ON WEDNESDAY 29 October around 1,400 people came to a meeting in London entitled ’British politics at the crossroads’. The audience were primarily political and anti-war activists and they had come to hear George Galloway MP’s plans for life outside the Labour Party. Other speakers included journalist George Monbiot and Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT (railway workers’ union).
Galloway called for a "popular unity movement that unites the different strands of the left" and brings together "all progressive forces in the country". He said that he would continue to sit as an independent Labour MP but was also ready to stand on a unity list for the European elections in London, the West Midlands or the North West – wherever it was thought to be helpful. He said that "the time for talking squabbling, and contemplating our ideological navel is over – actions speak louder than words". In The Guardian the following day Galloway also said that "we plan to support that other Labour exile, Ken Livingstone, for Mayor".
Unfortunately George has retreated from the position he put at the height of the anti-war movement. At that stage, in public and private discussions, he stated that he personally believed that the Labour Party could not be reclaimed but he felt is was necessary to accommodate those lefts still trying to reclaim Labour and therefore put forward the idea of a Labour Representation Committee. However, he accepted that there was room for a radical socialist alternative.
If he had, as we argued, used the height of the anti-war movement to begin to build such an alternative he could have immediately gathered tens, or even hundreds, of thousands around a new formation. A platform of policies including opposition to the war, against privatisation and for renationalisation of the privatised utilities and repeal of the anti-trade union laws, would have been popular amongst a large swathe of the anti-war movement and the working class as a whole, and would have presented an opportunity to win wide support for socialist ideas.
NOW, INSTEAD of appealing to that constituency, Galloway appears to have retreated to calling for a "popular unity" movement, which, as far as could be deduced from last Wednesday’s meeting, would not have a socialist programme but would instead stand for what John Rees of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) called a "collective society". Historically, the phrase "popular unity" has been associated with loose, unprincipled alliances where the programme has been diluted in order to accommodate leaders of middle class organisations.
This new movement will support Livingstone, despite his attempts to be readmitted to New Labour and his call for a Labour vote in the Brent East by-election. Livingstone and his policies are acceptable to most of the New Labour bureaucracy, unlike George who is hated for having taken a principled stand against the war, and on many other issues. It is highly unlikely that Livingstone will return the favour and support Galloway!
Galloway has also raised the prospect of "reclaiming" the Labour Party and called for the trade unions to play a "central role" in this process. This is a mistake and will give credence to those trade union leaders who are desperately trying to convince their members to keep funding New Labour.
One of the speakers at the meeting, Linda Smith of London FBU, summed up the real attitude of many trade unionists when she said that London FBU had suspended all payments to the Labour Party. A survey of Strathclyde FBU members found that 75% had voted Labour before the strike but afterwards only 2% said they would do so again.
By diluting his programme it seems that Galloway hopes to broaden his appeal. But in fact radicalisation is increasing and big sections of the working class are open to a direct appeal to socialism.
This does not preclude, in the future, a sizeable organisation being set up by sections of the trade unions which in the initial stages could, after discussion and debate, only reach agreement on an anti-capitalist, rather than a socialist programme.
Such a formation would still be a step forward but it would remain important that socialists within the new formation continue argue for their full programme. However, in this instance what is being discussed is an electoral agreement primarily involving socialists. There is no evidence to suggest that Galloway could not stand on an explicitly socialist platform.
It is clear that part of Galloway’s intention is to try and win the support of forces from the anti-war movement, particularly from the Muslim community. The Socialist Party is in favour of attempting this, provided it is on a principled class basis. However, the formation must have a platform whose appeal is not limited to any one group but will reach out to the most thinking amongst all sections of the working class.
Clearly, one strand of the programme should be opposition to the war and now to the occupation of Iraq. But it is crucial that this is approached from a class point of view and that the programme also prominently opposes New Labour’s domestic programme of cuts and privatisation and proposes, at least in outline, a socialist alternative.
GALLOWAY’S ORIGINAL proposal could have been an important step on the road to a new workers’ party. The Socialist Party will take part in any discussions on this new initiative because it is possible that it could also play a positive role, but this is dependent on a number of factors.
After the failure of the Socialist Alliance (SA) and the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), there is a certain understandable scepticism about the prospect of another bodged attempt at a left alternative. It would therefore be a real tragedy if the same mistakes were made again and we were left with a new version of the SWP-dominated Socialist Alliance. Unfortunately, if the SWP’s methods are applied that is what we will end up with.
The aim of this initiative should not be purely to win a good vote in the European elections. However positive it could be to have George or other socialists elected, our goal is for more than that. What is needed to fill the vacuum is a party that the working class sees as its own and is organised by, as well as for, hundreds of thousands of working-class people.
It will take time and the experience of struggle for such a party to come into being. The Socialist Party will continue to build our independent forces in the intervening period. But for every ten who join us their might be 100 who would join a bigger force.
Unfortunately, however, the SWP-led SA, a tiny organisation has, by claiming to be ’the left alternative’ to Labour, provided ammunition to union leaders who want to keep the Labour link to attack the idea of a viable socialist alternative to the main capitalist parties. It was therefore extremely worrying that Wednesday’s meeting as a whole, and John Rees of the SWP in particular, had a tendency to talk of how this electoral initiative would ’represent the millions’ as if was guaranteed that it would fill the vacuum to the left of Labour.
If it is to be successful this initiative needs to concentrate on actively involving the largest possible section of the working-class, particularly trade unionists. The Socialist Party believes that the campaign should begin with a series of open meetings around the country with genuine debate and discussion.
The support of trade union leaders such as Bob Crow could be used to encourage rank and file trade unionists to take part. In addition, the new formation must be very open, democratic and inclusive if it is to succeed in winning the best trade unionists but also anti-war and anti-capitalist activists to its banner.
From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales