The Socialist 8 July 2008 |
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Wanted: a new mass workers' party
"Waste not, want not"! Gordon Brown's patronising and insulting advice to people struggling to make ends meet is not going to go down well. Yet again he puts the blame for the economic crisis on working people - according to him we 'demand' high wages and then only 'waste' our money on food. The PM told a meeting of world leaders that "unnecessary" purchases in Britain were contributing to price rises, and urged people to plan meals in advance and store food properly.
After all Brown is an expert on waste. As chancellor and prime minister he has presided over an enormous squandering of public resources. Millions of pounds have been spent on war, occupation and Trident nuclear weapons. Public services have been handed to big business to run for profit.
Time for a new workers' party
Everyone wants to have a say in how their lives are run and by whom, but faced with a 'choice' of three parties of big business and cuts, many working-class people have felt they had no choice but to 'waste' their vote. Voter turnout at the last two general elections, in 2001 and 2005, were at their lowest since 1918.
The third conference of the Campaign for a New Workers' Party took place on Sunday 29 June. With an attendance of around 300 trade union, community and student activists there was plenty to discuss and debate. Last week's The Socialist reported on the opening debate on the way forward for the left.
Speakers and discussions at the conference looked at the need for such a party, but also the question of how it could be built. Here we report on the workshops that took place. They provided an opportunity to think about the difference a new workers' party would make but also the opportunities that there are to build support for the campaign now. The reports make it clear that a new party will have its work cut out for it, challenging the lies of New Labour which put the blame for the economic crisis on the backs of ordinary people.
But they also showed that struggles are taking place across the country, some victorious where cuts and closures and wage cuts have been prevented. When we fight back we can win, but uniting in a party that generalises and articulates our opposition to privatisation and the market will enormously enhance our ability to challenge the real wasters.
All spoke in a personal capacity.
Break the link!
Why the trade unions should disaffiliate from Labour now!
Ending the trade union link with Labour is a live issue this summer. That was the message from the 'Break the Link' workshop. Debates on this, initiated by supporters of the Campaign for a New Workers' Party, have taken place at union conferences such as Unison, CWU and GMB.
In desperation, the right-wing leadership refuse to give ordinary members a vote. Instead they rely on votes at conference where more of the delegates are Labour Party members.
Contributors to the workshop explained how ties with the Labour Party compromise the policy-making processes in the trade unions. Worse, as Kevin Parslow pointed out, the proposed new Unite rulebook, in effect, gives responsibility for political policy-making to 2,400 Constituency Labour Party delegates!
Yet as Vicky Perrin (Unison) demonstrated, where members have been given a say in their union's democracy, they show that they are well to the left of the leadership. Vicky, three other Socialist Party members and other left-wingers have recently been elected or re-elected to Unison's local government and health group executives.
Glenn Kelly, Unison NEC member and Terry Pearce (Unite), the CNWP's trade union officer opened the discussion. Terry spoke on the difference between the Labour Party of the past, which the unions formed and originally affiliated to, and that now. Today Labour is one of three wholly capitalist parties.
Dave Bartlett (PCS) showed how the right-wing have no answers; they caution members not to rock the boat because 'you'll let the Tories in' then, when that fails, workers are told not to rock the boat because we need Labour back in! Glenn pointed out that the biggest obstacle was some of the union leaders. Faced with members' anger at New Labour they are forced to adopt left-sounding rhetoric but backtrack every time the Labour link is challenged.
The secretary of the CNWP, Roger Bannister, stated that ultimately the union bureaucrats have no answer to the problem of throwing money at Labour for no return. However, they will stop at nothing - even threatening expulsions - to try to stop workers hearing the campaign's message that an alternative is necessary and urgent. In the end the struggles the working class will be forced into will make the bureaucracy's position untenable.
Closing the workshop, Glenn urged CNWP supporters to speak to workers on picket lines on 16 and 17 July and: "Get them to sign up to the campaign - we're pushing at an open door".
Urgent! The environment
The short but stimulating environment workshop showed that this is a central issue for the Campaign for a New Workers' Party. Pete Dickinson, author of Planning Green Growth, presented the evidence of a growing environmental crisis and the impotence of the global politicians.
