One of the things that sealed the deal when I was thinking about joining the Socialist Party (SP) in autumn/winter 2005 was its decision to launch the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party (CNWP). For a long time the SP had been agitating around the need for a new party to take up the mantle of working class political representation, but up until then (at least as far as I was aware) it had not taken any concrete steps to bring it about. A declaration was circulated and there was a very successful launch conference. There followed a run of public meetings up and down the country and the statement managed a couple of thousand signatures. But gradually, save the ritual of steering group gatherings and an annual conference that diminished year on year, the CNWP failed to develop a life of its own and faded into the background with the development of No2EU, and its progeny, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC).
Everyone knew the CNWP was not going to be the embryo of a new organisation, but it was hoped it would facilitate the coming together of the left, the trade unions and community campaigns in some way. And here in lies the problem with the strategy for building a new workers’ party. None as such exists. I know from having done CNWP work that there is little appetite for a new party. People were certainly happy to come up to Stoke SP stalls and sign the petitions, chuck a quid or two in the pot, take a paper and nod along as you give them the spiel about the need or a new party, but only a tiny number would sign the declaration and the few that did invariably ended up joining the branch.
One shouldn’t be too surprised about this. As anyone on the left will tell you 30 years of neoliberalism, a declining labour movement and the restructuring of British capitalism has thrown back working class consciousness, confidence and combativity. This being the case, where is a new workers’ party going to come from? Is the emergence of a new alternative to Labour’s left a likely prospect or fundamentally out of kilter with where the working class is?
Taking things as they are there are two possible avenues one could come about. The first is through trade unions breaking from Labour. This is more or less the position of the SP. They argue the Blair-Brown leadership has gutted the party of working class content in their quest to become the preferred party of British capital, and so are quite happy to privatise away, treat the unions as embarrassing relatives and happily launch attacks on workers at home and abroad. The SP argues the unions would neither stomach attacks on their members forever or be happy with their lack of influence over Labour, and so will be forced to seek political influence elsewhere — principally in the direction of founding a party that reflects their interests.
In part this perspective has been borne out. The Fire Brigades Union and National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers (RMT) are no longer affiliated to Labour, the Communication Workers Union’s support hangs by a thread and even Dave Prentis of Unison has been forced to rattle the saber. But that’s as far as it has gone. The RMT have retreated from being directly involved in elections after last year’s No2EU vote and are backing Labour (though branches have the freedom to decide who they endorse). The Public and Commercial Services will be doing its usual Make Your Vote Count campaign.
As for remaining trade union affiliates, if anything they are increasing their commitment to Labour. Andy has variously blogged about the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trade Union’s influence-building strategy it has adopted in Labour. It’s oft-noted that Unite are bankrolling the party. And Paul Holme’s Unison general secretary campaign makes clear the union should be using the Labour link to promote its policy agenda in the party, not the other way round. It seems unlikely the main unions will move away from Labour if they think there are still ways and means of securing their objectives through it, especially in the absence of an alternative home to go to.
Which brings me to the second possible avenue for a new party: the existing far left. When I was in the SP leading comrades were firmly of the opinion that cobbling together “the sects” would not bring us a step closer to a new party (and for some, left unity itself was a diversion from this task). Instead we’d have to wait for the trade unions and/or the vaunted “fresh layers” to become involved. But in Britain at least, experience has partially negated this perspective. At its height the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) attracted trade union support in the shape of the RMT. This would not have happened had Scottish Militant Labour not pursued a unity project with the rest of the left, and the subsequent fate of the SSP does not render this lesson null and void.
So left unity can work and pull in support from beyond the far left. But what prospects for it today? What are the chances of the positives of the SSP experience being replicated? The SP, Socialist Workers Party (SWP) plus a few others are formally united under the TUSC banner for the next election, and Respect and the SSP will be ploughing their own furrows. So on the surface things don’t look too bad. But look under the surface of TUSC and it has every appearance of being an alliance of convenience. SP members will be promoting SP candidates. SWP members will promote SWP candidates. There will be very little in the way of joint, unified action. And what about after the election? Will TUSC take on flesh or officially talked up at the moment it’s being buried? Perhaps the worst won’t happen, but the experience of the Socialist Alliance, Respect when the SWP were in it, and the barely-remembered Socialist and Green Unity Coalition are not encouraging.
This brings us to the basic problem at the heart of the British left. Its dominant tendencies act as discrete self-contained entities in competition for recruits, paper sales and influence. Each maintain a full-time apparatus with a semi-permanent leadership and collective world views that are more the subject of dispute and polemic than scientific investigation. Furthermore because none have wealthy backers the basic round of stalls, paper sales, and recruitment has to take precedence to keep the show on the road. This means working with other lefts are seldom and fleeting. So the problems with the far left are not entirely rooted in particular interpretations of democratic centralism, as the cpgb and others maintain, but more so the mode of work they undertake out of necessity.
For example, where the SP have bases in working class communities — Coventry and Lewisham — the branches in those areas have grown to the extent that ‘community work’ can be undertaken in addition to the basic work. Respect is another case in point. Because its model of organisation building is not reliant on the same staples as its Trotskyist competitors they have been able to concentrate on putting down roots, with the result they stand a strong chance of winning in three constituencies.
To return to the main point, because of the competitive models of party building favoured by the far left it is unlikely they will put together a lasting, unified organisation and therefore will not attract support from any union thinking twice about its links to Labour.
Perhaps an upsurge in struggle will change this situation, but I doubt it. Time and again the labour movement has proven it prefers to work pragmatically with the instruments it has to hand. The far left hasn’t provided anything the unions can turn to, and they will not take the risks of founding something new themselves. On the other hand power has shifted in the Labour party. The independence the bourgeois pole assumed during the Blair years has receded and the party is dependent on the unions for resources. This constitutes a real opportunity for moving Labour to the left and strengthening the hand of socialist ideas in the labour movement. It’s a tough perspective and a difficult one to argue for thanks to this government’s record, but there is no way around it. The best place for rebuilding the labour movement and renewing working class politics is inside Labour.
The task in front of socialists today is not founding a new workers’ party. It’s working with the one we’ve got.
The Socialist Party’s Clive Heemskerk debated with Owen Jones, author of Chavs, on whether the Socialist Party should aim to convert the Labour Party to a socialist viewpoint, or call on unions to support the struggle to build a new mass workers’ party, like the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition.