Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition: Moving towards a party?

Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition: Moving towards a party?

The conference of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition on Saturday 24 January, called to prepare for May’s general election and the council elections on the same day, could easily have descended into a fairly routine rally with the audience subjected to a series of well-rehearsed platitudes. For this first time attender of a TUSC conference, two aspects of the day turned it into something more interesting: the first signs that TUSC is beginning to rally the most principled activists within the labour movement; and, in the afternoon, genuine political debate about the nature of the party that the working class needs and the issue that could dominate the coming general election, immigration.

In fact, even at its most rally-like the conference did leave the impression that speakers were reporting from the frontline of working class struggles. There were reasonably informative contributions from the likes of John Reid of the railway workers union, the RMT, Joe Simpson of the prison officers’ POA, Cheryl Gedling from the civil servants’ PCS, and Stefan Simms of the teachers’ NUT.

Close to 300 attended, the majority were members of the Socialist Party but, I was assured, with a greater number of Socialist Worker Party members turning up than at previous conferences. Independent Socialist Network supporters and other independents were also present. There was no noticeable turnout from the RMT or POA who are represented on TUSC’s steering committee.

No doubt the relatively upbeat atmosphere was bolstered by the commitment to fight at least a hundred seats in May’s general election (deposits paid courtesy of the Socialist Alliance’s windfall) and hundreds of council seats (although likely to be well short of the target of 1,000).

Dave Nellist expressed confidence that TUSC would encourage a sufficient number of parliamentary candidates to stand under its banner to secure a party election broadcast and a commitment from broadcasters to cover TUSC’s campaign. He boasted that this would be the largest socialist electoral challenge in 60 years – I am not aware of the 1955 general election featuring a particularly potent left-wing campaign, although I do remember the WRP’s (far from potent) party election broadcast in 1979. However that might be, a sizeable electoral challenge this year does have the potential to promote socialist ideas and transform the Socialist Alliance’s money into an organisational legacy that moves us nearer to a mass socialist party.

For me, the first two sessions on fighting austerity and looking forward to the 2015 local election campaign really sprang to life when a half dozen or so ex or suspended Labour councillors came to the rostrum to describe their experiences in fighting the cuts and privatisations being imposed by Labour-controlled authorities.

Dean Kirk reported on his suspension in Hull for opposing cuts, and the formation of Hull Red Labour. Barbara Potter and Wayne Naylor of Leicester Independent Councillors against Cuts had also been forced out of the Labour Party when they objected to cuts, school closures and the imposition of the bedroom tax. A TUSC group in Leicester was looking to stand 12 councillors this year with Barbara bidding for mayor. Kevin Bennett, a suspended Labour councillor from Warrington announced that he was joining TUSC. He faces re-election in 2016. Nick Chaffey from Southampton spoke on behalf of rebel councillor, Keith Morrell. Peter Smith, who was thrown out of the Labour Party in Walsall in 1998 along with Dave Church and others, by a quirk of Walsall’s seniority system finds himself mayor this year – certainly a first for TUSC.

Unlike left Labour MPs, who have a degree of latitude in rebelling against the party whip in the House of Commons – although a ministerial career is very likely to be withheld from serial rebels – Labour councillors either toe the line or find themselves excommunicated and nomination as a candidate in the subsequent election denied. Without exception Labour groups across the country have sought to project an image of responsibility and respectability for the best part of 30 years. Surcharges and the prison cell to be avoided at costs – a cost borne by the local working class. The need for an organised voice defending the interests of the working class and promoting socialism in Britain’s council chambers, is the strongest single argument for mounting a socialist electoral challenge to Labour.

The third and last session on the general election campaign provided the most interest and the sharpest insight into the dynamics of TUSC. The Independent Socialist Network (ISN) had submitted an amendment on immigration to TUSC’s general election platform. The discussion, as it turned out, was to range beyond the general election to the way that TUSC should organise in the future.

The platform speakers represented the principal political groups within TUSC: Hannah Sell of the Socialist Party, Charlie Kimber of the SWP and the ISN’s Nick Wrack. Eschewing a speech that simply lauded TUSC’s electoral prospects, Hannah Sell addressed some of the criticisms of TUSC’s federal structure that the ISN had raised in the bulletin it distributed at the conference and took on the ISN’s immigration amendment. This suggested a willingness to debate sharp differences – a much healthier approach than the inclination to sweep disagreements under the carpet all too often encountered on the left.

Charlie Kimber did not engage in the debate about TUSC’s future structures, although he did contribute on immigration – pointing out that the Socialist Alliance had campaigned without controversy for open borders. Nick Wrack took up both issues in his speech.

Nick Wrack and the ISN bulletin had argued that 100 TUSC general election campaigns needed to become 100 TUSC branches after the election. Activists and new recruits needed to be able to become members of the organisation with a party card and democratic rights.

Hannah Sell countered that one-member-one-vote, as she characterised it, was not inherently more democratic than the federal structure with which TUSC has operated to date. Clive Heemskerk made the same argument in his ‘In defence of TUSC’ article in the most recent issue of Socialism Today. Both cited the history of the Labour Party which was an entirely federal organisation until 1918.

This argument is telling. The leadership of the Socialist Party is clearly aiming at a Labour Party mark two. Clive Heemskerk talks about the veto that any member of the steering committee can exercise – including over any policies passed at TUSC conference – being a vital safeguard if trade unions are to come on board with the assurance that they will not be railroaded into backing policies or strategies they oppose.