Time and time again politicians jump on the environmental band wagon, but their rhetoric and promises come to nothing. Too terrified of hitting the profits of the ruling classes, they fail to engage with the issues in a meaningful fashion.
Pete posed the question of which way forward for the green movement. It is essential that the CNWP reaches out to left-wing green activists who are being let down by the Green Party. The Green Party is not an independent workers' party and when elected does not always represent working-class interests. They do not provide a real solution to environment issues, often backing cuts and taxes that support and reinforce the capitalist system.
Paula Mitchell and Manny Thain spoke passionately on how the environment and working-class people are being betrayed by politicians. They both examined the role that the CNWP had to play in local struggles relating the issues to the Waltham Forest anti-incinerator campaign and Newham biofuels campaign. It is essential that the CNWP supports and unites with local campaigns in opposition to the arrogance of the government and joins with community groups and individuals standing for election.
The discussion revolved around the direction the CNWP should take regarding the environment. The importance of involving the trade unions in tackling the large environmental questions was repeatedly raised.
There can be some hesitancy in seeing the trade unions as part of the solution as many appear to support industries that are not environmentally sound in order to support their union members' jobs. This jobs verses the environment debate must be tackled directly. Workers and trade unionists should have a say in what is being produced and how. One aspect of this process is workers building their own party through which they can have a say in such matters. Union members must raise the CNWP and environmental issues within the rank and file of their union.
At the heart of the discussion was the need for a rational, democratic, planned economy to counter the total anarchy of capitalism. The focus and aim of this approach being sustainable consumption across the world. The need for planning to address transport and energy needs was highlighted as a key issue to be addressed.
The electoral alternative: Results from the May elections and the next steps
Illustrating the situation faced by working-class people when it comes to elections, councillor Rob Windsor recalled a story told to him by a socialist voter. A New Labour councillor pointed to a poster in the voter's window and said: "If you vote for Dave Nellist you may as well vote Tory". But, showing how these lies will not be accepted, the supporter hit back with: "No - if I vote for you I may as well vote Tory!"
Socialist councillors have been elected in St Michael's ward in Coventry for the past ten years, with CNWP chair, Dave Nellist, re-elected this year. This has been on the basis of consistent campaigning and particularly the voters' generalised hatred of New Labour's free-market approach. The scrapping of the 10p tax band played a big part in New Labour's losses this year.
A record of consistent struggle and attending to the day-to-day issues of working people is vital. Rob stressed the need to approach those who have been elected as independents to draw them towards an understanding of the need for working-class people to have their own independent political voice.
Dave Church told how his group, the Walsall Democratic Labour Party, got a councillor elected last year and how Dave had only missed out on a seat by around 70 votes this year. For those who stand for the millions and not the millionaires the most important work takes place between elections. The DLP communicates with working-class voters through monthly newsletters.
Tony Mulhearn, former Liverpool councillor, explained how socialists built a campaign within the official labour movement in Liverpool to explain the effects of Tory and Liberal cuts in the 1980s and to successfully fight for increased public spending. They won control of the city on a fighting programme. The Liverpool experience clearly shows that the involvement of the working class is crucial in campaigning effectively for housing, jobs and social services.
From the floor John Ewers from Gloucester gave an account of the marvellous vote of a fire-fighter standing against cuts. It is very important to support candidates like him.
Lewisham socialist councillor Ian Page pointed out the importance of bringing workers into council meetings to hear how socialists and working-class fighters conduct themselves in the council chamber. Fire-fighters were able to see the difference between socialists and the rest when Ian moved a motion to support their strike in 2002.
Louise Thompson from Walthamstow pointed out that the presence of a genuine left alternative can shift the main parties. When she stood on the basis of a housing campaign, the New Labour candidate effectively 'stole' the campaign, showing how even an announcement to stand can force action out of would-be privatisers.
Crash! - the economic crisis
What does it mean for building a new workers' party?
Against a background of inflation and the start of an economic recession pushing increasing numbers of working-class people into penury, Jane James introduced the discussion on the economy. She spoke of the rush of shoppers into Asda at the end of the day for bargain foodstuffs.
As rising food and fuel prices bite, Gordon Brown's claim of an 'end to boom and bust' is a distant memory. Like Banquo's ghost, the once-stable economy has returned to haunt him. Socialists recognise that the storm has been brewing for some time.
