Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/413/4696
New mass workers' party:
Conference for action needed
IN THE first of two articles, PETER TAAFFE, general secretary of the Socialist Party, says that the time for stepping up the campaign for a mass workers' party in Britain is not just ripe - it is rotten ripe.
THE RECENT Labour Party conference has once more underlined how the New Labour leadership is completely disconnected from the problems and concerns of ordinary working-class people. This was highlighted by the thuggish treatment meted out to 82-year old Walter Wolfgang, a refugee from Nazi Germany, who dared to shout "Nonsense!" in response to Jack Straw's statement that opponents of the Iraq War were like pro-Nazi sympathisers!
Walter Wolfgang was held and questioned by police under Section 44 of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The attack on civil liberties by the New Labour-dominated state is mirrored by its authoritarian and intolerant approach towards its own party's members.
Even worse was the brutal restatement in Brighton by the New Labour leadership - Gordon Brown as much as Tony Blair - of their neo-liberal mantra of no concessions to the trade union clamour for the abolition of Thatcher's law preventing 'secondary solidarity action' by fellow trade unionists.
Further privatisation, particularly in the NHS and schools, which will have calamitous consequences, was promised. No action on the desperate housing problem, support for big business to get its clutches into children's education through a massive introduction of academies; all of this was spelt out in Brighton. In other words, more of the same, only worse, for working-class people was the unmistakeable message.
Those who hoped that Gordon Brown, like a 'socialist' St George, would slay the New Labour dragon once he was in the saddle were dashed by his interviews and speeches at the conference. He re-stated his enthusiastic support for the New Labour 'project'.
Despite this, the trade union leadership and the Lefts who remain within the party continue to believe, in the teeth of all the evidence to the contrary, that New Labour is redeemable and can be transformed in a socialist direction. They point to the conference decisions against further privatisation of the NHS, on housing and even on 'secondary action' against the New Labour leadership as proof of this.
But nothing could be further from the truth. No sooner had the hypocritical singing of the 'Red Flag' died down at the end of the conference than Blair spelt out bluntly his view of his own party. He said on Sky TV that those trade unionists and constituency delegates - who voted 99% and 40% respectively in favour of 'secondary action' - were "crazies". This for daring to defend the democratic rights of trade unionists!
Incredibly, there is less chance today of Blair or Brown repudiating this and the other ten pernicious anti-union laws introduced by Thatcher than the Liberals were in 1906. The Liberal government, under pressure from the newly created Labour Party, did repudiate the House of Lords' anti-union Taff Vale judgement, which allowed heavy fines - 'damages' - against unions taking industrial action.
Yet the equivalent of Taff Vale today is precisely the prohibition of 'secondary action' which effectively neuters workers from taking industrial action in support of their brothers and sisters fighting against pernicious bosses and slave-like conditions and wages. This has been amply demonstrated by the Gate Gourmet dispute and its outcome, which was unfortunately not a total victory for the working class.
Big business party
THE LABOUR leadership's stand on this issue alone is enough for serious trade unionists to decide that this party now represents big business and is always on the side of the employers on decisive issues.
This is further underlined by the government's stand on the retirement age of public-sector workers: "Work till you drop." Forced to retreat from raising the retirement age of the present workforce, it still intends to create a 'two-tier' workforce for all new entrants to the public sector.
On top of this, we have the obscenity of the Iraq War with a majority - 51% at least - calling for the withdrawal of British troops, while Jack Straw said on Newsnight they could be in Iraq for another five or ten years.
Is there a chance that all of this could be stopped by a resurgent trade union movement together with indignant Labour Party members? About as much chance as a snowball in hell. A fervent and slavish supporter of Blairism in the past such as Polly Toynbee confessed: "Brighton has exposed Labour as a sham deserted by its members." [The Guardian]
Even Blair admits that party membership is down from 400,000 in 1997 when Labour came to power to an "official" 200,000 today. In reality, its only 'activists' at local level are usually a dejected collection of demoralised councillors. These cling to the battered wreckage of the Labour Party in a stormy sea because there is no other lifeboat present to pick them up.
A new mass party, even the first steps towards the creation of one, would attract those who still 'hope against hope' that in some undefined way Labour can be transformed, because no mass alternative yet exists. It would win greater numbers from young people.
Walter Wolfgang was courageous to raise his voice against Straw's lies but not one other delegate on the floor of the conference joined in, so politically backward, cowered or intimidated are they by the Blairite machine.
He stated that the party had been "taken over by a gang of political adventurers. I will remain a member for the simple reason that we can outlive them." [Daily Mirror 29 September.] The courageous Walter deserves full marks for his perspectives on his own longevity but not for the Labour Party itself.
The Campaign Group of MPs also entertains the forlorn hope that the Labour Party can be transformed. It has been suggested that they put up a 'stalking horse' against Blair that could trigger an electoral contest for the Labour leadership in 2006. Even if successful, the victorious candidate that could emerge is likely to be Brown, the replacement of Tweedledum by Tweedledee.
The disappointment of the last eight years of Blairism will be compounded by an epoch of Brownism. It could pave the way for the return of the hated Tories, perhaps given a facelift by some kind of Cameron-Clarke duumvirate. At the same time, the daily drip-feed of attacks on the working class, which can be enormously aggravated by a new world economic recession or slump, will continue apace.
NO! THIS is not the time for false hopes or prevarication. Bob Crow (below), who has courageously planted the flag for a new mass working-class party, has suggested recently that the RMT could call a conference in early 2006 of organisations and parties to discuss this idea.
The Socialist Party supports all steps of this kind which bring together genuine left, fighting and socialist forces to discuss the programme and character of a mass party in Britain, or even, in the first instance, a serious step towards such a party.
If Bob Crow is unable or frustrated in calling such a conference, then the Socialist Party will explore - through a campaign with trade unionists, environmentalists, young people, community activists and leaders - the idea of calling a conference on the issue of a new mass party.
The campaign would involve testing out the support for a new party, the programme, structures and organisation that would be necessary with, possibly, a consultative conference next spring.
The Socialist Party has championed the idea of a new party for more than ten years. In this time we have had the experience of the Socialist Labour Party, set up by Arthur Scargill, heroic leader of the miners in their battle against Thatcher. However, he unfortunately insisted on exclusive conditions for membership and activity in this party. Consequently, it has been sidelined.
That unfortunate experience was repeated in the Socialist Alliance - which Militant Labour (now the Socialist Party) originally helped to set up - when the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP) entered it. Instead of opening up, they actually narrowed the structures of the Alliance, so only those who marched to the drumbeat politically and organisationally of the SWP could remain.
They have, unfortunately, repeated this experience with 'Respect' in alliance with George Galloway. The basis of this party is too narrow, appealing in the main to one section of the population, some Muslims, many of whom have deserted Labour because of the Iraq War and have cast around for an alternative.
At the height of the antiwar movement the Socialist Party discussed with George Galloway and expressed our preparedness to launch with him and other left organisations a broad, left party, so long as it was open, democratic and specifically socialist. Such a party could, at the height of the antiwar movement, have attracted broad swathes of left forces.
In discussions with us George Galloway indicated that he was thinking of the Albert Hall - which holds 6,000 people - for its launch. Nothing came of this project but after his expulsion from the Labour Party, together mainly with the SWP he launched Respect.
Contrary to the impression he has given in some of his public speeches, the Socialist Party did not turn its back immediately on this initiative but waited, as some other leftward-moving workers also did, to see what this formation's political character was and, crucially, what kind of structures would be set up.
Our suggestion, shared by others, for the setting up of a loose federal structure that would allow discussion, debate and action was rejected by Respect. In particular, at the national conference of Respect a proposal to allow 'platforms', as is the case in the Scottish Socialist Party, was also refused when it was suggested by some lefts who looked towards Respect initially.
These are amongst the reasons why Respect is unlikely to make a significant breakthrough amongst broader layers of the working class. It is not excluded that in George Galloway's own constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow in Tower Hamlets council a number of seats could be gained. However, this is unlikely to be repeated on a similar scale outside of areas with a high concentration of Asians or Muslims.
It is vital that any new party appeals to this section of the population, amongst the most alienated and oppressed layers. But nowhere can a viable mass party be built on just one section of the working class.
HOWEVER, THE urgency to create such a party is underlined by the success of the Left Party in Germany with 8.8% of the vote and 54 MPs following the general election. The repercussions of this development will be felt throughout Europe and not least in Britain.
The difference in the objective situation in Britain, compared to Germany, is only one of degree. Blair and Schroeder - despite the latter's protestations to the contrary - had a shared agenda of Thatcherism, neo-liberalism.
The main difference was that in Britain these policies have been introduced over time - Thatcher first, then Major, then Blair - whereas the German workers have experienced 'fast-track Thatcherism'. The shock and consequent political reaction, therefore, has been more immediate in Germany. However, the same underlying conditions exist in Britain.
The crucial subjective difference is that no major left figure or trade union leader in Britain - apart from Bob Crow - has called for or taken action to create the conditions for a real new mass party. It is urgent for the working class that such a step is taken and is the reason why the Socialist Party intends to energetically pursue this campaign.
Basic fighting demands for a new party
The programme and structures which will emerge out of a process of discussion cannot be fully anticipated in advance. We would, however, suggest that agreement could be reached on a number of basic fighting demands. The most important of these include:
The immediate abolition of the legal ban on 'secondary industrial action' and the repeal of all Thatcher's anti-union legislation.
- No to privatisation in schools, hospitals, the civil service, etc.
- For a fully funded, democratic socialist health service and for the immediate taking into public ownership of the pharmaceutical monopolies, compensation being only on the basis of proven need.
- A living national minimum wage at the level of at least the European decency threshold and a living pension for all, as well as opposition to the government's programme to raise the age of retirement for public-sector workers.
- For a socialist, democratic housing programme and a crash programme to build cheap, 'social housing' for those most in need.
- For a democratic socialist plan to save the environment, both in Britain and worldwide, with concrete measures to undo the environmental damage done by unrestricted capitalism.
- For the public ownership of the 'commanding heights' of the economy.
These are just some of the demands around which a discussion could unfold.
In relation to structures, as we will explain in an article in the socialist next week, it is vital that the most democratic, federal and loose type of organisation is adopted in the first instance. Above all, the acceptance of the right of all trends and tendencies to participate, including the right to publish and distribute material such as newspapers, bulletins and journals, as well as the right to form platforms.
These proposals are made in order to set the discussion in motion, which we hope will take place at all levels of the working-class movement, amongst young people in universities and colleges, in the workplaces and union branches, in the environmental movement and amongst all of those dissatisfied with ailing British capitalism and searching for an alternative.
Second article: How the Labour Party was formed
In The Socialist 27 October 2005: