Abbreviations – SP Socialist Party, SWP Socialist Workers’ Party, AGS Alliance for Green Socialism, AWL Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, CPB Communist Party of Britain, S All remaining members of Socialist Alliance, ISN Independent Socialist Network
This is a timeline I made to illustrate attempts to build a left alternative to New Labour. It is by no means exhaustive (I have missed out developments in Scotland, for example, which whole books have been written about).
It is clear to increasing numbers of people that there is a crying need to oppose Labour cuts, and that there is little difference between any of the main political parties. If a party is not built which can represent working-class people, and bring together trade unionists in struggle, the cuts will only get worse, and people may resort to the blind alley of nationalism, of fighting amongst ourselves rather than uniting against the bosses.
It is also obvious that this has been the case for the last 20 years. TUSC and Left Unity are only the latest in a number of attempts to build a mass, left-wing alternative. I would like to look at some of these briefly and outline where I think they have gone wrong, not in order to score any political points, but because we need to learn from past mistakes.
The Socialist Labour Party has not built on its foundations, because it is not outward-looking or democratic in its approach and has not sought to build links with other socialist groups. It has been controlled by Scargill in an authoritarian fashion and has consistently refused not to stand against other socialists. As much as we can admire Arthur Scargill as a militant trade union figure, this is not, in my opinion, the way to build a mass consensus for socialism.
The Socialist Alliance was formed in the mid-1990s, and had some modest successes before unfortunately the Socialist Workers’ Party tried undemocratically to wrest control of the party at its 2001 conference.
Respect had enormous potential, launched after the start of the Iraq War, on the back of the 2 million strong Stop The War Coalition demonstration in Hyde Park. Incidentally, this was when I first became involved in political activity, as I joined the Socialist Party, out of increasing anger at the betrayal of New Labour. By ditching the Socialist Alliance for Respect, the SWP jumped onto a pro-Islamic platform (perhaps on the basis of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”), which led them to compromise on important principles – such as abortion rights, LGBT rights and feminism. When cracks in Respect appeared, the SWP abandoned this project in turn. Now they too are in crisis and the democratic opposition which has split from the SWP has recently launched the International Socialists platform, which I hope will grow into a democratic and outward looking party.
The Socialist Party looked towards the trade unions, and the mass of the organised working-class. It approached unions like the RMT and FBU (the RMT having been expelled from supporting Labour for supporting Scottish Socialist Party candidates, and the FBU having voted to disaffiliate due to cuts to the fire service), through the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party, launched in 2006.
At the CNWP’s first conference, I remember Bob Crow giving a stirring speech, calling on anyone left within New Labour to stop giving it a left cover, and join instead the beginnings of a new workers’ party. The Socialist Party does not envisage a party with a fully-fledged socialist programme coming out of nowhere, but emerging gradually and organically through struggles of the working class. This led first to co-operation with the RMT and CPB (Communist Party of Britain) in the No2EU Yes to Democracy challenge in the European elections, the first nationwide left-of-Labour challenge. The RMT had a historic role in founding the Labour Party itself, with the Taff Vale dispute and the Labour Representation Committee representing a decisive break from Liberalism at the beginning of the 20th century.
Out of No2EU, and with the CPB reverting back to its former position of supporting Labour (although at the 2012 TUSC conference, it said that it would give Labour ‘one last chance’), grew TUSC, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. From the timeline above, it is clear that these are early days for this new electoral force. It brings together the two largest revolutionary parties the SWP and the Socialist Party, together with Independent Socialists. it now has the official backing of the RMT, but we still need more unions to jump ship from Labour and fight for their members’ interests. TUSC is based on the idea that we agree on a set of core policies, but candidates are also free to campaign for their own party – a federal and deliberately cautious approach.
TUSC is important because it is putting down an anti-cuts marker for the future. So far, voters understandably have largely settled for Labour as opposed to the Tories, as the lesser of two evils, while many are turned off politics altogether, or have fallen for the lure of the far right UKIP as a protest vote. However, as Labour is once again likely to come into power in the next few years, it will be more difficult for them to appear as anything other than a vicious party, intent on cutting services and slashing jobs. They have committed themselves to maintaining the Tories’ austerity programme, just not as fast or as deep. Labour have expelled those few councillors who have stood up against cuts (the Southampton Two and Hull Three, for example).
However, TUSC is not yet a fully-fledged party in its own right. Left Unity has also gathered a lot of support recently, following Ken Loach’s screening of the Spirit of ’45. I hope that the two forces can co-operate, that more trade unions will back a project to build an alternative to the left of Labour, to stand up for their members and oppose cuts. The urgent need to do so has never been more apparent, with the demolition of our NHS, privatisation of the postal service and comprehensive education, with corrupt politicians awarding themselves massive pay rises and a widening gulf between rich and poor. In such a volatile situation, disgust at mainstream parties can quickly produce results – look at the spectacular rise of Syriza in Greece.
It is still early days and we need to be patient, but is clear that we need to build a united force to the left of Labour. Let’s learn from past mistakes and build a comradely, non-sectarian, federal and democratic organisation, welcoming to new layers of people coming into struggle for the first time as Tory and New Labour cuts bite ever harder. TUSC is still the best chance of achieving this, in my opinion.