15 year-old Elliott, outlined the disastrous effect of previous recessions on the Welsh valleys, with the permanent scar of mass unemployment and the social problems that ensue. Ross Saunders pointed out that this could affect the workers' movement, as people keep their heads down and resist the temptation to struggle due to the threat of being replaced, as employed and unemployed are set against one another. But, as the current public sector action shows, it can also lead to struggle.
A number of speakers, including Rodney from Merton NUT, warned that a sole emphasis on the trade unions would hold back the campaign. He and others, like Robin Clapp from Bristol, spoke of the important community work they had done in leading campaigns against cuts and privatisation. Clearly the working class has to fight on many fronts. A new party will have to defend us on many fronts and link trade unions and community campaigns, for instance in the post office and NHS campaigns.
In a cautionary contribution, Bob Labi spoke of the complicating factor of a combination of a rise in unemployment and immigration. In the absence of a genuine workers' alternative, the British National Party can step in and pose as a party for ordinary people.
Unionisation of migrant workers must be combined with a party which stands for decent jobs, homes and services for all. Such a party would be a massive step forward and could help working-class people rise up off their knees and give them confidence after decades of setbacks.
Jobs, homes and services not racism
How can we defeat the BNP?
Save Huddersfield NHS councillor Jackie Grunsell opened the meeting by describing the anti-BNP (British National Party) campaigns that activists have been involved in across Yorkshire.
CNWP supporters have worked with young people in Barnsley, holding anti-BNP stalls alongside campaigns for local services including the fight against post office closures. By exposing the BNP's role in supporting privatisation and cuts to services, the CNWP can cut across the attempts of the BNP to pose as a working-class alternative to win electoral success.
Ben Robinson pointed out that in a changed situation following the election of Richard Barnbrook to the Greater London Assembly, activists should be putting forward the idea of building a real working-class party.
Andy Bentley reported on the situation in Stoke where there are nine BNP councillors. New Labour has betrayed local people and the city has been devastated with working-class people on housing estates left feeling like a beleaguered minority. Andy warned that in the absence of a genuine working-class alternative the BNP could become the largest group on the city council. In this situation where people are voting to punish New Labour merely calling the BNP 'fascists' is counter-productive. It is the BNP leadership who are fascists, not the voters and even some members do not agree with these far-right ideas.
During elections when Socialist Party activists have spoken to people with 'Vote BNP' window posters they have patiently explained and discussed with them. Some have swapped their posters over on the basis of seeing the need for a united working-class party.
In summing up, Jackie reiterated that an alternative to the three main parties of privatisation is needed to defeat the BNP. However calls to 'vote anybody else' to stop the BNP are a flawed tactic. Calling for people to vote for the parties whose policies have created the conditions that allowed the BNP to flourish is not a solution. Lack of decent affordable housing is just one issue that has lead to the massive anger felt by working-class people.
Supporters of CNWP have a vital role to play in fighting for jobs, homes and services and raising the need for a political alternative to the parties of privatisation and big business. By doing so, the CNWP can cut across and defeat the hatred and division fostered by the BNP.
"As a teacher bringing up a family I feel I should be able to rely on those elected to government to look after our interests. The cost of living is rising fast, more and more is expected of workers and we can no longer rely on any of the mainstream parties to work for our interests. Work is becoming more and more exhausting, living more of a struggle and there is little energy left for the fight. But a new workers' party must and will come into being and I want to be part of it."
Faith McGrath Lewisham
"It's fantastic to come down from an area where there is no socialist representation and find a group of people who are on the exact same wavelength as I am. I'm looking forward to going out and building the campaign in my area where there is no representation for working class people and we desperately need it."
George, 18, Essex
"I've been a socialist for a long time but I think that this initiative for a new workers' party is extremely timely with all the cuts in the NHS and especially the polyclinics."
Sarah Gilman, student nurse, Reading
"I'm a member of Reading Socialist Party and I'm Polish. I came to this conference because I'm interested in socialism and Marxism and how they can change the world. Capitalism is not working - except for the very rich. I think the idea of a workers' party is a very good idea as it can connect people from different factions and workers who want to fight for their rights. This will be something people will look to, not just in Britain, but all round Europe and the world.