Friday 3 September 2010

Whither the Campaign for a New Workers' Party?

This letter has been circulated on several discussion lists from the Campaign for a New Workers' Party. I will let it speak for itself and add some comments after:

Dear Comrades

Thank you for your continued support for the Campaign for a New Workers Party (CNWP), which has enabled us to sustain and develop the arguments that working people need a new independent political voice arguing the case for socialism against the three main parties who now occupy the common ground of support for big business.

To take our campaign to the next stage the officers have decided to organise an extended Steering Committee at the end of this month to widen participation in the discussion on a number of key initiatives. The Steering Committee will be open to all supporters of the CNWP, but those fully able to participate and vote will be CNWP members who have either paid the current membership subscription or have a standing order financially supporting the campaign. There will be the opportunity to join the CNWP on the day.

The meeting will take place on Sunday, September 26, 2010 from 12 noon to 4 pm at the University of London Students Union building (ULU), in Malet Street, London WC1E 7HY. If you're travelling from outside of London, ULU is a 10 min walk from Euston station. If you're travelling from within London ULU describes which tubes or buses you can use at the following webpage:

The officers have decided that a capped pooled fare will operate, with everyone attending contributing £10 and the campaign making up the difference for those who have to travel the furthest. Please make sure that you take the opportunity to book cheaper train or coach fares well in advance in order to reduce costs.

The main business of the day will undoubtedly be the campaign's response to the huge levels of cuts in public services which the ConDem government are due to announce on October 20th. With a target of £113 billion a year reduction in public spending, (£9 billion more a year than what is currently spent on the NHS!), the government are attempting the biggest cut in the standard of living of ordinary people and their families for over 80 years. The trade union movement in general, and public sector unions in particular, will undoubtedly engage in battles to preserve services and protect jobs. But a crucial question will come next May when elections are due to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, and to local authorities throughout the country - where is the political alternative going to come from, how are people going to be able to vote for anti-cuts candidates?

There will also be a number of other discussions including widening membership of the Steering Committee by co-option, setting the details for a full campaign conference in the first six months of next year, relaunching the CNWP declaration in the light of changed political circumstances, and discussing reports on membership, finance, website and social media use etc. There will be some time for discussion on resolutions and one area for discussion of which we already have notice is from those comrades wishing to set out the process by which the prototype of a new left party could be established. If you want to submit a resolution for discussion please send it to me by 10 am Wednesday, September 22nd at the latest.

The meeting on September 26th will be an important stage in the development of the CNWP and I would urge you to make every effort to attend. A leaflet advertising this meeting and promoting the CNWP can be downloaded here.

Yours, in solidarity

Cllr Dave Nellist
National Chair, CNWP


No one reading will be surprised that I think the prospects of the CNWP range from bleak to non-existent.

One thing that attracted me to the Socialist Party in late 2005 was its decision to launch a formal campaign around this issue. Its line had long been that Labour was a straight party of capital, and a new party of the working class was required to fill the space Blair and Brown had consciously vacated. I viewed the Labour party differently, but I subscribed to the same conclusion. Almost five years on I now don't think the political space was ever there for a new mass party, but there was certainly an opening for a small but serious left formation - an opening that was let slip by the fractious and irredeemably sectarian nature of the far left.

But even then with New Labour constantly tacking to the right, treating the trade unions as embarrassing relatives, and dumping on all things social democratic, the CNWP had precious little purchase in the labour movement and society at large. In the trade unions political representation did become more of a live issue, but this was more due to the efforts of SP activists working as SP activists and the appalling record of New Labour than the CNWP's profile.

On the streets it was even worse: the CNWP met with almost total indifference. On dozens of campaign stalls punters would happily sign petitions against whatever we were peddling and they might have even nodded when we (patiently) explained that working class people needed their own party, but very few would then go on to sign the CNWP  declaration. If there isn't a more damning indictment of the CNWP's failure than the few thousand names of SP and other far left activists who signed the declaration over a five year period, I don't know what is.

