It has been another hard year for the Left with John McDonnell failing to get nominated for the leadership race, the split in Respect, and no let up in New Labour’s neo-liberal attacks on public services.
Stoke Socialist Party, to whom I give too infrequent support, has had a reasonable year. It has recruited some enthusiastic activists and continued to fight vigorously on local issues such as supporting the Burslem posties in their ongoing struggle against bullying management. Incidentally, they are on strike at the moment, losing pay over Christmas in a fight to reinstate colleagues whose only crime was to effectively represent fellow union members in the workplace. Either me or Phil will post more details of this dispute soon, so that visitors to this blog can lend support.
Nationally, I can’t really evaluate what sort of the year the Socialist Party has had. How do you evaluate success? Membership numbers are an inaccurate barometer, because, as we all know on the left, while all fringe parties welcome members, it is the amount of activists prepared to give up their time on a regular basis that really counts. Paper sales are also used to measure success. I agree that paper sales are vital, not least financially. However, from my experience on manning stalls, people stop to sign a petition, give a donation and are presented with a paper. I am not knocking this, most people make an additional donation which swells the Fighting Fund. My point is that most people aren’t actively ‘buying’ a paper for it socialist content, or don’t go away, read the paper and become committed socialists! So, paper sales are a must, but they don’t generally build the party in and of themselves. You can attempt to measure success by votes cast in elections. The SP has had some electoral success, but they are few and far between. There is an argument that may you not win the seat but canvassing builds the party. Yes, I am sure people are recruited on the doorsteps, and I am not arguing that the party shouldn’t contest elections, but I feel you have to carefully consider the benefits against the drain on resources.
My view is that party members can contribute most as trade union activists. I am currently doing a PhD thesis on Militant’s successes in the Civil and Public Services Association (one of the forerunners of the PCS). A small, but well-organised cadre of Militant members punched well above their weight, as SP members now do in the PCS. My experiences with the SP have shown me that one thing it does very well (and I'm not without criticisms of the party) is organise. It will always be there! I feel we are sometimes criticised for organising too well. I am not naïve enough to believe all SP activists don't at times act in a sectarian way, and has never tried to dominate a movement, but you couldn’t criticise the party for not giving enthusiastic organises support to workers in struggle or potentially significant movements. For instance, there have been suggestions the SP is over-represented in the National Shop Stewards Network. I wasn’t at the founding conference, but my understanding is that without the SP it would have been a poorly-attended event.
This brings me to the way forward for 2008. I strongly believe that a national shop-stewards movement is the best way to mobilise the left against neo-liberalism. The Liaison Committee in Defence of Trade Unions was very effective in its opposition to the Industrial Relations Act back in the 1970s. There are some good ‘awkward squad’ leaders out there - Mark Serwotka, Matt Wrack, Bob Crow and Brian Caton. And there are still some fine trade union activists out there (whether they are SWP, SP, CPB, Labour, non-aligned or whatever). The Left Unity grouping in the PCS has shown that the left can combine successfully. Let us make 2008 the year the left accepts that we have our differences, but that we have a lot more in common, and that united we can fight back against the ravages of neo-liberalism.