The Socialist Party’s on-off Campaign for a New Workers’ Party has next to nothing to show for its first year of existence, writes Mary Godwin
Around 300 attended the second conference of the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party in London on May 12 - a third fewer than at the founding conference last year.
Interestingly press officer Pete McLaren rounds the figure up to 350 and claims this is “similar to the number who attended the campaign’s launch last year” (press release, May 16). Unfortunately he forgot to check his figures against the reproduced notes at the foot of his statement, which reminds the media that “450 socialists and trade unionists” were at the March 19 2006 launch.
Those of us who had attended in 2006 had a vivid feeling of déjà vu as well as frustrating disappointment. Another opportunity was lost to move towards what, with good will, is achievable now - the unifying of existing left groups and activists into a single Marxist party based on the widest debate and the fullest democracy.
Instead, we got more of a rally than a conference. Documents were made available at short notice and the agenda allowed little time for meaningful debate. A format designed to meet the needs of the Socialist Party apparatus, for whom the CNWP is an on-off front designed to test the waters for setting up another mass reformist party, a sort of old Labour revivified. Hence the strong sense of nostalgia that characterised the gathering, as older SP members dwelt on the glory days of Militant - days when it was possible to nurture the illusion that Labour could be transformed into a vehicle for the socialist transformation of society and the emancipation of the working class.It was only ever a dream. Now the SP has to grapple with waking reality, but using some rather scant theoretical tools.
This was apparent in the speech by Chris Baugh, assistant general secretary of the SP-led Public and Commercial Services Union, who reiterated the SP’s doctrine that Blair had destroyed the Labour Party which, according to the updated CNWP declaration, had in the past, “however imperfectly, provided a voice for the working class”. This was no mere swing of the pendulum, but a qualitative change, whereby Labour had become “the direct and immediate expression of big business”. To illustrate this, he gave an account of Labour’s attack on the PCSU itself, with more than 100,000 job cuts in the pipeline, and the inevitable deterioration in services which that entails.
Ricky Tomlinson could not be present, but gave a DVD interview to comrade Tony Mulhearn in which he described himself as “wary” (or it might have been “weary”) about the Labour Party. The hopes of 1997 had all fallen apart. Between Blair and Brown there is “not much of a difference” and Ricky was very disappointed. Support for a mass movement of the working class is essential. New Labour had never represented nor even pretended to represent working class people. He called on those present to “unite to form a real leftwing socialist party to represent the working class”. His final line was “New Labour? My arse!” Which, predictably, brought the house down.
The first debate of the day was on the updated declaration and charter for a new workers’ party, consisting of an introduction and 10 demands (for the full text see ‘Ten versus ten’ Weekly Worker May 10). Moving the charter, comrade Hannah Sell told us that more than 2,500 people had now signed up (not much of an increase on the 2,000 triumphantly announced in June 2006, it has to be said). Signatories included 45 trade union executive members, and the best support had come from activists on picket lines. Within the next year there is the potential to double or even treble this figure, according to comrade Sell, although the aim was a party with “tens of thousands”.
The amended declaration represented a programme for all workers, she said - it would be a “mistake” to “outline the socialist path” at this point in time. Workers are “not ready for socialism” - they “do not know how it can be achieved, or whether it is even possible”. It would therefore be wrong “at this stage” to “exclude” workers like those fighting on picket lines by presenting them with anything stronger than this bland pabulum of left social democratic aspirations.
The meat of the declaration (such as it was) was to be found in the last demand, saying no to the capitalist system and calling for “a democratic socialist society”, etc. Some of the officers had thought that even this might be “going too far”.
Steve Freeman of the Socialist Alliance was the first to speak from the floor, introducing a one-paragraph SA amendment to the charter: “For a democratic republic - a radical extension of democracy including all representatives elected by proportional representation, subject to recall, and paid the average wage.” As he put it concisely, “democracy for the millions, not the millionaires”.
The CPGB’s amendment sought to replace the CNWP’s 10 economistic demands with 10 that encapsulated the revolutionary-democratic programme of working class socialism. In presenting them, comrade Peter Manson criticised the fact that the SP had produced its draft charter just a couple of weeks before the conference, precluding any serious exchange of views on what is in fact a Labourite document through and through. Labour had never “provided a voice for the working class” - workers had always found a voice despite Labour, which was, and remains, a bourgeois party of the working class, loyally carrying out the policies and wishes of British capitalism at home and abroad.
