Negotiating a difficult path

Negotiating a difficult path

We publish in this issue a document presented by the Independent Socialist Network (ISN) to the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) national steering committee on 17 June 2015, to discuss the question of how to develop TUSC. The document specifically addresses the issue of individual membership.

In the document we set out the sort of party the members of the ISN want to see. We recognise, however, that we are not starting from any place of our choosing but rather engaging in a debate with others in respect of a coalition that has been in existence for some time and of which we have criticisms. We would prefer a simple membership based party, with individual voting and without the present veto, whereby each constituent part can negate a policy or practical step, even if they are in a minority.

However, we believe that we have to engage with what is, not with what we would want to be. Therefore, we have tried to make proposals that allow TUSC to develop in such a way as to keep all parties involved and committed to TUSC. We would rather engage positively with the other socialists in TUSC than criticise from the sidelines as many others do. Socialists have spent decades refusing to work with one another and TUSC is a significant step in showing that collaborative work is possible. This should be developed.

Once bitten? Or try, try, try again?

On the face of it, building a socialist party should be pretty straightforward: all socialists should get together to build a party that advocates socialism and fights for a socialist society.

Of course, as anyone who has been involved in the socialist left for even the shortest time knows, things aren’t that easy. A constant theme in this magazine has been to note and deprecate the fragmentary and fractious nature of the socialist left in Britain. It is a massive impediment to building a socialist party of any stature.

There have been several serious attempts over the past twenty years to build a socialist party – distinct and separate from the Labour Party. From Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, launched in 1995 to the Socialist Alliance, to Respect (hotly contested as fitting into the category of socialist) through to the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition and finally (so far) to Left Unity.

All have had their problems. All previous attempts have floundered due to the role played by the large socialist groups – Socialist Workers Party or Socialist Party – or by dominant individuals – Arthur Scargill and George Galloway. Of the list, I would single out the Socialist Alliance as the one project that came closest to developing what we need – the collaboration and cooperation of the various socialist groups and independent socialists.

When TUSC was being formed, several of us who had worked together in the Socialist Alliance and Respect were determined that there had to be a place in it for independent socialists. We believed, and still believe, that there are thousands of independent socialists who want to vote for a socialist party and who want to build and be members of a socialist party. If they wanted to be members of the SWP or SP or any one of a dozen or so other socialist organisations, they would have joined.

We concluded that many of these independents were put off by the bureaucratic centralism of those socialist organisations. There is nothing wrong with democratic discussion and decision-making. In fact, it is essential. But many of the independent socialists have their own experience, either as trade unionists or community activists or as former members of these organisations and do not want to repeat it.

We thought that it was essential that independent socialists who wanted to build a socialist party should be organised, so that they have a say alongside the larger centralist parties such as the SWP and SP. This was as much to give them a voice through a collective strength as to give some coherence to their political experience and desire to build a new party.

On each occasion that these attempts have ended, the various organised socialist groups have just carried on as before, building their own projects, while the independent members are once more left without a project to build and, lacking any organisation to bind them together, they are once more reduced to atomised independents without any way to pursue their aims of fighting for socialism. In a sense they were at the whim of the initiatives of the organised socialist groups. When these groups took their ball home (through pique or boredom) there was no game left to play in. There is no certainty that TUSC (or Left Unity, for that matter) will continue. We must ensure that those who have come together to support either or both projects are not once again dispersed should they go the way of previous similar projects.

Independent socialists must be organised

This is the reason that we formed the Independent Socialist Network and argued that it should be represented on the TUSC steering committee. We believed that it was essential that independent supporters of TUSC should have a role in building it and needed representation on the steering committee to do so. From the very beginning of TUSC the ISN has consistently argued for individual membership. At the last TUSC conference I was able to raise in my speech on behalf of the ISN from the platform the question of when and how TUSC was going to begin discussing its own transformation from a coalition into a new party.

Over the five years since TUSC was established a large number of independents have supported TUSC candidates at local and general elections. Many have stood as TUSC candidates. However, it is also true that many socialists have not wanted to participate in TUSC because they see it is undemocratic and dominated by the Socialist Party. It is not possible to ‘join’ TUSC. There is no membership fee, no membership card and no membership rules or rights. No individual supporter of TUSC can have a guaranteed say in the development of TUSC policy or practice. Supporters of TUSC can help by making donations or by giving out leaflets, but they cannot vote decisively on ‘party’ issues. We have the strange situation where there are annual conferences of TUSC supporters where votes are taken but where the votes are not decisive because only the national steering committee can make binding policy or take practical steps. And even here such decisions are made only by consensus, with each component having the right to veto any proposal with which they disagree.

