Saturday 7 February 2009

Branch Meeting: Socialist Party Strategy

Stoke Socialist Party met Thursday evening on the occasion of its AGM for a discussion of national and local party strategy. The substance of the discussion revolved around the report A brought us from the SP's national committee, which was a mixture of material from the party's annual British Perspectives document (last year's here) and the strategic priorities it has laid out for the party.

A started by noting how the party is entering a unique period as none of its activists have ever experienced a crisis of this scale and depth. It is a situation pregnant with dangers and opportunities, and one that will see quite dramatic shifts in consciousness. By way of a small example A cited a journalists'
meeting at the Financial Times, called in response to management's leaked plan to lay off 18 staff. Tony Benn spoke and concluded his contribution by observing that "capitalism isn't working". This was reportedly met with "thunderous applause". If staff at the bourgeoisie's house journal are hailing the arguments of a well known socialist, then capitalism's got some serious legitimacy issues.

The scope of the crisis mean it cannot be escaped. Even China and India, the capitalist success stories of the last decade,  are facing difficulties as their overseas export markets shrink. Already Eastern Europe and the Balkans have witnessed serious unrest, France has been convulsed by strikes, Britain(!) has had the first successful wildcat action since anyone can remember, and even nominally stable states such as Iceland have brought their government down (joke - what's the difference between Iceland and Ireland? One letter and six months ...)

The effect the crisis has had on politics has been profound. This is especially true in Britain where a seemingly sclerotic government lurched from crisis to crisis seemingly began exuding dynamism and the appearance of competence. The speed with which neoliberalism was discarded was almost indecent. But the government had no choice - either massive injections of cash were pumped into the banking system or the whole financial edifice would come crashing down, which would not only have devastated the British economy, but also have torn a massive hole in the fabric of global capital. Brown and Darling may not have saved the world, but their actions did head off an even greater catastrophe. The problem is the crisis has been temporarily stabilised, but the price paid is financial stagnation. We are told time after time that recovery depends on getting things moving - and the measures so far introduced such as the two per cent off VAT, the availability of government loans to banks, the reduction of interest rates to a single percentage point have all done very little. While it is true lending capacity has dramatically shrunk as foreign banks have withdrawn from the UK market, it is also the case the British economy is caught between the horns of overproduction and underconsumption.

All this adds up to possibly the greatest crisis British capital has ever faced, and the government are now effectively paralysed. When the IMF forecast a devastating 2.8 per cent GDP contraction for Britain this year, all Brown could do was mutter how Japan and Italy would have it much worse in 2010!

The impact on the working class is uneven. As the party and this blog has
predicted previously, the crisis has had a stunning effect on sections of the class, perhaps best illustrated by how the collapse of Woolworths and the scale of job losses on the high street has not provoked generalised resistance. And with jobs disappearing at the rate of 1,600 a day, struggles are more likely to be of a defensive character. Take the public sector, for example. Throughout the neoliberal years this has been the bastion of British trade union organisation. It has taken action over government attacks on pensions, job cuts, wages, and so on. With the public sector now targeted for £5bn worth of cuts and some local authorities plan to completely privatise their services, the focus of action will increasingly switch to preserving jobs rather than agitation over wages. But because of union slovenliness in the previous period, particularly on the part of those still formally affiliated to Labour, there is some movement among trade unionists leaving one union and taking up membership in another. On the one hand, it's a positive sign that workers are looking for an organisation prepared to stand and fight, but on the other it could serve to divide union strength in the workplaces. The SP while understanding these sentiments will nevertheless pursue strategies aimed at reclaiming unions and discourage jumping ship.

Staying with the public sector, the massive failure of the market and the part-nationalisation of the banks has put the N-word back on the political agenda. This offers a foot in the door for socialists to make our arguments, but we must carefully differentiate between the state capitalist nationalisations carried through by Brown and co, and those pushed by re-animated Keynesians. Our idea of nationalisation put democracy and the interests of our class at its core and are of a different order entirely of anything the government would consider.

The existence of a new workers' party would have a tremendous positive impact on the consciousness of working class people. But founding a new party between now and the next general election is an increasingly unlikely prospect. Nevertheless the SP will continue pushing the
CNWP as well as building its own ranks. Where the Labour party are concerned, the 'Brown bounce' is well and truly over and the polling gap has re-opened between it and the Tories. Its not beyond the realm of possibility that Brown might face his own Iceland-style scenario, but should things proceed normally as per the electoral cycle, people are so fed up that it is increasingly likely Cameron will be forming the next government. From the SP's point of view, it would be better if Labour stayed in power, not least because opposition could allow it to rediscover social democratic values and the aspirations of its core vote. Such a repositioning could see it act as a counterweight to emerging radicalism by sucking in new layers of working class militants and dissipating their energies down harmless institutional channels.