Well, the Labour Party never operated a veto on any of its national bodies or at conference. So having encouraged trade unions to join TUSC on the basis that they cannot be outvoted, at what stage will it be appropriate to remove the veto? Why would the unions (and quite possibly the Socialist Party) ever agree to face the discipline of democracy? This would be a Labour Party, second time around, that was even more bureaucratic and sclerotic than its first incarnation.

Hannah Sell’s argument on individual membership versus a federal structure strikes me as disingenuous. Even before 1918, the Independent Labour Party served as the de facto individual-membership organisation. Indeed, the ILP’s formation preceded that of the Labour Party. After 1918 individuals could join the Labour Party directly. The federal structure remained.

Indeed even a non-federal party cannot work on the basis on one-member-one-vote once it reaches a certain size. Party branches would send delegates to conferences and other party bodies. Those braches should actively debate politics and strategy. The picture, painted by Hannah Sell and Clive Heemskerk, of a passive membership voting from their armchairs is an insult to the traditions of labour movement and socialist democracy.

So why on earth the resistance to a proper democratic structure and a recruitment drive? Could it be that the Socialist Party is only interested in drawing new members into its own organisation?

Yet without branches the enthusiasm of this year’s electoral campaign will dissipate. TUSC will effectively go back into hibernation and begin the next electoral round from scratch – next time, of course, without the assistance of the funds provided by the Socialist Alliance.

Nick Wrack quite correctly rejected the whole idea of recreating a Labour Party. For one thing the Labour Party still exists. Even today unions cast votes at its national conference and on its national executive. Disgracefully, they frequently do so against the policies their members have endorsed.

Clive Heemskerk, in his article, seems to be waiting for UNITE to join TUSC. Even if this union were to choose to forsake a Labour Party where it fears to exercise is influence in the interests of its members, for TUSC’s highly speculative venture, what kind of organisation would TUSC then become? Especially a TUSC without members. Any illusions the Socialist Party has of playing a hegemonic role would soon be shattered.

What is needed is a party unambiguously committed to socialist transformation. A party that aims for a mass membership. Such a party would organise within the unions, seek to win them to our strategy and ideas and recruit trade unionists as members. However, it would not subordinate itself to the trade unions. Any more than the Socialist Party or the SWP do within their own structures. The truth is the leadership of both the Socialist Party and the SWP are conflicted when the task of creating a new socialist party is addressed. They both already see themselves as ‘the socialists’.

In fact in their literature they each do their best to ignore the other. Clive Heemskerk in Socialism Today discusses TUSC at length without mentioning the SWP. Neither The Socialist nor the Socialist Worker in reporting on TUSC conference mentioned their political rival within the coalition.

That does not bode well for the project of uniting the left, building new democratic structures and recruiting thousands of new members. A project that would have to go beyond the confines of the political forces brought together by TUSC and encompass others on the left including Left Unity.

Any socialist party must be committed to a number of core principles around working class independence, democracy and crucially internationalism. The afternoon debate on immigration spoke directly to the internationalist perspectives of TUSC. The ISN had brought an amendment, moved by Dave Landau, which proposed to amend the section of the TUSC’s general election platform dealing immigration – removing the word racist so that TUSC would oppose all immigration controls and promising to end deportations and close all detention centres. A number of non-contentious amendment to platform and the general election strategy were debated at the same time.

The amendment was eventually to be defeated by the Socialist Party majority at the conference – the SWP and ISN voting in favour. No Socialist Party speaker made clear what non-racist immigration controls a TUSC government would impose – or TUSC MPs urge on the government of the day. Hugo Pierre, Socialist Party member and last year’s TUSC candidate for mayor in Tower Hamlets said that we “needed a sharp knife to cut through the toxic agenda” but then insisted that he would have been handicapped if he had faced the working class of Tower Hamlets arguing against all controls on immigration. Others expressed the same notion that it was foolish to think that we could approach to the British working class without being able to insist that we would limit the flow of migrants.

But in that case, with what sharp knife are we tackling this issue? Is it just a studied ambiguity? That would be pitifully exposed in any real debate. Is it to challenge the genuinely racist fortress Europe approach to the peoples of Africa and the Middle East that has led to thousands drowning each year in the Mediterranean? Or is to propose a fortress Britain that keeps out the white peoples of the European Union as well? That would be xenophobic rather than racist and would cast TUSC as a left-wing UKIP. It would not save the life of a single migrant.

The only sharp knife worthy of a socialist party on this issue would reject an approach that seeks to protect the interests of British workers at the expense of workers anywhere else. As Dave Landau explained, that is a form of global apartheid. We do not support controls on movement within nations and we should not support them internationally. We fight to defend wages and social conditions but we do that by uniting all workers whatever their nationality or origins. Border controls are not a proxy for that struggle.

Another note of caution. The likely victory of Syriza in the Greek elections the day after the conference and the anti-austerity, anti neo-liberal nature of the Scottish pro-independence campaign last year were frequently mentioned. The politics of anti-austerity are apparently on the rise.

Socialists are against austerity but we should be honest amongst ourselves and with the working class about the scale of the task that faces us. A restoration of the politics of the post-war boom – a capitalism with a growing welfare state and rising living standards – is not viable given the current state of capitalism, especially a capitalism in crisis. Neither an isolated Syriza-led government in Greece, nor an independent Scotland (especially one led by the Scottish National Party) is going to buck that reality.

Socialists are called upon now more than ever to argue for socialism and to fight for the working class “to conquer political power” (in the words of the inaugural address of the First International). If there were no short cuts to achieving the aims of socialists in 1864, none have opened up in 2015.

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