Growing support and influence for socialist alternative to New Labour
Exactly one year after 2 million people took to the streets of London to oppose the Iraq war the Socialist Party (cwi section in England and Wales) held its national conference. After a year of intense activity some 250 delegates and visitors came together to assess the Socialist Party’s progress and discuss the way forward. New members who had joined as a result of the anti-war movement came together with veterans of past struggles. This was the one of the most successful Socialist Party conferences ever.
The world after the Iraq war
“The war in Iraq has shaped events in the world, like no other, for decades to come,” said Peter Taaffe, who opened the key discussion on the Iraq war and its aftermath.
It could result in the toppling of the main imperialist warmongers Bush and Blair, he explained. Their ‘popularity’ has slumped after the failure to find weapons of mass destruction and the deepening ‘quagmire’ of the occupation. The plans of the White House neo-conservatives for the military and political reconquest of the Middle East by the US are in tatters. Adding to the chaos in Iraq is the failure of imperialism to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Bush and Blair also pose a threat to the working class in the US and Britain with their ‘war on terrorism’. This ‘war’ is being used as a cover to attack democratic rights by introducing widespread draconian laws.
In the debate Alistair Tice, Yorkshire, said the US will spend a colossal $400 billion on the military this year (at the cost of cutting spending on public services). The relationship between the White House and defence contractors is “incestuous”. Moreover, war itself was increasingly being privatised. The second largest military force in Iraq was now 10,000 privately contracted military personnel.
Jim Hensman, Coventry, reminded delegates that the growth of right-wing political Islam and al-Qa’ida was a consequence of imperialism.
US strategy during the ‘cold war’ with the Soviet Union had been to finance and arm such groups. Moreover, economic collapse, Western-backed Arab regimes and, crucially, the lack of a socialist alternative, have combined to bolster such reactionary forces.
Clare Doyle, Committee for a Workers’ International, pointed out that movements of the working class against capitalism can cut across reactionary developments. For example, on 24 April 2003 there was an all-India, 50-million strong general strike against the Hindu-chauvinist BJP government’s privatisation plans.
The faltering world economic situation also came under scrutiny. Michael Calderbank, London, explained the unsustainable ‘neo-liberal’ policies of the US. “Bush’s economics of the madhouse is a slur on the insane”.
In his reply, national committee member Lynn Walsh said the war and occupation had rebounded on the US ruling class.
He added that the mass anti-war movements, including the 15 February 2003 demos when millions marched worldwide, showed the potential of mobilising not only against the imperialist war but against the underlying capitalist system itself. This fact was recognised by the New York Times which said, a “second superpower has emerged”.
Lynn explained that the ‘job loss US recovery’ couldn’t sustain a world economic revival as it was based on tax cuts for the rich, the housing bubble, credit boom and massive indebtedness. He added that workers worldwide were fighting this “neo-liberal hell” with strikes and even general strike movements.
Britain – new battles
The debate on political developments in Britain was introduced by Hannah Sell. Hannah began by explaining how the big business policies of New Labour government, the war on Iraq and the Hutton inquiry white-wash, punitive tuition fees, privatisation and attacks on the public sector, are transforming the political outlook amongst the working class. This is reflected in the historic decision of the RMT to fund the Scottish Socialist Party, leading to its expulsion from the Labour Party.
RMT union activist Arwyn Thomas, Lambeth, said that in 12 out of 15 RMT London Underground branches which had held meetings to discuss breaking with Labour, not one person had spoken in favour of retaining the link.
Hannah said our demand for a new mass workers’ party to replace Labour is beginning to chime with trade unionists.
Union activist Glenn Kelly, Hackney, said the break with New Labour is being complicated both by the union leaders claiming that they can ‘reclaim’ Labour from Blair’s grip and also by those who fudge the building of a new party by talking solely of ‘democratising’ the unions’ political funds.
Hannah referred to the Socialist Workers Party-dominated Respect coalition, headed by the expelled Labour MP, George Galloway. This body has less democratic structures and a weaker political programme than the SWP-led Socialist Alliance which it eclipses. In fact, by going even more politically broad with Respect, the SWP leaders have had to rubbish the Alliance for its ‘explicit socialism’.
Ian Page, London, recounted the Socialist Party’s council by-election success in Lewisham. There, said Ian, electors weren’t put off voting for Chris Flood because of the “S-word” (socialism).
Clive Heemskerk, national committee, warned that a continuing political vacuum to the left of Labour would let the right-wing media dominate issues like asylum and immigration, allowing the growth of far-right and neo-fascist parties like the BNP.
Teresa Mackay, Ipswich, said the unions must organise and champion the cause of the super-exploited migrant workers and expose profits-hungry global capitalism.
Party building: the trade unions
Bill Mullins introduced the discussion on trade union work by reporting that 19 Socialist Party members, including CWI members from Scotland and Northern Ireland, have positions on trade union national executive committees.
The current upsurge in strike and other industrial action has exposed the weaknesses of some of the current trade union leaders and underlined the need to rebuild the shop stewards’ movement.
Roger Bannister, Merseyside, reported on the important victory that Knowsley UNISON had scored, to defend the 35-hour week and to reduce the working hours of other staff. Management wanted to extend working hours to harmonise with those working the longest but strike action forced through the exact opposite.
He went on to say that workers are clearly prepared to struggle, many for the first time – much of the increased militancy has come from people new to action. But many groups of workers are frustrated by their own trade union leadership even including some of the ‘left’ leaders.
Josie Nicholls from Leicester explained how Socialist Party branches were intervening into an increasing number of disputes, many quite bitter struggles, like the Leicester College strike (see page 7). The conference carried a message of support to the strikers.
Dave Simpson from Manchester spoke about the effect the fire-fighters’ strike had had on him as a relatively new FBU branch secretary. Trying to provide a local leadership during the dispute was difficult but the experience had opened his eyes to politics and inspired him to join the Socialist Party.
There were many more contributions from delegates in unions and workplaces all over the country, showing the wealth of experience and fighting spirit in the party’s ranks. Many delegates underlined the importance of the socialist in leading and intervening in workers’ struggles.
When Ken Smith summed up the debate he warned of disputes likely in many industries, for example the post office and the rail industry. And the debate about the trade unions’ links with the Labour Party will continue, with political fund ballots looming in several unions.
Resolutions were carried on organising in the trade unions and intervening in strikes.
Party building: youth and student work
Opening the discussion on ‘youth and student work’ Clare James, national committee, spoke about the radicalisation of thousands of young people over the last year.
The war against Iraq had sparked off huge demonstrations worldwide and led many young people to question capitalist society.
The Socialist Party and International Socialist Resistance (ISR) have proved that we can tap into this mood and the search for socialist ideas, particularly over our call for school student strikes on the day the war started.
58 delegates were young people. Colin Wray noted how two years ago he was the only young conference delegate from Sheffield. Now he was one of five. Socialist Student societies at both universities and a flourishing ISR branch showed the potential for attracting young people with socialist ideas.
Peter O’Hare reported that the average age of the Manchester branch is less than 23. He stressed the need for young members to be given responsibility in the branches.
Tom Baldwin from Bristol emphasised the importance of persevering in discussing with young people interested in socialist ideas in order to get them to join.
Greg Maughan from Northumbria University said that consistent work on his campus, with regular campaign stalls and meetings was the key to being recognised and building support.
Michael Wainwright, who had joined the Labour Party (LP) when he was 15, was impressed by how democratic the conference was, in contrast to LP conferences, and by the clarity of the political ideas being discussed.
Summing up, Lois Austin said that, worldwide, 74 million youth are unemployed. Millions more are growing up in poverty, without access to education. The future is bleak for young people under capitalism but there is the potential to win them to socialism and the idea of building a movement that can overthrow capitalism.
The conference agreed to aim for half of new members to be young people and that every branch should have two school student members by the end of the year.
In addition, a national youth committee will be established which will be elected by the national committee. Its aim is to politically develop young members. Conference also agreed, as a priority, to continue to build ISR over the next year.
Party building: recruitment, campaigns…
The session on building the Socialist Party gave a real picture of how our party has grown since the last conference. Introducing the debate, Judy Beishon explained how the war in Iraq radicalised tens of thousands of young people, many of whom are looking for an alternative to a system which creates war and poverty.
Half of the new members who joined the Socialist Party in 2003 were under the age of 26 and in some areas, such as Manchester and Sheffield, branches are mainly comprised of young people.
Delegates reported on campaigns that they have been leading in local areas: Denise Thomas, Cardiff, spoke about how Socialist Party members initiated the community campaign to stop the downgrading of the maternity unit at Baglan hospital.
Socialist Party councillor Rob Windsor, explained how our councillors can give a voice to working-class people and can be a catalyst for movements locally. However, he added, in everything we are doing we shouldn’t forget to ask people to join the Socialist Party.
Vicky Perrin, a new member from Halifax, spoke about how her local branch has supported her in her work as an education support assistant. The Socialist Party can provide the ‘yes’ answers, she said, to all those people who only know what they are against.
Manchester and Bristol branches have organised very successful special meetings to discuss many of the questions that new party members have about socialism and the Socialist Party.
Ruth Williams, Hackney, reported that fighting discrimination such as homophobic bullying in schools has been taken up by the party’s revitalised Lesbian, Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) group.
Zena Awad, national committee, described the work of the Black and Asian group, how it produced a newspaper Nidal Eshtraki for the anti-war work and was producing a pamphlet on right-wing political Islam and socialism.
