Photo Waltham Forest TUSC
Photo Waltham Forest TUSC

Socialist Party general secretary Hannah Sell answers questions on this important issue

On the day this issue of The Socialist hits the streets, millions of voters will be going to the polls in local authority, mayoral, and police and crime commissioner elections. Is the Socialist Party standing candidates?

Socialist Party candidates are standing as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). TUSC is an electoral coalition which was co-founded by the late Bob Crow, then general secretary of the RMT transport workers’ union. Its primary goal is to enable trade unionists, community campaigners and socialists to stand candidates against pro-austerity establishment politicians. In the elections taking place on 2 May, TUSC is standing 280 candidates. That means there is a TUSC candidate in 10% of the council seats available, making it the sixth biggest party contesting these elections.

So TUSC is gaining ground. Are you suggesting it could soon win a majority in national elections?

No of course not, it is gaining ground, but obviously TUSC is not going to be able to form the next government! It is pretty clear to everyone that Starmer’s New Labour is going to win the general election; or, to be more accurate, is going to come to power as the least unpopular alternative, benefiting from voters’ visceral need to punish the Tories.

But it is also certain that Starmer will lead a government that defends the interests of the super-rich and the capitalist class. The ex-Tory health minister, Dan Poulter, can safely cross over to the Labour benches confident that, “thanks to Keir Starmer, Labour has changed fundamentally. The Labour Party of 2019”, as he accurately declared, “has been consigned to history.”

The crushing of Corbynism within the Labour Party, and the stranglehold on the party of the Starmerites, means that the working class in Britain can currently see no prospect of a mass party that fights in their interests. Changing that situation is a key task facing the workers’ movement. TUSC is not a mass party but it is an important lever to fight for steps in that direction.

But the Socialist Party could fight for those steps without being part of TUSC, couldn’t it?

Of course we could. Fighting for the working class to have its own independent party is an important part of all of our work. In the trade unions, for example, our members have been campaigning for unions to stand and back candidates outside of Labour who fight in their members’ interests. In the RMT transport workers’ union we initiated a motion – passed unanimously at the 2023 annual general meeting – to support Jeremy Corbyn if he stands as an independent. Members of ours also initiated a proposed amendment to the Unite union’s rules at the 2023 rules conference, which would have allowed the union to support non-Labour candidates. The conference didn’t pass our motion this time, but we were central to making sure the issues were debated in the union.

These are just two of numerous examples of our campaigning to raise this issue in the trade union movement. This is probably the single most important part of the campaign for a new mass workers’ party. The trade unions, currently with 6.25 million members, are the most powerful workers’ organisations in existence in Britain. The strike waves that swept Britain in 2022-23 gave a glimpse of workers’ potential collective power. The trade unions currently have no political voice, but when two key trade union leaders, Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT, and Dave Ward, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, launched the Enough is Enough campaign at the height of the strike wave, half a million people joined very quickly. That shows how rapidly a workers’ party based on even sections of the trade unions could grow. Unfortunately, because it wasn’t a new party, Enough is Enough has fizzled out.

We are also campaigning for activists in the Gaza movement to enter the electoral arena on an anti-war, anti-austerity programme.

And of course, we could do all that and more, including standing in elections ourselves, without being part of TUSC. But, in our view, it is far more effective if we also work as part of TUSC. TUSC is a banner under which any trade unionist who agrees that the workers’ movement needs to start standing its own candidates can put that into practice by standing themselves. So can anti-war activists, community campaigners and others.

All who want to stand under the TUSC banner have autonomy to run their own campaigns. The only provision is that candidates are expected to endorse the TUSC core policy platform for the relevant election. TUSC acts as an umbrella to coordinate the work of different organisations and individuals who want to contest elections on a socialist platform.

But we are always being told that ‘only united parties win elections’. How can you have success with that kind of federal approach?

We might be told it, but actually it isn’t true even for capitalist parties. The Tories were hardly united when they won the 2019 election, for example. And historically a federal approach has been crucial to the development of working-class political representation in Britain.

