Can a New Workers’ Party Emerge? The British Experience

by Phil (A Very Public Sociologist) on January 27, 2013

First published by A Very Public Sociologist.

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.

  • http://nextleft2010.blogspot.com.au/ Michael Fisher

    The debate between Jones and Heemskerk is worth watching. I have commented on the debate on my blog. Here is the post:

    BRITISH UNIONS FOR SOCIALISM?

    An interesting debate about the British Labour Party and the future of the left took place in London in November 2012. A video of the event is now on YouTube.

    Arguing that the Labour Party is the only credible vehicle for left advance is Owen Jones, a ‘rising star’ of the Labour left who regularly appears in the media commenting on politics.

    Arguing that the shift to the right inside the Labour Party over the past 20 years has been so elemental that it is no longer worthy of support is Clive Heemskerk, leading member of the Socialist Party and deputy editor of Socialism Today.

    I won’t attempt to summarise the debate. In my view Jones and Heemskerk make good and bad points. Jones is wrong to assert the historical inevitability of Labour dominating the electoral landscape to the left of the Tories.

    On the other hand, Heemskerk doesn’t seem to appreciate that the notion that we are in a ‘totally new period’ of class representation is somewhat contradicted by the dismal record of the numerous attempts to build to the left of Labour, not least the appalling electoral record of TUSC. When a socialist of the stature of Dave Nellist loses his seat to Labour, that should give you pause for thought.

    But in my view the arguments advanced by both Jones and Heemskerk share a common weakness: the idea that unions will play a leading role in the revival of socialist politics in Britain anytime soon.

    Given the particular history and contemporary character of trade unionism in Britain it is unclear why anyone should think this will be the case.

    Why not?

    Unlike some other European countries (and France in particular) trade unions in Britain have always lacked a distinct political ideology and identity. Leaving aside conference rhetoric and the politics of relatively small numbers of left-wing activists, the membership of British unions is highly politically heterogeneous – not just in terms of who they vote for, but also in terms of what they regard as the appropriate role of trade unions in a liberal democracy.

    Historically, union strength has been rooted in occupational and industrial solidarities built around sectional ‘bread and butter’ issues – not ideology. That remains the case today.

    As a result, unions in Britain have rarely if ever played a vanguard role in campaigning and mobilising for a distinctive and coherent socialist politics. The overwhelming character of union militancy in Britain has always been sectional, economistic, ad hoc and defensive. That also remains the case today.

    Of course, this can change. But despite the events of the past 5 years in Britain there is no evidence as yet of a significant politicisation of the mass of union members in a socialist direction.

    Without such a politicisation there is very little chance of most unions (including most non-affiliated unions) offering full formal support for a new party to the left of Labour, or leading a socialist charge against the ‘compassionate neoliberalism’ of the Shadow Cabinet.

    In the absence of a significant shift in the broader political climate of the UK unions are very likely to keep doing what they have always done: lobby those MPs who will listen, and engage in sectional, apolitical campaigning against employers when they have to.

    From the perspective of the large majority of British unions and their members, none of this implies or requires socialism.

  • http://www.amleft.blogspot.com Richard Estes

    This is an enlightening, provocative article, and the North Star deserves credit for posting it, as it implies that working within the Democratic Party may likewise be the only means of moving the US leftwards. I don’t personally believe that, but there is an argument that must be engaged.

    Oddly, this article caused me to think back to the Black Panthers. The Panthers were, in a sense, an indigenous eruption of people of color and working class people. If we are going to move in a socialist direction, I believe that it will require something similar again.

  • Brian S.

    Interesting material and an important debate – certainly for the British far left, but as Richard indicates with some potential relevance for debates elsewhere.
    The first thing to note about the “Very public sociologist” article is that its three years old, and some of its comments are out of date: especially its remarks on Respect, which has imploded and now looks like a spent force.
    The arguments against focusing left energies on work in or through the Labour Party are reasonably well stated by the Socialist Party spokesperson in the video above, so I won’t repeat them here. But to underline the main conclusion – the modern Labour Party is a social democratic electoral machine – nohting more, Despite a small recent increase in its membership, its branches and wards are largely moribund, it has to scrabble around to find candidates to put up in local elections, and its conference – once a major venue for political debate over policies and ideas – has become little more than an annual managed showcase for the party leadership. And, despite some vague talk from Miliband, it will never be anything more. I doubt that most Labour Party branches any longer have a banner to take on demonstrations, even if they wanted to.
    The problem with this debate is that is largely focused on the question of building an electoral challenge to Labour. And on that question the opponents of the SP position are right- there is no prospect of developing a serious electoral challenge to Labour and to focus left energies on pursuing that chimera is to put the cart before the horse – we need a unified, large (but not necessarily mass) political movement to the left of the labour party with involvement in commmunities and social movements; when we have that – or at least the outlines of that on the horizon – it might make sense to discuss what role electoral activity might play in its further development; but until that point its a waste of energy. The simple fact of the matter is that there is no prospect of developing a serious electoral challenge to Labour under the existing electoral system. Its some form of PR system that makes left third parties possible in Europe – and briefly in Scotland. In the absence of that left energies in Britain are best spent on extra-parliamentary politics, and building a serious “left of left” movement.
    Some of what Michael Fisher says about trade unions is right, and some is not: there is a long tradition of participation in political campaigns by British trade unions; and there was the important “workers control” movement of the 1960s (Wikipedia reminds me that at its height its conferences attracted 1200 union activists) – which actually came close to achieving some limited structural reforms to the corporate order. So any socialist project should certainly attempt to embrace trade union activists, although it should not overestimate the role they will play in the formative stage.
    These points are, I think, right in the longer term; but in the immediate situation may require some nuancing: over the next two years the British working class are going to involved in a predominantly DEFENSIVE struggle – the fight to defend the historic gains of the welfare state from a concerted right-wing onslaught. Inevitably, the centre piece of that must be the fight to decisively defeat the Tories in 2015. From that point of view, there is some legitimacy in some who regard themselves as socialists doing so from within the Labour Party. (There is certainly no point urging people to leave the Labour Party at this stage.) But to ensure that the Labour Party doesn’t sell the pass as part of its electoral strategy, its essential that this is accompanied by continuing extra-parliamentary mobilisation. And post-2015, if we are sucessful, the struggle is going to shift to defending ourselves from the attacks of a pro-capitalist social-democracy – and that will have to be fought primarily outside the framework of the Labour Party.
    The organisational and political implications of how a viable “left-of-left” political movement can be built are being discussed elsewhere in the various “Leninist” threads

  • Jacob Richter

    Michael, that is precisely why the political import of the Continental model is needed. Left parties there aren’t tied at the hip to trade union activism, even when said activism is more radicalized. Leave the ever-apolitical unions be and built a British SYRIZA, a British Die Linke, a British Front de gauche, a British Left Front (Udaltsov and co.).

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