Without membership it has been impossible for the ISN to identify all those independents who support TUSC. It has been impossible to represent their interests properly on the TUSC steering committee. The ISN has represented those independents who have joined the ISN but there is currently no basis for independent supporters of TUSC generally to be represented on the TUSC steering committee.

Since its inception the ISN has met regularly and has discussed a wide range of issues, from how to help build a socialist party in Britain, international developments, Scottish nationalism, the EU, immigration controls. Members of the ISN have different views on all of these subjects, which is not surprising as they come from different backgrounds with different opinions.

The ISN has, though, been able to formulate some generally agreed positions. Most importantly was the adoption by the ISN of the Statement of Aims and Principles that had been formulated as the basis of the Socialist Platform in Left Unity.  Because the ISN is a home for those socialists who want to see a new socialist party built many looked with optimism at the setting up of Left Unity, following the call by Ken Loach for a new party to be set up. We in the ISN have consistently called for Left Unity and those in TUSC to work together. There has, regrettably, been much opposition in Left Unity to the idea of working with TUSC. There has also been a lot of support for that idea. After all, a party called Left Unity that refuses to practise what it preaches won’t get very far.

We continue to argue for a new socialist party. Such a party would include those in Left Unity and in the component parts of TUSC. But more importantly, it would include thousands of others who currently do not see either as viable. Left disunity is a barrier to progress for socialists.

The aim of the ISN is to provide a home for any independent socialist who wants to see a new socialist party built. We pride ourselves on having a friendly and welcoming atmosphere; one that welcomes dissent and disagreement. We believe that such disagreement is essential to help clarify positions. This is particularly so when the socialist left has been fragmented and riven with hostility for so long.

One of the major impediments to building a new party for all socialists is the attitude of the existing socialist groups. Both the SWP and the SP see themselves as the Socialist Party, and really only work in TUSC to build their own organisations. This, I think, lies behind the approach of the Socialist Party, which takes the lead in TUSC and which shoulders the majority of the organisational tasks that make TUSC tick.

TUSC steering committee begins discussion

At the 17 June TUSC steering committee SP representative Clive Heemskerk criticised the ISN document for being abstract. He was disappointed because, he argued, it did not recognise that people do participate in TUSC. The RMT rail union has endorsed its support for, and participation in, TUSC at its last four annual conferences. Groups of ex-Labour councillors, he claimed, have been impressed by TUSC’s federal structure. More independent socialists and trade unionists stand for public election under the TUSC banner than for any other left-wing organisation.

All of that may be true. But it does not alter the fact that independent supporters of TUSC have no rights as members.

Clive said that the SP will produce further material because there was a clear difference in perspective and strategy between the SP and the ISN document. I agree with that and welcome the opportunity to debate the issues in writing. There are important differences between the ISN position and the SP’s. The ISN calls for the creation of a new socialist party. The SP calls for a new workers’ party. That might seem a semantic point. In fact, it is central. The SP sees itself as the only real carrier of Marxist ideas and practice. (The same applies to the SWP and pretty much every other Marxist group). The SP wants to develop a federal organisation in which other trends (which by definition are not real Marxism) cohabit with the real socialists of the SP.

In this sense it can be argued that the SP wants to recreate similar conditions to those that existed for many years in the Labour Party when the SP, as the Militant Tendency, made significant achievements though its long-term entrism. Unfortunately, it means reproducing many, if not all, of the problems that confounded the development of socialist thought and practice in the Labour Party. The Labour Party was not and never has been a Marxist party. It has always used its position in power and in opposition to oppose socialist change. It has used the conservatism of the trade union bureaucracy to reinforce opposition to socialist policy and militant action. The trade union bureaucracy has, in turn, rested on the conservatism of the Labour leadership to police the trade union rank and file.

We do not need, and should oppose, the recreation of the Labour Party in any of its past guises. We need socialists to argue and fight for their own programme – the fundamental transformation of society. All those who share that aim should unite in one party and debate how best to achieve that. That will not and should not prevent the socialists from working together with others – in the trade union movement or elsewhere – on battles to fight cuts, unemployment, austerity. But socialists should not form a party with those who want to maintain capitalism or who limit their objectives to managing capitalism.

