Sunday 28 February 2010

Can a New Workers' Party Emerge?

One of the things that sealed the deal when I was thinking about joining the Socialist Party in autumn/winter 2005 was its decision to launch the Campaign for a New Workers' Party. 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.

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 FBU and RMT are no longer affiliated to Labour, the CWU'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 PCS 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 GMB'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 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, 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.


Unknown said...

so phil, Dr of trotskyism. are you supporting labours bob ainsworth over Dave nellist?

P said...

The void in working class representation is undoubtedly there. There's been a cultural shift that means the needs of working class communities are not considered at all in political circles, nationally or locally.

I'm presuming you envisage that the next government will be a conservative one, as you see an upsurge in worker's struggle moving into the Labour Party - that's not going to happen if it's Labour making the cuts. If Labour wins office, even as part of a minority government or as part of a coalition, the struggle will be as much against all the parties holding office and their cuts.

You also underestimate the degree to which the Blairites have come to dominate the Labour Party. They're already busy undermining Brown in preparation for the post election power struggle - who do you think gave Rawnsley all that stuff on 'bullying'?

If Labour is defeated, the Blairites will blame it on the party's 'class warriors' and use the defeat to tighten their grip on Labour, they will continue to rely on the Right Wing Trade Union leaders for funding, as you point out, but the rank and file will be finding it neccessary to replace these leaders with people who are prepared to struggle to resist the cuts. Such fighters will be anathema to a Blairite dominated Labour Party.

In reality the neoliberal Blairites are a cancer in the Labour Party, a cancer that has taken root in every organ of the party, and has progressively killed it as a working class institution. The process has already gone too far to be reversed, any attempts to resuscitate it just prolong the agony.

Michael Fisher said...


I agree the CNWP, despite some hard and important work, is almost certainly going nowhere fast. But I take the Milibandian view that Labour is not and has never been an appropriate vehicle for independent socialist politics in the UK. But we will see.

But I think your view of the changing nature of the relationship between the LP and the unions is both far too optimistic and not supported by historical analysis (the key work here being that of Lewis Minkin).

Historically the role of the unions within in relation to the LP and its policy development, particularly since WW2, has been defined by their primary and over-riding concern of maintaining Labour as an electorally viable party of actual or potential govt. This has meant, most of the time, subordinating union concerns to those of the PLP. Unions have taken a largely negative role in the context of policy formation: blocking and amending policies proposed by the leadership rather than developing and pressing for their own distinct agenda.

There are a number of reasons for this. Most unions do not see themselves as bearers of distinct and coherent political ideologies in any practical political sense. They see themselves as pressure groups that can and should limit themselves to securing piecemeal reform. These reforms are sometimes dressed-up in ideological terms for the purposes of conference speeches etc. But that is all.

But first and foremost they (most leaders and most members) see their role as being to support the political wing and to press for as many practical reforms as possible given the limits set by the electoral climate.

The one period when a number of key union affiliates broke with this established pattern of behaviour was during the late-1970s/early-1980s. Here the left inside the LP was actively supported against much of the PLP by a number of key unions. But a number of circumstances combined to make this possible. The left inside the party was numerically and politically strong. Much of it was also advocating a set of policies that were seen to have roots in already established party policy. It was thought by many unions that although they faced strong opposition from the right-wing of the PLP, there was a large constituency for a left-Keynesian political strategy across the broader electorate.

So some unions took on the right-wing by supporting the left in large part only because they believed it was consistent with returning Labour to government in 1983. They were, of course, wrong. And union support for, and identification with, the ‘ideological left’ within the LP quickly drained away.

The very sharp contrasts to the situation today should be obvious.

Anonymous said...

Agree on the far lefts inability to build a left of labour electoral force in the window of opportunity provided between 1997 and the forthcoming election. This has been for both subjective and objective reasons. The subjective problems are the inherited legacies of a sect culture and m.o. and have been outlined above. The objective one has been lack of any generalised working class resistance in the period - just one big anti-war demo and a few strikes. This cannot match the situation in 1918 when the labour Party took on its form!

While it is true that important layers of organised labour and trades unionists will have their eye on a post new-labour direction for the party, we should resist exaggerating this. There maybe some space temporarily opening up for a very soft left inside labour. But i think that any such moves will be limited and strictly controlled. Powerful forces will want to resist any genuine shift to the left.

When I think of the dozens of friends who spent their lives attempting to shift labour to the left, only to be finally broken by the experience of the new labour governments, I have my doubts about your move. These friends fought and lost on a far more favorable terrain inside the labour party then, than can be found now. I doubt if there will be much more room in the future either. I doubt if the labour party is going to suddenly attempt a social-democratic revivalist turn post new labour. Neither will we see a re-run of the late 70's/early 80's Bennite left. But best wishes and good luck.

One of the shocking things about today is the political vacuum where previous vibrant labour lefts once provided critiques of and alternatives to a failing labour right in office.

I think the crisis of working class political representation is growing deeper, finding no outlet either in the far left sects nor the british Labour Party.

While there is some space for left practice here in the Greens and Green Left, I doubt if this place can address the crisis of working class political articulation and representation either! We may be able to build a small and vacillating left populist party - but not a new workers party. And there will be limits on how 'left' any green left populism can be when subject to real pressures of both office and the struggle.

The left should build within all the fragments of society it finds itself forming in - and carry on talking to each other in a constructive and honest way as possible. And unhesitatingly unite to build all the joint struggles which arise.

Dave Riley said...

While I don't agree with your conclusion, I suspect you make some telling points...and therein encompass the scale of the tragedy.

Phil said...

Eddie, as a Labour party member I have to advocate a vote for Labour candidates wherever they stand.

Mike said...

Let's hope the next proper Workers' Party pops up somewhere in the second and third world where it would be of some use.

Callum said...

The main strategic flaw (I think I've said enough about others flaws in this perspective) is that it seems to assume that the 'Unions' (in fact, the union bureaucracy) always and everywhere pull the Labour Party to the Left, or at least try to.

There may be some historical evidence of this, but where is the contemporary evidence of this process? As a social scientist, Phil, I'm sure you rely, at least in part, on empirical evidence, the dangers of "naive positivism" notwithstanding.

So, to get down to brass tacks, who exactly in the Unite Union, for instance, is going to push Labour to the Left, and what in concrete terms does that look like?

What socialist policies is Derek 'British Jobs for British Workers' Simpson campaigning for in the Party? What massive swings to the Left is the inveterate wimp Dave Prentis agitating for? How does Tony Woodley plan on winning the Party back to independent working class politics in between topping off his tan and heading off on more fucking fact-finding missions to god knows where?

Since, as should be clear, none of these figures (a ragtag bunch of collaborationists, careerists and defeatists) is a reliable vehicle for any kind of left-wing agitation, your strategy of keeping your fingers crossed that the Union bureaucracy uses its financial muscle to 'win back' the Party seems to look, well, dim.

And all this soft-headed mood music about 'changes' in the Party's 'mood' looks more and more like limp justification for a political change of heart.

Which is fine. That's your prerogative. But when you dress it up in this pious "We must learn to love the Labour Party" guff, it ceases to be the usual waffling radical-ish reformism, and becomes something more insidious - a council of despair.

Paul said...


"So, to get down to brass tacks, who exactly in the Unite Union, for instance, is going to push Labour to the Left, and what in concrete terms does that look like?"

Some v good brass tacks - not about UNITE but about UNISON at

Dave Semple said...

For anyone who is interested, I've literally just put up an interview with Paul Holmes at my place.

On other news, though I was initially disparaging, I have begun to change my mind when it comes to TUSC - or at least some of the outcomes from it that I'm seeing.

I'll have more on that when I have a chance to investigate properly.

skidmarx said...

as a Labour party member I have to advocate a vote for Labour candidates wherever they stand.
Of course that rule is only strictly applied to the left.

When you did your piece on cadre parties and mass parties, I thought your conclusion was that the latter were dead and the former were the future. Am I wrong or have you changed your mind?

Your comments about the CNWP and the search for fresh layers could equally well apply to the SWP at times. Though it does perhaps have a less sectarian record than the SP when it comes to cobbling together a left out of existing groups.
Perhaps your belief that the left has new opportunities in the LP is wishful thinking.

andy newman said...

"Of course that rule is only strictly applied to the left."

That is not true.

The most prominent group of explusions from the labour Party before the MIlitant were the "Social Democratic Alliance", expelled for publishing leaflets advocating support for right wing candidates against labour.

Callum's point is quite ill-informed. Some considerable effort has gone on behind the scenes over the last few months to influnce the selection of PPCs, and change the culture of what is expected from union sponsred MPs, and we are expecting perhaps 70 MPs pro-trade trade union MPs after the election.

Now those pro-trade union MPs may r may ot be a dsapointment to the far left, but there is a concereed effort actually in process to reassert trade union influence.

skidmarx said...

That is not true.

I think you missed my use of the word "strictly". I seem to remember Peter Kilfoyle refusing to support a left-wing Labour candidate in Liverpool some years ago, but receiving no sanction, though when I tried to check it out I found this story:
where he was refusing to back a candidate for the next election for reasons the left might find more reasonable. I was also thinking of the Tatchell Bermondsey election, where there was much nod and a wink support for Bob Mellish.

