by Dave Spencer
The most striking feature of British politics over the last decade has to be the disenfranchisement of the working class. The working class has little or no voice at national, regional or local level. Our task is to be part of the reversal of this situation. But this reversal has to come from below, from the linking and networking of the campaigns and struggles of the working class itself.
Unfortunately the organised left does not see it this way. As convinced vanguardists and elitists they see themselves as providing the leadership with all the answers that the workers must follow. They have had a decade in which to show leadership, but have failed dismally to build a broad united movement to fill the vacuum to the left of New Labour.
It is not as though material conditions have been unfavourable, given the biggest economic crisis for over 100 years; global warming which threatens the very existence of the planet; two unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and MPs and bankers being shown to be on the take.
But there have been attempts to build an organisation.
In 1996 we had the birth of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and the Socialist Alliance (SA) – all before the 1997 General Election which New Labour was expected to win. The SLP started well with a mass meeting of over a thousand in Camden Town Hall. Arthur Scargill addressed meetings of 300 to 400 in the large cities. In the 1997 general election the SLP stood 64 candidates and got just under 2% of the vote. The SSP stood 18 candidates and gained about the same percentage. The Socialist Party threw its weight behind the Socialist Alliance, mainly to form an alternative to the SLP which they saw as a serious rival.
Clearly there was potential in these attempts, given that workers were voting New Labour to get the Tories out and nobody knew quite what a rat Blair was to become. Given 14 years to the general election of 2010 surely some solid progress should have been made. What happened? Scargill insisted that joining the SLP meant you left every other organisation. There was no scope for factions in the SLP. Worse still Scargill’s bureaucratic approach was demonstrated at the post-election SLP Conference when it came to light that a Mr Hardman was sitting in the conference with 3,000 votes – more than the rest of the delegates put together and using those votes to get through Scargill’s policies and also to get Scargill’s men on to the National Committee. People seized the microphone, led by comrades from Cardiff who had achieved the best SLP vote in the election. “Why bother to have a secret ballot?” they demanded. “Why not ask Mr Hardman which policies he supports and be done with it? In fact why bother to have a Conference at all?” Over half the Conference walked out.
The SSP also made a good start and drew in a wide variety of enthusiastic members. In contrast to the SLP they quite rightly allowed minority factions. Both the SP and SWP joined as “platforms” of the SSP. However when Tommy Sheridan dragged the party into the courts, both the SP and SWP supported him and undoubtedly advised him to split the SSP. In my view this was no matter of principle, but a cynical manoeuvre on their part to wreck the SSP, which they saw as a rival. Left groups cannot stand competition.
The same political approach of narrow sectarianism based on an elitist vanguardist view of the party was used by both the SP and SWP in the Socialist Alliance. At the general election of 2001 the SA fielded 98 candidates and the SSP 72 candidates. This was ambitious but shows the potential to build a broad movement. The SP insisted on a federal structure for the SA which meant that decisions were taken by contacting the National Committees of the various left groups involved and individual SA members had no say. The SP left in a huff when the SA decided against federalism; they refused to stay in and fight their corner. That left the SWP in charge. In February 2005 the SWP closed down the SA in order to concentrate on Respect. What a depressing sight to see SWP members, sheep-like, queuing up to join the SA at the conference, only to use their new membership cards to close down the SA which some of us had been members of for 13 years!
What can we learn from this pitiful history? The first thing is that back-room deals by “leaderships” are not the way forward. There has to be democracy and accountability and nothing less. And the working class must be involved. And we have to have a healthy distrust of left groups. Some SSP members now argue that they should never have let the SWP and SP join as platforms. I think they are right. They had no intention of building a broad movement in which they could play an important role. They were there to sell their papers and recruit anybody new to their own organisations. Any dealings with any British left group must now contain the health warning “Watch your back!”
This week in a large local residents’ meeting where I live, called to protest about cuts in bus routes, one resident stated, “The cuts are going to get worse. After the election there’s going to be a slaughterhouse!” Nobody disagreed. Every day in our local paper there are photographs of groups of people protesting about something. This is a new phenomenon brought about by the economic crisis. Some means of linking these struggles and grassroots organising must be found as a matter of urgency at local and national level. Some of these links already exist.
As Chair of the residents’ group mentioned above I have had to learn very quickly about the transport system and how it works in order to propose our petition of protest to the Council. A few months ago we had a protest petition about a proposed PFI waste incinerator in our area. We had to find out about that. To learn about the workings of local government and their various operations is an eye-opener, believe me. All this information needs to be shared and we need to build up expertise on specific subjects like health, education, climate change etc.
In the course of defending public services and jobs we should start debates within the campaigns on how these services should properly be run with the workers concerned and with the public. How would it be under communism?
The questions of democratic workers’ control and self-management and accountability should be raised. After all some members of the public will argue that some public services are crap – which they are. Nationalisation is not the complete answer – we need democratic control and accountability by workers and the public. Informed debates within protest campaigns has to be one method of building from below. It is a question of dialogue with the people involved, not of preaching from the rostrum.
The last decade saw the working class sidelined. Those claiming to stand for workers’ rights failed because they started by insisting that they knew the answers and the workers had to follow. The new decade must be one of focussing on building communism from below.