the parties of big business. It also showed that socialist methods and ideas were still very popular: “In that sense it’s about raising and maintaining the banner of socialism. It gives a profile to the Socialist Party.”

Karen McKay, Socialist councillor in Coventry, commented that she and her fellow councillors Dave Nellist and Rob Windsor had won many battles for local residents: “We stand for the possibility of alternatives to privatised services and for change. Most councillors don’t know what that feels like, as they have to toe a party line which is not in people’s best interests. They accept the limitations that the government puts on local budgets and services, while we argue to fight for more.”

Chris Flood explained: “Just look at how discredited Labour are currently! Lewisham Labour are straight out of this New Labour mould. In fact they are ultra-Blairite. We are the only principled opposition party in the council chamber. In our ward, Telegraph Hill, the contest is literally a vote between us and Labour. A vote for anyone else is a waste. Would-be Greens and Liberals need to vote for us! But we will obviously be calling on our core support as well.”

Ian Page added: “All the other parties are the same. They all vote for cuts in the council chamber. The Lib Dems, Conservatives and the Greens in Lewisham have all supported Labour’s policies on education and housing and even voted against our motion to call on the government to fund the budget deficit at Lewisham Hospital.”3

In Yorkshire the health service had been under continuous attack and was the issue around which a successful campaign was conducted to have Socialist Party member and GP Jackie Grunsell elected as a councillor. This was just part of an ongoing campaign to save the NHS from the privateers, a battle which is all the more intense today. The campaign began when the hospital trust and local primary care trusts announced plans to centralise services. They wanted to move maternity, children’s and surgical services from Huddersfield to Halifax and also close a local hospital, St. Luke’s. The councillors were lobbied but they refused to join the campaign. Only then did the Socialist Party decide to stand a candidate with massive local support. Jackie won with 2,176 votes, a majority of 807 in the Crossland Moor and Netherton Ward, hammering the main establishment parties and the BNP. She was then inundated with phone calls with offers to help join the campaign, particularly from people in the Asian community saying, “We voted for you… We’re really pleased you’ve won… It’s the first time I’ve ever voted.”4

The ‘Save Huddersfield NHS campaign’ sent shockwaves around the local political establishment. Jackie’s victory was similar to the success of Dr Richard Taylor in 2001, when he was elected as MP for WYRE Forest, following a similar ‘Save our Hospital’ campaign. Mike Forster, who played a big role in the election victory, commented: “In an atmosphere where people do not appear to be participating in politics, in pubs, churches, mosques, school playgrounds and shops across this ward, people were talking about the election and discussing who they would be voting for.”5

In 2006, Ted Grant, one of the founders of Militant, the Socialist Party’s forerunner, died at the age of 93 in London. Although he had long departed from the ranks of the Socialist Party, we recognised that he had made a major contribution to the arsenal of important theoretical and political issues of Trotskyism. His followers, such as Alan Woods, ascribed to him almost political infallibility, despite the fact that he made an increasing number of serious errors in his estimation of the Labour Party and the ‘mass organisations’ which, he dogmatically claimed, the working class would return to “again and again”. His disciples repeated this ad nauseam after his death only to repudiate this idea when they were hit in the face by reality. They completely rejected the Labour Party after the Scottish referendum. Moreover, Pasok in Greece, to which both Grant and Woods also maintained the Greek working class would turn, has also been reduced to an insignificant rump.

Incredibly, Woods in his obituary of Grant claimed: “In 1964, we [!] decided to launch a new paper called Militant. We held our first meeting in a small room in a pub in Brighton.” This was a complete fabrication. Alan Woods was not involved in any Labour Party Young Socialist activity on a national scale until after 1964. Militant was founded that year but it certainly was not established “in a pub in Brighton”, where Woods was a student. The reality was that the founding of Militant was mainly a product of discussions in Liverpool and London. Woods’s farcical attempt to rewrite history did no justice either to the memory of Grant or the contribution that he made. We wrote at the time: “It is a self-serving attempt to enhance Alan Woods’ own ‘historic’ profile.” Despite all his attempts to burnish his credentials as a ‘pioneer’ of Militant he did not play any major role in Britain. So much so that a journalist who closely followed Militant’s development, Andy McSmith, in his book Faces of Labour mistakenly called him Andy Woods – mixing him up with Andy Bevan, a fellow Welshman who had dropped away from our ranks in the past.6

As Militant grew to become the most effective and largest Trotskyist movement in Britain and most of Europe, it was necessary to present our ideas in the most popular and accessible form. Ted Grant was no longer capable of fulfilling this role. He was incapable, like Woods himself, of adapting to changing situations, particularly after the collapse of the ‘Soviet Union’. They gave ‘critical support’ to the organisers of the 1991 coup in the Soviet Union. They justified this on the basis that Trotsky had the position of ‘critical support’ for a section of the bureaucracy that would maintain the planned economy. However, the bureaucracy had long since degenerated and was no longer capable of ensuring the development of the planned economy. There was no wing in 1991 which still adhered to the planned economy. Grant stuck to a wrong, dogmatic perspective, which held that the social counter-revolution in the former Stalinist states had not ‘yet’ been carried out. It was only in the late 1990s that he came to the conclusion that capitalism had indeed returned in Russia. Before he split from the Socialist Party, he only received 7% of the vote at a national congress of Militant supporters against launching the ‘Scottish Turn’. After this, his followers remained on the margins of the labour movement, without any real roots in Britain.7

The Socialist Party is of course affiliated to the CWI. It is one of the reasons why The Socialist carries so many informed articles, in depth, on international themes, as does Socialism Today and the CWI website. We encourage the exchange of opinions and discussions on important topical international issues. One such debate took place at Socialism 2006 on the important question of Cuba between myself and Bernard Regan of the National Union of Teachers, representing the Cuba Solidarity Campaign. I had written a book ‘Cuba: Socialism and Democracy’ which featured in this debate.

The Socialist Party was now a factor in events, particularly in the industrial field. The 2007 Socialist Party Congress addressed one of our main tasks, building a base amongst young people, starting in the universities and colleges. Matt Dobson, national coordinator of Socialist Students, explained that the Campaign to Defeat Fees was taking off, with the NUS forced to back the launch day of action. Around half joining our party were young people now involved in launching new branches.

The world economic crisis had not yet fully struck and this affected our work, particularly on the electoral field. In Coventry, which was one of our strongest bases, our local council vote held up quite well. After a hard-fought battle in St Michael’s Ward, the Socialist Party narrowly lost by a majority of 84 and we now held two seats on the Council. Most of the remaining major factories in the city had declined, the main Royal Mail sorting office with 600 jobs was threatened and in the week before the election closure of the main Post Office was announced. Three years before this the Tories had gained control of the council because of anger at Labour’s cuts and Blair’s decision to go to war in Iraq.

Despite this setback, Coventry socialists prepared assiduously for the next round, which met with great success in 2008, the reelection of Dave Nellist.

At this stage, no matter where you turned, it was Socialist Party members and their allies who were to the fore in campaigning on the streets and in workplaces against the cuts that the New Labour government was imposing with many carried through by Labour councils. In the past, it would have been Labour and other left activists who organised and conducted this opposition but the uninterrupted, steady shift of the Labour Party towards the right led to disillusionment and a consequent unwillingness and inability to lead working people in struggle. It was Socialist Party members who were prominent in campaigns.

This was magnificently demonstrated on the issue of school meals in the London Borough of Waltham Forest. The council announced their decision to remove the subsidy to school meals and get rid of the borough’s catering services, which not only financed and organised school meals but also provided ‘meals on wheels’ for the elderly. In just three weeks of campaigning by the local trade unions, parents and socialists, councillors were seriously rattled.

This was followed by a noisy ‘pots and pans’ march by around 250 angry dinner ladies, teachers, parents, supporters and children, marching from the town square to the Town Hall. A representative of the bin workers promised that if the campaign continued, “Next time he would bring the bin trucks out to block the roads.” Demonstrators chanted: “If you want to keep school dinners – bang a pan”. A young education worker with an Asian drum and people with pans, wooden spoons, tin lids, rattles and whistles joined in. Passers-by and shopkeepers took leaflets, offered donations and cheered the demonstration. As part of their campaign, the organisers of the demonstration contacted Jamie Oliver, the famous TV chef, who had a keen interest in making sure that the nation’s children were properly fed. As a consequence he gave support to the campaign.

Waltham Forest’s council leaders were forced to extend the school meal subsidy at least until 2009 – an unequivocal victory for the campaign! They capitulated but words were not enough; the demonstrators insisted that they put in writing a pledge to maintain school dinners. They promised a 12-month reprieve but one dinner lady declared: “Now we’ve got to fight to keep it forever. We must keep lobbying, collecting petitions and keeping ahead of what’s going on.” Nancy Taaffe, a key organiser of the campaign and a prominent member of the local Socialist Party branch, said: “We are not standing down the campaign. We will monitor the situation and hold all [council leader] Councillor Loakes’ promises to account.” Seventy copies of the Socialist were sold on the day and signatures were gathered on a petition for the CNWP declaration. When one dinner lady was asked who she would vote for in the next election, given the council’s attitude towards vital services, she said: “I don’t trust any of them. They’re all the same now. We need a new party in there, don’t we? A complete new party. Put me in there!”8

This was just one of a number of local campaigns which were scoring victories. The Socialist reported: “The campaign against closure of the Maudsley hospital emergency mental health clinic in south London won a concession when it was announced that the clinic would stay open for information purposes.” In Southampton a four-year campaign saved St Mary’s Leisure Centre and a £250,000 refurbishment was planned, while a strike by Southampton care workers fought off plans to cut pay for current staff on the council. The Unison branch balloted its members for strike action against privatisation of 800 jobs, redundancies and other cuts. More often than not it was Socialist Party members who were to the fore in these and many other campaigns. Many were lost because of ineffective trade union leadership. Nancy Taaffe remarked of the victory in Waltham Forest: “At a time when it feels like the working class does nothing but lose, this small victory feels like we’ve won the World Cup.”

Brighton tenants also at this time dealt a massive blow to their council by voting against its privatisation plans. Greenwich Unison members, through mass meetings, forced the council into concessions on pay and a reduction in hours. Socialist Party members brought to the battle confidence in the capacity of the newly active workers to struggle and to play a role, individually and collectively. “Now give us a wage rise!” was the cry when the council leader in Waltham Forest backed down on the school meals cuts in front of an angry demonstration.

The Socialist commented: “Contrast this approach with that of most of the national trade union leaders, who often refuse to even acknowledge the massive anger that exists over attacks on the health service and on other issues, never mind taking a lead in campaigning against them. They play the role of attempting to prevent struggle, rather than helping it. If the union leaders gave a real lead against NHS cuts, devising a campaign strategy – through democratic discussion with rank and file union members – for a programme of industrial action, demonstrations and other events, the government could be stopped dead in its tracks.”9

However, the evolution of the Socialist Party did not proceed in a straight line. This was also true of the CWI. There were periods when we made important gains, sometimes spectacularly so, and other periods when we either stood still or were even compelled to take a step or two back.