The SP could possibly have done more, and Workers' Power and the cpgb framed a number of unanswered polemics around that theme. But the pace of work in our branch and limited personnel meant something else would have to be parked on the back burner had the leadership decreed 'CNWP work' a priority. And if the SP followed the example of its erstwhile comrades in Scottish Militant Labour and liquidated itself into the CNWP, it is very doubtful anything other than a re-branded SP plus a few independents and sundry ultra-lefts would have resulted.

This is a roundabout way of saying that if the CNWP was a dismal flop when Labour was consciously estranging itself from the labour movement, what prospects does the campaign have now the party is in opposition and is busily renewing those links? Tens of thousands of trade unionists are not looking at forming a new party but instead working to ensure there is no repeat of the Blair-Brown years. Some 30,000 have joined Labour since May because it is seen as the natural opposition to the Tory coalition. The SP's branches are rammed with anti-cuts campaigning and party building and won't have the time and energy (or enthusiasm) to simultaneously push the CNWP. And if anyone's expecting anti-cuts opposition directed toward Labour councils will reopen the question of working class political representation, I fear those comrades are going to be very disappointed.

The objectives Dave's letter sets itself sound fine and dandy, but why weren't they done when political circumstances were more benign? It all smacks of having missed the boat.


Andy B said...

Another interesting critique Phil.

I know that there is still Socialist Students, Youth Fight For Jobs and various other 'far left' organisations to keep you busy with further 'withering' critcism but we are all desperatley waiting to hear what YOUR STRATEGY is to reclaim the Labour Party for socialism.

Or to pose the question in the way an ordinary worker would, "What's the point in continually critcising my organisation when you don't give us any alternative"?

Next Left said...

I supported the CNWP initiative when it was first launched. It is always important to test the political water to see what is going on beneath the apparent stillness of ‘mainstream’ party politics.

But I also made clear at the time that I thought the chances of success were very slim.

Why? In part, because the analysis that led to the CNWP being launched was deeply flawed.

The key argument was that New Labour abandoned the working class and generated a ‘vacuum’ on the left that a new workers’ party could fill.

This was and remains an utterly wrongheaded way to analyse the issue.

The analysis focuses on changes in Labour’s leadership while ignoring concurrent changes in the economic and ideological composition of the working class. This narrow and one-sided focus is a profoundly un-Marxist method of analysis and, not surprisingly, led to mistaken conclusions.

The rise of New Labour was made possible partly because the collective cultures of industrial and political opposition that were a feature of significant sections of the British working class had, by the late-1980s, been largely eradicated by a mix of economic, technical and political change.

The ‘vacuum on the left’ metaphor was therefore misconceived and misleading. By the mid-1990s there was no ‘vacuum’ (which implies the existence of an artificially created space that is pressing to be filled by new content). A more appropriate metaphor was ‘scorched earth’: a political landscape where the industrial and political collectivism that had underpinned Old Labour had been cleared by the forces of neoliberalism.

Some in the SP/CNWP will regard this as ‘pessimistic’ (a label always useful in place of evidence-based argument). I hope they reflect on the experience of the CNWP and draw logical conclusions. But I am not holding my breath.

Jim said...

The CNWP is heading nowhere or anywhere Andy B and I say that with all due-respect, the priority for Socialists weather in the Labour Party or SP is to now build a massive campaign of resistance to the Con/Dem
austerity programme - I'm not a member of any party, but what I've read on this blog convinces me that Phil and others in the Labour Party are doing their bit!"

Phil said...

Andy, your 'what aboutery' shows you don't regularly read my blog (sniff, sniff). If you were to glance here or here you will find more than a few posts and debates on socialist strategy and the Labour party.

But then I'm only one guy. The SP has about 1,700 members and yet not one cogent piece has appeared in party publications on a strategy for building a new workers' party - that is beyond standing candidates, encouraging trade unions to break from Labour, getting a few names on a declaration and hoping for the best. There's been plenty of material on why the SP thinks Labour is a dead end, but precious little on the way forward.