The conference agreed targets for building the Socialist Party and increasing sales of the socialist and Socialism Today. A resolution from Swansea branch was also passed outlining the importance of campaigning on issues of particular concern to women, such as low pay, childcare and against sexism, and how we can involve more women in our party.
Branches will be building for the “No more lies” national demonstration on 20 March in London, called by the Stop the War Coalition.
In June the Socialist Party will be standing candidates in the local elections and on 26 and 27 June we will be holding Socialism 2004, our annual weekend of discussion and debate.
The Socialist Party is affiliated to the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI). Tony Saunois, CWI general secretary, reported to the conference about some of the inspiring work that the CWI is involved in, in 36 countries around the world.
“There has been a renewal of industrial struggle in Europe” said Tony “and in some countries we have been able to shape those movements”.
Eckhard Geitz from Germany gave a first-hand account of how CWI members in SAV helped bring out 200,000 students and school students on strike against the war with Iraq. They also played a key role in bringing about a demonstration of 100,000 workers in Berlin against cuts.
Across Latin America there have been uprisings of workers, the urban poor and indigenous peoples. Tony spoke about the new workers’ party that has been established in Brazil by workers disillusioned with President Lula and his PT party. In Sao Paulo, three out of 18 members of the organising committee are CWI members. In Chile, a number of young people have joined our party.
In many countries, CWI members are fighting to build our international in difficult conditions. In Israel, members have been imprisoned for refusing to serve in the army in the occupied territories against the Palestinians. In war-torn Sri Lanka, both Sinhalese and Tamil workers are joining our party.
CWI members from throughout the Asian subcontinent attended the recent World Social Forum in Mumbai, India. Applications to join the CWI have been pouring in and we have now established the beginnings of a new branch in Mumbai and have supporters in Tamil Nadu.
The second-largest party of the CWI is in Nigeria, where members are carrying out mass work and played a leading role in the recent movement against fuel price rises. The CWI is also gaining support in new areas including Poland, Ghana, Serbia and Bulgaria.
Party finances and structures
An encouraging report was given by Jane James, the Socialist Party’s national treasurer. Since the last conference the income from regular donations had increased but the demands on our finances are also increasing with the upswing in class struggle in Britain and internationally.
On the big anti-war demos we were the only people putting forward a clear analysis and arguing for a socialist alternative. But all the material like leaflets and placards costs money. Resolutions with new financial targets were passed, including for the fighting fund and paper sales.
Changes were made to the structure of the party’s national committee (NC) to make it smaller and more able to meet the new challenges. Some of the new generation of party members were elected to the NC.
A new team of Auditors and an Appeals Committee composed of branch members were elected at conference
Three guest speakers inspired the conference.
First was Tony Mulhearn, one of the leading figures in the historic battle which Liverpool City council had with Thatcher’s Tories. “We were politicians who carried out the policies we were elected on,” he explained, and he detailed the successful battle to create jobs and build homes, schools and leisure facilities.
Then, as now, almost all other Labour councillors were carrying out Tory cuts and showing themselves to be incapable of mobilising a battle to protect the interests of the working class.
Joe Higgins, a member of parliament in Southern Ireland, spoke on the battle against the hated bin tax, for which he and other Socialist Party members were jailed. The Socialist Party has built up enormous respect during this struggle, so they’ll be standing 14 candidates in the local elections in June and Joe will be standing in the European elections.
National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) branch secretary Steve Minney brought greetings from the Nottinghamshire NUM. He painted a vivid picture of the historic battle the miners had with the Tory government 20 years ago. He thanked Militant (the Socialist Party’s predecessor) for the help we gave in the strike. He ended with: “The NUM supports you in the struggle for socialism.”
Socialist Party councillor Chris Flood, Lewisham, made the fundraising appeal to help meet the Party’s campaigning commitments over the coming weeks and months. Delegates responded by donating in large and small amounts a fantastic £8,992.
In addition, many present increased their current membership dues. We urge all our party members to likewise do the same.
A thirst for ideas netted over £1,200 at the bookstall. In addition copies of Socialist Party’s publications – Empire defeated: Vietnam War – the lessons for today, Socialism in the 21st Century, and the Introducing Marxism pack were sold and bulk orders for branch sales taken.
What delegates said
“I’VE REALLY enjoyed this conference; it’s been very educational, very stimulating and a fantastic experience for a new member. The main discussions showed what I needed to read more on.
“The fact that as the newest recruit in my Socialist Party branch I was able to speak in a session, showed what a good forum this conference was.”
Vicky Perrin, Halifax, and a low-paid educational support worker with Calderdale council.
“IT’S BEEN a very busy weekend but I found it an inspiring conference and very reassuring about the democratic way our decisions are made.” Bernie Lyons, Bristol, and PCS member.
From The Socialist, weekly paper of the Socialist Party, England and Wales