In the course of the discussion, Charlie Kimber of the SWP said that the structures of TUSC have served them quite well. People have managed to find ways of working together. They have served the SWP well, I would argue, because they have essentially allowed them to run SWP election campaigns under the banner of TUSC, without the interference or participation of the SP, thus helping to build, not TUSC, but the SWP. Charlie honestly stated that his “primary loyalty is not to TUSC but to the SWP.” The same applies to the SP. Charlie also argued, correctly, that more trust will be generated by more working together. He said that he agreed with Clive’s description (in a Morning Star article) of TUSC as a ‘precursor’. He went on to say that we have to consider how TUSC has a life between elections.

This last point is central. As long as the members of the SP and SWP have loyalty first to their own organisations they will prioritise building them over building TUSC. We need a party in which factions can organise to fight for their ideas within the party but which see building the united socialist party in which all participate as being the priority of all.

I, too, agree with Clive’s description of TUSC as a ‘precursor’. But a precursor to what? And when? I believe that the component parts of TUSC should begin to discuss a process for moving TUSC to a higher level of political and organisational unity. The whole of the socialist left should be invited to participate in a thorough discussion about establishing a party in which all socialists can participate. For the reasons set out in the document we submitted, to limit TUSC to its present structures can only impede its progress.

Democracy requires rights

Clive Heemskerk also made the strange claim that TUSC is the ‘home for independents’. Both he and his Socialist Party comrade Paula Mitchell claimed that they were members of TUSC. When, in reply, I stated that it is not possible to join TUSC or to be a member of TUSC the SP comrades insisted that it was. The only sense in which Clive and Paula can see themselves as members is through membership of the Socialist Party, which is affiliated to TUSC. If that is what they mean then it demonstrates the undemocratic inequality between members of the component parts of the Coalition and those independent supporters of TUSC who are not.

Both Clive and Paula made it clear that they did not see the ISN as being the component organisation of TUSC to represent independent members of TUSC. This, again, is strange as the ISN was set up and given official recognition on the TUSC steering committee precisely to represent independent (i.e. non-SP/SWP/RMT) TUSC supporters. It seems, you see, that we haven’t been representing them properly or, in other words, to the satisfaction of the SP. Clive talked about ways in which the ‘real independents’ could be represented on the steering committee as the ISN “is in reality a coherent political current”. A document presented by the SP to the 17 June meeting suggested that independents should be represented not by the ISN but by those attending the TUSC conference electing a steering committee member. This is a renewal of the threat made by Paula Mitchell at the February 2014 TUSC conference that, if the ISN could not be relied on to represent independents properly some other form of representation would have to be devised.

Could it be that the SP does not like the political arguments that the ISN has advanced within TUSC? We have disagreed with the SP’s position on the future development of TUSC. We have consistently argued against the SP notion of building a federal re-hash of the old Labour Party. We have differed with the SP over NO2EU, withdrawal from the EU and immigration controls. It seems that the SP proposes to by-pass the ISN – which was given representation with the SP’s agreement on the steering committee precisely to represent independents. Perhaps they think that ‘their’ independent representative will be more compliant than the ISN.

Within the ISN we have different positions argued by members on a whole range of subjects. What unites us is our shared goal of the socialist transformation of society and the necessity of building a party to help to achieve that. With the introduction of individual membership into TUSC, but with the continuation of the federal structure, it will be essential that ‘independent’ members are allowed to organise themselves, to have national conferences and produce their own bulletins and discussion papers (just as the SP and SWP do). There would have to be national membership, not local membership. Otherwise no one will know who is an independent member in another place. Independents need to communicate, just as members of the SP do. There would have to be a fully democratic conference of the Independents to elect their representatives onto the TUSC steering committee and to discuss and formulate policy for consideration by the whole of TUSC. All of this requires the first essential ingredient of national membership.

Important decisions to be taken

Socialists have to argue for their programme. We have to persuade others that it is essential for the future of humanity. We have to inspire others. But we also have to demonstrate our ability to work together. A disunited socialist movement is hardly inspiring. The leaders of the various socialist organisations have to realise that the working class will not forgive them for opportunities missed due to an unwillingness to work together to build the essential party it needs to fight its corner and end capitalism.

Any new socialist party should be open to all those in the existing socialist groups. Those groups would not have to dissolve but could play an important and leading role as organised groups (factions, tendencies, platforms) within the new party.

But the most important component part of the new party would inevitably be those independents who are not currently in any group. For a new party to become a mass party, it would have to recruit from beyond the existing membership of the socialist groups. There are millions of potential recruits out there. Let’s make sure that there is something that we can recruit them to.

How to achieve this is the issue facing TUSC.


Nick Wrack is a member of the TUSC national Steering Committee and is national secretary of the ISN.

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