TUSC: Gearing up for its largest anti-cuts election challenge yet
Paula Mitchell, London region Socialist Party secretary
"Fantastic day, fantastic conference, fantastic people" tweeted Red Labour Hull councillor Dean Kirk on his way home from addressing the conference of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition on Saturday 24th January.
In homes and workplaces, all over social media and even reflected in the mainstream press, the question is being asked: "If they can do it in Greece, can we do it here?"
The weekend that ended with the history-changing election victory of Syriza in Greece, began, in London at least, with a conference of hundreds of trade unionists, socialists and community campaigners, planning another little bit of history - the biggest electoral stand of anti-austerity candidates in Britain in most of our lifetimes.
In opening the conference, TUSC national chair and former Labour MP (famously a workers' MP on a worker's wage) Dave Nellist explained that while TUSC won't be forming a government in May it will be fielding over 100 parliamentary candidates, providing a national alternative to the anti-working class austerity of all the main parties.
John Reid speaking, TUSC conference, 24.1.15, photo by Neil Cafferky (Click to enlarge)
Transport union RMT executive member John Reid announced that the RMT has set aside money to support TUSC candidates.
Joe Simpson, assistant general secretary of the POA prison officers' union declared his intention to stand in Enfield North and explained how he was putting the case within POA for it to support TUSC candidates and join the RMT on the steering committee of TUSC.
Other platform speakers in the morning session were PCS NEC member Cheryl Gedling who is the chair of the Scottish TUSC, and NUT national executive member Stefan Simms, who announced that two members of the NUT executive will be standing for TUSC, which is more than for any other party.
Local authority cuts
The conference not only discussed the general election campaign and programme in a rich and comradely democratic debate, but also held a very significant discussion on the importance of the local elections in England on the same day - 7th May.
While the general election will be what consumes press attention, the local elections are in many ways more directly the battleground over cuts. Labour councils have passed on Tory cuts to jobs, pay and services, implemented the bedroom tax, and privatised homes and services. Many are now setting new three-year cuts budgets, in the full knowledge that whoever wins the general election, the cuts in local government will continue.
In opening the afternoon discussion on TUSC's platform for the local elections, nominating officer Clive Heemskerk said that whoever wins the general election it's a "change of management", and we'll need councillors as our "shop stewards", fighting to defend jobs, pay and services.
In an inspiring session, the TUSC conference brought together rebel Labour councillors from around the country - all suspended or expelled for refusing to vote for cuts. Hull Red Labour councillor Dean Kirk, joined in the audience by fellow rebel Gill Kennett, summed up the feeling of all the councillors present: "Labour is not the party I joined".
Cllr Barbara Potter speaking, TUSC conference, 24.1.15, photo by Neil Cafferky (Click to enlarge)
From Leicester Independent Councillors Against Cuts, Barbara Potter said she stood for a council seat because she was active in her community, not in order to make cuts or implement the bedroom tax. The Leicester councillors held a "People's Budget" meeting so they could put forward a no-cuts budget - with the involvement of local people rather than imposed from above.
Leicester councillor Wayne Naylor pointed out that in Leicester the imposition of a city mayor obliterated democracy. He said that leaving Labour had been a big step, but it was the best thing he has ever done. Later Wayne tweeted: "The start of something different! Great to be here at the start!"
Cllr Kevin Bennett speaking, TUSC conference, 24.1.15, photo by Neil Cafferky (Click to enlarge)
Suspended from his Labour group, Warrington Labour councillor Kevin Bennett said he had been trying to fight cuts from inside Labour but "enough is enough". He hoped to become a TUSC councillor very soon and also to stand for TUSC in Warrington South in the general election.
Mayor Pete Smith, of Walsall Democratic Labour Party, talked about his opposition to Labour cuts of £89 million to services for young, disabled and poor people. He said: "You're OK in the Labour Party until you try and change things ... We should be opposing all cuts, not allowing them to divide us over which cuts are acceptable. None are".
Nick Chaffey brought greetings from the Southampton rebel councillors and outlined how they had moved an alternative budget, defeating any challenges over legality. Due to his clear anti-cuts stance, Keith Morrell was overwhelmingly re-elected in May. Labour came in third place in his ward, showing how if an anti-cuts challenge had not been made, UKIP would have won.