The upcoming steering committee meeting of the CNWP and the promised discussion on a prototype party might fill this gap, but the political situation has changed and the labour movement are now rallying around their party. To deny that is flying in the face of reality.

Phil said...

To be fair to the SP, Next, it has always emphasised the changed composition of the working class after the defeats of the 1980s. The rise of New Labour has always been placed in this political context. For the SP the well spring of a new party (despite ritual incantations of new workers entering into struggle) were the trade unions - if enough broke with Labour a new broad party based on some unions (and presumably what remains of the most militant and conscious sections of our class) could rejuvenate the movement, socialist politics, and class consciousness.

I now think this was never on the cards. There was a small political space for a united left formation similar in scale to the SSP, but it never came to fruition - mainly because of the petty egotism and sectarianism of the groups that had the political capital and resources to make it happen.

Jim, I do agree. The main task is facing down the cuts, which go hand in hand with rebuilding the labour movement. Standing candidates and building some sort of alternative does little to aid this process.

Andy B said...


I do agree with you when you say

“the priority for Socialists weather in the Labour Party or SP is to now build a massive campaign of resistance to the Con/Dem
austerity programme”

I think we should not look at the work that SP members and others are doing with the CNWP in isolation from our other campaigning work - particularly against the cuts.

The latest issue of Socialism Today carries a major article, ‘Fighting the cuts’, which outlines the SP’s anti-cuts strategy.

If you want to check out what the Socialist Party is doing across the country to fight against these savage cuts then checkout

and for what we are doing locally -

Phil says,

“not one cogent piece has appeared in party publications on a strategy for building a new workers' party - that is beyond standing candidates, encouraging trade unions to break from Labour, getting a few names on a declaration and hoping for the best”.

Phil, you had a very useful concrete experience here in Stoke of what role the CNWP can and did play in 2006 which you appear to have forgotten.

Over 100 mainly nurses came to a public meeting organised by the CNWP in Stoke Town Hall to launch a fightback against the plan to sack 1200 NHS workers at the University Hospital of North Staffs.

This led to a march of around 3 thousand mainly NHS workers through the city. This was probably the biggest march in the city since the Tories attempt to close Trentham pit in 1992.

Follow the links below for more info about the public meeting and the march

Phil says,

“If you were to glance here or here you will find more than a few posts and debates on socialist strategy and the Labour party.”

Apologies if I have missed something after checking out these links but I still don’t see a cogent strategy explained of how the Labour Party will be reclaimed for socialism either from yourself or from the left in the party.

Lawrence Shaw said...

I think it's just a depressing truth that the best window of opportunity for forming a left alternative away from the Labour party in an entire generation has now passed.

It started with the scrapping of Clause IV, it peaked with the anti-war demonstrations (largest political demonstration in UK history) and should have borne fruit when the entire Marxist left was proved correct as capitalism actually collapsed as we had all been predicting.

And what fruit was borne for the left? None whatsoever. Because there was not even a basis of a mass party there to start to build from. For all the proclamations made about the imminent collapse of the system, when it actually came about the various party bureaucracies were caught with their pants down.

We all failed to form anything coherent. Had the left in the UK stuck with the Socialist Alliance banner and doggedly stood candidates under that for a decade, I think we could have seen hundreds of councillors and even an MP or MEP by now. The Greens and dare I say even the fascists have proved this strategy to be correct and enjoy much more recognisable public profiles.

What we have now in 2010 Britain is a situation where the traditional party of the ruling class is in government thanks to the actions of a second party that courted many youth and workers as being a progressive and left-wing party.

As a result of this betrayal (which, again, we all largely predicted) the entire UK political landscape has now shifted. It is an inescapable fact that tens of thousands of people have joined Labour, a huge proportion of them under 30, as a direct result of the changed situation.

