What We Stand For – Part Four: The need for a political voice for the working class

Vital as the trade unions are, capitalism cannot be overthrown by trade union struggle alone. Even an all-out general strike – while it can bring the country to a halt – can only pose the question of who governs society. It cannot on its own take power from the capitalist class. To achieve that, the working class also needs its own party – a political leadership – capable of leading a struggle for socialism. The Socialist Party aims to build at least the first steps to such a party, which will be filled out as struggles develop. Without such a party revolutionary movements will still develop, but will not be able to take and consolidate power. For example, the enormous power of the 2011 revolution in Egypt succeeded in overturning the old regime but the absence of any kind of mass party of the working class and poor initially allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to step into the vacuum, and then the old regime to regain its grip.

Right now, however, in the wake of the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters within the Labour Party, the idea of building any kind of mass party that fights in the interests of the working class seems difficult to many. At this stage the anger of working-class and young people is dissipated, with those who are most active heading in all kinds of different directions. Some are concentrating solely on protesting around individual issues, others are limiting themselves to organising in the workplaces, others again are trying to help the poorest via food banks and other forms of charity work. While concentrating on any of these may be an understandable reaction to the disappointment of the Corbyn experience, alone they do not deal with the central tasks the socialist movement faces. Protesting and workplace struggle can play a very positive role in pushing back the capitalists’ attacks on the working class and even winning temporary victories. However, until the capitalist system itself is overthrown every struggle will have to be endlessly refought. Charity work is a desperate attempt to deal with the gaping wounds of hardship created by capitalism. The capitalist class, however, has no objection to socialists putting all their energies into that, leaving them free to continue their rule unchallenged.

For anti-cuts councillors

What We Stand For contents

Often the services that are now very partially filled by charity work were previously carried out by local authorities. The Socialist Party fights for the election of councillors who are prepared to use council resources, including reserves and borrowing powers, to meet the needs of the population, while building a struggle to demand the money required from central government. Local authorities have considerable potential power.

Currently, for example, Labour leads over 120 councils, with a combined spending power greater than the state budgets of 16 EU countries. Yet Labour councils continue to implement cuts to essential services year after year. Frequently local community activists respond by trying to step up their charity work to fill the gap, only to find that the following year the gap widens again as more cuts are made. Launching a struggle to fight for more resources for the local community is what is needed.

This means making demands on the existing council, but also being prepared to stand for election to the council on a ‘no cuts’ platform. The struggle to wield the powers and resources of local authorities in defence of the working class is one of the sharpest expressions of the need for a new mass workers’ party.

Historical context

Trotsky begins the transitional programme by saying that, “the world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterised by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat”, that is the working class. The difference between today and then is that we face not just a crisis of leadership but also of organisation, or rather the lack of it, as well as a clear programme.

This is still is an overhang from the aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the early 1990s. This was a major victory for capitalism worldwide which the capitalist classes milked for all it was worth. Socialist ideas were temporarily relegated to the margins, and levels of working-class organisation were pushed back. Tony Blair’s election as Labour leader in 1994 signalled a headlong rush by the Labour leadership to abandon even lip-service to socialism and to fully embrace neo-liberal capitalism. Of course, even prior to the triumph of Blairism Labour governments had ultimately acted in defence of the capitalist system. Nonetheless, Labour had been a ‘capitalist workers’ party’ with its leaders susceptible to pressure from the working-class base of the party, via its democratic structures, and was therefore not reliable from the point of view of the capitalist elite. New Labour, by contrast, was considered by Thatcher as one of her greatest achievements, because there were now two major parties that capitalism in Britain could rely upon to govern.

Expelling the Socialist Party, then known as Militant, from the Labour Party – as the most determined fighters against the right – was vital preparation for the victory of Blairism. The Socialist Party, as we became in 1997, then worked independently as a small but important force fighting to maintain socialist ideas in difficult conditions, including fighting for the development of a new mass workers’ party as a means to solve the crisis of working-class political representation. We understood that the crisis of capitalism would inevitably lead to a new generation drawing socialist conclusions, which would find an organisational expression.