Phil said...

Riversider, I don't think workers will necessarily move into Labour. Ted Grant was dogmatic to the point of absurdity on this one. But I think we can agree that in Britain at least there is a tendency of militant workers to turn to their unions as their first port of call. What I argue is that as the unions revive they will make their influence felt through the links they have with Labour rather than try anything else.

I also think you've overestimated the Blairite influence. They've tried to destabilise Brown in spectacularly cack-handed ways, and you can see the way the party at large has reacted negatively against them. A few may have shed a tear when Purnell stepped down, but they numbered nowhere near even a sizeable minority.

Anonymous said...

I always thought their was nt room for a workers party but may have been room for a far-left party. The success of the far-right is partly because they have one dominant organisation. All the far-left groups together would amount to between 4 and 10 thousand members enough to run a party on the same scale as greens and bnp. If trotskyists dont want to do that then they shouldnt bother with electoral activity. james?

ModernityBlog said...

ha ha Phil,

Funny but I out flank you from the Left!

I'd support Nellist any day of the week :)

Phil said...

Alas Mod those are the rules! However, if Ainsworth were to be dumped out of office by Dave or other Blairites were to suffer a similar fate there would be few tears in the BC household.

Phil said...

I agree with you Michael, but with an important caveat. The active membership of the trade unions have got wise to the fact unions themselves have given Labour a free pass for too long. They expect to see something in return for the money they've pumped into the party. This is one reason why the GMB have increased their involvement in the party. In a situation like this I cannot see how there are not fresh opportunities for socialists inside Labour.

Also re: your point about trade unions and politics, there's another reason why comrades who are looking to the trade unions as a source for a new party will be waiting a long time.

Phil said...

Skidders, I didn't think that was the conclusion of my cadre and mass parties piece at all. If memory serves I noted tendencies that had favoured the development of the former over the latter (tendencies that were actively encouraged by Blair - his idea of a mass Labour party was more akin to the Greenpeace model of organisation building than anything else). I am however opposed to developments in this direction, though arguably building any kind of mass party today is a tough cookie.

I'll leave your point about the sectarian records of the SP and SWP for others to judge. But obviously I don't think my argument's based on wishful thinking at all. There is a move by unions to make the Labour link work more in their favour, and there has been a shift in the balance of power between the leadership and the unions.

By way of contrast how are conditions more conducive now to building a new workers' party? We hear how shit Labour is (as if no one on the Labour left knows this) but where's the strategy and perspectives for building an alternative?

skidmarx said...

Thanks for the clarification.

On your last two points, I'm not sure. The shift to New Labour (obviously going back a way)helps confirm the view that it is an openly bourgeois party. I can see TUSC not doing particularly well at the elction, but at least it's a start.

Jackson Jeffrey Jackson said...

I am not sure how successful the GMB's moves to increase influence in the Labour Party have been.

In my experience, there are few union members who are LP members who want to go as delegates to their CLP, and our Regional Office won't allow the GMB branch to affiliate to the CLP without a delegate.

The chances of my persuading colleagues to join the LP just so they can go along to GC meetings are rather slim on current evidence...

Anonymous said...

Hi Phil (and other comrades),

I was wondering what you think of the Socialist Campaign to Stop the Tories and Fascists the AWL has launched?

Lobby Ludd said...

I have often asked a simple question that has never been answered by leftist advocating LP membership - what party structures are there that allow ordinary members to influence (let alone determine) policy, locally or nationally?

(Allied to that, what party structures allow you to determine choice of candidates for election?)

Just what do you think you will be doing as an active LP member, Phil?

Jackson Jeffrey Jackson said...

Lobby Ludd -

In terms of policy, that is theoretically decided by the National Policy Forum, which is made up of one third MPs, one third union delegates and one third constituency reps (this year, for the first time, to be elected by OMOV postal ballot).

In reality policy is made up on the hoof by the party leader, who is elected by the party members and affiliated trade unionists from nominations by MPs.

In regard to MP selections, sitting MPs have to undergo a reselection trigger ballot before the next election. Each unit of the constituency party (branches, affiliated union branches, socialist societies) votes Yes or No to reopening selection.

In the case of a Yes vote, or a vacancy, a shortlist is drawn up from nominations by party units and voted on by the full constituency membership, either at a public meeting or by postal vote.

ModernityBlog said...

"what party structures are there that allow ordinary members to influence (let alone determine) policy, locally or nationally? "

An excellent question and the shorter answer would seem to be, in reality there are few ways that LP members can really influence policy.

Phil said...

That's true, but can't you say that for the unions? How, for instance, can an individual Unison activist stop their leadership from witch-hunting leftists? And similarly, what are the chances of a rank and file activist changing the direction of the revolutionary group they're a member of? In my experience and despite everything, there still remains more formal opportunities for individual influence inside Labour than any of these.

And still we're waiting an answer to the question this piece poses. What are the likely sources of a new workers' party? What are the strategies for achieving one?

Lobby Ludd said...

Phil, in response to my query about what can an individual LP member do to influence the direction of the LP, and my scepticism about any real influence, you reply:

"That's true, but can't you say that for the unions? How, for instance, can an individual Unison activist stop their leadership from witch-hunting leftists? And similarly, what are the chances of a rank and file activist changing the direction of the revolutionary group they're a member of?"

That may well be true, but setting aside the point that socialists are obliged (surely?) to join their appropriate union, they are not obliged to join any one particular party.

Surely, if you voluntarily join the LP as a socialist it is because you believe it can advance the interest of the working class. If you think so, you need to say how it, and you as a member, can do so. Lack of democracy within unions or other left parties does not provide that rationale.

So, once again, as an active member of the Labour Party, what are you going to do?

Phil said...

I meant to reply to this much earlier.

I think I've set out the general line of march of how I see things unfolding here and in the previous post about my SP resignation. I don't have a detailed strategy document or anything like that, but I do believe that if the labour movement is going to be regenerated the best place for doing so is in all three wings of the movement - the unions, the Co-op Party, and Labour. I will be campaigning for the latter in Stoke (and not just in Stoke Central) and encouraging the trade unionists I know to join (as well as "normal" folk), attend local Labour meetings (especially those our local Labour left will be organising) and, where affiliated, get union branches to use the existing links they have with local CLPs. If a union branch has places reserved at their CLP for delegates, they should use them (our local Co-op party branch actively does).

That's what I'll be doing. Now, how will you, as an individual, be promoting the formation of a new workers' party? What's your strategy?

Anonymous said...

I think the turn the 'unity' agenda has taken on the British left is not good in any of its forms.
On top of that, the left's hostility to the onfolding NPA experience in France and its continuing disdain for the SSP template has confused the issue such that if anything survives beyond a few years it is likely to be a sort of left Labourism obsessed with electoral gains.(This seems to be the direction Socialist Unity prefers).
Phil also makes a schematic workerist mistake by insisting that any new party has to have formal and committed trade union adherence before it can be so ordained.
The prospect of that happening without some form of struggle accreditation as well as early electoral success must be very slim indeed.
Forgotten is the struggle imperative, and instead a false hope rules that manoevreing alone will be enough to bring a new party into being.(That's the SP's approach isn't it? A new workers party behind the workers backs?)
His last point perhaps deserves an answer: "Now, how will you, as an individual, be promoting the formation of a new workers' party? What's your strategy?".
From where I'm sitting the only element committed to the formation of a new workers party is Socialist Resistance.Do they have the best strategy to achieve that? Well, I think their take has become sharper and more nuanced as they approach has broadened and become more flexible.
If Phil were to compare notes he'd recognise that his advocacy and SR's has been in step albeit coming from different contexts.SR's approach is to relate to and support anything that moves in a regroupment direction.
I think that's the only way forward in the same way as joining the LP is a massive retrogade step.

Boffy said...


I've just read this and your "resignation" post after reading that you had left the SP to join Labour. I think your arguments here are spot on. I shall be around the area until at least August, because of having to take on a six month rental while I sort things out. We might even be here for longer depending on how things pan out. If you think a discussion would be useful, or if I can be helpful in any way, please e-mail me. I might lose Internet here over the next week, but I can still check every few days elsewhere until I get alternative provision.

On future prospects I think that if the class struggle heats up it will have two effects. The main beneficiaries will be Labour, as has always happened in the past, because what such increased activity does is to strengthen reformist ideology, workers success strengthens the idea that reforms can be won within the system, and so diminshes the need to look for an alternative to the system. The other beneficiaries have traditionally been syndicalist groups like the SWP, simply because their intense activity in the unions, coupled with the message of "more militancy" ties into that reformist ideology. It is always a dead end.

The task for Marxists is to work in the existing Workers Party, and to try to inject alternative politics into this process, to focus on driving workers activity and confidence towards providing their own solutions, not simply demanding solutions within and from the existing system.

Phil said...

Be great if you could make the Compass meeting this Thursday, Arthur. We can go over the forensics then.