Whilst I have no illusions as a Labour party member about the various limitations in front of socialists operating within the party, it is now, I feel, better to be inside the organisation that people are looking to for a fightback and trying to steer things towards that correctly, than standing outside denouncing it.

I also question this idea that pressuring trade unions into breaking from Labour and then setting up an alternative is also as important as made out. I think many socialists hugely overestimate the sway that unions and their leaders actually have over their members. In my experience the vast majority of union members are simply "insurance" members - they actively and consciously seek not to take part in the democracy or activity of their unions and file their membership away with the rest of the insurance certificates in spite of all the efforts of local workplace activists and paid organisers.

I honestly don't think, for example, Dave Prentis or Tony Woodley suddenly proclaiming the Labour Party dead and calling for their union members to take part in forging an alternative would have the earth-shattering political impact that many make out it would have. If anything such a move could actually expose the chronic organisational weakness of many trade unions and could, in the end, be hugely counter-productive for working people in general if the unions stood candidates but failed to build a solid electoral alternative. The ruling class would realise the unions were weak in spite of the numbers, and it would encourage them to intensify attacks and denigrate rights.

If the day comes that people like Phil and myself are expelled for daring to utter Marxist theory in a local Labour party meeting, I will gladly admit failure. And I genuinely hope the CNWP does actually build a viable long-standing and electorally successful left alternative which, at the very least, helps bring the debate in this country back round from the neo-liberal consensus, and that I am proved wrong about the approach.

Sadly, I see precisely no evidence that this is going to happen anytime soon.

Next Left said...

Someone on the CNWP/SP side of the argument might say: unions broke with their political leaders (the Liberals) in the past and formed a new party. This can happen again.

Of course the union break with the Liberals was facilitated by a number of historically specific factors that are no longer present.

In particular, the shift toward Labour happened in a context where unions had been growing in size and militancy for a number of years. During WW1 millions of previously unorganised workers flooded into the unions for the first time.

In short, years of militant mass struggle and a shared sense of collective industrial strength helped to create conditions where unions felt able to break with the Liberals.

The SP has been pursuing the CNWP strategy under very different circumstances. Levels of industrial action have been extremely low by historical standards. Levels of member engagement with union affairs, such as elections, is minimal.

Without the hard work of a thin layer of tired activists and overloaded full-time officials, union branches in many workplaces would simply collapse.

The idea that under these circumstances unions in Britain would be either willing or able to set about constructing a new mass workers party is fanciful.

It is a striking case of a common disease on the ultra-left: mistaking wishful thinking for reality.

Boffy said...

I agree with Lawrence and Next Left. A good example is the UAF. In the UAF the unions have given their sponsorship, put the names of their leaders to it, and allow the SWP to actually run the thing. In practical terms of it means bugger all, because the nominal affiliation says nothing about the involvment of the mass of union members. Were the union leaders to sign up to a new Party (unlikely) it would be the same, as the example of Bob Crow signing up to No2EU showed.

The establishment of the LP out of the Liberals was different. Even before the unions created the LP, masses of ordinary workers were demanding a Workers Party, and voting for Workers candidates. Actually, the expereicne is instructive because Engels advised the Marxists to ignore the sects such as the ILP and SDF, and to work directly with the mass of workers through the Liberal Clubs. Today, there is no demand by the mass of worerks for such a new party, and Marxists have wasted vasted amounts of time on internecine debate rather than working with the mass of politicised workers where they are - in the LP. Even industrially too much attention is paid to the activities in the union structures rather than with ordinary workers on the shop floor.

That is also what is wrong with Andy's approach based around the question = "What Strategy to take over the LP?" The question actually is, how can we work through the LP to build workers self-activity and organisation to defend and advance their interests? Succeeding in answering that, and acting upon it will not only strengthen the working-class, and provide the soluitons to its immediate problems, but will in the process build the workers party, and the strength of Marxism within it.

