To the Socialist Workers’ Party
Your open letter, entitled ‘It’s time to create a socialist alternative’, poses the important question of how a left alternative can be created to contest the general election. The Socialist Party has always been prepared to support genuine left unity, provided it is on open, pluralistic terms. Unfortunately, in the past your organisation has not done so. You have taken a sectarian ‘rule or ruin’ approach – your own party’s narrow organisational dominance has been put before the interests of the workers’ movement. This is not just our experience, but the experience of a host of other organisations and individuals. If this open letter represents recognition of your past mistakes that would be welcome. However, there are a number of points in the letter that give the impression that this is not the case.
The need for such a left alternative in the general election is clear. However, you make no mention in your letter of the attempt to provide such an alternative in the European elections, No2EU-Yes to Democracy. No2EU was set up precisely in order to provide an alternative to both the three establishment capitalist parties, and to the far-right racist BNP. In the coming weeks the components of No2EU will discuss trying to build on the campaign in order to create a broader challenge for the general election. To put out an ‘appeal for unity’ which writes No2EU out of existence – with no prior formal or even informal approach to its constituent organisations – will not be considered serious by those seeking a way forward.
As you know, No2EU was initiated by the transport workers’ union, the RMT, and involved ourselves, the Socialist Party, as well as the Communist Party of Britain, the Alliance for Green Socialism, and others. This was the first time in over a century that a trade union stood on a national basis independently of Labour. Its candidates included many of the most militant fighters in the trade union movement today – including Rob Williams, Linamar car plants convenor, the convenors of Basildon and Enfield Visteon plants, and members of the Lindsey construction workers’ strike committee. Yet you make no reference to it in your letter, saying only that, when SWP members were asked who people should vote for, “the lack of a single, united left alternative meant there was no clear answer available”. We find this incredible. As you know we have argued in favour of the development of a new formation to the left of Labour for many years. Whenever attempts have been made in that direction we have called for a vote for them, including for Respect, even though we had criticisms of it. Yet many of your members called for a vote for the Greens rather than No2EU in the European elections.
If, as seems to be the case, you were opposed to No2EU, you should honestly and openly explain why, in order to allow a discussion to take place on what the basis for a new left alternative would be. To try to ignore the existence of an initiative as significant as No2EU undermines your stated aim of opening a discussion on creating an electoral alternative for the general election. Nor is your dismissal of its vote in Socialist Worker a serious analysis (which, incidentally, was only the second time No2EU has ever been mentioned in Socialist Worker). You state that “despite Labour’s vote collapsing, overall the radical left did not register gains in last Thursday’s elections. Between them the Socialist Labour Party and No2EU gained two percent of the vote nationwide, the latter trailing Arthur Scargill’s party. Five years ago Respect polled 4.84 percent across London, beating the BNP. The combined left vote in London was down this year to 2.1 percent.”
No2EU received 153, 236 votes, 1% of the total cast. Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party (SLP) gained a marginally higher 173,115 votes, 1.1%. Given that No2EU was founded only weeks before election day, we believe its vote was creditable and, particularly when taken alongside the vote for the SLP, gives an indication of the potential to create a fighting left electoral alternative. In 2004 you struck a very different tone than you have this time, when you declared that: “Respect [which you were then part of] got the best votes the left has seen for many years” (Socialist Worker 19 June 2004). Yet Respect’s national result was 252,216 or 1.65%, less than the combined vote of the SLP and No2EU this time around.
Unfortunately, we believe that your brushing aside of No2EU is an indication that your methods have not changed. You claim that: “Unity is not a luxury. It is a necessity” but as a party you have never been prepared to countenance working together with others in an honest and open fashion unless you hold the reins; hence your wrecking of the Socialist Alliance and your splitting from Respect. Far from playing a positive role, your approach has actually complicated and delayed steps towards a new mass workers’ party in England and Wales.
More recently you have almost completely withdrawn from electoral politics, except as an echo of the mainstream capitalist parties appeal to ‘vote against the BNP’. However, you have continued with the same high-handed ‘rule or ruin’ approach in the industrial and trade union fields. Your organisational high-handedness has been combined with a completely mistaken political approach to the significant struggle of the Lindsey construction workers, which you have dismissed as nationalist. We, by contrast, as Mark Serwotka pointed out at PCS conference, were able to intervene in Lindsey and win the strikers to a clear, class programme.