So what is the point of trying to create another Labour Party? To do so is not just futile - neither the trade unions nor comrade Sell’s “tens of thousands” were about to join what everybody knows is an SP front - but dishonest: so-called “revolutionaries pretending to be reformists”. However, “what we can do is unite as Marxists”, setting ourselves the aim of a united Marxist party: “That won’t attract the trade unions or the ‘tens of thousands’ either” right now, but it will be a genuine alternative, “based upon the truth”. Given the three-minute time limit for speakers, he was unable to detail the CPGB’s alternative 10-point charter.
Comrade Richard Brenner of Workers Power treated us to a passionate, r-r-revolutionary denunciation of the declaration, particularly its reference to “democratic socialism” - a “Kinnockite lie“ and just “reformist crap“. According to WP, “socialism cannot be built through democratic means”. Though he rightly enough pointed out that workers want a real debate, his scorn tells us a lot about WP’s own contempt for democracy itself. He threatened that Workers Power might have to “consider its position” - ie, leave the CNWP. This prospect was greeted with equanimity by conference, indeed there were some who seemed to think it would be a jolly good thing. Comrade Brenner believed the SP had led the CNWP further to the right since its launch, but it seems to me its politics were just as rightwing in March 2006.
Comrade Mike Macnair (CPGB and Campaign for a Marxist Party) spoke in favour of the CMP’s resolution calling for the creation of a party that “openly advocates the ideas of Marxism”, crystallised in the trinity of the conquest of political power and the revolutionary overthrow of capitalist production; extreme democracy; and internationalism. Tacking on a socialist clause at the end of the declaration was just not good enough. Genuine political commitment is needed, something far more than platitudes. The choice is clear: are you for the genuine socialist and internationalist struggle of the working class or for the well-trodden path of coalition politics?
Comrade Phil Sharpe, who in theory was speaking in favour of the CMP motion for a Marxist party, said that the CNWP should write to the John McDonnell campaign calling upon its supporters to leave the Labour Party. According to comrade Sharpe, the inherent logic contained in the McDonnell manifesto was for a break with Labourism - “another world” is possible, but it demands that socialists leave Labour and join the CNWP. This wishful thinking was totally in tune with the SP and the overwhelming majority present, and comrade Sharpe was warmly applauded.
There followed a series of speeches by members and friends of the Socialist Party wearing their ‘ordinary working people’ hats and telling conference of their experience of current struggles. The tone was relentlessly upbeat and, of course, in these days, it is good to hear of any struggle at all, but the speakers had, knowingly or not, been called upon to serve the CNWP’s purpose of implicitly demonstrating that this (and this only) is what the political activity of “ordinary working people” (a phrases tirelessly repeated) is all about.
This attitude found its clearest expression in a speech by comrade Glen Kelly of Unison NEC. The CPGB’s amendments, for example, were “up the wall” and drafted by people “who do not live in the real world today”.
The blithe assumption that only comrades like Kelly and his friends actually understand working people and what they are doing in the “real world” characterised much of the debate from the SP side. In proposing working class principles, the CPGB was advocating “splendid isolationism” (Lois Austin) or “uniting Marxists in small rooms” (comrade Kelly).
The SP gave expression to the crass, philistine and disgustingly patronising claim that workers themselves don’t really understand what they are “ready for”. We were left in no doubt that they are not “ready for” a real debate about socialism and what it means. Hence the sneering tone adopted by comrade Kelly and his comrade, Clive Heemskerk of the SP executive committee, as they derided the fact that the CPGB’s amended charter actually included references to abolition of the standing army and their replacement with popular militias - presumably it is acceptable to agitate against imperialist wars, but not against the standing army that wages them.
Unbelievably, SP Wales secretary Alec Thraves said that phrases like “Stalin and his imitators” and talk about disestablishment of the Church of England were far too complicated and just incomprehensible to those “ordinary workers”. According to comrade Kelly, the programmatic demands of the CPGB were “abstract” and amounted to “turning our backs on workers in struggle, just because they don’t regard themselves as socialists”. Pathetic.