For the SP, recruitment for the last quarter and the year to date is well up on the same period 12 months ago. The level of subs - the regular financial contribution every member makes to the party - is now its highest for 12 years, indicating the difficult period of decline is behind us. But we should not overplay what lies ahead, we're not facing a revolutionary situation or capitalism's Waterloo. That scenario will only come to pass when the workers' movement is strong enough to put the continued existence of capitalism into question. But what we do have is a generalised crisis where the party's organisation and influence could grow significantly. This means paying attention not just to recruitment but also the integration and development of new members. The cultivation and encouragement of new cadres is essential if the SP is to make the most of the new situation.

The main problem facing a small revolutionary organisation is knowing what work to prioritise. As more workers enter into disputes, as the government claws back public services, as national scandals and political crises erupt, the danger consists of spreading ourselves too thinly and getting swamped by the pace and scale of events. For this reason the party is prioritising the
Youth Fight For Jobs campaign and march - its demands will act as a strategic anchor and focus enabling us to intervene effectively across workplaces, universities, colleges and schools.

In the discussion, R raised his concerns about the government's intent to implement its workfare programme, which could undercut the pay and working conditions of existing workforces. F said he'd looked into it further for his union branch and found that of the 10 contracts in the process of being finalised, only two are for public sector projects. In other words business will be receiving an indentured labour force it doesn't pay for. For P, as well as being utterly disgraceful, immoral and exploitative in and of itself, he argued this could be a very bad move on the government's part. Unemployment typically atomises workers, but forcing people to work for their dole will throw them together, making collective action not only possible but extremely likely. This is nothing to say of the workers whose jobs will be threatened by this unfree labour - it is a combustible recipe for more Lindsey-style disputes. For F, the consciousness of the 'boom' years with its general antipathy toward the unemployed will melt away as ever more are sucked onto the dole.

Remembering his
Militant days under Thatcher, R suggested that an electoral victory for the Tories could catalyse opposition. A thought this might not be the case seeing as Cameron will want to play his soft Conservatism hand. But P replied that whether the Tories play good cop or bad cop, the trade union leaders without a government to embarrass any more might be more likely to fight. But J, going from his experiences on the stalls, believed there was little enthusiasm out there for any of the mainstream parties.

The discussion then moved on to local strategy and how the YFFJ campaign can tie all our work together. I'm sure readers will understand why that won't be receiving a public airing on here. We then elected our new branch committee and delegates to the WestMids regional committee - it was heartening to see new comrades taking up organising roles.

Overall I think comrades came away with a clear understanding of the challenging year the branch has ahead of it. But also of the political rewards that are within reach.


Matthew Culbert said...

It is strange that Benn should say capitalism isn't working,when it manifestly IS.This is normal for capitalism, the means of its own correction,contractions, wage cuts etc are all a part and parcel of it.It is silly to pretend that 'any' government can manage capitalism in any way which is pro-worker.It is an anti-human system which can only exist to enrich the already rich.The fact that some of those parasites will go bust ,is small potatos to the overall picture.I can't see the Lehmans signing on can you?.The Left need to get out of the pretend zone and go for revolution.The soluton to capitalism is socialism/communism. Not the left managed state-capitalism of yore,this is bound to fail also.
Abolishing the wages system,and establishing a free access society is what all those left activists ,puzzled by the crisis need to read up on.Starting by "What is socialism",
and ending the puzzle of the crisis,"What is capitaism,
.If htey don't do so they will continued to be misled and to themselves mislead workers of all countries and none.Don't recycle capitalism bin it forever.

Phil said...

I'm sure Benn meant capitalism wasn't working for the majority. Of course, you're right it never has.

"The Left need to get out of the pretend zone and go for revolution."

Ah, but the question is how do we get to that point? It's not as easy as saying it. This is why the SP is always having a conversation in its ranks about its experiences, what engages working people and what doesn't, how our activity, the labour movement, and our class are conditioned by the political situation, and so on. The talk this post reports on is an example of how we're trying to win support for socialist ideas.