Great Recession created opportunities for the left

In the wake of the 2007-08 Great Recession, that began to happen. Corbynism in Britain, the movement in support of Bernie Sanders in the US, Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, all developed from the movements which erupted against the consequences of the Great Recession. The eventual defeat of these first steps towards new left parties was not as a consequence of electoral unpopularity – as the capitalists and their supporters falsely claim – but as a result of the weakness and failures of the leaderships of these formations.

Take Syriza in Greece which went from 4.8% of the vote in 2009 to winning the general election in 2015. This was against the background of more than 30 general strikes against austerity. The working class saw in Syriza a means to fight back electorally. But the Syriza leadership then capitulated to the demands of the capitalist class and the institutions of the EU, betraying the working class and implementing terrible austerity. The capitulation did not, needless to say, lead to electoral success but instead to being defeated by the capitalist New Democracy party in 2019.

Corbyn did not win a general election, but Starmer’s claims that his more ‘moderate’ – right wing – leadership is necessary for electoral success are ludicrous. Back in 2017 Corbyn won an extra 3.5 million votes, the biggest vote gain for any party in Britain in a single general election since 1945. Even in the 2019 general election Labour got 10.2 million votes, something that was not achieved by Blair after the 2001 election, or ever by Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband. However, Corbyn and his supporters have now been largely driven out of the Labour Party. Starmer is so confident in the stranglehold that the pro-capitalist right has on the party that he can openly praise Blair’s legacy. But Corbyn’s defeat was not preordained. Ensuring that future movements, which will be on a much bigger scale, do not meet the same fate means learning the lessons of Corbynism’s mistakes.

Corbyn faced enormous obstacles as Labour leader. The capitalists could not trust him to do their bidding so they set out to destroy him. He faced blatant and open sabotage from the pro-capitalist wing of his own party, which included a big majority of MPs. He was constantly reviled in the capitalist media. The hatred he faced from the capitalist class and their representatives was a back-handed compliment. It was a sign that they feared the movement that might be mobilised behind him. When we led two mass movements against Tory prime minister Maggie Thatcher – first in Liverpool and then nationally against the poll tax – we got more than a taste of the same medicine. Of course, the relentless attacks on Jeremy Corbyn did have an effect on big sections of voters, but this could have been cut across if Corbyn and his supporters had stood their ground and fought for a left programme, mobilising a mass movement in their support. The failure to do this then allowed Starmer to pander to the idea that a leader who was ‘acceptable’ to the billionaire press barons was a prerequisite for electoral victory, not mentioning that only a candidate willing to do the bidding of the billionaire press barons and the broader capitalist class would ever be acceptable to them.

Our experience in leading Liverpool city council in the 1980s is an example of what could have been done, albeit on a local level. Liverpool city council stood firm for its pro-working class policies, and built a mass movement, including city-wide public sector strikes and massive demonstrations, in support of its stance. We were constantly reviled in the capitalist media and attacked by the right-wing Labour leader Neil Kinnock. Catholic priests in Liverpool even threatened members of their congregations with excommunication if they voted Labour! Yet Labour’s vote in Liverpool went up. Had the swing to Labour in the 1987 general election in Liverpool been repeated nationally Labour would have been swept to power.

It was the Corbynites’ constant attempts to make concessions to the Labour right – and behind them to the capitalist class – in the vain hope of pacifying them, which muddied the waters and led to their defeat. In the Corbyn era the possibility of transforming Labour into a mass workers’ party with a socialist programme was posed. The Socialist Party fought tenaciously for that outcome. We applied to affiliate to the Labour Party in order to offer our strength to that struggle. We put forward a programme at each stage to democratise the party and to deselect the pro-capitalists who continued to dominate the Parliamentary Labour Party and the council chambers. Such an approach would have created huge enthusiasm among broad sections of the working class. Instead, unfortunately, the Labour left kept retreating under the right’s relentless onslaught, leaving the pro-capitalist wing of the Labour Party in the driving seat of a party which still had a Blair-era undemocratic structure.