Your organisational methods were starkly demonstrated at the Fight for the Right to Work conference (which itself was called in direct competition with the conference of the National Shop Stewards’ Network conference taking place two weeks later, despite the SWP having members on the NSSN steering committee). The NSSN has been established for three years and has national backing from the RMT and POA trade unions. Yet your members voted on bloc at the Right to Work conference to defeat the following motion moved by a Socialist Party member:
“To recognise the important position of the National Shop Stewards’ Network (NSSN) in acting as the central coordinating body for rank and file union members, unorganised workers and the unemployed in the fight against unemployment. The NSSN, open to all workers, in its three years of activity, has brought together militant workers from many political traditions with a recent history of defeating the bosses’ offensives and has national backing from the RMT and POA trade unions. As such, conference resolves to direct its efforts through this body.”
Our approach to working with others is very different to yours. We have worked together with trade unionists from different political backgrounds to build the NSSN. And we enthusiastically took part in No2EU, despite differences between ourselves and other participants on some issues, because we saw it as a serious attempt by a national trade union to try to build a left political alternative. This does not mean we abandoned our own programme. No2EU was an electoral bloc that brought together different organisations around a common programme in order to maximise its electoral impact. The programme of No2EU was inevitably limited as a result, although not, as at least some of your members have suggested, nationalist. On the contrary it called for “international solidarity of working-class people”.
At the same time, the different component organisations had complete freedom to produce their own material. The Socialist Party, for example, was able to produce leaflets putting forward our socialist programme and explaining that our candidates, if elected, would only take a workers’ wage. This is a considerable advance on the position you adopted in the Socialist Alliance, where you opposed such latitude being allowed for constituent organisations. Have you since changed your position on this?
A new electoral alternative will not be created simply by any of the existing socialist organisations declaring their initiative to be ‘the’ alternative for workers, as the mistakes of the previous fifteen years demonstrate. Only the active participation of broader sections of militant workers and young people in any new electoral alternative will mark it as a significant step forward. This was the importance of No2EU, which we believe should now be built on, with a new name, for the general election, with the aim of involving, first and foremost, larger numbers of militant trade unionists and young people. However, as part of such a broad project we would support the right of all socialist organisations, including the SWP, to take part.
The election of two BNP MEPs does add even more urgency to the need to create a genuine mass voice for working class people. The BNP vote in Yorkshire and the North West actually went down, but the collapse of New Labour’s vote allowed them to get MEPs elected. Moreover, the BNP’s vote did increase markedly in some areas, all of which were working class communities which historically were bastions for Labour. As a recent YouGov poll of BNP voters concluded the BNP made gains “because many voters feel insecure and let down by the main parties”.
As we have repeatedly argued against yourselves and others, the BNP will not be undermined just by campaigns denouncing them as Nazis. Alongside the development of mass demonstrations against the BNP by the trade unions and young people, a crucial part of undermining the far-right will be building a political alternative.
If you were serious about creating an electoral bloc for the general election, why did you not approach the Socialist Party or, as stated before, any of the other component parts of No2EU, for a discussion on the way forward? Selected individual Socialist Party members around the country, largely members of our party in prominent positions in the labour movement, have been sent copies of your open letter, yet you did not approach the democratically- elected National Committee of the Socialist Party to discuss your appeal. Nor have you invited the party to debate these issues at Marxism this year, despite us debating with you at our national event, Socialism 2008 last year, and our request that you reciprocate at your event. This method has elements, albeit on a smaller scale, to the approach of the Communist Parties in the early 1930s, who made declarations for a ‘united front from below’ but who refused to engage in negotiations with the leaderships of other workers’ organisations.
Our experience, and the experience of others on the left, regarding your party’s willingness to engage in serious collaboration, is not encouraging. However, if you have reassessed and changed your methods, and are now willing to work together with others towards the creation of ‘a socialist alternative’ for the general election, we will of course welcome this. Unfortunately, all the indications are that this letter is an attempt to convince your own members, who must have doubts on your previous approach towards working with others, that you stand for ‘unity’, rather than a serious proposal to facilitate a step towards independent political representation for the working class.
Socialist Party Executive Committee