Monday 23 April 2007

Abbey Green

Abbey Green ward in Stoke occasionally crops up as a topic of discussion over at the UKLN, not least because in 2006 Paul Sutton, a Labour councillor, left that party to become the Socialist Party candidate in the year's council election. Since we were unable to retain the seat he and his brother, Dave (a sitting councillor in Tunstall) dropped out and left. Recently a thread on Urban 75 has been speculating around Dave Sutton's passage from the SP into the LibDem Alliance grouping, and also some have taken the opportunity to make sectarian capital from Stoke SP's failure to stand in Abbey Green this year. In this post I'm interested in setting the record straight about both, but more importantly what lessons socialists can draw from the episode with the Sutton brothers.

I'm not going to dwell on the 2006 election campaign - the prospects and results can be viewed
here and here respectively.

Stoke comrades knew it would be more of a challenge to retain the Suttons if Paul lost his seat. Unfortunately the pair of them couldn't get away quick enough. After the ballot last May the brothers attended one party social event and one meeting of the NHS SOS campaign in the week immediately after. And then, nothing. This was despite phone calls, emails, and one visit. Next we heard was a letter of resignation received at the national office in November. Unfortunately I missed the branch where it was discussed but from what I can gather it accused leading comrades of dictatorial behaviour and believed Stoke branch were responsible for the loss of Paul's seat. Not once were these perceived grievances were taken up in the branch prior to the election nor did they make any attempt to address them afterwards. Neither did they take the opportunity to reflect on their own performances during the campaign. Small wonder a large number of comrades feel used by the branch's experience with the Suttons.

The chief problem was one of very different political cultures. They come from that proud Labour tradition where political differences are an outcome of personal differences; of the absence of an active and critical party membership and little feeling of responsibility toward it; and a politics where socialism is about state control and not the democratic self-organisation of working class people. Some comrades may ask that if this was the case, why were they accepted as SP members? Quite simply they appeared to be moving left at the time. They were having regular discussions with leading comrades in the branch, buying and reading a lot of party publications, and were visibly shaken by the lengths to which the Labour party machine went to make their life difficult in the council chamber. I can remember one such occasion where you could almost see the Labourite scales falling from Paul Sutton's eyes. Also (and despite the added weight they brought to our organisation) they were treated as any other potential SP member. Comrades coming into the organisation do not have to pass a revolutionary litmus test. They needn't know every aspect of Grant-Taaffe Thought. We do not set them an entry exam. The party would rather educate and train activists "in-house" than have them waiting outside until all the Marxist boxes have been ticked.

What could have been done differently? The pace of the electoral work meant the weekly meetings with the leading comrades fell by the wayside. In my opinion these by themselves could not have prevented their departure but would have provided a useful corrective to their continued Labourite prejudices. Another problem was integrating them into party work. They were quite happy to do stalls in Hanley and the Abbey, but it was a nightmare to get them out canvassing - itself another hold over from the do-nothing culture of the local Labour party. They were good at addressing their ward caseloads but not once did they take to the doorsteps to argue politics.

Ultimately we could only do so much. As any agony aunt will tell you, it takes two to make a relationship work. I think we did the best we could at the time. If Labour representatives do turn to the revolutionary left in the future, sensitively challenging their politics while involving them in party activity isthe common sense approach to integration. It would be interesting for instance to hear how the SWP have integrated the councillors they've managed to recruit from Respect.

Since the election Dave Sutton has sat on the council with a grouping of independents, which itself has gone into alliance with the LibDems. Hence the confusion over Dave's political affiliations. He remains one of the better sitting councillors and is regularly in the local press speaking up against cuts, closures, and mayoral cronyism. He is seeking re-election as a self-titled 'independent community councillor', as is Paul on a vague left anti-cuts platform. Personally speaking if I lived in either ward I would probably vote for them in the absence of a socialist candidate.

On the topic of a socialist candidate, the failure to stand this time round in Abbey Green is not evidence of a collapse in the branch, a fear to make plain our politics, or of a move not to split the so-called anti-fascist vote. Sectarians will be disappointed to learn that it came down to problems with the paper work. While Stoke comrades are disappointed that we're not standing this year it has meant we've been able to concentrate on solidarity work with the Burslem posties, which could potentially be more significant.

Thursday 12 April 2007

Branch Meeting: The CPGB and the Trade Unions

No, we were not spending our valuable time talking about our Weekly Worker friends. The topic of tonight's talk was the implantation the old Communist Party had in the trade unions, what they did with it, and how the Socialist Party and the rest of the left can avoid the mistakes they made.

Comrade S went back to the CPGB's pre-history in the grass roots militancy that gestated in the industrial hothouse of the First World War. Committees of shop stewards had mushroomed across unions, and importantly a number of its militants (organised by the then Socialist Labour Party) fed into the infant CP. This union strength was the basis for the emergence of the Minority Movement in the early-mid 20s - a powerful trend in the labour movement that claimed one million trade unionists. Baring in mind the MM was affiliated to the CPGB, this was a colossal achievement for an organisation numbering only 6,000!