The Labour Party came into being based on important sections of the trade union movement, along with socialist organisations, who saw the need for independent working-class politics. It was a federation – until 1918 individuals could only join via one of the affiliated organisations. In fact, at first it had an even more ‘free and easy’ approach than TUSC has today. Affiliated organisations were “left free to select their own candidates without let or hindrance, the one condition being that, when returned to parliament, the candidate should agree to form one of the Labour group there.”

TUSC is actually a little more centralised than that. It has an all-Britain steering committee made up of members of the national executives of trade unions (all sitting in a personal capacity at this stage), plus representatives of the different constituent organisations, and of the individual independent socialists who support TUSC. The steering committee has to authorise election candidates and operates ‘by consensus’, meaning that if any of its constituent parts is opposed to making a particular decision, it is able to block it.

The case for taking a federal approach, broadly similar to that taken by the early Labour Party is, in our view, crystal clear. It allows different workers’ organisations and campaigns to collaborate together around a common goal. It is that approach that has allowed TUSC to achieve 280 candidates in the current local elections. That is modest, but it is on a much bigger scale than other electoral forces on the left that have chosen to stay outside of the TUSC ‘umbrella’. TUSC has been able to identify 62 council candidates that fall into that category.

What attitude does TUSC take to those outside its ‘umbrella’?

TUSC seeks to collaborate with all forces who stand anti-austerity candidates in elections, including those currently outside of TUSC. For example, in February of this year, TUSC initiated a ‘convention to organise a working-class challenge at the general election’. It was attended by 12 different campaign groups and socialist organisations, and agreed that “A joint election challenge should attempt to contest enough seats (98 candidates appearing on the ballot paper with a common name or variants of it) to reach the broadcasting authorities ‘fair media coverage’ threshold.”

Representatives of two of the parties present – Transform and the Workers’ Party – abstained because they wanted to prioritise building their own profile which, they felt, meant standing under their own name. Since then TUSC has proposed to both that they register joint descriptions with TUSC so that they could stand, for example, as Workers Party – TUSC, enabling them to keep their own identity and to aid getting a workers’ list of candidates over the ‘fair media coverage’ threshold in the general election. They have declined to do so. Nonetheless, the Workers Party has observers on the TUSC steering committee. In addition, both have participated in the process TUSC initiated where proposed candidates from each organisation are circulated in order to try and avoid clashes wherever possible.

So the Socialist Party wants to collaborate with all those forces standing workers’ candidates, inside and outside of TUSC?

Of course we do! Like all other organisations on the TUSC steering committee, we could have blocked TUSC’s collaboration with other groups, but instead we are enthusiastically in favour. We see workers’ candidates standing in elections on an anti-austerity, anti-war programme as an important step towards the working class having its own political voice. That in turn is a small but crucial step towards the much bigger tasks of our class successfully carrying out the socialist transformation of society.

However, that does not mean we are uncritical of the other left forces standing in elections. Our attitude to this work, and also our work in the trade unions and other fields, could be summed up as a ‘united front’ approach. When Leon Trotsky put forward the united front tactic in the 1920s and 1930s he was talking about mass forces, with hundreds of thousands of members. Clearly that is not the case with any of the forces standing workers’ candidates in elections at this point in time. Nonetheless, the basic approach of “march separately” – that is, argue for our own independent Marxist programme – but “strike together” at the ballot box – wherever possible under one banner, and if not by maximising electoral collaboration with other forces – is a good summary of our approach today. 

So what criticisms would you have of other forces? That they aren’t in TUSC?

Of course there are many, in our view vital, issues on which we disagree with others on the left. On this question, one of the most immediate is the repeated tendency of small forces, with a few thousand members or even less, to claim to be ‘the solution’ to the crisis of working-class political representation, rather than fighting for real steps forward by the broader working class.

Claiming to be the mass party for the working class does not make it so! None with this approach have succeeded in making a qualitative breakthrough, and many have rapidly disappeared. Transform, which was founded in November 2023, appears at risk of being the latest to become no more than a memory, soon after being founded. To our knowledge, they were not able to stand a single candidate in the local elections, for example.

In the past, another party which ultimately failed – although it had far more initial success than Transform – was Respect, the party under which George Galloway was previously twice elected as an MP, first in Tower Hamlets and then in Bradford. However, on neither occasion did George’s victory lead to the consolidation of a base or the building of a stable organisation. Early gains – 12 councillors in Tower Hamlets and five in Bradford – evaporated.

