The potential for beginning to build a new mass working-class party in England and Wales was glimpsed in outline at the RMT rail union discussion conference on the crisis of working-class political representation on 21 January.
The leadership of the RMT had made it clear that the conference was not going to found a new party, or take any concrete steps in that direction. Nonetheless, this was the first time that a national trade union has called a conference to discuss the question of working-class political representation. The Socialist Party welcomed the conference as potentially an important step forward.
Although there was a very limited trade union mobilisation for the conference, including from the RMT, the turnout could have filled the hall twice over, and most speakers said a bigger hall should have been booked, as some RMT members who hoped to attend were turned away.
However, it showed that even though it is only the beginning of a process, there is a significant layer of trade unionists and socialists who would enthusiastically take part in any moves towards a new mass workers party.
Contribution after contribution at the conference agreed with Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT’s, statement that “the Labour Party can’t be changed” and that a new party was needed. Even speakers who are still members of the Labour Party, such as John McDonnell MP, did not attempt to argue that Labour could be reclaimed and said that he did not know if the Labour Representation Committee (which campaigns to reclaim the Labour Party) was the best way forward.
Speakers graphically showed, in their descriptions of the everyday horror of conditions after eight years of Labour government, why such a new mass party to the left of all the establishment political parties is objectively necessary for working people.
However, the key question that came out of the conference is what is the next step in building such a new formation?
The lessons of the false starts of the 1990s, such as Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party and the wrecking of the Socialist Alliance by the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), were clearly present in the minds of many attending the conference. Contributors to the conference showed that a new political party could not be grafted onto the working class or any other sector in struggle from above. Instead, a new party would have to be forged out of campaigning and building together in struggle a unity based on an inclusive and democratic approach – in short a federal approach as the Socialist Party argued for at the conference.
Unfortunately this has not been the approach taken by Respect, the project led by the SWP and George Galloway MP. Respect was viewed with scepticism by many of those attending this conference. Even one of Respect’s leading supporters, Greg Tucker a member of the RMT, said that we “needed something bigger and better” than Respect. A speaker from Respect who lectured the delegates that they should get on board the Respect ship for the May elections “which had already left the port” created a self-inflicted hole below the waterline of the Respect ship as his speech was heckled for its arrogance.
A process of clarification of how the first steps towards forming a new party can be achieved could begin from the RMT conference. The Socialist Party-initiated Campaign for a New Workers’ Party conference in London on 19 March, will be an important stage in pushing this process forward.
Bob Crow said at the conference that he felt sometimes as if people blamed the RMT for the fact that there is no longer a mass working-class party. No one at the conference argued that but a number of contributors, including RMT members, pointed out that having called this conference the RMT had a special responsibility for taking matters forward. Having correctly argued that trade union struggle was not sufficient and that a political alternative, a generalised struggle, was necessary, Bob Crow failed to draw the obvious conclusion that a new party is needed and that the RMT should initiate concrete steps towards founding one.
He put the main emphasis in his contribution to the conference on rebuilding a mass shop stewards’ movement such as existed in the 1970s. Whilst this is a good objective its achievement cannot be seen as a prerequisite before moving on to the creation of a new workers’ party, as Bob Crow seemed to suggest. The shop stewards movement in the 1970s arose out of the major class struggles that took place at the time. Today, after the retreats of the 1990s, the layer of activists in the trade unions is still much thinner than it was then. It is being rebuilt as a new generation is drawn into struggle, and this is taking place more quickly in left-led unions, such as the PCS. However, it will take time to develop, and the existence of a new party or pre-party formation, as Rob Williams a car workers’ convenor and Socialist Party member from South Wales explained, would help raise the confidence of potential shop stewards and therefore actually help to speed the process up.
Immediate practical steps have to flow from this conference. Firstly we have to ensure the widest publicity and turnout for the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party conference on 19 March. The CNWP declaration for a new party can also play an important role in galvanising support. And, secondly, there is a need to call upon the RMT leadership to follow up from its own conference and energetically drive for the building of a new workers’ party from amongst the trade unions and the working-class at large, with another conference and other practical initiatives.
Editorial from The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales