Sunday 29 June 2008

CNWP Conference

Today's CNWP conference opened with the sad news of the death of Terry Fields, the former Militant MP. After a short tribute from Tony Mulhearn we held a minute's silence in memory of the comrade.

In my report of last year's conference, I said "If the CNWP isn't built from the ground up, if local groups aren't initiated and assume an active existence, then next year's conference will be a very forlorn affair indeed." Well active groups are few and far between but this last year hasn't been a bad one where the CNWP's message is concerned. Speaking from the platform, Hannah Sell noted the number of successful public meetings that have taken place but also the ire the campaign is starting to attract from union bureaucracies. It was no accident, she thought, that the CWU and Unison had to resort to getting out the big guns to defend the Labour link at their respective conferences, and it is CNWP signatories in the latter union on the receiving end of a witch hunt. But also the political environment in which the CNWP finds itself has changed. Last year's conference took place under the shadow of the imminent hand over to Brown and some within the labour movement had deluded themselves into thinking we were going to get something better than Blair. Instead we got a government more brazen in its courting of capital, a government so transparently working against the interests of working class people that it's in electoral meltdown. So there is potential for the CNWP to become more significant in the near future.

We then heard from the panel of speakers. The first was John McInally, Socialist Party member and PCS Vice President. He argued that no matter how hard a union fights, it is struggling with one arm tied behind its back if there isn't political backing behind the industrial muscle. For this reason, he announced the PCS leadership will be seeking to build a conference of the trade unions expelled and disaffiliated from Labour and reaching out to those who never had a formal relationship in the first place on the question of political representation. Needless to say this development was universally welcomed by conference. We then heard from Simeon Andrews of the LRC give a speech in which he basically said a) the Labour party can no longer be regarded as a vehicle for working class politics and b) it cannot be reclaimed. He did however argue that what exists of the Labour left now is worth preserving and he argued if the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell broke with Labour they would lose their seats to official (i.e. Brownite) Labour candidates. Bob Crow of the RMT backed up McInally's argument that unions need political representation. Campaigns for disaffiliation are not good enough in and of themselves because of the danger of depoliticising trade unionism, as is the case in the USA. Neither do we need more false starts like the SLP, Socialist Alliance and Respect. Our starting point should be a series of common demands which can act as an umbrella, and then we should go from there.

Dave Church of Walsall Democratic Labour Party came next and warned Labour were bound to lose in two years time, but people "out there" were already paying the price of their criminal policies. We've got find a way of getting together and start believing in ourselves. He felt we were going round in circles at the moment when we should be firmer about the destination. Rob Hoveman of Respect said his organisation was a contribution to the process of building a new party. It has significant pockets of localised support and, contrary to what its critics say, is firmly an anti-privatisation and anti-war organisation of the left. What's more Respect is in a position to win more councillors and perhaps return two MPs over the next two years, despite the split with the SWP. But it still remains committed to working with the rest of the left and the trade unions to build something greater. Mike Davies of the AGS argued that left unity with environmentalists was necessary. He was at pains to say this should not be confused with an alliance with the Greens, who, despite honourable exceptions, were fundamentally a right-wing party because they have no analysis of the social roots of ecological crisis. Dave Nellist was the final platform speaker. He made the usual points about Labour, Tories and LibDems being three wings of the same capitalist party, before moving on to a critiquing the Labour left. The process of creating a new party has its own momentum and should not confine itself to the speed of the slowest wagon, which he thought the LRC represented.

We had enough time for a dozen contributions from the floor. Stan Keable for the cpgbs made the usual point about building a Marxist party, and Bill Mullins set out the SP's desire for a new party to be federalist at the beginning. Gerry Byrne of the Socialist Alliance wished Bob Crow had taken steps at this meeting to raise the umbrella he spoke of. Andrew Price and Rob Williams of the SP called for union disaffiliation from Labour and challenged those left MPs to leave the party. Contrary to what the LRC may think, it's extremely unlikely comrades like Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell would lose their seats, they thought. There was a touch of ultra-leftism in the air as some speakers accused these MPs of propping up New Labour. Jeremy Dewar for Workers' Power thought we didn't need a few MPs when what is clearly required is a workers' government(?!) He also echoed the call for a new party now. Finally, Dave Griffiths came back in and counselled the need for patience, of the need to understand our differences and negotiate them so we can progress the task at hand. Sound advice in my opinion.

There then followed a debate on the resolutions before conference. Without wanting to go in the technical details of every contribution, the motions can be summed up thus. The SP proposed the CNWP be put on a firmer organisational footing with the introduction of a members structure and regular regional meetings. This was passed overwhelmingly, though I couldn't help feeling this is something that should have gone through when the CNWP was founded a couple of years ago. The motion put forward by the SA caused most controversy, because of the line; "as well as campaigning for a new party, [we] will also begin work to determine the structure and rules for such a party." Many SP comrades spoke against it in favour of our amendment deleting this line on the grounds it was premature to speak of rules for a formation that doesn't exist. In the end the SP amendment was withdrawn after it had been pointed out this position was adopted at last conference and in subsequent steering committee meetings. Hence the SA motion was passed overwhelmingly, as were the modest proposals from Berkshire CNWP for strengthening the campaign's profile in the labour movement. The Workers' Power motion was alright and most of its content was covered by the other motions. What most comrades objected to were the strident criticisms it made of the RMT, PCS and FBU leaders for "prevaricating". Not the cleverest way of engaging these comrades in the CNWP project. If it wasn't for that I'm sure it would have passed. Also voted down were the CMP's motion on the CNWP adopting some Weekly Worker clich├ęs and an amendment from the RDG on republicanism and democracy.

The final session of the day saw conference split up into a series of workshops on fighting the BNP, union disaffiliation, environmentalism etc. As an advocate of a more serious attitude toward parliamentary cretinism I went to 'building an electoral alternative'. Rob Windsor, the "other" SP councillor in Coventry gave us a run down of the campaign in St. Michael's ward to get Dave Nellist re-elected. He noted the insidious character of Labour's campaign - first by pretending to voters new to the area that the ward was a straight fight between Labour and the Tories, and then trying to mobilise a communal vote. It was only through hard campaigning, mass canvassing and a first class record of struggle that saw off Labour's challenge. Dave Church who lost out on a seat by 70 votes talked about all year campaigning and regular, targeted leaflet drops. Tony Mulhearn drew from his experiences in Liverpool, of how over the years comrades disappeared into the council chamber and were swallowed up by the labyrinthine apparatus. The way they dealt with the problem was by building a mass membership in the district Labour party. In those days DLPs could set policy and an active membership ensured there was accountability. The other strength of their approach was translating socialism into a day-to-day programme that linked local bread and butter issues to events of national import.

Overall this year's conference at least had some limited progress to shout about. But we have to soberly assess the campaign's impact on labour movement politics. We've already seen how CNWP-inspired motions have got on the conference agenda of a couple of large unions, and political representation has become the burning issue in our movement. But this is thanks to the neoliberal ineptitude of the government rather than CNWP activities. But this could change. Now the CNWP has a more robust structure the campaign could assume more of an independent existence and it, along with the NSSN are SP campaigning priorities. But the most significant event to come out of it was John McInally's news of the PCS initiative. If it goes ahead (and Bob Crow is reportedly interested) there will be a meeting in the Autumn, and then who knows? Could it be possible the CNWP's objective can come to fruition within the next year?


Jim Jepps said...

I thought there was to be a Green Party speaker - didn't they show up?

Phil said...

I thought there was as well, Jim. I must have got my wires crossed and just assumed one was going to turn up. Instead, we got Mike Davies. Ho hum.