Chris said...

I think New Left is correct to emphasise the historic specificity of the creation of the Labour party. Marx himself was keen to ‘lobby’ the leaders of the unions, he would stress how many men such individuals commanded etc. This attitude may have been justified historically but personally I think Marx fell into the same trap as today’s ‘sectarians’, or to put it another way today’s sectarians are repeating the mistakes of Marx. This is the danger with subordinating yourself uncritically to a higher authority, especially one who compares to Einstein in terms of intellectual genius. In Britain, at this time, it is ridiculous to think a party can emerge to challenge Labour, and pretty laughable when you consider how split the far left is.

It still begs the question, do socialists still have to relate to workers through their ‘leaders’, become the leaders themselves or develop organisational forms and ideological arguments that make leaders redundant?

Next Left said...

Phil: sorry, I overlooked your response to my first comment about the SP and the changing composition of the working class.

I agree that the SP put the rise of New Labour in the context of the defeats of the 1980s - and the collapse of Stalinism.

But I was trying to make a different point.

As you may know there is a long tradition of sociological and cultural research into the changing nature of the British working class (Blackwood, Williams, Goldthorpe etc) that has charted occupational, cultural and ideological trends since WW2. In general, they conclude that the collective forms of living and working that gave rise to various forms of oppositional politics among some sections of the working class became subject to a range of internal and external pressures that intensified the erosion of collective class experiences and identities. This was a drawn out and uneven process - with the defeat of the miners, printers and dockers in the 1980s marking the culmination of a process that can be traced back to the 1950s (if not before).

The paralysis of the radical left today is the culmination of historical trends going back many decades. The SP (along with the rest of the Trotskyist left) has never been prepared to acknowledge these trends. They acknowledge defeats but assume that some ahistorical 'class essence' will result in workers bouncing back to supporting socialist politics - subject to the right leadership etc.

Phil said...

Next Left, I agree with that entirely. It's a reality few far left groups will ever face up to because it means critically analysing their traditions, records and political practice. But they cannot do this because - absurdly - political positions have become fused with party identity. For a leadership to admit their strategies and tactics are completely mistaken would threaten the dissolution of the group. But there's little chance of that because they're so fundamentally sure they're correct. So correct that Marxist research and analysis going on beyond the party membership is irrelevant or muddleheaded.

Phil said...

Come on Andy, you know you're being disingenuous. Had the meeting about the 2006 hospital cuts been called in the name of N Staffs TUC, the Pensioners' Convention, or the Stoke and Trent Vale Chess Club the same numbers would have turned up. Why? Because the people who came *cared* about the issue. You're highlighting a trivial detail about the meeting and trying to stamp the subsequent movement with its character and thereby inflating the CNWP's importance. So much for using Marxism to unflinchingly analysing the balance of forces and formulating strategies and tactics on that basis.

Re: socialist strategy in Labour, there's this piece, this piece, this piece, and the discussion here and here. They may not be as laboriously as detailed as British Perspectives but I do suggest a line of march in conjunction with my theorisation of the political situation.

By way of contrast none of this has been done in party publications. A strategy for a new party needs to a) identify a potential constituency and b) how to bring the party about. The SP/CNWP have done a) but not b) (my own take at trying to do this is here). Unfortunately, the SP hasn't done this elevating the position of a new workers' party to that of a shibboleth, a unique selling point that allows the SP to stand out among the crowd. So again, what is the strategy for building a new workers' party? Where is it going to come from?

Next Left said...

It is a pity that the CNWP supporters appear to have dropped out of this discussion. Some important issues have been raised that deserve to be debated.

Phil said...

I hope others come along too. We all know why CNWP supporters don't support Labour. I don't agree with their arguments but at least it has been debated and discussed over the years and will continue to rumble on for a great many yet. But that's really not the point. It's this: in the context of thousands of socialists and trade unionists moving to Labour, just where is this new workers' party going to come from, and how will it be brought about?