Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/193/8107
THE NATIONAL conference of the Socialist Party in England and Wales took place in London on 10-12 February.
The upcoming general election featured heavily in some of the discussions and many of the party's general election candidates attended the conference. As our reports show the conference had wide-ranging and inspiring discussions on political developments around the world, in Britain and also reported on the progress our party was making.
Socialist ideas and organisation for the 21st century
THE DISCUSSION on Britain took place as the Socialist Party celebrated some big strides forward and prepared for an imminent general election. The Socialist Party is the only Left party in England and Wales with any councillors, having six, now that councillor Paul Malliband from Preston has joined.
General secretary PETER TAAFFE introduced the discussion by saying it was most likely that New Labour would win the general election. But it won't be business as usual after the election. Blair's luck is running out as the 1990s boom ends and the British economy faces the devastating consequences of a recession in the USA.
In spite of recent US interest rates cuts, capitalists are trying to pump 'liquidity' into their system but it won't stave off a recession. The capitalists will attempt to get out of their economic crisis through an onslaught on workers' living standards.
Because of its reliance on inward investment, Britain is in a worse position to face a recession than the rest of western Europe. Yet, working-class people have already paid a terrible price for capitalism's incapacity to develop society.
No wonder there is such anger at the closure of the Corus steel plants merely to keep share prices up. Two-thirds of households in Ebbw Vale are already living on less than £10,000 a year. The demand for renationalisation with no compensation for the fat cats is getting broad support.
The government's drive to privatise everything and wreck public services is meeting workers' resistance. There is a wave of industrial action in the public sector. But also in the private sector, like those at Vauxhall who stormed the managers' offices, other workers are seeing the need to organise action now.
Workers feel there is no point waiting until after the general election when things could get worse. There is no enthusiasm for the election, with the Labour Party machine in a state of collapse in the regions and tainted with sleaze at the top.
Workers' anger now will develop into big defensive battles after the election.
Delegates backed up these conclusions with many examples. BILL JOHNSTON, a London Underground worker, pointed out some of the consequences of hiving maintenance off to private contractors.
One company has welded new track on the Northern line so tight that the concrete sleepers are cracking up. The new point warmers, needed to stop the points freezing, have been installed back to front. The Public Private Partnership is just a public subsidy to the bosses.
The remaining tube strikes have been called off by the trade union leaders who are percieved as being on the Left. But, said Bill, their main concern last week seemed to be avoiding sequestration of the union's assets.
Yet, Bill pointed out how the courts were powerless to prevent the successful strike which did take place.
DEBORAH MORANO, a young east London teacher, explained how despite working for six years she is still paying off her student loan. She works a 12-13 hour day with 16 special needs children in the class. With running around doing everything including wiping 30 noses, at playtime she often has to choose between having a cup of tea or going to the toilet. "I've lost my voice three times this term - and I've had to go in. My head teacher said: 'just don't talk!'".
It's a high stress, low-wage job and as her workmates recently told a recent teachers' union NUT pay survey: "With an average wage of £20,000 and local house prices of £140,000-£170,000 - work it out yourselves!"
But teachers are being radicalised. At the recent London teachers' pay rally there was a ten-minute ovation for those advocating strike action. Socialist Party members and School Teachers Opposed to Performance Pay have played an important role in organising to regain the union and convincing teachers they are workers not martyrs.
Many delegates reported on the battles to defend jobs and services threatened by local, often New Labour, councils.
Socialist Party councillor ROB WINDSOR explained how Coventry council attempted to sack their whole workforce to get them on poorer conditions, but they had to withdraw the scheme after a campaign assisted by the Socialist Party, the third opposition group on the council.
RICHARD HARRIS from Lewisham showed again how Socialist Party councillors are at the forefront of the battle against cuts, this time in elderly people's homes.
From stopping a rubbish tip in Bootle to the historic battles against Hackney council's cuts, Socialist Party members are in the thick of struggles and are often forcing the pace of events. As BILL MULLINS pointed out when he summed up the debate, the Socialist Party is well-placed in many areas to take advantage of the inevitable quickening of events.