The initial victories were based primarily on Muslim voters who had broken with New Labour over the government’s warmongering in Iraq. This was potentially a huge step forward, but for it to have been consolidated would have required Respect acting as a bridge to draw angry Muslim workers towards seeing their common interests with other sections of the working class. On that basis Respect could have sped up the development of a mass democratic workers’ party. However, instead, Respect did declare itself ‘the alternative’. It had a very top-down structure. Trade unions could donate to it, but had no say over its decision-making.

Today, Starmer’s support for the Israeli state’s onslaught on Gaza has again driven many Muslim voters to break with Labour, this time even before it is in government. Coming on top of Blair’s crimes in office, plus the experience of Labour councils implementing austerity over recent decades, Muslim voters’ anger at Labour is the deepest it has ever been.

That anger was reflected in the important victory for George Galloway and his current party, the Workers Party, in the Rochdale by-election, and it is probable that some of their candidates in the current local authority elections will also make breakthroughs. It is very positive that the Rochdale victory has helped to raise confidence in the possibility of building a left alternative to Labour. However, capitalising on that will require developing a different approach to the one taken by the Workers Party up until now.

For example, the Workers Party calls for unions to stop funding Labour, but if a union’s members were to vote to do so and instead start funding the Workers’ Party, the union would currently have no means to take part in the party’s decision making. This is despite the fact that its membership would – even with the smallest unions – dwarf the current membership of the Workers Party.

It would not, for example, have had any means to scrutinise the decision to back Rabina Asghar, a Liberal Democrat council candidate in Rochdale, as she was “best placed to get Labour out”, even though the Liberal Democrats, part of a government coalition with the Tories from 2010-15, are just another pro-capitalist party. Individuals, of course, can take big leaps forward in their political understanding, but that is not the same as the accountability that comes from participation in a workers’ organisation.

Nor would an affiliated union have any say over the recent decision of the Workers Party to stand Rizwana Karim, who joined the Workers Party on 3 March, against the Labour left MP John McDonnell in Hayes and Harlington. This is not an approach which can succeed in consolidating a significant stable base in the working class. If the Workers Party is serious about using its general election challenge to give a voice to the working class, it should, for example, call a meeting with workers representing trade union organisations in McDonnell’s constituency to discuss whether or not a candidate should be stood against him.

So to conclude, we do not see TUSC as the ‘finished product’ or ‘the alternative’. However, TUSC has been able to work solidly for 14 years to take forward the fight for working-class political representation exactly because it is based on collaboration – working together on the basis of consensus.

The other vital approach of TUSC is summed up in its name: it is a Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. For ten years the RMT had official representation on the TUSC steering committee. That meant that RMT members could be confident that TUSC would not take any decisions that the RMT was opposed to.

And what next?

We are continuing the fight to get a workers’ list for the general election. There is the real prospect of getting at least a small bloc of MPs elected, including Jeremy Corbyn, that could help prepare the ground for a new party.

TUSC itself is not the finished product, but the TUSC ‘umbrella’ approach is likely to remain applicable for any new mass broad force, at least at first, just as it was for the early Labour Party. A party’s structure ultimately reflects its political basis. Any new mass party will inevitably have a wide range of different views within it, not least on how socialism can be achieved. In fact, part of the role of a new party will be to debate those issues. Its organisational structure will need to reflect that. That is different to our democratic structure in the Socialist Party, which reflects our high level of political cohesion.

For Marxists, it is vital to take part in the struggle for the working class to develop its own political voice. There were alleged Marxist organisations that stood aside from that struggle during the pre-history of the Labour Party, like the Social Democratic Federation, with 10,000 members at its peak. They considered this central struggle of the working class irrelevant, and as a result became completely irrelevant to the working class.

But of course, while we fight for every immediate step forward for the working class, we don’t leave it there. The working class having its own party is vital, but so is that party adopting a socialist programme for the overthrow of this rotten capitalist system, and the building of a new society that really does meet the needs of the many not the few. At all times, the Socialist Party seeks to win workers and young people to our programme for the socialist transformation of society.