There were also cheers for Nana Asante who was in the audience, the former Labour mayor of Harrow, now standing as a TUSC candidate in the general election.
Tony Mulhearn, one of the Liverpool socialist '47 group' of councillors who defied Tory Thatcher's cuts in the 1980s, has been selected to stand in Liverpool Riverside. As TUSC activist Karen commented, "if only all Labour councillors showed the same courage".
In the discussion, Nancy Taaffe from Walthamstow described the impact of the wide TUSC stand in Waltham Forest in May 2014, garnering 5,500 votes.
Nancy Taaffe speaking, TUSC conference, 24.1.15, photo by J Beishon (Click to enlarge)
Socialist Students organiser Claire Laker Mansfield made the point that TUSC-supporting councillors are moving no-cuts budgets but we don't hear that about Green Party councillors. Instead, unfortunately, Brighton and Hove council - led by the Greens - has passed £50 million of cuts. Brighton bin workers, whose pay was cut and who were forced to go on strike against the council, now refer to the Greens as "Tories on bikes".
Hannah Sell, speaking for the Socialist Party, said that this was a historic conference, at a time when we are seeing the fracturing of politics in Britain. The Labour Party in government could go the way of Pasok in Greece [which got under 5% of the vote in the Greek general election on the day after the TUSC conference].
UKIP and others from the right could step into the vacuum unless a national working class anti-austerity alternative is built. She put the case for a widespread stand: it means we reach the threshold for more media coverage, we reach more people, but most importantly it's preparation for what's coming after the general election.
Charlie Kimber reported that 15 SWP members will be standing in the general election as part of TUSC. He agreed that if we have lively campaigns now it can be preparation for something bigger after the election.
Part of the discussion centred around the structures of TUSC, with Nick Wrack of the Independent Socialist Network (through which individual participants in TUSC are represented on its national steering committee) arguing for a party with individual membership.
Hannah explained that in the view of the Socialist Party, the current federal structure, enabling the participation of trade union representatives, along with the involvement of individuals as well at all levels, is the best for now. The ISN did not put forward any structural changes at this stage.
Dave Nellist, chair, TUSC conference, 24.1.15, photo by Neil Cafferky (Click to enlarge)
Commenting after the conference, Mohamed Ahmed said: "I'll be standing for TUSC in Leicester as a council candidate, where I've grown up. It's time to give back to the community".
The conference debated the programme of TUSC, with a number of amendments, on fracking, TTIP, the pension age and other issues. This included debating the best demands and slogans to use to unify working class people, when the capitalists and their media and political representatives try to divide us. Everyone agreed that it is not migrants who are to blame for the lack of housing or jobs, but the bosses and bankers, the rich and their political parties.
Jenny Sutton, TUSC candidate for Tottenham, read out a Labour Party leaflet in Tottenham which scandalously repeats the Tories' approach on immigration.
Senan from Tamil Solidarity and Hugo Pierre, TUSC candidate for mayor of Tower Hamlets last year, argued that we have to put across our ideas in a way that can give us the ear of all communities - black, white and newly arrived communities - class politics can cut across the racist agenda of the rich.
Disability activist Rob Punton spoke about how disabled people are being isolated and seen as 'part of the problem'. The audience applauded when he declared his candidature for TUSC in Birmingham - "I find it ironic that I'll be campaigning to join the bastards who abolished the Independent Living Fund!"
Trade unionists are standing for TUSC - such as RMT member Ted Woodley in Birmingham and FBU brigade organiser Simon Hickman in Manchester. Alistair Tice from Yorkshire reported that five Doncaster Care UK strikers are standing.
Clive Heemskerk reported at the end of the conference that 51 parliamentary candidates had already been agreed and there are indications of around 600 council candidates. Already, he said, this is an impressive list with more working class and trade union candidates than any of the main parties will achieve.
Supplies of leaflets and posters flew from the TUSC 'shop' and banners were ordered for use at protests, pickets and meetings around the country (order your supplies from www.tusc.org.uk).
As one attendee, Jimmy, tweeted afterwards: "Full of hope and inspiration now after #TUSC15, great attendance, great speakers, the future looks good for #TUSC".
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 26 January 2015 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.