Campaigning for a new workers' party
THE SOCIALIST Party has become identified as the main political party in Britain that is advancing the demand for a new mass party of the working class. Opening the session on our analysis and campaign for such a party, CHRISTINE THOMAS from the Socialist Party Executive Committee explained how our party had become synonymous with the demand.
The development of Labour into New Labour had left the working class without a mass party that was either responsive to the pressure of working-class struggle or capable of advancing workers' interests.
Yet, said Christine, many on the Left, despite being dismissive of the Labour Party, had still not drawn the conclusion that New Labour had become an overtly pro-capitalist party. In other words they still hold out the hope that Labour can play a role in advancing working-class interests.
This point was developed by ALISTAIR TICE from Yorkshire in the discussion when he said that some on the Left saw Mandelson's resignation as a turning point for Old Labour to make a resurgence. He said that groups like the Socialist Workers' Party who play a dominant party in the Socialist Alliances had huge illusions that the small forces of the Labour Left could shift Labour to a more radical stance.
Christine Thomas had pointed out that a number of opportunities to begin to build a new mass workers' party had been lost by Arthur Scargill and Ken Livingstone. Currently, the opportunity for building a new mass party of the working class was not directly on the agenda.
It will be mass struggles that will be crucial in developing such a party, she said.
Christine then explained recent developments inside the Network of Socialist Alliances and what prospects we thought it had for development.
She said that our National Committee concluded that the NSA was not the outline of a new mass workers' party but could contribute to such a development. However, this would depend on a number of things, which were not at all certain to happen given the way that the Socialist Workers Party are currently attempting to dominate the Socialist Alliances.
Of big significance for our party will be the developments in the trade unions around disaffiliation from the Labour Party. This point was echoed by a number of speakers who worked for Labour-controlled local authorities, where workers were fed up at paying a political levy to a party that was cutting jobs and attacking their conditions.
RICKY JONES, a shop steward involved in the Hackney struggle, explained how many workers were drawing this conclusion through their struggle. A recent annual general meeting of Hackney UNISON decided to stop paying its political fund to the Labour Party, instead donating it to the general political fund instead.
Replying to the debate, CLIVE HEEMSKERK from the Executive Committee reiterated that the Socialist Party stood firmly in favour of developing the Socialist Alliances but stressed that we needed a sense of proportion about what stage of development they were at and we had to be clear on what basis the Alliances could actually develop.
The National Committee resolution on the New Workers' Party was passed by the conference.
Building the Socialist Party
SPEAKERS IN the session on building the Socialist Party explained how a new combative mood was making it easier to get our ideas over to workers.
The general election will give us opportunities to raise the socialist banner, building our party and integrating new members.
JULIA LEONARD from Hillingdon showed how support for New Labour has fallen most among women workers who are looking for an alternative. Some Socialist Party branches like Lewisham organise day-time meetings mainly for groups of women workers.
Delegates spoke of how Socialist Party branches had been transformed by big battles. ANNOESJKA VALENT from Hackney, for example, had had to work out a transitional programme for this borough where the local council was going bankrupt.
Other delegates spoke of the great effect of turning to new layers of youth including university students in Swansea and of council victories such as in Coventry and Lewisham.
We agreed to double our recruitment in 2001. Three recruitment months have been chosen for a special campaign on building our membership. These are March, June (which will probably be after the election) and October.
Every Socialist Party member could make new recruits. We have clear ideas, and should be confident and innovative about getting new members.
Young Socialist Action
OPENING THE discusssion on youth, Socialist Party National Committee member NAOMI BYRON said that young people have the most to lose under capitalism but also the most to gain. With our whole lives ahead of us, we have our whole futures to fight for.
Conditions for young people under New Labour are horrific, with poverty levels so bad that most school children have to work. Two million ten-16 year olds work part time, including two-fifths of ten-year-olds, and two-thirds of 15-year-olds.
Two-thirds of ten to 16-year- olds are working illegally, because they are too young to work and work too many hours. The average wages add up to £2.75 for boys, and £1.93 for girls.