How will a new mass workers’ party be formed?

Having failed to be transformed while it had a left leader, the Socialist Party does not think that the fight for working-class political representation can be won within the current framework of the Labour Party’s structures and rules. Instead a struggle for a new mass workers’ party is needed.

The Socialist Party was one of the founding organisations of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) in 2010. TUSC organises on a federal basis, allowing different organisations to come together to collaborate and provide an anti-austerity banner for socialists and trade unionists to stand in elections. In the Corbyn era it stopped contesting any parliamentary elections, instead campaigning for a Jeremy Corbyn-led government with an anti-austerity programme. After Corbyn’s defeat, however, it is playing a very important role – virtually alone – in offering workers a voice in the electoral arena. The RMT transport workers’ union is affiliated to TUSC, and many individual leading trade unionists participate in it, alongside the Socialist Party, Resist and individual supporters.

The Socialist Party calls for the left unions to take the first steps towards solving the crisis of working-class political representation by calling a conference to discuss how a political voice for the working class can be built. At this stage the majority of even left trade union leaders, however, have not drawn the necessary conclusions about the consequences of Starmer’s victory for their members. Nonetheless, from below, the forces from which a new party will be formed will coalesce. One indication of this was the survey, conducted shortly after Starmer’s victory, by the Bakers’ Union (BFAWU) on their members’ views on affiliation to Labour. A majority, 53%, disagreed with continued affiliation to Labour. This was not non-political trade unionism, however, as 56% wanted to keep a political link. The union’s report noted that many of their members “have started to look at smaller independent parties as an alternative to the mainstream ones.” Since then a Bakers’ Union conference has voted overwhelmingly to disaffiliate from Labour, in response to their President, Ian Hodson, facing expulsion from the party for opposing the witch-hunt against the left.

Over the coming period as struggles develop, the need to have elected representatives in parliament and council chambers, supporting workers instead of opposing them, will push forward the development of steps to a new party. This, after all, was what drove the development of the Labour Party over a century ago as trade unionists, fed up with a choice between capitalist politicians, began to come together to get their own representatives elected.

United struggles against racism and oppression – not culture wars

Moves in this direction would represent an important step forward for the working class. Instead of numerous individual separate struggles, a common party of workers and young people would help to bring them together in a united struggle against the capitalist system.

It is very noticeable, and positive, that this is the natural instinct of broad sections of the working class. The start of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 was marked by a huge outpouring of anger against racism by working-class youth from every ethnic background. There was an understanding that overcoming racism did not just require changes in individuals’ social attitudes, but a fundamental change to the society which creates the basis for reactionary ideas.

However, the absence of a mass democratic organisation of the BLM movement, and also the complete failure of the trade unions to mobilise for it (except the Socialist Party and other individual trade unionists and socialists) created a vacuum. This allowed space for proponents of identity politics to attempt to assert their claims to lead the movement. Many young people who are becoming active in the struggle against racism, sexism and LGBTQ+phobia use some of the language of identity politics. But many also do not agree with the proponents of it who see things only in terms of ‘identity’ and attempt to divide every section of the working class according to their specific oppressions, including dismissing white workers as ‘privileged’, for example.

Those ultimately reactionary ideas jarred with the majority of participants in BLM, who saw that the movement had wholehearted and active support from many white working-class youth, but also that many of the issues on which they want to see change – including poverty, low pay, joblessness and housing – affect the whole of the working class. Identity politics potentially divides and weakens movements against oppression, while also handing an ideological weapon to the Tories to try to undermine the struggle, by trying to whip up the so-called ‘culture wars’ and claiming – outrageously – that they are the ones that stand up for white workers.

A new mass workers’ party could play an important role in bringing together different movements against oppression in a common struggle, but that will not be achieved automatically. To do so fully would require adopting the approach of the Socialist Party, supporting and taking seriously the struggles for equality of all oppressed groups, but as part of a united struggle of the working class, the only force capable of ending capitalism and therefore laying the basis for the creation of a society free from oppression.