But what did this amount to? Looking at the historical record, its power was only latent. S argued it managed to get people voted into TUC positions but that was about it. While undoubtedly MM supporters were active in the 1926 General Strike it did not act in a concerted fashion, and was put on the back foot after the class suffered a strategic defeat. Part of the reason was the lack of a clear lead coming from the CPGB itself. As a young, militant organisation composed for the most part by grass roots activists, it saw the trade unions as corrupt and corrupting institutions. But for the most part its practice was to win positions within it, which of course was at odds with the analysis it was professing.

With the coming of the infamous 'Third Period' over 1929-33, the union influence further declined. Whereas in the past the CP was prepared to work with other lefts, this was now officially frowned upon. Labour party trade unionists and others were branded 'social fascists', and the effect was to flush a lot of previously accumulated political capital down the loo. The party's ultra-leftism did not rally the masses to its banner, instead it isolated itself from the class. In my opinion one can lambast the Communist International for officially promoting this stupid behaviour, but its sectarian seeds had to fall on fertile ground for them to be taken up enthusiastically by so many CPs. For example, in Germany the KPD did not unite with the Social Democrats against the Nazis simply because Stalin told them not to. They genuinely detested the SPD for the way it had beheaded the German revolution and crapped on workers' struggles throughout the Weimar years. But I digress.

With the destruction of the German workers' movement and partially because of workers' unity in the face of fascist provocations in France, the Comintern line started favouring a cross-class alliance of all anti-fascist forces. In Britain this meant the CP in the trade unions had to rebuild the relationships it had previously sqaundered. This was complicated later on with the outbreak of war and a zig-zagging of the party's position (from anti-fascist conflict to inter-imperialist war to anti-fascist conflict again). Though much has been made of the CPGB as an agent of industrial peace during the war years, it nevertheless managed to retain trade union credibility through an involvement in small scale, workplace-centred strikes. It was this base and not really any prestige the USSR had won that forms the starting point of its trade union strength in the post-war period. Its trade unionism assumed economistic forms. CPGB comrades were elected to union positions on the basis of their being model trade unionists who could win battles over pay and conditions - their politics were more or less inconsequential. And given the CPGB moved more to workplace-based branches after the war, this exacerbated the submerging of its politics into routine trade unionism.

In a sense this approach paid off. It was able to punch way above its weight in the labour movement and was an extremely significant trade union actor by the 1960s. But again, it was what was done with this influence that was the key criterion by which the party should be judged. Moving away from the idea unions were institutionally corrupt, they were now seen as neutral apparatuses that could play a significant role in socialist advance. But significantly workers' activity now played a walk-on role. The rank and file were fodder to be mobilised to push the TU tops into taking official action, and thereby move the country along that British road to socialism. There was no place in this strategy for unsanctioned and spontaneous workplace activity. Socialism would be delivered from on high, by the bureaucrats and a CP-backed Labour government.

Despite the paucity of strategic vision the party played key roles when our class went on the offensive in the late 60s and early 70s. Its front group, the Liason Committee to Defend Trade Unions contributed to the defeat of Labour's In Place of Strife and was responsible for hundreds of thousands of strike days against the Tory Industrial Relations Act. But this was a proud exception to much of what its trade union work had become. In the T&GWU it was effectively an election machine for the soft left but designated 'fellow traveller', Jack Jones. Elsewhere such as in the building industry, in the NUT and NALGO, its activists were bureaucratised and were effectively part of the apparatus while the Trotskyists assumed the mantle of standing up for the rank and file.

S finished the lead off at the end of the 70s, before the onset of the awful 80s and the party's final liquidation in 1991. In sum the comrade suggested three key lessons the SP and the left today can draw from ithe CPGB's 70 years of experience.

1) Organising in workplaces should not come at the expense of excluding other forms of party work. S flagged up the existence of part-time CPGB'ers who were only really party members during the hours they worked. If activists are more rounded out, so will the party.

2) It is important to get comrades into elected positions, but not neglect the shopfloor.

3) Making alliances with other forces in the unions and labour movement is necessary, but to bury political identites or attempt to hide differences would be a mistake. A false unity is no unity at all.

This was followed by a wide ranging discussion, traversing the roots of Stalinism and how it informed CPGB trade union practice, the party's social life, Chavez(!), and the need for working class political independence in all our work. Undoubtedly this was helped by the presence of a couple of Burslem posties and it usefully prefaced a later discussion on the latest developments in their workplace, the role of the CWU, and the problems of working class organisation.

In my opinion this was a timely discussion, and not just because of Stoke branch's solidarity work. Our party in many ways is beginning to resemble the CPGB in miniature with regards to union implantation, and so the danger to repeat past mistakes is always there. Though in my opinion our politics are superior to those of the CPGB in all phases of its development, these by themselves will not innoculate trade union comrades from workplace routinism and the other "attractions" of TU work. We need to thoroughly examine our practice and that of others to ensure we attract as many existing activists as possible, that we continue to rebuild the labour movement, and work toward the offensive organisation our class.

Monday 9 April 2007

A Very Bad Man Writes ...

I must apologise for keeping my audience on tenterhooks. Yes, all 15 of you. I haven't really joined the Tories. This transcribing/working lark has left me with scant time to devote to this here blog. I hope I'll be able to resume something approaching normal service shortly.

I might as well take the opportunity to plug the newest blog on the block. Some SP comrades have got their heads together and launched Militant - The Marxist blog for labour and youth on an unsuspecting public. Expect cutting commentary and analysis from blogland's Marxists, and also the odd piece from yours truly.

I haven't forgotten those Virilio, Foucault, and GDH Cole pieces either. They're still simmering away in the back of my brain.

Sunday 1 April 2007

Goodbye to the Left

I first became interested in politics 20 years ago, when our school held a mock election to run in parallel with the 1987 general election. Being only 10 years of age I asked my Mum and Nana who I should vote for. They advised I should support the Conservatives. They told me Margaret Thatcher had helped make Britain a strong country again after it had gone to the dogs under Labour. Bullying unions would no longer make life hell for people who just wanted to get on with their lives. The working class would reap the benefit from being able to invest their hard earned savings in the privatised schemes the Tories were planning. Others were being offered the opportunity to own their own homes and living standards were being raised right across the board. Labour would, I was told, scrap our nuclear weapons meaning there was nothing stopping the Russians invading. But what stayed with me most was the belief that hard work would be rewarded – all Labour wanted to do was tax us to the high heavens.

I duly marked my cross against the Tories and quite happily urged my class mates to do likewise. I’ve long cherished the memories of sitting in the dinner hall, transformers sandwich box on knee, holding my own against 9 and 10 year old Kinnockites. And in the end the blue team won out. I think the Tories romped home with 220 votes, Labour with a hundred fewer and the Alliance with a pathetic 30-something.

This is where I date my political life from. I was proud to call myself a Conservative until the aftermath of the 1992 general election. Then I became increasingly disenchanted with the society that the Tories had created, one where the much-vaunted conservative values of community and mutual respect had been brushed aside by dog eat dog greed and an I’m alright Jack philosophy. The victims of the Tory years, the unemployed and those on low incomes, had in the twisted parlance of the times become the cause of the ills that bedevilled Britain. I found myself moving to the left. My experiences of the workplace and introduction to the ideas of Marx at FE college changed my thinking completely. Between 1992-5 I went from an enthusiastic true blue Tory boy to the deepest red, seething with anger at the appalling destruction capitalism visited on people’s lives.

I’ve now been on the left for 12 years, the overwhelming majority of that time in or associated with various left groups. And what a state our movement has become in that time. Four promising left unity initiatives (Socialist Labour Party, Socialist Alliance, Respect, Scottish Socialist Party) have come and gone, their potential pissed up the wall through petty sectarianism, Jupiter-sized egos, a hopelessly undemocratic culture, and a failure to connect with the working class it claims to be the vanguard of. The sad fact is even the useless hatemongers of the BNP have a better handle on what working class people are thinking than the left's self-selected leaders and tribunes.

I’ve just had enough of all this petty crap. I’ve been thinking a lot about my politics. The revolutionary left offers nothing. Similarly the soft left of the Labour party are completely useless – if they had a spine they might be dangerous. Instead I’ve come to the conclusion that the Tories under David Cameron are the only ones with the modern, forward-looking politics Britain needs. After years in the wilderness here’s a party oozing with confidence and free from the sleaze and cronyism that has bedevilled it in the past. This is a party going places. Tory associations have filled up with the young dynamic professionals and entrepreneurs that can get this country back on its feet after a decade of Blairite mismanagement. And the Tories are far from being a party of the middle and upper classes. The work Cameron’s team are putting into poverty reduction will put an end to the gross inequalities that continue to blight the nation. And on the Green agenda the Conservatives are leading the way. It’s all very well the left bleating about capitalism being the fault of global warming, but in fact the problem’s more mundane than that – people’s unsustainable life styles are the root cause. Cameron’s thinking on carbon off-setting, sustainable development and recycling offer the best way out of the environmental crisis. There’s certainly more chance of them making a difference instead of the left’s pie in the sky “solutions”.

I have resigned all my left and labour movement affiliations. I’m turning the responsibility of the UKLN over to the other mods. Obviously they disagree with the conclusions I’ve drawn but can see why I’ve drawn them, and respect my position for all that. I will however be continuing with my blog.

I would wish all the friends I’ve made on the British left all the success, but unfortunately I can’t now we’re on what you would call the opposite sides of the barricades. You’re all barking up the wrong tree. David Cameron’s Conservatives is now the natural home for genuine radicalism, and I call on all of you to join me in the new Tory party.