Hannah Sell, summing up for the movers of the new charter/declaration, said that the officers were minded to accept the Socialist Alliance amendment, as it added something necessary to the document. The Workers Power amendment she found “incoherent” because the proposed deletions effectively made the charter really backward by excluding references to democracy and socialism altogether. Rejecting the amendments from the CPGB and the CMP as a call for “purity”, she consoled us by saying that, while a workers’ party could not be established “at this stage”, “it is coming”. The SA amendment was carried; the remaining amendments were defeated and the CNWP’s new charter overwhelmingly agreed.
The ‘way forward’
The next business was a debate on the ‘Way forward for the CNWP’, opened by comrade Roger Bannister of the Socialist Party, representing the officers. The ‘way forward’ was summarised in a long list of modest activities (point 10), and looked forward to supporting “any initiatives towards the development of a new party”, particularly from trade union leaders who no longer believe Labour can represent their interests and might take “active steps” towards founding a new party. There would be a third national conference in 2008 “to assess the progress we have made and look at how we take the campaign forward from there”.
Comrade Bannister explicitly rejected the proposals put forward in a second Socialist Alliance motion, which called for the implementation of an individual membership structure and the affiliation of all left groups which demonstrate genuine support for the CNWP, irrespective of size, this entitling them to one representative on the steering committee. In other words, the CNWP leadership is “not ready” to countenance the idea of actually forming even a pre-party organisation and it is certainly not willing to risk the full democratic participation and therefore ongoing debate with other leftwing centres.
The SA motion was in a sense the axis around which the ensuing debate turned, because it gave the CNWP leaders the opportunity in short form to outline exactly what they would not allow to happen to ‘their’ campaign.
Comrade John Bridge of the CPGB said that the question most often asked by workers in his experience was ‘When are the left going to unite?’ The healthy class instinct behind this question came from the experience of unity in struggle, because unity is strength. Workers also want answers to real and profound questions, hence the comrade’s deep disappointment at the approach taken by a number of speakers who spoke so contemptuously about “utopian Marxist slogans” and insisted that we must “talk the language of the working class”. This is to patronise workers, who have abundant common sense and practical experience and certainly do not relish the prospect of being treated like children.
Given the baleful impact of Stalinism and ‘official communism’ on the whole movement, how could comrades scoff, for example, at the reference to “Stalin and his imitators”, as if this were not an important question or somehow just too hard for the working class to grasp? The class needs a Marxist party to fight for the conquest of political power and that should be the trajectory of any campaign for a new workers’ party.
The Socialist Alliance motion was also supported by comrade Dave Church, who highlighted the danger that the CNWP could degenerate into a once yearly gathering ad infinitum. He could understand why the Socialist Party wanted to move slowly towards a party, but he could not understand why the move to a membership structure for the CNWP itself should also have to move at a snail’s pace. The left groups cannot be ignored. They must be incorporated into the CNWP on a genuine democratic basis with real representation.
Rounding up for the officers, however, comrade Bannister rejected individual membership as “premature” and insisted that the 100-member threshold for a seat on the steering committee was essential to keep out left groups who would only engage in “silly antics”. The platform’s ‘Way forward’ resolution was carried overwhelmingly, the others having been lost.
Conference then split up into a number of grandly named “commissions” to debate issues like ‘Standing in elections’, ‘Combating the BNP’, trade unions and the environment - for a whole 45 minutes. This was totally pointless - the CNWP does not organise or coordinate activity in any of those fields and these “commissions” merely added to the severe time constraints already imposed by a crammed agenda.
One result was that there was no time to debate the CPGB’s emergency motion, which was proposed by a speaker from the Iranian revolutionary grouping, Rahe Kargar. From the chair comrade Dave Nellist made it clear that the committee agreed with “90%” of the motion’s content - opposition to both imperialist war against Iran and the theocratic regime - but the call for the CNWP to affiliate to Hands Off the People of Iran needed to be discussed: as a comparatively new organisation the CNWP had not so far agreed to affiliate to anything. The motion was remitted to the next meeting of the steering committee, which will hopefully agree to hear a Hopi speaker.
See you next year
The meeting closed with a rallying call from ex-Militant councillor Tony Mulhearn, who treated us to an impassioned trip down memory lane along the lines of ‘Yesterday Liverpool, tomorrow the world’. So, after another round of fringe meetings at union conferences and a “second CNWP speaking tour in the autumn”, it looks like a case of ‘See you next year, comrades’.