Young Socialist Action, the youth wing of The Socialist Party was recently established to provide a radical alternative for young people to the system.
Speakers like PAUL HUNT from Coventry showed how in the general election we intend to have youth teams where there are Socialist Party candidates. YSA will also be organising demos and meetings on low pay, curfews, youth facilities and police harrassment.
What new delegates thought
CLARE BOOTHROYD, Bristol
"I'VE FOUND the conference really interesting. There a lot of things which have opened my eyes like the statistics about poverty which Lois gave in the Fighting Fund appeal. It's given me ideas for campaigning work when I go back to Bristol."
PHIL POPE, Southampton university
"I'M HAVING a wicked time here at the conference. The discussion on the new workers' party was good. It's clarified lots of things we have been talking about in our branch."
PETROVA BANTON, Lewisham
"I'VE ENJOYED everything. There's such a good atmosphere and a good feeling. Everyone is doing similar things and running similar campaigns. It's enough to make me want to work full-time for the Socialist Party!"
ANDY PRIOR, prospective parliamentary candidate for Bristol East.
"THIS IS my first conference and I've found it very encouraging. There's this wonderful combination of real encouragement and realism and balance. You're being encouraged within a wider structure. I'm looking forward to the election campaign.
"This isn't just a party which is democratic in name only, you see that in the conference. Before I joined the Socialist Party, anything to the Left of the Labour Party was perceived as being undemocratic and centralised, probably because of a hangover from Stalinism, and the press reinforce that prejudice. But for me the conference and being active in the party is wonderfully liberating and encouraging."
Europe: strikes and struggles
HOW WILL the onset of a downturn in the capitalist world economy affect the economies and the development of working class struggles in Europe?
Opening the debate HANNAH SELL for the National Committee argued that the spin doctors of capitalism are fooling themselves into thinking that either a resurgent European economy can save the world economy or that a recession in the US won't significantly affect Europe. Rather we're entering a period of enormous instability in Europe.
In the last decade Europe has experienced two wars in former Yugoslavia but also a revolutionary movement last October in Serbia.
A European recession could mean big defensive battles over living standards being fought by the working class. Confronted with social protest movements EU governments will unilaterally change their spending and financial policies leading to increased political tensions among EU member states - as the recent spat between the European Commission and Ireland over economic policy guidelines has shown.
But a lack of a mass Left political alternative to the corrupt and discredited traditional right wing and ex-social democratic parties could see increased support also for racist and reactionary parties like Haider's FP... in Austria.
PER OLSSON representing the Committee for a Workers International (CWI - the socialist international organisation to which the Socialist Party is affiliated) said a new phase in the radicalisation of the working class had begun - a backlash against the effects of capitalist globalisation. For example, the European wide workers' protests in the auto industry last month and December's anti-EU summit protest in Nice.
But this radicalisation can express itself in complex ways because it will be affected not only by the onset of economic recession and the crisis of the traditional capitalist parties but also because of a weakness in the organisations of the working class and on the revolutionary Left. The sections of the CWI must try to fill this political vacuum.
ROBBIE SEGAL, Folkestone and Dover branch and an active trade unionist described how right-wing trade union leaders were assisting giant multinational companies, like Tesco, in implementing restrictive 'social partnership' deals as they expand into central and eastern Europe.
PETE DICKINSON, Tower Hamlets, explained the limitations of EU enlargement, not least due to the gangsterism and massive economic problems associated with the restoration of capitalism in central and eastern Europe.
Summing up LYNN WALSH re-emphasised the world capitalist crisis and the beginnings of a new radicalisation in the outlook and struggles of the working class. The Socialist Party and the CWI must strive to provide a socialist and revolutionary way out for workers.
OVER £3,000 was raised for our party's fighting fund at the conference and £600 was handed in for our general election appeal fund. A keen interest in socialist ideas was expressed through Socialist Books selling over £700 worth of literature at the conference.
About a fifth of those attending the conference were under the age of 26. A new National Committee, Appeal Panel and Auditors were all elected at the conference and a new Party constitution was agreed.
In The Socialist 16 February 2001: