Thursday 19 June 2008

Branch Meeting: Campaign for a New Workers' Party

At tonight's branch meeting of Stoke Socialist Party brother A gave a talk about the Campaign for a New Workers' Party. When the local branch of Militant was inside the Labour party, the fruitfulness or otherwise of staying put was kept under constant review. However, things are now very different. In the absence of mass independent working class political representation in most countries, the Socialist Party and the CWI must not only constantly reflect on the project of recruiting to our organisations but also the opportunities for building something bigger and wider that can fill the political vacuum on the left.

This is a lot easier said than done, especially when the consciousness of working class people is in a state of flux. The experience of the postal workers' strike last year is a case in point. Here we have Royal Mail management carrying through a neoliberal restructuring programme as a step toward privatising the post office. This is carried out at the behest of a Labour government. The main responsibility for organising the resistance falls on the shoulders of the CWU leadership who not only accept the process of marketisation but also stubbornly claim it's in their members interests to remain affiliated to Labour - the very party kicking postal workers in the teeth! The same is true of other unions. For instance Unison's behaviour over NHS and local government cuts spring to mind. All this impacts on the building of a new workers' party, it means we have to deal with a situation where most union leaderships and bureaucracies will fight tooth and nail against it until such a time when pressure from below forces them to throw their weight behind a new project. But even then it will be haphazard, halting and likely involve attempts to exclude most existing left organisations, including ourselves.

But what do we do in the here and now? The CNWP is not a party and it lacks the advantages of party organisation. But there are ways its message can be disseminated. In Liverpool, the CNWP has organised a counter-weight to the official 'Capital of Culture' celebrations. As the establishment have chosen to ignore working class contributions to the city's culture, activists under the CNWP umbrella have worked to modestly redress the balance with their own events, talks and film screenings. In other places, such as Kent, the CNWP has organised debates on working class political representation. Up and down the country other CNWP public meetings have taken place alongside street stalls, letter writing campaigns, etc. In the absence of any major upsurge this careful, patient work must continue.

In the discussion, M thought more people would be receptive to CNWP ideas as more workers enter into struggle ... and win. Locally we've seen partial victories at Burslem and Keele and the mayor's attempts to close Dimensions was defeated off the back of a large community-based campaign. Nationally, just this week we've seen the tanker drivers took on their employers and won. And also there's a growing scepticism toward union tops themselves. David Prentis of Unison may have excited newsrooms with his dire warnings to Gordon Brown, but this is the same leader who has recommended nursing staff accept the government's below inflation two per cent pay "offer". With such people comprising the main "opposition" within Labour, then what hope can there be for reclaiming it?

E wondered if there was an issue with the CNWP's name. If most people thought of themselves in either non-class or middle class terms, would they likely not be attracted to a campaign that proudly announces its class character? N wryly observed there was nothing quite like a recession to remind people of what class they are. M also noted that many formerly middle class jobs had been proletarianised. For example teachers and lecturers increasingly face insecurity and attacks on working conditions. N argued the key task building the CNWP's influence lies in rebuilding the labour movement - if the campaign bypasses, ignores or otherwise does not relate to trade unions then the confusion and auto-labourism they engender go unchallenged.

P asked if the Labour party can really be written off as a vehicle for working class politics? He drew attention to last year's abolition of conference as (theoretically) the body's sovereign decision-making body, and the new structures that have come in its wake - namely the formation of a National Policy Forum to which CLPs can submit proposals. The problem is there's very little chance of anything not attuned to government thinking being adopted. There is no mechanism to force the leadership to adopt popular social democratic policies. To all intents and purposes, the Labour party is a dead end. However P argued that the CNWP and the SP should establish friendly relations wherever possible with comrades in the Labour party who disagree and patiently explain the case for a new party instead of hectoring and denouncing them.

He then moved on to the CNWP itself. He noted there are problems with the campaign. It remains an ad hoc organisation limited to regular steering committee meetings, a website, a blog, a declaration and sporadic activities, mainly initiated by SP comrades. Perhaps there is a case for putting it on a firmer organisational footing. On the other hand there is as yet no clamouring for a new party. If there is a mass desire, it is overwhelmingly a passive one. This explains why CNWP stalls tend to attract far fewer than our usual campaigning SP stalls. This experience scotches the argument, forwarded by some on the ultra left, that our party is holding the campaign back. Even if the SP had liquidated itself into the CNWP from the outset, its spread of ideas and influence would not be qualitatively greater.

Summing up, A suggested that if the Labour left somehow managed to revive as a force on the cusp of taking control of the party, the bureaucracy would do everything it could to thwart it, up to and including expulsions. As for the CNWP, he argued it would be better for it to make propaganda by intervening in disputes and campaigns rather than concentrating on electoral politics. Though class struggle remains low there are a rising number of disputes. Because Labour has abandoned all pretence to being the workers' voice there is a fresh opportunity of making a case for a new party. This is what we will seek to do here in Stoke.

If you agree with the case for a new party or remain to be convinced the CNWP conference takes place Sunday 29th June, 11am-5pm at South Camden Community School, Charrington Street, London NW1.


Anonymous said...

thanks for almost plugging our meeting phil.
for anyone willing to travel to rochester in medway... allow me -

time for a new workers party?
hosted by medway trades council
tuesday 8th july 7pm - 9pm
Rochester visitors centre, Rochester high street

speakers confirmed -
hannah sell- assistant secretary CNWP
john rees - secretary LEFT LIST
speakers invited(and expected)
john mccdonell LRC

leave your email address here if you want me to send you a flyer

if you do hope to attend please leave your sectarian whining at home, with the obvious exception of throwing anything by james cannon or farrell dobbs at comrade rees - this as usual will be encouraged!

Imposs1904 said...

"if you do hope to attend please leave your sectarian whining at home . . ."

You do realise that the above qualifies as sectarian whining?

Frank Partisan said...

No comment my friend.

Phil said...

Looks like a good meeting - any chance of a guest post from either yourself or sister J when the dust has settled?

Actually, I'm quite encouraged by this meeting. First, the fact John Rees has accepted the invitation does, I hope, signify a retreat from the SWP's more recent 'ourselves alone' orientation.

Second, I think this has the potential of being the first meeting where - provided the LRC and RR send people - all four main left projects in England and Wales will be speaking from the same platform. Excellent.

I'll give it a plug on Socialist Unity a bit nearer the time.

Anonymous said...

much obliged comrade. ill be happy to put a report together which you can do with as you wish.

by the way if you fancy a trip down the medway towns yourself, you are as always, more than welcome